Category Archives: Risk Science

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!


Open access academics: Experiments with YouTube, the Science of Risk, and Professional Amateurism

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. Continue reading Open access academics: Experiments with YouTube, the Science of Risk, and Professional Amateurism

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

Risk = OMG x WTF!

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.

US National Nanotechnology Initiative to release latest Environmental, Health and Safety research strategy, Oct 20

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. Continue reading US National Nanotechnology Initiative to release latest Environmental, Health and Safety research strategy, Oct 20

Emerging technologies and sustainability: What’s risk got to do with it?

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 my leisure.  But I did want to capture some of my initial impressions here.

New ideas for new audiences. Something I did want to achieve with the symposium was to expose people to ideas they may not have previously come across.  In this, the meeting was resounding success.  While some of the ideas being explored on innovation, sustainability, risk and communication may have been old hat to people that live and breathe this stuff, there were many others in the room who were hearing things for the first time that had a direct bearing on their work.

Innovation relating to communication, informatics, processes and systems is more relevant than “named” emerging technologies.  I had planned the first couple of sessions of the symposium to focus on technology innovation rather than risk, with the intention of ensuring the following discussions were grounded in plausibility rather than wild speculation.  I had expected these discussions to focus on the usual chestnuts – nanotechnology, synthetic biology, geoengineering, human enhancement etc. Instead, despite having experts in cutting edge emerging technologies on the panels, the discussion focused more on innovation in how we use knowledge and information – in areas like communication, informatics, processes and systems.  When pressed, panelists felt that the labels new areas of technology attract are less important than innovations that are allowing things to be done in new ways.

Risk and risk communication float to the top.  I was also intrigued to find that, try as I might, I could not keep risk and risk communication out of the conversation.  Even the panels looking at emerging areas of technology innovation naturally gravitated to the challenges of understanding and addressing emerging risks, as well as communicating information on risks and benefits effectively.

A clear synergy exists between risk, innovation and sustainability.  Although it was this synergy I wanted to explore through the symposium, I was surprised at how apparent it was that to many participants, successful technology innovation is critically dependent on taking an integrative approach to innovation, risk and sustainability.

There were also a number of personal highlights for me at the meeting, in addition to the discussion panels:

  • John Viera – Director of Sustainability Environment and Safety Engineering at the Ford Motor Company – gave an inspiring talk on the company’s approach to sustainability.
  • David Munson – the Robert J. Vlasic Dean of Engineering in the College of Engineering at the University of Michigan – beautifully articulated the need for integrative approaches to innovation and sustainability, as well as highlighting a number of innovative initiatives within the College of Engineering.
  • James Wilsdon – Director of the Royal Society Science Policy Centre – gave a wonderful talk on technology innovation, going back to controversies over lightening rods in the 1700’s and highlighting how similar many of the issues we face today are to those society was facing three hundred years ago.
  • Rodrigo Martinez and Mark Jones from the design company IDEO led delegates in a great team exercise in approaching challenges from different perspectives. I was particularly pleased with this session, as it demonstrated how design-inspired methodologies can be used to enable cross-expertise and innovative exploration of complex challenges.
  • A panel of students and young professionals provided candid and insightful feedback on the first day’s proceedings – asking the questions and making the observations that more seasoned delegates were dying to ask and make, but were too scared to!  A number of people commenting that it was the best session of the day.

With the exception of the IDEO session, all of these talks will be available on Vimeo soon – along with the rest of the discussion panels.

All in all, it seemed to be a highly successful meeting – although I still have a pile of evaluation forms that I haven’t dared look at yet.  There were things that I would do differently next time – information overload was a major issue this year, and I’m not sure that giving myself so many panels to moderate was a great idea.  But in terms of exposing people to new ideas and sparking new insights, things seened to go pretty well.

Hopefully now, some of those sparks will catch light and grow.

Further information on the symposium can be found here.

The full set of photos from the symposium can be viewed on Flickr.

Videos of keynotes and panel discussions will be available on Vimeo shortly.

What was worrying us about nanotechnology safety seven years ago?

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? Continue reading What was worrying us about nanotechnology safety seven years ago?

A nanotechnology regulation hat trick from the US federal government

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 administrative and legal modifications to the regulatory landscape should the need arise.
  • Regulatory action on nanomaterials should be based on scientific evidence of risk, and not on definitions of materials that do not necessarily reflect the evidence-based likelihood of a material causing harm.
  • There should be no prior judgement on whether nanomaterials are intrinsically benign or harmful, in the absence of supporting scientific evidence.
  • Transparency and communication are important to ensuring effective evidence-based regulation.

Overall, this is a strong set of policy principles that lays the groundwork for developing regulation that is grounded in science and not swayed by speculative whims, and yet is responsive and adaptive to emerging challenges.  Gratifyingly, the memorandum begins to touch on some of the concerns I have expressed previously about approaches to nanomaterial regulation that seem not to be evidence-based.  There is a reasonable chance that they will help move away from the dogma that engineered nanomaterials should be regulated separately because they are new, to a more nuanced and evidence-based approach to ensuring the safe use of increasingly sophisticated materials.  Where it perhaps lacks is in recognizing the importance of other factors in addition to science in crafting effective regulation, and in handling uncertainty in decision making.  But it is undoubtedly a move in the right direction.  The principles are listed at the end of this post.

EPA Draft Pesticides and Nanomaterials Policies

The second piece in this triumvirate is a prepublication version of a document from EPA that should appear in the Federal Register next week, titled “Pesticides; Policies Concerning Products Containing nanoscale Materials; Opportunities for Public Comment.”

As the title makes very clear, this is a statement from the EPA that is setting out draft policies for dealing with nanomaterials in pesticide products – materials such as nanoscale silver particles – and asking for public comment.  This is the latest iteration in a process that has been going on for some time to address the use of nanoscale silver as an antimicrobial agent, together with other antimicrobial, fungicidal and pesticide uses of nanomaterials.

The crux of the proposed policy is a requirement for manufacturers to let EPA know when a pesticide product contains an engineered nanomaterial – irrespective of whether it is an active or passive ingredient in the product. EPA acknowledges that the presence of a nanoscale material in a product does not necessarily indicate the possibility that it will exhibit new or unusual risks – but the agency intends to use this information as a trigger for a more thorough evaluation of products that might raise concerns.

This is a long and somewhat convoluted document, that spends some time outlining what the agency considers is an engineered nanomaterial, and reviewing nanomaterial hazard data.

Reading the document, EPA still seems somewhat tangled up with definitions of engineered nanomaterials. After outlining conventional attributes associated with engineered nanomaterials, including structures between ~1 – 100 nm and unique or novel properties, the document states

“These elements do not readily work in a regulatory context because of the high degree of subjectivity involved with interpreting such phrases as “unique or novel properties” or “manufactured or engineered to take advantage of these properties” Moreover the contribution of these subjective elements to risk has not been established.”

This aligns with where my own thinking has been moving in recent years.  Yet following this statement, the document reverts back to considering nanoparticles between 1 – 100 nm as the archetypal nanomaterial, and intimates “novel” properties such as “larger surface area per unit volume and/or quantum effects” as raising new risk concerns.

I also found the background information on potential hazards somewhat lopsided, as a litany of studies were cited that indicate a number of potential hazards associated with a range of materials, but without clear information on how this might translate to plausible and quantifiable risk.

At the end of the day, I found this to be a mixed bag of a document – some useful information and some evidence of new thinking, but all surrounded by a rather unfocused assessment.   However, it is a draft that has been put out for public comment, which means that there is an opportunity here to tighten it up considerably in the final version.

I must also add that I was impressed by the final section on Questions for Comment – here you will find a list of highly relevant questions that are the clearest indication in the document that EPA understands many of the critical issues here, and is genuinely looking for expert input to address them.

Interestingly though, the EPA document does not reference the White House memorandum on Policy Principles published at the same time – unlike my third and final document in this set from FDA.

FDA Draft Guidance for Industry on Products and Nanotechnology

The FDA Guidance for Industry: Considering Whether an FDA-Regulated Product Involves the Application of Nanotechnology is a very different kettle of fish to the EPA document.  It is overtly responsive to the White House memo; it demonstrates a deep understanding of the issues surrounding nanotechnology and regulation; and it is mercifully concise.

To be fair, the scope of the draft guidance is limited to helping manufacturers understand how the agency is approaching nanotechnology-enabled products under their purview.  But this is something it does well.

One of the more significant aspects of the guidance is the discussion on regulatory definitions of nanomaterials.  Following a line of reasoning established some years ago, the agency focuses on material properties rather than rigid definitions:

“FDA has not to date established regulatory definitions of “nanotechnology,” “nanoscale” or related terms… Based on FDA’s current scientific and technical understanding of nanomaterials and their characteristics, FDA believes that evaluations of safety, effectiveness or public health impact of such products should consider the unique properties and behaviors that nanomaterials may exhibit”

Of course, this still begs the question “what is a nanomaterial in FDA’s eyes?”  The agency answer by stating:

At this time, when considering whether an FDA-regulated product contains nanomaterials or otherwise involves the application of nanotechnology, FDA will ask:

  1. Whether an engineered material or end product has at least one dimension in the nanoscale range (approximately 1 nm to 100 nm); or
  2. Whether an engineered material or end product exhibits properties or phenomena, including physical or chemical properties or biological effects, that are attributable to its dimension(s), even if these dimensions fall outside the nanoscale range, up to one micrometer.

The guidance goes on to state

“These considerations apply not only to new products, but also may apply when manufacturing changes alter the dimensions, properties, or effects of an FDA-regulated product or any of its components. Additionally, they are subject to change in the future as new information becomes available, and to refinement in future product-specific guidance documents.”

FDA is clearly aiming for responsive and adaptive regulation here.

Reading the first of the two criteria above and the associated justification in the guidance, I can’t help feeling that FDA is still trying to justify responding to sub-100 nm scale materials based on assumptions of risk rather than evidence.  But the second criteria is important, because it opens the door to considering physical form and structure as a factor in determining potential risk irrespective of scale – as long as a material can come into intimate biological contact with a person.  This is a significant move, as it supports evidence-based decision-making on materials and products under FDA’s jurisdiction, irrespective of what technological label is applied to them.

That said, there remains some confusion as to how this criteria will be applied, and the reasoning behind it. Clearly, there is an aim here to capture supra-100 nm materials that nevertheless exhibit biological behavior associated with a nanometer-scale structure – including agglomerates, coated materials and hierarchical structures.  Yet the criteria is also said to have been selected to “exclude macro-scaled materials that may have properties attributable to their dimension(s) but are not likely relevant to nanotechnology”.  This statement seems to hark back to an assumption that “nanotechnology” is something that needs to be regulated, rather than focusing on materials and products that run the risk of slipping through the regulatory net – no matter what they are called.

But like the EPA document, the FDA guidance is still in draft form, and open to public comment.  And so is still very much a work in progress.

Overall, all three of these documents seem to be heading in the right direction if evidence-based, responsive and responsible regulations are the end goal.  There is still a way to go for both FDA and EPA before regulatory policy escapes being mesmerized by “nanotechnology”. But with strong science-driven policy principles emerging from the White House, the odds of this occurring are looking decidedly more healthy.


While House Policy Principles for the U.S. decision-Making Concerning Regulation and Oversight of Applications of nanotechnology and Nanomaterials:

In addressing issues raised by nanomaterials, agencies will adhere to the Principles for Regulation and Oversight of Emerging Technologies. Specifically, to the extent permitted by law, Federal agencies will:

  • To ensure scientific integrity, base their decisions on the best available scientific evidence, separating purely scientific judgments from judgments of policy to the extent feasible;
  • Seek and develop adequate information with respect to the potential effects of nanomaterials on human health and the environment and take into account new knowledge when it becomes available;
  • To the extent feasible and subject to valid constraints (involving, for example, national security and confidential business information), develop relevant information in an open and transparent manner, with ample opportunities for stakeholder involvement and public participation;
  • Actively communicate information to the public regarding the potential benefits and risks associated with specific uses ofnanomate rials;
  • Base their decisions on an awareness of the potential benefits and the potential costs of such regulation and oversight, including recognition of the role of limited information and risk in decision making;
  • To the extent practicable, provide sufficient flexibility in their oversight and regulation to accommodate new evidence and learning on nanomaterials;
  • Consistent with current statutes and regulations, strive to reach an appropriate level of consistency in risk assessment and risk management across the Federal Government, using standard oversight approaches to assess risks and benefits and manage risks, considering safety, health and environmental impacts, and exposure mitigation;
  • Mandate risk management actions appropriate to, and commensurate with, the degree of risk identified in an assessment.
  • Seek to coordinate with one another, with state authorities, and with stakeholders to address the breadth of issues, including health and safety, economic, environmental, and ethical issues (where applicable) associated with nanomaterials; and
  • Encourage coordinated and collaborative research across the international community and clearly communicate the regulatory approaches and understanding of the United States to other nations.

International Standards Organization guidelines for evaluating nanomaterial risks – are they any good?

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 opposed to 104.  But from a comparative reading, surprisingly little has been changed from the 2007 document.

The result is a clear, tightly focused and highly applicable and adaptable guide for developing strategies for evaluating and handling nanomaterials safely.  It doesn’t come cheap unfortunately – it’ll cost you 158 Swiss Francs for a copy (tempting me to write facetiously about the cost of nano-safety these days) – but for anyone having to make pragmatic decisions on working as safely as possible with engineered nanomaterials, it’s CHF 158 well spent.

The Technical Report is built around a framework of six steps:

Describe materials and applications (establishing a clear sense of the materials being evaluated and their intended uses, including collecting information on analogous materials that might be useful).

Material profiles (profiling the material’s physical and chemical properties, its inherent environmental and health hazards, and its human and environmental exposure potential, across its complete life cycle).

Evaluate risks (estimating the nature and magnitude of risks, based on the profiles established in the previous step).

Assess risk management options (Developing a plan for managing the risks identified in the previous step).

Decide, document and act (Implement a course of action, based on the evaluation of risk and risk management options, that is relevant to each stage of the material or product’s development.  This might include deciding to halt development of a product if the potential risks are deemed to outweigh the benefits, or the costs of reducing the risks to an acceptable level are prohibitive).

Review and adapt (regularly ensure that risk management systems established are working, and revise them as necessary in the light of new information).

Inherent to this framework is the need to make situation-specific decisions that are guided by the Technical Report but not necessarily prescribed by it, and the need to constantly review and revise procedures and decisions.  This built-in flexibility and adaptability makes ISO/TR 31321 a powerful tool for developing tailored nanomaterial management strategies that are responsive to new information as it becomes available.  It also presents an integrative approach to using materials safely, that deals with the need to make decisions under considerable uncertainty by blurring the line between risk assessment and risk management.

The report contains little in the way of background information, assuming that readers already know something about the challenges presented by using engineered nanomaterials safely.  Instead, it provides clear and concise advice on what to consider and options on how to proceed at each stage of the framework.  This includes providing lists of questions that help identify key pieces of useful information in evaluating and making decisions on potential risks, and the adoption of a no-nonsense writing style – the authors tell the reader what they need to know while avoiding inconsequential waffle.

All in all, this is an admirable document, removing much of the mystique of working safely with engineered nanomaterials, and providing a pragmatic and practical framework which can be applied everywhere from a research lab to a full scale production facility.  It’s a shame that it isn’t free, as it also provides a common sense perspective on nanomaterial safety that I think would be valuable to anyone with an interest in the field – not just environment, health and safety professionals.  But as a fall back there is still the original Environmental Defense Fund/DuPont framework, which after four years has lost surprisingly little of its edge.

*Update 5/27/2011 As some of you realized, there is no such organization as the “International Standards Organization” – it’s the International Organization for Standardization, or ISO (not an acronym).  A silly error on my part brought on by writing on the plane and trying to get the blog out before my laptop battery died – and one I shouldn’t have made as I’ve done my time with ISO in the past! But I decided to keep the error in, as ironically, to many readers, “ISO” or “International Organization for Standardization” won’t mean as much to them as “International Standards Organization”.

Australian Education Union advises against using nanoparticle-based sunscreens in schools

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 sun-related skin damage in children (more on this below)? (Update 5/25/11 – see notes below)

In part, the answer lies in the uncertainty inherent in proving anything safe.  It’s not too difficult to show that something is unlikely to be harmful, or is probably safe.  But proving something is absolutely safe under all conditions of use is simply not possible – there is always some room for doubt.  This is why decisions on health risks are typically based on plausible risk and weight of evidence – evaluating the most reasonable and defensible interpretation of the data, and not basing decisions on speculation and fantasy.

With the use of nanoparticles in sunscreens, the weight of evidence is that they are safe and effective – and may be safer and more effective than a number of non-nanoparticle alternatives as they work by coating the skin rather than being absorbed into it.  That said, it’s always prudent to check whether anything has been missed with a relatively new technology like this, and so research is ongoing just to make doubly sure that the nanoparticles currently being used stay on top of the skin, and that manufacturers are using the safest possible types of nanoparticles.

But there is another reason I suspect why the ASU have released this advice, and that is due to a study using human volunteers that was published last year.

In this study by Brian Gulson and colleagues, sunscreens were formulated with zinc oxide particles made from a stable isotope of zinc that doesn’t occur in great abundance naturally: Zn-68. Using Zn-68 as a tracer, they were able to tell whether zinc from the applied sunscreen entered the bodies of the volunteers, and ended up in their blood and urine.

The detected presence of Zn-68 in the urine and blood of volunteers was used by Friends of the Earth Australia to renew their recommendations against using nanoparticle-containing sunscreens until more is known about their safety in.  And given the ASU’s reliance on the Friends of the Earth document, it seems to have influenced their decision to recommend not using nanoparticle-containing sunscreens.

But what does the Gulson study actually conclude?  In a nutshell, the researchers showed that:

  • Small amounts of zinc from sunscreens containing any form of zinc oxide particles tested found their way into the blood and urine of volunteers.
  • The amounts of zinc entering the body over the five day study were miniscule – around one thousandth of the concentration of zinc already in the volunteers’ bloodstream, and around one thousandth of the amount of zinc recommended in a person’s daily diet.
  • Women in the test generally showed higher uptakes of zinc than men.
  • Zinc levels in blood associated with the sunscreen peaked some days after applications ended, suggesting the zinc or zinc oxide was stored somewhere in or on the body and slowly released.
  • For men, zinc uptake from sunscreens was independent of particle size.  For women, zinc uptake was greater from the sunscreens containing smaller particles.

So did the particles go through the skin?  The study only showed that the zinc passed through the skin, and did not provide any evidence of particle penetration.  Two possible explanations for this are that the particles penetrated and entered the bloodstream, or that the applied particles dissolved, and that it was dissolved zinc that was penetrating into the body.

Out of the two possibilities, there is minimal evidence for particle penetration being a plausible mechanism. On the other hand, zinc oxide is sparingly soluble, and under the acid-conditions of the outer layers of the skin the particles would have readily released zinc ions.  The weight of evidence to date therefore strongly supports dissolution of the particles and subsequent dermal penetration of dissolved zinc.  This is supported by the similarity in uptake seen in men of zinc for two different sizes of zinc oxide particles.

In other words, this study provides neither compelling evidence that nanoparticles in sunscreens can pass through the skin, or that they can lead to worrying internal exposure to harmful materials.  It did indicate on the other hand that any sunscreen containing zinc oxide will lead to zinc entering the body via the skin – including sunscreens that rely on large zinc oxide particles.

And this is where it is worth returning to the Friends of the Earth recommendations.

The Friends of the Earth Safe Sunscreen Guide recommends:

Use a nano-free zinc-based SPF 30+ broad spectrum sunscreen in conjunction with protective clothing, a broad-brimmed hat, sunglasses and shade to stay sun safe.

It goes on to list sunscreens that are “nano and chemical free”, “may use nano” and “use nano” (based on information from manufacturers and assumptions from Friends of the Earth).

Passing over the fact that Friends of the Earth are advocating the use of sunscreens that demonstrate the same behavior – zinc penetration through the skin into the body – as the sunscreens they recommend people don’t use, it’s hard to understand how this document provides an authoritative and evidence-based guide for the use of sunscreens on school children – as suggested by AEU.

For a start, this is a document that is specifically concerned with nanoparticle-containing sunscreens, and is not aimed at providing advice on selecting sunscreens as a whole based on their safety and efficacy.  It is advocating a specific course of action, and is not a tool for taking informed action. And in this respect alone it is a questionable document to be distributing to school workers. But it gets worse.

The sunscreens listed in the document are listed solely with respect to their nanoparticle content.  There is no – let me repeat that no – information on how effective these sunscreens are at protecting against UVA and UVB, and what the specific safety issues associated with their use are (update 5/25/11 – see notes below).  What is more, the top tier products – those that appear to be most strongly endendorsed by Friends of the Earth – also claim to be “free of UV-absorbing chemicals”.  In other words, this is a document that appears to be endorsing the use of products that do not necessarily protect against ultraviolet light. (Update 5/25/11 – see notes below).

To be fair to Friends of the Earth – and this is not a critique of their document so much as a questioning of its use as authoritative guidance – they do recommend the use of sunscreens providing substantial UV protection that are (presumably) based on large zinc oxide particles.  But if school workers were to base their choice of what to slather onto kids on the list of products, rather than the one sentence top level recommendation, they could well be applying sunscreens that do not protect against skin damage.

And this is my greatest concern here – by advocating the use of the Friends of the Earth document, AEU could actually be endangering the health of children in the care of their members. (Update 5/25/11 – see notes below)

Of course, there are important issues to grapple with here – including how appropriate sunscreens should be selected for use on children, irrespective of the technology being used.  But surely these selections should be based on the best possible evidence that is focused on what is most appropriate for the children, and not on an action campaign by an advocacy group, no matter how well intentioned.

Update, 5/25/11:  As clarified by Georgia Miller of Friends of the Earth Australia in the comments below, the sunscreens listed in the top tier of the Friends of the Earth document are all – as far as I can tell – marketed as offering SPF 30 + protection.  This is something that I do not think is explicitly clear in the document, and the heading of “nano and chemical-free”, clarified with “products also free of UV-absorbing chemicals” raises an obvious question to the naive reader over whether these products do indeed offer significant protection.  I also continue to have serious reservations over the use of a document designed to steer people away from nanoparticle-containing sunscreens as authoritative advice on sunscreen protection for children, given it’s lack of independent testing and evaluation of all significant factors that might affect choice in a given situation.  Nevertheless, given the protection ratings of the recommended sunscreens, I have on reflection retracted the statements made in regard to the protection offered above.

A plug for the 2011 Risk Science Symposium: Risk, Uncertainty and Sutainable Innovation

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


Why we don’t need a regulatory definition for nanomaterials

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.

A plug for Risk Science Unplugged. Next up – Gulf Oil

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 nanotechnology.  The next – coming up on April 14 (10 – 11 am Eastern Time) is on the human health impacts of the Gulf Oil spill – and we have a stellar lineup, including:

  • The deputy Director for Program from NIOSH,
  • a PI on the recently launched NIEHS GuLF STUDY,
  • an MD
  • and an environmental lawyer.

So please check out the series, and join us if you can on the 14th – either in person, or via the webcast.  And please spread the word around – come September we will be kicking off a new series of Unplugged events.

And just to make things as easy as possible for you, there are the key links:


Technology innovation and human health risk – rethinking the intersection

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 often) as a soap box for their own ideas, think again. We’ll be working hard to ensure that this doesn’t happen. Rather, the panels will be similar to those in the Risk Science Center Unplugged series of discussions – experts from different perspectives engaged in candid, animated yet carefully directed conversation.

And what about the the content?

Day one will lay the groundwork of why technology innovation is important, explore critical areas of technology innovation that are closely intertwined with questions over human health impacts, and begin to unpack why we need to think differently about risk and how we handle it if these technologies are to succeed.

Day two goes on to considering more closely the challenges of taking an integrative approach to addressing potential human health risks associated with technology innovation, and how new thinking on risk can increase the long-term success of technology innovation.

And in between the two days, we have what is shaping up to be a rather unique and definitely no-to-be-missed dinner event. But more on that another time.

Involved in the symposium will be leading experts from industry, government, academia, civil society, the media and other groups – all challenging and inspiring each other and the symposium participants to take a new look at how thinking differently about risk can support sustainable technology innovation.

Over the next few weeks, I’ll be posting a series of blogs on the symposium. But in the meantime, you can check out the details on the symposium website, and follow progress on the Risk Science Center Facebook page.

And remember, early registration for the symposium opens April 4 – but be forewarned, space is limited.

Cross-posted from the Risk Science Blog

Nanotechnology safety – a new video blog from the ASME Nanotechnology Institute

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= image= 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!

Davos 2011 – Committed to changing the state of the world

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 a sense of who someone really is, not who the PR machinery tries to convince you they are (again, because most people end up having to leave the PR machinery at the door). And no-where do I find this more revealing than in talking with business leaders.

It may be because the World Economic Forum actively develops partnerships with organizations that share its commitment to improving the state of the world, but I’m encouraged by the number of high profile CEO’s and business leaders I speak with here who are motivated by far more than bottom-line dollars. A cynic might claim that it’s all part of the PR machinery, which managed to sneak past the barriers. But I don’t think it is. There’s no need for these people to spend a week of their busy schedule talking about how to make the word a better place – and what excites and inspires them – unless they really mean it.

Davos provides a rare glimpse of the idealists still alive and beating in these world-wise corporate leaders. Of course, talk is a lot easier (and cheaper) than action, and these people have to deal with colleagues, shareholders, stakeholders and an economic landscape that doesn’t necessarily allow their true values and passions to flourish . But I suspect that one of the “positive dangers” of Davos is that, having revealed their inner-self to others who have the capacity to fan the flames, many business leaders emerge just that little more motivated to look beyond the bottom line, and toward changing the world for the better.

Global risks – global opportunities

This year, global risks were a central theme of the Davos meeting. The World Economic Forum formally launched the new Risk Response Network, and risk permeated many of the sessions. The aim is to establish resources and mechanisms to respond to emerging global risks more effectively than in the past – whether they are associated with natural disasters, social collapse, financial melt-down or technological failure.

While most of the discussions revolved around avoiding risk or managing the consequences, there were a few that touched on actively mitigating risk – and supporting global economic and social growth through new approaches to risk. These included developing the means to actively reduce risks through technological, policy and social mechanisms. But they also included the need to increase resilience within global institutions, infrastructure and communities – so that when things go wrong, the system can respond and adapt quickly and effectively.

This need for resilience was highlighted in a final session on global risk I was participating in, as we considered what lessons can be learned from events in Tunisia and Egypt on our dependence on and the fragility of the internet.

Science and technology – more than entertainment

Science and technology were more prominent than usual at this year’s meeting. There were packed-out sessions on the current state of science, and on contemporary issues such as the nature of the universe and personalized medicine. Yet there was still a sense that this was entertainment for delegates – a light distraction from the serious business of putting the world right, and something for accompanying partners to attend.

Nevertheless, there were indications that this is changing. The World Economic Forum has established a science advisory council that will be looking at how science can be better-integrated into the program in future years. A number of conversations I had with scientists and technologists – and there were a surprising number of them at the meeting – revolved around their desire to see science and technology rise up the agenda. And business leaders like Ellen Kullman – CEO of DuPont – were vocal about the need to pay more attention to technology innovation in building a better world.

As this is one of the aims of the Global Agenda Council I chair, it was good to see the beginnings of a groundswell toward shifting from science and technology as the Davos entertainment, to making them a significant part of broader discussions on building a sustainable future.

Social media – WEF goes grass-roots?

The use of social media was huge at this year’s meeting.

I’m not sure whether the impact is there yet – that will come – but content generation was significantly higher than previous years. Over 400 delegates were tweeting from the meeting, providing real-time insight into proceedings. Delegates were also encouraged to record short YouTube videos responding to questions posed by members of the public – and many did (including a number of prominent participants). Many delegates contributed guest blogs to the WEF blog, providing further insight into the meeting. And FaceBook marketing director Randi Zuckerberg (sister of Mark) conducted livestream webcast interviews with everyone from Tony Blair to Bill Gates to Bono.

Having seen social media in action at this year’s meeting, I’m convinced that this is the beginning of a powerful outreach and engagement by WEF that breaks the established boundaries of the organization – watch this space!

Real lives – strong inspiration

There are numerous misconceptions about Davos – many of them characterizing it as a meeting where gray men in gray suits with gray imaginations get together to schmooze with other, equally gray men, usually with no appreciable outcome. But as anyone who has been a part of the meeting can attest to, this is about as far from the truth as you can get.

At the heart of Davos is a common desire to change the world for the better. Invited participants are carefully selected according to what they do – not just who they are (even the celebrities are here because of the initiatives they are involved in, rather than the star status attached to them. And paying participants are carefully filtered and cultured to encourage a meeting where common values permeate the conversations.

This is perhaps best summed up in this year’s closing session, where Klaus Schwab, the Executive Chairman of WEF, spoke with Christine Lagarde, the French Minister of Economy, Nick Vujicic, President of Life without Limbs, and two of the Davos Global ChangeMakers – Raquel Silva and Dan Cullum.

The topic was “Inspired for a lifetime”. Unusually for a meeting characterized as full of “gray men”, there was hardly a dry eye in the house. (you wouldn’t have known at the time, but I’ve yet to speak to someone who was there who didn’t admit to tearing up at times). But I’m convinced that this wasn’t because of an overtly emotional program – it was simply because the delegates recognized in the panelists a common desire to act to make the world a better place.

Without the context of the preceding four days, the session might have come across as overly sentimental. But with the weight of Davos behind it, it was grounded in a reality that transcended mere sentimentality.

But don’t just take my word for it – the closing session of Davos 2011 can be viewed below.

Davos 2011: Global Risks permeate conversations this year, but where’s the science?

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 light relief from the serious business of fixing the world’s problems.  Even the IdeasLab sessions, which get the closest to engaging people on emerging issues, struggle to make science and technology part of a larger conversation.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m the first to admit that there’s a lot to get excited about in contemporary science and technology.  But if robust solutions are to be found to global risks, science and technology must be integrated into mainstream discussions – not treated as an entertaining but often incomprehensible sideshow.

And that means elevating science to a seat at the table as new solutions to emerging risks are explored.

I realize that this is a daunting task. I’ll be the first to admit that scientists can be an intimidating bunch – an image they don’t necessarily try too hard to dispel.  But until scientists, engineers and technologists are seen as partners in the process of risk mitigation, not just  consultants or contractors, building resilient solutions to global challenges is going to be one tough call.

Obama’s 21st century regulatory system will demand more innovative thinking on risk

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. Continue reading Obama’s 21st century regulatory system will demand more innovative thinking on risk