Monthly Archives: May 2016

Tough choices around the costs and benefits of nanotechnology

A new report on a public dialogue on nanotechnologies has been published today, 26 May.

Technological innovation depends on science, both to provide the innovation itself and assurance that its benefits outweigh its costs. But when does an innovation become a risk? For most of the long pathway from an innovation emerging to its mainstream adoption in our lives, we tend to focus on the benefits. Only at the eleventh hour can some of the costs become apparent. But does it have to be that way? In my view, greater investment in understanding the basic science of risk and its communication is much needed in advance and to head-off this problem.

Nanotechnology is grounded in an understanding of how materials behave at very small sizes, and has had a long lead time. In 1857, Michael Faraday investigated the action of light on very thin films of gold and noticed that the fluid used to wash these films became ruby red, deducing that this was suspended gold. The particles were about 50 nanometres in diameter – about 1/2000th the width of a human hair. The fact that they were red, rather than gold-coloured, shows how nanomaterials can behave differently to larger pieces of the same material.

Compared with larger particles, nanoparticles can interact differently with light, have different electrical properties, or different chemical reactivities. Their surface area is huge compared to their volume, and most of their mass interacts directly with the outside world. This is what makes them so reactive. The small size of these particles also offers the opportunity for them to get to places where other particles simply could not reach, such as inside individual cells of organisms.

Nanoparticles derive from of a range of metals, alloys and compounds. They have application in everything from medicine to helping integrated circuit designers increase memory storage capacity on computer chips. Nanotechnology is becoming an integral part of our lives and we hardly know it.

The potential of nanotechnology is enormous, but what are the risks? If nanoparticles are capable of entering cells or disappear in to the environment never to be recovered, how can we be sure all the benefits that using them can bring will not rebound on us with some negative impact? It’s also one thing to produce nanoparticles intentionally and to control their release but it’s quite another to produce them unintentionally, as a by-product of some other process.

There is a clear need to understand what people think about these issues and where challenges exist. It is the combined role of government, industry, researchers, and NGOs to not only communicate science to a broad audience, but to engage citizens in a dialogue and capture what we understand to be the potential benefits and the costs of these technologies. People are often content to pay for initial research into technologies like ‘nano’ because they understand where the benefits might lie. It is much harder to persuade people to fund research to understand what the downsides of the technology might be even when the uncertainties can be truly daunting.

A new, qualitative public dialogue commissioned by Defra and carried out in conjunction with (and co-funded by) the organisation Sciencewise, as well as industry, seeks to find out how comfortable people are with specific applications of nanotechnology. By focusing on nano-based products, such as sunscreens and paints, the deliberation process sought to explore the motivation behind people’s views and perceptions.

The report, released today (26 May) highlights the importance of communicating to the consumer what is in a product. People like to know what they’re buying, and don’t like to be forced to consume ‘by stealth’. Nanoparticles have been used in sunscreens for many years but these are one of the applications that consumers are wary of. Citing a lack of clarity over what the product contains, there were concerns that something used on the skin, especially of young children by their parents, could be taken up by the body. It was also thought that nanoparticles from sunscreens could enter watercourses and behave in unknown ways.

This negative opinion of nanoparticles in sunscreens, stemmed largely from the fact negatives were not sufficiently balanced out by positives (prevention of skin cancers). Consumers couldn’t reason why nanoparticles were more efficacious in blocking UV rays. This revealed a deficit of understanding about why nanoparticles are effective in such a product.

Nanoparticles can also be used for remediating contaminated land and this raised the perception of risk. While participants agreed the purposes of removing contamination were worthwhile, there was a concern that they would remove one deleterious substance while replacing it with another, even if there is nothing to validate their concerns in this case. It was felt the future impact was difficult to predict. Lesson learned from the use of CFCs was important in people’s view. CFCs were once ubiquitous in refrigeration and used as aerosol propellants, but subsequently discovered to be the main cause of stratospheric ozone breakdown.

Participants were much more positive and accepting about the use of nanoparticles in paints and coatings, especially if new properties, such as being antimicrobial or more durable could be introduced. Their perceptions over disposal were no greater than they would have for other non-nanoparticle-containing paints, which often require careful disposal. The onus was seen as being on the consumer to read product labels and advice and dispose of waste paints properly. Likewise, nanoparticles used as a fuel additive to reduce emissions were welcomed. In this case pollution from cars was perceived as such a large problem that any risks of reduction using nanotechnology were, in the view of the participants, compensated by the benefits.

The judgement of participants identified the responsibility for dealing safely with nanotechnologies, like any technology, as being shared between government, industry and the individual. Outside this triangle, NGOs provide scrutiny. Crucial to any dialogue, however, are robust and clear channels of communication that serve not only to educate audiences, but also seek their voice when formulating matters of policy and regulation.

One issue that does concern me, however, is the extent to which we have the capacity to control the uptake of new technologies such as nano-based paints and sunscreens. The Montreal Protocol showed for CFCs that it is possible for global concerted action to be taken when presented with overwhelming evidence of negative impact. But in cases where evidence of potential damage is lacking, or where there are significant asymmetries between the winners and losers concerned with a new technology, the power of profit motivations could overwhelm any wish to be precautionary. If only we invested as much in environmental science as we do in developing new technologies we might be in a better position to judge where the costs and benefits of those technologies lie, and to design the use of new technologies in ways that maximise their pay-off.

These kinds of open dialogues provide rich and nuanced insights for scientists, industrialists and regulators around how much more work they need to do to communicate what is known and what is not about the risks and benefits of emerging technologies. Honesty in this communication is vital. Ideally, we need to be able to communicate information to people in ways that can allow them to make informed decisions and choices. When the costs and benefits are too difficult to express in these ways, government needs to adopt precaution and regulate based upon information derived from similar dialogues.

 

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What is the role of a Chief Scientific Adviser?

Some people think the role of a Chief Scientific Adviser (CSA) in government is ‘to kick the door down’. No it isn’t; it’s to keep the door open to science. If a CSA finds themself locked out then they’ve failed. Muscular public shows of independence from big-hitting ‘advisers’ are singularly ineffective.

I want to see science given the consideration it deserves in the formation and delivery of government policy. As a CSA for a major area of government policy and function, I have an important role to play in ensuring that this happens. The key to being successful in securing this outcome is to build trust.

The sort of trust I’m talking about is entirely conditional on the existence of mutual respect. Policy makers have some fiendishly difficult problems to grapple with, and in dealing with these they need the help and respect of scientists. This includes the appreciation that scientific evidence sits alongside other social, economic and political considerations. Politics is the process by which contested decisions are made about policies, and I have to be careful to play the role of the scientist as an honest broker, and the provider of information within the wider social game. My role and the role of other CSAs in government is to be a trustworthy and intelligible proponent of the ‘scientific lens’; to input into the policy making process, but also to avoid the automatic politicisation that comes with advocacy. Similarly, I will not be the mouthpiece for government policy unless it is to explain why a decision has been made, or to increase wider understanding of a particular problem.

Creating a lot of noise and publicity is not the best option in the vast majority of instances where one wants to have impact. This may be a difficult message for some who seek a story that promotes conflict (often disingenuously cloaked as debate) and who want to recruit CSAs to their cause. When one CSA famously said to the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee that ‘part of the job of a CSA is to make sure they kick the door down,’ he had clearly lost the confidence of his ministers and department – such an attitude was in no way conducive to maximising the consideration of science in government. The realisation that this approach does not work may mean that CSAs do not always have the visibility in the press that some may call for. But it’s essential to recognise that our ultimate aim should always be to make sure conflicts are resolved, not created.

The argument has been levelled against me, from time-to-time, that because I don’t regularly engage with the press I am somehow being gagged by the Department I mainly work within, or that somehow the government is seeking to spin what I have to say. Nothing could be further from the truth. As a CSA I am free to say what I want, when I want. I wouldn’t do this job if that were not the case; anybody who hears me talk in public will know that I do not speak from a script. I am passionate about what science can do to support and improve government; and I am happy to talk openly about what goes on in Defra, as in this blog. Furthermore I am accountable through the Defra Science Advisory Council, an independent non-departmental public body, to the wider scientific community, for translating scientific evidence into a policy environment. Through them and other routes, I speak to scientists, I read their papers, listen to them and help them get their messages heard too.

Any scientist who works in government has the same freedoms, with the exception of a very few who work on national security, and if there are any who think otherwise then they are mistaken. We live in a world of free speech and this applies just as much to government scientists as anybody else. However, most scientists in government understand the importance working with the system and, if necessary, changing and influencing from within rather than trying to manipulate it through the media.

If my approach to being a CSA doesn’t raise my personal profile, or suggests to some in the media or elsewhere that I am not a ‘heavy-hitting adviser’, then so be it. My job is to represent science in government as best I can, not to be a public personality.