Lucky dip

Posted November 25, 2010 by sciencecarol
Categories: Portfolio

Tags: , ,

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

Posted November 20, 2010 by sciencecarol
Categories: Politics, Reviews

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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?

Posted November 8, 2010 by sciencecarol
Categories: Publishing

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.

When is news not news?

Posted October 29, 2010 by sciencecarol
Categories: Portfolio

Tags: , , ,

I started thinking about this after being given a job by my friends at Chemistry World. The paper seemed quite cool and speaking with the author about it really enthused me, but then I spoke to another expert on the field and my enthusiasm was somewhat dampened.

I still think the paper and the idea in it is pretty cool – solve the problem of electrolyte migration in Li ion batteries by tethering the electrolytes. This makes better batteries that can last for longer and are safer than conventional Li ion batteries. Li ion batteries can hold a lot more charge than other sorts of batteries so working with them could be a good idea. Although no-one here has addressed the problem that Li resources may be running out so how do we make the batteries then? I guess that’s someone else’s problem.

The issue pointed out by the other expert is that only part of the electrolyte is tethered. Oh yes and apparently they’ve only tested the system at between 100th to 1000th of the operation current of a real Li ion battery. Issues that may have been easily resolved pre-publication with a couple more experiments – but then such is the way of peer review.

My problem was then is this story still worth publishing as news? I think yes, as it does further science and is a neat new concept, but it certainly doesn’t have the impact that it might have done and a lot of lay-people might not understand that this one experiment cannot really hope to solve all our battery concerns. They might read this and think the advances had already been made, or alternatively read this and think we are still a long way from the perfect battery (which would be true, though we may be closer now than we were).

I liked the concept so I think it is worth bringing to a wider audience, you may not agree. Anyhow the story appeared here so you can judge for yourselves whether it is newsworthy or not.

SCAN 2010 – Synthesis and Characterization in Nanomaterials Workshop and School

Posted October 19, 2010 by sciencecarol
Categories: Reviews

Tags: , , , ,

I’ve been on holiday, hence the long break from posting. Actually I was in Turkey, one of my favourite places, and the first part of the trip was not a holiday but work, of sorts.

An old friend invited me to speak at a conference she was organising, along with some colleagues. They wanted someone to provide a view on publishing in nanoscience, which I was happy to provide. Copies of my talk available upon request to blog@sciencecarol.com

However I’m sure you’re not that interested in what I had to say, but rather in the meeting itself. It was SCAN 2010 and covered all kinds of nanomaterials; their synthesis, characterisation, properties, and applications. The scope ranged from catalysis using transition metal nanoparticles to bioinspired functional surfaces, in depth STM (by which I mean detailed not deep – haha surface scientist joke 😉 ) and electron microscopy studies, and self-assembly of polymers and polymeric 2D structures. I’ve rarely been to such a broad-ranging meeting but I have to say that this was also one of the most enjoyable I have been to (and I am not just saying that). A coming-together of disciplines (right across chemistry, spectroscopy, and physics) is appropriate for a topic like nanomaterials,which do cross borders, but to do it in a small and friendly way is unusual and delightful.

Personal science highlights (please don’t be offended if I didn’t pick you – I enjoyed every talk but the nature of highlights is to select only a few for discussion):

  • From the very first session and Prof. Saim Özkar, I learned what I was doing in my PhD when I was adding “palladium zero” catalyst to my Suzuki cross-coupling reaction (as an aside I was pleased to see that Prof. Akira Suzuki won a share in a Nobel prize for this important reaction) .
  • Dr Marleen Kamperman’s eloquent explanation of the biomimicry of gecko’s feet or how to become spiderman.
  • The drive to study real catalysts under real conditions, as demonstrated by, amongst others, Dr Emrah Ozensoy and Dr Alex Goguet.
  • Prof. Kimoon Kim’s superb final plenary lecture summarising a lifetime’s worth of work on 2D polymers from cucurbitril to make fundamental and also applicable materials advances

I also enjoyed countless interesting conversations with delegates about topics as varied as open-access publishing, impact factors, the predominance of women in Turkish chemistry departments and, of course, on mutual friends.

Bilkent University is, I believe, regarded as the best chemistry department within Turkey and the Times Higher Education Supplement ranked the University as a whole as one of the top 200 in the world. It is easy to believe that this is true, seeing the quality and variety of science coming out of it. What is really impressive is that this achievement comes on the back of far fewer resources than most western universities are able to resort to. Though recent investments have, for example, enabled the chemistry department to buy its own NMR spectrometer, until a couple of years ago this service that most European scientists take for granted was not readily available in Bilkent for routine characterisation. This makes the level and amount of science  being pursued at Bilkent all the more impressive to me.

The workshop and school were also a chance for the three organizers (Dönüş, Emrah, and Erman) to demonstrate the famous Turkish hospitality, and they excelled. The food was fantastic and plentiful, the students attentive, and the atmosphere throughout the workshop inclusive and inquisitive as befitting a meeting of scientific minds.

I’m interested to know what other delegates’ personal highlights were and welcome, as always, any thoughts on what I have said here.

Taking sides – review of debate on science journalism taking sides

Posted September 24, 2010 by sciencecarol
Categories: Reviews

Tags: , , , , ,

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

Posted September 14, 2010 by sciencecarol
Categories: Portfolio

Tags: , , , , ,

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.