Science blog

Exploring science at the British Library

3 posts from November 2017

30 November 2017

Digital preservation and the Anne McLaren Papers

Today on International Digital Preservation Day we present a guest-post by Claire Mosier, Museum Librarian and Historian at American Museum of Western Art: The Anschutz Collection, concerning the digital files in the Anne McLaren Supplementary Papers (Add MS 89202) which have just been made available to researchers. As an MA student Claire worked as an intern at the British Library in 2015 helping to process digital material.


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Dame Anne McLaren. Copyright James Brabazon

The developmental biologist Dame Anne McLaren was a great proponent of scientists sharing their work with the general public, and gave many presentations to scientists as well as the general public. Some of the notes, drafts, and finished products of these presentations are on paper, and others are in digital formats. The digital files of the Anne McLaren Supplementary Papers are comprised mostly of PowerPoint presentations and images. Digital records are more of a challenge to access, and give readers access to, as they are not always readily readable in their native format. This leads to unique challenges in determining and making available the content. 

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‘HongKong2003Ethics.ppt’ Page from the presentation ‘Ethical, Legal and Social Considerations of Stem Cell Research’, 2003, (Add MS 89202/12/16). Copyright the estate of Anne McLaren.

 Throughout her career, McLaren gave presentations not only for educating others about her own work, but also on the social and ethical issues of scientific research. Many of her PowerPoint files are from presentations between 2002 and 2006 and cover the ethical, legal, moral, and social implications around stem cell therapy. These topics are addressed in the 2003 presentation ‘Ethical, Legal, and Social Considerations of Stem Cell Research’ (Add MS 89202/12/16), which briefly covers the historic and current stem cell research and legislation affecting it in different countries. A presentation from 2006 ‘Ethics and Science
of Stem Cell Research’ (Add MS 89202/12/160) goes into more detail, breaking ethical concerns into categories of personal, research, and social ethics. As seen in these presentations and others, Anne McLaren tried to present material in a way that would make sense to her audience, some of the presentations being introductions to a concept for the more general public, and others being very detailed on a narrower subject for those in scientific professions. 

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‘Pugwash 2006’ Page from the presentation ‘When is an Embryo not an Embryo’, 2006, (Add MS 89202/12/163). Copyright the estate of Anne McLaren.

 From looking at her PowerPoint documents it seems McLaren’s goals were to educate her audience on scientific ideas and encourage them to think critically, whether they were scientists themselves or not. However, this is hard to confirm, as the PowerPoints are only partial artefacts of her presentations, and what she said during those presentations is not captured in the collection. While she did sometimes present her own views in the slides, she presented other viewpoints as well. This is seen in the presentation for the 2006 Pugwash Conference (Add MS 89202/12/163) titled ‘When is an Embryo not an Embryo’ which presents semantic, legislative, and scientific definitions of the term embryo before a slide reveals McLaren’s own views, then goes back to legislative definitions before the slideshow ends. The Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs were created to ensure the peaceful application of scientific advances, and McLaren was a council member for many years.


Both the newly released Anne McLaren Supplementary Papers (Add MS 89202), along with the first tranche of McLaren’s papers (Add MS 83830-83981) are available to researchers via the British Library Explore Archives and Manuscripts Catalogue. Additionally one of Anne McLaren’s notebooks containing material from 1965 to 1968 (Add MS 83845) is on long-term display in the British Library’s Treasures Gallery.

10 November 2017

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

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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 November 2017

121 Discovery Sessions in Science

eference specialists in our reading rooms offer 121 discovery sessions which can be booked through our web site at:

We are all aware of the great advantages of digital access and technologies but not the impact on our individual and public health.


A recent example of such a 121 discovery session explored the research topic of the negative psychological and health impact of digital technologies and the aim to understand the emerging trends for the next decades, of this digital and artificial intelligence revolutions on our mental, emotional, social and cultural well-being.

We can advise our researchers on the stages in which they can follow to create literature reviews and manage their projects:

  • Formulation of initial research questions. List these and value the questions in their own right and that may not have definitive answers.
  • Scoping the areas of interest and defining what is out of remit.
  • Getting into the mind set and language discourse of the literature and its authors.
  • Using the subject specific language terms to search the relevant databases and catalogues.
  • Developing a search strategy and limits e.g. last 10 years, country focus, population group,  material type  
  • Browse e-resources and iteratively refine search terms to re-input into another cycle of database interrogation

The examples given by our researcher of the psychological and behavioural impact of digital technologies induced phenomena that can create mental health issues include:

  • Depersonalisation and objectification
  • Online trolling and abuse
  • The selfie syndrome and online body perception issues
  • Online sexual grooming and predation
  • Rise of Internet junkies, surfers spending up to and more than 6 hours a day online
  • Withdrawal into digital fantasy worlds, are we creating the mental space cadets of the future? What impact does violence online have off-line?
  • Online digital addictions e.g. online gaming and gambling
  • Enhanced social phobias: anxieties around and breakdown of human to human communication and reliance on the intermediation of digital communication technologies
  • Digital exclusion/inclusion and equality issues

We aim to encourage our researchers to ask these key that can challenge and change our future thinking and lifestyles.  Simon Baron-Cohen, in “Zero degrees of empathy : a new theory of human cruelty, questions where are we going as human beings in our era of technological materialism. What impact is this having on our psyche?


The British Library offers a wealth of resources, both in print as books and online in terms of e-resources for researchers of technology trends and their future directions.  How can these risk factors be mapped, evaluated and what interventions devised to ensure digital content and tools support our notions of health and remain our servants and not our masters? Some of these issues are explored in “Irresistible : why we can’t stop checking, scrolling, clicking and watching by Adam Alter, 2017 available in the library collections.

What are the emerging pathologies from these digital technologies and what do the technology utopians, doomers and ludites say about the pros and cons of our current digital revolution? This is a very multi-disciplinary area of research encompassing medicine, mental and psychological health,   social science, economics, business and cultural shifts. Our range of e-resources can open windows into these areas of knowledge through our e-resource directory to be found at:

Recommended databases include: SCOPUS, WEB of Science, PsychInfo and PsychExtrat, PILOTS, Medline and PubMed, ASSIA (Applied Social Science Index and Abstracts), Sociological Abstracts, Business Source Complete, ABI Inform Global, Business and Industry (Gale), Management and Business Studies Portal etc. Most need to be used onsite, a few are free offsite.

Our challenge is to learn lessons from the past and try and predict the pitfalls ahead as we move rapidly from the first industrial revolution in Britain to the global information technology, digital Internet based revolutions of bits, bytes, robots and artificial intelligence.

Paul Allchin, 

Reference specialist, science