The death of Margaret Thatcher (British prime minister from 1979 – 1990) last week has taken over the UK media. Margaret Thatcher was unusual in many respects, including being both a politician and a scientist. Mrs Thatcher possessed a chemistry degree from Oxford and worked in the chemical industry before becoming an MP.
“Margaret Thatcher brought a scientist’s mind to No.10”, reads the front page of the Daily Telegraph today. Dame Mary Archer, herself a prominent scientist and old friend of Mrs T, says that Margaret Thatcher tacked problems with the “mindset of a scientist, objectively examining the evidence”.
“Many distinguished politicians would go on gut and instinct, which isn’t the scientific way. Baroness Thatcher was different.” said Mary Archer.
In the Guardian newspaper, Jon Agar writes that Margaret Thatcher’s experience as an industrial chemist influenced her conversion to free-market economics, with her early years working in industrial, profitable science helping to form her political and economic approach.
Many people – whatever they think of her politics in general – applaud her approach to the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the 1980s. Against much public opinion (and perhaps her own moral scruples) her government set up needle-exchange programmes and ran hard-hitting public information campaigns. At the time it was a courageous thing to do. Mrs Thatcher was also an early and outspoken leader on tackling climate change, grasping early on the evidence for the greenhouse effect . Read more about think in Significance Magazine here, or in the Guardian here.
However overall, Mrs Thatcher’s legacy for research was not positive, according to New Scientist this week. Driven by market economics, UK research activity decreased under her premiership and has not yet recovered. Moreover Mrs Thatcher also had little appreciation for social sciences, at one time threatening to close down the Social Science Research Council entirely.
It is not likely that we will see another scientific prime minister in the near future. In fact out of 650 MPs, only 27 have science related degrees n the UK government and only one has a research PhD. The debate over the lack of scientists in parliament has been renewed with the death of Mrs Thatcher, although opinion is divide on whether her legacy was positive for science and research.
As a final word I would like to mention Sir Robert Edwards who also died last week. Sir Edwards was one of the pioneers of in-vitro fertilisation, a technique responsible for bringing over 4 million desperately wanted babies into the world.
The threat from antibiotic resistance should be treated as seriously as the threat from terrorism and climate change, said the UK’s Chief Medical Officer Dame Sally Davies this week. In her annual report, Dame Sally said that the health care system in the UK could be put back 200 years as increased antibiotic resistance poses a catastrophic risk to our health.
Dame Sally’s comments were supported by the Health Protection Agency (HPA), which provided its own data to show how rapidly the problem is growing. In 2003, the HPA measure 3 anti-biotic resistant strains of bacteria; in 2012 it measured 800.
Professor Anthony Kessel, the HPA’s Director of Public Health Strategy and Medical Director said,
“This is not a clinical issue but a societal one and we must change our attitude towards antibiotics”.
Governments, pharmaceutical companies, farmers, vets, clinicians and the general public all need to help address this crisis.
There has been a “market failure” and what Dame Sally calls a “discovery void” in the development of new drugs (see the article in The Independent this week). Pharmaceutical companies have little incentive to develop expensive new compounds with a potentially limited life span. Governments need to intervene in the private sector to ensure the drugs we need as a society are developed.
Routine antibiotic use amongst farmed animals and fish is also rising. Alternative drugs are needed to keep livestock healthy, or alternative farming methods. These changes will all cost money and will need the support of society and politicians to implement.
Antibiotic resistance is not a British problem, but a global one and a very expensive one too. According to the World Health Organisation (and the Guardian newspaper), antibiotic resistant infections costs the EU €1.5 billion and the US $30 billion each year.
The EU has an antibiotic awareness day every year in November – something I’m sorry to say I have not heard of. Perhaps making this day more “visible” would be a good start, particularly in those EU countries where antibiotics are readily available over the counter.
Image courtesy of hinnamsaisuy at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
At 8:30pm on March 23rd it will be Earth Hour, when people across the world will be turning out the lights. Earth Hour is a symbolic gesture to highlight the environmental challenges facing the world with actions springing from the international campaign. The first Earth hour took place in 2007 in just one city: this year it will be marked in 135 countries. In recent years Earth Hour seems to be a mainly southern hemisphere event, with the central organisers in Australia. Last year 2.8 million people in Hong Kong turned the lights off, and the Fijian president addressed his nation challenging them to turn off the lights. However the northern hemisphere is catching on. Sweden launched the Earth City Challenge as part of the Earth Hour campaign, designed to celebrate greener and cleaner cities. And hotels and casinos worldwide have pledged to turn out the (non-essential) lights for an hour, offering candlelit dinners to guests in the mean time.
Earth Hour in the UK has celebrity ambassadors. This year in January the singer KT Tunstal switched OFF the Chrismas lights at the London Westfield shopping centre last year to mark the countdown to the event.
Another campaign which would like us to reduce our light is the Campaign for Dark Skies. The night sky is beautiful but it is so polluted with excess lighting we rarely get to enjoy it as previous generations have. Moreover, excess lighting has health implications (disturbed sleep patterns), environmental costs (in wasted energy) and increases crime (burglars see better with more lighting). As it says on the web-site,
“The light from the rest of the Universe takes hundreds, thousands or millions of years to reach our eyes. What a pity to lose it on the last millisecond of its journey!”
Image courtesy of xedos4 at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
European leaders agreed to cut the EU budget last week by around 3%, but opinion is divided about what this cut will mean for European Research funding.
H2020 is part of the “Competiveness Programme” which, according to University World News, will have its total budget reduced by €14 billion and the research programme budget reduced to €69 billion. This is a significant decrease from what was expected: in November last year, the European Commission proposed a budget of €80 million. The more research-friendly European parliament had proposed €100 billion.
Nature was quite clear in its disapproval last week, with the headline “EU leaders slash the European research budget”. This may not be the final budget, says Nature hopefully, given the complex nature of the Commission’s decision making system. However, inside sources have suggested there is little room for manoeuvre.
A more positive headline appeared in the Times Higher Education Supplement – “European research budget proposals welcomed”, it proclaimed. This article puts this Horizon 2020 budget at almost €71 billion, pointing out this is much higher than the €55 billion awarded to Framework 7.
There has been some certainty: exact budgets have been approved for several projects outside Horizon 2020: €6.3 billion for the satellite system Galileo, €2.7 billion for the experimental nuclear fusion reactor ITER; and a disappointing €3.8 billion for the Earth observation satellite system GMES which originally requested nearly €6 billion.
The final wording of the published conclusions provided some good news. It seems there will be a real term increase for Horizon 2020 compared to 2013. At the last minute a sentence was introduced into the Multi annual financial framework conclusions stating:
“Given their particular contribution to the objectives of the Europe 2020 Strategy, the funding for Horizon 2020 and ERASMUS for all programmes will represent a real growth compared to 2013 level.”
One area which will lose out considerably within the “ Competitiveness Programme” is digital projects where funding has been cut from €8.2 billion to just €1 billion.
The limited reductions may be due in part to the influential lobbying of scientists across Europe, including a clear warning (and open letter in the Financial Times) from the Russell Group of top UK universities to the British Prime Minister David Cameron.
“If research grants are slashed to subsidise European agriculture, Britain will lose out,” said Dr Wendy Piatt, Director General of the Russell Group.
We will have to wait and see what happens, and also how the funds will be distributed within the new budget. VA is particularly interested in whether funding for Science and Society matters will be protected. Negotiations of the details will no doubt be just as tense and just as confusing.
Image courtesy of njaj at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
President Obama has lifted the ban on funding research into gun violence, calling on scientists to increase support for work in this area.
My first reaction to this was amazement that such funding was banned in the first place – but it’s true. Congress banned research into gun-related violence in 1996 following the publication of a report in the New England Medical Journal into the underlying causes of gun violence.
The powerful National Rifle Association (NRA) objected to one of the research findings which showed living in a house with a firearm puts you at a significantly higher risk of homicide and suicide. The NRA then prompted republican Congressman Jay Dickey to sponsor a ban on the federal funding of research into gun violence. This ban has made it almost impossible for policy makers to take an evidence-based approach to reducing gun violence for the last 17 years.
Congressman Dickey has since changed his mind and has recently co-authored an article in the Washington Post. The title says it all : ”We won’t know the cause of gun violence until we look for it.”
Hopefully President Obama will enjoy similarly high levels of support when he seeks approval from Congress for $10 million funding into the causes of gun-related violence – the NRA will strongly resist this move.
Gun violence kills over 30,000 Americans every year, a figure Mr Obama seems to be working hard to reduce. Restoring research funding is only one of many initiatives to be introduced by the president, but it is a vital one. As Republic Senator Ed Markey puts it in the Huffington Post, it’s time to “Take the Blindfolds Off of Gun Violence Researchers”.
Image courtesy of Naypong at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Statistics does perhaps have an image problem. Ask people what they think of statistics, and you are likely to get some negative responses. The public does not (very broadly speaking) understand statistics and probability. Neither do many politicians. The media can manipulate statistics and misrepresent data. As a science, statistics is seen as complicated, dull, geeky and even irrelevant.
However all this is to change if the organisers* of Statistics2013 have their way. The International Year of Statistics is to be a year of worldwide celebrations of the contributions of statistical science to the advancement of our society. Over 1400 organisations are taking part. The aims are to make people (i.e. governments, business, policy makers, the media, students, employers, and the public) appreciate the power and impact of statistics, to attract more young people into statistical sciences, and to promote creativity in statistical fields.
The web-site is a gold mine of statistical facts. There is a statistic of the day (Here’s one for VA : There were 7.2 million researchers worldwide in 2007, up from 5.8 million in 2002.) A statistics blog, statisticians job of the week and a section on famous statisticians. Florence Nightingale, for example, was a member of the Royal Statistical Society and one of the first people to collect statistics on health policy.
There are events worldwide, including many in Sweden. And they are popular: for example the SAS Institute breakfast meeting on 19th February is already fully booked.
There will a Dortmund day of statistics in Germany; a public lecture series in Toronto on various aspects of statisitics. Lecture titles include “Is it hot enough for you?” about climate change, and “Statistics: the new sexy?”.
I also recommend following @Statistics2013 on twitter. There are many tweets about events and organisations taking part. And a few funny quotes:
”While it is easy to lie with statistics, it is even easier to lie without them.” Frederick Mosteller
“Statistics are like bikinis. What they reveal is suggestive but what they conceal is vital. A. Levenstein.
*The founding organizations of the International Year of Statistics are the American Statistical Association, Institute of Mathematical Statistics, International Biometric Society, International Statistical Institute (and the Bernoulli Society), and Royal Statistical Society.
Hurricane Sandy, sweeping the East Coast of the USA, has been predicted with great accuracy. The people in New York and surrounding areas were evacuated where necessary; the authorities gave a clear and unambiguous message and the loss of life has been minimal. Buildings have on the whole survived intact, a testament to building standards in New York State.
The people of l’Aquila were not so lucky in 2009, when an enormous earthquake struck the town, tragically killing 309 residents. People blamed God, poor building quality, and also the scientists on the disaster committee. Last week, six Italian seismologists and one official were sentenced to six years in prison for multiple manslaughter for failing to adequately communicate the risk of such an earthquake happening.
There was an outcry around the world to these sentences, which potentially have far-reaching consequences not only for the individuals involved but for scientists everywhere involved in scientific risk assessments.
Several commentators have likened this trial to the trial of Galileo in 1666, which put Italians off astronomy for centuries. Nature magazine (which has an in depth report on the case) describes the verdict as “perverse” and the sentence “ludicrous”. The Times of India calls the verdict “a blow to scientific freedom”.
But perhaps the most worrying and immediate concerns are for the volcanologists observing Mount Vesuvius, also in Italy (see, for example this article from The Guardian (UK). It is only a matter of time before there is an eruption. The scientists who work there now face losing their liberty if they fail to get it right. And as volcanoes are notoriously hard to predict, I imagine many of them may be reconsidering their career options…..
Image courtesy of Victor Habbick at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Science was not mentioned very often in the latest heated presidential US debate, but look a little behind the scenes and you will find matters of science and technology are being hotly debated.
Both candidates appear to recognise the importance of science and technology to the economy and support federally funded research. Obama promises to double funding to the National Science Foundation and significantly increase investment in science teaching. Romney focuses more on protecting American intellectual property rights and simplifying tax codes to promote innovation.
Climate change and energy reveal the biggest policy differences. Obama sees climate change as one of the biggest issues facing us today and supports “smart policies” in “clean energy generation”. Romney is less convinced of the extent to which human activities have an effect, and wants to support continued “debate and investigation amongst the scientific community”. Romney believes reducing the deficit is more important than tackling climate change; Obama is firmly supportive of taking action to reduce climate change.
Chillingly, the Republican party are openly in favour of drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) in Alaska. Obama strongly rejects this policy.
Obama also demonstrates a more environmentally friendly approach to food, pledging to reduce pesticide and antibiotic use, and to increase the number of organic certifications by 20%. Romney’s response to this question focused on how to reduce the number of food-borne illnesses. Many argue that a more organic approach to food production would be a step towards this goal…
Obama has been given a science “score card” by the Scientist, and not a bad one at that, though letting himself down with a C- for space science. Nasa has not been a priority for the Obama administration, with the organisation seeing a 20% reduction in its funding this financial year.
Would Romney be any better for Nasa? Republicans are explicitly in favour of space exploration and see it as a good thing for commerce, for technology and for national pride. But where will the money come from?
The financial situation is perhaps the biggest problem facing US science.
”The point is if we’re facing all these cuts, it doesn’t matter what the lip service may be to research, it’s about what you can actually get done,” said Sheri Fink, a fellow at New America Foundation.
Personally I would vote for Obama though, if only to save the Arctic. Let’s see what the US public decides.
Image courtesy of Sailom at FreeDigitalPhotos.net.
National pride always takes centre stage. UK papers are shouting about Dr John Gurdon who shares the prize for medicine and physiology this year. He won this along with Dr Shinya Yamanaka, who is taking centre stage in Japan, and whose photo is on many pages.
Everyone loves reading about the Nobel prizes, but with the complexity of science, it’s no surprise that related human interest stories also fill the pages.
For example, Dr Gurdon’s school reports: his biology teacher wrote “”I believe Gurdon has ideas about becoming a scientist; on his present showing this is quite ridiculous; if he can’t learn simple biological facts he would have no chance of doing the work of a specialist, and it would be a sheer waste of time, both on his part and of those who would have to teach him.”
Dr Yamanaka also had a less than promising start to his career, when he trained as a surgeon and found he was not very good at it.
Stories like these are very inspiring to the rest of us – even the greatest don’t always have a smooth ride.
The drama continues with the annual criticism of the panel’s choice, and the process itself. Prizes can be shared between a maximum of three people and so there is frequently a fourth (or fifth) person left out.
An article in Scientific American argues that in these times of extensive scientific collaboration, it is time to change the rules so an entire team receives the prize. It’s often impossible to choose 3 people out of a team to receive the award – what happens, they ask, if the discovery of the Higgs boson is deemed deserving?
Prof Jim AL-Khlali, writing in the UK Guardian, also thinks the process needs a shake-up. Boundaries between disciplines are changing and blurring (for example quantum biology) and much research does not fall neatly into Nobel prize categories.
The almost compulsory Einstein stories are appearing in the papers – why did he not get awarded the Nobel Prize for relativity?
And there are predictions and analysis – apparently, to predict the winner “the odds are on someone who is 60 years old, married, male, American and Harvard-educated”. (Washington Post).
Why do we love the Nobel prizes? Probably for the history, the prestige and the continuing soap opera….
As I write they are announcing the Nobel Prize for chemistry to two American professors. Let’s see if there are any interesting stories or controversies…..
Image courtesy of www.nobelprize.org
Scientific misconduct is the reason for two-thirds of retractions of scientific research papers, according to a new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science in the USA.
Retractions are not always explained, or the real reasons are covered up. The study’s authors – Arturo Casadevall, Ferric Fang and R. Grant Steen – decided to investigate this further and examine the underlying causes behind retractions. In this comprehensive study they looked at over 2,000 retracted articles in the PubMed database going back to the 1940s.
Their analysis shows that 67.2% of retractions were because of fraud, suspected fraud or plagiarism rather than honest mistakes. It also reveals that retractions are on the rise. This is partly explained by the fact that publishers have been using software to detect plagiarism and duplication since 2005.
On the positive side, fraud does not appear to be widespread, with just 38 research groups responsible for 43.9 percent of retractions for fraud or suspected fraud.
An increase in detection levels does not necessarily mean fraud is increasing, just that it is being spotted more. Some scientists, however, such as Danielle Fanelli of the University of Edinburgh, are linking the rise in scientific fraud to the growing pressure of academics to publish in an increasingly harsh financial climate.
VA studies have shown that scientific fraud has a corrosive effect on public trust in science and research in Sweden. Fang and Casadevall, two authors of this new report, have expressed concern that their study could be “misused to erode public trust in science”. However they believe that “sweeping misconduct under the rug would be even more harmful”. Perhaps this research can help do more to tackle the problem and restore some lost public confidence.
Image courtesy of Renjith Krishnan at FreeDigitalPhotos.net