Archive for November 2010

Is Chemistry the Key to Sustainable Living? – A Review

November 28, 2010

This was a debate held by the Royal Society of Chemistry at the flash, newly renovated Chemistry Centre in Burlington House, Piccadilly.

The main speaker was Dr Mike Pitts from the Chemistry Innovation Knowledge Transfer Network, with Professor Tom Welton (Imperial College) and Bob Crawford (Unilever) backing him up in the subsequent debate.

Obviously his answer to the title question was yes, as Pitts admitted straightaway, otherwise the whole thing would have been rather pointless.

Pitts was a striking speaker, perhaps surprisingly for a scientist; he really knows how to communicate in non-scientific terms,which is just as well as this event was billed as a policy event and hoped to attract a broad audience. In the end, though the Chair of the House of Commons Select Committee on Science and Technology was present, there did not seem to be many other notable individuals present, and the audience mainly consisted of RSC staff, interested members and students, and the odd visitor from another learned society. I realise that the RSC deliberately kept the invite list small but the room was half empty in the end and it seemed that the event could have been more widely promoted.

I didn’t learn much new from the talk itself, which went along the lines of “here’s the doom and gloom” then “here are some generic ways in which we can change the way we think about chemistry to solve the doom and gloom”. Pitts focussed on the scarce natural resurces aspect of things; rare earth metals and carbon and other “poorly managed elments”, but also covered water and biodiversity (no explanation of how chemistry can help with the latter, though).

His solution, in general, was an interesting one that will, however require a great deal of change in the way society behaves. He proposed that we should not think so much about individual products and think instead about their overall life cycle. This was not just in terms of those designing them, though he was keen for designers and chemists to collaborate more together, but in terms of what we as society buy. He believes that in the future we will buy a service rather than a product, for example, for the experience of using a washing machine, rather than simply buying and owning a washing machine. This service would then cover “cradle to grave” of the machine rather than the current situation which covers cradle to point of disposal.

Such a way of viewing things would certainly enable and indeed encourage service providers to think more about the way they design products to make them recyclable etc. For the user, such a usage scheme could mean a seamless service even when things go wrong (and encourage longer-lasting products in the first place). But the fundamental tenet of this view is that the users would not be the owners of the “things”, simply the users. It would be like renting your TV in years gone by. As much as I like this idea personally, I am not sure that our highly capitalist, keeping-up-with-the-Joneses society is ready to own less. I’d be interested to see how this could be put to the man on the street in a way that would actually make him buy it.

Chemistry can certainly help to achieve this goal but it is going to take a lot more than chemistry to make it viable. Psychology, marketing, and probably policy decisions in parliament too. Scientists have been trying to change people’s behaviour for years with the dire warnings about global warming etc. It is going to take more than that to get us to alter our comfortable lifestyle in which we own houses, cars, furniture, white goods, etc.

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Lucky dip

November 25, 2010

Two new stories of mine on hybrid electrolytes and a new way to dye biodegradable polymers, have appeared on the Chemistry World website. And a couple on Materials Views on nanoplasmonics, nanomemory, and super strong nanocontacts.Quite a mix!

The future of science in parliament – a review

November 20, 2010

I attended the Cambridge Centre for Science and Policy 4th Distinguished Lecture,which was actually a joint presentation between Dr Evan Harris and Dr Julian Huppert. As some of the few scientists in (or previously in, in Harris’ case) parliament, they have a quite unique view of certain things. Some of the events described are almost too shocking to be believeable, and yet you know they are true because of other similar events already well-known and publicised.

A large part of the entertainment value was provided by Harris and Huppert relating stories of how this or that other unfortunate politician (George Bush Jr., Patricia Hewitt, Alan Millburn, and some nameless but doubtless influential politicians) had said something that was quite clearly laughable to anyone with a vaguely scientific background. Paraphrased examples include the following (if you can’t see what’s wrong, you probably aren’t reading this blog):

“By next year all doctors should be performing above average”

“Home childbirth is safe, and we’ve commissioned research to prove it”

“You shouldn’t care about evidence, you should just know what’s right”

“Why would we need a Chief Scientific Advisor?” (from a Treasury official)

Ultimately there was very little content that was new to me but it was interesting to hear Harris and Huppert’s respective points of view on what could be done about the state of things and where to start.

Harris:

  • We need to ensure that politicians understand (or at least respect even if they don’t understand) the need for policy to be made based on evidence that is peer-reviewed and published rather than just commented by an individual.
  • We as scientists should do more “front-foot” campaigning i.e. positively acting on points of mutal concern.
  • Politicians should understand the consequences to them politically in not taking a rational/evidence-based approach (i.e. let your MP know what you think of their actions).

Huppert:

  • Some M.P.s are actively anti-science, but you don’t need a PhD in science in order to get why it is important.
  • Despite the recent cuts, the 4 NHS-funded homeopathic hospitals continue to receive funding.
  • The government are currently having an active “anti-chemist” campaign (the word chemist being associated with one who makes drugs).
  • Science is Vital was successful because everyone worked together – there needs to be more of this from the scientific community. Despite this, until the Sunday before the Spending Review took place, science was still going to be cut.
  • Shortage of science teachers is a real issue.
  • Make sure science is heard, understood, and available.

See also an article by Huppert and George Freeman, M.P., on how science and innovation can save the UK.

In all, the discussion shocked me slightly; it is just hard to believe that there are so many people in the world, especially ones in positison sof power, that understand so little about the world they are in. Science for me is something that is all around and contributes to pretty much anything you care to mention. I just can’tget my head around the Nadine Dorries and David Tredinnicks of this world and their mistaken beliefs, let alone the fact that people actually vote these people into parliament. I mean, I know it is true, but how can it happen?

I did come away feeling a bit more convinced that it is possible to do something to rectify the situation by e.g. speaking to or writing to your M.P. though I still think that the long term answer has to lie in better education for all in this respect. Perhaps science should not be taught as one of an array of subjects that kids learn in school,but rather as an underlying principle running through all of them.

If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em?

November 8, 2010

Someone sent me a blog posting news story a few days back, which was interesting but really depressing in some ways. You can read it for yourselves. What was upsetting was the idea that so many scientists still see the media as something that must be “beaten”. Likewise I am sure that the journalists out there get annoyed when the scientists don’t give them the headlines they need.

I heard a very interesting conversation on the radio between Dorothy Bishop (an academic who was so disgusted with how science is reported by the media that she has started a prize for it) and a journalist (sorry I cannot locate the journalist’s name but she was head of some journalistic association or similar; the programme was on Radio 4). The journalist seemed disgusted with the way that scientists (academics) she had spoken with could not justify in one sentence why tax-payers money was being spent on this research and what tax-payers would get from it.  

I spend my time writing about scientific breakthroughs and why they are important. I usually write about 300-400 words. Even then I write at a level at which the general public would not have a hope of understanding some of what I say; it is aimed at people already literate in science. To justify in one sentence would, I think, be pretty tricky. You could say what the research is ultimately leading towards, of course, but the listener/reader needs to understand that this may not happen any time soon, and not as a direct result of your particular piece of work today. You would need to understand not only the research inside out (which the researchers do) but also how to communicate that with people who fundamentally don’t care about science and don’t understand technical terms. Even with media training, which most academics don’t have much of (though this is on the increase down to places like the Science Media Centre) getting your message across would require some careful thought.

Some research has a direct appeal to the public – a good e.g. of that out in the press at the moment is the “invisibility cloak” stuff. That appeals because it links up with childhood dreams, Harry Potter, etc. You can also see a very direct use of it. However the current research will not enable you to hide underneath an invisibility cloak like Master Potter did. This story has been reported numerous times on the BBC (see Vicky Gill’s stories this year, last year, and another reporter four years ago when the theory was first put forward). Each time an advance has been made, but we are still a long way away from holding the cloak in our hands. But that is how science works.

Journalists have a job to do, to get their story in on time (with very short deadlines) and to sell newspapers, an ever more difficult job in an internet age.  Incremental advances do not headlines make. So they may sex it up, ignore the caveats and anyone who does not respond immediately to questioning. I’m not accusing anyone in particular here  -in fact I think that this is simply the kind of behaviour that the journalistic/editorial system encourages. Journalists are asked to provide entertainment, scientists are out to provide information. Information can be entertaining, but it is not always the fairy story with the happy end we might want it to be.

So you can see why the attitude arises that the one must beat the other, and why this prevails even though scientists do know, by and large, that they should spend more time and effort to communicate their research to the public and media. Changing the way that journalists work would be tricky. It has been suggested that better marketing of science is the answer – personally I think this is part of the solution but not the whole answer. I don’t know what that is, though. Answers on a postcard (or post below). Meanwhile I shall keep on doing my bit in my own little corner of the world.