#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.

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.

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.

Nobel laureate says curiosity-driven science must not be sidelined

July 12, 2012

T. V. Padma

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


For developing countries with limited funds for science, there is a perennial debate about whether to support basic science research — which lacks easily discernible social benefits — or applied science.

They could pay heed to Jules A. Hoffmann, who won the 2011 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.

Hoffmann began his science career driven by a curiosity to understand how the humble fruit fly avoided contracting fungal infections — that is, pure basic science. This led to the discovery of a group of cells that are key to ‘innate’ immune responses in humans, with implications for vaccines, infectious diseases and allergies.

Hoffman’s career began with research into the fruit fly, which led to important discoveries relating to human immune responses

“I would like to argue that our society should continue to support, to a significant extent, research which is purely based on curiosity, even in the absence of perspectives of applications at the time when the work is started,” Hoffmann told Euroscience Open Forum (ESOF) delegates at the opening ceremony on Wednesday (11 July).

Hoffmann said that as he began his research career in the 1960s, he was fortunate to work during “blissful times”.

“We were not asked to indicate which milestones we wanted to provide within which timeframe, what applications we were hoping to generate, what networking we were planning to develop, which industrial partners we had contacted,” he added.

“There was a great confidence in science, and a global belief that, whatever the field and the questions, any new scientific knowledge would eventually have positive outcomes for society.”

Not so, anymore. As immense amounts of scientific knowledge have accumulated, science has become so complex “that most of our fellow citizens feel overwhelmed or lost,” Hoffmann said.

He went on to observe that although science still enjoys a relatively positive image with the general public, a significantly large and vocal group of citizens have developed a marked level of distrust towards scientific research — particularly in Europe — in areas such as genetically modified crops, vaccinations, stem cell research and electromagnetic waves.

Regaining the trust of these opponents will not be easy, Hoffman says. He sees a role for the media to help garner public interest in science, while at same time not overselling research results, “which would only feed the distrust.”


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.

A Portrait of the Scientist as a Young Poet: #esof2012 goes lyrical

July 12, 2012

T. V. Padma

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

In the land of James Joyce and William Butler Yeats, it was only natural that the Euroscience Open Forum (ESOF) officially kicked off on Wednesday with some poetry inspired by

A statue of James Joyce

‘There is no past, no future; everything flows in an eternal present’ – Joyce’s take on the science of time

science. This was in addition to some foot-tapping Irish dances, uilleann pipes, and the useful tip that it is best to hold a science conference a week after the discovery of the Higgs Boson, when science holds the interest of both the public and newspapers.

Meanwhile, the worlds of science and poetry are not entirely dissimilar, as Ireland’s president, Michael Higgins, reminded the audience at the ESOF opening ceremony on Wednesday. Poets and scientists both respond to nature and may also “be the beneficiaries of serendipity,” Higgins said.

The conference asked 20 Irish poets to write on science in 12 lines. The resulting book of 20 poems included in our conference kits also symbolised the value in bringing together the creative potential of science, the arts and culture.

One of the contributors, Maurice Riordan, had remarked in 2001 that most poems on science tended to focus on ‘heavenly bodies and lower forms of life’.  Not so in the collection of poems at ESOF, some quirky and some lyrical. The poets dwelt on the moon, stars, light, time, quantum physics, zebrafish, whale fall ….. and a microchip planted in the brain.

My pick would be the poem titled ‘Eureka’ — by poet and playwright Celia de Freine — which ends with typical Irish humour:

‘I had a choice once between science

and domestic economy: before long

I found that I preferred to feel pastry

Against my palate and poplin on my skin

Besides a day spent slaving in the lab to prove

An aul lad ran down the street stark naked.’

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.

#esof2012: science and porridge in Dublin

July 10, 2012

T. V. Padma

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

The ESOF (EuroScience Open Forum) season kicks off again from Wednesday and I am looking forward to this biennial event on European science. ESOF presents Europe’s leading research trends in natural and social sciences, and peeks at the future of research and innovation, from European scientists’ perspectives.

If we cast the geographical boundaries aside for a little while, we find that several topics resonate across developed and developing countries sooner or later. I can off-hand cite geoengineering, genetically modified crops, nuclear safety, food security and energy security. A SciDev.Net team will try to pick topics that strike a chord back home in Africa, Asia and Latin America, though it will be impossible to cover all topics.

The ESOF sessions in Dublin this year also offer a heady mix, from black holes and the string theory to genomics; science and art; to science and the future of cuisine. Add to that keynote addresses by an unlikely duo of DNA guru James Watson and Irish ‘Boomtown Rats’ singer Bob Geldof (on different days) and you will see why I had to head to Dublin.

Did I mention science and cuisine? At the Dublin ESOF, there is also time for ‘porridge with the professor’, a session when young scientists get to catch up with their senior colleagues informally. The good professors had enjoyed the salmon in Stockholm, the typically Spanish ‘tapas’ in Barcelona (ESOF 2008) and a pizza in Turin (ESOF 2010), while offering career guidance to young scientists.

I would have expected them to have had a shot at the Irish whisky in Dublin (and those with some humour even do a stand-up comedy act that Dublin is famous for), but on second thoughts,  perhaps high spirits and stand-up comedy acts do not a serious scientific career make. Porridge is a safer bet.

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.

Connecting renewables to the grid

July 7, 2010

Efforts by developing countries to tap renewable sources of energy run into two typical problems – finding cheap and widely usable technologies; and connecting renewable energy to the main electricity grid.

Europe is ahead on the (not necessarily cheap) technology front. But it too is grappling with the grid connectivity question, discussed at a session at ESOF 2010. The European Union (EU) plans to raise the share of its renewable energy sources in its total energy consumption to 20 per cent by 2020. This has implications for designing, operating and maintaining power transmission networks across and within countries.

Gianluca Fulli, from the European Commission’s Joint Research Council, suggests using high voltage direct current (HVDC) grids – electric systems that use direct current to transmit the bulk of the electricity. Traditionally Europe uses a high voltage alternating current (HVAC) system, but HVDC is preferred for long-distance transmission from large, off-shore plants to the grid inland with fewer losses, says Fulli.

A 'powerful' problem: connecting renewables to the grid

Scientists are addressing storage options for renewable energy. Maria Rosa Palacin, from the Materials Sciences Institute, Barcelona, points out that systems of energy production and transmission leave very little room for storage.

Storage systems are crucial, given the fluctuating nature of some of the renewables. For example, Spain’s moody winds can account for 30 per cent of the electricity on a good day and as little as 2 per cent on a bad day.

Palacin says potential storage options include batteries, or a ‘flywheel’ in which the energy is stored as kinetic energy that powers a motor that spins a rotating disc and releases the energy by slowing the wheel down.

Other storage options include a ‘hydro’ option where electricity pumps water from a lower reservoir to a higher reservoir and is released by pumping back to the lower reservoirs; and a compressed air energy storage system where the electricity is used to inject air at high pressure into an underground cave and is released through a gas turbine.

Any takers?

T V Padma, South Asia Regional Coordinator, SciDev.Net

Science attracts and repels

July 5, 2010

“In Italy we teach our children that mistakes are unacceptable. If you don’t know the right answer – don’t answer!”   Such an attitude hardly helps students turn to science, points out Michela Mayer, from the National Institute for the Evaluation of the Education System.  Teachers are the driving force towards increasing interest, she told an ESOF 2010 session on 4 July.

Students’  declining interest in science seems a common concern worldwide, in developed and developing countries alike. India and China are on a major drive to attract students to science.

Indeed, a separate session at ESOF addressed the question: “Why the hell should I become an academic scientist?” Despite Europe’s policies and initiatives to attract young people to science careers, replete with visions of fascinating and rewarding lives, many scientists feel that their experiences do not match up to expectations. By the time they have finished grappling with short-term contracts, long periods of mobility and fierce competition for academic positions, the fascination for science begins to wane.

How do we hook students to science?

European education experts are trying to woo students back to science. Joachim Dengg, from the Leibniz Institute of Marine Sciences, Germany, says a sense of adventure draws the attention of school children.

“There should be a cross-over from academia to the school level where researchers can show students that their work can be fun.”

Dengg took students out with ocean scientists for a project on how much the ocean churned when the ferry turned. “This attracts future students and fosters natural science in general,” he says.

Dengg says there is no way to map whether the students eventually opt for a science degree, but they like to broadcast their experiences on You Tube. His co-panelists agreed that Twitter and blogs are increasingly used by teachers, students and scientists alike to communicate with each other.

More young tweeting Einsteins in the making?

Marianne de Nazareth, SciDev.Net contributor

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