David Kirkpatrick

September 9, 2010

The public is a bit wary of synthetic biology

I’m a boundary-pusher in scientific research — I love nanotechnology, stem cell research, genetic research, robotics applications, and of course, I love the promise of synthetic biology. This poll finds only one-third of of surveyed adults want to see the field banned until it’s better understood, but a majority do want to see more government oversight.

The release:

The Public Looks At Synthetic Biology — Cautiously

WASHINGTON, DC: Synthetic biology—defined as the design and construction of new biological parts, devices, and systems or re-design of existing natural biological systems for useful purposes—holds enormous potential to improve everything from energy production to medicine, with the global market projected to reach $4.5 billion by 2015. But what does the public know about this emerging field, and what are their hopes and concerns? A new poll of 1,000 U.S. adults conducted by Hart Research Associates and the Synthetic Biology Project at the Woodrow Wilson Center finds that two-thirds of Americans think that synthetic biology should move forward, but with more research to study its possible effects on humans and the environment, while one-third support a ban until we better understand its implications and risks. More than half of Americans believe the federal government should be involved in regulating synthetic biology.

“The survey clearly shows that much more attention needs to be paid to addressing biosafety and biosecurity risks,” said David Rejeski, Director of the Synthetic Biology Project. “In addition, government and industry need to engage the public about the science and its applications, benefits, and risks.”

The poll findings reveal that the proportion of adults who say they have heard a lot or some about synthetic biology has almost tripled in three years, (from 9 percent to 26 percent). By comparison, self-reported awareness of nanotechnology increased from 24 percent to 34 percent during the same three-year period.

Although the public supports continued research in the area of synthetic biology, it also harbors concerns, including 27 percent who have security concerns (concerns that the science will be used to make harmful things), 25 percent who have moral concerns, and a similar proportion who worry about negative health consequences for humans. A smaller portion, 13 percent, worries about possible damage to the environment.

“The survey shows that attitudes about synthetic biology are not clear-cut and that its application is an important factor in shaping public attitudes towards it,” said Geoff Garin, President of Hart Research. Six in 10 respondents support the use of synthetic biology to produce a flu vaccine. In contrast, three-fourths of those surveyed have concerns about its use to accelerate the growth of livestock to increase food production. Among those for whom moral issues are the top concern, the majority views both applications in a negative light.

The findings come from a nationwide telephone survey of 1,000 adults and has a margin of error of ± 3.1 percentage points. This is the fifth year that Hart Research Associates has conducted a survey to gauge public opinion about nanotechnology and/or synthetic biology for the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

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The report can be found at: www.synbioproject.org

The Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars of the Smithsonian Institution was established by Congress in 1968 and is headquartered in Washington, D.C. It is a nonpartisan institution, supported by public and private funds and engaged in the study of national and world affairs.

May 21, 2010

Synthetic biology and ethics

Any regular readers of this blog know where I stand on this issue. (Hint: I’m a pretty big fan of synthetic biology.)

From the first link, the release:

Press Release: Moral Issues Raised by Synthetic Biology Subject of Hastings Center Project

Project completes third workshop as news of first synthetic bacterial genome announced

(Garrison NY) A Hastings Center workshop examining moral issues in synthetic biology completed its third meeting as the J. Craig Venter Group announced that it had created the first viable cell with a synthetic genome. “Synthetic biology certainly raises deep philosophical and moral questions about the human relationship to nature,” according to Gregory Kaebnick, a Hastings Center scholar who is managing the project. “It’s not clear what the answers to those questions are.  If  by ‘nature’ we mean the world around us, more or less as we found it, we may well decide that synthetic biology does not really change the human relationship to nature—and may even help us preserve what is left of it.”

Nor is it clear that the questions raised by synthetic biology are new ones. According to Thomas H. Murray, president of The Hastings Center and the project’s principal investigator, “We have come up against similar problems in other domains—most notably, in work on nanotechnology and gene transfer technology—but synthetic biology poses them especially sharply and pressingly.”

The Hastings Center has been at the forefront of interdisciplinary research into ethical issues in emerging technology. The synthetic biology project is funded by a grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation . Project participants include synthetic biologists, bioethicists, philosophers, and public policy experts. The Center’s work is part of a comprehensive look at synthetic biology by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. Other participants in the initiative are the J. Craig Venter Institute and the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

Here’s the release on the Venter Institute’s bacterial cell controlled by a synthetic genome. Head below the fold for the full text. (more…)

January 15, 2009

Congress looking into nanotech safety

Hope this doesn’t stifle innovation. Congress sticking fingers into anything is usually a recipe for problems. Of course the source for this report is a pretty biased group in terms of wanting more oversight over nanotechnology.

The release from a few minutes ago:

Nanotech Safety High on Congress’ Priority List

New House bill addresses need for more risk research, oversight

WASHINGTON, Jan. 15 /PRNewswire-USNewswire/ — The House Science and Technology Committee today introduced legislation that highlights the growing attention on Capitol Hill for the need to strengthen federal efforts to learn more about the potential environmental, health and safety (EHS) risks posed by engineered nanomaterials. Nanotechnology is an emerging technology that promises to usher in the next Industrial Revolution and is the focus of an annual $1.5 billion federal research investment.

The new bill (H.R. 554) is almost identical to legislation that passed the House last year with overwhelming bi-partisan support by a vote of 407 to 6. The Senate was expected to mark up similar legislation, but lawmakers ran out of time during the session.

Introduction of the bill comes only months after former Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) official J. Clarence (Terry) Davies authored a report that makes a series of recommendations for improving federal risk research and oversight of engineered nanomaterials at EPA, the Food and Drug Administration and the Consumer Product Safety Commission. The report published by the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies (PEN), Nanotechnology Oversight: An Agenda for the Next Administration, offers a host of proposals for how Congress, federal agencies and the White House can improve oversight of engineered nanomaterials; see: http://www.nanotechproject.org/publications/archive/pen13/.

“We know that when materials are developed at the nanoscale that they pose potential risks that do not appear at the macroscale,” says David Rejeski, PEN’s director. “This new bill shows that lawmakers recognize both nanotechnology’s enormous promise and possible problems. The legislation reflects mounting Congressional interest in understanding potential risks in order to protect the public and to encourage safe commercial development and investment.”

The House bill comes only weeks after a National Research Council (NRC) panel issued a highly critical report describing serious shortfalls in the Bush administration’s strategy to better understand the EHS risks of nanotechnology and to effectively manage those potential risks.

The NRC report, Review of the Federal Strategy for Nanotechnology-Related Environmental, Health and Safety Research, calls for a significantly revamped national strategic plan that will minimize potential risks so that innovation will flourish and society will reap nanotechnology’s benefits in areas like medicine, energy, transportation and communications.

About Nanotechnology

Nanotechnology is the ability to measure, see, manipulate and manufacture things usually between 1 and 100 nanometers. A nanometer is one billionth of a meter; a human hair is roughly 100,000 nanometers wide. In 2007, the global market for goods incorporating nanotechnology totaled $147 billion. Lux Research projects that figure will grow to $3.1 trillion by 2015.

The Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies is an initiative launched by the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and The Pew Charitable Trusts in 2005. It is dedicated to helping business, government and the public anticipate and manage possible health and environmental implications of nanotechnology. For more information about the project, log on to www.nanotechproject.org.

Source: The Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies
   
Web Site:  http://www.nanotechproject.org/

December 8, 2008

Nanotechnology needs a PR campaign

I’m doing my part. I’ve been fighting fear and ignorance about the subject and even bringing up some potential drawbacks.

And then I read this. Actually this release is on the same topic as the second link up there in graf one.

The release from today:

Nanotech: To know it is not necessarily to love it

Research shows cultural biases most impact opinion on nanotech

Washington, DC – Public opinion surveys report that the small fraction of people who know about nanotechnology have a favorable view of it. This finding has led many to assume that the public at large will respond favorably to nanotechnology applications as popular awareness grows, education expands and commercialization increases.

But the results of an experiment, conducted by the Cultural Cognition Project at Yale Law School in collaboration with the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies (PEN) and published Dec. 7 on the Nature Nanotechnology Web site, do not support this “familiarity hypothesis.”

The experiment found that how people react to information about nanotechnology depends on cultural predispositions. Exposed to balanced information, people with pro-commerce values tend to see the benefits of nanotechnology as outweighing any risks. However, people with egalitarian or communitarian values who are predisposed to blame commerce and industry for social inequities and environmental harm tend to see nanotechnology risks as outweighing benefits.

The study also found that people who have pro-commerce cultural values are more likely to know about nanotechnology than others. “Not surprisingly, people who are enthused by technology and believe it can be safe and beneficial tend to learn about new technologies before other people do,” said Dan Kahan, Professor at Yale Law School and lead author of the Nature Nanotechnology article. “So while various opinion polls suggest that familiarity with nanotechnology leads people to believe it is safe, they have been confusing cause with effect.”

The findings of the experiment highlight the need for any nanotechnology information and risk communication strategy to focus on message framing and to take an informed, multi-audience approach, according to PEN experts.

“The message matters. How information about nanotechnology is presented to the vast majority of the public who still know little about it can either make or break this technology,” says David Rejeski, the director of PEN. “Scientists, the government and industry generally take a simplistic, ‘just the facts’ approach to communicating with the public about a new technology. But this research shows that diverse audiences and groups react to the same information very differently.”

Because perfecting the science of nanotechnology risk communication is essential to society’s realization of the full benefits of nanotechnology itself, PEN experts believe that every major funding initiative directed at the development of nanotechnology and the study of nanotechnology risks should include a risk-communication component.

“Without investment in understanding how to explain the potential risks, as well as the potential benefits, to the public, significant innovation could be stifled,” Rejeski adds.

 

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The study was conducted as part of a series of public opinion analyses being conducted jointly by the Cultural Cognition Project and the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies. Previous experiments, which also examined the influence of emotion and the identity of information providers on public attitudes, can be found at www.nanotechproject.org/yale.

About Nanotechnology

Nanotechnology is the ability to measure, see, manipulate and manufacture things usually between 1 and 100 nanometers. A nanometer is one billionth of a meter; a human hair is roughly 100,000 nanometers wide. In 2007, the global market for goods incorporating nanotechnology totaled $147 billion. Lux Research projects that figure will grow to $3.1 trillion by 2015.

The Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies is an initiative launched by the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and The Pew Charitable Trusts in 2005. It is dedicated to helping business, government and the public anticipate and manage possible health and environmental implications of nanotechnology. For more information about the project, log on to www.nanotechproject.org.

December 5, 2008

Obama and a Presidential Science Advisor

This release from the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars recommends Obama get a science advisor he trusts in place quickly.

Once again, it’s going to be nice to have rational adults in charge of things again after the Bush 43 years of total scientific disdain.

The release:

 Making a Critical Connection: Science Advice and the Next President
Former presidential advisors highlight the need for a swift appointment

December 04, 2008

The economy. Health care. Energy. The environment and cost-effective ways to keep it healthy. National security. Prevention of terrorism. President-elect Barack Obama will have a full plate!

Science, technology and innovation are key elements in such matters, and because of earlier investments, our nation has some of the world’s leading scientists and engineers, including a vibrant university research system coupled with an innovative, productive industrial sector. These are pillars of our technical infrastructure. If President-elect Obama marshals these resources to help tackle central problems, he will be off to a head start. To do that, he would be wise to appoint a science and technology advisor whose advice he trusts as an early pre-inauguration act. Laws and customs in Washington may be different from those in biology, or chemistry, or physics, but each is equally valid in its regime. A wise advisor can bridge the gap.

Needed is a trusted presidential science advisor who has the breadth of knowledge, experience, and sound judgment to help devise practical and effective policies. The benefits of making the right decisions are enormous — as are the costs of making mistakes. Over the past 60 years, every president has had an advisor on science and technology and an office focused on science and technology. Since 1976, the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) has been in place in the White House. The science advisor and OSTP have historically played a central role — usually behind the scenes — in crafting national policies. A robust OSTP, located in the White House complex and closely integrated with the other White House functions such as the Office of Management and Budget, is of great importance.

Science and engineering are foundations of knowledge upon which new products, services, industries and jobs are built, and upon which sound public policy is crafted. There are many examples of the benefits of building policies on a strong scientific foundation — enabling the digital information age, making the United States second to none in biomedical research — and the costs of not doing so are unacceptable, leading to declining competitiveness in manufacturing, the lack of cost-effective alternatives to foreign oil as a primary energy source, and increased offshoring of our advanced R&D and technological innovation.

The Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, the Center for the Study of the Presidency and others have recently released reportscalling for enhanced capacity for science and technology policymaking in the White House. The reports recommend a series of practical bipartisan steps the next president can take to ensure that he can benefit from reliable analyses and advice. At the top of the list is the early appointment of a nationally respected leader to be science advisor—and restore the position to the rank of the Assistant to the President for Science and Technology. An early appointment will ensure that the president has access to advice on the selection of qualified people to fill additional key scientific positions in his administration and is able to incorporate science and technology into major policy and budget initiatives in a timely and effective way.

Ultimately, implementation and governance are as important as advice. The nation’s scientists and engineers, whether in universities, government agencies, corporations or nonprofit organizations are a tremendous national resource. The president can influence how this great resource is used to meet our national goals. Through his leadership, the president can inspire and challenge the scientific and engineering communities to devise solutions to the problems facing the nation, just as President John F. Kennedy did.

The first step is to be quick to appoint a science advisor with vision and a strong commitment to public service and who can develop a close working relationship with President-elect Obama. Wisdom is the essential ingredient of sound advice — and sound advice is the prerequisite for inspired and effective public policy.

Former Presidential Science Advisors:

Edward E. David (1970 – 1973)
John H. Gibbons (1993 – 1998)
Neal F. Lane (1998 – 2001)
John P. McTague (1986)

September 29, 2008

Nanotech coming at ya from left field

I’m guessing my readers don’t fall into this information category.

The release:

Nanotech and Synbio: Americans Don’t Know What’s Coming

Landmark poll shows little knowledge of emerging technologies

WASHINGTON, Sept. 30 /PRNewswire-USNewswire/ — A groundbreaking poll finds that almost half of U.S. adults have heard nothing about nanotechnology, and nearly nine in 10 Americans say they have heard just a little or nothing at all about the emerging field of synthetic biology, according to a new report released by the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies (PEN) and Peter D. Hart Research.  Both technologies involve manipulating matter at an incredibly small scale to achieve something new.

This new insight into limited public awareness of emerging technologies comes as a major leadership change is about to take hold in the nation’s capital.  Public policy experts are concerned, regardless of party, that the federal government is behind the curve in engaging citizens on the potential benefits and risks posed by technologies that could have a significant impact on society.

“Early in the administration of the next president, scientists are expected to take the next major step toward the creation of synthetic forms of life. Yet the results from the first U.S. telephone poll about synthetic biology show that most adults have heard just a little or nothing at all about it,” says PEN Director David Rejeski. The poll findings are contained a report published today, The American Public’s Awareness Of And Perceptions About Potential Risks and Benefits of Nanotechnology & Synthetic Biology, and available at:  http://www.nanotechproject.org/n/synbio_poll.

Synthetic biology is the use of advanced science and engineering to construct or re-design living organisms – like bacteria – so that they can carry out specific functions. This emerging technology is likely to develop rapidly in the coming years, much as nanotechnology did in the last decade. In the near future the first synthetic biology “blockbuster” drug is anticipated to hit the market – an affordable treatment for the 500 million people in the world suffering from malaria.

The poll, which was conducted by the same firm that produces the well-known NBC News/Wall Street Journal polls, found that about two-thirds of adults say they have heard nothing at all about synthetic biology, and only 2 percent say they have heard “a lot” about the new technology. Even with this very low level of awareness, a solid two-thirds of adults are willing to express an initial opinion on the potential benefits versus risks tradeoff of synthetic biology.

This survey was informed by two focus groups conducted in August in suburban Baltimore. This is the first time – to the pollsters’ knowledge – that synthetic biology has been the subject of a representative national telephone survey.

At the same time, the poll found that about half of adults say they have heard nothing at all about nanotechnology. About 50 percent of adults are too unsure about nanotechnology to make an initial judgment on the possible tradeoffs between benefits and risks. Of those people who are willing to make an initial judgment, they think benefits will outweigh risks by a three to one margin when compared to those who believe risks will outweigh benefits. The plurality of respondents, however, believes that risks and benefits will be about equal. A major industry forecasting firm determined that last year nanotech goods in the global marketplace totaled $147 billion.

According to the poll, the level of U.S. public awareness about nanotechnology has not changed measurably since 2004 when Hart Research conducted the first poll on the topic on behalf of the PEN.

About Nanotechnology

Nanotechnology is the ability to measure, see, manipulate and manufacture things usually between 1 and 100 nanometers. A nanometer is one billionth of a meter; a human hair is roughly 100,000 nanometers wide. In 2007, the global market for goods incorporating nanotechnology totaled $147 billion. Lux Research projects that figure will grow to $3.1 trillion by 2015.

About Synthetic Biology

Synthetic biology is the use of advanced science and engineering to make or re-design living organisms, such as bacteria, so that they can carry out specific functions. Synthetic biology involves making new genetic code, also known as DNA, that does not already exist in nature.

The Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies is an initiative launched by the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and The Pew Charitable Trusts in 2005. It is dedicated to helping business, government and the public anticipate and manage possible health and environmental implications of nanotechnology. For more information about the project, log on to http://www.nanotechproject.org/.

For information about the Center, visit www.wilsoncenter.org.
Source: The Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies
   

Web Site:  http://www.nanotechproject.org/