Science4Parliament Podcast

Science4Parliament - Episode Two - Dr Cormac Ó Coileáin - Nanotechnology

January 13, 2024 Denis Naughten Season 1 Episode 2
Science4Parliament - Episode Two - Dr Cormac Ó Coileáin - Nanotechnology
Science4Parliament Podcast
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Science4Parliament Podcast
Science4Parliament - Episode Two - Dr Cormac Ó Coileáin - Nanotechnology
Jan 13, 2024 Season 1 Episode 2
Denis Naughten

Welcome to the Science4Parliament podcast.
 
This is the first podcast that aims to foster the relationship between science and decision makers and show how research and innovation are vital to the equitable and sustainable functioning of our societies and economies.
 
 It is presented by Denis Naughten, a directly elected Member of Parliament in Ireland for the last 26 years, who has served as an Irish cabinet minister, and on the Council of the European Union ministers. He is chairperson of the Inter-Parliamentary Union Working Group on science and technology which is based in Geneva, which aims to inspire global parliamentary action through legislative work in the field of science and technology.
 
 The podcast aims to highlight the work of innovative scientists and to get their perspective of what needs to be done to bring the world of science and policy closer together.
 
 To add something different to the conversation each  guest is asked to pick two numbers, each of which is related to one of 10 random questions, some of which will be asked during the interview.
 
 On today's show, Denis talks about the economic, social and ethical implications of the use of nanotechnology with Dr. Cormac Ó Coileáin, a research fellow, currently working in the Bundeswehr University, Munich and previously a postdoctoral researcher in ASIN in Trinity College Dublin.  Dr. Ó Coileáin spent three months as a researcher in residence in the Irish parliament in 2021, as part of the Science Foundation Ireland Public Service Fellowship programme, and produced a report on the use of nanotechnology and nanomaterials , their likely impact and the challenges associated with the technology and its materials.
 Dr. Ó Coileáin’s report is available here - Spotlight Report

To contact Denis Naughten in relation to this podcast or any other matter please email him here Denis.Naughten@oireachtas.ie or visit his social media:
 Webpage:      https://denisnaughten.ie/.
LinkedIn:        linkedin.com/in/denis-naughten-td-77231112
X:                    @DenisNaughten 

Show Notes Transcript

Welcome to the Science4Parliament podcast.
 
This is the first podcast that aims to foster the relationship between science and decision makers and show how research and innovation are vital to the equitable and sustainable functioning of our societies and economies.
 
 It is presented by Denis Naughten, a directly elected Member of Parliament in Ireland for the last 26 years, who has served as an Irish cabinet minister, and on the Council of the European Union ministers. He is chairperson of the Inter-Parliamentary Union Working Group on science and technology which is based in Geneva, which aims to inspire global parliamentary action through legislative work in the field of science and technology.
 
 The podcast aims to highlight the work of innovative scientists and to get their perspective of what needs to be done to bring the world of science and policy closer together.
 
 To add something different to the conversation each  guest is asked to pick two numbers, each of which is related to one of 10 random questions, some of which will be asked during the interview.
 
 On today's show, Denis talks about the economic, social and ethical implications of the use of nanotechnology with Dr. Cormac Ó Coileáin, a research fellow, currently working in the Bundeswehr University, Munich and previously a postdoctoral researcher in ASIN in Trinity College Dublin.  Dr. Ó Coileáin spent three months as a researcher in residence in the Irish parliament in 2021, as part of the Science Foundation Ireland Public Service Fellowship programme, and produced a report on the use of nanotechnology and nanomaterials , their likely impact and the challenges associated with the technology and its materials.
 Dr. Ó Coileáin’s report is available here - Spotlight Report

To contact Denis Naughten in relation to this podcast or any other matter please email him here Denis.Naughten@oireachtas.ie or visit his social media:
 Webpage:      https://denisnaughten.ie/.
LinkedIn:        linkedin.com/in/denis-naughten-td-77231112
X:                    @DenisNaughten 

Science4Parliament - Episode Two - Dr Cormac Ó Coileáin - Nanotechnology

Speakers

Denis Naughten, Dr Cormac Ó Coileáin

Denis  00:03

So welcome to Science for Parliament, the first podcast which aims to foster the relationship between science and decision makers and show how research and innovation are vital to the equitable and sustainable functioning of our societies and economies. 

Denis  00:20

My name is Denis Naughten. I'm a directly elected member of parliament in Ireland for the last 26 years, and I've served as an Irish cabinet minister and on the Council of the European Union of Ministers. I'm Chairperson of the Inter-Parliamentary union Working Group on science and technology, which is based in Geneva, and it aims to inspire global parliamentary action on legislative work in the field of science and technology. This podcast aims to highlight the work of innovative scientists and get their perspective on what needs to be done to bring a world of science and policy closer together. 

Denis  00:58

And to add something different to the conversation. My guests are being asked to pick two numbers, each of which is related to one of 10 random questions, some of which would be asked during the interview. So on today's show, I will be talking about nanotechnology, and the economic, social and ethical implications surrounding its use with Dr Cormac Ó Coileáin, Dr. Ó Coileáin spent three months as a researcher in residence in the Irish parliament in 2021, as part of the Science Foundation, Ireland Public Service Fellowship programme, and produced a report on the influence risks and opportunities that nanotechnology holds. So I want to thank you, first of all, Dr. Ó Coileáin for being the first guest on the Science4Parliament podcast, and taking time to talk to us about your research. 

 Cormac  01:49

You're very welcome. Thank you for having me here.

 Denis  01:50

So could I first of all, maybe ask you to pick two numbers between one and 10? One and five? That's perfect. Now, first of all, can I ask you maybe to explain to us in simple terms, what your research area is all about? What is nanotechnology? 

 Cormac  02:08

Nanotechnology, I guess, is fundamentally material science, but material science within the 21st century. So if you look at how sort of society through the ages, materials are often a defining characteristic of society, you take the Stone Age is the material you talk about the RNA is the material as we've developed. Beyond this, we've had the silicon age, but effectively now we're at a stage where we can manipulate materials on the atomic level. And this is what's required to give us the products that we see in everyday use. So nano technology might conjure up ideas of computers. But I've worked on projects such as Aslan project, which looks at and lubricants on the nanoscale and microscale are sensors for determining sort of toxic gases. And not each of these are based upon controlling the materials on a very fine level so that we get the information and the results that we want out of them. 

 Denis  03:04

And why did you take an interest in this whole area, we're talking about materials that you're looking at a microscopic scale in relation to what gave you the interest in this whole field in the first place.

 Cormac  03:17

I guess I'm a curious person who like solving puzzles, or at least trying to solve puzzles, sometimes you don't get to solve them. But material science, I think stands at a sort of focal point, it ties a lot of other fields. And together because it's what we need to use to solve problems. I love science as a whole, not just a specific sub subject. But rather, I know that if I'm looking at a material, it has applications in biology, or it has applications, even in industrial uses, or in computing, and that and then you also get to look at a lot of the fundamental questions around the materials as well. So it's really the basic building blocks that that we use building blocks on a day to day basis, but it's also that you get a chance to look at applications as well as fundamentals.

 Denis  04:09

And can you give us a practical example of some of those applications that you've worked on, or some of your colleagues in this field globally are working on? 

 Cormac  04:18

Well, one of the current projects we're looking at it and it sounds rather mundane is superlubricity which is effectively looking at coatings on particles or on surfaces that would allow them to slide smoothly against each other. So why is that important? Reducing wear and tear wear and tear is important everywhere so that you let's say use less if you can control the surface you need let's say less oil, which means your the car car parts will move more smoothly, the watch parts will move more smoothly, or even let's say the rotors in a wind turbine will effectively be less energy is lost due to friction and wear and heat that's just effectively wasted as heat. So better moving parts.

 Denis  04:59

Yeah So it makes them more efficient. And of course, they last much longer as well lasts much longer. Yes, indeed. So look, you spent three months in the Irish parliament working side by side with staff and meeting members of parliament. So can you tell me something that you learned about politics or about the operation of Parliament from your fellowship or something that surprised you?

 Cormac  05:22

I suppose the pace of It surprised me as well. It's quite driven insofar as it has to be topical, it is always the question of why is it relevant? And why should we care? This is, was very much driven home. Scientists, I think, and policymakers, often speak different languages. So it's about becoming more attuned to what's required by policymakers. And I found them actually, to be honest, I've coming from the outside, you would expect it a little bit scarier, but they were very friendly people. 

 Denis  05:52

We're not really that scary at all. And can you tell us a bit about what exactly you were working on on your research fellowship, when you were in the Irish parliament.

 Cormac  06:01

So as you as you had said, it was the ethics, societal and ethical implications of nanotechnology. So while this, let's say nanotechnology is an established field, the term was coined about 50 years ago, but it's realistically, let's say, the past 20 years have seen an awful lot of development. And now we're at a point in Ireland, where we have developed a lot of this, that we have the infrastructure, and it is looking at the future applications, and to a certain extent, how to remain relevant or how to leverage what we have achieved towards, I suppose future goals or and the possible implications of using these materials and the ethical questions, I guess, that it may create down the road as to where we use these things such as within, let's say, but biology or how we how we pass drugs, legislation, if there's nanotechnology in it, but also, let's say environmental aspects, such as sometimes people are rather concerned, let's say, is it a scary new technology, but realistically, a lot of nanoscale, a lot of things in nature often work at the Nano scale. And so these, some of them exist already. It's the question of which new ones do we introduce this? These are questions that do need to be posed before they become a problem.

 Denis  07:18

But the difficulty for us as politicians is, it's very hard to regulate something when you don't know what it is you're trying to preempt where research is going where technology is going. From a legislative perspective, how do we try and grapple with that? How does science try to grapple with that,

 Cormac  07:41

I think, effectively, this won't be a problem for everyone. But the issue is that if you are slow getting off the starting blocks, you've got less of a chance by being informed. And knowing what's happening, you can not necessarily anticipate the road it'll take but at least not have to upskill on the language to understand the problem in the first place. This is I think, a critical aspect, I think, let's say things like aI have caught a lot of people unaware, and it is seriously fast developing. But ultimately, it still relies on certain principles. It still relies, let's say on computers and things like this, which rely on materials. And the question is you can pick up points where you can pull up the thread and hopefully control it or regulated on a certain thread. Yeah.

 Denis  08:24

And isn't that what's happening at the moment in terms of AI, that actually those that control the distribution of the chips that are used in AI are effectively controlling the expansion of that at the moment? But the difficulty is, as that research and technology develops, people will be able to individually manufacture the chips. But is that where we're at today? It is

 Cormac  08:47

it is to a degree, yes. And then you also have to think about, let's say, these are very power hungry systems. And you the demands associated with this, or let's say feeds into data centres, do we want these on our doorstep? Yes or No? Or if we do, how do we regulate for that? It is, it's a many headed problem. But nonetheless, as I said, you if you are at least informed on the scientific basis of it, it shouldn't take too much to actually upskill to where you understand the conversation. Yeah.

 Denis  09:19

And look, the political cycle works on five year periods. Because there's an election every five years. So what would you like to see happen with your work and there was presented at the end of 2021 in that five year period, where would you like to see it?

 Cormac  09:38

This is, this is quite a difficult thing, actually, five years is sort of let's say, it takes something from a fundamental idea to a product often let's say closer to 20. So it is it difficult or maybe shorter if you have a better idea and the resources but I think that it would be nice to see that let's say the infrastructure that has been developed doesn't whether the that the knowledge doesn't whether that is the capacity that Ireland has developed isn't lost to the winds of a five year plan. This is I think, a rather than being a specific outcome from my work, but rather that it is a sort of a, the people remain informed.

 Denis  10:21

And let's take it back a bit from the heavy discussion now for a minute. So you picked two numbers there one and five at the start of the podcast. So question number one is, if a child stalked you on the street, and asked you, what sciences, what would be your answer?

 Cormac  10:42

For me, science would be how we tried to understand how the world around us works. And then taking what we've learned, and putting it together in a sensible way so that others can use it. I think that's sums it up effectively.

 Denis  10:58

Yeah, no, I think it pretty sums it up. All right. So do you have any advice for politicians in terms of engagement with scientists? How do we start this conversation? How do we start that engagement,

 Cormac  11:13

I think, effectively, scientists are constituents to this is ultimately, if you look at it that way, most of the time, they are more than happy to discuss their work. And as a problem solver, by presenting a scientist with a problem, this is always a good place to start. The issue will be I think that scientists and politicians sometimes speak the same words, but a different language. So a bit of patience is required. 

 Denis  11:43

Yeah, and I suppose the one thing that we have in common is that we're all problem solvers. And it's about trying to find a basic level to start that engagement from. So Dr. Ó Coileáin, I want to thank you very much for talking with me today. And to remember that you can find a link to Cormac’s paper and all of the Science4Parliament podcasts on denisnaughten.ie or on whatever platform you use to find your podcasts. So, Cormac, thanks very much for being with us today.

 Cormac  12:20

Thank you for having me, Denis.