Category Archives: Environment

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:


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.


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!


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.


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.


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!


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

2012 World Economic Forum Global Risk Report

Cross-posted from the Risk Science Blog

The World Economic Forum Global Risks Report is one of the most authoritative annual assessments of emerging issues surrounding risk currently produced. Now in its seventh edition, the 2012 report launched today draws on over 460 experts* from industry, government, academia and civil society to provide insight into 50 global risks across five categories, within a ten-year forward looking window.

Global Risk Landscape 2012. Source: World Economic Forum Global Risks 2012, Seventh Edition

As you would expect from such a major undertaking, the report has its limitations. There are some risk trends that maybe aren’t captured as well as they could be – chronic disease and pandemics are further down the list this year than I would have expected. And there are others that capture the headlining concerns of the moment – severe income disparity is the top-listed global risk in terms of likelihood. But taken as a whole, the trends highlighted capture key concerns and the analysis provides timely and relevant insight.

Risks are addressed in five broad categories, covering economic, environmental, geopolitical, societal and technological risks. And cutting across these, the report considers three top-level issues under the headings Seeds of Dystopia (action or inaction that leads to fragility in states); How Safe are our Safeguards? (unintended consequences of over, under and unresponsive regulation); and The Dark Side of Connectivity (connectivity-induced vulnerability). These provide a strong framework for approaching the identified risks systemically, and teasing apart complex interactions that could lead to adverse consequences.

But how does the report relate to public health more specifically?

The short answer is that many of the issues raised have a direct or indirect impact on public health nationally and globally. Many of the issues are complex and intertwined, and are deserving of much more attention than I’ve been able to give the report so far. I did however want to pull out some of the points that struck me on a first read-through:

Unintended consequences of nanotechnology. Following a trend seen in previous Global Risks reports, the unintended consequences of nanotechnology – while still flagged up – are toward the bottom of the risk spectrum. The potential toxicity of engineered nanomaterials is still mentioned as a concern. But most of the 50 risks addressed are rated as having a higher likelihood and/or impact.

Unintended consequences of new life science technologies. These are also relatively low on the list, but higher up the scale of concern that nanotechnologies. Specifically called out are the possibilities of genetic manipulation through synthetic biology leading to unintended consequences or biological weapons.

Unforeseen consequences of regulation. These are ranked relatively low in terms of likelihood and impact. But the broad significance of unintended consequences is highlighted in the report. These are also linked in with the potential impact and likelihood of global governance failure. Specifically, the report calls for

“A shift in mentality … so that policies, regulations or institutions can offer vital protection in a more agile and cohesive way.”

The report’s authors also ask how leaders can develop anticipatory and holistic approaches to system safeguards; how businesses and governments can prevent a breakdown of trust following the emergence of new risks; and how governments, business and civil society can work together to improve resilience against unforeseen risks.

Vulnerability to pandemics. Pandemic-associated risks are in the middle of the pack when it comes to potential impact, but not as high as might be expected on the likelihood scale. In 2007 and 2008 pandemics were listed in the top five global risks in terms of impact in the Global Risks Report, but have not appeared this high since 2009. With increasing talk about flu strains like H5N1, I wonder whether the relegation of pandemics from the top-tier risks is an oversight.

Antibiotic-resistant bacteria. These are flagged up right in the middle of the risk-pack as an emerging risk, and are one of the highest-ranked risks directly related to public health. The report provides little additional information beyond this though.

Food and water shortage crises. Thee are the highest-ranked risks in terms of impact below major systemic financial failure. And while they are both addressed as systemic risks, failure in each area has clear public health implications.

Rising rates of chronic disease. While overshadowed by higher profile risks, this remains an area of significant anticipated adverse impact and likelihood in the report.

Dystopic trends. The chapter addressing potential drivers of a dystopic future does not directly address public health issues. But trends that have an indirect impact on health thread through it. The impact of the current global financial crisis on jobs, working hours and benefits is highlighted, and it is noted that young people have been especially hard hit recently by a lack of career opportunities. The challenges of an aging population are also flagged. Both areas impact indirectly (and sometimes not so indirectly) on health and well-being. One of the questions for stakeholders posed here is “What measures should be taken today to deal with the changing socio-economic dynamics of an ageing population and a bulging young population?” One could equally well ask what measures should be taken to ensure the health of these two populations.

Regulatory risks. In the case addressing asking “How Safe are our Safeguards?” the report’s authors conclude that:

“far-reaching weaknesses in regulations [suggest] that we may be falling behind in our capacity to protect the systems that underpin growth and prosperity”

This report considers regulation extremely broadly, and spans everything from financial regulation to safety regulation. Yet it also stresses the need for integrated approaches to systemic challenges. The highlighted questions to stakeholders at the end of this section are particularly pertinent to health risk-related regulation and governance:

  • How can leaders break the pattern of crisis followed by reactionary regulation and develop anticipatory and holistic approaches to system safeguards?
  • How can appropriate regulations be developed so that firms will undertake effective safeguards?
  • How can businesses and governments prevent a rapid breakdown of trust following the emergence of a new widespread risk?
  • How can businesses, government and civil society work together to improve resilience against unforeseen risks?

Emerging technologies and emerging risks: In examining information on technologies and risks, the report concludes

“globally, the latest technologies are increasingly accessible to local industries, but indicators relating to confidence in the institutions responsible for developing safeguards, including those that manage the risks of emerging technologies, have not shown proportional increases.”

Special report on the 2011 Japan earthquake. The March 11 earthquake that hit Japan last year and the following tsunami resulted in widespread social, economic and health impacts. In a special report, the 2011 Global Risk Report takes a holistic look at factors, events and impacts. This is a case review that is well worth reading from a systemic risk perspective.

Risk centers of gravity. The report concludes with a fascinating analysis of risk “Centers of Gravity” within the five sectors it focuses on – these are described as the risks perceived to be of greatest systemic importance, or the most influential and consequential in relation to others, within each sector. The risk centers of gravity that emerged in each sector were:

  • Economic: Chronic fiscal imbalances
  • Environmental: Rising greenhouse gas emissions
  • Geopolitical: Global governance failure
  • Societal: Unsustainable population growth
  • Technological: Critical systems failure
Source: World Economic Forum Global Risks 2012, Seventh Edition

The bottom line? The report concludes that

Decision-makers need to improve understanding of incentives that will improve collaboration in response to global risks;

Trust, or lack of trust, is perceived to be a crucial factor in how risks may manifest themselves. In particular, this refers to confidence, or lack thereof, in leaders, in systems which ensure public safety and in the tools of communication that are revolutionizing how we share and digest information; and

Communication and information sharing on risks must be improved by introducing greater transparency about uncertainty and conveying it to the public in a meaningful way.

The Global Risks 2012 Seventh Edition is available at

*I was marginally involved in the report as a member of the World Economic Forum Global Agenda Council on Emerging Technologies

The Human Project needs your help!

Here’s an interesting idea – build a free iPad app that kicks off a global conversation about the future of the human species.

The Human Project is the brain child of Erika Ilves & Anna Stillwell.  At its core is a yet-to-be-built iPad app that captures the essence of humanity past and future – who we are, where we are going, and how we are going to get there.  As Erika and Anna explain:

There are so many challenges that confront the species as a whole. The ones that get a lot of press (like climate change, food & water shortages, poverty, war, overpopulation and economic crises). The ones that don’t (like comets and asteroids, extreme experiments in science, technological terror and error). The ones that we humans don’t even imagine we can solve (like mega volcanoes, mega earthquakes, nearby supernova explosions, a dying sun, an aging universe). And there are plenty of visions too (like a space-faring civilization, transhumanism, zero carbon world, general artificial intelligence, the end of poverty, universal human rights, designing life and matter, zero nuclear weapons, the end of aging).

Everything is so fragmented. Every expert claims their issue matters most. Everyone fighting for their share of attention. So few have the big picture. Nobody seems to have their eye on the species as a whole.

So why not capture the big picture in a compellingly sleek package, make it free, and watch it take off?

Sounds like a great idea.  But here’s the kicker – someone has to pay for the up-front development.  To cover this, a crowd-funding initiative has just been launched on Kickstarter – if $25,000 are raised by Sept 28, a matching $25k is put in the pot, and the project goes ahead.

If you are interested in finding out more, check out the video below or visit

Nanotechnology, climate and energy: over-heated promises and hot air?

Friends of the Earth have just released a new report challenging claims that nanotechnology will lead to greener, more energy-efficient technologies, lower-impact technologies.

I’ve only had the chance to skim through the report so far, and so don’t have detailed comments on it.  But on my initial skim a number of things struck me: Continue reading Nanotechnology, climate and energy: over-heated promises and hot air?

Ten emerging technology trends to watch over the next decade

Ten years ago at the close of the 20th century, people the world over were obsessing about the millennium bug – an unanticipated glitch arising from an earlier technology.  I wonder how clear it was then that, despite this storm in what turned out to be a rather small teacup, the following decade would see unprecedented advances in technology – the mapping of the human genome, social media, nanotechnology, space-tourism, face transplants, hybrid cars, global communications, digital storage, and more.  Looking back, it’s clear that despite a few hiccups, emerging technologies are on a roll – one that’s showing no sign of slowing down.

So what can we expect as we enter the second decade of the twenty first century?  What are the emerging technology trends that are going to be hitting the headlines over the next ten years?

Here’s my list of the top ten technologies I think are worth watching. I’m afraid that, as with all crystal ball gazing, it’s bound to be flawed. Yet as I work on the opportunities and challenges of emerging technologies, these do seem to be areas that are ripe for prime time. Continue reading Ten emerging technology trends to watch over the next decade

Reversing the Technological Dilemma

By George Kimbrell, International Center for Technology Assessment, and the Center for Food Safety

A guest blog in the Alternative Perspectives on Technology Innovation series

Andrew asked us to write about “how technological innovation should contribute to life in the 21st century.”  Technological innovation is often blindly referred to as “progress.”  The question is — progress towards what?

We live in the age of technology.  In past generations, most people spent the majority of their time in nature, and then in later years more often in social settings.  In the modern world, most of us spend an ever-increasing amount of time in an interconnected web of machines.  I’d like to say I’m writing this on a riverside, but unfortunately I’m not – I’m in my office typing on my laptop, with my email open on a different web browser.

What currently drives this technological innovation, this technological bubble that defines our age?  In modern society, self-interest, greater productivity, greater consumption, the laws of supply and demand and the commoditization of the world are all drivers.  This economic system, which has now succeeded in global hegemony, dictates all our social interactions. Far from being a natural state of being, it is of course only as old as the United States (Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations was published in 1776) and not based on any natural law. Continue reading Reversing the Technological Dilemma

Steve Chu’s White Revolution

It feels good to be ahead of the curve sometimes. About this time last year, I was slaving away painting my roof white – much to the bemusement of my Northern Virginia neighbors and friends. So I couldn’t help feeling just a little smug this morning as I read that US Secretary of Energy Steve Chu is also a great fan of roof-painting to combat global warming… Continue reading Steve Chu’s White Revolution

Nanotechnology: From nano-novice to nano-genius in 13 steps

Back in April, the folks at the PBS station THIRTEEN asked me to answer 13 questions on nanotechnology and the environment for their website feature Green Thirteen.   The questions ended up covering most of nanotechnology – what it is, what it’s good for, what the downsides might be, and how we might overcome potential problems to use it effectively.  With this in mind, I thought it worth posting the Q&A here as a brief nanotechnology primerContinue reading Nanotechnology: From nano-novice to nano-genius in 13 steps

Building better batteries, the Chinese way

Reading yesterday’s New York Times, it seems China could well be poised to leapfrog the West in advanced battery technology (China Vies to Be World’s Leader in Electric Cars). According to the article, Chinese leaders have adopted a plan aimed at turning the country into one of the leading producers of hybrid and all-electric vehicles within three years, and making it the world leader in electric cars and buses after that.

If they deliver the goods, the economic ramifications will be significant.  But then so will the resulting breakthroughs in battery technology.

Despite our ever-increasing addiction to battery-powered gizmos, current technologies are seriously limited.  My laptop and cell-phone (and this morning, my e-book) constantly seem to die at most inopportune moments.  And remembering to recharge the 1001 things in my life that depend on batteries (while working out which recharger goes with which device) is a time-suck I could easily live without.

No question, personal electronics are desperately in need of a major battery upgrade.

But that’s small fry compared to the challenges of developing usable batteries for power-hungry cars.

The problem is, it’s hard to get electricity into batteries fast; hard to get it out again; and once you’ve got a lot of it in there, hard to prevent the battery having a melt-down—remember the stories of igniting/exploding PC batteries?  These are tractable problems for the small stuff—cell phones and the like—but they present enormous obstacles to scaling up batteries large enough to power cars.

Yet developing battery-powered cars makes a lot of sense… Continue reading Building better batteries, the Chinese way

Science, technology and the three “C’s:” Communication, Coupling and Control

Part 1 of a series on rethinking science and technology for the 21st century

We live in a crowded, science and technology-dependent word.  And things aren’t getting any better!  The global population is currently around 6.8 billion.  Over the next four years it’s projected to grow to over 7 billion.  And by 2050, the US Census Bureau estimates there will be over 9.5 billion men women and children on the planet; all of them expecting food, water, shelter, and a first world standard of living.  The only way such demands can be met—if indeed they can be (and it’s a big “if”)—is through the increasingly sophisticated and strategic use of science and technology.

The level of scientific knowledge and technological ability that exists now underpins modern society.  Remove it, and things collapse.  But what is less obvious is that science and technology need to continually develop in a changing world.  As new challenges, needs and wants arise, we need a steady stream of new knowledge and new technology innovation.  Without science progress and technology innovation, our ability to sustain a healthy global society will not keep pace with the challenges to achieving this.

Of course, this is nothing new.  Continue reading Science, technology and the three “C’s:” Communication, Coupling and Control

Rethinking science and technology for the 21st century

Like it or not, society is dependent on science and technology.  The only way we can cram 6 billion people plus onto the earth and use resources at the rate we do, is through the support of scientific discovery and technology innovation.  Take our technology-based infrastructure away and civilization as we know it would collapse.

Perhaps more worrying, our dependency on science and technology is accelerating.  The world’s population continues to grow, lifestyle expectations are going up, and supporting technologies are becomes increasingly sophisticated.  But this “progress” can only be sustained through increasing the rate with which new discoveries are made and new technology innovations are implemented.

At some point this cycle of technology addiction probably needs to be broken if society is to avoid a rather nasty crash.  But I suspect that such a crash is some way off yet.  And it is entirely plausible that the solution for avoiding such a crash will itself arise from technology-based innovation.

Which means that if global society is to continue to mature and prosper, we have to get the whole science and technology enterprise right.

The only alternative is to face a radical “recalibration” of society, leading to a population level and demands on resources that are more in keeping with the Earth’s load-carrying capacity.

Assuming that we want to avoid a rapid and potentially catastrophic reduction in the world’s population, we need to ask whether the way we currently “do” science and technology is good enough.  And if it isn’t what needs to change? Continue reading Rethinking science and technology for the 21st century

Geoengineering: Does it need a dose of geoethics?

It’s been a big week for geoengineering.  First there was the news that the world’s largest geoengineering experiment to date is about to start in the Southern Ocean.  Following close behind was a new study on how geoengineering projects could potentially impact global climate change, ranging from covering vast tracts of desert with a reflective coating to suspending giant mirrors in space.  And today sees the publication of a new paper in the journal Nature indicating that, while fertilizing oceans with iron compounds can remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, the sequestration rate is far lower than previously estimated.

Reading through these and other accounts, it seems clear that the deliberate modification of the Earth’s environment on a vast scale is rapidly moving from the realms of fantasy to those of possibility.  Almost overnight it seems, geoengineering has become respectable.

Climate change is largely responsible—it has hammered home the message more than anything else perhaps that humanity is now able to influence the environment on a global scale.  Just the sheer magnitude of the possible impacts of global warming has made people think seriously about countering the effects through mega-engineering.  And the simple realization that our actions can make a difference to the global environment has contributed to an intellectual leap of imagination; scientists and engineers now have the audacity to think “yes we can” when it comes to countering anthropogenic climate change with engineered interventions.

This would all be wishful thinking though if it wasn’t for rapid advances in science and technology that are underpinning the emerging “yes we can” geoengineering mentality.  Although its early days still, scientists and engineers are beginning to develop the understanding and tools to put grand schemes into place, and start playing around with Earth’s systems on a global scale.

This confluence of need, awareness and ability is bringing new vigor to geoengineering.  And it’s hard to deny that its exciting stuff. … Continue reading Geoengineering: Does it need a dose of geoethics?

Resolving the carbon nanotube identity crisis

Twelve months ago today I held a bag of multi-walled carbon nanotubes up before a hearing of the U.S. House Science Committee.  I wanted to emphasize the discrepancy between the current state of the science on carbon nanotubes, and a tendency to classify this substance as the relatively benign material graphite from a safety perspective.  So it is perhaps fitting that on the anniversary of that congressional hearing, the US Environmental Protection Agency is making it clear that carbon nanotubes are in fact, a new substance—and should be regulated as such. Continue reading Resolving the carbon nanotube identity crisis

Nano-sunscreens leave their mark

Painted metal roofs are cheap, convenient, and usually very durable.  But over the past two years, a rash of accelerated ageing has blighted pre-painted steel roofing in Australia.  And intriguingly the ageing—which affects the coating—seems to be localized to small patches, taking on the form of fingerprints, handprints and even footprints.

The culprit it seems is sunscreen that is spilt or otherwise transferred to the roofing by construction workers during installation. And not any old sunscreen—this would appear to be a uniquely nano phenomenon.  But I get ahead of myself… Continue reading Nano-sunscreens leave their mark

Smart materials; smart choices?

Why nano?  Why care?  For non-nanotech initiates, an obsession with nanotechnology must sometimes seem a bizarre occupation of the sad and lonely.  And even within the nanotechnology community, who hasn’t had occasional doubts over the legitimacy of singling out “nano” as something special?  Yet occasionally a piece of work comes along that helps put things back into perspective.  For me, a paper just published on-line in the journal Nano Letters did exactly that. Continue reading Smart materials; smart choices?