Category Archives: Public Perception

A few Small Issues about Public Engagement on Nanotechnology

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. Continue reading A few Small Issues about Public Engagement on Nanotechnology

Contagion, plausible reality and public health: In conversation with Larry Brilliant

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, 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.

And in Steven Soderburgh and Scott Z Burns, he found the ideal partners.

Well before he became President of the Skoll Global Threats Fund, Brilliant was interested in exploring how humanity can prepare for low probability high impact events like pandemics.  As he explained, he is particularly concerned over how we go about developing expertise and resources to tackle such events, especially where short term and local thinking does little to prepare society for eventualities that demand a globally coordinated and informed response. Brilliant emphasized that devolving responsibility to local communities and private organizations just doesn’t work here – you need the resources and reach of national and international government organizations, together with long term investment in expertise and people, in order to respond rapidly and globally to a fast-moving viral infection.

But how do you get that message across – especially at a time when long term strategic measures against catastrophic risks are being ditched in favor of short term economic and political gains?

Movies, according to Brilliant, are part of the toolbox for raising awareness and helping people understand how some challenges are just too big to be privatized. Unfortunately, films that build on fantasy rather than plausibility have led to the medium being marginalized as a vehicle for science-based communication and education.  But in the case of Contagion, Larry felt that with the combination of a “brilliant” director and screenwriter, together with a cast of dedicated and engaged actors (on whom Larry lavishes praise and admiration – especially for Matt Damon and Kate Winslet), the scene was set for a movie which was was emotionally engaging yet grounded in plausible reality.

The scenario developed within the movie is clearly fictional – it hasn’t happened yet.  But as Larry noted, because of the science that went into the movie, what emerges is a series of events that are not beyond the realms of possibility – and in fact, given enough time, are highly probable. As fellow consultant Laurie Garrett wrote the other day on the CNN website,

‘Contagion’ is part reality, part fantasy, totally possible

When asked whether he was pleased with the results, Brilliant gave an unqualified and very enthusiastic affirmative.  As well as high praise for the cast and production team, he was pleased with the way that the response to the pandemic was portrayed in the movie.  As he pointed out, the White House and UN are notable by their absence.  Rather, the heroes – the people who identify, track and eventually tackle the pandemic – are government-employed public health professionals.  To him, this is a highly realistic portrayal of how a pandemic is likely to play out, and a stark warning against cutting investment in public health because of short term thinking and a potentially catastrophic lack of understanding.

At a time when public health agencies in the US are facing significant cuts, this was a key message for Brilliant. Contagion is plausible reality wrapped up in a strong narrative – to Brilliant and others, it’s not a case of if such a pandemic will occur, but when.  And what Burns and Soderburgh have done is provide us with glimpse of our best hope for surviving this eventuality – assuming we haven’t abandoned our trained and prepared public health professionals in the meantime because we didn’t have the intelligence and foresight to recognize their importance.

This is a key message that Brilliant hopes will come through loud and clear as people watch and talk about the movie.  And it’s one that he hopes will have sticking power – with the movie stimulating conversations and action for many years to come.

Spiders, silk and a transgenic goat – the complex art of science communication

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. Continue reading Spiders, silk and a transgenic goat – the complex art of science communication

Culture Clash – the biopolitics of popular culture

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 :-) ) Continue reading Culture Clash – the biopolitics of popular culture

Sunscreens and Alzheimer’s – solid science or scare-mongering speculation?

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… Continue reading Sunscreens and Alzheimer’s – solid science or scare-mongering speculation?

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?

Nanotechnology: Ensuring success through safety

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:

Science & Technology, June 2009, Page 66

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. Continue reading Nanotechnology: Ensuring success through safety

To tweet or not to tweet – social media and the scientific meeting

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… Continue reading To tweet or not to tweet – social media and the scientific meeting

Culture clash: Take the 2-second two-cultures poll

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:

[polldaddy poll=1575860]

(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… Continue reading Culture clash: Take the 2-second two-cultures poll

In space, no one can hear you scream – unless you’re in a sci-flick!

alien-eggIf 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… Continue reading In space, no one can hear you scream – unless you’re in a sci-flick!

Five more good books

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… Continue reading Five more good books

Small particles are sexy; Synthetic biologists are sexier!


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 biologistsContinue reading Small particles are sexy; Synthetic biologists are sexier!

Synthetic biology and the public: Time for a heart to heart?

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! Continue reading Synthetic biology and the public: Time for a heart to heart?