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.

Clive Cookson

California continues to be a golden state for stem cell researchers.

Last night the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, the state stem cell agency, announced more than $250m worth of grants for 14 new projects. That included a $35m contribution from Canada’s Cancer Stem Cell Consortium and $8m (£5m) from the UK Medical Research Council for international collaborations.

Until now CIRM has focused on funding basic research and infrastructure. The new grants, in contrast, are for projects expected to start clinical trials within four years.

Just four of the projects involve human embryonic stem cells (hESCs), the most versatile – and controversial – type of stem cells. A fifth will use induced pluripotent stem cells or iPSCs, embryo-like cells made by treating the patient’s own skin cells with genes and chemicals.

Only one company is leading a project: Novocell plans to generate insulin-producing cells from hESCs, to implant into people with Type 1 diabetes.

All the other projects are led by universities – particularly University of California campuses and Stanford.

Two projects have British participation. Peter Coffey of University College London is working with the University of Southern California to treat age-related macular degeneration, a leading cause of blindness among the elderly, with retinal cells derived from hESCs.

Paresh Vyas of Oxford University is collaborating with Irving Weissman of Stanford on a quite different type of project. They plan to make antibodies that target leukaemia stem cells. Cancer stem cells, which are believed to give rise to tumours, have recently become a very popular subject for medical research.

“Scientists have talked for years about the need to find ways to speed the pace of discovery,” said Alan Trounson, CIRM’s Australian president. “By encouraging applicants to form teams composed of the best researchers from around the world we think CIRM will set a new standard for how translational research should be funded.”

Clive Cookson

CP Snow’s famous Rede Lecture on the “Two Cultures” has generated much talk during its 50th anniversary year – some in praise of the novelist for drawing attention to the gap between the arts and sciences, some attacking him.

Lord Mandelson, the UK business secretary, made CP Snow’s thesis the centrepiece of his Hinton Lecture at the Royal Academy of Engineering in London this week. “Fifty years on, we are still trying to bridge the gaps between pure and applied science, and between the worlds of science and technology and our wider society – at the level of understanding, and at the level of engagement,” he said.

The opposite reaction comes from my friend Ted Nield, editor of Geoscientist, in his magazine’s October issue. He expresses shock at ” the fondness in which this malign piece of twaddle [the Two Cultures lecture] is still held by otherwise intelligent people. Those who read the original lecture… will find it a curious experience. It is unbelievably dated, insular, parochial, badly argued, intellectually threadbare, and peppered with emotional leakage”

Nield adds: “I believe that what saves the Rede Lecture as a cultural icon is that nobody has read it.”

Well I read it so long ago that I am not going to express an opinion.

What I have been reading is another lecture delivered in 1959 – one of more personal interest to me. During the sad task of clearing the house of my late father Richard Cookson we came across his inaugural lecture as Professor of Chemistry at Southampton University, in a 22-page booklet priced at two shillings and sixpence.

My father’s elegantly argued lecture, entitled “The Study of Chemistry”, demonstrates how preoccupied people were 50 years ago about what he called the “supposed antithesis between science and the arts”. He quoted the views of several contemporaries, such as Raymond Mortimer and GM Trevelyan, but not CP Snow.

The Cookson lecture drew caricatures of the Uncivilised Scientist and the Ignorant Artist. “Both monstrosities are, to the extent that they really exist, a reproach both to their own intelligence and to the society that allowed them to develop (or, should I say, fail to develop?),” he said.

My father blamed the excessively early specialisation of the English educational system. His favoured solution was to add a year to many university courses, so that students could receive a wider education throughout their time at school and then have enough time at university to reach the reach the standard required for graduation.

That did not happen. All funds available to expand higher education in the 1960s were (understandably) devoted to opening new universities and increasing access, rather to enriching the education of the small minority who made it to university in the 1950s.

And the problem of scientific illiteracy among much of the graduate population remains as prevalent as ever.

Clive Cookson

Beware December 21, 2012.

That warning comes from Sky & Telescope, the renowned US astronomy magazine.

The cover story of its November issue offers astronomers a 2012 survival kit. Not because Sky & Telescope editors believe anything terrible will happen then but because they want to prepare their readers for the latest end-of-the-world scare.

“As we approach 2012, more and more professional and amateur astronomers are being asked about the doomsday scenario, so we want to help educate them, so they can inform the general public,” says Sky &
Telescope Editor in Chief Robert Naeye.

Every week, more people are coming to believe that all sorts of apocalyptic events will happen on 21/12/12 (or 12/21/12 in American notation). Continents will break apart and slide into the sea, a secret monster planet will smash into Earth out of nowhere, and so on.

As the magazine says, it’s all thanks to a spectacular blend of bad astronomy, bad Mayan ethnography, several popular books, and spreading internet hysteria. Confusingly, it all sounds like it’s based on science.

The hysteria will increase when the disaster movie “2012” opens next month. Its slogan is: “Find out the truth.”

An article by E. C. Krupp, director of the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles, explains that the doomsday predictions started with a misreading of the Mayan calendar.

If you believe what you hear, he writes, “the ancient Maya of Mexico and Guatemala kept a calendar that is about to roll up the red carpet of time, swing the solar system into transcendental alignment with the heart of the Milky Way, and turn Earth into a bowling pin for a rogue planet heading down our alley for a strike.”

Some modern readings of inscriptions at Mayan archaeological sites suggest that an important time cycle will end on the day they called and we know as December 21,2012, Krupp says. But there is little evidence that the Maya themselves associated this with Armageddon in the alarmist modern sense.

So if you hear any 2012 drivel, you know how to refute it.

Clive Cookson

University College London has awarded its first Venture Research Prize, in an initiative to promote radical new ideas free of the constraints of the conventional peer review process.

The winner, biochemist Nick Lane, was chosen by UCL provost Malcolm Grant, from 30 proposals in a process that had no deadlines or peer review and few rules.

Lane will receive £150,000 to free himself from all other duties for three years, to investigate the origins of  complex, multicellular “eukaryotic” life on Earth.

His proposal is broad in its sweep but elegantly written – as befits someone who is a popular science writer as well as an academic. (His latest book, Life Ascending: the 10 Great Inventions of Evolution, has just come out.)

At the project’s heart is chemiosmosis, the process by which cells generate energy. This is driven by mitochondria, tiny organelles that retain their own genes separately from the main genome in the cellular nucleus.

Lane says eukaryotic life (all plants, animals, fungi and other organisms whose cells have nuclei) arose just once on Earth, from the symbiotic union of bacteria to form a single cell.

Venture Research looks for projects that are open-ended, without obvious, immediate applications. Lane says his work could have repercussions in any field where interactions between cellular nucleus and mitochondria might play a driving role, from research into ageing to cloning.

Congratulations to him, Malcolm Grant and above all Don Braben, the long-term proponent of Venture Research who pioneered the award. The world of science and technology needs more like it.

Clive Cookson

The relentless process of making the financial associations of medical researchers more transparent has taken another important step forward.

The 12 journals that belong to the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (ICMJE) have agreed a common format for disclosing authors’ financial interests. They include the world’s best known medical publications such as The Lancet, New England Journal of Medicine, JAMA and BMJ.

The new disclosure form is introduced in a common editorial to be published in forthcoming issues of all ICMJE journals.

The three-page form, which will have to be submitted online by everyone whose name appears on an article, looks quite formidable. But the journals say the common format will actually make life easier for authors by eliminating the need to draw up separate forms for competing journals; they will be able to store it on their computers in partially completed form and just add information specific to the manuscript.

There are four sections. First, authors must state their assocations with any company or organisation that supported in any way the study or paper submitted for publication. Second – and this is the longest and most detailed section – they must specify any financial association with any entity that could be viewed as having an interest in the general area of the submitted manuscript (at any point during the three years before submission).

Thirdly, authors are asked about similar associations involving their spouse or children. And lastly they must disclose relevant non-financial associations.

To guide authors, ICMJE provides an illustrative form completed by Kermit The Frog, co-author of a paper entitled “The effects of Sunstop on the function of sunlight on frog skin slime”. For example, in section 4, Kermit declares: “Tadpole Inc. puts $10,000 per year in the college fund of each of my children and pays for a car that my wife drives on a daily basis.”

Though some authors may regard the exercise as excessively intrusive, it is unfortunately necessary if the scientific integrity of medical research is to be restored after recent scandals, such as the drafting by company-funded ghostwriters of articles that are passed off as the work of independent academics.

The journals will use the form for a six-month trial, before their editors meet in April to modify it if necessary in the light of experience.

Clive Cookson

Nasa put a brave face on its moon smash mission, LCross, declaring it a great success because the two spacecraft hit the target crater near the lunar south pole with all instruments working perfectly.

The scientists may have gained data galore to analyse for chemical signs of water on the moon but unfortunately, as far as the public is concerned, LCross was a damp squib.

Nasa created such a buzz about the $79m mission in advance that many thousands of people watching the climax on the internet, myself included, were disappointed.

We looked forward to a flash, a blast and a plume of moondust as the two-tonne Centaur rocket smashed into the permanently shaded rim of the Cabeus crater, where scientists believe ice may lurk close to the surface. We saw nothing, though our hosts on Nasa TV remained resolutely upbeat.

Two hours later staff at Nasa Ames Research Centre in California, the mission headquarters, were enthusing at a press conference.

“The LCross science instruments worked exceedingly well and returned a wealth of data that will greatly improve our understanding of our closest celestial neighbour,” said Anthony Colaprete, project scientist. “The team is excited to dive into the data.”

Mike Wargo, Nasa’s chief lunar scientist, added: “This is Nasa at its very best, with exploration and science working together to provide great information for both.”

There had been speculation that a really successful mission would provide proof of water in the “ejecta” – Nasa-speak for the debris thrown up by the impact – almost immediately.

Now mission scientists say it may be days, weeks or even moths before the team is ready to say how much water has been detected, if any. The presence of water – or rather ice – will make it easier to establish a manned lunar base.

There is a lesson here for Nasa’s still formidable PR machine. Don’t raise expectations excessively. And if you don’t meet public expectations, then have the grace to admit it, even if the mission is technically a triumph.

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.