Clive Cookson

In the end it wasn’t even close. At a special general meeting last night, members of the Royal Institution voted 512 to 121 against a move to oust the board and bring in a new group of trustees.

The sad saga of the RI has fascinated scientific London since December when its charismatic director, Susan Greenfield, was made redundant in the midst of a financial crisis at the 211-year-old institution.

A high-powered group of dissident RI members – including Julian Hunt, former head of the Met Office, and Lisa Jardine, historian of science and chair of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority -  triggered the SGM. They felt that the 12-member board of trustees had unfairly made Greenfield the scapegoat for a crisis that was their collective responsibility.

But at last night’s meeting – attended by around 650 of the RI’s 2,400 members, who spilled out of the historic Faraday lecture theatre into libraries and galleries – the dissidents were strangely inarticulate.

They failed to make a convincing case to support a move that would have been unprecedented at a British charity: to sack all the trustees simultaneously. Members who spoke from the floor made clear that they were not prepared for such a revolution, whatever the rights and wrongs of the case.

Nor did the dissidents make clear whether their primary motivation was to improve the RI’s governance or to reinstate Greenfield, who is suing the institution for sex discrimination and unfair dismissal.

Another important factor was the evidently strong feeling of RI staff that the present board should remain in place and Greenfield should not return.

After this vote of confidence by the membership, there are two priorities for the board and management.

Firstly, with losses running at £100,000 a month, the RI urgently needs new funds. Adrian de Ferranti, the chairman, said four donors had offered £8.75m in interest-free loans that might be convertible into gifts.

Secondly, the RI must recruit a top scientist (who is also a good communicator) to a leadership position. The current trustees and staff include no well-known scientists – which is clearly unacceptable in an institution that aims to be a world-class promoter of science.

Clive Cookson

Robots in motion are a mesmerising sight, even if they are doing a chore that would be very boring if carried out by a human. So it’s not surprising that one of the week’s most viewed videos on YouTube shows a Californian robot picking up towels from a pile of laundry and neatly folding them.

Views shouldn’t be fooled, though, into thinking that robotic deliverance from domestic chores is at hand.

For a start, the robot (made by a company called Willow Garage and programmed at the University of California, Berkeley) is very slow. The YouTube video is speeded up 50-fold, so what the machine appears to be doing in 30 seconds actually took 25 minutes.

Not only is the robotic housemaid maddeningly slow, it is also far from versatile. Can it iron? Sort very similar black socks into pairs from a pile of laundry? Stuff a duvet into its cover? No.

If you want the full academic paper, it’s here, with the splendid title: “Cloth Grasp Point Detection based on Multiple-View Geometric Cues with Application to Robotic Towel Folding”.

Robot researchers are always optimistic, and Berkeley team have been talking about producing useful household robots within five years. Don’t believe it.

Clive Cookson

An intriguing announcement about “unethical conduct” from Swedens’ Karolinska Institute, one of Europe’s top biomedical research centres.

Harriet Wallberg-Henriksson, president of the institute, has dismissed Karl Tryggvason as Dean of Research “after it emerged that he exercised undue influence over how funds were allocated to leading professors”.

Tryggvason’s alleged misconduct included sending a letter from his private email address to the chair of the independent evaluation committee responsible for allocating funds from Karolinska’s “prominent professors programme”. This email, suggesting “worthy recipients of the funds”, was then circulated to committee members.

“I take such unethical conduct very, very seriously,” Wallberg-Henriksson said.

In addition to his removal as research dean, Tryggvason may face additional sanctions “pending further investigation,” the institute said.

Tryggvason is a distinguished clinical biochemist, with an international research staff of about 30. He is also a member of the Nobel Assembly that chooses the medicine laureates, and a cofounder of two biotech companies, BioStratum and NephroGenenex.

Clive Cookson

Margaret McCartney wrote about the placebo effect on this blog earlier in the week, in the context of the Commons Science committee recommending that the NHS should not pay for homeopathy.

Coincidentally The Lancet has a fascinating long review of placebos, looking at the clinical evidence and ethical considerations.

The authors, led by Damien Finniss of the University of Sydney, point out that placebo effects are “genuine psychobiological events” which can be produced in both laboratory and clinical settings.

A key conclusion is that there are many different placebo effects, depending on circumstances.

Clive Cookson

The American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting – the world’s biggest and most diverse scientific conference – kicks off tonight in San Diego.
The AAAS president this year, Peter Agre, mixes modesty with humour in his opening question-and-answer session with the world’s science journalists, who always flock to the annual meeting.
He expresses sympathy about the decline in their trade, particularly in the US, as newspapers and broadcasters slim down in a desperate attempt to survive in competition with new web-based media. Science is suffering along with most other journalistic specialities.
“Newsrooms across the US are being gutted,” laments Agre, who won the Nobel chemistry prize in 2003 for discovering how water gets through cell walls. “Visiting a newsroom is sometimes like visiting an empty warehouse.”

Clive Cookson

Nasa launched its Solar Dynamics Observatory successfully from Cape Canaveral today.

The timing – coinciding with the sun’s awakening from the longest quiet spell for a century – is perfect.

The SDO will observe variations in solar activity, to help scientists predict “space weather” better.

Clive Cookson

Traumatic head injury, which my Hong Kong colleague Justine Lau describes so graphically in Saturday’s FT Magazine: An accident victim’s journey back to health is all too common.

In most industrialised countries the number of people admitted to hospital with a brain injury is similar to the number who suffer a stroke: around 135,000 a year in the UK. Around half a million Britons are living with long-term disabilities from head injuries, according to the charity Headway. Again, the number is similar to those disabled by stroke, except that most injury victims are much younger; half of all deaths in adults under 40 are due to traumatic brain damage.

Justine Lau

Justine Lau

The brain contains about 1.3kg of white matter, with a texture similar to soft blancmange, held together in the skull by several layers of membrane. The effect of a traffic accident such as Justine’s is like vigorously shaking a plate of blancmange. The brain shears and tears, disrupting the connections between neurons (nerve cells), while bony ridges underneath the skull can lacerate the front of the brain. At the same time blood vessels tear and bleed, leading to a dangerous build-up of pressure as clots form within the brain.

While a stroke tends to affect a specific area of the brain, accidental impact usually causes more general damage. Symptoms and outcome vary greatly, of course. The death of actress Natasha Richardson in March, after initially refusing treatment following a skiing accident in Canada, showed that what seems at first to be a relatively minor blow to the head can trigger fatal bleeding. Conversely, some people recover almost completely from horrific initial injuries.

However many patients suffer from a common range of distressing symptoms and Justine’s account illustrates several of them. One is post-traumatic amnesia, the period after the patient emerges from unconsciousness following the accident and appears to be conscious and awake – but is behaving or talking in a bizarre or uncharacteristic manner, and cannot remember what happened a few hours or even a few minutes ago. Justine’s talking and acting like a child is typical of this phase.

Another symptom, which often occurs during the period after the patient has emerged from post-traumatic amnesia and is coming to terms with the accident’s long-term consequences, is severe depression, including suicidal thoughts and actual suicide attempts.

On the positive side, the brain shows remarkable adaptability – plasticity in scientific parlance. Gradually, the neurons re-form broken connections or make new ones to bypass areas that have been permanently damaged.

The best sign of recovery is returning to work. A rule of thumb is that if someone does not get back to work within two years, he or she is unlikely ever to do so. Justine’s return to the FT Hong Kong bureau 10 months after the accident is an excellent sign for her long-term future.

The California Institute for Regenerative Medicine – set up in November 2004 when voters agreed to provide $3bn in funding for stem cell research – is finally moving ahead at full speed, after many delays caused by legal challenges and uncertainties over selling the state bonds that will fund it.

Today Alan Trounson, CIRM president, told the World Stem Cells and Regenerative Medicine Congress in London: “We have invested $1bn of our $3bn, in research grants and some expenditure on major facilities.”

The latest round of grants was announced two weeks ago after the state confirmed a successful bond sale, with 15 awards made to move basic research into the clinic.

Two of these “translational grants” were made to biotech companies, Novocell and BioTime, rather than academic labs – a sign of CIRM’s wish to work more closely with industry.

“There will be more and more opportunity for biotech companies to access funding, either as grants or loans,” Trounson told the London meeting. “The connection with the pharmaceutical industry is very important too.”

As CIRM flexes its financial muscle as the world’s largest source of stem cell research funds – and the Obama Administration relaxes George W Bush’s restrictions on federal support for embryonic stem cell research – European scientists may find the prospect of a move across the Atlantic irresistible.

This time last week no one outside a small group of public health experts had heard that the world faced an imminent flu pandemic. But virologists at the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta were already working feverishly to crack the genetic code of virus isolated a few days earlier from two patients – in California and Texas – suffering from flu apparently linked to a mysterious outbreak in Mexico.

Over the weekend, as pandemic scare stories hit the media, the CDC researchers had completed the RNA sequences of the virus, using the latest tools of molecular biology. (Flu virus has a genome composed of RNA rather than the related DNA that makes up the genes of almost all other organisms.) The achievement is a real testimony to the powers of 21st-century science in an emergency.

Clive Cookson

The flu strain that is spreading from Mexico and causing alarm about a possible pandemic has generally been called “swine flu” by health authorities, including the World Health Organisation.

But pig producers and animal health experts understandably dislike that term. Not only does it give pigs a bad name (and incidentally damage consumer demand for pork products) but also, they say, it is inaccurate.

In fact the H1N1 virus responsible for the outbreak has not been linked directly to pigs, in Mexico or anywhere else. The virus has not been isolated from any animal apart from humans, though virologists surmise that it may have originated in a pig.

Like birds and people, pigs can act as a “mixing vessels” in which different viruses swap genes and produce a new strain. The Mexican virus appears to contain porcine, avian and human genetic components.

The Paris-based animal health organisation OIE proposes calling it “North American flu”, to reflect its geographical origins. After all, the last pandemic, in 1968, was caused by “Hong Kong flu” – and the great 1918-19 pandemic was “Spanish flu”.

For me, North American flu is too much of a mouthful. I’d prefer “Mexican flu”.

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Margaret McCartney is a Glasgow-based GP and FT Weekend columnist. She started writing for the Life and Arts section in 2005 and moved to the magazine in 2008. She also has her own blog: www.margaretmccartney.com/blog

Clive Cookson has been a science journalist for the whole of his working life. He joined the FT in 1987. Clive, the FT's science editor, picks out the research that everyone should know about. He also discusses key policy issues, from R&D funding to science education.

Andrew Jack is pharmaceuticals correspondent, covering the industry and public health issues. He has been a journalist with the FT for 19 years, based in London, Paris and Moscow

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