Science

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.”

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

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 13.0.0.0.0 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.

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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