Monthly Archives: November 2009

Clive Cookson

Lord Drayson, the science minister, has had a frantic time since returning to London on Tuesday from a motor racing trip to Japan. He has had to placate an army of angry scientists protesting against the threat to the independence and academic freedom of expert advisers, following the sacking of Professor David Nutt as chairman of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs a week ago.

Late this afternoon Drayson – one of nature’s optimists – told me he saw a positive way forward. “There’s a real opportunity for good to come out of this row,” he said.

The basis for hope, he said, is the “Statement of Principles for the Treatment of Independent Scientific Advice”, published by 27 of Britain’s most senior scientists earlier today.

The statement makes three points. Firstly, advising government should not reduce a scientist’s academic freedom to communicate publicly. Secondly, independent committees must be protected from political interference in their work. And lastly, committees’ reports should be published – and when the advice is rejected for reasons that go beyond the scientific evidence, the reasons should be described explicitly and publicly.

Lord Drayson

Lord Drayson

Drayson called the one-page statement “a helpful starting point”. Between now and Christmas he would be working with John Beddington, government chief scientist, and the scientists who drafted the statement to produce new guidelines for independent advice. These might include additional material from the government’s existing code of practice.

Although much of the statement reflects existing practice, there is one point that would require a change in Whitehall machinery. At present advisory committees have to work through their parent department’s press office when they release a report or want to contact the media – which might introduce political factors into their presentation.

The statement, reflecting a recent recommendation by the House of Commons science committee, says advisory groups should use an independent press office. Drayson agreed: “I think it would be a good idea if advisory committees had access to a body like the Science Media Centre.”

Clive Cookson

The most frightening moment of my journalistic career was reporting on the discovery in April 1996 of the link between BSE and CJD. Sensible scientists expressed fears that Britain could be in for a large epidemic of incurable brain disease as a result of people having eaten meat contaminated with mad cow disease.

Those fears persisted as the annual death toll from vCJD – the form of disease linked to BSE – rose to 28 in 2000. Thankfully that year turned out to be the peak.

The annual report of the National CJD Surveillance unit, published this week, shows that just one person died of vCJD last year compared with five in 2007.

The unit’s up-to-date monthly surveillance figures, also out this week, show two vCJD deaths in 2009 and four definite or probable vCJD patients still alive.

There will almost certainly be a few more vCJD cases over the next few years. All are of course horrific tragedies for the patients and their families.

The number may even pick up again if it turns out that prions (the infectious proteins responsible) have been spread through blood transfusions – or if people in different genetic groups, who have not yet succumbed, turn out to be susceptible but with much long incubation periods.

But we have been spared the terrible mind-destroying epidemic that seemed possible in the late 1990s.

Clive Cookson

Just back from a trip to Brussels to chair a symposium organised by Helmholtz Association, the German public research organisation, and colourfully entitled “From Blue Skies to Pots of Gold at the End of the Rainbow – Successful Collaborations Between Research and Industry”.

The gap between basic science and commercial application is a preoccupation of European policymakers, so the meeting attracted a good crowd to the venue (the Brussels mission of the German state of Baden-Württemberg).

The key word in the title turned out to be “successful”. The official speakers – mainly researchers and entrepreneurs from Germany but also with French and Belgian representatives – talked of how well technology was being transferred from bioscience labs to the market.

Some members of the audience challenged this rosy view. Someone from the EC research directorate said: “Usually when people come to Brussels they want something from us, but you’re saying that everything is fine.”

Jürgen Mlynek, president of the Helmholtz Association, insisted: “We are not in bad shape.” Basic research funding was increasing and entrepreneurial spirit growing, he said.

That provoked a German science journalist from Die Welt to exclaim: “I’m astonished.” Europe was lagging further and further behind the US and China, he said, and was suffering a brain drain of talent.

Professor Mlynek insisted again that his “unGerman” optimism was justified. On the brain drain, he commented: “The Bush years were perfect for Europe. Many young Germans who have studied in the US have come back to Europe. The conditions are just great.”

But even with the election of the Obama administration, more generous to research and more sympathetic in its political attitudes, a European brain drain to the US had not resumed, Prof Mlynek added.

We shall see whether his optimism is justified.

Clive Cookson

If you want to appreciate the speed with which China’s scientific output is growing, look at the latest Global Research Report from Thomson Reuters.

It shows that China’s output of research papers increased from 20,000 in 1998 to 112,000 in 2008 – when it exceeded the individual national output of Japan, Britain and Germany. China is now second only to the USA in its scientific output.

The number of papers from Chinese authors has doubled since 2004 and will exceed even the USA within the next decade, the study says.

Interestingly, American scientists play an important role in Chinese research. US-based authors contributed to nearly 9 per cent of papers from institutions in China between 2004 and 2008.

Though Chinese research is still concentrated in the physical sciences and technology, the life sciences are growing very fast.

“When Europe and the USA visit China they can only do so as equal partners,” the report concludes. “The question that may then be put to them is what they can bring to the partnership to make it worth China’s while to share.”

Clive Cookson

Alan Johnson, the UK home secretary, must have hoped that his sacking of David Nutt as chairman of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs would be a nice quick kill – sending a message that he was as tough on cannabis as his Tory shadow Chris Grayling.

Johnson failed to appreciate the extent of the anger the dismissal would arouse among Britain’s scientists. If he had had the courtesy – and prudence – to consult Lord Drayson (science minister) and John Beddington (government chief scientist) in advance, he would surely have proceeded differently.

The treatment of Nutt goes against everything Drayson and Beddington are trying to achieve in their laudable attempt to introduce independent scientific advice throughout government.

But some good may yet come out of the mess, if it forces government and scientists to come up with an improved system for providing expert advice.

The excellent Commons Science and Technology Committee made two suggestions in a recent report, which would improve the presentation of scientific advice. One is to give advisory groups access to an independent press office that would present their findings – rather than the parent department. The other idea is to require the chief scientist in each department to report on every instance where official expert advice was not followed.

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.