Science blog

5 posts from March 2017

17 March 2017

Old issues in new guises: Dame Anne McLaren and the embryo research debate

Following the birth of the world’s first baby by In Vitro Fertilisation (IVF), Louise Brown, in 1978, the research on human embryos that had made this possible became the subject of scrutiny and unease from both the public and politicians. This led the government to task Dame Mary Warnock with the chairing of a committee consisting of medics, social workers, lawyers and clerics in 1982, to set out a guideline for the legislation on IVF and embryo research in the UK. The report was enacted in the 1990 Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act. One of the report’s most lasting and controversial recommendations was a limit on research on human embryos in vitro beyond fourteen-days – the so-called ’fourteen-day rule’.

Detail of the letter to Anne McLaren inviting her to take part in the Warnock Committee. (1982). (Add MS 89202/8/1). Crown Copyright/estate of Anne McLaren.

This law has been in force for more than twenty-five years. For scientists, there had been no need to contest it, since scientists had not come close to culturing an embryo anywhere near to the fourteen-day limit. The equilibrium was only disrupted at the end of last year, when a research group at Cambridge University led by Magdalena Zernicka-Goetz claimed to have developed a method of culturing live human embryos for thirteen days, only stopping their experiment at this point to comply with the fourteen-day rule. This possibility has recharged the debates over the desirability of embryo research and the extent to which it should be regulated.

In the face of these reopened debates on the ethics of embryo research, it is important to understand the premises and arguments that shaped the current legislation. These arguments, at first glance, appear to be predominantly scientific.

Developmental biologist Dame Anne McLaren (1927-2007) was the only research scientist serving on the Warnock Committee, and played an important role in providing the lay-committee with a scientific understanding of the processes of embryo development that proved definitive in the committee’s efforts to convince ministers of the validity of the fourteen-day rule. McLaren made the case for the rule by arguing that the fourteenth day was a clearly distinguishable step towards individuation in the development of the embryo. Fourteen days, for example, sees the onset of gastrulation, a point at which the embryo can no longer divide into identical twins. Fourteen days also falls well before the beginnings of what will become the central nervous system, and so there is no chance that the embryo could experience pain. 

Title page of Anne McLaren’s draft for ‘Comments on the use of donated eggs fertlilized specifically for research purposes’. (c. 1982). (Add MS 89202/8/1) Copyright the estate of Anne McLaren.

Yet, as Lady Warnock has stressed, fourteen days is by no means a landmark set in stone. McLaren could have made a well-substantiated scientific argument for a different cut-off point- the embryo, for example, is just as incapable of experiencing pain at twenty-eight days. As Lady Warnock stated at a 2016 Progress Educational Trust conference on the topic, it was merely important to set a time limit, to provide clarity through law, so that the public would feel reassured that research would not progress untethered. The fourteen-day rule did therefore not express a moral distinction for the human embryo based on biological facts, but emphasised a specific part of the biological process in order to make a practical compromise – as Warnock writes in the committee’s report: ‘What is legally permissible may be thought of as the minimum requirement for a tolerable society’ (1985, p.3). 

Understanding the arguments McLaren made in the 1980s will shed light on what is required of legislation today—that it should take into account the current political climate and public sentiment, perhaps before making arguments about the ethics of research based on biological facts. 

The Anne McLaren papers at the British Library consist of letters, notes, notebooks and offprints. There is currently one tranche (Add MS 83830-83981) available to readers through the British Library Explore Archives and Manuscripts catalogue with a second tranche (Add MS 89202) planned for release at the end of April 2017. Additionally one of Anne McLaren’s notebooks containing material from 1953 to 1956 (Add MS 83843) is on long-term display in the British Library’s Treasures Gallery. 

Anne McLaren’s scientific publications and books, along with an oral history interview conducted in February 2007, are available to readers via the British Library Explore catalogue.

 This post forms part of a series on our Science blog highlighting some of the British Library’s science collections as part of British Science Week 2017.

Posted by Marieke Bigg. Marieke is an MPhil student in sociology at the University of Cambridge and works under the supervision of Prof. Sarah Franklin. Marieke’s MPhil dissertation and PhD will both explore the contributions made by Dr Anne McLaren to the debate over human fertilisation and embryology in the 1980s.

15 March 2017

Local Heroes: John Maynard Smith: (1920-2004): A good "puzzle-solver" with an "accidental career"


John Maynard Smith c:1965. Copyright University of Sussex

Maynard Smith was born in London, though after his father’s death in 1928, the family moved to the countryside. There, Maynard Smith deepened his love for natural history – already manifest in his insistence to repeatedly visit the Zoo and Natural History Museum in London – while bird-watching and beetle-collecting during the holidays in Exmoor. His family was generally not scientifically inclined, and there were expectations for him to join his grandfather’s stockbroking firm. However, during one Sunday lunch he declared that he would not do so. What was he going to do then? Remembering a lecture on the building of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, he decided, rather spontaneously, to become an engineer. And so, after graduating from Eton in 1938, he went on to read engineering at Cambridge.

Maynard Smith is known for not having liked his time at boarding school very much – the atmosphere, he felt, was ‘really anti-intellectual’, ‘snobbish’ and ‘arrogant’ – but he credited Eton with teaching him mathematics and giving him the freedom to explore the natural sciences on his own, mostly by reading popular science books. Cambridge, in a way, did less for him academically than Eton. ‘This time, however, the fault was partly mine and partly Hitler’s. It was hard, in 1938, to take either academic work, or one’s own future, seriously.’ He joined the Communist Party, influenced by a visit of Nazi Germany in the summer of 1938 from which he returned ‘in a state of complete confusion, convinced that my pacifism was wrong’. Communists were those ‘saying we have got to unite and oppose Fascism’, and he spent more time being politically active than studying. Soon after joining, Maynard Smith met Sheila Matthew, his future wife, at a Communist Camp. They were to marry in 1941, making Maynard Smith one of the first married undergraduate students at Trinity College. Their first son, Anthony, would be born in 1944, their daughter Carol in 1946, and their youngest, Julian, in 1949.

In 1941, Maynard Smith graduated with a second-class honours degree in mechanical engineering. After graduation, he worked as an aircraft stressman which, importantly, ‘taught him to trust models, a lesson that would become fundamental in his work as a scientist.’ Moreover, ‘and for obvious reasons, Maynard Smith formed the valuable habit of not making mistakes in computations.’ However, when the war was over, he began to reconsider his career choices. He decided to return to his first love and started a second degree in zoology at University College London. Maynard Smith knew JBS Haldane was teaching there, whose work he had sought out already at Eton because several teachers seemed to particularly hate this man – so he couldn’t be ‘all bad’.

During his years as an undergraduate at UCL Maynard Smith became less and less active politically. He was much more involved in his studies than he ever was at Cambridge. In addition, Lysenkoism reached its peak in 1948. Trofim Lysenko was a Soviet biologist and Lamarckist supported by the Soviet government. Maynard Smith was not so much averse to Lysenkoism as ‘disgusted’ by the comrades who were ignorant of genetics but who were nonetheless telling him what to believe. He lost faith in the Communist Party, became disillusioned with communist politics and – though to a lesser extent – with Marxist philosophy. In 1956, after the Soviet Invasion of Hungary, he finally left the Party yet retained his leftist political outlook.

John Maynard Smith c:1984. Copyright University of Sussex

In the year before his death, Animal Signals, his last book, co-written with David Harper, was published. The book was one of several; Maynard Smith published both textbooks and popular science – his ‘little Penguin’, The Theory of Evolution, was published as early as 1958. Indeed, he was convinced that science is a social activity: he had a ‘desire to embed discoveries in the discourse of a community as broad as possible.’ So next to writing books, reviews, and essays he also appeared on both radio and television.

The John Maynard Smith Archive at the British Library documents over half a century of John Maynard Smith's work as an evolutionary biologist, covering the years 1948 to 2004 (with an emphasis on the 1970s to 1990s). It contains letters, notes, computer printouts, draft manuscripts, lecture notes and offprints as well as artefacts and digital files. The archive is available to readers through the British Library Explore Archives and Manuscripts catalogue (Add MS 86569-86840), excepting the digital material which is in the process of being catalogued.

Maynard Smith's books and scientific papers, along with two interviews (one on camera), can be found via the British Library Explore catalogue.

This post forms part of a series on our Science and Untold Lives blogs highlighting some of the British Library’s science collections as part of British Science Week 2017.


Sources and Further Reading:

Charlesworth, B. and Harvey, P. (2005). John Maynard Smith. Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society 51, 254-265.

Kohn, M. (2004). A Reason for Everything: Natural Selection and the English Imagination. London: Faber and Faber, esp. pp.197-255.

‘Making it formal.’ (1988). In: Wolpert, L. and Richards, A. (eds.). A Passion for Science (pp.122-137). Oxford [etc.]: Oxford University Press.

Maynard Smith, J. (1985). In Haldane's Footsteps. In: Dewsbury, D.A. (ed.). Leaders in the Study of Animal Behavior: Autobiographical Perspectives (pp.347-354). Lewisburg, PA: Bucknell University Press.

Posted by Helen Piel. Helen Piel is a PhD student at the University of Leeds and the British Library. She is part of the AHRC's Collaborative Doctoral Partnership scheme and working on the John Maynard Smith Archive, exploring the working life of a British evolutionary biologist in the post-war period.

13 March 2017

Elsevier Postgraduate Science Workshop for Staff and Readers

Elsevier PM 150317

Colleagues and readers are invited to this Elsevier publisher-led training event exploring the SCOPUS database, Science Direct e-books and journals to enhance their research sources and learn about effective search techniques to find what researchers need.

This afternoon training session is an opportunity for scientists and engineers to learn more about searching the numerical index on the Engineering Village database platform which allows searching for ranges of values crucial to a variety of engineering applications.

Date: Wed 15 March 2017, at 14.00 - 17.00

Venue: British Library, Social Science Seminar Room, Social Science Reading Room, Floor 1 science 1

 Afternoon Programme:

SCOPUS for Scientists                         14.00-15.00

Q&A session                                        15.30 – 16.00

Science Direct                                      16.00 – 16.30

Engineering Village

and numerical index searching:  16.30 – 17.00

Booking via email:

10 March 2017

Francis Crick - our new neighbour


Francis Crick image by Marc Lieberman via Wikimedia Commons

When the Francis Crick Institute opened in 2016 it became, with 1500 scientists, the largest biomedical research laboratory in Europe. Our new neighbour is built on the remaining acres of the old Midland railway goods yard at St Pancras that had been left unoccupied by the British Library. In 2007 this site was chosen as the central London site for a new institute combining the MRC’s National Institute for Medical Research, Mill Hill and the London laboratories of Cancer Research UK.

The new institute celebrates the name of one of the outstanding scientists of the 20th century. If you enter the public exhibition hall of the Francis Crick Institute you will see a remarkable 3D portrait, showing Crick in full flow at a lectern, holding one of his classic papers. Although well known for his co-discovery of the DNA double helix with James Watson, Rosalind Franklin and Maurice Wilkins, Crick’s many other major contributions to biology are less widely known.

His background was in physics and engineering - in the war he devised “smart” mines that were used successfully against U boat bases - and so he brought a rigorous insight to biological problems which until the 1950s had been largely an empirical discipline. Watson and Crick’s classic 1953 paper on DNA and the double helix concluded with a leap of imagination in understanding DNA’s function with the famous line "It has not escaped our notice that the specific pairing we have postulated immediately suggests a possible copying mechanism for the genetic material." As Peter Medawar wrote :

“If the solution had come out piecemeal instead of in a blaze of understanding, then it still would have been a great episode in biological history.’ But it would not have been the dazzling achievement that, in fact, it was.”

Five years later in a second blaze of understanding  Crick set out a model for modern biology that has driven research ever since. The quotation below from his 1958 paper On protein synthesis gives a flavour of how Crick cut through a mass of confusing evidence and introduced the concept of information to biology.

“My own thinking (with that of many of my colleagues) is based on two general principles, which I call the Sequence Hypothesis, (…it assumes that the specificity of a piece if nucleic acid is expressed solely by the sequence of its bases, and that this sequence is a simple code of the amino acid of a particular protein) and the Central Dogma (…once “information” has passed into protein it cannot get out again). The direct evidence for both of them is negligible, but I have found them to be of great help in getting to grips with these very complex problems. I present them here in the hope that others can make similar use of them. Their speculative nature is emphasized by their names. It is an instructive exercise to attempt to build a useful theory without using them. One generally ends in the wilderness.”

And in a few more lines Crick went on to predict from basic principles the next link in the mechanism of protein synthesis – the “adapter” molecule or transfer RNA. This extraordinary paper is one of the greatest achievements in theoretical biology but it is also notable for his collegiate spirit, giving others the tools to think about interesting problems. Crick followed this triumph with a leading  role in unravelling the genetic code but by the mid-1960s the science of molecular biology had matured, moving from its classical phase to its baroque period, and Crick was ready to move on to new challenges.  Pausing briefly to look at the fundamental problem of development - how different genes are expressed in different patterns - he migrated from Cambridge to the Salk Institute in California to take up the study of the brain. His interest as he explained later in a BBC interview with Lewis Wolpert  went back to the start of his career in biology in the 1940’s

“The problem was what did I like?..... I decided that the gossip test is a good one, that what you are really interested in is what you gossip about. I looked at what I was gossiping to people about in science and it boiled down to two areas. One was the border line between the living and the non-living, and the other was the way the human brain worked”

His ambition was to demonstrate the physical basis of consciousness and he thought that the easiest way to approach this problem was to study vision as he explains  in his book The astonishing hypothesis. He continued to struggle with the problem of consciousness until 2004, finishing his final paper just three hours before his death from cancer.

Crick’s last days have a remarkable resonance with those of Charles Darwin. For Darwin’s last paper  On the dispersal of freshwater bivalves, written during his final debilitating  illness and published after his death, came about in response to a communication from the Leicestershire naturalist, Walter Crick, none other than Francis Crick’s grandfather.

Read more about Francis Crick here …. and listen to Francis Crick talking

Richard Wakeford, Science Reference Specialist

01 March 2017

The 100 most reported and shared science articles of 2016

Wright_of_Derby,_The_Orrery compressed
"A Philosopher Lecturing on the Orrery" by Joseph Wright of Derby. Since the 18th century, astronomy has remained popular among non-scientists. have recently published the list of the top 100 scholarly articles most mentioned in news and social media in 2016.  The subjects can be roughly assigned as:

Health and medicine     63
Biology   15
Environment 7
Astronomy 6
Computer science 2
Psychology 2
Scholarly publishing 2
Archaeology 1
Engineering 1
Statistics 1

Predictably, health and medicine articles were most of interest to the non-scholarly media, and social media, with many articles relating to high-profile issues such as obesity and the emergence of the Zika virus, or which could be considered to inspire "might someday lead to a cure for [condition]" stories. Environmental stories were unexpectedly low on the list. Two articles seemingly owed their popularity to a celebrity effect - President Obama's article on the Affordable Care Act, and an essay by the wife of the actor and comedian Robin Williams on the neurological problems that contributed to his suicide. Biology stories were dominated by ones on the always popular topic of prehistoric life, especially life that could be represented as particularly relevant to human ancestry. 

However, a few articles hit the headlines after arousing interest specifically within the scientific community, notably the American Statistical Association's statement stepping into the "p-value" debate about the reliability and meaningfulness of statistical significance testing in science, and the announcement of the long-awaited conclusive detection of gravitational waves. Two stories about the scientific publishing process itself got into the top 100 - the New England Journal of Medicine's controversial "research parasite" editorial on data sharing and a BMJ satirical piece on the perennial battle between authors and peer reviewers. 

So, what does this mean to us as scientific librarians? Most clearly, that at the extremes altmetrics are clearly dominated by what the general public is interested in rather than necessarily what is most important to the development of science. While we are always looking for new information to help us decide what to acquire, this list probably will not affect our purchasing much!

Posted by Philip Eagle - STM Content Expert