Sunday, March 25, 2007

ON Greenwood - Thinking Big About Things Small - NOT RECOMMENDED

Mark Greenwood, Thinking Big About Things Small: Creating an Effective Oversight System for Nanotechnology, PEN 7 , March 2007, - NOT RECOMMENDED.

This is the latest PEW report on nanotechnology and it adds very little to the discussion.

The only three points that surface in this report (not a study) and worthy of more discussion are:

(1) Will the efforts to secure nanosafety of products become prohibitively expensive leading to startups selling out to large corporations or shift the locus of nano-development to large transnationals with the wherewithal to produce the information needed for the marketing of nanoproducts? "...[I]nformation requirements and associated testing may ultimately determine what products will be viable and what businesses will succeed" (p. 5). I am interested the existences of "a tipping point at which it is no longer feasible for small companies to bear the costs of the oversight system" (p. 22) and this subject could be very important and deserves greater analysis.

(2) Will high risk applications become so problematic that there will be orphan applications that will need to be undertaken by government since the commercial world will find those applications simply unprofitable (p. 23)?

(3) Will labeling notify the public that a nanomaterial is in the product or is the "nano" label nothing more than an implied hazard warning?

I am particularly concerned about the following (here are my top 5):

(1) The footnotes 2 and 3 (p. 8) where a Device and Diagnostic Report (self-reported as a report; I won't pay $200 for it) and the PEW Directory of products are referred to as a study when at best they are loose inventories. There is a call for transparency aping a report over 15 years old (p. 29) after detailing a page earlier how confidential business information makes transparency highly problematic.

(2) Too many rhetorical flourishes appear in the report, such as "What is missing is a public discussion of these positions" (p. 9) with no recommendation. There are calls for faster toxicity testing and screening methods, calibration of information needs, etc. (p. 21), release into aquatic environments stripping existing regulatory designs (p. 26), reliable and credible monitoring protocols (p. 26), etc. with no recommendations as well.

(3) The utility of analogies (read as analogues) to "spur additional testing" (p. 22) seems risky. The GMO analogue and the TRI (Toxic Release Inventory) analogy (p. 27) have and will contribute very little to the debate since GMOs is a rhetorically powerful but ungrounded analogy and the TRI analogy deals with known toxic chemical risks and too much is unknown about nanoparticles.

(4) There are quite a few assumptions, such as small firms who do NOT have highly developed stewardship programs "are much more likely to step forward to participate in a discussion..." (p. 9) without any rationale whatsoever and there are quite a few grand statements, such as " will be important that stakeholders identify the kinds of decisions they will to be able to make" (p. 29).... for what end and too what end??? [I discussed this in greater detail in a chapter for a Wiley collection edited by A. Lin coming out later this year].

(5) References to "structure activity relationships" with a call "to develop a SAR approach for the more prevalent nanostructures of date" (p. 16) is exactly what the RNAD (Research Needs Assessment) effort by ICON is all about but there is no discussion of the Bethesda meeting in December or the upcoming one in Zurich in the summer.

Friday, March 9, 2007

On - Kahan, Slovic and others - Affect, values, and nanotechnology risk perceptions - HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

On Kahan, D. M., Slovic, P., Braman, D., Gastil, J. & Cohen, G. L. (2007). Affect, values, and nanotechnology risk perceptions: An experimental investigation. Nanotechnology Risk Perceptions: The Influence of Affect and Values. Washington, DC: Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Center Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies. (accessed March 7, 2007) - HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.

Before I review the Kahan study, I want to add that I am limited in comments I can make on two other studies mainly because there is insufficient evidence in print to say much.

First we have Currall, S. C., King, E. B., Lane, N., Madera, J., & Turner, S. (2006). What drives public acceptance of nanotechnology? Nature Nanotechnology, 1. December. 153-155.

Currall, Eden, Lane, Madera & Turner (2006) examined public acceptance in terms of consumer behavior. The data which was collected in 2004 compared nanotechnology with other technologies. The authors remarked: “…[W]hen assessing the risks and benefits of nanotechnology, people may draw upon analogies” like feelings toward other technologies and other health and safety issues (see Kahan et al below). They reported that nanotechnology was seen as relatively neutral. For example, nanotechnology was perceived as “…more risky and less beneficial than solar power, vaccinations, hydroelectric power and computer display screens” (p. 154). Their commentary added: “…[N]ow is the time to educate the public aggressively with facts about the risks and benefits of nanotechnology. Education can prevent opinions from becoming polarized on the basis of misinformation” (p. 154). While they are partially correct in terms of reducing polarization based on misinformation, Kahan et al (below) seriously challenge the utility of broad-based educational messages.

Second we have Siegrist, M., Wiek, A., Helland, A., & Kastenholz, H., (2007). Risks and nanotechnology: The public is more concerned than the experts.” Nature Nanotechnology. 2. February 2007. 87.

Siegrist, Wiek, Helland & Kastenholz (2007) examine specific applications and risk perception. They verified the public perceives “more risks associated with nanotechnology than experts” and worried that “…experts might not be inclined to initiate the risks assessments that are expected by the public.” The team opined ominously. “The importance of trust for the positive perception of new technologies suggests that a preventable event with significant negative consequences must be avoided. Such an event, indicating lack of concern for public welfare, could have a disastrous impact on trust and results in decreased acceptance of nanotechnology” (p. 87). This conclusive remark while intuitive still needs some empirical validation.

Kahan, D. M., Slovic, P., Braman, D., Gastil, J. & Cohen, G. L. (2007). Affect, values, and nanotechnology risk perceptions: An experimental investigation. Nanotechnology Risk Perceptions: The Influence of Affect and Values. Washington, DC: Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Center Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies. (accessed March 7, 2007).

The final one by Kahan, Slovic, Brahan, Gastil and Cohen (2007) released the first data set specific to nanotechnology risk perceptions and sets very high standards for studies to follow. The study concludes if the process of biased assimilation and polarization unfolds unchecked when it comes to processing information on nanotechnology, the future of nanotechnology may be “marked by the sort of conflict and division that historically attended nuclear power and today characterized the global warming debate.” This tendency by the public to filter information through emotion and values might be mitigated by framing exercises though framing as Kahan et al suggest but that may be just one option. The most interesting finding from this team was the effect of information on affect toward nanotechnology. “Exposure to information produced no overall shift in risk/benefit perceptions” and “…this finding weighs strongly against the inference that people can be expected to form a more positive view of nanotechnology as they learn more information.” This seems to produce quite a challenged to the deficit theory experts who claim more education is the answer and to the public outreach practitioners who are experimenting with deliberative polling exercises and cafes.

I am also reviewing the study in greater detail elsewhere.

Monday, March 5, 2007

Berube off to Raleigh in January 2008

After a few weeks of negotiation, I decided to remain at the University of South Carolina in the fall and will teach ENVR 350X Introduction to Nanoscience as part of the NUE grant to establish a cognate (= minor) in Nanoscience and Technology Studies. I PIed and was awarded the grant last year. In addition, I am completing contractual obligations associated with the sabbatical I received last fall.

During the summer I will be working on the current NIRT (year 4) which is about to rollover and the NUE.

In January 2008 I will join the Department of Communication at North Carolina State University in Raleigh where I will continue my grant work and my studies in the rhetoric of science and technology and risk communication. NCSU's Communication Department has 900 undergraduate majors and over 30 graduate students and a new interdisciplinary Ph.D. program. I look forward to joining the Wolfpack.

I just got back from an External Advisory Board meeting at CBEN at Rice University and am working on a new chapter for a collection on Nanoethics. In addition, I am on the steering committee for a summer EPA conference on Nano and Pollution Prevention. I will be posting more soon.