Category Archives: Geoengineering

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!


A bluffer’s guide to Risk Science in the 21st century

A few weeks ago, I gave a talk at the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati under the slightly provocative title “Small Gods and the Art of Technology Innovation”.  The talk is now available on-line (slides and audio at least) – and viewable below – through the excellent work of the folk at CAC.

Rather sneakily, I used the opportunity to talk to a (mainly) lay audience about risk science in the 21st century – did I get away with it I wonder…?

Could precisely engineered nanoparticles provide a novel geoengineering tool?

This is an extremely quick and dirty blog post, as I really need to be somewhere else.  But while traveling to the World Economic Forum meeting in China today, I came across a new paper that piques my interest.

The paper is by David Keith at the University of Calgary (published in the Proceedings of the National Academies of Science), and is a theoretical investigation of how injecting large quantities of precisely engineered particles into the upper atmosphere might provide a cost-effective tool for climate intervention – geoengineering.

The idea of using aerosol particles for messing with climate change isn’t a new one – the idea of injecting sulfate aerosols into the stratosphere to reflect more sunlight away from the earth has been around for a while.  But there were a couple of novel aspects of David’s paper that caught my attention. Continue reading Could precisely engineered nanoparticles provide a novel geoengineering tool?

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

Geoengineering options: Balancing effectiveness and safety

An interesting aspect of today’s Royal Society report on geoengineering is the attempt to rate twelve potential approaches to engineering the climate by effectiveness, affordability, timeliness and safety – and to graphically compare the approaches in terms of these criteria.

While the ratings and the resulting diagram are somewhat subjective (the report’s authors call them “tentative and approximate”), they have some merit in helping make sense of a complex and uncertain bunch of data.

In the report, potential geoengineering approaches are displayed against primary axes of effectiveness and affordability.  But as the full evaluation data are available, it’s reasonably easy to re-plot them as effectiveness against “safety.”

If you do this, this is what you get: Continue reading Geoengineering options: Balancing effectiveness and safety

Engaging the public on nanotechnology

Following up on my last post – Geoengineering the planet with nanotechnology ice-cream? – here’s a short video Zoe Papadopoulou and colleagues put together on The Cloud Project from my visit in June:

[flashvideo file=/movies/20090707/ice_cream.flv image=movies/20090707/ice_cream.jpg width=580 height=366 /]

Although this was filmed before the finishing touches had been applied to the ice cream van, it give a flavor for how the project is bring artists, scientists and members of the public together to talk about emerging technologies like nanotech and geoengineering.

Many thanks to Zoe for permission to post the clip here.

Geoengineering the planet with nanotechnology ice-cream?

Photo courtesy Zoe Papadopoulou

Scientists and engineers have their moments. But it they are hard pressed to beat art students when it comes to sheer audacious creativity.

Earlier this year I received an email so intriguing I couldn’t help but follow up on it. The email was from Zoe Papadopoulou, an MA student at the Royal College of Art in London.  It was a request for help with a rather unusual design project she and fellow student Cat Kramer were hatching. Skimming through the message, phrases like “geoengineering,” “ice cream van,” “nanotechnology,” “clouds that taste of ice-cream” peaked my interest.

But then I saw the words “liquid nitrogen,” and I was hooked!

The concept was deceptively simple – use art and design to engage people on nanotechnology and geoengineering in a simple, enjoyable and appealing way. The realization was a little more complex… Continue reading Geoengineering the planet with nanotechnology ice-cream?

Geoengineering: Are we grown up enough to handle it?

If there’s one thing that’s guaranteed to unite global warming “denialists” on both sides of the aisle, it’s geoengineering – the intentional planet-wide manipulation of the environment.  At least, you might be left with that impression after reading the comments following a thoughtful piece in Monday’s Wall Street Journal by Jamais Cascio.

It’s Time to Cool the Planet. Wall Street Journal. Credit: Viktor Koen

Cascio describes himself as a “reluctant advocate” of geoengineering.

“Many of us who have been watching this subject closely have gone from being skeptics to advocates. Very reluctant advocates, to be sure, but advocates nonetheless.”

Fraught with uncertainty and risk as geoengineering is, he argues that cutting greenhouse gas emissions will not be sufficient in the short term to curb the impacts of global warming.  Rather, direct intervention is necessary to give us a bit of breathing space. Continue reading Geoengineering: Are we grown up enough to handle it?

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

Geoengineering goes mainstream

Twelve months ago, geoengineering seemed little more than the fancy of science fiction writers and fringe scientists.  Now, an increasing number of people are viewing it as a viable – if extreme – option for curbing global warming.  This shift was hammered home today by Dr. John Holdren, President Obama’s science advisor, in his first interview since being confirmed to the office.  Given the enormous challenges presented by global warming, Holdren stated that geoengineering “…has got to be looked at. … We don’t have the luxury of taking any approach off the table.”

Holdren is right.  The coupling between people and the planet is now at the point where radical action is needed to avoid a shift in climate that could have a catastrophic impact on society. And while conventional technologies might suffice in the short term to bring carbon dioxide levels down and otherwise manage global warming, they will eventually  run out of steam… Continue reading Geoengineering goes mainstream

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?