Wednesday, 28 December 2011

I’ve never, ever seen anything quite like the film 'Mars Needs Moms'. Maybe I should have known in advance that  a Disney animation was unlikely to do a good job of portraying mothers in a realistic manner (their mother-prototype tends to be of the dead variety). But I was surprised by just how anti-feminist this film aimed at kids proved to be. Like, crazy anti-feminist! And also not particularly supportive of non-traditional family units.

The film’s version of Mars is run by a bunch of unfeeling female Martians, overseen by a shrewish, man-hating supervisor. The women are brilliant soldiers and engineers and have become so preoccupied with their careers that they have lost the ability to mother. With no space in their icy Martian hearts for maternal instinct, the aliens are forced to steal Earth moms to discipline their offspring. For me, this felt far too close to comfort to the real-life dilemna faced by many working mums—does leaving your kids at home while you nurture your career make you a terrible person? Is it really possible to be a good parent and hold down a successfull job?

As the evil Martian leader says, "We do not have time to raise hatchlings. And the males - haaaa haaa - they never helped. Always dancing and playing. That is why we must throw them away." And that's exactly what the women do—they throw all male babies in the trash, where they are raised on underground rubbish heaps by long-haired savages who could have been plucked straight out of Dances with Wolves. ‘Hairy Tribe guys’ as one character calls them.

The intended audience for this film is unlikely to read anything into the plot—I doubt they're going to rush out of the cinema believing that striving for gender equality will lead us down a slippery slope which is going to result in women losing their mumminess and men being chucked onto the trash heap. I don't know if this subtext was even deliberate on the part of the film makers. I'd like to think it was accidental. But children are already surrounded by enough harmful messages about the place of women in the world for Disney to add another to the mix.

And the resolution at the end of the film was positively icky. Turns out, the only good way to raise a kid needs a mommy and a daddy. Gay couples or single-parents, anyone? The film may have been attempting to show that kids do best when raised by a loving family in which the men and women can play an equal part, but it failed to follow this through. The main character’s human father was absent on a business trip for the whole film and it seemed that the whole caring, pastoral parental role was solely fulfilled by the mom. This wasn't dealt with in any way, or even mentioned in a negative manner. My problem with this is that today, even in a supposedly equal society, women are often still shouldered with the majority of childcare responsibilities. While I’ll admit it isn’t totally acceptable for a man to work all hours and miss out on raising his kids, it is a damn sight better-tolerated than when a woman does the same! We don't need a film to reinforce this old-fashioned attitude by portraying working mothers in a solely negative light while depicting stay-at-home mums as selfless, loving characters.

As a woman who values her career, I find it hard to reconcile my own ambitions with my potential future foray into parenthood. I rarely see women reach the top positions in science—a quick look around my department and nearly all of the principle investigators are men. The few female professors I have encountered have been widely referred to as ‘ball-busters’ and various other derogatory terms for an ambitious woman. Is it really the case that successful women have to be willing to walk over their peers to succeed? Or maybe there’s a bit of jealousy and unease triggered by a woman doing something that the majority of their sex fails to achieve.

So is the lack of women in the highest positions in science because it proves too difficult for them to balance family-life with having kids? It doesn’t appear to hinder men. So what’s the difference? I’ve been personally told enough times that mums should be at home with the baby, as if planning to have a career as well as a family makes me selfish. Staying at home with your kids is great if that’s what you want to do but it’s not for everyone. I personally believe a working mum can make up for less time at home by providing their children with a positive, female role-model. And I believe there are so few women in top positions that we should be celebrating any move towards equality instead of demonising the women who strive to reach the pinnacles of their chosen careers.

The media’s portrayal of women does nothing to help. Women are often reduced to sexualised pieces of meat or man-nagging bats, or elevated to the unattainable position of saintly mummy. What ever happened to judging a person based on their worth as an individual? Expecting women to conform to an unrealistic ideal of motherhood and demonising her when she fails does children no favours. It doesn’t promote family values and provide children with a nourishing loving environment, it teaches them that a mom is not an individual but a thing. It says that attempting to live your life the best way you know how is only acceptable if that path conforms to an old-fashioned version of a family in which a woman loses all identity upon having children.

Which is why films like Mars Needs Moms are bad. Anything with a message that makes assumptions about an entire gender surely can’t be teaching kids a good lesson?

Thursday, 22 December 2011

...that I wish I could tell my younger self:

1. It’s not going to be easy or, at least, it won’t feel easy. At some point, you’re probably going to start doubting everything about yourself, from your ability to generate high-quality data to whether that old lady on the bus moved seats because the stench of E. coli DH5a has somehow impregnated itself into your very soul. Of course, make it to post-doc status and you’ll look back on your PhD days with a mixture of nostalgia and nausea—how could you not have realised back then that pretty much everyone passes? I suppose it is a kind of rite of passage. Like the Satere-Mawe Tribe of the Amazon who endure the agonizing stings of hundreds of bullet ants to prove themselves men. Awesome.

2. Be prepared for failure. Things don’t always work in science. Even when you go it right. Don’t take it personally. Instead, add the phrase ‘optimising the procedure’ to your dictionary and whip it out any time someone asks why you have no results.

3. Don’t expect to know everything straight away. And it’s alright to admit that. By the end of the PhD, your little brain is going to be so full of esoteric information that it may have purged large portions of your childhood from your memory. But you can’t miss something you don’t even remember.

4. Take responsibility for your mistakes, and don’t try to come up with explanations until you know enough to not look like a twit. Occam’s razor—the simplest answer is usually the correct one. If your culture is contaminated, you’ve probably got your mucky little fingers too close to it. The autoclave is not the problem—it works for everyone else. If your digests haven’t worked, I can bet it’s because you’ve forgotten to add an enzyme. It’s highly unlikely that the air-conditioning is causing temperature fluctuations that set up convectional currents within the tube thus preventing access to the enzyme’s active site. Own your mistakes and then deal with them. No one else wants to sit through an hour-long lab meeting in which you describe how DNA from the air has floated into your ligation and caused mutations. Learn to do it right before you decide Science is the one who's wrong.

5. Don’t cry in the lab. How I love undergraduate project time. It always feels like a lottery—what if we get that student. Not the one who uses the last Miniprep column without ordering a new kit, or who leaves all the antibodies on their bench for several weeks. Or even the one who doesn’t actually turn up to the lab. I mean the student who (brace yourself) cries when their experiments fail. Scientists are not always known for their interpersonal skills so we have absolutely no idea how to react to a sobbing undergraduate who has just accidentally murdered ten billion bacteria by adding formaldehyde instead of glycerol to their culture. Once you get to PhD level, it’s time to get really good at learning to fix your own mistakes—the post-docs don’t need to know and we certainly don’t need to console you and tell you it’s all going to be OK. It’s not.

6. You’re not an undergraduate anymore so don’t act like one. That ‘I’m still a student’ safety net is great, don’t get me wrong. But now is the time to take responsibility for your own work and start acting like this is a real job. That means turning up on time when you need someone to help you, solving your own problems, and coming up with your own ideas. Asking lots of questions is one thing but you need to ask yourself if they generally take the form of: "I did [insert something dumb here] to my experiment, will it still work?" This is basically asking for reassurance in the same way that a freshly xmas-fattened person asks if they have put on weight: it's not something a co-worker wants to discuss with you and you don't want the real answer anyway. Just do it again. This brings me on to…

7. A post-doc is not your mother. Post-docs have their own jobs to do and supervising students in the lab is not top of their priorities. If you can’t find something in the freezer, what makes you think they will have any more luck? OK, yes, they will probably find it because they’ll do this amazing thing known as ‘looking properly’. Lost your lab book? Same answer. Expecting someone else to drop everything to do something for you that you could do yourself is kind of crappy.

8. If you think all your work is brilliant, it probably isn’t. Self-criticism is the best skill you can learn. No one likes an arrogant PhD student and we’re unlikely to be sympathetic when your viva examiners rip you to pieces. Mwah ha ha.

9. No one else is responsible for your PhD, but be thankful for any input you get. When it comes to the viva, you’re pretty much on your own. So what if your supervisor came up with the original project and the post-docs made suggestions for what controls to include? Your examiners won’t care if you can’t defend the work. ‘Because I was told to’ is never a valid answer. However, there’s a fine-line between taking control of your own project and walking on the faces of people who have helped you. Failing to acknowledge someone else for the work they’ve done for you doesn’t make you look more productive, it makes you look like an ass.

10. Cutting corners will come back to bite you. Think it doesn’t matter that some of your graphs have error bars the size of the moon? You think you’ll have so many brilliant results after 3-4 years that none of the setup will make it into the thesis? Think again. A PhD thesis is a weird document—you may well end up including all those negative results that would never make it into a paper. Attempting to use Photoshop to reconstitute the seventeen pieces of your protein gel into something that doesn’t look like cack is not going to end well. Just run the gel again to start with. Or don’t drop it in the sink in the first place.

11. You might be stressed but so is everyone else. Your PhD, your mini breakdown. I remember starting my PhD and thinking everything would be alright once I finished. All those post-docs had it easy, didn’t they? So why weren’t they helping me All The Time, and putting off their own experiments so I could finish mine? But, trust me, it doesn’t get less stressful. Everyone is scrabbling for a handhold on science’s crumbling cliff face and pounding your little fists in fury only loosens the rocks. 

12. 9-to-5 isn’t a bad thing. Have you noticed how working long hours often makes a person intolerably smug about their work ethic, regardless of how many results they actually have? Yes, getting into the lab at 8 am and staying past 10 pm is all well and good, but not if you spend half that time on Facebook or go insane from never seeing daylight. Having a life outside science is not something to be ashamed of and adequate organisational skills will always trump long hours. I personally like lists—see, I even turn my angy rants into lists. Bringing me on to...

13. Those bitter post-docs – you’re probably going to be one of them. If I could go back in time and talk to my 22-year-old self, I would warn them that science is not a very reliable career path. It's all short-term contracts and far more post-docs than there are permanent positions. Hard work is all well and good, but there is sometimes a fair amount of luck involved and failing to progress past a couple of post-doc positions is not always a comment on someone’s abilities and intelligence. A backup plan is always a good idea.

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

On your marks, get set…and polymerise your actin microfilaments.

The results of the first ever World Cell Race are in and crawling into first place was a fetal bone marrow stem cell with a blistering top speed of 5.2 microns per minute. Fifty labs from around the world fielded athletes, who competed over a distance of 400 microns on glass slides coated with strips of a grippy substance called fibronectin—the cell equivalent of a running track.

Behind the fun, however, is a serious research topic: investigating how cells move with the aim of better understanding cancer metastasis and embryo development.

Moving is not a particularly simple task when you're a single cell. It's through an awe-inspiring demonstration of self-organisation that the numerous signalling pathways and molecular building blocks work together to generate movement. But a complete understanding of the complex interactions involved remains a huge challenge in cell biology. 

The Koch Institute Galleries: A Fibroblast Reaches Out, Version #2

The first step involves the cell reaching out a foot-like structure (image above) and is followed by retraction of the tail. The cell's scaffolding network, shown in red and green, is integral to this process. Long filaments of a protein called actin run the length of the cell and provide the mechanical force to push the membrane outwards. These filaments are anchored to the substrate on which the cells move (in the cell race, this was the fibronectin). New actin building blocks are added to the front of these filaments at the same rate as the rear ends fall apart. As the actin filaments grow in a treadmill-like process, adhesions between the filaments and the substrate are constantly formed at the front of the cell and released at the rear, causing the cell body to roll forwards around the actin network.

The 'clutch' shown in the image acts to couple the actin filaments to the subtrate on which the cell is crawling. Addition of actin monomers to the front of the filament pushes the membrane forwards while dissociation of the filament at the rear of the cell allows the tail to retract. Image source

One of the unanswered questions, however, is what causes the retraction of the rear of the cells. A paper recently published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Science sought to investigate this using a type of fish epithelial cell called a keratocyte (which incidentally placed highly in the World Cell Race). These cells can detach fragments lacking many organelles including a nucleus while still maintaining the ability to move, providing scientists with a simple model for looking at motility.

The key finding was that the cell’s membrane basically acts as an inflexible bag, stretched taut by the actin network. The leading edge of the cell is pushed forwards by the actin filaments while, at the rear, the network is weakened by the disassembly process and is crushed by the membrane tension, leading to retraction. In this way, membrane tension couples protrusion at the front with retraction at the rear.

And the paper includes some pretty videos too (link):

A better understanding of how cells move has a particular importance to developing new anti-cancer drugs. The transition of cancer cells to metastasis, where they spread to other parts of the body, is dependant on remodelling of the actin network. Therefore, drugs which interfere with the actin cytoskeleton have a huge potential for the future treatment of advanced forms of cancer.

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

Awaking in the middle of the night, every tiny sound—a creaking floorboard, the drip of a tap, the quiet breathing of the murderer hiding in the wardrobe—can appear magnified. Yet, during the day, when background noise is higher, we don’t notice these same sounds. It’s not that they aren’t there, or even that other sounds are drowning them out, but rather that our sense of hearing calibrates itself to the background levels of noise. In the dead-silence of the night, our ears are far more sensitive to a tiny increase in sound which we would normally ignore against the background of humming computer fans, chatting work colleagues, or the perpetual London-traffic jams outside the window.

All of our senses have this in common: take climbing into a scalding bath which, moments later, feels warm and comforting, or how garlic breath is never noticeable to its owner. Even advertisers have picked up on the idea of ‘sensory adaptation’ by trying to sell us those little plug-in air fresheners that change smell every few days so we never get a chance to get used to them and our noses are perpetually assaulted by a miasma of floral fragrance. While sensory adaptation in humans has been described for more than a century, the ability of single-celled organisms to perform a similar feat is a relatively new finding. However, a group of researchers at the FOM Institute for Atomic and Molecular Physics and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have been investigating sensory adaptation in Escherichia coli and recently published their finding in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Electron micrograph of microbial cell possessing multiple flagella, Yutaka Tsutsumi
Free-swimming bacteria are propelled by long, whip-like structures called flagella. When the motor controlling the flagella is rotated in a counter-clockwise direction, the flagella bunch together to form a corkscrew that propels the cell forwards. These periods of smooth-swimming are broken up by short bursts of tumbling when the motor is rotated in a clockwise direction, resulting in the flagella turning in opposing directions to re-orientate the bacteria. By varying the time spent swimming and the frequency of tumbles, the cell can effectively direct what is essentially a random process.

The way in which bacteria direct their movement to search out food or to move away from poisons relies on a chemical sensing system in a process known as chemotaxis. Being around two micrometres in length, bacteria act as point-sensors—they simply aren’t long enough to determine how a gradient differs along their length. Instead, they move up or down a gradient by comparing one measurement—a snapshot of the surrounding environment—with the conditions experienced moments earlier. This ability to sense the surroundings from moment to moment and respond accordingly relies on a surprisingly simple system.

The concentration of an attractant is detected by a membrane-bound receptor that transmits this information to the motor controlling the flagella. When no attractant is bound by the receptor, a protein called CheY is activated. In its active state, CheY can interact with the motor, causing it to rotate in a clockwise direction and the cell tumbles. However, upon attractant binding by the receptor, CheY is switched off and the motor turns in a counter-clockwise direction meaning that the cell swims smoothly. If the cell continues to experience increasing concentrations of an attractant, its periods of smooth-swimming become longer. But, if the concentration decreases, CheY again binds the motor and causes the cell to tumble in the hope that it will re-orientate the cell to swim in the right direction.

While this system has already been studied in some detail, the work described in the PNAS paper was interesting because it demonstrated that it is not the magnitude of the change in concentration that matters to the bacteria, but the fold-change. Regardless of the starting concentration, cells respond to a ten-fold increase in attractant in the same manner and this observation holds true over a 10,000-fold range of background concentrations.

The significance of this could have something to do with the extreme variations in nutrient concentrations experienced by bacteria in its natural environment. For example, nutrient patches in the ocean are few and far between and can vary in intensity. If a bacterium was permanently calibrated to search out very high concentrations of nutrient, it could fail to detect a lower concentration. Reaching any source of nutrition, even a small one, could mean the difference between life and death for a cell. Bacteria, it seems, cannot afford to be picky.

How a cell responds to small changes in concentration when there is little attractant present but doesn’t place as much significance on a change of the same magnitude when in a high concentration environment has been difficult to tease apart in the past. One of the difficulties is that, being extremely small, cells are difficult to investigate on the single-cell level. So, traditionally, microbiologists have studied large populations of cells. However, the subtle nuances of a given process can be lost among the noise associated with a large-scale experiment. A technique used in this study, however, partially circumvented this issue.

Microfluidic chemostat - Frederick Balagaddé, California Institute of Technology
Microfluidics involves the use of a miniaturized continuous culture device to investigate tiny volumes under strictly controlled conditions. Generally comprised of a microchannel attached to what looks like a computer chip, a microfluidics system works on an extremely small scale: between 10-9 and 10-18 litres, corresponding to as little as 100 cells. The size of the channel allows automated microscopy by maintaining the cells in a single focal plane. In addition, by labelling the bacteria with either fluorescence of luminescence, the gene expression of single cells can be investigated.

Compared to a large scale chemostat, microfluidics has a number of advantages. One of these is that cells in a microfluidics system tend to be more homogenous-there is less cell to cell variation. In a chemostat, bacteria has a tendency to cling to the walls to form what is known as a biofilm and these surface-attached cells can form a significant proportion of the population within the chemostat. The various sub-populations of cells can skew the results and make subtle changes difficult to elucidate. In addition, chemostats require the cells to undergo numerous divisions which acts to select for spontaneous mutations which lend a fitness advantage. Microfluidics, however, can get past these problems. By looking at very small numbers of cells on a single-cell level, and by reducing the number of cell divisions, even extremely delicate oscillations can be detected. 

The next steps in this area of research is to determine the mechanisms used by the bacterium to adapt to the varying concentrations. Perhaps E. coli possesses more than one receptor for a given attractant, each sensing a different range of concentrations. Or a single receptor may be recalibrated depending on background levels. Microfluidics represents a useful method to study this phenomena further, particularly because it has the potential for investigating the response to a number of opposing attractant and repellant gradients, better representing the environment experienced by bacteria in real life. Not only does this have implications for the understanding of chemotaxis, but could shed light on the mechanisms used by pathogenic bacteria to colonise their hosts.

Link to original article:

Thursday, 8 December 2011

Babies are notoriously selfish creatures - either they're asleep, happy, or they're screaming. It isn't until the age of two that children begin to realise that other people have their owns wants and needs.

However, a recent study from researchers at Durham University has demonstrated that infants as young as six-months old already show emotional responses to the expressions of others, with a bias towards stronger reactions to negative emotions. This work has implications for our understanding of the development of empathy.

Empathy is the capacity to recognise another’s feelings, effectively allowing us to put ourselves in someone else’s mental shoes. This ability is essential for successful interactions with others, as demonstrated by a number of disorders in which a person is unable to sense or reciprocate the emotions of others. For example, it is thought that some of the neural processes required for empathy are dysfunctional in psychopaths and there is a large body of on-going work relating to the relationship between empathy, or lack of, and autism spectrum disorders.

The development of empathy, however, is a poorly understood area. While it has been observed that infants can discriminate between different emotional expressions and respond with matching emotions, it is unknown whether this is a simple emotional response or if mimicry of a particularly expression is involved. The latter would represent an unconscious mechanism involved in the development of empathy.

An interesting observation is that, in both children and adults, there is a bias towards responses to negative emotions. This manifests in, for example, a larger increase in brain activity in response to an angry voice than to a happy voice. In simplistic terms, this is explainable by the association between negative emotions and a potential threat—an early warning sign that the cause of another’s unhappiness may spread to others in the vicinity. In comparison, less is known about the sensing of positive emotions by infants.

In the study published in PLoS One, researchers used pupil dilation as a measure of an infant’s response to a video recording of various emotional expressions. Pupil size is commonly used as a measure of arousal—this can be in the positive sense, such as when an infant is shown a photograph of its mother, or negative, such as in the case of children and adults which both show an increase in pupil diameter upon witnessing harm occurring to another person.

The researchers found that infants respond to both positive and negative emotions at 6 and 12-months of age. However, a previous hypothesis that the bias towards negativity occurs at the end of the first year was only partially supported. From the data, it appeared that this bias was already present in the 6-month-olds. Studies such as this pave the way towards a better understanding of the development of empathy in humans and have implications for the understanding of early childhood happiness.

Image by: Doreen Dotto ©2006.

Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Scientific data is more freely available than ever. But does the push for openness help or hinder science?

A panel debate at Imperial College London on 6th December sought to answer this question, launching the latest edition of Index on Censorship magazine—a special issue focussing on science, transparency and free speech. Chaired by Jo Glanville, editor of Index on Censorship, the lively debate featured Sir Mark Walport, director of the Wellcome Trust; George Monbiot, Guardian columnist; Baroness Onora O’Neill, ethics and political philosophy writer and House of Lords crossbencher, and Professor David Colquhoun, pharmacology professor and anti-pseudo-science champion. 

Science, much to its shock, has found itself at the centre of the free speech debate over the past few years. The libel actions against scientists and journalists, such as Richard Dawkins and Simon Singh, pitted the scientific community firmly on one side of the free speech debate, while the recent 'climategate’ controversy at the University of East Anglia raised questions about how the Freedom of Information act can be used to force the scientific community to reveal its data to the general public. The latter led to the question of whether we need amendments to the act to protect academic research.

While all of the panel agreed that openness in science was vital for progress—allowing others to check and challenge data, or have access to, for example, safety data for drugs—there were some disagreements on what form openness with the public should take. A recent proposed amendment to the Freedom of Information Act states that ‘the public authority must so far as reasonably practicable provide the information in a reusable electronic form’. It was this point which Baroness O’Neill focussed on to kick of the debate. She was keen for clarification on who it is the data in question should be reusable by—adequately technically competent individuals or only those with access to the custom-made programs used to compile the data? She made the point that by simply putting data into the public domain, scientists do not need to communicate with anyone. Rather, releasing huge amounts of sometimes incomprehensible data is a form of ‘quasi-communication’ of no benefit to anyone.

This was something which George Monbiot leapt upon, finding himself at the receiving end of Baroness O’Neill’s impassioned irritation. His question to her was who should decide whether the recipient was technically competent and at what level technical competence was to be determined? He was of the belief that raw data should be available to anyone so as to not raise suspicions as to the motives of the scientific community. This was further discussed by the other panellists, with Sir Mark Walport describing raw data as being a bit like raw sewage—harmful if incorrectly applied. He also pointed out that while putting out tonnes and tonnes of garbage and allowing people to get on with it is one option, the cost of this could be astronomical. Talking about the Wellcome Trust which he heads, he estimated that 1/10 of its research budget goes on free access to data published as a result of their grants to scientists. It was Baroness O’Neill who made the point that scientists need a publication schedule decided in advance and it needs to be included in their budget for the work in question.

The costs involved in accessing published scientific papers was touched upon, with George Monbiot calling academic publishers ‘economic parasites’—how are members of the public and journalists to read primary sources to formulate their opinions on research if it costs around £40 to access a paper? His comment that publishers were using others people’s hard work to make ridiculous profits raised the first round of applause from the audience. He pointed out that while scientists may well try to encourage others to ‘believe the evidence’ but this is difficult when accessing the evidence in question is extremely expensive to access and when science has become so specialised that a non-expert has to take the conclusions of a piece of research on trust.

The need to make a profit on, for example, drugs, raised some questions among the panel. Mark Walport pointed out that our economy is dependent on the Pharma industry and we need them for safe, available drugs. So expecting them to be completely transparent with their own data is difficult, even when they are benefitting from public data to make a profit. As he put it, ‘profits is OK, profiteering is not’. But what about the need for public scientists to maintain a competitive advantage over their rivals? What if the data was released to the entire world including corporations in jurisdictions that may not respect the licences governing use of the data? David Colquhoun touched on one of Baroness O’Neill’s question on when data should be released, discussing the ramifications of releasing data when all of the usefulness has not been extracted from it, allowing others to reap the benefits. It seemed to be the general consensus of the panel was that data should not be released until it was fully compiled rather than in dribs and drabs, although Colquhoun amusingly stated he was perfectly happy for anyone to see every draft and email involved in his own work.

Colquhoun’s own openness with his work was an interesting alternative to the image of a scientist often portrayed in the media as someone with their own motives, keeping secrets from the general public. But, unfortunately, it is clear that Colquhoun is not the absolute model for all scientists. He pointed out that clinical medicine is an area where a large amount of corruption has been seen, stating that this area is ‘not inherently corrupt, there is just more money to corrupt with.’ He mentioned the problems with the current rules on clinical trials where—although all trials have to registered, the results do not have to be published. This results in negative results staying hidden and failing to add to the scientific knowledge. 17% of cancer trials are not published, with university managers caring more about reputation than the truth. He was keen for a change in the current scientific culture to remove some of the pressure to publish; something which he believes is leading to a generation of ‘stiff scientists’. A more open dialogue between scientists and the public is perhaps required rather than the ‘cynical compliance’ described by Baroness O’Neill who did then go on to say that, while serious scientists do try to be open, some fields are still secretive. A question from the audience touched on an area where some secrecy is required—research involving personal data. While this sort of data is invaluable for compiling information on, for example, drug side-effects, stripping anything that allows an individual to be identified from data is difficult and expensive but necessary if the data is to be released.

Referring to ‘climategate’, George Monbiot described the scientific community as being completely unprepared for the resulting media onslaught. This disagreement focused around sceptic David Holland’s Freedom of Information act requests for access to climate data compiled by scientists, and blew up following the leaking of emails sent between the scientists in question. While Monbiot placed 95% of the blame for the clash between media and science on the shoulders of the media, he did feel that the scientific community had partially contributed to the hacking by giving the impression it had something to hide by not acting in an open manner.

The overall conclusions appeared to be that, while openness is vital and release of data into the public environment is important, the form that this data takes and who is able to use it is going to require further discussion. The Genome sequencing project was mentioned as an example of where the scientific community has done well at communicating their results with the public rather than simply releasing reams of raw data that no one else can understand. But the majority of the panel did agree that, should someone want the raw data, scientists should be ready to provide it. However, a change in scientific culture was mentioned on several occasions and it seems that, without a greater willingness of the scientific community to make their results—positive and negative—available to all, the current mistrust of science by some of the media and public will remain.

Image from: