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27 posts categorized "Science policy"

10 November 2017

Using science to build international relations: a short introduction to science diplomacy

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Today, on World Science Day for Peace and Development, scientists and policymakers attending the World Science Forum in Jordan are discussing the role science can play in nurturing diplomatic relations.

Science diplomacy is an umbrella term for a wide range of activities in which science and technology are leveraged to foster ties between nations. Governments are aware that collaborating with international partners to achieve scientific goals can further their national interests. Consequently they are paying increasing attention to the idea of science as a diplomatic tool.

How is it practised? On a bilateral level diplomats co-ordinate scientific agreements which commit signatories to pooling resources by sharing knowledge and collaborating on research projects. Such agreements can open up opportunities for product development and trade deals, and are becoming an important part of the UK’s strategy to expand its research and innovation horizons post-Brexit.

Jo Johnson Ruth Garber
Jo Johnson (UK Minister of State for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation) and Judith G. Garber (U.S. Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs) signed the first U.S.-UK Science and Technology Agreement on 20 September 2017 in Washington, D.C. The UK is putting £65 million into the Deep Underground Neutrino Experiment (DUNE). Photo credit: STFC/FCO

Science is a global enterprise in which international collaboration is the norm. In particular multinational teams are needed to run large experimental facilities such as the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) which are beyond the scope of individual countries. One of the by-products of these neutral working environments is science diplomacy. Scientists can develop long-lasting, cross-cultural relationships that sometimes help to bridge difficult political situations from the bottom up. Proposals for these huge infrastructure projects are often driven by an incentive to stimulate co-operation as much as for a need to build scientific capacity.

This was the case for the SESAME synchrotron which opened earlier this year in Jordan. The synchrotron’s powerful light source can be used to study the properties of a range of different materials, attracting researchers from across the Middle East, including Iranians, Israelis and Palestinians.

SESAME construction
Countries from across the Middle East have come together to build SESAME. Photo credit: SESAME

Science diplomacy also comes into play in resolving sensitive international disputes. When negotiations to limit Iran’s nuclear programme stalled, credit for their successful conclusion went to the two physicists, one Iranian and one US, who worked out the scientific details of the 2015 deal.

Four negotiators
The scientists and Ministers who negotiated the Iran deal: US Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, US Secretary of State John Kerry, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif and Vice President of the Iranian Atomic Energy Organization Dr Ali Akbar Salehi. Photo credit: U.S. Mission Photo/Eric Bridiers

Scientists and diplomats also work together in addressing global issues such as climate change, antimicrobial resistance or cross-border public health crises. Using scientific evidence is fundamental when negotiating coherent responses to shared challenges, and government science advisers are seen as a key mechanism in getting science into policymaking. Gradually foreign ministries around the world are appointing their own science advisers to channel scientific research into the work of their departments.

Various strategic funding programmes, some of which focus on meeting the UN’s sustainable development goals, support the aims of science diplomacy. These international collaborative projects generate the necessary evidence to inform policymaking while also stimulating partnerships that foster trust between nations.

Climate ready rice Newton Prize
The Newton Fund project ‘Climate Ready Rice’ is being conducted by scientists from Sheffield University in the UK, Kasetsart University in Thailand and the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines.Photo credit: IRRI

It is unclear how to evaluate the impact of science diplomacy activities, but participants agree that they only work when based around excellent science that generates mutual benefits.

Emmeline Ledgerwood is an AHRC collaborative student with the British Library Oral History department and the University of Leicester. She is preparing a policy briefing on science diplomacy as part of an AHRC-funded policy fellowship at the Parliamentary Office of Science & Technology (POST). The briefing will be published by POST in December 2017.

POST runs several fellowship schemes with Research Councils, learned societies and charities, through which PhD students are sponsored to spend (usually) three months working at POST. Some fellowships are also open to postdoctoral researchers in academia and industry.  

You can follow @EmmeLedgerwood and @POST_UK on Twitter.

The statements and opinions expressed in this piece are those of the author alone, not of the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology.

08 June 2017

Untangling academic publishing

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Untangling
Untangling Academic Publishing logo. Creator uncredited, published under CC-BY

On the 25th of May we attended the launch of the report Untangling Academic Publishing by Aileen Fyfe and others (https://zenodo.org/record/546100). The report describes the history of scholarly publishing from the nineteenth century to the modern era of open access, “crises” in affordability of journals and books, and controversy over commercial publishers’ profits and competing business models.

The report discusses the post-WWII evolution of scholarly publishing from an original model where learned societies saw dissemination of research results as simply a part of their essential activity, with no expectations of profit and many copies of journals distributed free to public, academic and scholarly subscription libraries. After WWII an alliance became formed with profit-seeking scholarly publishers, under the pressure of the increasing quantity of publically-funded academic research and increasingly large numbers of universities and professional researchers in the developed world, and a growing proliferation of subdisciplines. Commercial publishers turned scholarly publication into a profitable business by setting up journals for subdisciplines without their own journals or learned societies, selling to institutions, and internationalising the market.

It was during this time that the current system of peer review was developed, and publication metrics became increasingly used to assess the prestige of individual academics and reward them with career progression and funding.

However, since the 1980s this period of close association between the interests of scholars and commercial publishers has ended, due to further expansion of the research base, reduced library budgets due to inflation and cuts in funding, and in the UK specifically issues related to exchange rates. University libraries have struggled to afford journal subscriptions and monograph purchases, leading to a vicious circle of declining sales and increasing costs. Increasingly scholars at all but the wealthiest institutions have found themselves unable to legally obtain material that they need to read, and resentment of the profit margins made by the “big four” commercial scholarly publishers in particular has developed.

Hopes that digital publication would allow cost-cutting have failed to materialise, with publishers arguing that the actual costs of distributing and printing hard copy publications are relatively small compared to editorial costs, and that providing online access mechanisms with the robustness and additional features that users want is not as cheap as some initial enthusiasts assumed. Open access, which covers a variety of business models not based on charging for access at the point of use, has been promoted for almost twenty years, but has failed to replace subscription publishing or, to a great extent, to challenge the market dominance of major commercial publishers, with much open access publishing based on the “gold” business model funded by article processing charges paid by authors or research funders, often offered by commercial publishers as an alternative. Hence universities often find themselves faced with paying both subscriptions and article processing charges instead of just subscriptions, and mechanisms offered by publishers to offset one against the other have been criticised as lacking transparency.

At the event, there were presentations by Dr. Fyfe, her co-author Stephen Curry (whose views can be found here), and David Sweeney, Executive Chair Designate of Research England. Mr. Sweeney welcomed the report for describing the situation without demonising any parties, and pointed out that publishers are adding value and innovating. He suggested that a major current issue is that academics who choose how to publish their work have no real connection to the way that it is paid for – either by their institutional libraries paying subscriptions or by funders paying APC’s – and hence are often not aware of this as an issue. It was pointed out in discussion after the event that the conversation about publishing models is still almost completely among librarians and publishers, with few authors involved unless they are very interested in the subject – the report is aimed partly at raising awareness of the issues among authors.

The general argument of the report is that it is time to look again at whether learned societies should be taking more of a role in research dissemination and maybe financially supporting it, with particular criticism of those learned societies who contract out production of their publications to commercial publishers and do not pay attention to those publishers’ policies and behaviour. Although there is no direct allusion, it is interesting that soon after the report’s launch, this post was published on Scholarly Kitchen, discussing the concept of society-funded publication and putting forward the name of “diamond open access” for it.

17 March 2017

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

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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’.

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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. 

McLaren-image-2
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.

27 October 2016

Replace, Reduce, Refine: Animals in Research.

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PhD placement student Mandy Kleinsorge looks back on our most recent TalkScience@BL event.

TalkScience@BL - Replace, Reduce, Refine: Animals in Research

The use of animals in research is as controversial as ever. It is well-known that animal research has brought about some great discoveries in the past1, such as the development of Herceptin and Tamoxifen for the treatment of breast cancer or the discovery of bronchodilators to treat the symptoms of asthma. Today, the UK regulations for research involving animals are among the tightest in the world. In consequence, it is illegal in the UK (and in Europe) to use an animal in research if there is a viable non-animal alternative2. Despite this, the number of experimental procedures on animals in the UK has been steadily increasing over the last years3 and funding of non-animal research accounted for only 0.036 % of the UK national R&D science expenditure4 (2011). Apparently, three quarters of Britons agreed that there needs to be more research carried out into alternatives to animal experimentation5 (2012).

On 13th October, we invited experts in the field to the British Library to publicly discuss the current state of alternatives to animals, as well as the efforts that are made to improve the welfare of animals that are still needed in scientific research. The concept of reducing or even substituting animals in scientific experiments (or at least improving the conditions under which these experiments are conducted) is not new. In 1959, Russell and Burch established the principles of the Three Rs (Replacement, Reduction and Refinement)6 which came to be EU-wide guidelines for the more ethical use – or non-use – of animals in research. Today, a number of organisations campaign for openness and education as to why animals are needed in some areas of research, but also as to where we might not actually need them anymore. One of those is the National Centre for the Replacement, Refinement & Reduction of Animals in Research (NC3Rs) who we collaborated with on our TalkScience event ‘Replace, Reduce, Refine: Animals in Research’. The event was chaired by Stephen Holgate, Professor of Medicine at the University of Southampton and Board Chair of the NC3Rs.

Taking a closer look at Robin's amoeba.
Taking a closer look at Robin's amoeba.

The first speaker of the evening was Robin Williams (Head of the Biomedical Sciences Centre at Royal Holloway, University of London). Robin uses Dictyostelium, a social amoeba and therefore non-animal model, to conduct research into neurological diseases like Alzheimer’s. He even brought some amoeba for the audience to look at! Besides bringing awareness to the fact that this organism can actually represent a viable alternative to animal experimentation, he also drew attention to two big problems that researchers using animal alternatives are facing. Acquiring funding and publishing scientific papers are the most important tasks of senior researchers and both of these are complicated by a limited acceptance of non-animal models. Although 3Rs practice is increasingly advocated in the UK, the peer review process regulating funding and publication of research projects is a global endeavour. Robin therefore called for a shift in attitude towards alternatives to animals on a world-wide level.

Our second speaker, Sally Robinson (Head of Laboratory Animal Science UK at AstraZeneca), shed some light into the use of animals in pharmaceutical research. Sally stressed the importance of using the most appropriate model – animal or non-animal – to answer the scientific question. This is not as trivial as it sounds, and is key to obtaining meaningful results and minimising use of animals where possible. The welfare of the animals used in drug development is equally important, as Sally illustrated with the refinement of dog housing. By optimising pen design7, the welfare of laboratory dogs can be drastically improved, and so can the quality of scientific research they’re involved in. Furthermore, Sally herself had a leading role in the challenging of the regulatory requirement for acute toxicity tests in drug development8, which ultimately changed international legislative guidance and reduced the number of animals needed in pharmaceutical research.

Our panel: Stephen Holgate, Robin Williams, Sally Robinson and Robin Lovell-Badge.
Our panel: Stephen Holgate, Robin Williams, Sally Robinson and Robin Lovell-Badge.

Our last speaker was Robin Lovell-Badge (Head of the Division of Stem Cell Biology and Developmental Genetics at the Francis Crick Institute). He opened his talk by endorsing openness in animal research. This is a welcome and necessary trend of the past few years – after animal research had been conducted behind closed doors in the UK for decades for fear of violent actions. The ‘Concordat on Openness on Animal Research’9 was initiated in 2012 and has been signed by 107 UK organisations to date. Robin explained which animals the newly built Francis Crick Institute will work with and why, and how Home Office guidelines on animal research have helped inform the design of their state-of-the-art facilities. He also mentioned some of their work that doesn’t involve animals, like research using induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells. These iPS cells resemble embryonic stem cells and can be generated from any living cell of a human donor. They are able to differentiate into virtually every cell type of the body, presenting an alternative source of human tissue for drug screenings and the modelling of diseases10. This fairly new technology might even be useful as an alternative to animal experiments in the future.

In discussion with the audience it became clear that the UK is leading the world in the realisation of the 3Rs. However, there is still room for much improvement in furthering the 3Rs. While better experimental design using robust biostatistics and in-depth training of scientists handling animals is vital, increased acceptance of negative data would avoid unnecessary duplication of experiments using animals.

The discussion continued after the event.
The discussion continued after the event.

When asked whether an animal-free research in the immediate future was possible, the panel agreed that it wasn’t. A lot more research into alternatives as well as a change in people’s mindsets is needed beforehand. But how do we exert pressure for this change? Do we need animal activists to do this, one audience member asked. Good question. It is definitely necessary to bring different types of people together to have more balanced and open discussions about this emotive topic. So, thanks to the speakers and the audience of this TalkScience event for joining us to disuss this important issue.

Further reading:

1 Understanding Animal Research. Forty reasons why we need animals in research.
2 Animals in Science Committee. Consolidated version of the Animals Scientific Procedures Act 1986.
3 Home Office. Statistics of scientific procedures on living animals, Great Britain 2015.
4 Taylor, K. EU member state government contribution to alternative methods.
5 Ipsos MORI. Views on the use of animals in scientific research.
6 Russell, WMS and Burch, RL. The principles of humane experimental technique.
7 Refining Dog Care. Dog unit and home pen design.
8 Robinson, S et al. A European pharmaceutical company initiative challenging the regulatory requirement for acute toxicity studies in pharmaceutical drug development.
9 Understanding Animal Research. Concordat on Openness on Animal Research.
10 Takahashi, K and Yamanaka, S. A decade of transcription factor-mediated reprogramming to pluripotency.

 

05 September 2016

Social Media Data: What’s the use?

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Team ScienceBL is pleased to bring you #TheDataDebates -  an exciting new partnership with the AHRC, the ESRC and the Alan Turing Institute. In our first event on 21st September we’re discussing social media. Join us!

Every day people around the world post a staggering 400 million tweets, upload 350 million photos to Facebook and view 4 billion videos on YouTube. Analysing this mass of data can help us understand how people think and act but there are also many potential problems.  Ahead of the event, we looked into a few interesting applications of social media data.

Politically correct? 

During the 2015 General Election, experts used a technique called sentiment analysis to examine Twitter users’ reactions to the televised leadership debates1. But is this type of analysis actually useful? Some think that tweets are spontaneous and might not represent the more calculated political decision of voters.

On the other side of the pond, Obama’s election strategy in 2012 made use of social media data on an unprecedented scale2. A huge data analytics team looked at social media data for patterns in past voter characteristics and used this information to inform their marketing strategy - e.g. broadcasting TV adverts in specific slots targeted at swing voters and virtually scouring the social media networks of Obama supporters on the hunt for friends who could be persuaded to join the campaign as well. 

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Image from Flickr

In this year's US election, both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are making the most of social media's huge reach to rally support. The Trump campaign has recently released the America First app which collects personal data and awards points for recruiting friends3. Meanwhile Democrat nominee Clinton is building on the work of Barack Obama's social media team and exploring platforms such as Pinterest and YouTube4. Only time will tell who the eventual winner will be.

Playing the market

You know how Amazon suggests items you might like based on the items you’ve browsed on their site? This is a common marketing technique that allows companies to re-advertise products to users who have shown some interest in the brand but might not have bought anything. Linking browsing history to social media comments has the potential to make this targeted marketing even more sophisticated4.

Credit where credit’s due?

Many ‘new generation’ loan companies don’t use a traditional credit checks but instead gather other information on an individual - including social media data – and then decide whether to grant the loan5. Opinion is divided as to whether this new model is a good thing. On the one hand it allows people who might have been rejected by traditional checks to get credit. But critics say that people are being judged on data that they assume is private. And could this be a slippery slope to allowing other industries (e.g. insurance) to gather information in this way? Could this lead to discrimination?

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Image from Flickr

What's the problem?

Despite all these applications there’s lots of discussion about the best way to analyse social media data. How can we control for biases and how do we make sure our samples are representative? There are also concerns about privacy and consent. Some social media data (like Twitter) is public and can be seen and used by anyone (subject to terms and conditions). But most Facebook data is only visible to people specified by the user. The problem is: do users always know what they are signing up for?

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Image from Pixabay

Lots of big data companies are using anonymised data (where obvious identifiers like name and date of birth are removed) which can be distributed without the users consent. But there may still be the potential for individuals to be re-identified - especially if multiple datasets are combined - and this is a major problem for many concerned with privacy.

If you are an avid social media user, a big data specialist, a privacy advocate or are simply interested in finding out more join us on 21st September to discuss further. Tickets are available here.

Katie Howe

23 June 2016

Illegal substances or aiding physical excellence? A few historical perspectives

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Ahead of next week's TalkScience event on Doping in Sport Julian Walker explores some historical examples of performance enhancement described in his new book "The Roar of the Crowd".

The essence of the debate regarding the use of drugs in sport is: what is an unfair substance to use, and how do we decide? The F60146-12dividing line between acceptable and unacceptable is, and for decades has been, constantly moving. For the lay-person the terms ‘anabolic steroids’ and ‘human growth hormones’ sound warning bells, but the equally prohibited ‘diuretics’ sound relatively harmless, and the word ‘stimulants’ requires detailed specification to the point where the word itself is more or less meaningless. How does the cultural history of sport handle this subject?

In Book 23 of Homer’s Iliad the funeral games held for Patroclus include a boxing match and a wrestling match. When the boxing match is announced forward comes Epeues, who has certainly done his mental preparation:

"I boast myself To all superior"

His endorphins are running and performance-enhancing even before he has a challenger, his control of the mind-game as assured as Ferguson’s or Mourinho’s. He is answered by the equally confident Euryalus. The fighters each dress for the fight, and:

"Mingling with fists, to furious fight they fell;

  Dire was the crash of jaws, and the sweat stream'd

  From every limb"

Eurylaus looks for an opening but effectively the fight is over with a single blow from Epeues, and he is taken away, spitting blood.

The wrestling bout is more of a match, Homer pitting brain against brawn, Ulysses against Ajax, neither managing to lift and throw the other. Ulysses then enters the running match, against Oiliades. It’s a close thing, Ulysses is probably tired from the wrestling, and it looks like he is going to lose:

"Oiliades

  Led swift the course, and closely at his heels

  Ulysses ran. Near as some cinctured maid

  Industrious holds the distaff to her breast,                  

  While to and fro with practised finger neat

  She tends the flax drawing it to a thread,

  So near Ulysses follow'd him, and press'd

  His footsteps, ere the dust fill'd them again,

  Pouring his breath into his neck behind,                      

  And never slackening pace.[1]"

At this point Ulysses uses the Ancient Greek equivalent of a performance-enhancing drug – he calls on Minerva for help; and sure enough she trips his opponent so that he falls face-down in some cow-poo (ironically his prize for coming second is an ox). Quite blatantly Ulysses has use external assistance to gain victory, and got away with it. Oiliades puts in a complaint:

"Ah--Pallas tripp'd my footsteps; she attends                

  Ulysses ever with a mother's care."

And what happens?

    "Loud laugh'd the Grecians."

It’s a disgrace.

Robert Burton explores, in The Anatomy of Melancholy (1652), the role of exercise in balancing the body. He notes the Roman physician Galen’s contention that ‘to play at ball, be it with the hand or racket, in tennis-courts or otherwise, … exerciseth each part of the body, and doth much good, so that they sweat not too much’[2]. Burton here points out the control on exercise – do it to a certain level of sweating, but stop there; earlier he says that exercise should be done ‘after he hath done his ordinary needs, rubbed his body, washed his hands and face, combed his head and gargarised [gargled]’. These are physical and mental preparations, getting the body empty (I take this to be the meaning of ‘done his ordinary needs’), clean and warmed, and knowing exactly how far to go. While not explicitly involving the ingesting of external substances, they do indicate that exercise does not stand in isolation: the mind and body are made ready for maximum benefit by specific preparation.

F60146-17The pre-match preparation of Captain Barclay, the early nineteenth-century endurance athlete, pushed this process further, and was carefully described by Walter Thom in Pedestrianism (1813). Using Barclay as a model, Thom offers a regimen for the preparing athlete, beginning with ‘a regular course of physic, which consists of three dozes [doses]. Glauber salts are generally preferred’. Glauber salt, sodium sulphate decahydrate, is named after Joseph Glauber, who isolated it in 1625, and named it ‘sal mirabilis’ for its supposed medicinal properties; it was used as a purgative (laxative), and is currently deemed acceptable. Thom’s diet list for the aspiring athlete starts with ‘beef-steaks or mutton-chops under-done, with stale bread and old beer’, and goes on to prohibit any ‘preparations of vegetable matter’ other than ‘biscuit and stale bread’. Prohibited foods include veal, lamb and pork, vegetables, as well as fish, butter, cheese, or milk. Profuse sweating is required, induced by running four miles in flannel at top speed, followed by the imbibing of ‘sweating liquor’, made from caraway-seed, coriander-seed, and liquorice, boiled down in cider, after which the athlete is ‘put to bed in his flannels, and being covered with six or eight pairs of blankets, and a feather-bed’ for about half an hour. As regards hydration ‘water is never given alone … avoid liquids as much as possible, and no more liquor of any kind is allowed to be taken than what is merely requisite to quench the thirst’.

While none of these steps, however eccentric, look ethically dubious, they do make up a massive control regimen for the enhancement of the athlete’s performance. The commodified successor to Capt Barclay’s ‘red-meat & no veg’ diet was Vin Mariani, the so-called ‘athlete’s wine’, launched in 1863. This popular concoction of red wine and coca leaves, whose stimulant properties were praised by the mostly sedentary great and the good, also happened to aid endurance for athletes and cyclists. Cocaine is now, of course, a banned substance for athletes, but Capt Barclay’s coriander-seed and caraway-seed are both diuretics.

By the end of the 19th century training itself, in some circles, was deemed unsporting. When Blackburn Olympic had the temerity to beat the Old Etonians in the 1883 FA Cup Final the Eton College Chronicle wrote,

‘So great was their desire to wrest the Cup from the holders that they introduced into football a practice which has excited the greatest disapprobation in the South.  For three weeks before the final match they went into a strict course of training …’

Blackburn Olympic won 2:1 after extra time. Somehow the Old Etonians had not noticed that the goalposts had moved.

F60104-57

But that perhaps is the question: when we come to look at acceptable or unacceptable substances, can we compare them to laxatives, diuretics, diets and sweating regimes, training or neglecting to train, or even the possible advantage of supreme arrogance, which though it did not work for the 1883 Old Etonians probably helped Epeues? Seeding, records, divisions and trophy cabinets ensure that competing athletes never start on a level playing field. Professional status, sponsorship and training facilities make a real difference to achievement. The ethical paradigms by which we judge acceptable from unacceptable are based on judgements and categorisations that fluctuate all the time. When we compare Phendimetrazine with good old mutton chops are we looking at a difference of kind or a difference of degree?

Julian Walker is an artist, writer, researcher and educator. His latest book "The Roar of the Crowd" is a major new anthology of sports writing that captures the drama, excitement and intrigue of athletic achievement and celebrates the innate urge to compete, to fight, and to test the human body. He is also the author of "The Finishing Touch: Cosmetics Through the Ages" and "How to Cure the Plague and other Curious Remedies".

[1] William Cowper’s translation, 1791

[2] Part 2, Section 2, Member 4.

09 February 2016

PhD placement in Science in Society at the British Library

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Applications now open

The British Library is currently running a series of 3-month (or PT equivalent) PhD Placements, to be hosted by specialist curatorial teams and other Library experts.  Of the 17 placements on offer, this opportunity will be of particular interest to PhD students with interests in science, science policy and the social perception of scientific issues.

Science in Society

Working within the Research Engagement Team, the placement student will have the opportunity to organise and deliver a TalkScience event on a topic relevant to scientific policy.  TalkScience is well-established, highly successful series of public debates organised by and held at the British Library. Previous topics have ranged from the use of personalised genomics to science education in schools.

TalkScience_23_6_15-45
A previous TalkScience event

The placement student will also have the opportunity to use the Library’s collections in relation to science and its social perceptions, for example by working with the Web Archive Team to produce a special online collection related to science and science policy.  Additionally, placement students can also get involved with a number of activities across the Research Engagement Team, such as contributing to research reports or social media activity. 

We have hosted Science in Society interns in previous years. You can read more about their projects here:

Stuart smith talkscienceStuart Smith (BBSRC intern, 2012)

Adam levyAdam Levy (NERC intern, 2014)

Rachel huddartRachel Huddart (BBSRC intern, 2014)

Further information

The application deadline for all of the PhD placements is Friday 19 February 2016.

Further information, including eligibility criteria and details on the application process, can be found here:

http://www.bl.uk/aboutus/highered/phd-placement-scheme 

All applications must be supported by the applicant’s PhD supervisor and their department’s Graduate Tutor (or equivalent). Please forward any questions to: Research.Development@bl.uk

 

Eleanor Sherwood

Research Engagement PhD Placement Student

10 December 2015

GM Crops: what are the risks?

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Last month we took our successful TalkScience series on the road to Leeds Central Library. Here Ruth Amey  (PhD student at the University of Leeds) shares some of the highlights of the event.

The GM crop era may seem like a golden age of technofixes, but in a recent ‘TalkScience’ discussion in Leeds the panel explored some of the less obvious risks associated with this technology. It is commonly stated that GM crops can ‘help feed the world’, but the speakers challenged this idea and considered issues of control, ecological harm and the unknown dangers from altering genetic code.

This is the first TalkScience event to be held outside of the British Library’s London’s site, organised by the West Yorkshire branch of the British Science Association in collaboration with the national British Science Association, British Library and Leeds Central Library.

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Panellists (left to right): Professor Jurgen Denecke, Andy Goldring, Liz O’Neill and chair Dr. Alice Owen listen to the final speech from Martin Coates. Photo credit: Jing An

What are GM Crops?

Genetically Modified (GM) crops are plants which are grown for food and have had their genetic code altered. This is often done to introduce a trait to a crop that does not occur naturally, by modifying DNA. For example, rice could be cultivated to produce vitamin A, or crops are altered to produce a small amount of toxin that is harmful to the insects that would eat them.

Can GM Crops really feed the population?

It is a phrase commonly heard that GM crops will ‘feed the world’, and yet Professor Jurgen Denecke from Leeds University pointed out that we already grow enough food to feed more than the population. The problem is not in the amount produced, Jurgen argued, but instead the issue is in limited energy for transportation and Liz O’Neill, director of GM Freeze, argued that starvation is a socioeconomic problem – ‘people starve because they are poor’. GM crops aren’t a quick-fix for world hunger. The problem is in politics and not production.

 The issue of control

‘No-one should own genetic code’ posed Liz O’Neill. If a company can patent a crop, then they can charge royalties and control who can buy that crop. Andy Goldring, CEO of the Permaculture Association network, invited us to imagine a future in which a handful of companies control the world’s food supply, and require you to buy only their crops, and puts people in jail for using traditional crops. ‘This is almost like a James Bond film!’ jested Andy – but with GM Crops could this be the future? GM crops gives the potential for companies to have complete control of a seed, and consequently complete control of our food. Martin Coates, Managing Director of Agrantec, explained how complex the food chain is and without transparency GM crops are potentially an opportunity for companies to exploit this complexity - ‘Anyone working with genetic modification needs to recognise that GM Crops are not just about science, but also about political and corporate power’.

Ecological harm

Andy Goldring particularly highlighted the ecological problems. Certain GM Crops can produce toxins harmful to non-target insects, such as butterflies. Planting different crops also affects crop rotations and affects biodiversity, which are particular issues to Permaculture’s aim to create a sustainable society from ‘permanent agriculture’.

Fear of the unknown

We can’t predict the long-term effects of GM crops. Ecosystems are complicated, crops are hard to contain and cross-contamination can occur.  ‘DNA is not lego!’ proclaimed Liz O’Neill – altering genetic code is complicated, there’s a lot that can go wrong.

Take-home messages

The closing remarks all followed a broadly similar theme. Jurgen Denecke maintained that every method that increases knowledge is a good thing and Martin Coates suggested we should be supportive of research that makes us understand GM crops better. Andy Goldring too urged us to keep an open mind about science, all of which answered a question from the floor about our society’s responsibility to pursue the potential of GM Crops. But ultimately the panel agreed with Liz O’Neill’s caution to separate the scientific potential of GM crops to how GM crops are being produced now. Andy Goldring stressed that we should follow the money and make sure crops aren’t about making shareholders wealthier. Ultimately, it seems there is a political issue behind GM crops that perhaps, currently, is bigger than the science.

We invited the audience to share with us their views on GM Crops before and after the debate; the audience overwhelmingly voted with a positive opinion of GM Crops.

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Photo credit: Anna Woolman


The panel included:

  • Liz O'Neill from GM Freeze, the UK umbrella campaign for a moratorium on GM in food and farming.
  • Professor Jurgen Denecke from Leeds University - Professor for Plant Cell Biology and Biotechnology, Faculty of Biological Sciences
  • Andy Goldring from Permaculture, the national charity that supports people to learn about and use permaculture – ‘Permanent Agriculture’
  • Martin Coates from Agrantec - an all-in-one cloud based data management system to meet the needs of the food industry.

Chair:

  • Alice Owen from Leeds University – Lecturer in Business Sustainability & Stakeholder Engagement in Sustainability Research Institute, School of Earth and Environment

07 October 2015

The Ugly Truth

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On 28th September the British Library hosted the 10th Annual Sense About Science lecture entitled "The Ugly Truth" and delivered by Sense About Science director Tracey Brown. The British Library's mission is to make our intellectual heritage accessible to everyone for research, inspiration and enjoyment. This key purpose aligns with that of Sense About Science who are making research accessible by equipping people to make sense of science and evidence. In this guest post, Voice of Young Science member Sheena Cowell summarizes the lecture highlights.

Towards the end of my PhD I was often asked by interested friends and family “So, what have you found out then?” I knew this question was innocent enough, but in the complexity of my project and the stress of trying to write up, I would often revert to something along the lines of “we had this nice idea, but in the end it didn’t quite work”. This was not the truth. I was distilling my results, removing the nuances of my research and giving an answer that was simpler, easier. Science rarely has definitive answers. Scientists spend their days finding evidence to support or disprove arguments and hypotheses within their fields. Uncertainty is accepted. Probabilities and error bars are scrutinised alongside results. But, when it comes to explaining a body of scientific work to a wider audience, this uncertainty is often left out. Evidence is simplified. Results and outcomes are over or understated in order to get a point across. But what harm does this do?

 On Monday 28th September at the Sense About Science Annual Lecture, Tracey Brown gave a talk exploring just that; the difficulty of telling the whole ‘truth’ or challenging ‘truths’ in the public arena. As scientists or even as advocates of evidence, we can sometimes alter the evidential ‘truth’ in favour of a simplified explanation or an uncomplicated argument. However, in her talk, Tracey argued that evidence should be presented warts and all, including the uncertainty and unknowns that it can expose. “The Ugly Truth” explored the concept that the oversimplification of evidence and the lack of critical scrutiny of established claims, can be detrimental to public accountability and to the scientific community itself.

At the beginning of her lecture, Tracey Brown quoted Henning Mankell’s book ‘The White Lioness

“The truth is complicated, multi-faceted, contradictory. On the other hand, lies are black and white.”

This quote to me, sums up the messy nature of scientific ‘truths’. We do not live in a world of black and white, but one of endless shades of grey, where what we know as ‘true’ is constantly changing as science advances and technology evolves.

Tracey explored the many reasons that evidence can be overstated or uncertainties ignored. Often the truth can be difficult. If we look for instance at clinics offering miracle cures for cancer as Tracey did in her talk, we can see that the evidence for these ‘cures’ may be limited. In reality however, it is hard to question these ‘cures’ and destroy the hope they can provide. Other times it may appear in the public’s interest to simplify the evidence to make a point. This is often the case for many public health campaigns. Who cares about the evidence if the outcome is positive? For example the ‘5 A DAY’ campaign, where numbers touted may vary from country to country, but we can all agree that eating more fruit and vegetables is a good thing. And finally, it may be that a ‘fact’ or claim is so well established we don’t even think to question it, or put it under critical scrutiny.

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Tracey Brown. Photo: Richard Lakos

While these reasons can be compelling, they can become problematic. If uncertainty and accountability for evidence is not present at every level of public life, how can we introduce it in more nuanced scientific areas? By denying people the opportunity to understand scientific uncertainty, we can become trapped by our oversimplifications. We are left with the fear that uncertainty will be misused by critics and we begin to dread the question “But, are you sure?”

In the end Tracey’s argument comes down to mutual trust. The public needs to be trusted with uncertainty. As a scientific community we must be trustworthy and present the uncertainty that accompanies our work. We need to give the public the tools to ask for and demand evidence and accountability. There will be missteps and misunderstandings along the way. Opinion and motive will always find a way to clash with evidence. But by promoting the true nature of scientific evidence, people will be free to make fully informed decisions in a world where evidence and accountability cannot be ignored.

To listen to Tracey Brown’s talk in full (without any oversimplifications) visit the Guardian website or download the podcast here. To learn more about Sense About Science, or get involved in their Ask for Evidence campaign visit http://www.senseaboutscience.org/.

Sheena Cowell recently completed her PhD at Imperial College London in Medicinal Chemistry and Cancer Imaging. Sheena is a member of Voice of Young Science, a programme to encourage early career researchers to play an active role in public debates about science.Sense About Science is a charity that works with scientists and members of the public to change public debates and to equip people to make sense of science and evidence.

22 September 2015

‘Impossibly bold and Utopian’: H.G. Wells on education

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Alice Kirke investigates HG Wells’ views on science education ahead of our upcoming TalkScience event.

Although he is better known as ‘the Shakespeare of science fiction,’[1] H.G. Wells began his career as a school science teacher. Science education today needs to cater for the budding professional scientist in order to tackle global challenges such as population growth, climate change, and food security. But it also needs to nurture a greater public understanding of science. In light of these challenges, the anniversary of Wells’ birth, on 21st September 1866, prompted me to revisit his educational ideas.

H. G WellsBorn into a lower-middle class family, Wells immersed himself in books from the library at the Sussex mansion of Uppark, where his mother worked as a lady's maid. He continued to educate himself while he trained as a pupil-teacher,[2] and was eventually awarded a scholarship to the Normal School of Science in South Kensington in London, now Imperial College.

 

Whilst there, he was taught by the eminent advocate of Darwin’s theory of evolution, T.H. Huxley. Wells founded the Science Schools Journal, which provided a forum for the development of his views on science and society. Darwinian notions of progress and degeneration came to inform his understanding of history, the future of mankind, and the importance of education.

In 1937, during his presidential address to the Educational Science section of the British Association, he outlined his concerns over ‘the contents of the minds our schools are turning out.’[3] His address was judged by Nature to be of such historical significance that they published it on the centenary of his birth in 1966. So, what did he have say about education?

In his address, Wells insisted that he was speaking not as a scientist, educator or author but as a ‘citizen’. Ignorance, he argued, led to tyranny, and was a consequence of the failure of elementary education to ‘properly inform’ citizens. He posed the question:

‘What are we telling young people directly about the world in which they are to live?’

Wells advocated a child-centred approach to learning which stimulated curiosity, rather than the old-fashioned rote learning which he believed still characterised schooling in the 1930s. He suggested that instead ‘the weather and the mud pie’ should introduce children to biology and that ‘we ought to build up simple and clear ideas from natural experience.’ Further, he argued that ‘natural experience’ should be the foundation not only of scientific instruction but of education more generally. Geography should give children:

‘a real picture in their minds of the Amazon forest, the pampas, the various phases in the course of the Nile… and the sort of human life that is led in these regions.’

Wells believed that telling children about the physical environment of different areas, and the lives of the people who lived there, would teach them to respect and appreciate the world as ‘one community.’ He described himself as a democratic socialist, and saw education as fundamental to peace; in his Outline of History he claimed that ‘human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe.’ He argued that History should be the ‘main subject of instruction’ in schools, and that to avoid the ‘crazy combative patriotism that plainly threatens to destroy civilisation’, it should be based on the recent discoveries of archaeologists, not the squabbles and affairs of past kings and queens.

The education system Wells envisaged would lay down a ‘foundation of knowledge’, enabling people to continue learning throughout their lives, and to engage with issues which were of public concern, including those related to science and technology. In the world conjured up by his A Modern Utopia engineers and scientists have figured out how to meet all human needs, and are part of the elite ruling group known as the ‘Samurai’. But in the real world, Wells believed that science education was not only for scientists.

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Frontispiece, H. G Wells, A Modern Utopia (Chapman and Hall, 1905) Shelfmark: 012631.aa.9

Education meant more than the pursuit of reason and intellect, and was not oriented towards purely instrumental economic goals. It was about discovery, questioning and knowledge, and was part of the whole education of the citizen. He concluded his address by reflecting that his educational vision seemed ‘impossibly bold and Utopian’. But he maintained that a reinvigorated education system which would enable people to engage with political, social and scientific challenges was an achievable aim, and a vital one for anyone concerned about the future of civilisation.

Wells’ reflections on education raise important questions for science education today; how should it be taught, and to what end? To debate these issues with an expert panel, come along to our next TalkScience event on 27th October.



[1] Brian Aldiss and Sam J. Lundwall (eds), The Penguin World Omnibus of Science Fiction: an anthology (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1986) p.133 Shelfmark: YC.1987.a.3902

[2] A senior pupil who acted as a teacher to younger children

[3] Supplement to Nature, September 3, 1966