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    Mongabay, a leading resource for news and perspectives on environmental and conservation issues related to the tropics, has launched Tropical Conservation Science - a new, open access academic e-journal. It will cover a wide variety of scientific and social studies on tropical ecosystems, their biodiversity and the threats posed to them. Tropical Conservation Science - March 8, 2008.

    At the 148th Meeting of the OPEC Conference, the oil exporting cartel decided to leave its production level unchanged, sending crude prices spiralling to new records (above $104). OPEC "observed that the market is well-supplied, with current commercial oil stocks standing above their five-year average. The Conference further noted, with concern, that the current price environment does not reflect market fundamentals, as crude oil prices are being strongly influenced by the weakness in the US dollar, rising inflation and significant flow of funds into the commodities market." OPEC - March 5, 2008.

    Kyushu University (Japan) is establishing what it says will be the world’s first graduate program in hydrogen energy technologies. The new master’s program for hydrogen engineering is to be offered at the university’s new Ito campus in Fukuoka Prefecture. Lectures will cover such topics as hydrogen energy and developing the fuel cells needed to convert hydrogen into heat or electricity. Of all the renewable pathways to produce hydrogen, bio-hydrogen based on the gasification of biomass is by far both the most efficient, cost-effective and cleanest. Fuel Cell Works - March 3, 2008.

    An entrepreneur in Ivory Coast has developed a project to establish a network of Miscanthus giganteus farms aimed at producing biomass for use in power generation. In a first phase, the goal is to grow the crop on 200 hectares, after which expansion will start. The project is in an advanced stage, but the entrepreneur still seeks partners and investors. The plantation is to be located in an agro-ecological zone qualified as highly suitable for the grass species. Contact us - March 3, 2008.

    A 7.1MW biomass power plant to be built on the Haiwaiian island of Kaua‘i has received approval from the local Planning Commission. The plant, owned and operated by Green Energy Hawaii, will use albizia trees, a hardy species that grows in poor soil on rainfall alone. The renewable power plant will meet 10 percent of the island's energy needs. Kauai World - February 27, 2008.

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Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Nanotechnology and synthetic biology: poll shows U.S. public unaware of emerging technologies

An interesting poll finds that almost half of U.S. adults have never heard about nanotechnology, and nearly 9 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.

The broad lack of knowledge amongst the public means there is a lot of work to do for both policy makers and organisations involved in disseminating, vulgarizing and debating emerging technologies. The poll showed that informing citizens about these new fields markedly alters their perceptions of the potential benefits and risks of both technologies.

Scientists think both nanotechnology and synthetic biology will play an important role in some of the great issues of our time: solving energy scarcity, helping the race towards increased efficiency, the development of renewable fuels and tackling climate change, managing fresh water resources and minimizing environmental pollution, to name but a few. However, there is a range of uncertainties and risks involved in developing the technologies. Ethical questions surrounding the meaning of life and the use of its building blocks arise in the field of synthetic biology.

The new insight into limited public awareness of emerging technologies comes as a major leadership change is about to take hold in the United States. 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 these technologies.
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. - David Rejeski, PEN Director
The poll findings are contained a report published today, titled "The American Public's Awareness Of And Perceptions About Potential Risks and Benefits of Nanotechnology & Synthetic Biology" (if this page requires a login and password, please use - login: synbio and password: advance.)

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 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.

Informing citizens

Respondents were asked to evaluate the risks and benefits of synthetic biology and nanotechnology without receiving any information about it. For nanotechnology nearly half of adults were too unsure to make an initial assessment on the tradeoffs between risks and benefits. Of those who are willing to make a judgment, by three to one they think that benefits will outweigh risks (20%) as opposed to thinking risks will outweigh benefits (7%). The plurality, however, believe that risks and benefits will be about equal (25%). For synthetic biology, the respondents were slightly more likely to think that benefits will outweigh the risks (21%) than risks will outweigh the benefits (16%), while 29% believe that the risks and benefits will be equal (figure 2, click to enlarge):
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

The participants were then briefly introduced to the fields of nanotech and synbio, by means of a short text that summarizes key benefits and risks.

For nanotechnology, this text read as follows:
Nanotechnology is the ability to measure, see, predict, and make things on the extremely small scale of atoms and molecules. Materials created at the nanoscale are called nanomaterials, and they often can be made to exhibit very different physical, chemical, and biological properties than their normal-sized counterparts.

I would like to read you statements about the potential benefits and potential risks of nanotechnology and get your reaction.

The potential BENEFITS of nanotechnology include the use of nanomaterials in products to make them stronger, lighter, and more effective. Some examples are food containers that kill bacteria, stain-resistant clothing, high-performance sporting goods, faster, smaller computers, and more effective skin care products and sunscreens. Nanotechnology also has the potential to provide new and better ways to treat disease, clean up the environment, enhance national security, and provide cheaper energy.

While there has not been conclusive research on the potential RISKS of nanotechnology, there are concerns that some of the same properties that make nanomaterials useful might make them harmful. It is thought that some nanomaterials may be harmful to humans if they are breathed in and might cause harm to the environment. There also are concerns that invisible, nanotechnology-based monitoring devices could pose a threat to national security and personal privacy.

A similar introduction was read out for 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.

I would like to read you statements about the potential benefits and potential risks of synthetic biology and get your reaction.

The potential BENEFITS of synthetic biology include developing new micro-organisms to treat disease, including cancer, more effectively and to create new and less expensive medications. It also could be used to make new organisms that could provide cheaper and cleaner sources of energy than today's oil-based fuels, and to detect and break down environmental pollutants in the soil, air, and water.

While the potential RISKS of synthetic biology are not known, there are concerns that man-made organisms might behave in unexpected and possibly harmful ways and that they could cause harm to the environment. There also are concerns that, if these organisms fall into the wrong hands, they could be used as weapons. Additionally, the ability to create artificial life has raised moral and ethical questions about how life is defined.

Respondents were then polled again as to their perception of risks and benefits of both technologies. Their view differed markedly from their initial assessment.

After hearing the information there is a 10-point increase in the proportion of adults who think that the benefits of nanotechnology will outweigh the risks (from 20% to 30%), there was a 16-point increase in the share who think that the risks will outweigh the benefits (from 7% to 23%), and a 13-point increase in the proportion who say the benefits and the risks will be equal. Just 9% remain unwilling to make a judgment

Upon hearing the statement about synthetic biology, 29% of adults said that the risks and benefits are equal (no change from the initial question), 28% believe benefits outweigh risks (a seven-point increase), and 35% think that risks outweigh benefits (a 19-point increase) (figure 3, click to enlarge).

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.

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.

Peter D. Hart Research Associates: "Awareness Of And Attitudes Toward Nanotechnology And Synthetic Biology - A Report Of Findings Based On A National Survey Among Adults" [*.pdf], Conducted On Behalf Of: Project On Emerging Nanotechnologies; The Woodrow Wilson International Center For Scholars - September 16, 2008


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