Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Roco and Bainbridge on Societal Implications

M. C. Roco and w. S. Bainbridge, "Societal implications of nanoscience and nanotechnology: Maximizing human benefit," JOURNAL OF NANOPARTICLE RESEARCH, 2005, 7, 1-13.


I was tempted to hold off and award this article the NANOHYPE AWARD for this month but I decided to reserve the award to an article with less warrants for the claims made (even if most of them in this article are authoritative and reference unidentified experts).

The article reviews a collection of essays soon to be released as SOCIETAL IMPLICATIONS OF NANOSCIENCE AND NANOTECHNOLOGY (II): MAXIMIZING HUMAN BENEFIT, NSET Report, Arlington, VA published by Springer Science in which this blogger is published.

The article makes a series of interesting claims such as: "Media analyses show that groups with views at the extremes of the spectrum of opinions, either exaggerating the benefits of or mistrusting nanotechnology, have a disproportionate voice in the mass media, which impedes public understanding of both potential benefits and possible risks" (p. 2).

Unfortunately, statements of this sort of are as hyperbolic as the statements presumably made by the extremists. In addition, I am wondering which media analyses the authors are addressing. Absent extremist views (if they exist), it is difficult to understand how public understanding would necessarily improve. This is a multivariate phenomenon and rhetoric to the contrary simply does not make it true.

On p. 9. "Negative public attitudes toward nanotechnology could impede research and development, leaving the benefits of nanotechnology unrealized, even if those attitudes were based on misconceptions." (See below) I am not sure it's fair to categorize public attitudes which happen to be negative as misconceptions. This communicates that positive ones are accurate, which they may be, but remarks of this sort turn this piece into propaganda.

If it works once, say it again. On p. 7, they go on. "Negative public attitudes toward nanotechnology could impede research and development, leaving the benefits of nanotechnology unrealized and the economic potential, untapped, or worse, leaving the development of nanotechnology to countries who are not constrained by regulations and ethical norms held by most scientists worldwide."

First, I am very concerned about the off the cuff remark that negative public attitudes could impede R&D. Often, when I ask why, the answer I get is incredibly speculative.

Are we talking about the electorate deciding not to support politicians who vote funding for nanotechnology? I have seen only one study that ever addressed that variable and the findings were mixed and inconclusive (at least as a univariate variable) Or are we talking about the legislature deciding that public may not support nanotechnology and acting pre-emptively?

Are we talking about boycotts against products upon entering the market? America has never been strong with boycotts except in two cases, one dealt with California produce and the Chavez migrant worker movement and the other impacted the fur industry for a period of time though fur seems to be making a comeback.

Call me conservative, but I feel that before fear appeals of any sort should be used, there needs to be a plausible scenario. It might behoove us to investigate what that will be rather than offering bogeys like: "We don't want another GMO catastrophe!" I do appreciate that Roco and Bainbridge avoided making that analogy prominent. I believe Roco and I are both highly skeptical of the analogue and question its overall utility as a rhetorical flourish.

Second, I really enjoyed the zero sum trade-off rhetoric. It's either us or another nation and the other nations may not have those upright American scruples. Obviously, I am not sure this is a zero sum game per se and I am not ready to compare American scruples to non-American ones and claim American scruples are superior.

The article has its moments when it bleets free markets rhetoric. For example, "While the short-term result may meant disruption of some specific corporations and careers, the free market system ensures that capital and labor will shift to new uses, and the disruptions will be limited to a transition period in narrow sectors of the economy" (p. 8). The sectoral disruptions will only be short-term if we define short-term loosely and the assumption that this will only impact "narrow" sectors seems wishful.

The piece ends with an interesting series of recommendations, many of which are being undertaken by the dozens of humanists and social scientists researching societal and ethical implications of nanotechnology. One of the recommendations involves "develop[ing] a communication strategy to keep the public informed of representative and fundamental developments of the new technology" (p. 11). This may be the crux of the problem addressed in the piece.

We are reticent to relinquish the deficit theory when it comes of public understanding of science. Providing more information is simply ineffective. Involving small publics in deliberative polling experiments, while interesting, is not convertible to a national strategy. We need a much more comprehensive and universalizable model.

Monday, April 25, 2005

Nanoforum: Benefits, Risks, Ethical, Logal and Social Aspects.... European Nanotechnology Gateway (multiple authors). BENEFITS, RISKS, ETHICAL, LEGAL AND SOCIAL ASPECTS OF NANOTECHNOLOGY. 4th Nanoforum Report. June 2004.


While much of this report is not particularly new or useful, there are notable exceptions.

Section 2.5 by Michael Gleiche and Holger Hoffschulz (25-29) provides a useful summary of the role nanotechnology may be playing in the semiconductor industry.

Section 3.3 by Sandrine Mocatelli, Carole Nicollet and Jean Charles Guibert (45-58) summarizes the potential impact of nanotechnologies on health. While some important research has updated this report, it remains one of the better summaries of the health and safety issues.

Chapter 5 by Mark Morrison on the ethical and political implications is rhetorically much of the same old bag of remarks. DEMOS does a much better job in examining the assumptions behind risk assessment. The summary of the Precautionary Principle was very superficial. However, section 5.4.2. (90-92) on military uses begins to examine the depth of this issue. Military applications involve augmenting human performance and enhancing delivery system of currently available weapons of mass destruction and should not be isolated nanoweapons per se. The author does a good job reviewing nanotechnology defense related research occurring outside of the USA.

Chapter six by Mireille Oud includes a fairly comprehensive review of EU regulatory activities in section 6.2 (96-104) and represents one of the few attempts to summarize this activity outside of the USA.

Chapter 7 by Ineke Malsch on national regulatory institutions and discussion groups is a resource worth keeping for those individuals trying to stay on top of SEIN (societal and ethical implications of nanotechnology) research.

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Nanotechnology and Regulation

Wardak, Ahson, NANOTECHNOLOGY & REGULATION: A CASE STUDY UNDER THE TOXIC SUBSTANCE CONTROL ACT: A DISCUSSION PAPER, Foresight and Governance Project. Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Publication 2003-6.


This report is recommended for its review of the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) and how it might apply to nanomaterials, esp. carbon nanotubes. It explains the Chemical Abstracts Service (CAS) and the host of acronyms associated with TSCA.

It is weak on the health risk research part of the report reducing the research to five studies (Oberdorster, G., Warheit, Lam, Huczko, and Baron). The CBEN people claim there are about 50 studies on toxicology and nanomaterials to date. In defense, this paper does focus on workplace inhalation concerns.

The paper ends with a series of questions which walk the readers through the process of TSCA such as significant new use notification (SNUN) and exemption qualification {low volume, low release and exposure, and text-marketing). The section ends with a flowchart that explains the step by step proceed which I have found useful in explaining TSCA to interested parties without any experience in regulation of potentially toxic substances.

A second weakness is the limited range of the paper. We can expect regulatory initiatives under the auspices of the FDA, NIOSH and OSHA, and other entities who have regulatory authority granted under different legislation. Also, the subject of liability as a market regulatory response is unanticipated.

Thursday, April 14, 2005

Nanotechnology and the International Regime on Chemical and Biological Weapons

Sorry, but I had some family business.

Juan Pablo Pardo-Guerra & Francisco Augayo, "Nanotechnology and the International Regime on Chemical and Biological Weapons," NANTECHNOLOGY LAW AND BUSINESS JOURNAL, 2:1, 2005 (pp. ). Electronic version does not provide continuous pagination.


This article does what articles on nanotechnology and weaponry generally fail to do well. The authors from El Colegio de Mexico, examine how advances in nanoscience improves existing weapons of mass destruction (WMD) rather than speculating on nanoweapons per se. They avoid using "gray goo" as a dominant metaphor.

"...[T]he wide spectrum of application of nanotechnologies and their inherent flexibility makes them an ideal foundation for the development of a new generation of weapons that may replace traditional chemical and biological armaments (CBW)."

The authors argue nanoscience could lead to a vertical proliferation of this class of WMDs. They complain convergence (nano-bio-cogno...) could lead to "enhanced mechanisms for substance delivery, a higher capability to target specific physiological functions, and the possibility to generate multilayers CBW."

As to the first function they suggest sophisticted means for "introducing toxic agent in the human body especially given that under normal exposure they would be difficult to be absorbed into the body."

As to the second function, they warn that designer molecules "could be used to block(or over-promote) key metabolic processes at different grades to cause a defined hostile result from temporary incompacitation to death."

As to the third function, they suggest nanocompositve which are activited given very specific physical conditions "(such as radiation levels, temperature, and so forth) can grow into a new generation of controllable, multiplayered biochemical weapons."

This last function is especially prone to parallel proliferation. "The ability to specify when a weapon will become disabling through the use of secondary technologies can limit their prolfieration among opposing states with lesser resources."

Those with the means will force these with lesser means to consider use or lose or nothing to lose as a controlling operational strategem. A response to a multilayers CBM capability might be simple acts of indiscriminate terrorism.

The article ends with a recommendations to improve the current CBW control regime.

Sunday, April 3, 2005


Posner, Richard, CATASTROPHE: The Dozen Most Significant Catastrophic Risks and What We Can Do About Them, SKEPTIC, 11:3, 2005, 42-63 (Excerpted from CATASTROPHE: RISK AND RESPONSE (Oxford UP) 2004.


I am reminded of the children's telephone game whereby a story becomes distorted as it is passed from one to another until the final version is nonsensical. When I decided who would win March's NANOHYPE AWARD, I needed to turn to a reprint of a book that in turn references an earlier book that in turn references an even earlier book. And I believe that this typifies how hyperbolic stories survive.

The winner is Richard A. Posner's CATASTROPHE: RISK AND RESPONSE (Oxford UP) 2004 as reprinted in part in the 11:3 2005 edition of SKEPTIC, pp. 42-63. On pp. 48-49, we have retold the story of "Omnivorous Nanomachines." Posner references Martin Rees' OUR FINAL HOUR (Basic Books) 2003. Rees' book heavily references Drexler while Posner's references Rees' but not Drexler (except in endnotes). Both the Posner and Rees books are interesting but forgettable contributions to the litany of disasters that we confront and may confront in the next few decades. If you are interested in catastrophes, be advised neither of these books can compare with Jared Diamond's COLLAPSE: HOW SOCIETIES CHOOSE TO FAIL OR SUCCEED (Viking) 2005 for the depth of research and theoretical architecture (I was pleased Neal Lane recommended this book at a recent talk he gave as part of our NanoSemester at the University of South Carolina).

Macroscopically, this article/excerpt represents a form of journalism which has become highly popular: disaster journalism. (There is an interesting article by Benjamin Radford, "Ringing False Alarms: Skepticism and Media Scares," in the March/April 2005 issue of SKEPTICAL INQUIRER, 34-39 and a wonderful book by Barry Glassner, THE CULTURE OF FEAR: WHY AMERICANS ARE AFRAID OF THE WRONG THINGS, (Basic Books), 2000 that tap into this issue). Furthermore, I anticipate more research on this by my group and myself at South Carolina in terms of nanotechnology and hyperbole.

While this is hardly the place to make a case on disaster journalism and the tabloidization of journalism in general, it is enough to say at this point that it is pervasive and it is ever-increasing. The losers are the foundations of the Fourth Estate and the public sphere both as active participants in the process of checks and balances.

What fascinates me is how this problem impacts upstream participation by the public in science and technology decision making. The information the public needs to participate can neither be secured entirely from educational preparation since there are simply too much demand on the institutions that educate nor from government sources since they often lack objectivity. This leaves us with the press (read media) and the press is becoming more and more dependent on its own sources, government and business/industry. The public is left with little guidance.

Why does the press exaggerate and use hyperbole? While there are many reasons, some of which will be addressed in my book and later postings, Davis Morrison from NASA Astrobiology Institute when addressing "Hyperbole in Media Report on Asteroids and Impacts" began his article (SKEPTICAL INQUIRER, March/April 2005) by highlighting the more obvious motivations.

"Many observers of the science press have noted an increasing tendency from both news releases and printed stories to exaggerate the uniqueness and significance of new research. The writer of a news release does this to increase the probability that the media will cover the story, and the media reporter will go along with this hyperbole or perhaps expand it further to get the story approved for publication by editors and other gatekeepers" (p. 29).

The impact of disaster reporting has found itself repeated in the books we read, which takes us to the Posner excerpt. I will refrain from reprinting the direct quotations out of Rees' book.

When discussing how nanomachines could proliferate until consuming all life, he includes the sentence: "With an unlimited power source enabling rapid replication and hence multiplication, the creatures could smother the earth." While this remark is hardly new to anyone who has followed the gray goo controversy, the next paragraph caught my attention.

"The danger is taken seriously enough by leading scientists working in molecular nanotechnology to have impelled them to issue guidelines limiting the power supply for nanomachines to power sources that, unlike sunlight and not found in the natural environment" (p. 48). Obviously, Posner is referring to the Foresight Guidelines and endnotes them. My criticism is his power tagging the authors of the Guidelines as leading scientists. While I have great admiration for many of the people involved in this process, I am not sure they are "leading scientists" in the field.

Posner continues. "The contention by the distinguished chemist Richard Smalley that self-replicating nanomachines will never be created is hardly reassuring, given the record of scientists' never predictions" (p. 48). There are so many incorrect assumptions in this sentence it is bristling. First, Smalley's remarks may be more than contentious. Second, Smalley's remarks have mostly been reassuring. When we tally the folks who side with Smalley, they tend to swamp the opposing side. Add to this observation the retreat by Drexler from the gray goo scenario as an accidental phenomenon and Posner's remarks are even more suspect. Third, if Posner wants to suggest scientific predictions of never-ness have been prolific, make the case rather than punctuate the sentence with this rhetorical flourish.

Next, he adds that "…autoproduced nanomachines have a weapon potential ominous enough to threaten catastrophe and imminent enough to warrant concern" (pp. 48-49). While this remark returns the reader to the topic of catastrophe, it is wholly dependent on the assumption of autoproduction, which I will dub self-replication, and as an intrinsic characteristic of applied nanoscience and nanotechnology, it has been debunked universally (one day soon I will post material defining the difference between self-assembly and self-replication). In addition, the imminent nature of nanoweaponry is simply glossed over. While there are some serious issues here, Posner does not examine them. Instead he reverts of storytelling in the Crichton style. In the book version the following is credited to a private communication with Drexler (Book, p. 37). In the article, the prose has changed a bit, but it is sufficiently similar to the book version.

"Imagine cruise missiles that after traveling thousands of miles (as the existing cruise missiles can do) release smaller missiles that travel tens of miles and release wasp-sized missiles that can fly for miles to targets and then explode or that land, observe communicate with each other or report back to a command center, hold tight for long periods, then resume their destructive course. Millions of tons of such nanomissiles could be a potent means of global conquest and control, and the required technology may soon be available" (pp. 48-49, parenthetical remark in original).

If Posner wants to address "smart dust" he should do so. If he wants to discuss drone weapon systems, he should do so as well. These are systems that are the product of microtechnologies. While they may be enhanced by nanoscience, they have not been instigated by applied nanoscience per se. More importantly, time frame, time frame, time frame…. Never trust anyone who doesn't cite their sources and be wary of anyone who tells you that the best they can do with a time frame is claim soon.

Posner has written some great books on the law. For example, LAW, PRAGMATISM, AND DEMOCRACY (Harvard UP, 2003) is a great read. However, CATASTROPHE adds nothing to the applied nanoscience and nanotechnology debate and little to true risk studies.