PCAST Report Update – NNI and Broadband

Yesterday’s report from the President’s Council of Advisers for Science and Technology (PCAST) was the third of the year, following reports on education and nanotechnology earlier in the year.  This year’s nanotechnology and broadband reports represent the eleventh and twelfth reports issued by the PCAST of this administration.

The broadband report is focused on government-held spectrum, consistent with President Obama’s goal of finding 500 megahertz of spectrum for wireless broadband use.  The report concludes that increasingly narrow assignments of frequencies would be impractical and costly.  They recommend the government pursue its strategy of expanding broadband availability by determining spectrum bands that would lend itself to spectrum sharing.  And this is the point where I have to concede the limits of my technical expertise.  I have no idea if this is a valid strategy forward, or even the best available strategy for the government to pursue broadband expansion.

The nanotechnology report is required by statute and addresses the National Nanotechnology Initiative; this is the fourth report in a series and the second issued by PCAST during this administration.  Commercialization was an emphasis in the previous nanotechnology report, and PCAST is pleased with the progress demonstrated in the time since that report.  However, they are concerned with a lack of sufficient progress in strategic planning and implementation, as well as metrics and assessments of environmental health and safety related to nanotechnology.  As seems consistent with many initiatives for which the Office of Science and Technology Policy has responsibility, there is a lack of sufficient resources.

Here There Be Science and Technology Dragons

I spent most of the last two days at the Future Tense event Here Be Dragons: Governing a Technologically Uncertain Future.  For a Washington event, this was pretty ‘out there.’  Not a lot of talk about specific incidents or actual governance systems, but plenty of talk about what we could be facing in the future, and how we have tried (with varying levels of success and failure) to govern technologies in the past.

A particularly nice aspect to the event was the presence of several science fiction writers and self-styled science comedian Brian Malow.  As the writers create fully formed worlds with different technologies that are governed or not governed well, their presence at the event makes a fair amount of sense.  Oddly enough, they were some of the more grounded of the conference’s participants.

Perhaps I’m just too used to the typical Washington policy event dealing with more specific policies or technological situations.  What I came away with most is what other people or thinking rather than useful ideas to engage with when thinking about technological guidance.  That and the notion that I need to read some Robert Sawyer, and more Neal Stephenson and Bruce Sterling.

The agenda and video of each of the sessions is available online. If I were to pick highlights for others to make sure to check out, my list includes:

The Promise and Perils of Synthetic Biology Today – Dan Sarewitz of the Center for Science, Policy and Outcomes was a very needed presence on this panel, which like many at the conference, tended towards a bit of technologically deterministic optimism.  Had Presidential Bioethics Commission Chair Amy Gutmann been at this panel (she appeared the following day), I think she’d have added to Sarewitz’s arguments. Continue reading

An Early Favorite For the Oil Cleanup X Challenge

The researchers at the Senseable City lab at MIT have developed a new kind of oil cleanup technology that looks promising.  They presented their work today at Venice’s Biennale.  The project is called Sea Swarm and combines autonomous navigation of multiple robots with nanotechnology material that skims the water for oil (or other chemicals).  Because the material, a mesh of nanowires, can gather many times its own weight, there’s the potential to be much more effective than current mechanical skimmer technology.  And since the devices are smaller than conventional skimmers, they can access places current technology cannot.

The MIT team will enter Sea Swarm in the Wendy Schmidt Oil Cleanup X Challenge.  Even if they don’t win, demonstrating effectiveness of the technology could persuade sufficient investment in the product for it to be commercialized.  Better late than never.

The March PCAST Meeting

The third fourth meeting of the President’s Council of Advisers on Science and Technology (PCAST) took place on March 12 in Washington.  While the public sessions were limited to that day, remarks by PCAST co-chair (and presidential science adviser) Dr. John Holdren suggest that there was a private session with Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Hamburg on the issue of regulatory science.  After the public session, PCAST members met with the President to present the Council’s latest review of the National Nanotechnology Initiative.

You can review the meeting agenda, and watch the public session webcast.  Other meeting information (including some presentation slides) is also online.

Working groups within PCAST continue to work between full Council meetings.  However, they have stopped giving updates on their progress beyond general comments from Dr. Holdren at the beginning of the meetings.  I wish they would resume making more detailed updates in open session. Continue reading

PCAST Releases Second Report; Recognizes 10 Years of Federal Nanotechnology

On Thursday the President’s Council of Advisers on Science and Technology (PCAST) released its second report of the Obama Administration.  The report was the Third Assessment of the National Nanotechnology Initiative, which was established in late 2000 to coordinate nanotechnology research and development across the federal government.  While the report notes that the U.S. continues to have a strong nanotechnology sector and corresponding support from the government.  However, as with most other economic and research sectors, the rest of the world is catching up, or spending enough to try and catch up to the United States.

According to the report, more attention needs to be paid to commercialization efforts (a concern not unique to nanotechnology).  In addition, there should be a more systematic or comprehensive examination of environmental, health and safety issues.  Arguably those two main concerns are very related, as concerns – real and perceived – about the impact nanotechnology products may have on the body can well affect how commercially successful these products can be.  Remember, concerns over genetically modified organisms in food and agriculture have affected how well those products have sold (or been banned) in parts of the world.

The report examines three components of the NNI: Program Management, Nanotechnology Outcomes (metrics), and Environmental, Health and Safety.  The report also lists action items (excerpted below), some of which may see Congressional action:

  • Over the next five years, the Federal Government should double the funding devoted to nanomanufacturing. At the same time, the NNI should maintain or expand the level of funding devoted to basic nanotechnology research.
  • Direct the agencies within the NNI to increase the percentage of their nanotechnology related funding provided to the [National Nanotechnology Coordinating Office] NNCO from $3 million to $5 million, and to require each agency to task senior representatives with decision-making authority to participate in coordination activities of the NNI.
  • The NNCO must also more actively and aggressively manage the NNI so that it can respond quickly to emerging opportunities and better coordinate interagency efforts, and it must develop metrics for program outputs.
  • Mandate that the [Nanoscale Science, Engineering and Technology] Subcommittee’s [Nanotechnology Environmental Health Implications] working group develop a cross-agency strategic plan that links [Environmental, Health and Safety] research activities with knowledge gaps and decision-making needs within government and industry, and that the NNCO create a new senior-level position to hold the participating agencies accountable for implementing this strategic plan. This strategic plan must contain clear principles to support the identification of plausible risks based on realistic expectations of exposure to specific nanomaterials.
  • Develop a program to provide U.S. Permanent Resident Cards for foreign individuals who receive an advanced degree in science or engineering at an accredited institution in the United States and for whom proof of permanent employment in that scientific or engineering discipline exists.

By all means, go ahead and read the report, or the NNI website, for more details.

Whet Your Appetite for the Next PCAST Meeting

The President’s Council of Adviser’s on Science and Technology (PCAST) will meet again on March 12.  According to the tentative agenda, the meeting will cover food security with officials from the State Department and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture.  The National Nanotechnology Initiative is also on the agenda, as the Council will review its program report.

Registration is encouraged, if not required, for these meetings.  The March 12 meeting takes place at the National Academy of Sciences Building near the State Department in Washington.

Federal Data Dump Day in the U.S., Unless You’re a Science Agency

The first milestone in the Open Government Directive – the release by each federal agency of three high-quality data sets – is today.  Data.gov has a list of all Open Government Initiative data sets released today.  As I look at it, there are over 100 datasets and counting.  Those that the agencies consider high-quality are marked with an asterisk.  Many agencies came through, often with many more than three datasets (though not always three high-quality data sets).

Oddly, the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Standards and Technology, and the National Institutes of Health are not represented in today’s data dump.  Maybe there will be a last-minute entry.  Given the wealth of information in the NSF Science Statistics section, and the recent release of Science and Engineering Indicators, I’m a bit surprised they didn’t have something new to throw in.  The Office of Science and Technology Policy does have new data sets, which are collections of information on the National Nanotechnology Initiative, the Networking and Information Technology Research and Development program, and the Global Climate Change Research Program.  Even so, there are plenty of new data sets ripe for the mining, so researchers spread the word.

Research Takes First Step on Tolerance of Nanoparticles

The Scientist has a capsule review of a 2007 research article on the ability of mice to purge themselves of nanoparticles.  The full article is available in Nature Biotechnology (subscription/purchase required).  The article also includes notes on some subsequent work in this area.

As nanotechnology matures, providing more and more products with particles measured in nanometers, the risk of exposure to these particles needs to be assessed and regulated.  Being able to determine what size of particles can be expelled by the body and what sizes accumulate in the body helps shape the questions for the regulatory landscape.  But it doesn’t close off exploration into potential risks.

While other regulatory models can provide useful examples, it’s important to remember that the scale of these particles may provide unique concerns.  I would hope that the hard lessons of chemical regulation – where accumulated exposure flew under the regulatory radar for years (see Krimsky’s Hormonal Chaos for a good overview), could be used to good effect here.  It may not be enough that the small particles can be expelled.  Enough transitory exposures over time could have unfortunate effects, much like enough small doses of certain chemicals have had dramatic effects on endocrine systems.

Whig History and Science Policy

Science Progress gave two historians a few column inches to remind us that not all science and technology narratives reflect the history of their disciplines.  Folks focused on nanotechnology will find the article of interest, but the main points are more broadly applicable than to just the really, really small.  The lessons, if you want to boil them down (which is a lousy thing to do with history, but expected in blogging) resemble some obvious statements, but statements that aren’t effectively applied and rarely considered when dealing with science and technology.  The Whig history mentioned here and in the Science Progress piece refers to historical treatments that treat current conditions as another step along a steady path of progress.

There is a history.  Nearly every person engaged with science and technology policy in the United States seems to think their field started and ended with Vannevar Bush in the late 1940s.  This ignores over 150 years of prior activity in the United States.  The Lewis and Clark Expedition and the U.S. Census are two ventures in the field that date back nearly to the founding of the republic.   The Forest Service and Geological Survey are also good pre-World War II examples of federal science and technology at work.

Continue reading