Posted tagged ‘Conference’

SCAN 2010 – Synthesis and Characterization in Nanomaterials Workshop and School

October 19, 2010

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

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 ūüėČ ) 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 √Ėzkar, 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 (D√∂n√ľŇü, 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.

Science and the Public Conference – 3rd July

July 17, 2010

This interesting conference organised mainly by Alice Bell from the Imperial College Science Communication department made me realise that until quite recently, most of the “Science Communication” has been done by social scientists rather than by physical scientists. You could discuss for quite a while the pros and cons of this situation (As I see it, Pros: They can be more objective as they are not so close to the science, they generally have better communication skills and are more encouraged to use them, Cons: They may not understand the science properly, can’t cut through jargon and hype so easily, don’t relate so well to people in general¬†and, not being scientists themselves are not used to scientific methodology – more on this later) but, apart from a few star scientist communicators, that is the way things have been. It was interesting that most of the attendees seemed to be scientists, whereas most of the speakers (certainly more than 50 %) seemed to be social scientists. The point that I am trying to make here is that you would expect at a science communication conference that scientists and social scientist science communicators would be able to find a middle ground where they could actually discuss things on terms that everyone can understand. For the most part this did succeed, though I felt that there were one or two notable exceptions.

But first the highlights:

I saw a highly entertaining talk by a chap from Carbon Visuals who is trying to get people to understand amounts and relative sizes without giving numbers. At fist I thought this was going to be akin to New Scientist’s ongoing “this is equivalent to x blue whales” commentary but I was pleasantly surprised. Basically he was trying to put amounts into a context that people can relate to, so for Imperial College students he used a campus map and related CO2 emissions to the size of the buildings, for an office near Kings Cross he used the new St Pancras station building, for a presentation to Londoners he used Trafalgar Square, and so on. Not only did he have some really cool graphics but the idea of getting people to relate something unknown to something they know intimately was a great idea.

There were some interesting presentations about science education too, including the effect of inaccuracies in cartoons (like when Tom from Tom and Jerry bangs his head and forgets who he is, then after another bang on the head all his memories come back – sadly, knocking an amnesiac on the head is unlikely to bring about positive effects in real life) on how and what children learn (depends on their age,apparently, but kids do learn from cartoons and they don’t always realise that they are learning), and a couple of good presentations about how people learn and how to get at what the public’s general attitudes to science are (pretty hard because most people don’t even know what is meant when you ask about “science” and they also confuse the concept of¬†science with the concept of learning about science). I’m not going to go into great detail on any of these but I did find most of the day really interesting and informative, and it gave me a lot to think about.

Now without hurting any feelings, to the part I personally found less useful. There was a keynote lecture by a clearly eminent social scientist who had been studying how social scientists study communication of science (I think I mean¬†the theory of science communication and the methods used)¬†for some years. His first less-than-groundbreaking conclusion was that when you ask questions and get answers that don’t fit with your expected categories of answer, you should not just junk the answers as these may tell you something important about the survey you are doing. To a scientist this is like saying don’t junk the outliers as they may tell you something ¬†about the system you are studying, i.e., blindingly obvious. To me the concept that social scientists may have been ignoring their outliers all this time is quite a scary one.

He then went on to discuss a specific type of what he called science communication which is basically those gadgety toy/model/arty things that are based on science like mousetrap tables and personalised rings made from a culture of your own bone (I was fascinated by the latter idea though I can’t think who would want to do this – it’s a bit like Brangelina allegedly exchanging vials of each other’s blood). He then compared these specific models to the general precepts used by social scientists to engage the public in science, and concluded that the “design” model was a rather passive one which does not really seek to engage or to inform in any real way. I do take issue with the whole of scientists efforts at science communication/engagement being lumped in with these rather esoteric toy systems, and while I agree that the systems he discussed are passive and don’t actively go out to engage or educate people, they are not designed to do that. They are designed to intrigue. Perhaps he should look at some systems that are designed to go out and educate people, and see how these bear up against his fundamental ideas. Oh yes, and he persistently mis-pronounced microbial as micro-bile. Clearly he hasn’t checked his ideas with scientists as they wouldeasily have been able to correct him on this point.

So in conclusion: Yes there is a lot to be gained from scientists and social scientists interacting and trying to work out together what is the best way to communicate science and scientific workings to “the public” (whoever they are). As to whether that is really happening yet… well in some circumstances it is, and in others it is not. Both scientists and social scientists have important skills to bring to the table in this; the scientists bring their understanding, their rigour, their enthusiasm, and the social scientists bring their understanding of how people react, their¬†education and communication skills. This can be a meeting of equals, but without both sides coming together and being prepared to listen to and work with a system that at first will seem quite alien to them, it will simply be a look through¬†a frosted¬†window at someone else’s house, and the details will still be misunderstood.

Sense about Science Annual Lecture – Dr Fiona Godlee

July 13, 2010

Firstly I want to apologise for being offline for so long – we moved house and it took a while to get the internet hooked up again. Then there was all the catching-up with work to do……anyway here I am again finally.

So the Sense about Science Lecture. SaS were kind enough to send me an invite to this when I asked. As an ex-Editor myself I am very interested in discussions about peer-review and its various failings.

Fiona Godlee is the current Editor of the British Medical Journal (BMJ); she has been in the job since 2005. In that time she has clearly had to grapple with numerous cases of ethical misconduct, in fact, going on what she told us, it would be fair to say that the medical and pharmaceutical literature is rife with it.

She discussed the problem of reporting bias – not unethical in itself but still something that skews perceptions and misleads the reader. Basically, people don’t like to report negative results. Drugs that don’t work very well will not make any money, and an experiment that shows nothing or worse, shows a problem, will jeopardise funding or even the job¬†of that particular researcher in many cases. This is particularly true in medical research where the funding is usually coming from large pharmaceutical companies, but there is an element of it in academic research too, even where funding comes purely from the government. All university researchers have limited time and resources, and these are being squeezed at every corner. Papers that can be published in high-impact factor journals will¬†advance a researcher’s¬†career and help secure further funding. But papers that report negative results are rarely accepted for publication in high-impact or indeed reputable journals, as the editors know they will not be cited and would bring down¬†their impact factor. This propagates reporting bias and also means that the experiments that did not work are doomed to be repeated again and again in different labs, as no-one knows that someone else has already tried it. This is a waste of the precious resources that are being so tightly squeezed already.

But Godlee’s lecture concentrated mainly on two perceived threats to science¬† – the external threat of those who refuse to accept the evidence-based approach to science, and the internal threat of undisclosed conflict of interest, which leads to data suppression, ghost- and guest-writing. In my background of materials, physics and chemistry, these are not such a big issue but neverthless it was interesting to consider.

Where researchers receive a large amount of their funding from industry, as is the case in¬†medical research,¬†these sorts of conflicts can always arise. This is because the researchers have a vested interest in the outcome. Of course you could argue that researchers always have a vested interest in the outcome of their research, as breakthroughs will advance reputation and facilitate additional funding (this could be another whole blog postingin itself). However the peer-review system generally does a reasonable job of picking up most of those who attempt to play the system. But when the vested interest is a large financial one, the pressures become greater. Government-funded researchers will generally only lose that one grant if a project does not work out. The decision about who to award the grant to next time is made again using peer-review and is regulated by committees and procedures which, however much the researchers rail against them, are there for a good reason. If all your money, on the other hand, comes from one or two companies who are focussed on being able to sell their particular drugs to the public in a few years’ time, there is a much greater pressure on you to create and publish positive results only. If the project yields a negative, your chances of receiving future funding from that source are very much reduced, being decided upon by a couple of top executives at that company who will tend to scratch the backs of those who scratch theirs.

Godlee had a few proposals to make to deal with this problem.

1) She wants article-level impact¬†metrics rather than journal-level ones to become the norm. I think this is very sensible and could be applied easily, quickly, and would help a lot. Of course, it would not solve the problem on its own but it would give¬† a better guideline as to which are the good papers. I don’t think that it would prevent journals¬†from publishing dross though, as some of the dross can still be highly cited.

2) She wants to stop big pharma from directly evaluating its own products (the current committee to approve drugs in the UK is made up of industry representatives) . Again this is sensible in theory though in practice I wonder if you would find that most of those with the necessary expertise to make the decisions are involved in some way with the pharmaceutical industry and there is no-one suitable who is not.

3) She wants to see central industry funding for independent advice and independent drugs trials. If you can get them to agree to to it, this is probably a good idea. Not sure why any company would sign up to this though, unless it is made law. This system is apparently in use in other countries, so I guess they must have laws about it. It would be interesting to see how these came about.

4) She wants to see publication of entire data sets to create better transparency. I’ve touched on my opinions about this before. This really only creates transparency if you are in a position to be able to use the data. It might solve some of the issues but it would create a load more when those who do not properly understand the data get hold of it and start to draw conclusions from it.

5) She would also like to see more investigative journalism. This is always a good thing, but how to promote it? Journalists are busy people, with ever shorter deadlines and ever more stories to write. To produce a good investigation they need to be given time and resources to do this, which means that they will be less productive in terms of numbers. Editors will not be prepared in most cases to countenance this unless it is strongly called for by the readers and subscribers. It is up to us!

The final point Godlee made was simple: The public must question everything. This is not a new idea – the motto of the Royal Society translates as “take nobody’s word for it”. But it is sadly¬†a point¬†that, in today’s society of quick headlines and instant gratification, probably does need making.

The Climate Files

June 15, 2010

Now I have been itching to write something on this subject since the whole “Climategate” UEA email scandal happened. I had my own views on the whole thing, and actually they have turned out to be pretty much correct. I thought that there really was no scandal and that no-one at UEA had behaved wrongly. The leaked comments about stopping papers from being published and “re-defining what peer-review literature is”, seemed to me to be simply researchers who disagree with one point of view and think it to be wrong, trying to keep this view from propagating. The commments about hitting one of the opponents, though unfortunate, were meant in jest and were not intended for the public eye. In fact, none¬† of the emails were intended for consumption by anyone other than those people to whom they were addressed.

Of course what has come out is not quite as simple as that, but attending an event at the Royal Institution last night (15th June) has finally given me the chance to find¬† about more about this so-called scandal, and to write about it. The event was called The Climate Files, and was evidently a vehicle for one of the main journalists involved in the saga, The Guardian‘s Fred Pearce, to promote a new book he had written. Whether it was successful in this is a question I may answer later.

The debate was split into several sections. First, Pearce had the chance to describe his experiences and ideas on the subject. This half hour or so was follwed by two further speakers, each with their own differing experiences and responses to Pearce’s comments; Dr Myles Allen from University of Oxford, who is working on climate change modelling, and how scientific research informs policy, and Dr Adam Corner from Cardiff University, who is a psychologist looking at the comunication of climate change. Pearce then gave a brief response to their arguments, before the debate was opened up to questions from the floor.

The views of the individuals involved in the formal debate can be summed up as follows:

Pearce – Data, in particular the data at the centre of this debate, the instrument record data curated by Phil Jones at UEA and now held by the Met Office, should be publicly available. In general, the public should have access to information that affects them and that has been (if only partially) funded by public money. Jones’ main error was in his liberal interpretation of the Freedom of Information Act, and in encouraging his colleagues to break this also by deleting emails etc. Questions are raised about the peer review system.

Allen – The whole scandal didn’t really affect the data and journalists generally don’t understand the science. Even those who did deliberately misquoted the academics involved to grab headlines. The peer review system works fine. Those who were going to do something useful with the data already did have access to it and it was only the people anticipated to be troublemakers who were not “allowed” to see it. This situation is acceptable.

Corner – Scientists understand the way science works but non-scientists do not. Therefore access to scientific data should be limited those who have qualifications in that area. The whole Climategate affair has not adversely affected public opinion about the realities of climate change in any long-term way.

The audience itself was of some interest. Apart from the people I already knew (my husband and some of his colleagues), much of the rest of the audience was made up of RI members (distinguishable by their advancing age and smart suit-style clothing) and journalists, many of whom introduced themselves by asking questions. For an institution supposedly aiming at enlightening the public, there was a surprisingly low number of members of the public present. The RI might want to consider how and to whom it is marketing such events, and what it is really trying to achieve.

My own views have come out of the debate largely unchanged. In my opinion, Pearce and his journalist colleagues do not understand how the peer review system works, and they have not been successful in conveying a true impression of this to the public. I do not find the system to be perfect, however it must be recognised that it is not possible for a single academic, or even group of academics to prevent the publication of every paper with which they disagree. The decision to publish is made by the journal editor based on his/her knowledge of the field and using advice from various referees and, when controversial, probably also from journal board members. Papers that go against popular opinion are more difficult to publish (I disagree with Allen here) but, providing they are justified with a good level of evidence, journal editors will publish these to promote debate and, more cynically, to encourage citations to their journal. The whole Climategate affair was at root a problem of how science and scientific methods, including methods of publishing it, are communicated to the public. In order to engender trust, it is important that the public are given more information, not only (and possibly not even including) raw data, but also more detail about what is being targeted, and how this is being done. Journalists do not appear, in general, to have the time or the will to do this. Pearce spent three months researching his book but has still apparently failed to understand some of the most fundamental principles involved in the quality control of the science; how can we then expect journalists who are writing ten stories a day that may or may not make it out into the world to invest enough time to understand the complexities of each subject? This motivates my personal belief that there is a place for, and indeed a need for, science communication by scientists rather than or in addition to journalism by journalists.

So how did Pearce and his book come out of this debate? Yes, the debate raised the profile of a book I would probably not otherwise have heard of. Yes, I believe that the book probably contains an interesting account of Pearce’s experiences and interviews with the academics involved. No, I did not buy the book and I do not intend to. I would rather give my money to someone who is more open to the idea of improving communication between scientists and the public, than to someone who appears to wish to allow the scientists to be cut out of the debate by taking complex data to people who are not equipped with the understanding to be able to interpret it correctly. Journalists are not experts in anything except journalism, and they need to accept this. Phil Jones’ account of the events would make much more interesting reading, if he ever decides to go public with this.

Review of Sara Mukherjee talk on 7th June 2010

June 8, 2010

Last night I had the pleasure of attending a talk by the ex-BBC environment correspondent Sara Mukherjee. This was hosted by the relatively new Cambridge Centre for Science and Policy as part of their Distinguished Lecture series.

The Centre itself opened only in 2009, and is staffed by an equivalent of three full-time employees. They have a big job on their hands to ensure that the Centre is viewed¬† as a national resource rather than just “the Cambridge lot”, as Executive Director Chris Tyler told me after the lecture. It will be interesting to see if they succeed in this laudable aim. They certainly seem to be going about things in the right way, by working with people from all over the country and facilitating the communication of government officials with academics and, to an extent, with industry. The Centre is funded by an independent donor, which means that it is not heavily tied to the University and should hopefully weather the storms of the economic situation, although more funding is being sought.

The title of the lecture was “Our Easter Island Moment – is it already too late to save the environment?”, and Mukherjee returned to her metaphor of the Easter Island statues and the lost civilisation they represent throughout her talk. What did the last person, chopping down the last “tree”, think as he did it? And how do we view this preventable disaster now?

Mukherjee informed us right from the start that she had recently taken voluntary redundancy from the BBC and was relieved to be able to tell us her own views rather than putting on a balanced BBC face. What follows is my own understanding of the main points, so I apologise for anything that I have misunderstood or reported incorrectly.

She painted a gloomy picture of a doomed environment, apathetic public, politicians who care only about what the newspapers say, and newspaper journalists and editors who simply don’t understand or care about what is happening, but are out to find the next story. Her main point was her belief that the Climate Change Act will be thrown out at the exact time when it would be easiest and most beneficial to take it forward.

Apathy: According to an Ipsos Mori poll, the percentage of people in the UK who believe that climate change is real has gone down from 44% to 31% in the last year, probably largely as a result of the UEA “Climategate”. The fact that the scientists involved were exhonerated of any wrongdoing was apparently not an interesting enough story for the tabloid papers to give it as much attention as the gave to the possibility that the wrongdoing might have happened.

Newspapers and their journalists: Newspapers have a disproportionate hold over politicians, and journalists and editors care more about headlines than about getting the story right, or if there is really a story there at all.

Politicians: Most of them do understand the issues around climate change, but they are slaves to public opinion (which is really newspaper headlines). Yesterday the climate was big news but now it is the economy, so politicians have abandoned all the good work that was done.

Her solution  to all this doom and gloom was to suggest better education of bright students from all backgrounds, perhaps a system akin to the old grammar school system to enable those from poorer backgrounds to learn more, and to pay those in positions such as physics teachers enough to attract the best people to the profession and to keep them there. A well-educated workforce equals a financially stable workforce, and the public can vote for their politicians based on a good understanding of the issues they are campaigning on.

Mukherjee does seem to have a big chip on her shoulder about her own origins in an Essex Council estate, but perhaps this is not without some cause. In a democracy, the majority need to recognise there is a problem before it can be addressed. I for one hope that we still have the time to address it.