Archive for September 2010

Taking sides – review of debate on science journalism taking sides

September 24, 2010

This was a not-very-well-advertised debate about science journalism,organised by the Times‘ Science Editor Mark Henderson (sorry Mark, due to The Times’ policy of charging for content you don’t get a proper link) at the RI. It was chaired by Fiona Fox of the Science Media Centre and the speakers were Henderson, Ceri Thomas (Editor of the BBC radio 4 Today programme), Prof. Steve Rayner (Oxford, Science and Civilisation) and Ed Yong  (Information Manager at CRUK and famed science writer/blogger).

Enough with the links….down to the content…..

The RI debate format seems pretty constant as it was the same at the last one I attended – each person gets five minutes to state their position, Fox asks some questions then opens the debate up to questions from the floor. Personally I found her method of taking 4 questions from the floor then asking for answers quite irritating as it means most people have forgotten the first question by the time it comes to be answered. Anyhow here are my summaries of the 4 positions of the speakers:

Henderson: The traditional view of impartiality and fairness is impossible to achieve. Correctness/accuracy and transparency are more important than being balanced. It is the journalist’s duty to evaluate competing claims and provide evidence, uncertainties must be acknowledged.

Thomas: Science is no different than any other subject, shouldn’t be treated differently (NB Thomas was the only speaker who was not a specialist science editor/reporter which may have something to do with his position!).  Shouldn’t take sides and it’s ok to put peoplewho are “wrong” on air. Though reporters should take the side of reason and evidence, it is important to remember that these are not the only important things, most peoplemake decisions based on emotions and irrational thoughts so these need to be acknowledged too. It’s important to represent views not “liked” by scientists where these exist to show they are out there and so they can be held to account in public.

Rayner: Mostly thought that the debate was about science policy rather than science. Scientists shouldn’t have the last say in policy debates because the debate is not about the science itself. When scientists are called on to make judgements about subjects outside of their expertise they are no better than any other layperson. Dislikes polarisation such as the portrayal of “climate deniers” as he feels this stifles debate about the real problems and the ability to reach an inbetween position.

Yong: Many reporters are lazy, don’t investigate enough. The term “scientists have claimed…” is a get-out that allows lack of investigation and lack of endorsement. Reporters must provide a context and analysis as if they don’t, in the internet age, someone else will. Shifting the necessity to make the decision onto the reader is tricky because the reader has less resources (and will) to make this decision than the reporter. All choices are subjective including what we choose to write about at all and how it is written. Overuse of quotes and getting others to tell the story for you is a problem. Reporters shouldn’t take sides with a specific scientist, theory, or science, but always take the side of truth. Journalistic practices are not always compatible with this.

This was an interesting debate as ostensibly all of the speakers were on the same side (i.e. take the side of truth) but all had quite different approaches to it. I did disagree with a few of the comments that were thrown out there. For example, Henderson said at one point that if something seems too good to be true it usually is, and it is up to jouralists to get to the bottom of things and find out about this. Which is all well and good but if the work has been peer reviewed (as in the example of the Woo Suk Hwang fraud he used),what makes journalists qualified to discover this when several peer reviewers and trained editors cannot? Because they are not experts in anything, journalists are only as good as their sources. And someone else also made the point that we all know scientists who will say certain things on certain topics, so you can pretty much always find someone who will say what you want to hear.

I also disagreed with Thomas’s position that science should not be treated differently from art or politics. In these cases, opinion and point of view actually shapes the outcome. If enough people think something, this will inform a policy or a perception of quality. But in science, there are specific rules and ways of working that define this and they are not subject to opinion, they just are. Obviously interpretation of results is variable, but  even their interpretation is based on context within science and models etc that non-scientists cannot hope to understand. If you let unscientific minds try and interpret results they won’t know where to start and you end up with the kind of statements that say that you don’t need evidence for something, like God or ghosts or the Holocaust, because you (want to) believe it so it must be true.

Rayner’s insistence through most of the debate that discussions about science in the news are mostly about science policy not science itself was interesting, but I think ultimately wrong-headed. Yes, I agree that this does happen and there is no point only taking a scientists’sviewpoint on whether stem-cell research should continue or what kind of drugs should be legal, because scientists are not equipped to pronounce on the societal concerns and consequences of the science. But they do need to be a part of the debate. If you don’t have a scientist to tell you about their research then how can you hope to anticipate the societal consequences?

There was a long-running point introduced by Fox about what “her Mum” (read non-scientist member of the public) would understand on reading news pieces. Not knowing Fox’s mum, I imaged my equally scientifically illiterate and disinterested Grandma in this position; you can insert your own beloved relative or neighbour for ease of imagination. This person is not interested in investigating something they are told further. They want to be told in words of a few syllables only what the news is, and why it is important, not to be expected to make up their own mind. They need a clear message not a balanced piece as there is a danger they will only read half of a story before boring of it, thus missing the other half of the argument. If they don’t like what they read, they will go somewhere else where they can get what they do like. When faced with this sort of person, “Joe Public”, how realistic is it to publish a balanced piece in which the scientific viewpoint challenges general beliefs, and then expect that the reader can really make up their own mind in an informed way? Discuss.

Another much-discussed point was the differences between different  media. People may expect opinions in blogs and that’s where they go to get opinions; this is where you get communities building up that agree with each other. There may be a place (and I personally think there is) for straight reporting that gives bald facts and doesn’t try to dress it up too much; information rather than propaganda. There may also be a place for the more opinionated commentary on these facts. But it should always be made clear which is which.

For the avoidance of doubt, this blog is a representation of my opinions which I am justifying with facts where possible – if you want pure scientific facts read a journal paper, discard all the interpretation, and hope that the data is not fabricated. Pure facts are pretty hard to come by these days.

Logic gates take the strain and various surface modifications

September 14, 2010

Some more of my work has appeared on Materials Views….

A story on a paper by ZL Wang and co-workers on smart logic gates that can be operated by simply bending the substrate. This story made it to the MaterialsViews newsletter as headline – it’s a nice piece of work but I would like to think that my write-up also had something to do with this!

A piece on single layers of quantum dots arranged on a surface, and another on stripey patterns on a surface by the use of combined top-down and bottom-up approaches.

To be honest I wrote these so long ago I can’t remember much about them but I think they were pretty good papers. The piezotronic switching logic gate I remember slightly better and this was pretty cool. Enjoy.

Small things on surfaces.

September 3, 2010

A couple more of my pieces are now live on the MaterialsViews website, Nano Channel. Here you can read about work to exploit all 3 dimensions of a patterned photoresist from the ubiquitous Whitesides group, and also a method for focussed nanopatterning. Both, basically, discuss how to make small things on surfaces.

Who should be allowed to dictate what research is carried out?

September 2, 2010

Here is an interesting question. If someone gives you money to do research, to what extent do you and they expect to be able to dictate what direction the research goes in, and who owns the results?

When I was doing my PhD it was quite straightforward – I got some money from a CASE award and any publications had to be run past the company first, to ensure they did not want to patent the results. If they didn’t patent the results, the university could choose to do so if it wished. In any case nothing I personally discovered was of any interest to the company or even for the university to patent, so I just got two papers and one thesis out of it. Possibly the company were disappointed but it is impossible to ask them as they now no longer exist. Basically I got just over half of my funding from them, and they had first dibs on my research.

If an academic researcher is given a grant award by an government agency they get it for a specific project, and they have to at least try to do that project with the money they get. There are usually a few projects running for which there is no official funding, and these are sidelines which the researcher personally finds interesting but can’t convince anyone else of, or are at too early a stage to be able to do so. These will be funded by nonspecific grants or money from the university, or simply by using bits of time/resources not required by the formally funded projects. So in that respect academics are basically bound to do what the grant-awarding agency has awarded the grant for, otherwise they won’t get any more cash from that source. Grant proposals are assessed by peer-review (more on that some other time!) and decisions made on the basis of priority and past reputation of the applicant (in some cases). So the decision could be said to be made by the community or by the government of the day and its determining policies (feel free to argue this point!).

In industry, of course, no-one expects that they can just go and work on something “because I find it interesting” – time must be spent on potentially profitable projects for the company who is employing you. Some companies allow more leeway than others in this respect, and probably those with the most leeway have the longest-term view of research. But a justification of some sort of is always needed. In this case, the company clearly owns the research and often employees contracts are such that the company may also have first claim to any inventions that the employee may make in his/her spare time too. We pay for your time, we own your results, we decide what direction those results will go in.

So what happens if the money comes from another source? This may be less likely but there are e.g. large charities that fund research, and there is also the American model of endowments. The likes of Craig Venter, Bill Gates, and a few other millionaires are fortunately interested enough in science to want to support it financially. But what do they expect to get for their money, and what is it fair to allow them to have?

 I ask this question because there have been a discussions about this recently in different places.

For example, (and I have not been able to verify this) it is claimed on Wikipedia and with a reference to a magazine, that the original project to sequence a human genome carried out at the Venter Institute was intended to be an average of several people’s DNA, but that part way through, Venter intervened and substituted his own DNA alone. If this is true, did he really have the right to do this simply because he was funding it? It could be argued that an average would have provided more useful information for the world as a whole, and I am guessing that the researchers doing the science may have felt this way.  Or maybe they were just grateful to have received enough money to be able to finish the genome. From Venter’s perspective, he was paying for it and so if he wants his genome sequencing he can have it. That information is probably more useful to him personally than a more generic solution. Apparently he has changed his lifestyle as a result of several disease markers that showed up in the sequenced DNA. That could have been an investment that prolongs his life.

More recently, I have been speaking with friends at the Adolphe Merkle Institute (AMI) in Fribourg, Switzerland. The erstwhile Director recently left his post (see press release here). Differences of opinion in the definition of autonomy were cited as his reason for departure. Now if you read the blurb on the AMI homepage they claim to be an “independent center of competence” and to aim to “to stimulate innovation, foster industrial competitiveness and more generally, improve the quality of life”. The AMI was set up following a generous donation from Adolphe Merkel himself but researchers working there are also expected to acquire external funding e.g. from industrial partners and from the state. So to what extent do the foundation running the AMI have the right to dictate the direction that research carried out there will take? Without the initial donation, the institute would not exist and the researchers there would not be able to function. However the money for most of the ongoing projects being carried out by the researchers is provided by other sources. Add in to this the fact that most of the researchers there were top people recruited from elsewhere, and you cannot argue that they would not have been able to do their research at all if it were not for the institute. These top scientists did have jobs elsewhere and could easily get jobs somewhere else again with their reputations. But they did choose to go and work at the AMI, so you have to assume that they accepted the conditions, whatever those were. What happens when the direction that the endowment holder wants to go in is different from the direction of potential funders? Who decides which partners will be acceptable to the institute and where to go for funding? One of the reasons for employing an established scientist is usually because they have a good ability to attract new funding. If you have chosen to employ that person, can you then define where they will go for that funding?

This specific example has not yet shaken down but the question as a whole remains over who has the right to decide what research is done by any single scientist. What is clear is that it is not the scientists themselves as individuals who have that right, and nor should it be. Though most scientists will claim to be working for the greater good, and believe themselves to be doing so, allowing many individuals to make that choice for themselves is chaotic and may well result in wasted time and resources. So someone somewhere needs to have an overview. Each funding agency will have its own priorities and thus its own overview, again this is fair as they have to consider what the money they hold on behalf of their stakeholders is being used for (whether these stakeholders are the taxpayers or a private foundation or individual). But most academic researchers don’t get all their funding from one source, and this can introduce problems. What happens when funding sources conflict in their views and priorities? The individual researchers end up caught in the middle.

One thing I am sure of. I respect and admire the ex-Director of the AMI, Peter Schurtenberger. He is not the sort of person to quit a job half-done and he will have tried to resolve the situation. I believe that he was a victim of a conflict bigger than this single institute; put simply, too many people pulling on the purse strings of research and wanting a piece of it. Whether this sort of model can ever work I do not know. This sort of situation can only become more frequent as government cutbacks force researchers to seek funding from new sources with more of a vested interest in the outcomes.  

Chemistry World have also covered the topic of endowment funding recently here (unfortunately as I write this the content is member-only though I believe that older content becomes free). See what they have to say on the subject too.