Category: Technology Innovation

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

Continue Reading →

A few weeks ago I was asked to give a “TED style talk” on nanotechnology for the University of Michigan Environmental Health Sciences department 125th anniversary.  What they got was a short talk on “thinking small”: The other talks in the series are also worth checking out – covering topics as diverse as epigenetics, cancer, exposure science, obesity, endocrine disruptors, global health and mercury in the environment.  Watch them here: http://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLF87730C0E0C26FEA

Continue Reading →

TEM images of carbon particles from foods containing caramelized sugar. Click to see larger image. Source: Palashudding et al. Nanotechnology leads to novel materials, new exposures and potentially unique health and environmental risks – or so the argument goes.  But an increasing body of research is showing that relatively uniformly sized nanometer scale particles are part and parcel of the environment we live in.  For instance a number of simple organisms such as bacteria and diatoms have the capability to produce nanoparticles, either as part of their natural behavior or under specific conditions.  Nanoscale minerals, it seems, play an important role in shaping the world we live in.  Metals like silver wantonly shed silver nanoparticles into our food and water according to research published last year.  And now a group of researchers have shown that food containing caramelized sugar contains uniformly sized amorphous carbon particles. This latest paper was published in the journal Science Progress a few weeks ago, and analyzes the carbon nanoparticle content of such everyday foods as bread, caramelized sugar, corn flakes and biscuits.  The authors found that products containing caramelized sugar – including baked goods such as bread – contained spherical carbon nanoparticles in the range 4 – 30 nm (with size being associated with the temperature of caramelization).  This isn’t that surprising as nanoparticle formation is closely associated with hot processes.

Continue Reading →

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 →

Robin Erb has a good piece on cosmetics and safe ingredients in the Detroit Free Press this week – it tackles the very limited regulation over what goes into cosmetics, but balances this with a useful perspective on consumer choice and how this in turn can drive business decisions on what is used and how.  I mention it because the issue of nanoparticles in sunscreens comes up briefly, and I am quoted on the matter. Regular readers of this blog will know that I have been fairly vocal about the safety of nanoparticles in sunscreens.  I still contend that the weight of published evidence suggests that titanium dioxide and zinc oxide nanoparticles in sunscreens do not present a significant when the relevant products are developed and used responsibly – and that the benefits of using this technology over others may in fact outweigh any residual risk.  But I’m also aware that this isn’t a closed issue – there are niggling questions on the use of photoactive particles, on nanoparticle sunscreen applications on delicate or compromised skin, and on dermal penetration of chemicals within the nanoparticles, that all need further research.  So I was surprised to read that my mind is apparently made up here! After talking with Robin about cosmetics, sunscreen and nanoparticles, she sent me draft of my comments to check for factual accuracy before the piece went to press.  The original text read: “…Agreed Andrew Maynard, director of the Risk Science Center at the University of Michigan School of Public Health: “The industry seems reasonably well self-regulating.” In his research, Maynard asked whether nanomaterials in sunscreen — the nearly molecular-sized particles that ease the lotion into our skin pores – are dangerous. His conclusion: They’re not. “It was really surprising, to be honest,” he said.” This was uncommonly

Continue Reading →

Not in the technical sense I’m afraid, but thought it would be fun to post this image of nano-branded M&Ms.  They were used as part of a recent NanoDays session with local school kids exploring the broader implications of nanotechnology. The only substantive link they have with real nano-enabled products as far as I can tell is the cost – they’re not cheap!

Continue Reading →

It’s been hard to avoid the buzz surrounding nano quadrotors this week, following the posting of Vijay Kumar’s jaw-dropping TED talk – and the associated viral video of the semi-autonomous machines playing the James Bond theme. The quadrotors are impressive – incredibly impressive.  But I’m sure I am not the only person watching these videos who felt a shiver of apprehension about where the technology might lead. When people talk about emerging technologies – especially when the focus is on potential risks and unintended consequences – it doesn’t take long for the usual suspects to emerge: with nanotechnology, synthetic biology and geoengineering usually appearing toward the top of the list.  But I wonder whether focusing on big, well-publicized technology trends sometimes masks some of the less discussed but more important technology innovations that are already impacting on people’s lives. Tim Harper and I underscored this concern in a report from the World Economic Forum last year where we suggested we should be focusing just as much on the innovations that build on synergistic connections between technology platforms (see below), because this is where many of the more significant disruptive and game-changing technologies will emerge. It’s partly because of this that I have been so intrigued by the nano quadrotor work coming out of the GRASP lab at the University of Pennsylvania. Technology innovation – building on technology platforms. World Economic Forum: Building a Sustainable Future The nano quadrotors that Vijay Kumar’s team are developing are a prime example of synergistic innovation leading to a game-changing technology.  The quadrotors combine components from multiple technology platforms – sensors, materials, information processing and others – and as a result they present opportunities and risks that depend on the synergism between these platforms.  In other words, the potential disruption comes not from the platforms,

Continue Reading →

A few weeks ago I spent some time chatting with Howard Lovy for an article for the Nanobusiness Commercialization Association.  That interview was posted by Vincent Caprio on his blog a few days ago, and raised a few eyebrows – was I showing signs of becoming a nano-risk skeptic? I hope not, as as I still feel emerging evidence and trends indicate major perceived and real risk-related barriers lie in the path of developing nanoscale science and engineering successfully, if we aren’t smart.  But I have always adhered to the idea that successful and responsible technology development depends on taking an evidence-based approach – even if that evidence is sometimes uncomfortable.  And so these days I sometimes worry that too much is made of artificial constructs surrounding “nanotechnology”, and not enough is made of the underlying science. Reading through Howard’s piece, I felt it was a pretty accurate reflection of our conversation.  There are a couple of places where it possibly indicates less concern on my part than is warranted.  Toward the end of the piece for instance I am quoted as saying “there is no need [for the nanobusiness community] to respond to individual challenges such as this lawsuit against the FDA”, referring to a recent lawsuit by consumer advocates against the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which claims the FDA is failing to regulate nanomaterials in products. I’m pretty sure I did say something along these lines.  But the context was that lawsuits like these are a relatively widely used mechanism for holding federal agencies to account and prodding them into action.  And while they are often important, the nanobusiness community need to understand this context and be aware of the bigger picture when it comes to responsible and sustainable development. Overall though, the piece captures my increasing

Continue Reading →

This has just landed in my email in box from Craig Cormick at the Department of Industry, Innovation, Science, Research and Tertiary Education in Australia, and I thought I would pass it on given the string of posts on nanoparticles in sunscreens on 2020 Science over the past few years: At Australia’s International Conference on Nanoscience and Nanotechnology (ICONN 2012) earlier this month, the results of a public perception study were released that indicate some Australian consumers would rather risk skin cancer by not using sunscreen than use a product containing nanoparticles.  This despite increasing evidence that nanoparticles in sunscreens do not present a significant risk to health. The study was complimented by tests conducted by Australia’s National Measurement Institute that suggest some sunscreens labeled as “nano free” contain nanostructured material. According to the media release on the public perceptions study, “An online poll of 1,000 people, conducted in January this year, shows that one in three Australians had heard or read stories about the risks of using sunscreens with nanoparticles in them,” Dr Cormick said. “Thirteen percent of this group were concerned or confused enough that they would be less likely to use any sunscreen, whether or not it contained nanoparticles, putting them selves at increased risk of developing potentially deadly skin cancers. “The study also found that while one in five respondents stated they would go out of their way to avoid using sunscreens with nanoparticles in them, over three in five would need to know more information before deciding.” A news release sent out a couple of weeks ago to coincide with ICONN 2012 also noted Scientists from Australia’s National Measurement Institute and overseas collaborators reported on a technique using the scattering of synchrotron light to determine the sizes of particles in sunscreens. They found that some

Continue Reading →

Here’s an introduction to the “wonders and worries of nanotechnology” that I think is rather brilliant: It’s part of a series being produced by the Science Museum of Minnesota for the Nanoscale Informal Science Education network (NISE Net). The series is designed to stimulate discussions addressing the societal and ethical implication of nanotechnology – but in an accessible and non-threatening way. Keep your eyes peeled for further episodes with Mindy and Denny – having read through some of the draft scripts, I think you will enjoy them!

Continue Reading →

For the past few months, the World Economic Forum Global Agenda Council on Emerging Technologies has been working on identifying some of the most significant trends in technology innovation.  Published yesterday by WEF, these represent ten areas that we as a council felt are likely to shake things up over the next few years in terms of their economic and social impact. The plan is to update this assessment on an annual basis Here’s the list: Informatics for adding value to information The quantity of information now available to individuals and organizations is unprecedented in human history, and the rate of information generation continues to grow exponentially. Yet, the sheer volume of information is in danger of creating more noise than value, and as a result limiting its effective use. Innovations in how information is organized, mined and processed hold the key to filtering out the noise and using the growing wealth of global information to address emerging challenges. Synthetic biology and metabolic engineering The natural world is a testament to the vast potential inherent in the genetic code at the core of all living organisms. Rapid advances in synthetic biology and metabolic engineering are allowing biologists and engineers to tap into this potential in unprecedented ways, enabling the development of new biological processes and organisms that are designed to serve specific purposes – whether converting biomass to chemicals, fuels and materials, producing new therapeutic drugs or protecting the body against harm. Green Revolution 2.0 – technologies for increased food and biomass Artificial fertilizers are one of the main achievements of modern chemistry, enabling unprecedented increases in crop production yield. Yet, the growing global demand for healthy and nutritious food is threatening to outstrip energy, water and land resources. By integrating advances across the biological and physical sciences, the new

Continue Reading →

Credit: James King Last semester, speculative designer James King worked with myself and a small group of science and public health students at the University of Michigan to explore how a fusion of science and creative art can lead to new insights and modes of communication.  The exercise was part of the A World of Surprises project – a project James is working on as the Witt Artist in residence at the UM School of Art and Design. Part of the aim was to take these science-grounded students out of their comfort zone, expose them to some radical new ideas and perspectives, and see what happens. The results were impressive!  Once the students realized that they weren’t bound by the rigid limitations of their science education, they became enthused over using creative techniques to tell science-grounded stories that connected with people on a far deeper level than just the facts would allow. Today the group presented the fruits of their final assignment: to produce a piece of creative work that captures the tension – in narrative form – between imagined catastrophic risks and experienced mundane risks. As a group, we were interested in the tension between the catastrophic consequences often imagined to arise from human endeavors, and the mundane reality that often develops. I’ll try to showcase all of the projects over the next few weeks.  They were all, in their own way, quite brilliant.  Coming up in future posts there will be: The Tale of Rhino Banana (a brilliant story of a technological breakthrough that runs up against public resistance); Salutary lessons from the struggle between evil and the divine in the middle ages; A visual juxtaposition of comparative risks related to Fukushima; and A new-future story of technological sophistication and mundane consequences. (I’ll add the links as they

Continue Reading →

The US National Academy of Science today published its long-awaited Research Strategy for Environmental, Health, and Safety Aspects of Engineered Nanomaterials. I won’t comment extensively on the report as I was a member of the committee that wrote it.  But I did want to highlight a number of aspects of it that I think are particularly noteworthy: Great progress so far, but it’s time to change gears. Something we grappled with as a committee was what the value of yet another research strategy was going to be.  After all, it wasn’t so long ago that the US federal government published a well received strategy of its own.  A key driver behind our strategy was a sense that the past decade has been one of defining the challenges we face as the field of nanotechnology develops, while the next decade will require more focus as an ever greater number of nanotechnology-enabled products hit the market.  In other words, from a research perspective it’s time to change gears, building on past work but focusing on rapidly emerging challenges. Combining life cycle and value chain in a single framework for approaching nanomaterial risk research.  As a committee, we spent considerable time developing a conceptual framework for approaching research addressing the health and environmental impacts of engineered nanomaterials.  What we ended up using was a combination of value chain – ranging from raw materials to intermediate products to final products – and material/product life cycle at each stage of the value chain.  This effectively allows risk hot spots to be identified at each point of a material and product’s development, use and disposal cycle. Principles, not definitions.  Rather than rely on a single definition of engineered nanomaterial to guide risk-related research, we incorporated a set of principles into our conceptual framework to help identify

Continue Reading →

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

Continue Reading →

Note to self: When being swept up in the inevitable innovation frenzies* that 2012 will bring, don’t forget to: Be aware of where change is needed, and where it is not; Focus on inventiveness that will foster new solutions to pressing challenges; Develop the foresight to explore and respond to the consequences of actions arising from new ideas; Have the humility to ask others for help in areas where expertise runs thin; and Not discount simple solutions to seemingly complex problems. Oh, and go easy on the chocolate and booze. Hope you all have a happy, fulfilled and productively innovative new year! Andrew __________________________________________________ *As well as working on and writing about technology innovation as usual, I’m expecting 2012 to be a big year for innovation in the “day job”, including exploring some new approaches to teaching and knowledge translation. 

Continue Reading →

Here’s an interesting idea – build a free iPad app that kicks off a global conversation about the future of the human species. The Human Project is the brain child of Erika Ilves & Anna Stillwell.  At its core is a yet-to-be-built iPad app that captures the essence of humanity past and future – who we are, where we are going, and how we are going to get there.  As Erika and Anna explain: There are so many challenges that confront the species as a whole. The ones that get a lot of press (like climate change, food & water shortages, poverty, war, overpopulation and economic crises). The ones that don’t (like comets and asteroids, extreme experiments in science, technological terror and error). The ones that we humans don’t even imagine we can solve (like mega volcanoes, mega earthquakes, nearby supernova explosions, a dying sun, an aging universe). And there are plenty of visions too (like a space-faring civilization, transhumanism, zero carbon world, general artificial intelligence, the end of poverty, universal human rights, designing life and matter, zero nuclear weapons, the end of aging). Everything is so fragmented. Every expert claims their issue matters most. Everyone fighting for their share of attention. So few have the big picture. Nobody seems to have their eye on the species as a whole. So why not capture the big picture in a compellingly sleek package, make it free, and watch it take off? Sounds like a great idea.  But here’s the kicker – someone has to pay for the up-front development.  To cover this, a crowd-funding initiative has just been launched on Kickstarter – if $25,000 are raised by Sept 28, a matching $25k is put in the pot, and the project goes ahead. If you are interested in finding out more, check

Continue Reading →

It’s been a while in the making, but with a little under five weeks to go, we have just posted the final program for the 2011 Risk Science Symposium (20-21 Sept).  And even though I say so myself, it’s a doozy! Somehow, we are squeezing 45 invited speakers into the two days, and not any old speakers – the lineup includes John Viera – Ford Motor Co. Director of Sustainability Environment and Safety Engineering; Ray O. Johnson,  Senior Vice President and Chief Technology Officer of Lockheed Martin Corporation; Brian Ivanovic, Senior Vice President of Swiss Re; and Paul Anastas, Assistant Administrator for the Office of Research and Development and Science Advisor to the EPA.  And that’s just for starters.  We also have experts in innovation, policy, communication end engagement, risk, governance and sustainability.  We even have two leading designers from the company IDEO. It’s going to be quite a party! For more information on the speakers, check out the symposium website.  I’ve posted the program below, because I’m so excited about it, but you can also access it here. The symposium is being held in Ann Arbor MI between Sept 20-21.  There are still a few spaces left, but we are nearing capacity – so if you are thinking of coming, it’s worth registering sooner rather than later.

Continue Reading →

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

Continue Reading →

A few weeks ago, the US National Nanotechnology Initiative website – www.nano.gov – underwent a much-needed facelift.  The NNI’s web portal was creaky when I was part of the Initiative several years ago now.  And it’s somewhat ironic that the world’s leading interagency initiative on one of the most prominent cutting edge technology platforms has relied on a website that is the antithesis of technology innovation for over a decade.  So I was pleasantly surprise to see the other week that the site has been updated, streamlined, and made more accessible, attractive, and – dare I say – useful. The update has been in the works for a while now – I was one of a number of people asked about the old site and what improvements could be made well over 12 months ago.  Fortunately, despite the slow pace of progress, it looks like the changes have been worth waiting for. Glancing around the new and improved site, the designers and NNI have done a good job.  Useful information on nanotechnology and the initiative is now far easier to find.  Information on stuff like current funding opportunities and recent reports is now clearly accessible from the home page.  It’s a cinch to find out more information about the Initiative and its member agencies.  Heck, you can even follow the NNI on Twitter now! I particularly appreciate the new search page for NNI publications and resources.  If you are looking for specific resources from 2008 onwards, it’s easy to pull them out using the search interface.  The downside is that if you want anything before 2008, things are a little trickier – the search date fields don’t allow you to easily enter dates before January 1 2008 (although bizarrely you can search for stuff published between 2012 – 2014 –

Continue Reading →

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

Continue Reading →