Category Archives: science

Science+Europe=accuracy fail

I went to a very interesting event about science journalism in the UK last year at the Royal Institution which I blogged about about the time. One of my conclusions was that many of the issues faced by science journalism reflect very closely issues faced on coverage of European issues. Science isn’t covered well by the general press. Neither is Europe, on the whole. So when you put the two together, as the Daily Mail did this morning, then you can imagine what comes out.

Needless to say, the Daily Mail over-simplified, if not to say ridiculed, the real situation. The project has found ways to improve fruit storage, reduce waste, cut pesticide use and  encourage children to eat fruit instead of sweets. These are important things. An interesting fact: The EU produced 7.7 million tonnes of eating apples in 2008.  So if research like this can cut costs so that apple prices fall by just one penny per kilo that will mean annual savings for consumers of £64 million – or more than five times the cost of the project. Never mind the health benefits of reduced pesticide use, and the suffering caused by allergies (I know alot about that one!) This was the first project to quantify the cholesterol-reducing properties of apples, which can have a direct effect in reducing medicines taken – saving health services money.

Of course, we could have told the Mail all of this if they had bothered to ask us…


Filed under Euromyths, science


Was at a great event last night – a debate between Science Minister Lord Drayson and Ben Goldacre, of Bad Science fame, at the Royal Institution. The Times Higher carried it as a webcast and it should be online for a while. It was great for several reasons:

Firstly, it was about  the quality of science reporting, an issues I’ve had an interest in since 2004 and which was an important part of my Eisenhower Fellowship. I think both made some good valid points and both didn’t. The problem was that they were talking about apples and oranges. The debate came about as a result of comments that Lord Drayson made about British science reporting being the best in the world, which Ben Goldacre challenged him on. But when the minister starts by saying “I’m of course talking about specialist science reporting” that does kind of change the remit of the debate, because Ben’s point about the problems of reporting science issues is that it isn’t always the science people doing it. There was a very (ahem) spirited defence from Fiona Fox of the Science Media Centre at the Royal Institution, and the audience certainly had some distinguished science writers there (I spotted Clive Cookson of the FT and Simon Singh was pointed out at one point). But that isn’t really where the problem (such as it is) lies.

The second fascinating issue was that this was the first truly social media event I have ever been at. The challenge to hold the debate was issued over Twitter. I, like others, heard about it through Ben’s twitter feed, and tickets sold out in 90 minutes (“the science equivalent of a Take That concert” according to Simon Mayo who was really good in the chair). So many people were tweeting about it that it (#scidebate) trended as a twitter topic (leading to a deluge of spammy tweets!).

The third issue for me was for most of the debate, you could have taken the word science, replaced it with Europe and the arguments would have been the same. But would we ever sell the tickets in 90 minutes?!

Anyway, if you are in anyway interested in science reporting, or social media as a communication tool, I recommend looking more closely at the event.


Filed under Media, science

Deeper Underground

There’s been a lot on the airwaves today about the announcement of more support to carbon capture and storage. It’s an issue I follow with interest, from my Science and Research days. I was quite surprised to hear one of the opponents today saying that there’s only one demonstration plant at the moment, in Germany, as I remember doing a press release in 2006 about a plant in Denmark, which was supported by European research programmes. We also set up the Zero Emission Fossil Fuel Power Plant Technology Platform, which has to develop a strategic vision for carbon capture and identify the research needed to make the vision reality.  But I think all the time I was working on research, my favourite carbon capture discussion (as well as the momst amazing visit I got to take part in) was when we went to Svalbard. The place was astonishing, not least for a budding geologist – look at the picture below for a textbook depiction of a glacier valley, plus there’s one I’ve added just because it was taken at around midnight!

Anyway, the interesting part is that they are really thinking about using carbon capture there. The original industry that drove the islands was coal-mining, so the repositories are there. Another element that hasn’t made the coverage today is that hydrogen is a by-product of the process of carbon capture. So the idea of the guy we spoke to there was that the process of capturing the carbon would produce enough hydrogen to power the vehicles that are used in Longyearbyen, Ny Alesund and the few other settlements. It obviously wasn’t just pie in the sky because I found details of this workshop about the issue on the net.

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Filed under science, UK politics

Girls on film

My feet aren’t on the ground today, because of yesterday’s brush with celebrity – I was at a party with Simon Le Bon!! I was at the relaunch of the Whitechapel Gallery last night, because it is part-funded with European money and we were paying for the reception. It was already amazing being at the world premiere of Michael Nyman’s new piece, played by…Michael Nyman. Then we went in to dinner. I was sat with the managing director of the gallery (a tractor boy, incidentally!) and we were talking about music and which bands we liked. He said have you seen Duran Duran, I said, yes in Antwerp, he said no I mean have you seen them over there…and there they were. I had a direct view across at Nick Rhodes (looking better than he ever did in the 80s) and then a bit later saw Simon (of whom the same is, alas, not true). Unfortunately my Britishness stopped me from rushing up and saying hello, but I did have fun texting all my gal pals to let them know. Every text back started “Oh. My. God”. The event itself was lovely, the Gallery is going to be great and it was fun rubbing shoulders, albeit for one night, with the glitterati.

Stumbled across this great science story via a random link to my blog. Maybe if there had been more custard in my science lessons I’d be in a lab not an office right now. Though I do remember making rhubarb wine in one …


Filed under Culture, science

We are(n’t) scientists

The Commission has put out a survey about young people and science. There’s some pretty encouraging messages about optimism as to how science can improve things, but, particularly for the UK, some pretty scary ones about interest in science. The UK figures show that young Britons are among the least likely in Europe to consider studying science subjects. When asked if they were considering studying science subjects, Britons gave a probable or definite no to natural science (86%), engineering (76%), maths (76%) and social sciences/humanities (66%). This is really worrying for the UK, which considers itself a power-house of European science, a fact borne out by the numbers of European Research Council grant-winners that are based at UK universities, even if they are from elsewhere. But we can’t rely on foreign expertise to drive our innovation. Where are the scientists of the future going to come from? Where are the science teachers of the next generation going to come from? I suppose it’s linked to the story on Today yesterday (see under 7.42) about how children want to “be a celebrity” as a career choice, without necessarily having done something to be famous for. Things like X-Factor are one thing – at least the winners can do something, and if you look at Leona Lewis’ past you can see that she and her family made sacrifices for her to pursue her singing dream. But anyone from Big Brother? People famous because of their parent? Because of who they go out with? Doesn’t seem something to aspire to really.

This was an issue I was looking at a lot when I was in the US earlier this year, and if you’re interested, there are some great examples of good practice on my Eisenhower Fellowship blog.

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Filed under science, Youth

First item on the 6 O’Clock News

Blimey, we’re top story on the BBC tonight! They decided to run our economic forecast as the top story, more because it suggests a UK recession than anything else I would suspect, but still pretty important. I don’t think I’ve ever seen EbS footage used by the BBC. Usually they insist on having their own shots done, and indeed won’t show on Tuesday anything they showed on Monday. I remember when I was covering trade during the summer of the “bra wars” a crew came every day, even when I made it very clear that I had nothing new to say compared to the day before. Strange… It was one of the fun things about doing the job I did in Brussels, and now: seeing how differently media operate across Europe. As I said, the British media needed fresh footage, if not fresh ideas; the swedes and French love their cutaways and you spend as long walking away from and towards the camera as you di giving the interview. A crew from pressTV the other day were very interested in filming my hands and they ended up in the final interview. Maybe I should have drawn a face on them like we did when we were kids and they could have given the interview instead!

I’ve also loved that the biggest global story of the day has been the switching on of the Large Hadron Collider. Science story? Yep. Showing the value of international collaboration? Yep. Risk of world ending? Hmmm… They even had a female scientist talking about it in the Beeb (though from the footage I saw of the control room, they must have had quite a time finding one).

Can’t get over the news about Lance Armstrong taking up cycling again.  I mean, why? He’s already won the world’s biggest cycle race so many times, what does he have to prove? Still, I’m hoping the Tour will go past my house in France again soon, and it would be great to see him, even if they do pass in a blur and whirr of wheels. I love the thought of sitting up on my little hillside sipping G&Ts while they whizz past!

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Filed under Media, science, Sports

Busy bees

Is life (or rather work) just much better when you’re busy? After a surprisingly slow start to the week, things got going mid-week – kind of feels like we’re hitting about 40 on the speedo and accelerating. Quite a few newspapers and media organisations have been in touch as they’re interested in what’s going to be forthcoming from the Commission in the next few months, which is encouraging – they are coming to us! We’ve got a Commissioner over at the beginning of next week, Leonard Orban, who deals with multilingualism and he will be talking about the problems I mentioned a few weeks ago, that Brits are losing out in terms of jobs and business because of their lack of language skills. I’ve had to start taking on some of the responsibilities of a head of section (eek…) in terms of planning our priorities and budgets for 2009 – new stuff for me, but one of the reasons I came here, after all, so I just have to suck it up.

Went to the Museum of London last night for their Late night opening which was great fun (you’ll remember I won a competition and they played my music choices during the evening, which was fun for me, but probably not for the friend I was there with as I kept saying “this is one of mine”!) It was really well organised, with sort of treasure hunt round the musuem and them some fun stuff like making plasticine models of the exhibits. B (the friend) continued the winning theme with her model of a fish amulet, walking away with a book and some other goodies from the shop. The place itself was pretty unprepossessing from the outside, but certainly worth a wander around if you’re in the vicinity.

The BBC is running a piece tonight on efforts to develop a universal flu vaccine. We’ve been financing research on this at European level since 2006 – we did a press briefing in 2007, which was very well attended and was really interesting. I’m not sure whether the projects are linked or not, but it’s got to be good news if we can move more quickly towards such a vaccine. Speaking as someone who can’t have the flu vaccine because I’ve been allergic to eggs…

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Filed under Management, Media, Personal, science

Making the most of our research funding

More science news – you didn’t know this was a science blog, did you…! We’ve made an announcement today about a pilot project to make the results of EU-funded research more available. Basically research groups that receive money from the EU’s Research Framework Programme will be required to put any articles or reports into a depository, which should then be openly available after an embargo of 6 to 12 months, depending on the research area. This embargo gives time for the results to be published in peer-reviewed journals, but ensures that potentially useful information is not then locked away where people who could really use it don’t have access to it. This is a delicate area, where you have many interests vying – the publishers want to maintain their revenue streams, the scientists want to make sure the peer-review system remains credible, the Commisson wants to make sure that tax-payers ultimately see a return on the public investment in science. By having varying embargo periods during this pilot phase, we can gauge just what the effect is on journals and scientists alike, and by opening up, we hope that smaller businesses that could build on information coming out of research but that they can’t afford to access when it’s only available through specialist journals. It’s an issue we’ve been looking at for a while, with a policy paper brought out last year, after a lot of discussion with people across the spectrum, and looking at examples of open access, such as the Wellcome Trust.

Was out last night at the Royal Festival Hall with the Stitch and Bitch London crowd. Really fun night – it’s amazing how empowering it is doing something a little strange in public with lots of people… Going to eat Southern Indian food in Tooting tonight with The Housemate – if anyone has any suggestions of the best place to go, I’d love to hear them.

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Filed under Living in London, Personal, science