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Newsletter 15th June 2007

- Nanotechnology and public engagement - Transport subsidies and the environment - EU organic regulation - The Heiligendamm testament

Nanotechnology and public engagement

Nanotechnology is fashionable and, like most new technologies, has had its potential over-hyped by many. One area where the potential may or may not ultimately be fulfilled is thin-film photovoltaics. Conventional solar cells are a very expensive means to generate electricity, despite continued efficiency increases. They also use considerable quantities of pure silicon, which was until recently in relatively short supply. The concept of producing more efficient, cheaper cells using thin films of silicon is therefore very attractive. But, after six years’ work and a quarter of a billion dollars worth of venture capital (according to Cientifica, which reports on nanotechnologies), manufacturing and reliability problems have not been overcome. And, in the meantime, supplies of silicon have increased and conventional cells have become more efficient. Technology does not stand still, and picking winners is all but impossible.
 
Nevertheless, the unique properties of materials at the nano-scale make this a fruitful area for development but, along with projected benefits come potential hazards. The most obvious of these is that extremely small particles are capable of getting into places where they may not be wanted, including human cells, and there are considerable efforts taking place to establish the safety of carbon nano-tubes and the like. More fanciful is the concept of self-replicating “nano-bots” swamping the planet: the infamous “grey goo” scenario. Poorly handled, such issues have the potential to be a major public relations disaster in the similar way to GM crops.
 
One way to avoid this – pushed hard by the think tank Demos, among others – is public engagement. The concept is that, by involving lay people in the debate early on, concerns are raised and addressed and the direction of research influenced in ways which are likely to increase acceptance by society. This is the currently fashionable view of how relations between scientists and the public should be handled, replacing the “deficit model” addressed by the much-derided Public Understanding of Science (PUS) movement.
 
Actually, we have never thought that the idea of scientists telling lay people about their work was a bad one, but in this post-modern world “fact” is a dirty word, and lack of knowledge is not seen as a barrier to involvement. It is interesting, then, to see the latest views on public engagement from Richard Jones (chair of the UK government’s Nanotechnology Engagement Group), published in Nature Nanotechnology. In his view, the process is not being successful (that is, it is not raising the public profile of the area) partly because of the lack of agreement on the objectives of the exercise among the various stakeholders. Another problem is the difficulty of non-scientists understanding the complexities of the topic. Perhaps more PUS is needed after all.
 
There is a view that, despite the laudable intentions of the Public Engagement enthusiasts, the general public is profoundly uninterested in getting involved in broad, diffuse issues relating to cutting-edge technology. That leaves scientists (public and private sector), policy makers and pressure groups as the three sectors engaged in debate. Continued attempts to involve the general public at an early stage will generally result in NGOs, think tanks and activists taking part as their self-appointed proxies. In many cases, they will be profoundly distrustful of science and – in true post-modernist fashion – try to trump natural science with social science.
 
We find this a worrying concept. Increased scientific literacy of the general public is to be encouraged by all means possible, as is the role of working scientists in communicating their work in everyday language. But the Public Engagement movement is in danger of handing control of science policy to unrepresentative pressure groups. The Nature Nanotechnology report suggests that this may not be as productive an approach as its protagonists suggest in any case. In the meantime, all scientists should be aware of the social implications of their work, and aim to communicate with other stakeholders as much as possible.

Transport subsidies and the environment

The European Environment Agency has recently published a report on what it regards as subsidies for various forms of transport, related to their impact on the environment. They estimate that environmental damage in the EU25 caused by transport amounts to a vast €650 billion annually, while total subsidies of about €280 billion are paid. Of these, about 43% go to road transport, mainly in the form of infrastructure subsidies. The thesis is that elimination of subsidies or changing their balance could provide economic incentives to use less environmentally-damaging means of travel.
 
At first sight, this report looks somewhat simplistic. In the UK, for example, taxes received from motorists vastly exceed government expenditure on the road system, which hardly seems to amount to a subsidy. Equally, although aviation fuel is exempt from VAT – to the distress of environmentalists – the net benefit to national economies of aviation is far higher than this notional subsidy. Any further thoughts on this from readers would be welcome.
 
EU organic regulation

The European Commission is now set to accept a general maximum level for adventitious presence of GM material of 0.9% in non-GM produce, including organic. Mariann Fischer Boel, the Agriculture Commissioner, says that this is the only practical route, as enforcing the 0.1% limit demanded by the organic lobby would be too expensive to adhere to and could threaten the very viability of organic farming. Despite the squeals of outrage from the usual suspects, this is a simple victory for commonsense.
 
Organic agriculture is based on a set of defined production standards, verified by inspection and not distinguishable by analysis. Organic produce often has similar levels of pesticide residues to the conventionally farmed equivalent, for example. Over two-thirds of conventional fruit and vegetables have no detectable pesticide residues in any case. Organic products often have significant leeway in their make-up: up to 5% of conventional ingredients, for example, plus the usual varietal admixture common to all agricultural produce.
 
The sole exception is for GM material. In this case, the organic movement would prefer to see no trace at all of approved varieties which have been subject to the most stringent safety assessment. Some would see this hard line as a way to prevent European farmers from joining their international competitors in sowing GM seed. In practice, this is a lost cause, and failure to compromise would indeed jeopardise the small but profitable organic niche market.
 
The Heiligendamm testament

The latest G8 summit ended in a breakthrough on climate change policy…or not. The US government has finally signed up to taking action to curb emissions… or not. The outcome of the summit was, in the way of such things, ambiguous, and interpretation depends on your point of view.
 
In practice, George Bush has taken some of the heat off the US by agreeing to join talks about a post-Kyoto agreement, but he has not accepted the need for clear Kyoto-style emission reduction targets. China and India will also be talking, but have made it clear that they are making no commitments and that their primary target is continued growth. It is a typical diplomatic fudge, where all can claim some credit but few are really happy. Angela Merkel and Tony Blair can say they have achieved something, George Bush and the major developing countries agree to talk. In the meantime, Kyoto remains a dismal failure, and weather monitoring records and scientific evidence continues to accumulate. By the time a (probably equally ineffective) son of Kyoto is agreed, our understanding of climate science will hopefully have moved on.

There will be no newsletter on 22nd June; the next edition is due on 29th.