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Intervention by Denise Caruso Read Intervention by Denise Caruso, Executive Director of the Hybrid Vigor Silver Award Winner, 2007 Independent Publisher Book Awards; Best Business Books 2007, Strategy+Business Magazine

archive for December, 2006


by ~ December 27, 2006

I had a blast last Sunday during my interview with Ken Goffman, a.k.a. RU Sirius.

RU was a co-founder and editor-in-chief of the legendary, visionary and often delightfully mad cyber/counterculture magazine Mondo 2000, and when he heard that I’d published Intervention, he invited me onto the eclectic podcast show that he hosts, called Neofiles, to talk about it. The resulting Show #65: Fear of a Transgenic Planet is the first of a two-part interview.

Even though I’ve known RU for a looong time (I’ve decided to declare a moratorium on explicit shout-outs of how long I’ve known someone or done something), I was a little nervous about going on Neofiles, which bills itself as exploring “the experimental edge of human endeavors.” This tends to include lots of nanotech, life-enhancement, we-made-it-to-be-good-thus-it-is-good, nouvelle Ray Kurzweil kind of stuff. As he warned me before I showed up, “most of our guests would tend to be very pro-biotech.”

But as it turned out, I was nervous for no reason. He totally got the message of the book. Intervention is not anti-biotech. It’s very pro-science — science in the context of reality, that is, of how technologies work and operate in the real world, not just in the controlled conditions of the lab or as viewed through the rose-colored lens of traditional risk assessments.

Update: Here’s Part 2 of the RU interview … enjoy!


by ~ December 18, 2006

While I was finishing up Intervention this year, I also participated in a fascinating survey about globalization, sponsored by the U.K.-based consultancy SustainAbility, on whose extraordinary (and extraordinarily diverse) faculty I humbly serve.

In April 2006, I gave a talk on emerging risks at Global Business Network’s annual Forum; this year’s theme was “Managing the New Realities of Risk.” (If you’d like a copy of the meeting report, leave a comment and I’ll get a copy to you.)

And I became an affiliated researcher at Carnegie Mellon’s Center for Risk Perception and Communication.


by ~ December 18, 2006

… a.k.a. “what else I was doing while I wrote Intervention.”

Based on some ideas that I started exploring with Baruch Fischhoff of Carnegie Mellon shortly after I wrote my first paper on risk and genomics, in early 2004 we got funding from the National Science Foundation to see if we could get started on designing a new methodology for assessing emerging bio-risks.

The project was called “Understanding Genomics Risks: An Integrated Scenario and Analytic Approach,” and it was funded through NSF’s Decision, Risk, and Management Sciences program.

Our primary focus was on the risks that might result from growing and harvesting transgenic pig organs for transplants, a.k.a. xenotransplantation. (The pigs in question have been genetically altered so their biochemistry doesn’t trigger a rejection reaction in humans. This isn’t theoretical.)

The centerpiece of the xeno project was a day-long meeting at UC Berkeley, hosted by Steve Weber, director of the Institute of International Studies. We brought together a panel of experts that included an agricultural ecologist, an economist, an MBA/MD, a medical anthropologist, a political scientist, and a zoologist and vet who’d been a senior executive at USDA, and got them talking about the problem.

What they came up with is at the core of Chapter 11 in Intervention, “Putting Pigs to the Test.” Most people who’ve read it — as well as the panelists who attended the meeting — have said that it makes a pretty compelling case for why we need to change how we conduct risk assessments for new biotechnologies.

The entire story of how we got to that meeting in Berkeley didn’t make it into the book, but I wish it had. It’s a terrific object lesson in collaborative problem-solving and decision making. I’ll either post it here at some point when it makes sense, or maybe I’ll see if I can publish it in a magazine or a journal somewhere.

In any case, the project was quite successful. As a result, we got:
a) a tremendously promising start on this new methodology for emerging risks;
b) a paper in the Journal of Risk and Uncertainty; and
c) a chance to use the work in a different and even more critical setting: evaluating the risks of avian flu.

In regards to (c), and to make a long story short, in the fall of 2005, one of the xeno panelists recommended me to a group of people (specifically, Global Business Network and Larry Brilliant) who were designing a meeting on avian flu called Pandefense 1.0.

Pandefense 1.0 was an interdisciplinary “think tank” and exercise in emergency preparedness for a possible avian flu pandemic. It brought the world’s top flu and vaccine experts, epidemiologists, bird specialists, animal pathologists, and public health professionals together with leading thinkers from philanthropy, academia, business, scenario planning, decision theory, risk communication, and the investment community.

Its goal was to explore the wide range of consequences — public health, economic, political and cultural — of an avian flu pandemic, and most importantly, to identify and alert decision makers and the public to the interventions that could be taken immediately to avoid or mitigate a disaster.

Hybrid Vigor’s participation in Pandefense led to an invitation to co-edit a special Forethought section, called “Preparing for a Pandemic,” in the May 1, 2006, edition of Harvard Business Review. Here’s the editor’s letter introducing the section.

Of course, I dragged Baruch Fischhoff into participating as well, and this led to the publication of yet another paper, in a new journal called Global Public Health.

The upshot of all of this activity for me, personally, was a growing belief that the risk assessment methods I’d been studying and working on with Baruch had the potential to have a tremendous positive impact on getting out in front of emerging infectious diseases, in addition to the benefit it could bring to the assessment of commercial biotech products.

I’m now working on raising the money to fund a couple of new projects in this area with several of the people I met at, and through, my involvement with Pandefense.

Wish us luck: this kind of work is of critical importance, and it is ludicrous how difficult it is to get funding for prevention and preparedness, unless it directly provides cash to a specific industry.


by ~ December 14, 2006

It was nice to see that a few colleagues from my former life as a technology analyst/etc. took note of the release of Intervention.

One was John Battelle’s Searchblog:

Denise was pretty much Searchblog, Techcrunch, Web 2.0, Wired, and the Industry Standard all rolled up into one person back when no one else was paying attention. … She since has focused her considerable talents on the study of risk and science, and I can’t be happier for her that this book is out.

Ditto that last part; I couldn’t be happier myself.

Another was Chris Nolan’s Spot-on, which took note that Intervention was part of a trend toward self-published books. (Nolan’s right; I’ll have lots more to say about that anon.) Renee Blodgett’s Down the Avenue called out the book’s conclusion, which outlines some field-tested methods that citizens and regulators can use to start improving the assessment of risky innovations now.

And Italian technology journalist Carola Frediana, of FreddyBlog, has posted what appears to be the first international notice about Intervention.

I was particularly happy to see Carola’s post, since it indicates that the book may get picked up in Europe, where they are willing to have actual, civil conversations about the risks of innovations instead of shooting the messenger first, asking questions never.


by ~ December 13, 2006

Over the past 3.75 years that Intervention was taking its sweet time making its way into the world, I (benignly) neglected the HVNEWS list. In the interim, many of Hybrid Vigor’s advisors and cohorts started, completed, or sometimes (damn their eyes) started and completed several notable projects that dovetail with Hybrid Vigor’s programs and goals. Here are the headlines:

Diana Rhoten, Hybrid Vigor’s co-founder, Hybrid Vigor Fellow and soon to be an author on this blog, is now director of the Knowledge Institutions program at the Social Science Research Council in New York. In September 2006, Nature devoted three pages to covering an experiment that was part of Rhoten’s NSF-funded study of interdisciplinary graduate education. Organized by Rhoten and co-investigator Ed Hackett of Arizona State University, Nature‘s coverage of the experiment — a meeting in Utah called the Snowbird Charrette — asked, “Interdisciplinary research is the new buzzword, but does a grounding in different disciplines make you better at solving problems?”

• In April 2006, Richard Zare, chair of the chemistry department at Stanford University and a founding advisor to Hybrid Vigor, was named a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Professor and awarded $1 million to develop new interdisciplinary undergraduate science laboratory courses at Stanford, including one which combines chemistry, physics, and biology to study light, pigments and photosynthesis. Zare has taught an introductory chemistry course every year since 1977; young students are the “secret weapon” that he says enhances his own work.

• At the Molecular Sciences Institute in Berkeley, run by HV advisor Roger Brent, MSI Visiting Fellow Kouichi Takahashi was awarded a Cross-Disciplinary Fellowship from the Human Frontier Science Program. The HFSP emphasizes novel collaborations that bring biologists together with scientists from fields such as physics, mathematics, chemistry, computer science and engineering to focus on problems at the frontier of the life sciences. Since the award’s inception in 1989, 11 HFSP Fellows have gone on to win Nobel Prizes.

• Hybrid Vigor Fellow and acclaimed science writer Oliver Morton is now chief news and features editor at Nature. Morton, who in 2002 wrote a brilliant HV Journal [PDF] on the role of cloud behavior in climate change, is also the author of Mapping Mars: Science, Imagination and the Birth of a World. His book on photosynthesis, Eating the Sun, will be published in July 2007.

• Hybrid Vigor advisor Margo Somerville, a renowned ethicist and founding director of the McGill (University) Centre for Medicine, Ethics and Law in Quebec, delivered the 2006 Massey Lectures that are broadcast to an audience of about 400,000 listeners via CBC Radio’s Ideas program. Her new book, The Ethical Imagination: Journeys of the Human Spirit, was published in September 2006 by House of Anansi Press.

Somerville also teamed with microbiologist Ronald Atlas, co-director of the Center for the Deterrence of Biowarfare and Bioterrorism at the University of Louisville, to write a code of ethics for the life sciences. Their article on the subject, “Ethics: A Weapon to Counter Bioterrorism,” was published in Science in September 2006. (Those who don’t subscribe to Science can read an earlier version of the cod, presented at the 2nd Pugwash Workshop on Science, Ethics and Society that was held in Corsica in 2004.

• In 2005, Katherine Fulton, president of the Monitor Institute and a member of the Hybrid Vigor board of directors, and Andrew Blau, a senior scenario practitioner at Global Business Network and a Hybrid Vigor advisor, published a report on the future of philanthropy called Looking out for the Future that, by all accounts, has demonstrably shifted the nature of the dialog in the philanthropic community.

Fulton presented her talk on the subject, “The Deeper News About the New Philanthropy,” to a full house at the Long Now Foundation‘s November 2006 seminar. Later, Larry Brilliant of Google.org and Richard Rockefeller, chair of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, joined Fulton for conversation on the issues raised in her talk. (You can listen, if you’d like.)

• Over the past 3-plus years, various members of the MacArthur Research Network on Socio-Economic Status and Health have been churning out important research toward understanding the mechanisms by which socioeconomic factors affect the health of individuals and their communities. Network chair Nancy Adler, professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at the University of California, San Francisco, is a founding member of HV’s advisory board, as is Bruce McEwen, the pioneering Rockefeller University professor of neuroendocrinology known for his work on the impact of stress and stress hormones on the brain and on immune function.

• In 2005, Tom Kalil, a long-time HV advisor, started and now directs the Big Ideas project, an ongoing $100,000 competition to find the best ideas from UC Berkeley’s student body. It considers creative ideas in a broad range of subjects such as curricular innovation, green cities, neglected diseases, serious games and designing the next X Prize, the $10 million prize that launched the private spaceflight industry. In 2004, Kalil also worked with Berkeley researchers to propose and eventually win a $11.9 NSF award to build a new Center of Integrated Nanomechanical Systems (COINS) on campus.

Steven Johnson, long-time friend of and early advisor to Hybrid Vigor, has continued his streak of science-meets-society bestsellers with The Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic — and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World, released in October. At almost the same time, a company he co-founded announced the launch of a fascinating new web experience called outside.in that is designed to bridge the online and “real” world, and reconnect people with the events and news in their cities and neighborhoods. When this was written, outside.in was tracking 56 cities and 3301 neighborhoods in the U.S.

• HV editorial advisor Bruce Sterling, originator of the Viridian Design movement and well-known science-fiction author, wrote the introduction to Worldchanging: A User’s Guide for the 21st Century — a roadmap to collaborative problem solving if ever there was one.

• Helen Doyle, HV advisor, is associate director of the Interdisciplinary Graduate Program in Environment and Resources at Stanford University. The program, run by Stanford ecologist Gretchen Daily, develops new methodologies based on non-traditional combinations of natural science and engineering with perspectives derived from law, medicine, economics, the social sciences, foreign policy, and business.

What a group!


by ~ December 5, 2006

Today was the tele-press conference for the launch of Intervention. I invited four of my best sources to do a mini-panel discussion with me via conference call about some of the themes in the book. (This was a very cool way to introduce a big-thinky product, btw; idea props to Venture Communications. You can listen to the teleconference here.)

One of the panelists, Dave Rejeski, director of the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies at the Wilson Center in Washington DC, cracked wise about the need for a new government department — one that dealt with the aftermath of its bad decisions. He told us he’d already created the logo for it, in honor of a talk he gave at the Harvard School of Public Health, and here it is. We’re taking t-shirt orders.

Dept of Unintended Consequences


by ~ December 5, 2006

Today I officially launched my first book. It’s an easy read about a scary subject; i.e., why (and how) we should rethink the risks of genetic engineering and other emerging biotechnologies. Easy for you, that is. For me, it was three years and nine months in the making, if you don’t count the year of research and paper-writing before I decided to make it a book. But who’s counting.

(If you’re interested, here’s the press release. Also, more background on me and why I wrote the book.)

Many of my friends have had a good laugh about the title, considering they thought they were going to have to do an intervention to get me through the process.

Despite how long it took, and all the agita that went along with it, I love this book, and I hope it makes a contribution to a much-needed conversation about how to assess the risks of innovations like genetic engineering, nanotech and whatever other radically new technologies are presently careening through the pipeline toward the market.

Also, I ended up publishing the book myself, through Lulu.com. Overall, this was a remarkably easy process (with the exception of pesky Macintosh-font-PDF issues). I will write more about this, but for now let me say that I believe companies like Lulu, that provide such a useful, hands-on service for authors, are going to revolutionize academic publishing. It’s about time.