Author Archives: ilboyd

Why a polar medal?

In January 2017 I received notice that I was to receive a Polar Medal form the Queen. This is an honour that few people hear about and even fewer receive. It is given to a rather small cadre of people and each recipient will have their own story about why they might have been chosen. For me, of course, it was a complete surprise and delight to receive the news. I feel humbled to be joining the ranks of many of the people I respect most, from the greats of the age of polar exploration to former colleagues.

I had spent 14 years running a research programme in Antarctica from 1987 to 2001 and during this time I spent 12 summer seasons in Antarctica. Of course, the honour of receiving a Polar Medal is small compared with the honour of having spent a significant proportion of my life in what is certainly the most fascinating and unspoiled region of the planet.

My surprise at receiving the medal was mainly because I never thought I had done enough to deserve it, although my peers obviously think differently. I came relatively late to Antarctic travel and this meant I had never over-wintered in Antarctica which is, in my view, a mark of true personal sacrifice. By the time I spent my first summer there I was already married and had two young children. Communications in those days were still by short-wave radio and I was in a remote location. This meant my ration was 30 words per month to my family. The real Polar Medallists should be the partners and families of those who disappear in to the wilds of the deep south for months on end. I never had the guts to leave the family for more than 5 months at a stretch.

I truly loved my work (and still do). The science I was doing – on the structure and dynamics of the Southern Ocean as seen through the lens of the top predators (seals, whales, penguins and albatrosses) – was gripping and, at times wild. There was a heady mixture of high science and adventure. I was exploring the way in which large, charismatic animals manage their energy budgets in the context of a very big ocean which drives the climate of the planet. This was a lens through which I was finding out how to manage the inexorable exploitation of global resources. But in retrospect one never quite appreciates the moment and only now do I realise that I was doing something special.

My science was supported by the application of technology. Success in those extreme environments always depended at how new technology could be applied to opening new vistas of enquiry. For example, together with some colleagues, I managed to measure the metabolic rate of completely wild penguins as it changes every minute, and did this for a whole year using smart recorders. Over 20 years before they appeared as voguish wrist bands, I was implanting much smaller versions of these smart recorders under the skin of seals, penguins and albatrosses to look in to the private lives of these strange and enigmatic animals. In addition I managed to calibrate the amount of food humans can take from the ocean before it has an effect on those charismatic predators.

Why go to Antarctica to do this? The reasons are many, but fundamentally some things become easier to study in that location in spite of the distance, logistic complexities and isolation. The short food chains of the Southern Ocean mean that energy entering the ecosystem from photosynthesis is transferred very quickly to the predators like seals, whales and seabirds at the top of the ocean food chain. This means there is a super-abundance of these creatures in Antarctica. By studying how these animals are responding to their food supply we probably get a better indication of what is going on within the vast ocean than by using any other method. It was my job to calibrate this response to variations in energy flow through the Southern Ocean ecosystem. This was made so much easier by the fact that these animals were a dream to work with. Unused to people, they were unfazed by me as a researcher. I could achieve things that researchers elsewhere could only dream of.

Of course, apart from the excitement of the science, part of the reward was the opportunities to travel in places never before visited by people, and to spend time in a part of the planet where people are not the dominant force.

To illustrate, in 1987, I visited a hut on the southwest coast of the island of South Georgia. It had been abandoned by a couple of scientists when they were evacuated by the Royal Navy at the outbreak of the Falkland’s war. I left a note on the table but when I returned 3 years later the note was still there and there was no evidence that anybody had been back in the intervening years, even in this relatively accessible part of Antarctica.

Most of my work was centred on a small island – Bird Island – at the west end of South Georgia. The coastal regions of Antarctica are rich in wildlife but some specific locations attract especially large numbers. Bird Island was one of these places.

The British Antarctic Survey had established a field station there a few years before I first arrived. Many of the great people who worked with me stayed there continuously for periods of 2 ½ years. These were all remarkable individuals none of whom saw it as a sacrifice to give up these years to spend time in such a sublime place.

Bird Island is like nowhere else on earth. An island only about 3 km long and about 1 km across, it was the breeding home for millions of seabirds and about 50,000 Antarctic fur seals, plus a few elephant seals. The huts in which we lived were located within a fur seal colony. This co-habitation had not been intentional but the colony had expanded to surround the buildings after they had been built.

Seals used to drape themselves over our equipment and supplies – often fast asleep – and if the front door was left open the fur seal pups would venture inside the hut. It was far from hygienic but this never seemed to affect us.

There followed studies of penguins, albatrosses, southern elephant seals and, later, ice-breeding seals in the deep ice fields of Marguerite Bay, the Weddell Sea and the Bellingshausen Sea.

I honed my skills of seamanship and flying, operating from yachts and in aircraft across the frozen expanses of the Weddell and Bellingshausen Seas, and jumping in and out of helicopters supplied by the Royal Navy and the US Coastguard. I circumnavigated three-quarters of the continent in the US Coastguard icebreaker Polar Star and I made pizza in the Drake Passage – perhaps the roughest stretch of sea on the planet. I also missed the first Gulf War almost completely. I knew something was happening but news was sparse. I have stayed in deep field camps on the Polar Plateau and flown down an ice canyon created by a massive iceberg hundreds of miles across when it broke away from the Antarctic ice sheet. I worked with big, dangerous animals which had the capacity to cripple or kill me in an unguarded moment. When my wife enquired about life insurance for me the broker just laughed.

If all this represents sufficient qualification for a Polar Medal, then I still feel undeserving – because I had great fun. But most who know me will recognise that it was in pursuit of a serious end point. I was living close to the edge partly for the fun of it, but also partly because it had a serious scientific purpose.

In spite of this, I left my Antarctic work behind because, amazingly, I needed a new challenge. This took me to working with another group of people to study beaked whales in the Bahamas – some of the most cryptic species on the planet – and cope with the politics of working with the US Navy on anti-submarine warfare, but that is another story.

Eventually, the thrill-seeker in me brought me to Defra. This great Department of State, with responsibility for delivering the food we eat and for sustaining environmental quality, is no less interesting than Antarctica with its millions of seals, penguins and other seabirds, and spectacular landscapes. But they are poles apart. My passion for science in Antarctica was largely driven by the idea that it was a place where people had little influence and therefore where large scale natural processes could be studied without this complication. At Defra it is all about people, managing their expectations and building better ways of living so that places like Antarctica – and the people of the planet – might survive.

Dedicated people applying science in the name of vigilance

I might be accused of favouritism but in one case I don’t care. I have written recent blog posts about the exciting work being done by Defra’s scientists at our Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquatic Science (CEFAS). I now want to highlight the great work being done at the Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA).

Britain is great at science, there is no doubt. We have one of the strongest university research sectors in the world and are investing in imaginative new institutions such as The Francis Crick and The Alan Turing Institutes. These and other places often produce stories about new discoveries which will eventually lead to some excellent innovation, some of which will incrementally make our lives better and a very small number of which could genuinely change our lives.

This is all good stuff, but we have a tendency to shine the spotlight on a certain kind of science that captures our imaginations about a different and better future rather than science which keeps the show on the road. This is what large numbers of government scientists spend their time doing.

This is exemplified by the scientists working at the Animal and Plant Health Agency. These individuals are largely responsible for keeping our farm animals, pets including dogs and cats, bees and our plants including our horticultural crops, cereals and our garden plants safe from disease and unwanted pests. They are the skilled boffins who can identify these diseases and pests and stop them arriving here in Britain. They also develop new control methods for them and add certainty to decisions made by ministers about what to do in cases of emerging disease.

For example, bovine tuberculosis is one of the most difficult diseases to manage and it is endemic in cattle and some wildlife, mainly badgers. The whole issue about how to deal with this has been hugely controversial mainly because badger culling in some places has emerged as one of the solutions. But culling badgers is a small part of the overall effort to control and understand the disease. Much of the other work, such as trying to find a better test for the presence of TB in cattle or testing new vaccines, goes unreported. The work of APHA’s scientists tends not to hit the headlines because it’s hard to report on work where the results emerge slowly – it will take decades to bring bovine tuberculosis under control. But a small victory for the scientists at APHA will hopefully come next year when the intention is to apply to the European Commission to have northern and eastern England declared officially free of bovine tuberculosis.

Nobody should under-represent the huge effort in terms of the lives and careers of the scientists at APHA in getting to such a milestone. However, they also know that eliminating bovine TB from all of England is almost certainly something that none of them will achieve in their careers, such is the size of the task at hand. But they will happily make their contribution to this long-term effort. I want to shout to the gallery in praise of their heroic efforts even if they themselves remain quiet and modest about their contribution.

Something we are often unaware of is that diseases are always changing. The scientists in APHA recognise well known diseases like rabies, TB and anthrax as fairly well fixed entities but they are also very aware of the unpredictable nature of disease. The pathogen which is causing ash die-back and caused so much controversy in 2013 was a benign fungus which changed to become a pathogenic fungus. Avian influenza, like all influenza viruses, is another of those highly variable diseases which can change from a low pathogenic strain to become highly pathogenic in the blink of an eye. It can also change from being a pathogen in birds to a pathogen in people too.

Transmissible spongiform encephalopathies (TSEs), also known as prion diseases, gave rise to a version in cattle in the 1990s known to everybody as BSE. Another version of this has emerged in deer in North America. Known as Chronic Wasting Disease, it has recently appeared in a few deer in Scandinavia. As far as we know it has very low transmissibility to people but we need to be cautious. TSEs are a complex and perplexing kind of disease which can emerge spontaneously.

Added to this there are many viral diseases which could mutate to become a problem – ebola and HIV are likely examples which probably transmitted from other species to people.

Spread of non-native invasive species is also a constant concern, such as the unwelcome Asian Hornet which eats honey bees, spotted earlier this year. Scientists at APHA are always on the look out to quickly identify these pests and stop them in their tracks before they spread beyond control.

The scientists at APHA scan this disease and pest landscape on our behalf and are ever vigilant. It is easy to forget them and as a result forget what they do for us to sustain the food we eat, our trading position in the world and our own health. Taking five minutes to check out the work APHA do is well worthwhile.

 

 

The importance of government science

‘Government science’ is important but greatly undervalued. For about four decades, the UK has built up a world-leading university sector – but perhaps at the cost of taking its eye off the value brought by science done within the public sector and, in particular, within the Civil Service itself.

The value of this science was illustrated to me on a recent visit to a Defra laboratory – the Centre for Environment Fisheries and Aquatic Science (Cefas) in Weymouth.

Cefas  is a world leading organisation in marine and freshwater science and technology; providing solutions to local and global issues in marine environment protection and food safety. The laboratory in Weymouth has specialist aquarium facilities that are unique within Europe and of global importance. Fish and shellfish can be held in biosecure conditions so that some of our most challenging fish diseases can be studied. Not only does the work in the lab service the needs of the UK government and others across Europe, it also supports the testing of new diagnostics and vaccines by commercial companies. It is doubtful whether the UK could have a credible aquaculture industry without Cefas, its laboratory and, most important of all, its excellent scientists.

Here are a few examples:

Richard Paley is studying the potential viruses carried by the Garra rufa fish; the fish which became famous in the ‘fish pedicure’ craze across the country. Import of these species into Britain dramatically increased between 2010 and 2014 to keep up with demand. Whilst the British public were enjoying, or being horrified by this new treatment, Richard and his team were working to ensure these fish were not bringing in any harmful diseases which could be a threat to both humans and local aquaculture.

Tim Bean has been leading the fight against the oyster herpesvirus, which appeared in Britain in 2010 and has been affect European oyster populations. There is no cure and it can wipe out up to 90% of juvenile oysters. Resistant individuals are selected based on genetic markers and these now provide the brood stock for the future oysters that appear on our plates. But this is likely to be a never-ending story; as viruses are likely to evolve to counter this selection, Tim always needs to work to stay one step ahead of the viruses to ensure a thriving British oyster stock into the future.

Shellfish such as oysters feed by filtering seawater, which is actually a thin soup of plankton, bacteria, viruses and other organics. One of the services they perform is to clean the water but this feeding technique can also results in uptake of sewage, chemicals and naturally occurring toxins which may be harmful to human health. Government standards set the levels of toxins deemed safe for human consumption, and Cefas undertakes monitoring to ensure the shellfish that reach our plates is safe, as well as continually updating and improving its methods. Alex Turner and colleagues devised a new method to improve the detection of Paralytic Shellfish Poisoning (PSP), caused by the accumulation of neurotoxin, saxitoxin.

http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0041010115001014

Cefas has also been at the forefront of detecting the presence of new and emerging threats in UK shellfish. Between 2013 and 2014, presence of the extremely dangerous pufferfish toxin, Tetrodotoxin, was detected in low levels in South coast UK shellfish populations. These toxins were previously thought not to occur in temperate waters, however increasing sea surfaces temperatures are opening a gateway for new toxins to thrive in waters previously deemed too cold. Cefas is leading the way in monitoring these new unwelcome guests before they become a problem.

http://www.eurosurveillance.org/ViewArticle.aspx?ArticleId=21009

Not only have new detection technologies benefited the UK – Cefas has led projects with shrimp farmers in South East Asia to detect White Spot Syndrome Virus (WSSV), which is extremely infectious and able to wipe out entire populations of shrimps in a matter of days. They are also using DNA in aquaculture ponds to monitor genomic changes over time, to determine when an outbreak is about to occur. This allows early warning signals that the stock may be at risk. This technique enables the discovery of viruses and pathogens previously invisible to standard PCR techniques.

https://www.cefas.co.uk/case-studies/diseases-in-shrimp-aquaculture/

Work on prediction methods to pre-empt harmful Virbrio sp. outbreaks across Europe (cholera is a vibrio) is also being led by Craig Baker-Austin. We now know that Vibrio sp. thrive at specific salinities and temperatures narrowing down the areas of risk. We need to keep an eye on these dangerous pathogens.

http://www.nature.com/nclimate/journal/v3/n1/full/nclimate1628.html

These examples illustrate the vital work being done by government scientists. They are a modest bunch of people who rarely talk openly about the great work they do. But the next time I eat seafood from British waters, or from abroad, I will be grateful for the work and dedication of the people at Cefas in Weymouth. Because, thanks to them, I will know it is safe to eat.

The opportunities and challenges of open data

 


When people think about ‘data’, especially in its modern context, agriculture may not be the first thing that crosses their minds. Yet agricultural data are some of the oldest: megalithic stone circles mark the yearly shift of the sun – and thus, the seasons; the earliest cuneiform tablets from Mesopotamia record grain yields and livestock sales; the Domesday book lists farmsteads and agricultural workers; while farmer’s almanacs, going back to the middle ages, record meteorological conditions and their effect on crops. Modern statistical science, which developed from a need to understand data, also owes a debt to agriculture – from Mendel’s rules of heredity being essentially statistical, to the great Ronald Fisher, who revolutionised statistics in the 20th century while working for Rothamsted Research, trying to help them understand the wealth of agricultural data they were generating.

Just as the knowledge-sharing in agricultural almanacs was beneficial to farmers in the middle ages, open data has much to offer farmers and communities around the world in the 21st century. I was recently one of 700 delegates from around the world at the Global Open Data in Agriculture and Nutrition (GODAN) meeting, sponsored by the UN in New York. There was a lot of optimism about the potential of open data to be an important part of the solution to global problems of food poverty and poor nutrition, especially as the population increases and food production becomes more costly, due to climate change and uncertainties about energy and fertiliser production. Open data has a capacity to make a real difference in developing economies, which often leap-frog more developed economies, with some of the first telecommunication infrastructure to appear in developing countries being the mobile smartphone. Codifying data in the right formats can turn people who might not have access to some other basic infrastructures in to genuine participants in economic activity.

In developed countries, the methods of engagement may differ but the effects should be the same. This is fundamentally about allowing information to flow easily between those who have knowledge to those who need that knowledge with minimum friction, freeing up capacity to innovate. For example, the activities of CABI, an organisation which hold statistics about plant pests and diseases, can assist farmers to understand what plant diseases they are coping with and how to adapt their farming methods to reduce the impact of disease. Other forms of communication can help farmers to find markets for their produce, get paid and also find sources of the best seeds suited to their soil conditions. All of this is powered by open data.

Data is agnostic to whether the applications are in developing or developed economies. In developed economies with a technological advantage, data can support precision agriculture to get the best quality produce for market, while in developing economies it can help those who farm at small scales to understand how their yields can be improved. In the UK, for instance, 3D landscape models, originally generated by the Environment Agency to plan defences for and mitigate flood, has been made open and is being used by English sparkling wine producers to identify slopes with the best aspect and elevation for planting new vines. In emerging economies, simply sharing data on soil type, crop variety and yield can make a huge difference. Better access to data is a great leveller, a tool by which inequalities can be addressed.

The Open Data Institute suggests that open data is infrastructure for the digital economy. In an environmental context, ensuring that individuals have access to information empowers them to make decisions informed by evidence. In an agricultural context, open data has the potential to share information to allow the development of a culture of continuous improvement.

The commitment to open data at GODAN is impressive, representing a global effort. The enthusiasm there was infectious, the examples of successes were compelling, and the genuine commitment of the delegates to make a difference in the challenges facing the planet was inspirational.

The UK has been a leading light in establishing GODAN, together with the USA and Kenya. Other countries, such as Germany, are now coming on board. In the UK we are trying to lead by example by making our own government data open by default, unless there is a compelling reason not to, for example if it contains personal information. After a sustained effort, over 40% of all UK government data now comes from Defra – over 12,000 datasets, a figure still rising – and much of this is about food and farming, or is at least relevant to the environmental outcomes affected by our agriculture. Anybody can access, use and share these data, which has seen the data being used in new and unanticipated ways, as innovators use data intended for one purpose in ways that solve problems for other areas – including the LiDAR data being used by wine producers.

As I emphasised in the two presentations I gave at the GODAN conference, open data is not enough on its own. There are two additional and essential steps which have to happen. The first is making sure there are tools to allow people to ‘see’ data much more easily. People need to be led through the crowded landscape of the inner workings of websites in ways that allow them to interrogate the data to answer questions relevant to them. This needs some smart thinking, including employing machine learning, where computers themselves learn from the questions people are asking and construct the algorithms needed to access the right data.

The second step is to develop use-case studies. These are illustrations of the ways in which using data has helped farmers and those working in agriculture. These are necessary because often those people involved don’t know what questions to ask of the data. If they never ask the questions then the knowledge residing in the data will never be mined and put to use. This is a much bigger problem than many people realise. Unless practitioners are primed to ask questions of data they will never know what they are missing.

Despite all the euphoria around the power of data, I was surprised by how little caution there was in the rhetoric emerging from the conference. For some, it was a case of open data at any cost. Implicit in their argument is that any restrictions or limits on use – whatever they might be – will greatly reduce the benefits of the data. In my talks I challenged this. Too many great technologies, especially many of those associated with synthetic biology, which should be revolutionising farming and food production across the globe, are sitting on the shelf unused. This is largely because the early gung-ho messaging when these technologies appeared sensitised people to potential (but largely spurious) disadvantages. Although we are more used to knowledge and information flowing to and from us that we perhaps are to having synthetic biology embedded in our lives, there are dangers from giving out the wrong messages.

Everybody leaves behind their digital smoke and our own signatures sit within the clouds of data, which power digital economies. For those who wish to, there are ways of using this to find out more about us than perhaps some people might wish. I am a great supporter of open data, but we need to make sure that people know where data about them are, how it is being used and by whom. At Defra, data practitioners go to great lengths to remove any personal data from agricultural datasets, but this remains a challenge for some datasets, such as data on movement of animals. There is risk involved just as in any activity, and it is important that those risks be acknowledged and managed. It is important to be open about open data.

Tackling the food waste problem

 

Defensive cooking is a term I learned when deep ocean sailing and working on Antarctic research stations. When there is no shop just down the road, every item of fresh food is precious and one’s diet is often dominated by food that is just about to go mouldy.  This experience has made me much more sensitive to wasting good food but, sadly, I am still guilty of letting the odd tomato slip into a fuzzy state. While I’m less fussy than some other people about actually eating a mouldy tomato some of them do head for the bin.

The UK throws away at least 10 million tonnes of food every year, 60% of which is avoidable. This wasted food has a retail value of £17 billion representing about £265 of wasted money for every person in the UK.  For an average family of four people this would mean it’s like throwing away about £1,500 of their annual earnings, roughly enough to pay for a short holiday. Remarkably, most people when asked deny that they do this.

Apart from the direct impact this has on people, according to the Waste Resources Action Programme, the UK’s avoidable food waste gives rise to at least 20 million tonnes of carbon dioxide which is equivalents to about one-third of the carbon dioxide produced from domestic fuel used for cooking and heating. To make matters even worse some of the waste food ends up in landfill sites where it often ends up as methane. If this escapes to the atmosphere, as much of it does, then it is 25 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. This should indicate that cutting food waste will save more than just the pennies in our pockets.

But there are ways of fixing this problem. I recently visited Swadlincote, in the heart of the midlands. Swadlincote has committed to slashing the food waste produced by its residents and businesses by 50% by the end of the year. The programme is run in association with Sainsbury’s Waste Less, Save More campaign. Almost 200 local councils applied for a £1 million investment from Sainsbury’s to trial a number of initiatives and technologies.

The Swadlincote project is currently in its early stages: an initial analysis of the contents of the bins of 800 people was conducted in January of this year. The past few months have been devoted to rolling out the various initiatives and creating awareness including smart fridges and ensuring that people measure how much they are chucking away. Participants are also being advised about zero-waste meal plans.

The Winnow scales used to weigh and record details about their waste are connected the home owner’s mobile phone and the fridge sends a picture of its contents to the phone whenever it is opened. The scale keeps a continuous log of the weight of food being wasted and an estimate of its cost and the pictures mean that when shoppers are in the store thinking about what to buy they can see what is in their fridge helping to stop them from over-buying perishable items. Participants are given a simple system for checking the temperature of their fridge and there is a healthy competition among the Winnow-users to save the most money.

Winnow scale

Six families have been chosen to trial the smart technologies and I visited a family to see this for myself. They had two children under five and were selected by the Waste Less, Save More team to trial the zero-waste meal plans, a smart fridge and the Winnow scale. They said that these changes have helped them to adjust their shopping and cooking habits to be less wasteful and the smart fridge has helped their salad items last for longer. They estimate that they have saved £10 per week on their food bill as a result and one of them has even shifted to vegetarian food.

This project is as much about education as it is about high tech solutions.  Sainsbury’s are providing primary schools with educational materials that ensure children understand food waste and how to prevent it, and these messages can be taken back to their homes to allow “pester power” to work its magic.

Gillian Coates, the Waste and Recycling Manager for South Derbyshire district council, runs the “Food Saver Champions” which is a network of volunteers on hand to provide recipes and advice. Swadlincote is also rolling out a refitted vintage van for their champions to use. It will be brought to special events within the town to act as a rallying point, serve low-waste food, and help to distribute the programme’s messages.

Waste less Save more 01

The impact of Swadlincote’s initiatives and efforts will not be seen until early 2017 when the second analysis of the town’s waste is conducted. Any true success, however, must be measured by a lasting impact and sustained behavioural changes. Sainsbury’s has recruited other local authorities in to their campaign mainly because they see how much sense it makes. Just disposing of all that food waste is a real headache for local authorities.

I hope that any successes made by Swadlincote and the Waste Less, Save More campaign will be carried forward into the future by their participants, rather than forgotten just as quickly as the defensive cooking practices of the disembarked crews of scientific research vessels.

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.

 

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.