Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Berube at Nanobio EC-US Task Force on Biotechnology Meeting

Just got back from Lake Maggione 60 km north of Milan where I had the opportunity to speak on nanobiotechnology from a societal perspective. In summary, my discussion kicked off the list of speakers. I addressed non-nanomedicine applications of nanobiotechnology as instructed by the hosts. My presentation examined nanobio applications in terms of environmental remediation, agricultural production, and human enhancement. In general, I argued that the issues associated with nanobiotechnology would lead to religious warrants in arguments on playing god, unnaturalness, and dehumanization. Dietram Scheufele and I are planning to write an extensive piece for Nature Nano or another source discussing the role of religion and belief in arguments associated with emerging and converging technologies, esp. nanoscience and synthetic biology driven. I will post summaries of the presentations in the following blog. I am still decoding my notes. NONETHELESS, I think the readership will enjoy knowing that societal concerns dominating all the follow-up discussion after day 1, in the hallways, and continued through day 2.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008


I had anticipated releasing this work later this year. However, in a public discussion on June 3rd at a Joint EC-US Task Force on Biotechnology Research (Nanobiotechnology) in Ispra, Italy, I was asked how to avoid public backlash against nanobiotechnology products. I presented earlier that day on the role religion will play in arguments over nanobio products.

Low hanging fruit refers to applications that can come to market within a reasonable time frame with high marketability.

Contagion theory holds that a collapse in one component of an industry ripples throughout the industry infecting others with the collateral public relations damage.

If we invert contagion, we get a coat-tails phenomenon. If a highly positive application occurs in one component of an industry, the positive public relations ripple throughout the industry. This theory was explicated in a recent article written for Jim Baker’s (editor) new Wiley series, Nanomedicine. The claims made were two-fold: first, the public will generally embrace applications in nanomedicine due to intense necrophobia (fear of death) and positively received product entries in the nanomedicine market will ease entrants of product lines from other nanotechnology industry segments. Put simply, public apprehension might be ameliorated as non-nanomedicine products ride on the coat-tails of nanomedicine products.

Associated with this concept is the conversion of consumers into allies in times of trouble. The anchor heuristic has been well documented. In general, the first experience with a set anchors public sentiment positively or negatively depending on the valence of the experience. A negative anchor is more difficult to convert into a positive anchor than the reverse. As such, a positive anchor is optimal. A positive anchor related to experience with a popular product will be the starting point a member of the public will use in examining subsequent experiences.

Illustration: A product (say a treatment for metastatic breast cancer) is introduced by company X. Public response is predictably positive given the mortality and morbidity of this type of breast cancer. In addition, current treatment regimens (chemotherapy and radiotherapy) are particularly problematic. A negative event occurs (say a study linking nanotubes to pancreatic cancer) subsequent to the entry of the nanomedicine product. The reaction from the public should be test the nanotube research against the positive experience with the breast cancer treatment.

This relationship is hardly perfect. For example, the interval between the entry of the product with the positive valence (positive anchor) and the stipulated negative findings from the hypothetical study will affect the power of the anchor and how significant the anchoring phenomenon will have in comparative evaluation. There are more codicils under development for a forthcoming formal publication including a discussion of the ethics of this proposal.

My argument – it behooves the powers that be to fund the development of some “especially tasty fruits” to generate a positive anchor for the field of applied nanoscience/nanotechnology. Expect a more detailed follow-up.