News: News Archives
Presentation by Shirley M. Malcom for the Congressional Nanotechnology Caucus
31 March 2008
I was fortunate to have been a member of President Clinton's Committee of Advisors on Science and Technology when the nanotechnology initiative was proposed and budget support for this was requested. So we had a kind of inside view on the initiative. Since it encompassed much existing research some of us wondered if it was a case of "old wine in new bottles."
But we all were helped to recognize that "nanoscience and nanoengineering" were different and important and that they required a fundamental re—thinking of how science and engineering would be funded and how it would get done. Because it is inherently interdisciplinary, because interests in these areas cut across the interests and investment portfolios and investment potential of multiple agencies, there was the need to construct very different infrastructure at institutional and federal levels. Because it presented great risks as well as great rewards there was the need to consider ethical, legal and social implications (ELSI) of nanotechnology (the public stake, the public reactions and the public concerns) even as the science and engineering moved ahead.
We'd been down this road before: on the cusp of a major scientific undertaking offering rich rewards and public concerns and the need to consider ELSI as an integral aspect the initiative; an initiative with the potential to be "hyped," where too many promises could be made.
The example that comes to mind is that of the Human Genome Project. We at AAAS received a grant under the ELSI program of the Department of Energy. Our ambitions led us to think very broadly about audience—beyond the college educated populations who are often the target of so many of our informal science activities on public broadcasting or in museums, beyond the schools as outlets for the latest "whatever," to imagine how to reach "just plain folks."
We had to first imagine where regular people went if they had a question?
What stimulated their questions?
What would they need to answer their questions? and
Who did they trust, in terms of engagement around controversial or concerning issues?
We ended up developing materials (print, video) that "traveled well"—across venues, ages and levels of education. In the process we created a new genre of "clear language science" in the form of a book, "Your Genes, Your Choices."
"Your Genes, Your Choices" is a book that is driven by short vignettes, little stories, that recount how people might confront the science and the choices with which they might then be presented. The chapter that follows explains much of the science a reader would need to know to effect these decisions. Locations of planned outreach included senior citizens residences, libraries and churches. But the book and video traveled far beyond our anticipated destinations—every educational level from middle school through college, informal venues and around the world. Requests were received to translate the materials into many other languages, including Icelandic.
It seems that by bringing people into the story we struck a chord. They were willing to work a little harder to understand the underlying scientific concepts and to consider that this science could affect their own lives.
Fast-forward to Nanotechnology
Do similar opportunities emerge to tell the story, using the ELSI issues as "lead in" to the science and engineering? Absolutely, but I am concerned about the nature and level of engagement. Are the powerful stories about the science and engineering available to counter balance the sci-fi films and presentations related to the risk?
Those of us of a certain age remember an old movie called The Blob. But more recent statements about gray goo, coupled with regulatory failures and the global nature of the science raise legitimate concerns even among those of us who have worked to understand more about the initiative.
I contrast this with a story embedded in a production of "Curious" a documentary about the work of Caltech scientists and engineers.
Schlinger Professor of Chemical Engineering Mark Davis custom—designed nanoparticles for fighting cancer. The nanoparticles are built to deliver chemotherapy drugs to tumors in such a way as to minimize the side effects. Constructed of a synthetic polymer and a chemotherapeutic drug, the particles are about 40nm in diameter (1/1000 the diameter of a human hair). They are big enough to avoid being washed out by the kidneys but small enough to easily pass through the new veins and capillaries (often deformed and "holey") being constructed for the tumor. They move throughout it, enter the tumor cells and unload the drugs at the spot that will do the most good. They do not poison the rest of the system and produce the associated horrible side effects of hair loss and nausea.
Davis began his work on the nanoparticles as "drug delivery systems" at the request of his wife who was being treated for breast cancer 10 years ago and who was suffering the side effects of the chemotherapy. The work changed the direction of his lab and of his life.
The approach is still experimental and is in a Phase I clinical trial, being tested on patients at City of Hope in Duarte, Calif.
This wonderful story did not run away from the science. And I would venture that anyone who had the opportunity to see this segment would work to understand the science and the engineering, given the widespread reality of cancer in all of our lives.
So what does it take to engage "just plain folks" with difficult science and engineering topics?
Accessible science, framed in a relevant context
Accessible venues (including, but not limited to, public broadcasting)
Opportunities to raise questions and have them answered
Perhaps the new media will help point the way, with YouTube and blogs.
But then what comes next? When the risks and benefits are understood, will infrastructure and support be in place to maximize the benefits while minimizing the risks (through funding and research requirements, regulation, etc.)? Finding the right balance is what is required, including bringing the public's need to understand the broader impacts and support the research into the center of the discussion.