#esof2012 closes, wishing for an algorithm to predict Irish weather

July 16, 2012

T. V. Padma

T. V. Padma
South Asia regional coordinator, SciDev.Net

Whichever way you look at it, there has been a delightful touch to some aspects of the Dublin ESOF, be it the river dance and poetry at the opening ceremony, or the informal closing ceremony in the foyer, with food and drinks being passed around. None of the stiff, formal speeches, and plenty of humour.

But as the conference closed, scientists did point out some of the unfinished European science agenda — an algorithm to predict the Irish weather.

Irish summer (Flickr/final gather)

There were stimulating science sessions, from astronomy and particle physics to genomics and personalized medicine; and some serious policy discussion, some of which will be discussed in our news reports this week.

The classic disconnect between promoters of and protesters against technology was on show in Dublin — while a session inside the venue tried to convince delegates about the virtues of shale gas fracking, there was demonstration outside.  Some things remain the same.

There were other vignettes in between. My pick is the session with US president Barrack Obama’s pastry chef Bill Yosses, who demonstrated the art of making a perfect chocolate mousse using just chocolate and hot water, and no egg white. And he had a recipe for a very quick pomelo sorbet — using liquid nitrogen … err… to make it freeze, not as an ingredient.

The same session saw some discussion by Herve This from AgroParisTech, France, on the science behind making soufflés rise. (And for the grumblers wanting to know where the science is, it’s there — pressure, volume, temperature that make the soufflé rise.)

The field is called ‘molecular gastronomy’. To cut a long story short, there is some precision science behind why our mothers and grandmothers insist some things should be cooked in a particular way.  They will have the last laugh as I end the conference blog with this story from Ireland.

And a thanks to the Robert Bosch Stiftung Foundation for its support to Asian journalists to report from ESOF.

This blog post is part of our ESOF 2012 blog which takes place 11-15 July, 2012. To read news and analysis on themes related to the conference please visit our website.

Chances of Einstein getting hired today as as a freelancer, blogger, entrepreneur bright

July 15, 2012

T. V. Padma

T. V. Padma
South Asia regional coordinator, SciDev.Net

ESOF takes time off to discuss Einstein coping with the pressures of modern-day science careers. In 2010, a session wondered whether Einstein would have been on Facebook or Twitter (Relativity is so cool…wonder why some don’t get it. Hashtag??)

This year, a session addressed his chances of getting hired as an entrepreneur or science communicator, skills needed for scientists these days. The point is that relativity, and energy and mass equations are all very well,  but how do you sell them as a business idea or communicate it to the public, for a promotion?

Barbara Diehl, from University of Oxford’s centre for entrepreneurship and innovation, advised young scientists to acquire some basics in business skills – understand business jargon, marketing and product development, basics of financing such as accounting, intellectual property rights, and networking skills.

Please do not underestimate the networking skills – you need to wear your badge on the right hand side, shake hands firmly, carry your business card, look after your appearance and breath, and so on.

Einstein was interested in communicating science, an ESOF session heard. Photo credit: Wikipedia.org

I asked her how Eisntein would have rated against this formidable list. Given that he left his job as a patents clerk to embark on science, he probably had entrepreneurial skills, daring to follow up and sell his ideas, she said.

Diane Scherzler, a science journalist, explained to the audience on why and how writing a research paper on a complicated subject, which makes sense to a few peers but no one else, is different from writing a science news story on an unfamiliar topic, which should make sense to readers equally unfamiliar with the topic.

So how would have Einstein fared on that front? Here is Diane’s verdict. To him it was highly important to communicate with the public, and so a plus point. He was interested in many aspects of science, as a science journalist ought to be, and so another plus.

But as Diane admitted, “I have my doubts if this (science journalism) would have interested him”.  But if he did veer towards it, he would “perhaps been a freelancer for a speciality international journal, or maybe a blogger”.

That feels good … and motivates me to keep blogging from more conferences, imagining Einstein in the  media room with the laptop and cup of coffee that keeps us hacks going.

This blog post is part of our ESOF 2012 blog which takes place 11-15 July, 2012. To read news and analysis on themes related to the conference please visit our website.

Science galleries go global

July 15, 2012

Marielba Nuñez
Freelance journalist from Venezuela, SciDev.Net

A person in a dark room prepares himself for a journey back into time, using memories of the city he lives in. He re-creates scenes of his city using interactive slides available in a box.  The slides represent various features of  the city.

In an adjoining room, a couple of graffiti suddenly turn into three-dimensional sculptures, developing wings to fly around in the exhibition hall.

The  two are among several exhibits at a science gallery in Dublin’s Trinity College,  set up in February 2008.

The science gallery at Dublin’s Trinity College is proving popular. Photo credit: Marielba Nunez

Aimed at fostering an interest in science among the youth from 15 to 25 years old, science galleries are a three-in-one combo: of a science museum, an art gallery, and an interactive centre.

Visitors like me,  including families with children,  could feel the perfect blend of art, creativity, and science at play.  More than 50,000 people visit the gallery each year, some indicator of it having clicked with the public.

Right now, a exhibition is on — ‘Hack the city —  take control’, which invites visitors to “adopt, bend, tweak and mash up Dublin’s existing urban system – and rethink the city from ground up.”

The exhibition, say its promoters, features 70 artists, scientists, engineers, designers and start-ups “who are hacking, modding and rewiring the urban environment”.

And in, what must have been a shot in the gallery team’s arm, Google announced at ESOF a donation of one million euros to support the initiative and create a global network of science galleries.  The global initiative will be replicated in eight cities, including two Asian cities: Bangalore and Singapore.  London, Moscow and New York  are the other sites, while two more are still to be decided.

The gallery is cool and fun, as I found on a bright Saturday morning.

This blog post is part of our ESOF 2012 blog which takes place 11-15 July, 2012. To read news and analysis on themes related to the conference please visit our website.

Science journalism isn’t dead, it just smells funny

July 15, 2012

Marielba Nuñez
Freelance journalist from Venezuela, SciDev.Net

“Jazz isn’t dead, it just smells funny,” said musician Frank Zappa. And inspired by Zappa, an ESOF session pondered over whether science journalism was dead or just beginning to smell funny in recent years.

The reason is rising concern over the future of the profession that is coping with the dizzying pace and trends set by social media, which is challenging and changing traditional channels of information flow and communication.

Frank Zappa: ‘Jazz isn’t dead, it just smells funny’ Photo credit: Wikipedia.org

But, reminded Italian science journalist Elisabeta Tola, every crisis brings new opportunities. Science journalism is witnessing an emerging trend of ‘data journalism’ which is  gaining more followers.

Data journalism involves going beyond press releases and research papers to obtain data from public and private institutions, process it with digital tools and interpret the data to tell news stories. The emphasis is more on reporting and interpreting data, rather than writing news stories.

This also means that journalists need to improve their skills in obtaining data and interpreting it to reveal trends that could serve as important information for the public.

Tola cited the work of Italian journalist Amelia Beltramini, who gathered information about the efficiency of Italian hospitals treating complicated cases, such as cardiovascular diseases, and put it in public domain.

The trend is linked to transparency, accountability, public participation, open access and local information,  objectives shared by science journalists, too.

The session’s panelists, which included Irish science journalist Brian Trench, Finland’s Vesa Niinikangas, and Germany’s Wolfgang Goede offered some recommendations to keep science journalism alive, healthy and ticking. These include practising more critical journalism, probing more into the work of science institutions, and asking more questions about the use of funds for research.

So science journalism is very much alive.

This blog post is part of our ESOF 2012 blog which takes place 11-15 July, 2012. To read news and analysis on themes related to the conference please visit our website.

Carbon capture storage is still to gain public approval

July 15, 2012

Lucy Calderon
Freelance journalist from Guatemala, SciDev.Net

I turned into 10-year-old child in a group exercise-cum-role play session at ESOF on sustainable energies, except that my group of 10-year-olds was supposed to advise the president of our country about underground carbon capture and storage. I am not sure whether 10-year-olds worry too much about geological carbon storage or advise presidents, but anyway it was  fun.

This entertaining session at ESOF attempted to prod the participants into analysing their knowledge of, and concerns over, the impact of sustainable energy technologies.

Carbon capture storage is still a debated topic Photo credit: Lucy Calderon

And it was the idea of  ‘C02GeoNet’, a European network of excellence engaged in providing scientific information about the safety and efficiency of underground storage of carbon.

‘Carbon capture storage’ (CCS) is a contentious proposal that is suggested as one remedy to tackle global warming.

CCS involves capturing carbon dioxide at coal- or gas-fired power stations and industrial units, transporting it by pipeline or ship to a storage site, and injecting it via a circular and small diameter hole made by drilling underground for long-term storage. The promoters of the technology say it could reduce carbon dioxide levels in the air by 33 per cent by 2050.

Sounds an easy and quick-fix for global warming?  The obvious reason for public’s wariness is: who would like to store carbon, pipelines and all,  in your backyard?

After watching a video on CCS,  the session’s moderator divided participants into five groups and invited them to discuss their ideas and write queries. A representative of each group then advised the ‘president’.

My group (a bunch of creative children who love rockets) asked why the gas could not be sent into the space. The environmental organisations group raised awareness about the importance of avoiding pollution instead of storing it. Other groups expressed their concerns about their children’s safety.

What would you say if you were a researcher, an official from the ministry of environment, a journalist or even the president?

This blog post is part of our ESOF 2012 blog which takes place 11-15 July, 2012. To read news and analysis on themes related to the conference please visit our website.

Realistic alternatives to animal testing are feasible, but not so simple

July 14, 2012

T. V. Padma

T. V. Padma
South Asia regional coordinator, SciDev.Net

As the European Commission contemplates a ban on testing animals for cosmetic products, researchers have begun to hunt for alternate testing strategies for allergies and toxicity, cosmetics or more serious science.

The EC in 2012 released a 372-page book from on alternatives to replace animal tests.  Its Safety Evaluation Ultimately Replacing Animal Animal Testing (SEURAT) project’s first phase initially focused on cosmetics and personal care products, but the tools and techniques could apply for other studies too.The alternatives range from a prototype bioreactor that makes cells and tissues; to a computer prediction of a chemical’s effect inside your body.

SEURAT’s  database of properties of 40,000 chemicals will help in computational modelling and prediction of safety levels of chemicals. From 1 Jan 2013, the EC will make it mandatory for scientists conducting animal tests to first  prove that they first searched the databases for alternate testing.

Scientists are hunting for alternatives to animal testing. Photo: Flickr.com

So far, so good. But there are problems still to be solved, an ESOF session has heard.

For one, there are similar chemicals with almost identical properties and mechanisms of action, some of which are toxic and others are not. So do scientists need to test all the similar chemicals of interest in a particular toxicity or allergy test?

Computational chemistry can reduce or replace the use of animals “for some end points, some chemicals,” Mark Cromin, professor of predictive toxicology at Liverpool John Moores University, UK, said.

“In vitro” tests or tests on cells in the laboratory do not always mimic complex organs composed of many different types of cells. Similarly, chemical tests on cells in isolation may miss out on other aspects of the cells behaviour that is evident in an entire system – for example networking properties of nerve cells within the brain.

“The scientific challenge is to develop more complex testing strategies,” Roel Schins, a  nanotoxicology researcher from University of Dusseldorf, Germany, said.

Alternate tests need to be both relevant and reliable so that they can be used widely and can be scaled up to meet demand, observed Maurice Whelan, from the EC’s Institute of Health and Consumer Protection.

Yet there are exciting options to explore and improve, the panelists agreed.

The animals will be relieved to hear that.

This blog post is part of our ESOF 2012 blog which takes place 11-15 July, 2012. To read news and analysis on themes related to the conference please visit our website.

‘Young’ academies take the lead

July 14, 2012

Lucy Calderon
Freelance journalist from Guatemala, SciDev.Net

It is pretty encouraging to hear that young scientists from across the world are getting together to not only share knowledge and ideas, but also take science to the public. They are also attempting to encourage students to take to science careers and find creative solutions to national as well as global problems.

And the best part of it is that young scientists from developing countries are enthusiastic partners in the Global Young Academy movement involving 54 countries and 172 scientists.

Helene Andersson-Svahn shared Sweden’s Young Academy experiences.

The global academy, which was set up in 2010 and describes itself as the “voice of young scientists around the world,  has scientists from at least 20 developing countries including Bangladesh, Chile, Ecuador, Guatemala, India, Malaysia, Mexico, Nicaragua, Nigeria, Pakistan and Venezuela.

An ESOF session on the ‘young academy’ movement heard about examples from young scientists academies from Europe.

Helene Andersson-Svahn, from the Young Academy of Sweden explained how the academy serves as a cross-disciplinary forum to promote science among the public.

It organises  contests for  scientists to present their work in a simple language to a broad audience, in seven minutes. The public judges the winner, and at the end of it all,  the scientists improve their communication skills.

The Swedish academy also engages in regular dialogue with politicians so that the latter understand and include scientific evidence while formulating laws on agriculture, environment and health.

The Global Young Academy also aims to empower and mobilize young scientists to address issues crucial to the early stages of their career, Nitsara Karoonuthaisir, founding co-chair of the global academy said.

Nitsara Karoonuthaisir is founding co-chair of the Global Young Academy

The academy has working groups focussing on improving early scientific careers, science-society dialogue, science education, and interdisciplinary research.

It felt good to see the commitment and enthusiasm of young scientists – it is for them to shape the future.

Link to:  The Global Young Academy video

This blog post is part of our ESOF 2012 blog which takes place 11-15 July, 2012. To read news and analysis on themes related to the conference please visit our website.

Research integrity versus the pressure to publish

July 14, 2012

Marielba Nuñez
Freelance journalist from Venezuela, SciDev.Net

Sometimes the shadow of ethics hangs over  the manner in which research is conducted, especially on humans, and the  way in which data and results are presented –  or sometimes brushed under the carpet, if they turn out to  be negative,  This is even more relevant to developing countries that are emerging as hubs for international clinical research trials, because of lower costs on conducting trails and easier recruitment of trial participants.

The ethical integrity of scientific research sometimes is compromised in several ways: from unethical recruitment of participants,  conflict of interests; breach of privacy and confidentiality; and  whether guidelines were followed properly for obtaining informed consent of the participants.

Then there is plagiarism or falsification of data and results.

Several times in my career as a journalist I found myself writing on research that turned out to be based on false information, and I’m afraid one of the consequences of this is the loss of credibility of the science in general.

An ESOF session discussed the second half of the problem  — falsification of data and plagiarism.

The pressure to publish sometimes leads to unethical research practice, says Sabine Kleinert. Photo credit: University of Zurich

One of the factors that leads to unethical practice in science is the pressure to publish in peer-reviewed, high impact factor journals, a must for  progress of a scientist’s career, panelists said.

This occurs also in Latin America, where the publication in international journals is one of the major and few parameters for measuring the productivity of a researcher.

The pressure to publish was recognized by Sabine Kleinert, of the Lancet committee of ethics, as a factor contributing to unacceptable practices. “This makes the editors guardians of the truth of the records”, she said during the session.

The task is not easy for journal editors either, as they deal with  huge numbers of research papers.

The journal editors have taken up the matter and, with initiatives such as Committee on Publications Ethics which now has about 7,000 members.

So there is reason to hope for a stricter vigil.

This blog post is part of our ESOF 2012 blog which takes place 11-15 July, 2012. To read news and analysis on themes related to the conference please visit our website.

Debunking myths and fuelling debates on nuke energy, GM foods

July 13, 2012

T. V. Padma

T. V. Padma
South Asia regional coordinator, SciDev.Net

‘Don’t let ideology trump science’ was the message at a session that took upon itself the task of debunking some myths in science and showing three inconvenient truths backed by scientific evidence. That is, nuclear energy and genetically modified food are safe, and nicotine does not cause cancer.

Take the March 2011 Fukushima nuclear meltdown, for instance.  It was, said Roland Schenkel, former director general of European Commission’s Joint Research Council, “a catalogue of failure” but it did not mean the technology was faulty.

There was inadequate protection against tsunamis; the regulator and operator had inadequate authority to enforce important safety measures; there was lack of state-of-the-art technology upgrades. The most serious consequence for the population was not radiation, but the effects from evacuation and migration.

The Fukushima disaster showed that the International Atomic Energy Agency standards are not legally binding, and national regulators have varying degrees of independence, competence and monitoring, Schenkel said.

But countries are continuing to expand nuclear power programmes, and some like the United States are attempting to prolong the life of aging reactors, Schenkel said.

GM food is as safe as conventionally farmed food, says Anne Glover. Photo credit: University of Aberdeen.

Nicotine too is safe, “it is the combustible delivery system that causes the problem,” said David O’Reilly, group scientific advisor at British American Tobacco. Some prevailing tobacco myths are that smoking will disappear, all tobacco products are equally harmful, and nicotine causes cancer, he said.  He advises harm reduction prgrammes for smokers.

Similarly, there is no difference in assessment of risk in eating genetically modified food and conventionally farmed food, argued Anne Glover, former chief scientific advisor of Scotland and professor at the University of Aberdeen.

So why are the public, media and some policy makers still tad unconvinced?

The audience threw up some interesting observations. Scientists are ‘naïve’ and do not seem to understand that human understanding and perceptions of risk are complex, and should be factored in technology risk assessment.

But I especially like this one, from a fellow science journalist. Scientists, he said, presume the public and media are like children who should be told, “This is good for you. You should do this and you should not do that…..We refuse to be treated like children, being told what is good for us.”

This blog post is part of our ESOF 2012 blog which takes place 11-15 July, 2012. To read news and analysis on themes related to the conference please visit our website.

‘Mumpreneurs’ — gender matters in science business

July 13, 2012

T. V. Padma

T. V. Padma
South Asia regional coordinator, SciDev.Net

One of India’s leading biotech companies is headed by a woman, Kiran Majumdar Shaw. But ‘mumpreneurs’ – women setting up business from home to balance family and income generation  — are still a small group in all countries.

Gender makes a difference, Paula Fitzsimons, founder and managing director of Fitzsimons Consulting, which specializes in entrepreneurship and growth, told an ESOF session. It makes a difference in the rate at which men and women set up business; in a personal context with women expressing lesser confidence and ambition and greater fear of failure; and in the type of businesses being set up. Women scientists also said they lacked technical skills and training, as well as support from national and local agencies to set up business.

Should women break down barriers, they are branded as ‘dragon ladies’ and ‘uncaring mothers’. Tough either way.

And yet there is reason for hope.  We heard the inspiring  story of  Susanne Rostmark, who started as an environment science researcher in Sweden and set up a company FriGeo in 2003, to commercialise her research findings. “Curiosity moved science into business,” she said.

Cool cash: Swedish entrepreneur Susanne Rostmark set up a free-drying technology business against the odds.

Her firm specialises in freeze drying technologies to remove water from sediments  and sludge, which reduces their volume and makes it easier to transport them. The technology is now evoking interest from the nuclear industry to remove sludge from nuclear power plants.

Rostmark says women entrepreneurs have few role models, peer-group contacts, access to networks, or pre-start-up support.

Fitzsimons has some recommendations to governments to fix that. Promote societal attitudes towards women’s engagement as entrepreneurs, assist women-run business start-ups by making opportunities and resources available; and provide technical assistance and education.

But it is finally up to women, she said. “If your antennae are open as scientists, as women and as people, you will see opportunities.”

This blog post is part of our ESOF 2012 blog which takes place 11-15 July, 2012. To read news and analysis on themes related to the conference please visit our website.

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