The challenges of governing emerging technologies are highlighted by the World Economic Forum in the 2015 edition of its Global Risks Report. Focusing in particular on synthetic biology, gene drives and artificial intelligence, the report warns that these and other emerging technologies present hard-to-foresee risks, and that oversight mechanisms need to more effectively balance likely benefits and commercial demands with a deeper consideration of ethical questions and medium to long-term risks.
The chances are that, if you follow news articles about cancer, you’ll have come across headlines like “Most Cancers Caused By Bad Luck” (The Daily Beast) or “Two-thirds of cancers are due to “bad luck,” study finds” (CBS News). The story – based on research out of Johns Hopkins University – has grabbed widespread media attention. But it’s also raised the ire of science communicators who think that the headlines and stories are, in the words of a couple of writers, “just bollocks”.
Before you ask, yes, this is a post about risk. And no, I’m not talking about the dangers of immortalizing the star of Terminator Genisys‘ real-life biological brain. But to begin somewhere near the beginning.
Products with the label “BPA-free” have become ubiquitous on store shelves in recent years. It’s a trend that has been driven by consumer concerns that the chemical bisphenol-A, or BPA, may be harmful at low doses. Yet a recent study suggests that the label may mislead consumers into thinking that “free” means “safer” — even when there’s a chance that the substances used to substitute for BPA may also be harmful. The study is one of the first to explore how consumer responses to uncertainty and ambiguity in risk information may lead to “regrettable substitutions” — the replacement of one material with another that is potentially less safe.
In 2004, the Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering (RS-RAE) in the UK published the report Nanoscience and Nanotechnologies: Opportunities and Uncertainties . At the time it was widely speculated that the report arose from concerns expressed by Prince Charles over the possibility that nanotechnology could lead to a ‘grey goo’ scenario where self-replicating ‘nanobots’ destroy life as we know it . Outlandish as the alleged motivation was (and Prince Charles was quick to downplay reports of his grey goo concerns ), the resulting report set the pace for the next decade of global research into the potential impacts of nanotechnology — and how to avoid them.
Four years ago I posted Professor Robert Winston’s “Scientist’s Manifesto” on 2020 Science. Having just gone back and read this, it still resonate deeply with me – so I’m reposting it in the hope that it will also resonate with others…
How do we chart a path forward toward the effective and responsible development and use of new technologies? For the next two years, the World Economic Forum Meta-Council on Emerging Technologies will be tackling this and other questions as it develops ways of supporting informed decisions on technology innovation in today’s rapidly changing world.
On September 23, the Food and Drug Administration sent Rima Laibow and Ralph Fucetola at the Natural Solutions Foundation a warning letter claiming that their allegedly nano (colloidal) silver based “Dr. Rima Recommends™ The Silver Solution” product violates the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FFDC Act).
Measles is one of the leading causes of death amongst children worldwide. In 2012, an estimated 122,000 people died of the disease according to the World Health Organization – equivalent to 14 deaths every hour. Yet talk to parents about this highly infectious disease, and the response is often a resounding “meh”. Why is this?
Pick up a jar of chili powder, and the chances are it will contain a small amount of fumed silica – an engineered nanomaterial that’s been around for over half a century. The material – which is formed from microscopically small particles of amorphous silicon dioxide – has long been considered to be non-toxic.
“This year alone, there have been 17,000 cases of meningitis in Nigeria, with nearly 1,000 deaths”. It’s a statement that jumped out at me watching a video from this summer’s Aspen Ideas Festival by my former University of Michigan Public Health student Utibe Effiong.
Materials and how we use them are inextricably linked to the development of human society. Yet amazing as historic achievements using stone, wood, metals and other substances seem, these are unbelievably crude compared to the full potential of what could be achieved with designer materials.
I consider myself to be pretty self-aware. It’s an illusion of course, but one I am usually blissfully ignorant of. Until some insightful reporter shatters it! This was me a few days ago. I was talking with a journalist about science communication and the perils and pitfalls faced by young scientists. As I got into my groove talking about scientists and communication, she interrupted me and asked, “do you think there many scientists that hold such unusual views?” (or words to that effect).
What has the Maker Movement got to do with public health? Quite a lot as it turns out, as I explore in the latest Risk Bites video. This in turn was inspired by being invited to talk at the inaugural We Make Health Fest in Ann Arbor (August 16 – please join us if you can!).
When you’re facing a life or death situation, what do the odds mean – to you personally? As Brian Zikmund-Fisher from the University of Michigan School of Public Health pointed out to Robert Siegel on NPR yesterday, “We’re never 95 percent alive. We either live or die. We experience outcomes”.
Over the past few weeks, revelations of potentially dangerous errors in US federal labs handling pathogens have placed health and safety high on the national agenda. In June, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced as many as 75 of its staff may have been exposed to anthrax due to safety issues at one of its labs. At the beginning of July, vials of smallpox virus were found in an unsecured room at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Then earlier this week came the revelation that in the same room were over 300 vials containing pathogens such as dengue virus, influenza, and the bacterium that causes Q fever.
Over the past few days, the interweb’s been awash with virtual “oohs” and “ahs” over Surrey Nanosystems’ carbon nanotube-based Vantablack coating. The material – which absorbs over 99.9% of light falling onto it and is claimed to be the world’s darkest material – is made up of a densely packed “forest” of vertically aligned carbon nanotubes (see the image below). In fact the name “vanta” stands for Vertically Aligned NanoTube Array.
The World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on Emerging Technologies on February 25, 2014 released its annual list of breakthrough technologies. The list highlights 10 trends in technological advancement that could offer innovative solutions to a range of pressing global challenges. As a member of the council that compiles the list each year, I’m excited to see technologies here that could be truly transformative. At the same time, realizing the benefits they offer will require a good dose of responsible innovation mixed in with the technologies each trend represents.
Jim Thomas of the ETC Group has just posted a well reasoned article on the Guardian website on the challenges of defining the the emerging technology of “synthetic biology”. The article is the latest in a series of exchanges addressing the potential risks of the technology and its effective regulation.
Over the past few days, my news and social media streams have been inundated by articles on “nanojuice”. The “juice” – developed by researchers at the University of Buffalo and published in the journal Nature Nanotechnology – is a suspension of light-absorbing nanoparticles which, when drunk (and only mice have had this privilege so far), allow an unprecedented level of real-time imaging of the small intestine. It also presents an unusual series of safety challenges as the particles are designed to be intentionally ingested.
Danger and death are part and parcel of being alive. But with a few notable exceptions, it’s hard to find straightforward information online on how to make sense of stuff that potentially threaten our health and wellbeing. Which is a pity, because as well as being important for making smart decisions, there’s some really cool science behind how what we touch, breathe, eat, or otherwise come into contact with affects our health.
Risk Bites was originally conceived as a way of pulling some rather cool insights into the science behind human health risks out of dusty halls of academia and into the real world. Watching the meteoric rise of YouTube science channels like MinutePhysics and SciShow, I couldn’t help wondering why universities weren’t having the same success with the medium, and whether there was a way of bridging the gap between the educational establishment, and the online education counterculture.
On Monday, the National Institute for Occupational Safety released new data on the potential role multi-walled carbon nanotubes play as a cancer-promoter – a substance that promotes the development of cancer in the presence of a carcinogen.