Risk and Opportunity

10 Questions with...

Andrew Maynard, expert in nanotechnology policy and a former research scientist, on cultivating ingenuity—and humility—in an increasingly complex world.

Credit: Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies

Name:

Andrew Maynard

Age:

44

Job title:

Director, Risk Science Center

Location:

University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI

[1] How do you explain your job at cocktail parties?

So nice of you to assume I get invited to cocktail parties! It depends which hat I’m wearing—until recently I was heavily involved in nanotechnology, where I would describe my job as working with governments, businesses, researchers, and consumers to get the emerging technology of the extremely small right, first time round. But having just taken up the post of Director of the University of Michigan Risk Science Center, I need to come up with another good cocktail-party line. I suspect it will be along the lines of “helping people make science-based decisions in an increasingly complex and uncertain world.” What I really need, though, is a really good cocktail party to try it out at!

[2] In the past six months, what has been the most exciting advance or breakthrough you’ve had in the lab?

It’s not exactly a breakthrough, but the most exciting event for me has to be taking over as Director of the Risk Science Center at the University of Michigan. The timing couldn’t have been better: Over the past few years we have made tremendous advances in science and technology—including being able to manipulate and engineer matter at an incredibly fine-grained level. But the accelerating rate of technological innovation is raising challenges that could potentially derail progress if they aren’t handled well—challenges like how to deal with unanticipated risks; how to account for the consequences of not developing a new technology; and how to go about giving citizens a voice when it comes to the development of technologies that affect their lives. This new appointment gives me a wonderful opportunity to build on my experience with nanotechnology and work with a world-class group of researchers addressing these and other questions, and in doing so, to help people make more-informed decisions about the future.

[3] Complete this sentence: We could make huge strides in the field, if we could just figure out…

…how to help people make decisions that are informed by science, yet responsive to social concerns and needs. This cuts both ways: If society—including politicians, consumers, manufacturers, and others—is to put science and technology to good use, we cannot afford for decisions to be made that favor speculation, supposition, and superstition over science. This is the surest way to jeopardize quality of life in the long-term—not necessarily for those making the decisions, but almost certainly for those who are left to suffer the consequences. Yet science alone is not enough to drive social decisions—peoples’ values, fears, and hopes also need to be taken into account. This is something that scientists, innovators, and manufacturers need to learn more about.

The bad news is that there don’t seem to be any easy ways to make science-informed decisions within society that are also inclusive of and responsive to the people they supposedly benefit. But this is exactly why research into understanding and handling risk and uncertainty is so important and so rewarding. 

[4] What’s the biggest misconception about your field?

Where do I begin? That engineered nanoparticles—very small particles made for a purpose—are deadly? (They are not, although some might cause harm in unexpected ways). That zero risk is achievable? (Sorry—life is risky. Period. The trick is to manage and minimize the risks). That uncertainty is the same as risk? (Just because we don’t know something doesn’t mean that it is dangerous). But I think that perhaps the biggest misconception is that risk research is bad for business. Quite the opposite: Without science-based risk research, businesses are effectively flying blind—not a good idea in an increasingly complex world.

[5] Scientist and non-scientist you’d most like to meet?

The scientist I’d most like to meet is probably J. Craig Venter—I’d love to know how he matches up to his reputation as a brilliant but somewhat arrogant maverick. But more importantly, he is at the forefront of revolutionizing the degree of control we have over DNA in living organisms. Through his research and that of other scientists, we are on the brink of being able to read and write genetic code much as we do computer code today—raising the very real possibility of engineering living organisms from the ground up.

For the non-scientist, I would have to choose the pianist and conductor Vladimir Ashkenazy. It’s a very personal thing, but I’ve long had an affinity with Ashkenazy’s interpretations of many of the great 20th century masters—Sibelius, Shostakovich, Rachmaninoff. The guy also comes across as incredibly humble in performances and interviews—a perfect foil to Craig Venter!

[6] What are you reading now?

I read a lot of fiction—Thomas Hardy, Jasper Fforde and Iain Banks most recently. But I have just picked up Robert Winston’s Bad Ideas? An Arresting History of our Inventions, and haven’t been able to put it down. 

The book is an eclectic and personal exploration of human inventiveness, and the potential problems it leads to as well as the tremendous advances that come out of it. Its central thesis, though, is that the key to living successfully in a society dominated by advancing technology lies in engaging with people on scientific and technological issues more effectively. So far, it’s a compelling and thought-provoking read. 

[7] When I was a child, I wanted to be…

…a nuclear physicist! My father had a small, blue, hardback book called Teach Yourself Atomic Physics, and I spent hours poring over it as a kid. I ended up achieving the “physics” bit—my PhD is in physics—but quickly dropped the “nuclear” bit when I discovered how much fun other areas of science can be!

[8] What advice would you give someone just starting out in your field?

Follow your heart, keep an open mind, work often and closely with people having very different expertise to you, and grab opportunities as they fly by. And cultivate humility—recognize that you can always learn something from someone else, and there’s rarely such thing as a stupid question if you are sincere.

[9] If the NSF surprised you with a $2 million grant tomorrow, what would you spend it on?

Developing systematic and science-based approaches to identifying and addressing “emergent risks.” We’re not very good at working out when a new technology or a new way of doing things might lead to unanticipated harm to humans or the environment—what I would call emergent risks. And we are even worse at making decisions in the face of possible emergent risks. I would use the $2 million to support the development of new approaches to making sense of emergent risks and enabling people to make decisions that improve quality of life without unnecessarily stifling innovation.

[10] Why do you do science? What inspires you?

Why do I do science? Because the more I discover about the universe, the more I am awed by its complexity and elegance. Because I get a real thrill from understanding how things work—and making use of that knowledge. Because I love the self-correcting nature of science. Because I’m hard-wired to ask questions and challenge what I am told.  Because of the thrill of being exposed to new ideas. Because of its predictive nature.  Because it can be used to make life better for people. Because I’m hopeless at everything else! 

To be honest, I’m not sure I can fully articulate why I do science. But I can say that without the liberation, awe, and humility that comes with the discipline of “doing science,” I wouldn’t be the person I am today.

And as for what inspires me? Last September I wrote a piece on my blog (2020 Science) about ten things that inspired me to become a scientist—the list included my father, my physics teacher, and a fictitious TV character! But these days what really inspires me is the awareness science provides of the awe-inspiring nature of things around us. I remember the day I “got” how stupendously vast the universe is—when the numbers suddenly started to mean something (and ironically simultaneously revealed how little I really understood). It was a jaw-dropping revelation, an epiphany. All these years later, science still has the ability to make me stop in my tracks and think “wow!”

Originally published April 6, 2010

Tags policy risk scale technology

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