Monthly Archives: June 2009

Clive Cookson

As a former chemist, I sometimes feel sad that straightforward chemistry does not get the media coverage it deserves. A really elegant piece of chemistry research, carried out at Cambridge University, was published in Science today. It got disappointingly little attention in newspapers and on science websites. (Even the FT cut out my mention of the experiment in the newspaper’s science briefing column, for lack of space.)

The Cambridge chemists have “tamed” white phosphorous, one of the most hazardous substances used as a common chemical feedstock. White phosphorous – an ingredient in weedkillers, insecticides and fertilisers – is liable to burst into flames when it comes into contact with air. It is also a controversial weapon.

White phosphorous is a tetrahedral molecule of four phosphorous atoms. The Cambridge researchers made a molecular cage of carbon, hydrogen, iron, nitrogen, sulphur and iron atoms. This can hold the four phosphorous atoms indefinitely and prevent them reacting with atmospheric oxygen. The phosphorous is released from its cage when needed, simply by adding benzene.

The caging technique could be used to make industrial handing and storage of white phosphorous safer. In addition, says Jonathan Nitschke, project leader, “it is foreseeable that our technique might be used to clean up a white phosphorous spill, either as part of an industrial accident or in a war zone. In addition to its ability to inflict grievous harm while burning, white phosphorous is very toxic and poses a major environmental hazard.”

(Molecular model showing the four white phosphorous atoms inside their cage, courtesy of Science.)

Clive Cookson

Some good news at last from the House of Commons. MPs agreed today to establish a Science and Technology Committee, following a short, sharp lobbying campaign by Britain’s research organisations.

The move follows the Prime Minister’s decision three weeks ago to fold the old Department of Innovation Universities and Skills (DIUS) – which covered science and higher education – into Peter Mandelson’s huge Business Innovation and Skills (BIS) department.

That reorganisation made redundant the Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills committee, which had scrutinised DIUS. But Phil Willis, its chairman, successfully argued to the Commons authorities that science would be lost within the BIS monster, if they did not give it a separate committee.

So the old IUSS Committee will morph seamlessly into a new Science and Technology Committee on October 1. That basically restores the position we had before the previous government reorganisation two years ago.

Congratulations to Mr Willis for fighting his ground and to everyone who supported him. As he says, “I cannot stress enough how vital the role of this Committee will be in ensuring that the Government’s science policy is held to account and that adequate attention is given to such a crucial policy area.”

(And apologies to readers elsewhere in the world for whom all this may seem terribly parochial. It does matter for British science policy!)

Clive Cookson

I normally groan when I hear about the establishment of yet another campaign group but Straight Statistics, launched last week, is a welcome exception.

Public confidence in official statistics is so low – and the presentation of statistics by companies, academics and the media frequently so poor – that we really need a body to protect the integrity of statistical information. Straight Statistics promises to play that role, with funding from the Nuffield Foundation.

My personal knowledge of some of the journalists and statisticians involved – particularly the director Nigel Hawkes, a former science editor and health editor of The Times – gives me confidence that Straight Statistics will succeed in its aim of restoring confidence by exposing bad and promoting good statistics. (I should add that Simon Briscoe, statistics editor of the Financial Times, is on the organisation’s board.)

The Straight Statistics website already contains good analysis of statistical deficiencies, for example of the Research Assessment Exercise (which determines university funding) and of the Home Office presentation of the national DNA database.

I suspect more of a challenge will be to find excellent statistical presentations, which others can follow. Sadly, it is easier to spot the failures than examples of really good practice.

Straight Statistics can play a public, campaigning role that is beyond the remit of the government’s Statistics Authority and the professional Royal Statistical Society.

As David Lipsey, the chairman of Straight Statistics, puts it, “the epidemic of statistical abuse is ultimately a threat to the integrity of our democracy. It has increased, is increasing, and ought to be diminished.

Clive Cookson

A vast wave of publicity about Charles Darwin peaked in February, around the 200th anniversary of his birth, with exhibitions, radio and television programmes, and books galore. Then there was a lull but now a second wave of Darwiniana is on its way, ahead of November’s 150th anniversary of the publication of The Origin of Species.

The next centre of attention will be Cambridge, which is holding Darwin 2009, a huge international festival, from July 5 to 10. Around the central programme of lectures, talks, debates and culture, organised by the university, many other Cambridge venues are holding their own events.

Some are small-scale, such as Helen Birmingham’s show of Darwin-inspired mixed-media works, at Broughton House Gallery from June 27 to July 18. But the grand centrepiece of Darwinian art is an exhibition called Endless Forms, opening at the Fitzwilliam Museum today.

Endless Forms is the most ambitious exhibition ever put on by the Fitzwilliam, according to director Timothy Potts – and it is certainly the most comprehensive assessment of Darwin’s impact on the visual arts that anyone has ever attempted. My colleague Robin Blake will be reviewing it in Saturday’s FT.

I dropped in on the press opening of Endless Forms while visiting Cambridge last week but did not have time for a proper view. I saw enough fascinating material, however, to make me determined to return for a proper look before the exhibition closes on October 4.

John Collier's 1883 Portrait of Darwin (National Portrait Gallery)

John Collier's 1883 portrait of Darwin (National Portrait Gallery, London)

Clive Cookson

I have always been enchanted by butterflies – and in recent years have felt depressed by the evident decline in the numbers I see fluttering around English gardens and countryside. The news from official butterfly conservation bodies has been grim too, with most British species in retreat.

So I was thrilled by the research published today in the journal Science, showing the triumphant reintroduction of the large blue into its old haunts on the chalk downs of south-west England. The last native colony of large blues died out in Devon in 1979 – just as Jeremy Thomas of the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology in Oxfordshire was discovering the extraordinary details of the butterfly’s life cycle.

Females lay their eggs on thyme flowers, which caterpillars eat for three weeks before falling to the ground. Red ants recognise the caterpillar as one of their own, because it secretes a special cocktail of odour chemicals identical to an ant grub, and take it underground into their nest. It lives there for 10 months, feeding on ant grubs before forming a pupa at the top of the nest and finally crawling to the surface as an adult butterfly.

Although naturalists had known the general principles of the parasitic relationship between butterfly and ant for many years, Thomas made the key discovery that only one species of ant, Myrmica sabuleti, would nourish the large blue; other red ants ate its grubs. Unfortunately changing agricultural practices were reducing M sabuleti to unsustainable numbers.

His findings – particularly the need for short, tightly grazed grass – came just too late to save the native large blue. The same species, Maculinea arion, was in steep decline elsewhere in Europe but after scouring the continent for a suitable population Thomas and colleagues found one in Sweden. From there they imported eggs into Somerset grassland where the habitat was specially prepared to suit the butterflies and their ant hosts.

Since the original reintroduction in 1984, large blues have colonised 33 sites in south-west England, from chalk downs to railway embankments. (A dozen institutions, from the National Trust to Network Rail, are collaborating to re-establish the butterfly.)  Thomas, who remains the overall mastermind of the project, says its success has followed almost exactly his original mathematical models of the 1980s.

Meanwhile more details have emerged of the astonishing way the large blue has evolved to live with its hosts. Not only do the caterpillars smell exactly like ant grubs but they also make the same clicking sounds in the nest as queen ants.

It sounds like a precarious survival strategy – and so it is when land use changes substantially – but Thomas remarks that in a relatively stable environment an ant’s nest can make a safe predator-free home for the growing caterpillar.

Most large blue sites are still closed to the public but one, the National Trust’s Collard Hill in Somerset, welcomes visitors. If Sunday, June 21, is fine that would be a good day to go, because the Trust is holding a special large blue open day then. As large blue numbers increase, the butterfly could become a vehicle for encouraging tourism in the south-west.

Large blue on bracken (courtesy of David Simcox, CEH)

Large blue on bracken (courtesy of David Simcox, CEH)

Clive Cookson

London’s great Science Museum opens its centenary celebrations today, with an invitation to visitors to vote for the object that is most significant in the history of science, technology and medicine.

The museum is proposing 10 candidates, of which the most ancient is Thompson’s Atmospheric Engine (1791), the oldest surviving industrial steam engine. The most recent is the Apollo 10 command module in which Tom Stafford, John Young and Gene Cernan travelled around the Moon in 1969 (see picture below).

In between the museum is offering Stephenson’s Rocket locomotive, a Model T Ford car, the V2 rocket engine and Watson and Crick’s DNA model, among other exhibits. They have been arranged in a special Centenary Journey trail.

Further details of the Science Museum’s development plans for the beginning of its second century will be announced this morning. They include new galleries and an updated façade on Exhibition Road.

Lord Mandelson, head of the newly created Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) - the latest home for science in the government – says in a speech released last night ahead of today’s centenary launch: “Every time I come here, I feel like a kid again.

“And of course, every day hundreds of children and their parents walk through this Museum’s doors… What follows is wide-eyed amazement, lively debate and exciting experiments. It’s never boring.”

I agree with him. I’ll never forget my boyhood excitement coming to London to visit the Science Museum.

(And incidentally my vote for the museum’s top “centenary icon” goes to the Model T, with the DNA double helix in second place.)


Apollo 10 is winched aboard its recovery vessel at the end of its lunar mission in May 1969 Credit: NASA/SSPL

Clive Cookson

In a move overshadowed by the weekend’s political dramas, science was yet again shuffled between UK government departments as a result of Gordon Brown’s Cabinet changes.

Over the years responsibility for science has resided in several different departments, including Education and Science (DES), Trade and Industry (DTI) and Innovation Universities and Skills (DIUS).

On Friday the Prime Minister pulled the plug on DIUS, less than two years after its creation. He folded it into Lord Mandelson’s Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform (BERR), forming a new super-ministry known as the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. BIS will be like the old DTI but with the added responsibility for higher education.

Quite rightly, commentators in the academic and scientific communities have expressed concern about the quick demise of DIUS. While few felt that DIUS was doing a great job, the cost and disruption of yet another reorganisation, so soon after the last one, should not underestimated.

From the viewpoint of science, the most important thing is that the budget for basic research, which has risen strongly under Labour, should not be raided to pay for problems in other areas for which BIS is responsible – as happened when science was in the old DTI.

Martin Rees, president of the Royal Society, put it well: “In the rush to unlock economic benefits, we must ensure that we don’t divert resources away from basic research… It is imperative that the science budget remains strong and ring-fenced.”

Another concern emerged today. It was announced that Lord Drayson, the science minister, who had worked full-time in DIUS, would now divide his time between BIS and the Ministry of Defence, where he will be responsible for research, development and procurement – a job he held a few years ago.

All in all this seems to amount to something of a demotion for science in the Whitehall hierarchy.  But who knows how long the new set-up will last…

Clive Cookson is away. His blog will return soon.

Clive Cookson

I have just caught up with the recent announcement of recipients of the greatest honour in British science: Fellowship of the Royal Society. It is not quite the Nobel Prize but adding the letters FRS to one’s name can give a big boost to a scientific career. So some ambitious researchers lobby quietly but hard among friends and colleagues who are already Fellows, first to be nominated as a candidate for the Fellowship and then to pass successfully through the Society’s elaborate peer-reviewed selection process.

Given the serious under-representation of women in the senior ranks of science, the first thing I look for on the annual list of 44 new FRSs is the female names. This year there are five, including Wendy Hall, whose research focuses on the way people interact with the web and other large multimedia information systems, and Angela McLean, an epidemiologist who produced the first mathematical models of how vaccine-resistant pathogens evolve.

Five women out of 44 new Fellows does not sound great but in fact this 11 per cent female representation is high by the standards of recent FRS lists. Last year was more typical, with two new female FRSs out of 44.

Leafing through the 142 pages of the Society’s confidential book of FRS candidates I can see where the problem lies: too few women are proposed for the Fellowship. The candidates are overwhelmingly male. The new crop of candidates for 2009, who will be eligible for selection over the next seven years, contains nine women out of 138 names (6.5 per cent).

So come on, you FRSs, make more effort to propose female candidates. They are probably less pushy and self-promoting, on average, than men of equivalent scientific excellence. But I know there are many brilliant and accomplished women are out there in Britain’s labs, deserving nomination for an FRS.

Clive Cookson

The campaign for the European Parliamentary Elections on Thursday has been shockingly short of debate about substantive issues, at least in the UK. You will find little or no analysis in the UK media of a key EU function: supporting science, research and innovation.

Yet the main political parties do have policies on these issues, as the London-based Campaign for Science and Engineering points out. CaSE asked the UK parties what the EU should be doing about science and innovation; the responses can be found on the campaign’s website.

Encouragingly, Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrats all want the EU to do more for research.  Although the Conservatives favour a cap on the overall EU budget, they support the transfer of funding to science and technology – and strongly support growth of the new European Research Council. The Scottish Nationalist Party and Plaid Cymru, its Welsh counterpart, are even more enthusiastic.

The Green party focuses particularly on promoting a “revolution in skills to build the new green economy,” though it will not win many friends among mainstream scientists through its call for “an immediate halt to xenotransplantation, genetic manipulation and cloning of animals, and an immediate ban on the harmful use of animals (including but not only primates) in research, testing and education.”

Of course the UK Independence Party believes the EU has no part to play in research. “Such matters should be dealt with by our national parliament, which could fund research far more efficiently and effectively than the European Union,” UKIP says.

In a valiant attempt to engage scientists’ interest in the elections, Nick Dusic, CaSE director, says: “I hope that the information provided by the parties on their EU science and engineering policies informs your vote on 4th June.” That may be a vain hope but it is good to see someone trying to involve scientists in the European democratic process.

The world of research

The science blog is no longer updated but it remains open as an archive.

Clive Cookson, the FT's science editor, picks out the research that everyone should know about, in fields from astronomy to zoology. He also discusses key policy issues, from R&D funding to science education. He'll cover the weird and wonderful, as well as the serious side of science.