Category: Public Perception

A guest blog by Craig Cormick. Over the past decade there has been a significant growth in public engagement activities relating to nanotechnology and when you look across all the data being generated you can learn a lot about how the public view the risks and benefits of the technology. That’s probably not news for anybody who follows this blog. But what might be news is to look closely at who is driving these engagements. Is it the public? Generally no.

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Blockbuster movies aren’t usually noted for their scientific accuracy and education potential.  But since its release last week, Steven Soderburgh’s Contagion seems to be challenging the assumption that Hollywood can’t do science. The other day I posted a piece about how director Steven Soderburgh and screenwriter Scott Z Burns’ attention to detail and plausibility left me with a sense of optimism after watching the movie, despite its disturbing theme.  This was due in large part to the involvement of three science experts – Ian Lipkin (Professor of Epidemiology at the Mailman School of Public Health at Columblia University), Laurie Garrett (senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations) and Larry Brilliant (President of the Skoll Global Threats Fund). Larry Brilliant is well known for his work on eradicating the smallpox virus.  He was also a past Executive Director of the philanthropic arm of Google, and is currently President of the Skoll Global Threats Fund. Yesterday afternoon, I had the chance to chat with him on the phone about the movie, his involvement, and his thoughts on its importance. What was quickly apparent in our conversation is that the idea of using film as a medium to help people better understand the threats epidemics and pandemics present is one that Brilliant has long been interested in.  While Executive Director of Google.org, he supported production of the Oscar-nominated documentary The Final Inch – a film about the historic global effort to eradicate polio. Given the success of the documentary in bringing a global issue (and public health success story) to the attention of millions of people, Larry was interested in how the medium of film could be further used – in particular to alert people to the plausible threat presented by pandemics, and the measures that are necessary to curtail their global impact.

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Last week while at the NISE Net network-wide meeting, I was fortunate enough to see a preview of part of NOVA’s forthcoming series Making Stuff. The series focuses on the wonders of modern materials science. But rather than coming away enthralled by the ingenuity of scientists, I found myself breaking out in a cold sweat as I watched something that set my science-engagement alarm-bells ringing: New York Times tech reporter and host David Pogue enthusing about splicing spider genes into a goat so it produces silk protein-containing milk, then glibly drinking the milk while joking about transforming into Spider Man. I was sitting there thinking, “You start with a spider – not everyone’s favorite creature.  And you genetically cross it with a goat – dangerous territory at the best of times.  Then you show a middle aged dude drinking the modified milk from a transgenic animal and having a laugh about it.  And all this without any hint of a question over the wisdom or ramifications of what’s going on?  Man, this is going to go down well!” But then, after some reflection, I wondered whether I was over-reacting – maybe I’m just over-sensitized to the challenges of grappling with the opportunities and challenges presented by new technologies.  There was also a chance that I had missed something in the delivery – some of the dialogue was admittedly missing in the preview. So I decided to post last week’s poll on the spider-goat story, just to get a sense of how others might respond to this story line.

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This is a first for 2020 Science – a plug for a meeting which I have nothing to do with!  But next month’s seminar on the Biopolitics of Popular Culture being run by the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies (IEET) looks so intriguing that I couldn’t resist! (that, and a heads-up from IEET Managing Director Mike Treder )

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Could using sunscreen lead to Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, or other neurodegenerative diseases?  The association seems far-fetched – given the amount of sunscreens, creams and lotions used every day, surely someone would noticed a link by now if it existed!  Yet a press release from the University of Ulster suggests the nanoparticles used in some sunscreens could potentially cause or exacerbate these diseases.  Drawing on the release, a number of media outlets are now running stories along the lines of “Sunscreen could cause Alzheimer’s” (this from The Daily Mirror in the UK). This is a rather unfortunate case of a poorly conceived press release leading to sensationalist – and misleading – headlines…

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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…

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This month’s issue of the magazine Science & Technology takes a closer look at some of the controversies, dilemmas and decisions that will impact on the future development of the science and technology of working at the nanoscale.  Amongst the commentaries is a short piece I wrote about the importance of safety in underpinning successful and beneficial nano-enabled technologies: Over the past few years, scientists and engineers have made huge strides in their ability to manipulate materials at the nanometer scale.  Tapping into novel properties that emerge when substances are engineered at the nanoscale, they have begun to push conventional technologies further than was previously thought possible.  And with this new-found dexterity, they are beginning to develop innovative new technologies that were unimaginable not so long ago.  The result is a rapidly emerging toolkit of scientific knowledge and technical expertise that could have profound economic and social impacts around the world; creating jobs and wealth while addressing challenges that range from disease treatment and prevention to renewable energy and clean water. As with any new technology, however, the promise of nanotechnology comes at a price.

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Should live tweeting and blogging from scientific meetings be controlled? Back in May, Daniel MacArthur – a researcher and blogger – wrote a number of on-the-spot blogs on the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (CSHL) Biology of Genomes meeting.  By all accounts a number of people were tweeting and blogging from the meeting.  But Daniel had the misfortune to come under scrutiny from Genomeweb – a web-based news service – because of his actions. As ScienceInsider reported yesterday, Genomeweb complained to the conference organizers that Daniel was reporting from the meeting without having to abide by the rules governing professional journalists attending the conference.  As a result, the rules are being changed – according to ScienceInsider, the meeting’s registration form will be revised “such that all participants will agree that if they are going to blog or twitter results, they need to let CSHL know in advance and get the presenter’s okay.” Judging by discussions on the web today, the story has hit a nerve.  More importantly, it has raised a thorny issue that really needs to be tackled as the way people communicate changes:  What’s OK and what’s not when you’re at a scientific meeting? As a blogger and Twitter user, as well as a regular speaker at scientific meetings, it’s a question that is directly relevant to me.  Reading the discussions today and talking with people on Twitter about the issue, I was forced to think a little more carefully about how I make decisions on when to tweet or blog, and when not to…

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A 2-second distraction in the run-up to the 50th anniversary of CP Snow’s Two Cultures lecture:  Take the two-cultures poll (below), and see how your answer aligns with those from others: (If you can’t see the poll, click here) Now you’ve pressed the button and seen the results, here’s the background: On May 7th 1959, the scientist, politician and novelist CP Snow highlighted a destructive gulf between the literary intellectuals of the day and scientists – his “two cultures.”  Fifty years on, the cultures have changed, but possibly not as much as we would like to believe…

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If you want to annoy a scientist, show them a movie that gets the little details wrong—like the fact that sound doesn’t travel in a vacuum, or biologists always have a box of Kim Wipes within arms-reach. If you want to annoy anyone else, put them in the same room with the scientist! Scientists love to pick apart the poor depiction of science in movies and TV programs—I know, I’ve been there.  It’s irritating, it suggests someone in authority who needs a crash course in scientific reality, and it raises very real fears that audiences will come away with warped ideas of what science is all about…

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Science gone right, science gone wrong, science gone social, science gone political—it’s all here in five off-beat book recommendations to kick off 2009.  Ranging from Darwin’s Origin of Species to Sir Terry Pratchett’s Nation, the one thing I think I can guarantee is that you will struggle to find an odder bunch of literary bed-fellows!  Hope you enjoy them, and have a happy new year! A new year, a new leaf—time for five more eclectic (some might say eccentric) book recommendations to see you through the hangover and into a brighter future. As in the previous five good books blog, I’ve eschewed the conventional to provide as unusual a potpourri of literary delights as you will find anywhere.  And as before, I’ve tried to inject a little method into the madness—spot it if you can! I should first apologize because this was supposed to be a quick blog, rushed off before the New Years festivities began in earnest.  But it turned into a veritable “slow blog!” So for those of you impatient to read the recommendations and move on, here they are: On the Origin of Species, by Charles Darwin The Two Cultures, by C. P. Snow Trouble with Lichen, by John Wyndham Cider with Rosie, by Laurie Lee Nation, by Sir Terry Pratchett But please do read on, and discover the why behind the what…

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The October issue of Esquire magazine is remarkable.  Not for the world’s first e-ink cover (appearing on limited special editions of the magazine).  But because three of the five scientists featured amongst the seventy-five most influential people of the twenty first century are synthetic biologists…

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So, you have a cool new science that could make a major impact on global challenges like energy, disease and pollution and you want to make sure it reaches its full potential.  What do you do?  At some point, having a heart to heart with “the public” might be a good idea.  Especially if your “cool new science” involves playing around with the very building blocks of life!

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2020 Science is the creation of Andrew Maynard - a Professor of Environmental Health Sciences at the University of Michigan. Andrew spends his time obsessing over effective science communication; the responsible development and use of emerging technologies; and how understanding risk can help inform smart decisions.  

As well as writing a regular column for the journal Nature Nanotechnology, He posts regularly here at "2020 Science", and on Twitter as @2020science.  He also produces short, entertaining, and (hopefully) informative videos on understanding health risks on his YouTube channel Risk Bites

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