Monthly Archives: November 2009

Clive Cookson

Today the Royal Society – Britain’s national academy of sciences – kicks off a year of celebrations to mark the 350th anniversary of its foundation by King Charles II in 1660.

The first event is the launch of an interactive look back at key scientific moments in its history, in the form of an interactive timeline called Trailblazing.

The 60 scientific papers, chosen from the Society’s Philosophical Transactions (said to be the world’s oldest continuously published scientific journal), include a gruesome account of an early blood transfusion in 1666, Isaac Newton’s landmark paper on light and colour, Watson and Crick’s description of the evidence for the structure of DNA, and Stephen Hawking’s early writing on black holes in space.

An anniversary celebration of such historical riches is a double-edged sword for an academy that is sometimes seen from the outside as the conservative bastion of the scientific establishment.

However Martin Rees, President of the Royal Society, is determined to show that, despite traditions such as black-tie summer soirees in its splendid premises on Carlton House Terrace, it is a progressive body looking to the future more than the past.

During 2010 there will be a series of forward looking events for professionals and the public, including a nine-day science festival on London’s Southbank.

At the same time it will be completing and opening the Kavli Royal Society International Centre for the Advancement of Science at Chicheley Hall near Newport Pagnell (left), and building up its successful new Science Policy Centre.

Clive Cookson

Welcome Máire Geoghegan-Quinn as the new European Commissioner for Research and Innovation.

The 59-year-old Irishwoman replaces Janez Potočnik (who becomes Environment Commissioner) though the portfolio has been expanded to include innovation as well as science and research. Scientists may be wary of this expansion, if it leads to any downgrading of basic research.

Geoghegan-Quinn was an active Fianna Fáil politician. She was a member of the Dáil from 1975, when she succeeded her late father in his Galway West constituency, until 1997. She held several Irish Cabinet posts.

Since 2000 Geoghegan-Quinn has served on the European Court of Auditors.

Her career to date shows no particular interest in science but that may not matter. Potočnik did a good job as research commissioner without relevant prior experience.

Clive Cookson

Life on Mars? Water on the moon? These have become hardy perennials of space science journalism over the past few years.

Martian microbes raised their head again today, with the publication in the US online magazine Spaceflight Now of a story that Nasa scientists have found new evidence of bacterial remains in an ancient meteorite.

The rock in question, known as Allen Hills (ALH) 84001, was discovered in Antarctica in 1984. Geologists say it is a chunk of the Martian surface blasted into space by an asteroid or comet impact on the red planet 16m years ago.

ALH 84001 originally hit the headlines in 1996, when Nasa and the White House made the sensational announcement that the meteorite contained microscopic traces of ancient bacteria.

The supposed micro-fossils certainly looked lifelike to the lay eye, but the excitement faded as independent scientists said the structures could have other causes, such as terrestrial contamination and/or heat shock as the rock blasted off Mars into space.

The new research, which Spaceflight Now says Nasa will publish very soon, is based on the latest high resolution microscopy, which was not available 13 years ago.

This apparently rules out other causes and strengthens the original conclusion that the structures really are microfossils. Best evidence is the alignment of tiny crystals of a mineral called magnetite, which the Nasa scientists could only have been laid down by bacteria.

But no study, however convincing, of a meteorite discovered on Earth can prove the existence of microbes on Mars. That proof can only come from a space probe examining material on the planet itself.

Clive Cookson

A familiar issue in innovation policy – patenting and the commercialisation of scientific knowledge – resurfaces today in a so-called Manchester Manifesto.

The manifesto has 50 signatories, led by the moral philosopher John Harris and Nobel Prize winning biologist John Sulston, both from the Institute for Science, Ethics and Innovation (iSEI) at the University of Manchester. Joseph Stiglitz, Nobel Laureate and Chair of Manchester’s Brooks World Poverty Institute, is also among the signatories.

The ‘Manchester Manifesto’ calls for a reassessment of the current system of patents and intellectual property regulated by national and international laws. The signatories say the system is in desperate need of change because it excludes poorer people from access to essential medicines and expertise.

They say profit should not override the needs of the public, even though it is currently the primary reward for research and development.

Sulston, who was a leader of the International Human Genome project team while working at the Wellcome Trust’s Sanger Centre, has been a vocal critic of a Myriad Genetics, the US biopharmaceutical company, for patenting of two genes closely associated with breast and ovarian cancer.

“It shocks many people when they realise that even our genes fall under intellectual property law,” Sulston says. “Genes are naturally occurring things, not inventions, and part of humanity’s rich heritage.”

While these are well-worn arguments from liberal bio-ethicists, they deserve another outing.

Clive Cookson

Many senior scientists in Britain have been worrying about the impact a change of government in next year’s general election might have on their activities. After all, the Conservative party has had little to say about science – compared to other fields of policy - in  the recent past. And who knows what effect a big intake of new right-wing Tory MPs might have?

Tonight, speaking at a debate staged by the Cambridge Network, Adam Afriyie, the shadow science and innovation minister, made a big effort to reassure the country’s scientists.

Adam Afriyie

Adam Afriyie

He promised, above all, continuity: “We mustn’t fight political battles over science. Science should be the least ideological area in government. It’s difficult enough to raise the level of public debate about science, without unseemly squabbles among politicians,” he said.-

Afriyie welcomed Labour’s establishment of the Technology Strategy Board and added: “Stability is what’s needed right now. So let me offer reassurance. I am not planning a major reworking of either the dual funding system or the apparatus of science policy.”

He was only partially reassuring on funding: “If fortunate enough to serve as science minister, I’m going to fight tooth and nail for science. But it’s reckless to make undeliverable promises. Spending constraint will apply for any incoming party.”

As Afriyie noted, “Gordon Brown has made a-song-and-a-dance over the ring-fenced science budget.” He said a Conservative government would respect the ring fence, while repeating that “I cannot promise spending increases with an economy on its knees.”

Afriye also supported the independence of scientific advice to government, in the wake of Professor Nutt’s dismissal as head of the advisory council on drug misuse: “A number of scientists have signed a Statement of Principles setting out how they think independent scientific advice should operate. I believe those principles offer a strong basis for a new framework.”

“Science has a great future with Conservatives,” he concluded.

I hope he is right, because it would be sad if scientific opinion in Britain became associated with the Labour party, in the way that American scientists have become associated with the Democrats.

Clive Cookson

Engineers at Cern near Geneva hope to restart the Large Hadron Collider, the world’s most powerful atom smasher, this weekend.

Understandably it will be a low-key affair, with the media not invited, in contrast to the razzmatazz of the original start-up in September 2008. Nine days later the $8bn LHC suffered a serious electromagnetic failure and it has been shut down ever since, as Cern carried out comprehensive repairs and installed new safety equipment.

Cern engineers repair a damaged magnet

Cern engineers repair a damaged magnet

If final checks are satisfactory, Cern engineers will send proton beams round the 27km LHC underground ring tomorrow at fairly low energy, first in one direction and then in the other.

They may carry out some collisions between beams before Christmas, again at relatively low energy. But the moment Cern calls “first physics” – the first high-energy collisions that could produce interesting scientific results – is unlikely to come until January. And Cern has promised to invite some journalists then, though there may not be more than a day or two’s notice.

Clive Cookson

I had my best theatrical experience of 2009 last night, seeing Inherit the Wind at London’s Old Vic.

My expectations of this 1955 dramatisation of the 1925 Scopes ‘Monkey Trial’ were high, after its excellent reviews. And of course the political debate over teaching evolution and  creationism still very much alive.

David Troughton (left) and Kevin Spacey

David Troughton (left) and Kevin Spacey

But I did not expect the revival to bring tears to my eyes, as happened on several occasions last night. I found the clash between biblical intolerance (with David Troughton playing the William Jennings Bryan prosecutor in the original trial) and liberal freethinking (Kevin Spacy in the role of Darwinian defender Clarence Darrow) extraordinarily moving.

Inherit the Wind is on at the Old Vic till December 20. Catch it if you can.

Clive Cookson

A visit to Purdue, a state university in the cornfields of Indiana almost three hours drive from Chicago, shows the strength in depth of the US academic system.

I’m just back from my third visit, courtesy of Purdue’s imaginative Science Journalism Laureates programme. On each occasion I have been struck by the intellectual quality of the academic staff – faculty, as they are known in America – and the curiosity of the students.

For research as a whole, Purdue is not in the same league as Harvard or Stanford but in some fields it is world class. One is palaeoclimatology, the study of past climate and what it can tell us about the likely course of global warming in future.

Matt Huber left me fascinated but deeply depressed by his latest conclusions about the climate’s response to rising and falling levels of carbon dioxide over the past 50m years. He and his Purdue colleagues have discovered that climate is more sensitive to CO2 than previously suspected – which is of course extremely bad news for efforts to control manmade global warming. I’ll use his insights soon for an FT article on climate history.

Another Purdue scientist with thought-provoking views is David Waters. He showed us how misguided some of the big clinical trials of vitamins and nutritional supplements have been – particularly the $175m US trial to see whether selenium pills can cut men’s risk of prostate cancer, which was stopped last year because it was, if anything, increasing the incidence of disease.

The problem, according to Waters, was that the trial took all comers in the chosen age group, rather than focussing on those – a minority in the US – who are actually deficient in selenium. From that base he built a devastating critique of the “either-or-ness” of public health medicine, and the search for things that are “good for you”.

Part of the rationale for the laureates programme is to interact with Purdue people – and part to discuss issues in science journalism. This year’s set-piece theme was “science journalism in the age of Twitter” in the form of what Americans call a “town hall meeting” with Purdue staff.

Each of the 12 journalists present had to kick off proceedings with a 100-word statement. One managed to do so within the 140-character (about 25 words) Twitter limit.

Opinions about the future of science journalism varied from optimism through “we’ve seen it all before” to utter gloom.

Clive Cookson

I’m off to the US for a few days, to join the Science Journalism Laureates programme at Purdue University in Indiana. I may have time to blog from there. Otherwise I’ll resume when I get back next week. Thanks for reading.

Clive Cookson

Britain’s Academy of Medical Sciences has launched an imaginative new study – on the use in research of animals containing human genes or cells.

“This area of science has had very little public discussion, though it has been scientifically very important and has led to some important medical advances,” says Martin Bobrow, the Cambridge University medical geneticist who will lead the study.

Animals containing human material – mostly transgenic mice with genes of human origin – are used routinely in laboratories world-wide. They have enabled researchers to make groundbreaking advances in understanding the causes and devising treatments of disease.

However, increasingly powerful methods for introducing human material into animals, including new stem cell technologies and ways to transfer many genes together, will present new opportunities and significant regulatory and ethical challenges in the future.

Recent examples of research involving animals containing human material include: rhesus macaque monkeys that carry a human form of the Huntington’s gene which allow scientists to investigate the development of the disease; mice with brains containing up to 25 per cent human neurones; and mice with human-like livers in which the effects of new drugs can be studied.

The new study is, in a sense, the converse of the debate in the UK last year about “hybrid embryos” that were essentially human but with some added animal material, says Prof Bobrow. “Now we are talking about animals with human bits added to them. We are not going to talk about hybrid human embryos again. Nor are we going to discuss the principles of doing research on animals.”

Launching the study at the Science Media Centre in London, the academy’s working group members said they did not personally know of any particularly objectionable research projects under way or being planned.

Robin Lovell-Badge of the MRC National Institute for Medical Research said the type of future experiment that might arouse particular public opposition included ones that gave animals a partially human appearance. “If you had human-like eyes, features, hands or feet, that might be upsetting,” he said.

Prof Bobrow said he was open-minded about how the study would proceed over the next 12 to 18 months. “We will not only be focusing on the ethical dimensions of this research but also on how it is perceived by the public,” he said. “Do these constructs challenge our idea of what it is to be human? It is important that we consider these questions now so that appropriate boundaries are recognised and research is able to fulfil its potential.”

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.