Category: Risk Science

From Risk Sense: Six months ago, Risk Bites launched as a somewhat quirky YouTube experiment in science communication. Twenty-seven videos on, how are things going?

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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   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   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

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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.

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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.

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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

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My apologies for the rather crude title, but I couldn’t resist.  Australian science communicator Craig Cormick is speaking at a University of Michigan Risk Science Unplugged event on November 1, and when asked for a short and pithy title, this is what he suggested.  It was too controversial for the Risk Science Center website (and clientele), but I just couldn’t let it go to waste. As it was, we went with the rather less controversial title of Risk Rage. You can find out more about Risk Science Unplugged presents Risk Rage (aka Risk – OMG x WTF!) at the Risk Science Blog. The event is on November 1 at 2:10 PM Eastern Time, and will be live webcast.

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This coming Thursday (Oct 20 2011), the US National Nanotechnology Initiative is releasing the latest version of the Initiative’s federal nanotechnology environmental, health and safety research strategy.  The strategy will be available for download from 10:00 AM Eastern time, with a webinar on the release being held between 12:00 PM – 12:45 PM Eastern (registration required).  Further details can be found here. A draft of the research strategy was published in December 2010 for public comment – with the aim of using these comments where appropriate to strengthen the final strategy. In anticipation of the final version coming out on Thursday, I’ve been revisiting the public comments received.  They are still accessible on the NNI Strategy Portal, although you will need to register to read them (my comments are available separately here).  I’m particularly interested in how the NNI has addressed them in the final strategy.

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Question: What do you get if you place some of the leading thinkers and practitioners in the fields of technology innovation, risk and sustainability in the same room for two days? Answer: one whopping headache! Not because of the confusion and cacophony, but because of the overwhelming volume of information, ideas and insights that emerge. To be honest, my less than coherent state at the end of this weeks symposium on Risk, Uncertainty and Sustainable Innovation wasn’t helped by moderating eight discussion panels over two days, and coordinating a handful more.  But without a doubt, this was a meeting that pushed the boundaries of how much a sane person can take in and remain sane. The idea behind the symposium was simple: Bring a bunch of smart people with different perspectives together to explore the complex intersections between risk, sustainability and innovation, and see what happens.  In practice, we put together a format and a program that encouraged a candid exploration of realistic challenges and plausible approaches to developing sustainable applications of technology innovation, as well as using technology innovation to develop sustainable solutions to pressing problems. The result: Two ideas-packed days of engaging, inspiring and challenging discussion on how businesses, governments and others can better ensure safe, successful and sustainable outcomes from technology innovation. Having been in the thick of the discussions, I’m still trying to unravel and assimilate a lot of the ideas that emerged. And I missed a lot of the nuances – much of the time I was too intent on keeping the conversation going to be fully aware of its content.   Fortunately, the symposium was caught on video, and will be posted on the Risk Science Center’s Vimeo site in a week or so, so I will be able to revisit the discussions at

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In 2004, the first International Symposium on Occupational Health Implications of Nanomaterials was held in Buxton in the UK.  Seven years later, I’m preparing for a discussion panel at the fifth meeting in this very successful community-led series (being held this week in Boston MA), and looking through the research recommendations we made at the Buxton meeting.  Disturbingly, they look remarkably similar to recommendations still being made. The report from that original meeting can be found here, although I have also reproduced the research recommendations from that report below.  As there are a rather lot of recommendations (and I need to cover these in some rational way in this Friday’s discussion panel), I thought it would be interesting to filter them through the Wordle Creator. This is what I got: Of course things have moved along a lot in some areas over the past few years, and in some cases priorities have changed and new priorities have arisen.  But looking at the – admittedly qualitative – Wordle, it’s remarkable how many of these old issues remain contemporary issues. So are we making progress, or are we simply going round in circles?

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It must be Nanotechnology Regulation week in Washington DC.  Yesterday, two federal agencies and the White House released documents that grapple with the effective regulation of products that depend on engineered nanomaterials. In a joint memorandum, the Office of Science and Technology Policy, the Office of Management and Budget and the Office of the United States Trade Representative laid out Policy Principles for the U.S. Decision Making Concerning Regulations and Oversight of Applications of Nanotechnology and Nanomaterials. On the same day, the US Environmental Protection Agency posted a prepublication notice on Policies Concerning Products Containing Nanoscale Materials. And to cap it all, the US Food and Drug Administration released Draft Guidance for Industry on Considering Whether an FDA-Regulated Product Involves the Application of Nanotechnology. A busy week for nanotechnology regulation! White House Memo on Nanotechnology Regulation Policy Principles The White House memorandum is the latest document to come out of the Emerging Technologies Interagency Policy Coordination Committee – ETIPC for short.  In part, it is a response to the 2010 review of the National Nanotechnology Initiative by the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, and in particular the concern expressed by PCAST that “In the absence of sound science on the safe use of nanomaterials and of technologies and products containing them, the chance of unintentionally harming people and the environment increases.  At the same time, uncertainty and speculation about potential risks threaten to undermine consumer and business confidence.” Correspondingly, this is a memorandum that is heavily focused on science-driven regulation, and the avoidance of knee-jerk responses to speculative concerns. Reading through it, a number of themes emerge, including: Existing regulatory frameworks provide a firm foundation for the oversight of nanomaterials, but there is a need to respond to new scientific evidence on potential risks, and to consider

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In June 2005, the chairman and CEO of DuPont, together with the President of the Environmental Defense Fund, co-authored an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal titled “Let’s Get nanotech Right”.  The piece called for broad multi-stakeholder collaborations to help identify and address potential health, safety and environmental issues arising from the development and commercialization of engineered nanomaterials.  And it laid the groundwork for one of the more significant documents to be produced on working safely with nanomaterials over the past years – the Environmental Defense-DuPont Nano Risk Framework, published in June 2007. Good as the Nano Risk Framework was, it didn’t escape criticism at the time – some thought it was too complex and onerous; others worried that it didn’t capture the needs and perspectives of the broader manufacturing community – especially small businesses and startups.    So it’s no small deal that, nearly four years after the original framework was released, the International Standards Organization* has just published a Technical Report on nanomaterial risk evaluation that builds on the Nano Risk Framework. ISO/TR 31321:2011: Nanotechnologies – Nanomaterial risk evaluation is unashamedly based on the Environmental Defense Fund/DuPont Nano Risk Framework.  Much of the structure and content reflects that of the original – a testament to the thought and effort that went into the first document.  But there have been some changes.  Whereas the second step in the Nano Risk Framework described developing three “profile lifecycles”, the ISO document simply refers to “material profiles” and integrates the need for a lifecycle approach to these profiles within the text.  The ISO report is written in a much tighter style than that of the original document, and looses some of the occasionally long-winded expositions on what should be done and why.  And the ISO document is more compact – 66 pages as

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Last week, the Victoria branch of the Australian Education Union (AEU) passed a resolution recommending that “workplaces use only nanoparticle-free sunscreen” and that sunscreens used by members on children are selected from those “highlighted in the Safe Sunshine Guide produced by Friends of the Earth” as being nano-free.  The AEU also resolved to provide the Friends of the Earth Safe Sunscreen Guide and Recommendations to all workplaces their members are associated with.  Given what is currently known about sunscreens – nano and otherwise, I can’t help wonder whether this is an ill-advised move. The debate over the safety or otherwise of nanoparticle-containing sunscreens has been going on for over a decade now.  Prompted by early concerns over possible penetration through the skin and into the body of the nanosized titanium dioxide and/or zinc oxide particles used in these products – and potential adverse impacts that might result – there has been a wealth of research into whether these small particles can actually get through the skin when applied in a sunscreen.  And the overall conclusion is that they cannot.  There have been a small number of studies that demonstrate that, under specific conditions, some types of nanoparticle might penetrate through the upper layers of the skin.  But the overwhelming majority of studies have failed to find either plausible evidence for significant penetration, or plausible evidence for adverse health impacts – a body of evidence that led the Environmental Working Group to make an about-face from questioning the use of nanoparticle-containing sunscreens to endorsing them in 2010. So why is the AEU now advising against their use?  And why are they advocating selecting sunscreens based on a document that does not provide evidence-based advice on efficacy or safety – and may end up leading to decisions that increase the risk of

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Registration is now open for the 2011 Risk Science Symposium, and as I’m chairing it, I thought it worth giving a bit of a plug here. The symposium brings together a fantastic cast of experts from very different backgrounds to explore the intersection of technology innovation and human health risk – with the aim of stimulating new thinking and ideas. If you are grappling with emerging risk issues in industry, government, academia or the non-profit sector, this will be the place to be in September (not that I’m bias!). A warning thought – space is limited to around 220 participants, so early registration is highly recommended. Further details on the speakers, program and registration can be found here. Some of the highlights include: An opening keynote by John Viera, Ford Motor Company Director of Sustainability Environment and Safety Engineering Insights from Paul Anastas, Science Advisor to the US EPA A UK perspective on technology innovation, risk and policy from James Wilsdon, Director of The Royal Society Science Policy Centre Cutting edge discussions on developments in science and technology that are pushing the boundaries of what is possible. Insights into emerging risk issues and innovative solutions A unique symposium dinner experience with designer Rodrigo Martinez from IDEO A chance to interact with some of the leading cross-disciplinary thought leaders on addressing emerging risk challenges. Draft Program Confirmed Speakers Registration

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I‘ve just posted a piece over on the Risk Science Blog on regulatory definitions of engineered nanomaterials.  What may come as a surprise to many readers given my comments over the years is the title – “Why we don’t need a regulatory definition for nanomaterials”!  Have I flipped, lost my senses, or what? As you might guess, I still think that engineered nanomaterials present a huge regulatory challenge – both from the perspective of avoiding unnecessary health impacts, and providing manufacturers with clear, rational rules for their safe use.  But I also have this odd idea that regulations should at the minimum be built on evidence if the resulting rules and guidelines are to have any relevance and traction. Sadly, it now looks like we are heading toward a situation where the definitions of nanomaterials underpinning regulations will themselves be based on policy, not science. This scares the life out of me, because it ends up taking evidence off the table when it comes to oversight, and replacing it with assumptions and speculation on what people think is relevant, rather than what actually is – not good for safety, and certainly not good for business. But you can read more about why I’m getting worried about a regulatory definition for nanomaterials over at the Risk Science Blog.

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OK so this is a shameless plug for the University of Michigan Risk Science Center Unplugged series of discussions (if you’ll forgive the pun) – and specifically the live/webcast event we’re having on the health impacts of the Gulf Oil Spill on April 14. But I actually think the series is good enough for a bit of a plug here – not that I’m bias! Fist a confession though: I get really bored with hour-long PowerPoint presentations and talking head monologues (sometimes, even when I’m the speaker!).  More significantly, I think there are better ways of exploring contemporary issues than just watching a series of slides and listening to someone drone on.  So when we were thinking about a format for the Risk Science Center to start tackling knotty human health risk-related issues, we tried to come up with something a little different.  The thought process went something like this: Lets ditch slides, because they’re tedious. And while we’re at it, let’s avoid long expositions from dull speakers. Rather, why don’t we get a bunch of experts from different perspectives to discuss issues candidly… …in a way that’s engaging to a wide range of people… …with the opportunity for the audience to throw their questions into the mix… …and with a strong moderator to keep things on track and stop them getting boring. And why not make things web-interactive – with on-line resources, questions and answers, video streaming, ever a Twitter hookup? The result was the Risk Science Unplugged Presents… series – interesting people talking about interesting stuff, without the hassles of PowerPoint.  And fully web-interactive, so that people can watch and participate, even if they are not in Ann Arbor. I’m rather excited about the series – but then I guess I would be.  Our first one was on

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As anyone who has followed my work over the past few years will know, I have a deep interest in the potential benefits and risks associated with emerging technologies, and in particular whether we can swing the balance towards benefits by thinking more innovatively about risk and how we address it. So it’s not surprising that I’m extremely excited to be chairing this year’s Risk Science Symposium at the University of Michigan, which is all about how we can think differently about human health risk to support sustainable technology innovation. The symposium is shaping up to be a unique event, and one that I hope will expose participants to new ideas as well as energizing them to explore new possibilities as they work toward developing responsible and sustainable products based on technology innovations. Over the next few weeks, we’ll be firming up the program in time for early registration, opening on April 4. Something I’m particularly excited about is that the symposium is turning out to be a great opportunity to explore some different formats for getting people to think differently about common challenges. Rather than use the tried and tested – but often bum-numbingly boring – “talking heads” lecture format, we will be basing most of the proceedings on a series of moderated discussions. These will be designed to engage experts from different perspectives – as well as other participants – in addressing key questions, under the guiding hand of a strong moderator. It’s a format that one colleague described as “symposium speed-dating” – but I think it’s one that will encourage new ideas and insights, and lead to some extremely engaging exchanges. And in case you think that these will go the way of many panel discussions where participants simply use their time (and that of their fellow-speakers

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Back in December 2009, I rode the Acela Express up to New York from Washington DC for the day to record one of a series of nanotechnology podcasts for the ASME – the American Society of Mechanical Engineers. The podcast was to be part of a new educational outreach initiative on all aspects of nanotechnology developed by the society. That podcast – which deals with environmental, health and safety aspects of nanotechnology – has now been published. Together with a continuing series of nanotech audio and video podcasts, it can be seen on ASME’s Nanotechnology Institute website. You’ll have to register to watch and download the podcasts – but registration is free. However, the good folk at ASME have also allowed me to post the podcast here: [flashvideo file=http://www.ebmcdn.com/asme/podcast_media/nanoseries/asme_nano_maynard.mp4 image=http://umrscblogs.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/03/ASME_Podcast_Splash.jpg width=600 height=360 /] A product of 4 grueling hours of filming (for four minutes of footage!!), I thought the editing and production team did a great job of pulling something coherent, informative and engaging together.  It should be obvious by the way where the real talent lay here by comparing the length of the filming session to the length of the final video! If you find this interesting, you should check out other podcasts in the series, which currently cover energy, materials, the life sciences, and environment, health and safety. ps – there is one juxtaposition of images in the podcast that I thought was rather strange – brownie points to anyone who can spot it!

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Cross-posted from the Risk Science Blog. As it did last year, the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in Davos has left me with a daunting task – how do I summarize the highlights of the meeting in a single, short post? The answer of course is that I can’t – Davos is so complex, diverse and multi-layered that no single account could do it justice. But sitting here waiting for the flight home, I wanted to capture at least something of the past few days. World Leaders – world issues This year saw the usual parade of world-leaders passing through Davos, selling their wares in public, while cutting deals in private. In public and private, the unfolding events in North Africa, the Moscow terrorist attack and the world economy dominated discussions. As is fairly typical at Davos, not too much that was startling or new was announced in public. But this is a meeting where off the record meetings and encounters are everything. And given the isolation, camaraderie and personal access that pervades Davos, the barriers to meaningful exchanges are perhaps lower here than at almost any other gathering of the great and good. As one person pointed out to me – many delegates simply cannot afford to bring their usual entourage, meaning that the chances of conversations that get to the heart of issues – rather than leading a carefully choreographed dance around them – are reasonably high. And of course this is further enabled by the many social occasions that smooth the way for serious conversations. Business leaders – revealed values. This stripping away of the buffers between public personas and the people behind them is one aspect of Davos that continues to fascinate me. It’s one of the few places I know if where you can get

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Cross-posted from the Risk Science Blog. Take a metaphorical slice through this year’s annual World Economic Forum meeting in Davos, and Global Risk would be writ large through every part of it.  Hot on the heels of the sixth Global Risk report, this year’s meeting saw the launch of the Risk Response Network – a new initiative to facilitate responsive, informed and integrative action on global risks.  And throughout the meeting, sessions and conversations abound that are grappling with understanding and mitigating emerging risks in today’s complex and interconnected world. But important and impressive as this agenda is, I wonder whether there is something missing. I’m approaching risk at Davos this year from three perspectives: exploring the relationship between science, innovation and risk; understanding the impact of emerging risks on public health; and developing technology-enabled approaches to risk mitigation.  The common themes here are science and technology – both as potential drivers of risk, and as sources of possible solutions. From my work in science, technology and public health, it is clear that a deep understanding of the roles of science and technology in addressing risk is critical to building resilient and sustainable responses to global risks.  It is also increasingly clear that integrating this understanding into the process of addressing global risks is vital. Yet this is where the World Economic Forum’s timely thrust to address global risks seems to be somewhat lacking. Science and technology are certainly well-repented on the Davos agenda.  But I get the sense that they are part of the alternative program – “the entertainment” as one colleague described them.  This is probably a little harsh.  But the science and technology sessions do tend to be aimed at wowing delegates, rather than engaging them in exploring integrated solutions to pressing problems – a bit of

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Cross posted from the Risk Science Center Blog: There’s a lot to like in President Obama’s perspective on 21st century regulation. Writing in today’s Wall Street Journal, Obama outlines his thinking behind his new executive order to review and revise a convoluted and potentially disruptive federal regulatory system. But if regulation in the 21st century is to be effective in protecting people and enabling economic growth, it needs to become more sophisticated and innovative, while avoiding the traps of over-simplistic thinking. I’m glad Obama puts a strong emphasis on public health in his op ed. It’s all too easy easy for these conversations to degenerate into regulatory bashing in favor of business freedom – a trap Obama deftly avoids. Yet he is spot on when he calls out the dangers of out-dated and ill-conceived regulations potentially stifling innovation and economic growth – an outcome which ultimately also impacts on public health, albeit in less directly measurable ways. The trick is to find that sweet spot between preventing harm while supporting the economy. As society and the technologies it relies on become ever-more complex, finding this sweet spot is becoming increasingly difficult. New technologies are spawning new products that cause harm in new and sometimes unanticipated ways. An ever more interconnected global society is eroding traditional command-and-control oversight frameworks. And a growing flood of tantalizing yet often incomplete data is creating confusion over what is safe, and what is not. Yet the same changes that are making old-style regulation increasingly difficult are also opening up opportunities for innovation in how we protect people.

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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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