Science

Clive Cookson

Sad news in the Guardian of an impending crisis at London’s venerable Royal Institution.

Apparently the RI, which has been promoting science and carrying out research for more than 200 years at its splendid Mayfair headquarters, is gripped by internal dissent.

According to the Guardian, a review has concluded that the RI needs to save money as a result of the financial downturn – and this could force the departure of Susan Greenfield as director, unless she is willing to stay on in a reduced, possibly part-time role.

Greenfield, who is also a professor of neuropharmacology at Oxford University and a member of the House of Lords, has been a controversial figure during her 11 years as the head of the RI.

She has some powerful detractors in the world of science – and they are not all driven by sexism or jealousy, as Greenfield’s supporters sometimes imply.

Personally I admire her greatly, for the imaginative way she has overhauled the institution, raised its profile, undertaken a much-needed refurbishment and set up the extremely successfully Science Media Centre as an arm’s-length operation under the RI’s wing.

And here I must declare a (non-financial) interest, as a member of the Science Media Centre’s advisory board. But I have no inside knowledge of the RI row.

There is no doubt, however, that Greenfield at her best is an inspiring, articulate voice for science. We need more colourful figures like her, and I wish Susan – and the Royal Institution – well.

Clive Cookson

While the worlds of science and the environment concentrate on Copenhagen, it is good to see that the climate change negotiations are not the only focus of attention.

I receive an angry press release from Martin Salter, Labour MP for Reading West, entitled “Salter Takes Aim at the Beaver”.

Salter, Labour’s Parliamentary Angling spokesman, is furious with Natural England about the public conservation body’s “ludicrous” plans to re-introduce the European beaver, once a common animal in the British countryside but driven to extinction about 400 years ago.

On reading Natural England’s press release cited by Salter, I find that he has misrepresented its position. It is not actually planning to release the rodents but has sensibly carried out a feasibility study, in conjunction with the People’s Trust for Endangered Species, to prepare for the growing likelihood that someone will apply soon for a licence to reintroduce beavers. A limited release programme is already under way in Scotland.

The MP fulminates against Natural England’s statements that beavers can contribute positively to river and wetland management, including floodplain restoration.

“These must be two of the most absurd statements uttered by a publicly funded body in recent years,” he says. “Quite clearly Natural England envisages an army of highly literate beavers in council uniforms carefully consulting maps of flood risk sites before deciding which trees to chop down and where to build their dams ! In reality, these are four stone giant rodents with a genetic programme set to cause deforestation and flooding”

Salter also claims that beaver dams will prevent migratory fish running the rivers. So how does he think the fish managed to reach their spawning grounds in pre-industrial England before beavers were wiped out? A beaver dam is not a serious obstacle to a determined salmon or sea trout.

“If we really have to introduce endangered species, why do we not take the DNA of Tyrannosaurus Rex or the wolf and bring them back to Britain?” asks Salter ironically. Well, in fact there are plans to re-introduce wolves to the Scottish Highlands.

Wild boar have already re-introduced themselves in several parts of rural England – probably irrevocably. And personally I’d welcome back beavers, bears, wolves and lynx.

But I realise that in some quarters that view is as unwelcome as a climate sceptic at a Greenpeace meeting.


Clive Cookson

The University of East Anglia has found an appropriate chairman for the independent review into leaked emails from its Climatic Research Unit, which sceptics say show unacceptable manipulation and suppression of data that do not support the cause of manmade global warming.

Sir Muir Russell has a distinguished background as a Scottish civil servant, including acting as the first Permanent Secretary to the Scottish Executive following devolution in 1999. He retired this year as principal and vice-chancellor of Glasgow University.

Russell (left) has no known links with climate change research and should be acceptable to both sides of the increasingly polarised debate over global warming.

The terms of reference for the inquiry seem to cover the main allegations of misconduct made by sceptics, including data manipulation/suppression and failure to comply with Freedom of Information requests. Russell will be free to amend the university’s terms of reference and devise his own working methods to investigate fully any alleged misconduct by CRU academics.

UEA wants Russell to complete his work by the spring. That will leave several months in which sceptics will be able to make hay with the allegations.

We had an example today when Saudi Arabia’s chief climate negotiator, Mohammad Al-Sabban told BBC News that the CRU email issue would have a “huge impact” on next week’s UN climate summit.

“It appears from the details of the scandal that there is no relationship whatsoever between human activities and climate change,” said Al-Sabban – who obviously has a vested interest in arguing that the vast volumes of oil pumped from beneath the Saudi sands are not contributing to global warming.

Meanwhile the CRU keeps the flag flying on an emergency website that promises: “Normal service will be resumed as soon as possible.” Its home page defiantly displays a graph of global temperatures over the past 150 years, which climate scientists believe shows the impact of manmade warming.

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.

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.

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