Category Archives: Communication

Last run for the Mind The Science Gap blog

After nearly two years and four hundred posts, the science communication course at the University of Michigan that feeds the Mind The Science Gap blog is coming to and end.  In between running a department, directing a research center, teaching, and actually doing research, something had to go.  And sadly, Mind The Science Gap was it.  The existing posts will remain, but there won’t be any new ones.  Sorry!  And thank you so much to everyone who has written for, promoted and commented on the blog – you have always been deeply appreciated. Continue reading Last run for the Mind The Science Gap blog

At the frontiers of the science of health risk – five areas to watch

Cross-posted from Risk Sense

This week’s Risk Bites video takes a roller-coaster ride through some of the hottest topics in risk science.

Admittedly this is a somewhat personal list, and rather constrained by being compressed into a two and a half minute video for a broad audience. But it does touch on some of the more exciting frontier areas in reducing health risk and improving well-being through research and its application.

Here are the five topics that ended up being highlighted:

BIG DATA

Click to watch segment

 

Despite pockets of cynicism over the hype surrounding “big data”, the generation and innovative use of massive amounts of data are transforming how health risks are identified and addressed. With new approaches to data curation, correlation, manipulation and visualization, seemingly disconnected and impenetrable datasets are becoming increasingly valuable tools for shedding new insights into what might cause harm, and how to avoid or reduce it. This is a trend that has been growing for some years, but is now rapidly gaining momentum.

Just four examples of how “big data” is already pushing the boundaries of risk science include:

  • High throughput toxicity screening, where rapid, multiple toxicity assays are changing how the potential hazards of new and existing substances are evaluated;
  • “Omics”, where genomics, proteomics, metabolomics, exposomics and similar fields are shedding new light on the complex biology at the human-environment interface and how this impacts on health and well-being;
  • Risk prediction through the integrated analysis of related datasets; and
  • Designing new chemicals, materials and products to be as safe as possible, by using sophisticated risk data analysis to push risk management up the innovation pipeline.

CLOUD HEALTH, or C-HEALTH

Click to watch segment

 

Hot on the tails of mobile-health, the convergence of small inexpensive sensors, widespread use of smart phones and cloud computing, is poised to revolutionize how risk-relevant data is collected, processed and used to make decisions. Sensors already built into smart phones are already being used to collect basic information on environmental factors that could impact on health – and increasingly sophisticated add-on sensors are becoming more and more available. On their own, these data aren’t that valuable. But with cloud computing it is becoming possible to process and analyze risk-related data from thousands or millions of users – and then provide contributors with personal, near real-time information on potential risks and avoidance strategies. We’re not there yet – but C-Health is on the way!

RESPONSIBLE INNOVATION

Click to watch segment

 

The idea of responsible innovation has been around for some time. The idea is to reduce the potential for future adverse health and environmental impacts by integrating risk management and avoidance strategies into the technology innovation process. And with new technologies emerging at an increasing rate, the social and economic importance of responsible innovation has never been greater. In fields ranging from advanced manufacturing, sophisticated materials and synthetic biology, to 3D printing and remote charging, there is an increasing push to ensure that technological development is informed by the science of risk. And it isn’t only to ensure actual risks are avoided – societal and economic success through responsible innovation also depends on addressing perceived risks.

“HEADOLOGY”

Click to watch segment

 

The psychology and sociology of how individuals and groups make risk-relevant decisions, and the subsequent consequences of these decisions, is a critical component of the science of risk. Just because it is social science rather than natural science does not diminish its importance. In fact, without a sophisticated understanding of how empirical data on hazard, exposure and risk translate into human understanding and action, risk assessment and the science behind it is pretty worthless. But why call this frontier “headology” – which is a made-up word from satirical author Terry Pratchett? Apart from being a little tongue in cheek, I wanted to get away from some of the baggage associated with terms like “risk communication” and “social science”. But whatever you call it, in today’s increasingly connected world, understanding the human element linking data and action on risk is becoming increasingly important.

COMPLEX INTERACTIONS

Click to watch segment

 

This is a bit of a catch-all, but as the “simpler” challenges associated with health risks are resolved (and I use the word “simple” with caution) we are being faced with an ever-growing array of more complex challenges. These include:

  • Exploring and understanding the importance of non-linearity in dose-response relationships – especially at low doses;
  • Getting a better handle on the health-relevance of low level exposures to some substances – especially over long time periods;
  • Better understanding the science behind exposure to synthetic chemicals with hormone-like properties; and
  • Understanding that nature and significance of epigenetic interactions – both within a generation and across generations.

These and similar areas arise from complex interactions between our bodies and the environment we live in – and create for ourselves. The list could be a lot longer, but the bottom line is that some of the knottiest and most significant challenges in risk science involve understanding the positive and adverse impacts of interactions that are not yet well understood.

There are other areas that could have easily made this list – and in all cases these are areas that will continue to remain important well beyond 2013. So feel free to expand on the list in the comments below. And have a great 2013!

 

COP18 Doha, Qatar: A positive view point from low on the totem pole

A guest post by Candace Rowell MPH. Candace is an alum of the University of Michigan School of Public Health Department of Environmental Health Sciences, and a former contributor to Mind The Science Gap.  She is currently a research associated with the Qatar Environment and Energy Research Institute in Doha, Qatar.

The traffic in Doha is horrendous. Ask anyone who lives here. It might take you 45 minutes to commute a mere 15 km. The summers are brutal – the temperature bounces around the 50⁰C mark and the humidity threatens to drown you on the doorstep.

Yes, this is Doha; Continue reading COP18 Doha, Qatar: A positive view point from low on the totem pole

Open access academics: Experiments with YouTube, the Science of Risk, and Professional Amateurism

YouTube intrigues me.  Having been dragged into the YouTube culture by my teenagers over the past two years, I’ve been fascinated by the shift from seemingly banal content to a sophisticated social medium. But what has really grabbed my attention is the growth of YouTube as a unique and powerful platform for informal education which is being driven not by the educational establishment, but by an emerging educational counterculture. Continue reading Open access academics: Experiments with YouTube, the Science of Risk, and Professional Amateurism

Why should I wash my hands if I only pee?

Credit: Gillian Mayman

Cross-posted from Risk Sense

“Why should I wash my hands if I only pee?” It’s the sort of question most parents have had to handle at some time – especially if you have pretentious kids who delight in telling you how pure pee is! It’s also the subject of the first post in this semester’s Mind The Science Gap – a student science-writing blog I have great fun in overseeing.

Mind The Science Gap takes ten public health graduate students and helps them hone their science communication skills in one of the toughest but most effective ways I know – by requiring them to post articles and respond to comments every week (without fail) for ten weeks. The rules are pretty simple – Continue reading Why should I wash my hands if I only pee?

Social Media and the art of Academic Juggling

It had to happen – despite deluding myself that I could squeeze everything into a 140 hour work week, something’s going to have to give.  And that something is going to be regular posts on 2020 Science.  I’ll still be posting here, just not as frequently.  Chairing a department, directing a center, teaching, research, doing cool stuff with cool people, writing killer blog posts – it should be possible to do it all.  But apparently I have a family who would like to see me occasionally.  And I’ve heard that other people have this thing called “a life” – I’m intrigued to find out what that is!

I’ll still be doing plenty of stuff on line, so please do carry on engaging with me and my work in these places:

On Twitter at @2020science – 140 characters is so much easier than a 500 word blog post.  What do department chairs tweet about?  I guess I’ll find out!

On the Risk Sense blog – I’ll be putting more energy into building up the Risk Science Center blog – please spread the word, as this has the potential to be a great resource and forum on the science of human health risk.  Also, please follow the Risk Science Center on Twitter at @umrsc

On the Risk Bites YouTube channel (and also on Twitter at @microriskbites).  This is a tremendously exciting project we’re launching that provides bite-sized and highly accessible nuggets on cool stuff about science, risk and health.  We officially launch in November, but there will be a number of teasers posted before then.  Please spread the word and subscribe!

At Mind The Science Gap.  I’m running this science communication course twice a year now for our students – please subscribe to get notifications of blog posts, and support the students by commenting and spreading the word.  The next course starts in September.

And of course, there will still be the occasional must-read piece posted here – all part of the juggling act!

YouTube does the the Higgs Boson – Science communication on the quick!

Hot on the heels of yesterday’s announcement on the Higgs Boson, some of YouTube’s most viewed science communicators have been burning the midnight oil to explain why this is so exciting.  Wrapping up this series of posts on YouTube, I thought I would call out three prominent YouTubers who were at VidCon this last week, yet still found the time to pull together a video following the news.

First out of the blocks was Brady Haran with this video on the SixtySymbols channel, following the CERN seminar surrounding the announcement:

Next came Vi Hart’s “Sonnet on a Higgs-Like Particle”

And at 9:00 AM promptly this morning, Henry Reich of MinutePhysics posted his much-anticipated piece on the Higgs Boson:

What interests me especially with all three videos is how fast they were pulled together and posted, how effectively they connect with a broad audience, and how many views they have already had (not to mention the comments).  Vi Hart’s and Brady Haran’s are well over 30,000 views at the time of writing (around 24 hours after posting), while Henry Reich’s video had over 1600 likes and 450 comments within the first couple of hours of going up.  Compare this with the more mainstream (but still excellent) video from Cara Santa Maria at Huffington Post:

At the time of writing (2 days after being posted), it had 2,580 views and 19 comments.  Not shabby by any means.  But it’s clear who had the further reach here!

Update: Henry Reich pointed out that Cara gets most of her views on the Huffington Post video channel, not YouTube.  You can check out her HuffPo Higgs Boson video here [link]

And while I’m at it, here’s a late-breaking entry from Derek Muller (Veritasium on YouTube)

VidCon 2012: Online learning is where online music was five years ago

YouTube is gearing up to transform the way we learn.  At least that’s the message that came across loud and clear at this morning’s VidCon breakout panel on education. In an overflowing room of well over two hundred conference goers, head of YouTube Education Angela Lin led a panel of five leading video makers in a lively discussion, that gave a compelling glimpse of the future of online education.  And it was a future that didn’t feature too many conventional lessons or institutionalized videos!

As the panel included John and Hank Green (SciShow, CrashCourse and a gazillion other things) I was expecting a room packed to the brim with their incredibly engaged teen fans – which it was.  An odd audience you might think for a panel on education.  But this was a serious, intelligent and engaged crowd, eager to listen to the panel, ask questions and provide their own insight on online learning.  Joining the Green brothers were physics blogger Henry Reich (minutephysics), science YouTuber Brady Haran (The Periodic Table of Videos), Mike Rugnetta, host of the PBS Idea Channel and Vi Hart of Mathemusician and the Khan Academy.

What was notable was that these panelists are all a) successful online educators (extremely so in some cases), b) not formally trained in teaching (to my knowledge) and c) not representing mainstream educational institutions (not counting PBS).  This is important, because there was no doubt here that the excitement and impact surrounding online education is occurring outside conventional educational circles – and in many cases leaving them standing.  John Green talked about this emerging online education community as being “disruptive,” while brother Hank talked about a “new kind of learning.” And everyone the panel agreed that education content on YouTube is where online music was five or six years ago, and on the cusp of something really big.  But a big that might not necessarily include conventional educational institutions unless they get their act together!

On this point Henry Reich made the distinction between learning and teaching.  Formal educators (as well as “informal educators” in museums and on educational TV programs) teach to a curriculum or a plan, with competencies, learning objectives and evaluation being the name of the game. But at the cutting edge of community online education, content developers are using their passion and interests to facilitate user-driven learning.  And as John Green pointed out – endorsed by the packed room – people want to learn!

Bridging this gap between learning and teaching is perhaps going to be one of the biggest challenges – and opportunities – of online education over the next few years.  Without question, there is a global hunger for learning, and some very talented individuals who are beginning to satisfy this hunger using an increasing array of online tools.  This will undoubtedly help people develop and grow as individuals – but how do you also give them the tools to “do stuff” as opposed to simply enriching their understanding and satisfying their curiosity?

As new tools come online, educational institutions are jumping on the band-wagon to provide instructional content.  Initiatives like Coursera and edX are bringing college course material to a far wide audience using online video.  But even these innovations are in danger of looking turgid and outmoded in comparison to the new breed of community educators.

There are some moves to close this gap.  Brady’s Periodic Table videos for instance are used by teachers to kick-start classes and inspire kids.  And the Khan Academy is leading the field in terms of combining user-driven learning with practical teaching.  But if teaching institutions want to keep up with the revolution in online learning, it seems pretty clear that they are going to have to radically rethink their ideas of web-based content.  They are going to have to start partnering with and learning from the masters of online community education.  And they are going to have to let go a bit and embrace the mess and madness of online educational content as they respond to a growing community’s desire to learn.

What seems clear after this panel is that we are at the beginning of an exciting revolution in online educational content.  What is not clear is whether the teaching institutions can get their act together fast enough not to be sidelined in the rush toward online learning.

10/8/12: This article is translated to Serbo-Croatian language by Jovana Milutinovich from Geeks Education.

VidCon 2012: Community-grown science communicators smoking’ it!

I‘m over half way through the first day at VidCon 2012, and thought I would jot a few notes down on the science scene here.  OK, so maybe 7,000 people haven’t come to the Anaheim Convention Center to hear the latest on the Higgs boson and other interesting science stuff (although you’d be surprised by how many of them are interested), but after last year, I’ve become increasingly interested in how YouTube is developing as a platform for science communication, education and engagement.

After last year’s experience of a distinctly counter-culture nature, I wrote this:

Next year, VidCon will be held at the Anaheim Convention Center in LA, and I suspect will attract a much larger crowd than this year.  As planning gets underway for the event, it would be really good to see participation from some of the big names in science communication on YouTube, and a greater integration of science and technology YouTube communities into the program.

I doubt very much that Hank Green – the driving force behind VidCon – is a sufficiently avid reader of 2020 Science that he read this and acted on it.  But nevertheless science has clearly moved up the agenda this year.  This in part reflects a massive increase in science content and viewership on YouTube over the past year – including the launch of Hank’s own channel SciShow.  It also reflects the fact that grass roots and alternative science communicators on YouTube are – not to put too fine a point on it – smokin’ it when it comes to connecting with today’s youth.

In this morning’s opening main stage session, Henry Reich (MinutePhysics) gave a packed audience in the Anaheim Convention Center Arena a quick lesson in quantum mechanics and the paradox of Schrödindgers cat.  And it went down a storm! Think about that – when was the last time you saw a physicist commanding the rapt attention of around 7,000 people in a live show?  Over the past year, Henry has shot up to over 300,000 YouTube subscribers and regularly gets several hundred thousand views on his videos.  His secret?  I suspect it’s in part due to his skills as an educator and the simplicity of his delivery – this the classic “chalk and talk; and a damn good teacher” model transported to YouTube, and it works!

(Minutephysics is one of the few YouTube channels my son watches regularly btw)

This afternoon, Henry was joined by Derek Muller (veritasium) and Destin (Smarter Every Day) to talk about physics on YouTube in a breakout session.  Also in the room were Vi Hart (Mathemusician on YouTube, and currently with the Khan Academy) and Brady Haran (The Periodic Table of Videos and a ton of other science communication projects).  All have an enviable reach on YouTube and videos that get tens to hundreds of thousands of hits.

The room was packed to overflowing.  I’d guess that there were around 150 or so VidCon attendees there, which believe me is impressive in a breakout session when a gazillion other things are going on.  (I think last time I spoke at a major conference at the Anaheim Convention Center, you were lucky if you got 50 people to your breakout!)  And the audience were fully engaged, with the session teetering on the edge of a physics Q&A session the whole time.

Three things in particular struck me in this room predominantly filled with young people – many of them young women:

  1. There’s a hunger for science knowledge and insights amongst these folk;
  2. The world is changing, and this new breed of community-grown science communicators are leaving more conventional approaches to science communication in the dust!
  3. As a science community, if we want to engage and connect with people outside our field more effectively, we need to be actively partnering these YouTube science stars rather than waiting for them to come to us.

Tomorrow we have a breakout session on education with Henry Reich, Brady Haran, Hank Green (SciShow), John Green (CrashCourse) and Mike Rugnetta (PBS Idea Channel).  Another science-heavy lineup that again emphasizes the growing importance of YouTube and its grass-roots science communication/engagement community.

Hank may not have read my blog from last year on upping the science at VidCon, but he certainly got the message it seems!

Update:  In my haste to post, I forgot to mention BrainSTEM – an unconference of science YouTubers held in Ontario Canada a couple of days before VidCon.  The place to be if you want to experience the cutting edge of online scicoms entrepreneurship.  Here’s a flavor from veritasium:

VidCon and YouTube Science

Having been initiated into the alternative world of teen YouTube culture last year, I am once again being dragged along to VidCon – the Comic-Con of the online video community.  This year – the third year for VidCon – promises to be bigger than better than ever with around 6,000 signed up for a two day extravaganza next week at the Anaheim Convention Center.  And it looks like science communicators and video-makers are going to have a greater presence than in the past.  Given the size, median age and enthusiasm of the participants, this is rather exciting.

I’ll be there with my daughter and a fellow vlogger from their YouTube channel Fellowshipofthening (highly recommended btw), one of a gaggle of bemused parents.  But I’ll also be on the lookout once again for how the YouTube community is intersecting with science engagement and communication.

Particularly exciting this year is the increased presence of science types at the jamboree.  Derek Muller (creator of the video blog Veritasium) is a speaker at the event, and Brady Haran of the phenomenally popular Periodic Table of Videos will be there.  Also attending (hopefully) will be Joanne Manaster, who writes for the PsiVid blog at Scientific American as well as her own video-rich blog Joanne Loves Science.

Actually, a  bit of a plug here – as Joanne is self-financing the trip, she’s looking for donations to help make it happen.  If you care about kids and science, please throw a few dollars her way – here’s where you can do that.

Then of course there is the mastermind behind the whole VidCon shebang Hank Green, who launched the SciShow YouTube channel earlier this year.  It already has nearly 200,000 subscribers and close on ten million video views – not bad!

I’m sure there will be many other science communicators/videographers/groupies at VidCon – if you’re going to be there, drop me a line in the comments or on Twitter and we’ll see what we can do about getting folks together.

YouTube is becoming an increasingly powerful medium for engaging teens and others in science.  But the success stories are arising from the grass roots community rather than engineered from the top down. This is what makes the medium and the culture surrounding it so intriguing and exciting.  And thanks to my daughter, I’ll have another chance to explore this weird and wonderful world in a few days’ time.  I might even have the time to post the odd tweet while I’m tracking down YouTube celebs (I still need a cheat sheet to let me know who the celebs are!) and meeting up with fellow YouTube/SciComms geeks!

Update June 20 – I missed Henry Reich (minutephysics) from the list of science communicators participating in VidCon – not sure how that happened!  Who else have I missed?

Communicating about communicating science at the National Academies

I‘ve just spent the last two days at the National Academies of Science listening to a long strong of folks talk about the Science of Science Communication.  It was a bit of a guilty pleasure for me as I wasn’t a speaker and so could just kick back and listen – but I did get a couple of questions in. The meeting was in the series of Arthur M. Sackler Colloquia that the National Academies organize each year – meetings designed to cut across traditional disciplinary boundaries.  And in this respect the colloquium was certainly a success, bringing together over 400 participants from a wide range of disciplines to discuss empirical research on the nature, practice and effectiveness of science communication.

Although there was plenty of room for improvement in the scope and execution of the colloquium (as was amply commented on in the Twitter stream accompanying the event*), I must confess that I did find the meeting both useful and enjoyable – mainly because it prompted me to start thinking again about several aspects of science communication that I’ve pushed to one side as a myriad other things have slid onto my plate.  Summarizing the meeting as I type this (and wait for a delayed flight back to Michigan) is largely beyond my tired brain at this point – I still need to take time to digest much of the stuff that was presented.  But I would encourage you to check out the videos of the talks, which have been posted here.  That said, it’s worth noting three things that struck me as I listened to the presenters:

It’s important that the National Academies of Science are taking the study of science communication (and its practice) seriously.  Inviting a bunch of social scientists into the National Academies – and into a high profile colloquium like this – was a big deal.  And irrespective of the meeting’s content, it flags a commitment to work closely with researchers studying science communication and decision analysis to better ensure informed and effective communication strategies and practice.  Given the substantial interest in the colloquium – on the web as well as at the meeting itself – I hope that the National Academies build on this and continue to engage fully in this area.

Moving forward, there needs to be more engagement between science communication researchers and practitioners.  Practitioners of science communication – and the practical insight they bring – were notable by their absence (in the main) from the colloquium program.  If the conversation around empirical research is to connect with effective practice, there must be better integration of these two communities.

Better mechanisms of establishing a science communication agenda are needed.  Climate change dominated the conversation over the past two days – perhaps understandably.  But it’s not the only issue that depends on effective science communication.  Issues such as the water-food-energy nexus, chronic exposure to low level synthetic chemicals, non-communicable disease, even the current global economic crisis, and many others, need to be part of the science communication agenda.  Instead, there is a sense that researchers and practitioners are attracted to the bright shiny issues that attract (or are engineered to attract) people’s attention, while overlooking many less eye catching but equally important issues.  Moving forward, it would be good to see more systematic approaches to identifying where science communication research and practice is focused.

There’s an awful lot more that could be said about the meeting, but at this point I will leave this to others, and end by thanking the organizers for a stimulating two days.

*The extensive Twitter chatter associated with the meeting (using the hashtag #sackler) picked up on poor coverage of digital communication, a lack of science communication practitioners in the program,  and a preponderance of while middle class (and beyond) men in the presenters lineup.  But what really bugged me – and was the subject of much online derision – was that internet access at the meeting was so poor that in-person attendees struggled to either contribute to the online discussion or submit questions – which were supposed to be sent in via email!  A bit of a faux pas for a meeting on communication!

New journal on Environment, Systems and Decisions looking for contributions

Call me a fool, but I recently agree to join the editorial board of the new Springer journal Environment, Systems and Decisions (formerly The Environmentalist).  Actually it was a bit of a no-brainer – I’ve been looking for a journal to get involved with that more closely matched my interests in risk, technology innovation and decision-making for some time, and this fit the bill pretty well.

The newly re-branded journal is set to hit the streets next year, and to kick things off we are putting together a special issue on Scenario and Risk Analysis – details below (and also downloadable here).  If you are interested in submitting a paper for the special edition, the deadline for submission is June 30. Continue reading New journal on Environment, Systems and Decisions looking for contributions

Dip into Mind The Science Gap

If you haven’t been reading the Mind The Science Gap blog, you really should.

Ten Masters of Public Health students have been excelling themselves as they hone their ability to take published research and translate it into something accessible to a broader audience – all the while finding that elusive balance between simply telling a good story and having an impact on their readers.

Feeling lucky? Click image to open a random Mind The Science Gap post

Over the past six weeks this group has tackled everything from guns and play dates to biochar use, and obesity to environmental pollutants. But the number and diversity of the posts is now so great that simply browsing through them isn’t that easy.  So I have devised a cunning plan:

Clicking the image above will take you to a random blog post on Mind The Science Gap.  Repeated clicks will take you to different random posts (usually – it’s random!).

It’s the perfect way to catch up with a growing body of high quality science blogging on issues that could be impacting your health.

Are consumers risking skin cancer because of fears over nanoparticles in sunscreens?

This has just landed in my email in box from Craig Cormick at the Department of Industry, Innovation, Science, Research and Tertiary Education in Australia, and I thought I would pass it on given the string of posts on nanoparticles in sunscreens on 2020 Science over the past few years:

At Australia’s International Conference on Nanoscience and Nanotechnology (ICONN 2012) earlier this month, the results of a public perception study were released that indicate some Australian consumers would rather risk skin cancer by not using sunscreen than use a product containing nanoparticles.  This despite increasing evidence that nanoparticles in sunscreens do not present a significant risk to health. The study was complimented by tests conducted by Australia’s National Measurement Institute that suggest some sunscreens labeled as “nano free” contain nanostructured material.

According to the media release on the public perceptions study,

“An online poll of 1,000 people, conducted in January this year, shows that one in three Australians had heard or read stories about the risks of using sunscreens with nanoparticles in them,” Dr Cormick said.

“Thirteen percent of this group were concerned or confused enough that they would be less likely to use any sunscreen, whether or not it contained nanoparticles, putting them selves at increased risk of developing potentially deadly skin cancers.

“The study also found that while one in five respondents stated they would go out of their way to avoid using sunscreens with nanoparticles in them, over three in five would need to know more information before deciding.”

A news release sent out a couple of weeks ago to coincide with ICONN 2012 also noted

Scientists from Australia’s National Measurement Institute and overseas collaborators reported on a technique using the scattering of synchrotron light to determine the sizes of particles in sunscreens. They found that some commercial sunscreens that claim to be ‘nano-free’ do in fact contain nanostructured material. The findings highlight the need for clear definitions when describing nanomaterials.

This study allegedly led to Friends of the Earth Australia removing their Safe Sunscreen Summer Guide 2011-2012 from the web – a guide which advises against using nanoparticle-containing sunscreens – until further information is available. The guide’s website currently states:

“Doubt has been cast over the accuracy of the nano status of some sunscreen brands in our guide. It appears that some companies may have been deceived as to the nano-content of their products. We are working flat-out to get a resolution to this matter.

We advise people to continue to be sun safe when spending time in the sun: seek shade, wear protective clothing, a hat and sunglasses and use sunscreen.

This page will be updated as soon as possible.

Thanks for your patience.”

While early questions concerning the possible dangers of using nanoparticle-containing sunscreens were legitimate given the state of science ten years ago, research over the intervening years has failed to substantiate concerns (see this review for example). Despite this, this latest opinions survey indicates that people may be at risk of placing themselves in greater danger because of concerns that continue to be articulated.  Although it’s always hard to estimate how answers to questions like the ones asked here translate into actual actions, the survey does beg the questions – at what point does asking questions stimulate actions that lead to greater risks; and how should the public dialogue around a speculative risk respond to new evidence as it emerges?

Full details of the sunscreen perceptions and awareness survey can be found here.

Also worth reading: The safety of nanotechnology-based sunscreens – some reflections

Wonders and Worries – Retro nano at its best!

Here’s an introduction to the “wonders and worries of nanotechnology” that I think is rather brilliant:

It’s part of a series being produced by the Science Museum of Minnesota for the Nanoscale Informal Science Education network (NISE Net). The series is designed to stimulate discussions addressing the societal and ethical implication of nanotechnology – but in an accessible and non-threatening way.

Keep your eyes peeled for further episodes with Mindy and Denny – having read through some of the draft scripts, I think you will enjoy them!

Superstition and science – another A World Of Surprises video

Another product of the A World Of Surprises project with James King and a bunch of extremely talented public health and science students.  This is a video from Gracie Trinidad, and explores the frisson between superstition and science through medieval paintings – with a contemporary twist at the end [make sure you watch to the very end of the video for the final quote].

The Tale of Rhino Banana(TM)

A product of the A World Of Surprises project with James King and a bunch of extremely talented public health and science students.

The task was to explore the confluence between mundane and catastrophic risk, which the team does beautifully.  Love the technique, and the subtle touches (note the progressive effect of Rhino Bananas on their creator).  And the news/web mockups are priceless.  Brilliant!

[Make sure you watch to the quote at the end]

Many thanks to:

  • Chad Warhola
  • Janae Adams
  • Anirudha Rathnam
  • Sarah Kang
  • Alejandro Mendoza

(Needless to say, this is a bit of speculative fiction!)

Exploring speculated catastrophe and mundane reality

Credit: James King

Last semester, speculative designer James King worked with myself and a small group of science and public health students at the University of Michigan to explore how a fusion of science and creative art can lead to new insights and modes of communication.  The exercise was part of the A World of Surprises project – a project James is working on as the Witt Artist in residence at the UM School of Art and Design.

Part of the aim was to take these science-grounded students out of their comfort zone, expose them to some radical new ideas and perspectives, and see what happens.

The results were impressive!  Once the students realized that they weren’t bound by the rigid limitations of their science education, they became enthused over using creative techniques to tell science-grounded stories that connected with people on a far deeper level than just the facts would allow.

Today the group presented the fruits of their final assignment: to produce a piece of creative work that captures the tension – in narrative form – between imagined catastrophic risks and experienced mundane risks. As a group, we were interested in the tension between the catastrophic consequences often imagined to arise from human endeavors, and the mundane reality that often develops.

I’ll try to showcase all of the projects over the next few weeks.  They were all, in their own way, quite brilliant.  Coming up in future posts there will be:

  • The Tale of Rhino Banana (a brilliant story of a technological breakthrough that runs up against public resistance);
  • Salutary lessons from the struggle between evil and the divine in the middle ages;
  • A visual juxtaposition of comparative risks related to Fukushima; and
  • A new-future story of technological sophistication and mundane consequences.

(I’ll add the links as they are posted – The Tale of Rhino Banana will be up first)

James will be back in Ann Arbor for the culmination of the A World Of Surprises project in March – stay tuned on that.

Mind the Science Gap – Helping science students connect with a non-science audience

Cross-posted from the Scientific American Incubator blog:

Studying for a Masters degree in Public Health prepares you for many things.  But it doesn’t necessarily give you hands-on experience of how to take complex information and translate it into something others can understand and use.  Yet as an increasing array of public health issues hit the headlines, from fungicide residues in orange juice to the safe development of new technologies, this is exactly where public health professionals need to be developing their skills.  And it’s not only in the public domain: the ability to translate complex science into actionable intelligence is more important now than ever in supporting policy makers and business leaders make decisions that are grounded in evidence rather than speculation.

These were just some of the drivers behind a new course I have just started teaching at the University of Michigan School of Public Health that built around science blogging.  OK, so maybe I wanted to have a little fun with the students as well.  But my experiences with the blog  2020 Science have taught me that the discipline of writing a science-based blog for a broad audience is invaluable for developing highly transferrable communication skills.  And it’s not just me.  Emailing with the scientist, author and blogger Sheryl Kirshenbaum about the course, she admitted “blogging taught me how to effectively communicate with broad audiences”.  (Sheryl also added that she’s also learned a great deal from many wonderful editors – to which I can only add “me too!”).

The new course throws ten Masters of Public Health students in at the deep end by challenging each of them to publish ten posts over ten weeks on the blog Mind The Science Gap – and to respond to the comments they receive.  As this is a science blog, each post will be based around published health-related research.  The challenge for the writers will be to translate this into a science-grounded piece that is relevant and accessible to a broad audience.

The key objective here is to develop new skills through experience.  And for this, I am encouraging as many people as possible to comment on the posts.  As any science blogger will tell you, even simple comments like “I liked this” or “this was confusing” are extremely helpful in understanding what works and what doesn’t.  But I am also hoping readers will look beyond the educational aspects of the exercise, and engage with the students on the subjects they are writing about.  This is where I suspect the experience will become most empowering.

There’s another aspect of the course that intrigues me.  Rather naively, I started this exercise imagining a series of impersonal posts that focused on intellectually interesting but emotionally ambivalent scientific studies.  What I forgot is that public health matters to people.  And so it’s going to be tough for our bloggers to separate what they write about from their passions – and those of their readers.  In fact I’m not even sure that such a separation would be appropriate – for communication to be relevant, it needs to go beyond the numbers.  But how do you effectively combine science with a desire to make the world a better place in a blog?  I try to achieve this on my own blog, but I must admit don’t have any easy answers here.  So as the Mind The Science Gap students develop their skills, I’m going to be doing some learning of my own as I watch how they respond to this particular challenge.

At the end of the day, Mind The Science Gap is about teaching the next generation of public health professionals how to connect more effectively with non-specialist and non-technical audiences – whether they are managers, clients, policy makers or members of the public.  It isn’t about creating a new wave of science bloggers.  But in the process, I like to think that some of the participants will get the blogging bug. Whether they do or not, I’m looking forward to ten weeks of engaging, entertaining and hopefully challenging posts from ten talented students.