Well it seems that public opinion is once again at odds with that of the scientific community. What a surprise.
This episode is about the emergence of nanotechnology and how quickly its advances should be thrown to the public. The public, it seems, would like these new nano-products to become available to them as quickly as possible. Researchers demand more testing due to the fact that we really don’t know the biological risks associated with nano-sized materials. Ah yes, the old story of the inventor being forced into releasing his invention before its been properly tested. There is no way that this could turn into a class 5 zombie attack *cough*iamlegend*cough*
So is this a case of us mighty scientists having to protect the public from themselves like dogs begging for a piece of chocolate? If you’ve read any of my other posts you’ll know my stance on this.
THIS IS OUR FAULT
“But Jon, how can this one possibly be our fault? All we want to do is protect people,” you say?
Well maybe next time when there is an advance in science, we shouldn’t tout it as the answer to all of the problems in the world. Nanoscience is absolutely important and has shown great advances in fields such as silicon chips and medical testing. This does not mean it is ok to shout all successes from the rooftops while never informing people about the dangers involved. It is not fair to ask people to be truely skeptical about these things because most people do not have the education necessary to even be wary of anything that might be small enough to bypass a cell membrane. It is true that we don’t have definitive evidence to say that these materials are harmful, but it is still our responsibility to make sure that anything that will be in contact with people is safe for them to be in contact with.
An easy rebuttal to my argument will undoubtedly be that it is not the researchers who hyped up nanoscience but the media. While this begs the question of who hyped it to the media, I would rather go straight to the more important where are all the toxicity studies? I have not come across a single dedicated toxicity study on the effects of nano-materials on human cells, and it’s not for lack of looking. I’m sure there are some, but the fact that we expect average people to realize the possible negative effects of a new matierial while I (someone who atleast knows where to look for this sort of thing) can’t find anything better than “we are unsure of possible negative effects” is utterly irresponsible.
Corley, E., Scheufele, D., & Hu, Q. (2009). Of risks and regulations: how leading U.S. nanoscientists form policy stances about nanotechnology Journal of Nanoparticle Research, 11 (7), 1573-1585 DOI: 10.1007/s11051-009-9671-5
*A class 5 zombie invasion involves most of mankind turning, while few fight for survival. Class 4 only involves maybe a city, alla Resident Evil, while classes 1-3 are usually more of a Zombies Ate my Neighbors situation (smaller infection, zombies easily dispatched with water guns)
Anyone who has read my blog up to now (71 people and counting!) will notice that I like to label people as scientists or researchers, but I feel I need to explain the difference between the two.
A researcher, as defined by me, is anyone who works on funded studies with the intention of publishing their results. Researchers are the people who dedicate their lives to science. It is what they spend almost all of their waking time on and it is how they make their living. They are just as worried about where they can get funding for their next project as how they can organize their results to get them published in the highest tier journal. Researchers make up the workforce of science and they are the leaders who carry the standards of progress.
This is a much more encompassing term. A scientist is anybody who ever thought critically about a problem, and solved it empirically. Have you ever wondered what would happen if you put a cd in the microwave, and then put a cd in the microwave? You are a scientist. Being a scientist has nothing to do with intelligence or ability, only the mind to ask a question and the courage to find the answer for yourself. Most people in the world can be considered scientists under this definition, however the connotation of scientist has become synonomous with researcher and so people feel disconnected with the scientific community.
People don’t know they’re scientists and so they feel powerless when the world, as it so often does, confronts them with scientific problems. It is sad to think that the worlds biggest problems are the ones being worked on by the fewest amount of people. It has been shown in the past that regular people are willing to get involved in research, and can indeed provide a great help in discovery. You can find several examples in the article The Growth of Citizen Science by Darlene Cavalier and Alex Soojung-Kim Pang. All we need to do is give people a chance to get involved and they will jump at it.
The biggest tradgedy in the world is that we have so many scientific problems and billions of sleeping scientists
Silvertown J (2009). A new dawn for citizen science. Trends in ecology & evolution (Personal edition), 24 (9), 467-71 PMID: 19586682
There is a disconnect between the scientific community and the rest of the world
Need proof? Look at this picture and tell me what you see. If you are involved in research a common answer could be graduate students running an assay or working on silicon chip production…nothing too exciting. However; if you have never worked in a clean room, or any research lab setting for that matter, this photo can evoke a different reaction. These figures represent faceless, genderless scientists working in a building with no windows that is possibly underground. What are they working on? Zombies most likely. The general rule is blue gloves for zombies, purple for nuclear bombs if I remember correctly.
While this example is exaggerated, it is more slight than you might think. Think back to when you first told your friends and family that you wanted to pursue a career is science, and NOT be a doctor (M.D.). Hard memories to relive I know, but if you’re experience was anything like mine you probably got two specific reactions on more than one occasion.
“So what are you gonna do? Make bombs?”
“Wow, let me know when you cure cancer!”
Besides showing that most people think that the only things being researched are cancer and bombs, these two reactions show two very different but commonly held views on the scientific community. The bomb question underlies the feeling that some people have that researchers are simply trying to push the forefront of progress without any thought to the consequences. This attitude is prevalent since the advent of the atomic bomb, but can be seen in regards to many current projects like stem cell research and the LHC “black hole dilemma”.
The “scientists are people who cure cancer” view is opposite in the love/hate spectrum, but equally as dangerous to the community, if not more so. This implies the view that researchers are these benevolent entities that sit above the masses like guardians just waiting for a problem to arise so they can save them from it. There are several major scientific problems in the world today: New energy sources, providing food and water for an ever expanding population, curing an endless list of diseases, the list goes on and on. If every person in the world were working to solve these problems we still couldn’t be certain that we would solve them, but the reality is that more than 99% of people are just waiting for the answers to come down from above.
Why WE (Read: the scientific community) should care
1. THIS IS OUR FAULT. I cannot stress enough the fact that ignorance/malice of scientific research cannot be blamed on anyone but the people who have the knowledge but do not disseminate it. The underlying problem, as I see it, is the difficulty in finding first-hand reports of research for the average person. Research articles are spread throughout a plethora of journals, each of which charges handsomely to read its articles and most do not make it very easy to find studies which are reputable and applicable. The problem is then furthered by the fact that once you DO find a research paper, it is impossible to follow without years of experience reading, and often writing, articles on a similar subject. Google scholar – great for writing bibliographies, terrible for obtaining knowledge.
2. WE NEED THEIR HELP. I would never downplay the importance of education, experience, and subject-focused genius in scientific discovery, however it is certainly not all that there is. Anybody who has ever set out to do research with a specific goal in mind has to admit one thing: We use a largely luck based, hypothesis driven, guess-and-check methedology. Given that, we can follow an obvious line of logic to the fact that the more people we have working on any given problem, the more likely we are to find the answers in a shorter period of time. There are now almost 7 billion people on this earth, with maybe 10 million involved in any kind research. Talk about only using 10% of your brain.