Science blog

22 posts categorized "TalkScience"

07 October 2014

Summer of Science Policy

Rachel Huddart looks back on the last three months working with the British Library Science Team

I decided to apply for a BBSRC Science Policy internship on a whim while traveling to a conference in Hungary. It turned out to be one of the best decisions I’ve made so far. As competition for an increasingly small number of postdoctoral positions increases, having a chance to get out of the lab environment and discover what opportunities there are outside of academia is a fantastic boost to your future career. Turns out there are a lot.

While I’ve been here at the British Library, I’ve worked on two main projects. The first one was the TalkScience event ‘Biotech on the Farm: Food for Thought?’ which looked at the future of meat production and consumption. My PhD is about the genetic modification of livestock animals and organising TalkScience gave me a great opportunity to take a step back from my thesis and look at the bigger picture of food security and sustainability. Researching the topic was fascinating (you can read a brief summary of what I learned here), although staring at pictures of delicious food – which get used a lot in food security reports – did make me incredibly hungry!

I’ve been incredibly lucky to have had four fantastic speakers who agreed to be on the panel and, despite my initial nerves, the debate was lively, interesting and informative. The audience seemed to enjoy it and posed lots of interesting questions, including asking whether we could get our pets to cut down on the amount of meat they eat. I definitely learnt a lot about where my work fits into the bigger picture as well as the myriad other factors which are at play in our struggle to have a secure, sustainable supply of meat. The video of the event is below, if you want to check it out for yourself.

 

My second task was to help the Science team with a project investigating how people working in science policy access information. This project is still in the early stages but it gave me the chance to visit other science policy organisations and learn about their work. It’s been really interesting to learn how much information, other than scientific articles, go into producing policy documents and how varied that information is as well as what barriers people working in science policy encounter when they look for information.

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TalkScience audience (Copyright: British Library Board)

But that hasn’t been all. I’ve learned about so many other things from the life of Isaac Newton to the basics of writing computer code. By now, you’ve probably guessed that work here at the British Library is incredibly varied and always interesting. I’ve gained lots of new skills and brushed up on some older ones, like writing for non-academic audiences. I’m so pleased that I decided to do this internship (and even more pleased that the Science team agreed to take me on!) and now I can’t wait to see how I use everything I’ve learned in my future career

Rachel Huddart

Are you a NERC, BBSRC or AHRC- funded PhD student interested in science policy? Find out more about the Policy Internship scheme here.

10 July 2014

My Internship with the British Library Science Team

NERC Science Policy Intern Adam Levy sums up his three months with the Science Team

I applied to undertake a NERC policy internship, hoping to be presented with the opportunity of working at one of eight fantastic organisations.  When I received an email to offering me an internship with the British Library, I was thrilled.  Not only did it feel like a huge achievement to be offered any of the schemes, but the British Library is also a great institution that many of my peers find invaluable to their research.  That said, I was as yet unsure exactly how my time would be spent with the Science Team.  Well, I’m pleased to report, it has turned out to be a hugely varied and rewarding three months.

 

Without a doubt, the biggest responsibility I’ve had during my time at the Library has been to organise an event for the Science Team’s long running TalkScience series. I am thrilled by the amount of creative control I was entrusted with – from picking the topic and speakers, to tweaking the format of the discussion.  The event took the form of a panel discussion, titled Extreme Weather: Climate Change in Action?, and my aim was to bring together four panellists from distinct spheres (science, policy, press and communication psychology).

When the day itself came around, it felt hugely personal, and I fully expected to be too nervous to hear anything our panellists discussed.  Thankfully, this wasn’t the case, and I was delighted by how broad the conversation was – discussing not only the science linking extreme weather to climate change, but also why improvements in scientific understanding haven’t led to significant changes in public attitudes.  This was also one of the first TalkScience events to be filmed, so feel free to judge the outcome for yourself!

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Enjoying the outcome of my hard work at TalkScience!



Continue reading" My Internship with the British Library Science Team" »

10 June 2014

Communicating Extreme Weather: Beyond Science

Climate scientist and NERC Policy Intern, Adam Levy, explores the communication of extreme weather in advance of our upcoming TalkScience event on 17th June (doors open 6pm).

In spite of the immense threat posed by global warming, its impacts often seem too distant and abstract to motivate us to action.  In contrast, extreme weather events – from droughts to hurricanes – are incredibly tangible, wreaking havoc on communities around the world.  As discussed previously, climate scientists are now beginning to establish the effect that manmade climate change is having on extreme weather patterns today.  We are quickly finding out, however, that communicating this scientific understanding presents challenges of its own.

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This winter, the United Kingdom was hit by the most extreme rainfall observed in Southern England since records began almost 250 years ago.  The flooding that resulted caused huge damage to infrastructure and homes, the costs of which could exceed £1 billion.  As the rain continued to pour, one question in particular was being discussed in every sphere: What was the role of climate change in this devastation?

Frustratingly, examining the effect of climate change on a particular extreme weather event can take several months, and so at the time there were no clear-cut answers.  It is well established, though, that hotter air holds more moisture, and there is good evidence to suggest that this will lead to increases in the intensity of extreme rainfall.  While this could not be seen as the cause of the storms, it does point towards an influence from climate change on the strength of the storms.  This is precisely what the Met Office’s Chief Scientist, Professor Julia Slingo, was referring to when she commented that: ‘while there is no definitive answer… all the evidence suggests there is a link to climate change’.

This measured statement seems to strike the right balance – while emphasising that our fundamental scientific understanding would make a link likely, it acknowledges the lack of conclusive evidence on the role of climate change in this particular event.  Many of the responses to it, however, were not quite so balanced.  Newspapers with a history of climate change denialism (such as the Spectator and the Mail on Sunday) were quick to oversimplify Professor Slingo’s comments in order to present a false conflict between her and others at the Met Office.  Nigel Lawson – chair of the Global Warming Policy Foundation – expressed this position particularly concisely and acerbically: ‘You'll see the Met Office's own report denies it.  It is just this Julia Slingo woman, who made this absurd statement’.

Misrepresentation of Professor Slingo’s statement, however, was not limited to climate change deniers.  Professor Nicholas Stern – a leading climate change economist – cited the storms as a ‘clear sign that we are already experiencing the impacts of climate change’.  This statement implies an unambiguous causal link between climate change and the storms, going beyond what scientific understanding at the time was able to tell us.

These misrepresentations of Professor Slingo’s comment – both by climate change proponents and deniers – are deeply concerning.  What’s more, they are symptomatic of the way climate change is discussed more widely.  So why does this take place in discussions of climate science, and how can it be avoided?

It is tempting to argue that scientists simply need to communicate the science more clearly, and inaccurate reporting will dissipate.  While it may be true that some misrepresentations are indeed caused by misunderstandings, this neglects other crucial factors that influence interpretations of climate change.  After all, climate change is not just a scientific issue; it is a political and social issue.

The actions required to tackle climate change are often presented in a way that appeals to those with left of centre political beliefs, while conversely alienating those on the right.  As a result, left of centre individuals are more predisposed to accept the statements of climate scientists than right of centre individuals.  Inevitably, then, some will exaggerate scientific statements, while others will dismiss them out of hand.  Worse still, a recent study has shown that amongst those who already believe or deny climate change, higher scientific literacy in fact only serves to empower people to defend their positions more boldly.  This deeply challenges the conviction held by many – including Professor Slingo – who feel that better scientific communication is the key to progress.

Shutterstock_99706340Brisbane River Flood January 2011 Aerial View Milton Homes

What hope is there, then, to avoid these misrepresentations?  First and foremost, climate change communicators must acknowledge that communicating the science is only a starting point.  We must take account of the varied political and social lenses through which different individuals engage with the debate.  Crucially, we must find mechanisms for communicating both the impacts and the mitigation of climate change that are engaging to those with right of centre politics.  After all – while the debate rages on – the world keeps getting warmer.

 

25th TalkScience Event - Extreme Weather: Climate Change in Action

To explore scientific and communication perspectives on this issue, come along to the British Library on the evening of 17th June and join James Randerson (Assistant National News Editor, The Guardian), with Professor Stephen Belcher (Head of the Met Office Hadley Centre), Laura Sandys MP (Conservative Environment Network) and George Marshall (Founder of Climate Outreach & Information Network).

More information and tickets available here.

16 May 2014

Extreme Weather: Climate Change in Action?

Climate scientist and NERC Policy Intern, Adam Levy, explores extreme weather in advance of our upcoming TalkScience event on 17th June (doors open 6pm).

From the winter storms in the UK, to the drought currently devastating California, extreme weather is constantly in the news.  As our lives become increasingly removed from the natural world, catastrophic weather events remind us of our vulnerability and call into question how we protect ourselves from the elements.  Recently, though, headlines have begun to challenge not only our preparedness, but also whether our actions are contributing to these events.  Are we, by emitting greenhouse gases, putting ourselves at greater risk of extreme weather?

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Understanding the climate

In 1990, when the first major international report on climate change was published, we were still unable to detect whether greenhouse gases were already causing the earth’s temperature to rise.  Now, not only do we know that this is extremely likely, but we can begin to unpick how the earth’s rising temperatures affects the climate of different parts of the world in different ways.

The properties of the climate that are easiest to study, though, are often far removed from the weather we experience day to day.  To those of us that don’t work in agriculture, knowing how much rainfall there will be in the average 2040s summer is of limited use.  Even when this information relates directly to our own region, it fails to resonate with our experience of the world around us.  The damages caused by extreme weather, on the other hand, are far more tangible.  In contrast to the facts and statistics that are normally presented on global warming, extreme weather is something we are naturally inquisitive about.  So can scientists tell us anything about the influence of global warming on these weather events?

Insights into our weather

In some cases, scientists have been able to use physical understanding of the climate to evaluate how rises in the earth’s temperature could affect extreme weather.  Heat waves, for example, are very likely to become both longer and more frequent, as a hotter world is biased toward more extremely hot days.  We can also expect more extreme rainfall, as hotter air holds more moisture, and so when it rains, it pours.  These findings are invaluable, but when extreme weather hits, we understandably want to know the role of climate change in that specific event, not general physical patterns.

There has always been extreme weather, so it’s not possible to claim that a particular event never could have taken place without climate change.  We can ask, however, whether emissions have changed its intensity or likelihood.  To investigate such changes, scientists use physics-based computer simulations of the climate to compare what actually happened to what might have happened had there been no manmade emissions.

Scientists in the University of Oxford recently utilised this technique to investigate the record breaking rainfall experienced by the UK this winter.  Using a computer model designed by the UK’s Met Office, they ran almost 40,000 simulations on volunteers’ home computers.  They found that the recent storms - which forced thousands from their homes and cost the UK more than £1 billion – has gone from being a one in a hundred year event to a one in eighty year event.  The implication of this amazing result is that one fifth of the storms’ costs – both human and financial – can be ascribed to manmade climate change.

Findings like these empower people to engage with the consequences of our changing climate.  Continued warnings of the future dangers of greenhouse gases have patently failed to motivate meaningful action: emissions continue to rise relentlessly year on year.  Linking extreme weather to global warming, however, enables us to see the damages our emissions are already causing.  The challenge now – not just for climate scientists, but for all of us – is to communicate this powerful science in a way that motivates us to action. 

25th TalkScience Event - Extreme Weather: Climate Change in Action

To explore both scientific and policy perspectives on this issue, come along to the British Library on the evening of 17th June and join James Randerson (Assistant National News Editor, The Guardian), with Professor Stephen Belcher (Head of the Met Office Hadley Centre), Laura Sandys MP (Conservative Environment Network) and George Marshall (Founder of Climate Outreach & Information Network).

More information and tickets available here.

31 March 2014

Patently Obvious?

Katie Howe reports on the latest event in our TalkScience series.

It’s been a busy few weeks here at ScienceBL. We have hosted a total of nine events as part of our Beautiful Science events season, welcoming over 2000 people to the Library to explore all aspects of science from family science shows through to serious debate and geeky science comedy.

One of these events was the latest instalment of our TalkScience debate series. On the 4th March we welcomed a range of scientists, policy makers and patent experts to debate whether biomedical patents are a help or hindrance to scientific progress and society more generally.

The debate was chaired by Professor Jackie Hunter (Chief Executive of the BBSRC) who was joined by three expert speakers: Professor Alan Ashworth (Chief Executive of the Institute of Cancer Research), Dr Nick Bourne (Head of Commercial Development at Cardiff University) and Dr Berwyn Clarke (biomedical entrepreneur).

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L-R (Alan Ashworth, Nick Bourne, Berwyn Clarke and Jackie Hunter)

Down to business

The panel started by giving a background to the area from their point of view and sharing their thoughts on whether patents are necessary to encourage innovation or if they simply stifle scientific progress. There seemed to be two key, and often conflicting, issues at play here: firstly, the potential commercial benefits of biomedical patents, and secondly, their societal impacts.

First up was Professor Alan Ashworth. Professor Ashworth was part of the team who in 1995 identified the BRCA2 gene at the same time as the American company, Myriad Genetics, sparking a 20 year long patent war over licensing. He has previously spoken of his disappointment with the recent Myriad vs US Supreme Court ruling but was of the opinion that in areas such as drug development patents are necessary to allow investors to recoup the money invested. However, in his view the nature of genetic material is ‘sacrosanct’ and this should not be overridden by commercial considerations.

Dr Bourne shared with the audience his experience of working in technology transfer. He noted that the recent REF2014 (Research Excellence Framework) required universities to report on the impact of their research. Importantly, this included both economic impacts as well as societal impacts and Dr Bourne noted that patent protection can be useful in furthering both these aims.

Dr Clarke has a background in the pharmaceutical industry and founded the diagnostics company Lab21 in 2005. Dr Clarke was firmly of the opinion that biomedical patents are necessary as they allow investors to recoup some of the money they spent on developing the drug in the first place. He also noted that much academic research is funded by the revenue generated from patent exclusivity or patent licensing. Dr Clarke also reminded that pharmaceutical companies' raison d’être is to develop drugs to help people and it is not solely about making money.

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Questions from the audience at TalkScience@BL


Invention vs. discovery?

In the second part of the evening, a question from the audience shifted the debate to the issue of defining whether something is an invention or simply a discovery. Making this distinction is particularly difficult in modern biomedicine where we are now able to mimic naturally-occurring molecules and pathways synthetically.  Dr Clarke noted that in order to be patentable an invention must be ‘non-obvious’. But Professor Hunter countered this by pointing out that the definition of ‘obviousness’ is often anything but ‘obvious’!

At the end of the evening, the consensus was that biomedical patents are definitely not ‘patently obvious’!

If you were not able to join us for the debate then you can listen to the podcast here. The next TalkScience event will be held in late June so stay tuned for further information. Meanwhile, you can get your fill of data visualisation goodness by coming along to the Beautiful Science exhibition, which is open until 26th May.

Katie Howe

12 February 2014

Is Necessity The Mother of Invention?

Scientific discovery and invention. What drives them? What connects them? Allan Sudlow and Katie Howe delve into the Library’s collections to uncover some answers.

Scientists have long used patents to protect their inventions and allow them opportunities to commercialise their work. Recent controversies in cancer and stem cell research have highlighted the social and ethical, as well as the economic implications of biomedical patents. We will be exploring these issues in our forthcoming TalkScience event on 4 March: Patently Obvious?

In the meantime, we have been taking a look back at what distinguishes a scientific discovery from an invention – and asking – is necessity really the mother of invention?

The Oxford English Dictionary attributes the first printed usage of the proverb ‘Necessity is the mother of invention’ to Richard Franck in his tome Northern Memoirs, first published in 1694:

“Art imitates nature, and necessity is the mother of invention; science also invites to study and practicks, but theory gives the prospect, and operation finishes the project.”

  Northern Memoirs
Frontispiece from Northern Memoirs, Calculated for the Meridian of Scotland, Richard Franck. (1694)

At the turn of the last century, the mathematician and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead took a different view on the origins of invention, and its relationship to scientific discovery, noting in The Aims of Education:

“…inventive genius requires pleasurable mental activity as a condition for its vigorous exercise. ‘Necessity is the mother of invention’ is a silly proverb. ‘Necessity is the mother of futile dodges’ is much nearer the truth. The basis of the growth of modern invention is science, and science is almost wholly the outgrowth of pleasurable intellectual curiosity.”

This insight from the past provides a rallying call to those that support the idea of ‘blue skies’ research and feel that scientific discovery and invention should be driven by curiosity rather than a strategy or a set of pre-defined rules. In contrast, O.T. Mason describes, very precisely, what he believes underpins the nature of invention in an article The Evolution of Invention from 1895, published in the first volume of the journal Science:

  1. Of the thing or process, commonly called inventions.
  2. Of the apparatus and methods used.
  3. Of the rewards to the inventor.
  4. Of the intellectual activities involved.
  5. Of society

Fast-forward to the present, and the European Patent Convention defines – or rather doesn’t define - invention in terms of:

 “…a non-exhaustive list of things which are not regarded as inventions. It will be noted that the items on this list are all either abstract (e.g. discoveries or scientific theories) and/or non-technical (e.g. aesthetic creations or presentations of information). In contrast to this, an "invention" … must be of both a concrete and a technical character”

So we see some distinction between discovery and invention: the abstract vs the concrete. But what – I hear you cry – about necessity?

The Human Genome Project (HGP), the world’s largest biological project to date, is a great example of necessity being a spur for collaborative discovery. The HGP’s aim was to determine the sequence of the three billion chemical building blocks that make up human DNA – the entire human genetic code. Many of the scientists involved saw the HGP as a race between public and commercial research interests. In particular: Craig Venter, an American genomic researcher
and entrepreneur; and John Sulston, an English Nobel Prize winning scientist and campaigner against the patenting of human genetic information.

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Sir John Sulston, who oversaw the UK's contribution to the Human Genome Project.
© Wellcome Images, made available under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

In his book The Common Thread, Sulston describes the moment when he realised that Venter’s company (Celera Genomics) parallel work to sequence the human genome with greater speed than academic efforts: “…had made everyone realise the absolute necessity of the publicly funded teams working together”. Thus, necessity drove greater international effort, and on the 26 June 2000, the HGP consortium announced that it had assembled a working draft of the sequence of the human genome.

Competing public and commercial interests persist in scientific discovery and invention, especially in relation to genetic information. Recent attempts to patent human gene sequences have raised questions over whether a sequence of DNA is an invention or a discovery and have highlighted some of the challenges in assessing the patentability of biomedical developments. Witness the recent legal battle involving diagnostics company Myriad Genetics in the US over predictive genetic testing for susceptibility to breast cancer. The US Supreme Court judged that human DNA was a ‘product of nature’, a basic tool of scientific and technological work, thereby placing it beyond the domain of patent protection. Amongst other caveats, this judgment declared that certain forms of DNA (cDNA) were patentable.  

Will there always be a necessity to patent in this area of bioscience? Undoubtedly, but a balance needs to be struck. Necessity may drive invention but when it comes to Mother Nature, who decides? Come to TalkScience on 4 March to voice your opinion.

 

18 October 2013

Testing times

In our blog this week Katie Howe reviews our most recent TalkScience@BL event.

Last week we welcomed scientists, policy makers and members of the public to the British Library for the 22nd event in our TalkScience series - “Genetic testing in assisted reproduction: Selecting, not perfecting?”

Our panel of experts included Dr Joyce Harper (UCL), Nick Meade (Genetic Alliance UK) and Professor Rosamund Scott (King’s College London), who each presented their viewpoint and expertise around the controversial field of pre-implantation genetic diagnosis (PGD). Dr Alan Thornhill (Guy’s Hospital Assisted Conception Unit) stepped in at the last minute to chair as unfortunately Dr Tom Shakespeare (University of East Anglia) was unable to join us on the night due to illness.

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Dr Alan Thornhill (far right) introduces the discussion. (Photo: Tony Grant; British Library)

Alan kicked off the evening by introducing the topic of PGD. He explained that PGD is a technique used by families with a history of a serious genetic disorder to select embryos which are unaffected by that condition. He also noted that the process is very emotionally, physically and financially demanding for families.

Nick Meade then presented two case studies of patients who had undergone PGD - one for a rare heart condition and one for a recessive muscle-wasting disease. He used these human stories to illustrate a key point - that informed choice is a key component of reproductive decision making.

Next up was Rosamund Scott who guided the audience through the current state of the law surrounding PGD and reminded us that because PGD patients also have to undergo IVF, any ‘selection’ will always be restricted by the number of embryos that can be produced.

The final speaker was Joyce Harper who introduced some of the new technologies that may come to prominence in the future, such as next generation sequencing, and addressed some of the ethical issues that these developments might raise.

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Audience members discussing genetic testing during the TalkScience interval (Photo: Tony Grant; British Library)

After the break the discussion was opened up to the floor and generated some great debate both in the room and on Twitter.

Currently in the UK, only ‘serious’ genetic conditions can be licensed for testing and this sparked much debate over what the word serious means and the difficulty in considering the ’seriousness’ of diseases objectively. The discussion also turned to the use of the phrase ‘designer babies’ which has become synonymous with the field of PGD. The panel agreed that the term was overused and could trivialise some of the issues surrounding PGD. Alan Thornhill reminded us that PGD is primarily negative selection against embryos with a faulty gene, rather than positive enhancement.

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Questions from the floor at TalkScience@BL (Photo: Tony Grant; British Library)

Alan summed up the evening aptly by saying, “There’s still a lot to talk about and we should probably do this again soon!”

If you were not able to join us on the night then check this webpage for a podcast of the discussion, which will be available soon. We’re now thinking ahead to the annual TalkScience Christmas Quiz ‘Let’s get Quizzical!’ on 4th December for which booking is now open. We look forward to seeing you again then!

Katie Howe

06 September 2013

Selecting, not perfecting?

In this week’s blog post we provide a preview of October’s TalkScience@BL which will focus on genetic testing in assisted reproduction and the many opportunities and challenges it raises

Since the birth of the first IVF baby in 1978, the demand for fertility treatment has exploded. Now, over 17,000 IVF babies are born every year in the UK and account for 2% of total births.

In the last twenty years, pre-implantation genetic testing has allowed patients to test the embryos produced through IVF to ensure that only those that are free of a specific disorder, such as cystic fibrosis or sickle cell anaemia, are implanted into the mother’s womb. Such testing has been one of the most contentious developments in the field of IVF and medical ethics.

For prospective parents who are carriers of a faulty gene, developments in genetic testing have been hailed as miraculous as they allow them to avoid having children with life threatening conditions. It is now also possible to test for embryos that might be susceptible to diseases that occur later in life, such as Huntington’s or breast cancer. On the other side of the coin, some anticipate that genetic testing could lead to specific traits being screened out and this possibility has sparked heated debate on the rights of people with disabilities.

These new technologies may allow us to select a desired embryo - but how far should we be prepared to go in the pursuit of perfection?

These are some of the issues that we will be debating in our next TalkScience event: “Genetic testing in assisted reproduction: Selecting, not perfecting?”

Recently, the UK’s fertility regulator, the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, launched a review into the genetic disorders that it licenses for testing. The review is timely given that medical treatments have improved significantly since these specific conditions were licensed. So, how should we decide what conditions should be licensed? When should a disorder be considered serious enough to warrant screening? 

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An egg being artificially fertilised in IVF. Copyright Photos.com.

To add to the mix, UK regulations surrounding genetic testing are some of the most stringent in the world. For example, parents are permitted to choose the sex of their baby only to avoid the inheritance of a serious gender-linked condition, such as muscular dystrophy. However, in some countries - Cyprus is one example - selection on the basis of gender is allowed for ‘family balancing’. Could red tape be stifling research into future developments? Will the UK’s tight controls simply lead to ‘reproductive tourism’, where patients are driven overseas for treatment in countries with more permissive regulations?

Critics of pre-implantation genetic testing have claimed that these new developments will open the floodgates to a generation of designer babies, engineered to have blonde hair or be musically gifted. But are these scenarios realistic scientific possibilities?

To discuss and debate these issues, we are pleased to have Dr Tom Shakespeare as our chair for the evening. Tom is Senior Lecturer in disability studies and medical sociology at UEA. Joining our expert panel we have Dr Joyce Harper (UCL Centre for Pre-implantation Genetic Diagnosis), Nick Meade (Genetic Alliance UK), Professor Rosamund Scott (Centre of Medical Law and Ethics, King’s College London), and Dr Alan Thornhill (Guy's Hospital Assisted Conception Unit), who will represent the range of views surrounding pre-implantation genetic testing and the future of assisted reproduction.

We hope that you’ll join us on the evening of 9th October at the British Library for what promises to be a lively debate. For more information and to book your place, click here.

Katie Howe

09 August 2013

Inspiring Science 2013

An Experiment with Ideas

This is a story of what happens when science, art, comedy, philosophy and puppets collide!

Watch the video showing highlights from Inspiring Science, our first science season, held at the British Library in March this year.

 

With the strap-line – Experiment with Ideas – Inspiring Science gave people a range of opportunities to explore thought-provoking scientific ideas and engage with challenging topics in an accessible and enjoyable way. The season showcased the scientific aspects of what we do across the British Library, highlighting both the cross-cutting nature of science, and its interplay with the arts, humanities and social sciences. Science is part of the cultural experience at the Library, as well as an integral part of the information resources and services that we provide.


Thousands of people took part in an inspiring series of events, learning lectures and workshops, or visited the Encounters science-art exhibition, entered the Access to Understanding writing competition, or viewed content online. Events such as Ideas in the Bath saw scientists debating the role of serendipity in research and in Addictive Personality explored the biological and social drivers of addiction. In a lighter vein, Your Creative Brain was an on-stage extravaganza involving neuroscientists (from University College London), musicians, artists, philosophers, historians and puppeteers, exploring the conditions for creativity.


With Go, Go, Gadget, we helped aspiring inventors in a speed-mentoring workshop in the Library’s Business and IP Centre, and the Inspiring Science Learning Lectures for A-level students saw us collaborating with the Francis Crick Institute. Sir Nigel Shadbolt led a lively TalkScience discussion on the role of open data in fostering innovation, scientific and social advancement.
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Science, smells, puppets and prizes – something for everyone at Inspiring Science 2013

Full Frontal Nerdity, the season finale, saw Festival of the Spoken Nerd taking on the British Library and rummaging through the collections, unearthing bizarre facts, quizzing resident experts, investigating the chemistry of books and developing performances based on our patents collection and ecology sound archive. A series of ‘labs’ provided an opportunity for the audience to have hands-on experiences of science at the Library and even to taste ‘Musty Book’ cocktails.

Inspiring Science 2013 was a great opportunity for people to connect with science at the Library, providing inspiration and enjoyment. In 2014, we will be doing it all again, with an even more ambitious season to tie in with Beautiful Science, an exhibition which will explore the power and beauty of data visualisation in science. Watch this space…


Allan Sudlow

19 July 2013

BBSRC intern and potential ‘poster-boy’ buzzes-off…

From organising a public debate to writing-up science conferences and festivals, my time as part of the science team at the British Library is at an end. My placement followed on from first BBSRC intern, Catriona Manville who became the ‘poster-girl’ for the BBSRC placement programme in 2012. Even though it was never really a competition, after three months at the British Library could I be the next BBSRC ‘poster-boy’?

Stu.BeinnEigheflipped.Photo_by.Kyle_MunroStuart [me], surveying a grazing exclosure on the Beinn Eighe nature reserve in Scotland. Photo by Kyle Munro.

Before my internship I was writing-up my PhD thesis in Biological Science at the University of Aberdeen, but I wanted some experience in science policy. A placement at the British Library was appealing as an intermediary between interacting with policy makers and the general public. To that effect, I have attended as many meetings, workshops, conferences as possible; from the British Science Association Science Communication conference to a day talking to MPs at the House of Commons with the Society of Biology. For many of the events I attended, I wrote articles or blog posts to share what I learned. For example, I attended my first ever festival (and kept my wristband to prove it!) - the Cheltenham Science Festival - and helped write an article in their newspaper, Litmus paper.

DSC_6836Spot Stuart during TalkScience@BL ‘Pollinators and pesticides: is there a plan bee?’ Photo: Peter Warner.

The pinnacle of the placement has been organising TalkScience. This is a quarterly evening event, similar in format to a café scientifique. After reading the news, policy briefings, publications and reports, we decided our next TalkScience topic would be on issues surrounding the potentially harmful effect of pesticides on insect pollinators. “Pollinators and pesticides: is there a plan bee?”  was chaired by Bill Turnbull, BBC presenter and beekeeper in discussion with the panel comprising Dr David Aston (British Beekeepers Association), Dr Peter Campbell (Syngenta) and Dr Lynn Dicks (University of Cambridge). Even greater public outreach was gained via Bill hosting a BBC Horizon programme about demystifying the bees - leading to the event being filmed by the BBC. Keep your eyes peeled on BBC2 on 2 August at 21.00 and you might see a few shots of the event!

Being part of the British Library science team was a large learning curve and has increased my awareness of activities supporting, using and extending scientific research. For example, I gained new insights into Open Access and how recent policy changes are influencing libraries, funders, publishers and researchers. Even on a day-to-day basis, the transition from PhD student to science outreach is a change in mind-set and routine.

•    Preparing for a monthly supervisor meeting to participating in daily meetings with a wide range of people
•    Preparing for a single yearly conference to attending a conference every few weeks
•    Focusing on a single specific area of science to following multiple disciplines
•    Expanding sources of information from primarily research articles to journal and society news, policy briefings and blogs/Twitter!

DSCF0847A typical internship job at the British Library; fixing the life support system in the office to stop rising CO2 concentration killing the team! This was a team away day at the Leicester Space Centre.

Should I become the next ‘poster-boy’? To be honest, as a PhD student, I feel lucky to have experienced my fair share of media engagement with BBC Horizon. There are many scientists, societies and government advisors completely immersed in outreach and policy that deserve more recognition. Undertaking a placement at the British Library has been a rewarding experience in itself and I would encourage future PhD students to consider the opportunity.

Stuart Smith is a PhD student studing the effect of livestock grazing on the carbon cycle at the University of Aberdeen and has finished his internship as part of the BBSRC policy placement scheme.

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