Monthly Archives: July 2009

Clive Cookson

Clive Cookson is on holiday. His blog will return soon.

Clive Cookson

In the week the world is celebrating the 40th anniversary of the Apollo moon landings, the UK government has announced a small step to raise the profile of the country’s space programme – one of the smallest among industrialised nations as a proportion of public spending.

Lord Drayson, science minister, launched a public consultation on setting up a British Space Agency. This would give UK space activities more focus than the existing British National Space Centre, a relatively powerless “partnership” of government departments and research councils.

Despite the low profile of the BNSC and a government investment of just £250m a year – channelled mainly through the European Space Agency – the UK has built up a commercially successful space industry that contributes £6.5bn a year to the national economy.

“Space is so important to our future,” says Lord Drayson. “The UK space industry has thrived under the BNSC but the Apollo 11 anniversary demonstrates the need for ambition, purpose and a clear sense of commitment.”

Of course the whole point of Apollo is that it was a manned programme – and the human factor was mainly responsible for its inspiring a generation of young people to pursue careers in science and engineering.

Under a money-saving policy started more than 20 years ago by the Thatcher government, and endorsed by its successors, the UK has avoided funding any human spaceflight activities, whether independently or through ESA. Other European countries have collaborated with the US and Russia to send their citizens to the International Space Station on the Shuttle and Soyuz craft.

This leaves Drayson, an enthusiast for human space flight, in a slightly difficult position, given that his government is unlikely to be able to afford the increased spending required to play a very active role in future manned programmes.

Lord Drayson

Lord Drayson

“I have said from the beginning of this job [as science minister] that manned spaceflight is very important, at a deep philosophical level. Going out and exploring the universe is not just about sending unmanned probes,” he told me. “It is very important to carry on manned space exploration and the UK needs to be part of that.”

Drayson and colleagues have persuaded ESA to decouple participation in the European astronaut corps from national contribution to specific manned projects – and earlier this summer, when ESA announced six new recruits to its astronaut corps, one of them was the British test pilot Tim Peake.

In the long run, however, it is hard to see how the UK can remain a significant player in international space exploration, manned or unmanned, without spending more public money.

As Phil Willis, chairman of the Commons science committee, put it, “we welcome Lord Drayson’s initiative but unless significant resources are put into a UK space agency, it will be a space agency in name only.”

Clive Cookson

Hydrofluorocarbons or HFCs were introduced to save the ozone layer in the upper atmosphere from destruction. When the world agreed in 1987 to phase out chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) through the Montreal Protocol, the chemical industry came up with HFCs as a replacement in applications such as refrigeration, air conditioning and making insulating foams.

While HFCs do not initiate ozone-destroying chemical reactions in the upper atmosphere, like CFCs, they turn out to be extremely powerful greenhouse gases – and now the environmental movement is rightly alarmed that growing use of HFCs could seriously exacerbate global warming.

Individual HFC molecules have a greenhouse effect many hundreds of times greater than carbon dioxide. At present they are present in the atmosphere only in small traces, so their total contribution to global warming is less than 1 per cent that of carbon dioxide.

But projections for the future see a huge increase in HFC use over the next few years, mainly for refrigeration and air conditioning in the developing world. A recent study by scientists at the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) showed that, without restrictions, annual HFC emissions could heat the atmosphere by as much as 8bn tonnes of carbon dioxide by 2050.

So pressure is building for HFCs to be phased out too. The Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), a green NGO, is leading a campaign for them to be banned under the Montreal Protocol, whose member countries are meeting in Geneva later this week.

The move has support from Achim Steiner, executive director of the UN Environment Programme, who said: “Action to freeze and then reduce this group of gases could buy the world the equivalent of a decade’s worth of carbon dioxide emissions.”

Campaigners point out that it may be easier to use the existing machinery of the Montreal Protocol, which regulates chemicals very similar to HFCs, than to try to include HFCs in climate change treaties which concentrate on carbon dioxide.

Clive Cookson

Stem cell research has had another eventful week, with interesting developments on the regulatory and corporate fronts, as well as in the lab.

On Monday the Obama administration released the final version of the rules under which federal funding can be released through the National Institutes of Health to support embryonic stem cell research.

As expected, lobbying by the US scientific community has paid off. The rules are more permissive than the surprisingly restrictive version that the administration originally proposed in April, following President Obama’s pledge to loosen his predecessor’s harsh limits on NIH funding.

US researchers will be able to work with hundreds of stem cell lines derived from surplus IVF embryos, rather than the 21 approved by the Bush administration. But there is still a lot that NIH will not be allowed to fund, including the creation of new embryos specifically for research – for example through therapeutic cloning. Such work will have to rely on private, charitable or state funding.

A potentially important new company emerged this week: iPierian. It is a combination of two stem cell start-ups, iZumi and Pierian, lubricated with an additional $11.5m in new venture funding.

iPierian will focus on induced pluripotent stem cells – iPSCs – the embryonic-like cells produced by reprogramming adult cells, which have been the focus of much stem cell research over the past couple of years. The company aims to produce “disease-specific” cells from patients with neurodegenerative diseases, which can then be used to develop drugs to treat these diseases.

A powerful positive for iPierian is the reputation of its scientific founders and advisors, who include some of Harvard’s top stem cell scientists such as George Daley, Douglas Melton and Lee Rubin.

Sperm made from embryonic stem cell

Sperm made from embryonic stem cell

The week’s most striking scientific news was released in the UK, where Karim Nayernia and colleagues at Newcastle University announced the creation of human sperm from embryonic stem cells. Although other researchers cast some doubt on whether the sperm were as mature and functional as Nayernia claimed, the work undoubtedly has great potential for the study – and eventually the treatment – of male infertility.

Clive Cookson

Traumatic head injury, which my Hong Kong colleague Justine Lau describes so graphically in Saturday’s FT Magazine, 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.

Clive Cookson

The world’s science journalists gathered in London this week for their biennial conference. All the talk in the run-up to the meeting was gloomy – science journalism in decline at best or crisis at worst, as the well-known pressures on traditional printed and broadcast media lead to cuts in specialist coverage.

As the recession deepened over the winter and then swine flu emerged, the organisers (and I should declare an interest, as a member of the conference steering committee) even considered cancelling the event because too few people would attend to make it viable. Thank God we didn’t.

Journalists being journalists, most people left registration to the last minute and there was a torrent of applications over the last two months. In the end the venerable venue, Westminster Central Hall, could take no more and registration was closed at 950 delegates – 60 per cent more than the previous conference in Melbourne two years ago and far more than anyone had dared hope.

It seems amazing that the world has 950 science journalists. And, yes, some of the attendees were “science communications” or PR people. But as far as I could tell from attending sessions (and parties) most delegates were real journalists writing for papers, periodicals and websites – general and specialist – and broadcasting on radio and television.

Certainly there was no sense of science journalism in global crisis at the conference. Yes, jobs have been cut in large news organisations from the BBC to the New York Times but these cuts seem to have been balanced by growth elsewhere. In the developing world, from Asia through Africa to Latin America, science writing is just emerging as a recognised and valued branch of journalism.

Appropriately, the next World Conference of Science Journalists will be held in Cairo in 2011. I can’t wait…

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.