What can we learn from Tim hunt’s ‘problem with girls’: A female scientist’s opinion

Tim_Hunt_at_UCSF_05_2009_(4)Let me tell you about my trouble with girls … three things happen when they are in the lab … You fall in love with them, they fall in love with you and when you criticise them, they cry.” – This is the ill-conceived comment made recently by Nobel Laureate Sir Tim Hunt. A statement which spawned a spiral of media attention and ultimately lead to his forced resignation from position as Honorary Professor within the UCL Faculty of Life Sciences.

Crass, rude and culturally blind? Tim committed career suicide during his speech in a moment akin to watching a car crash in slow motion. Yes, anyone could have told Tim that this was not a smart move. But, why did an intelligent man who, on paper, doesn’t present as being your typical chauvinist pig make such insensitive comments and what can we learn from this?

From a brief background search, Tim is not someone I would have pegged as a chauvinist. He is married to Professor Mary Collins, a highly successful female scientist and an advocate for women in S.T.E.M subjects. Throughout his eminent career he has also worked with and mentored numerous female academics and has previously acknowledged their contribution to his Nobel winning discovery. Indeed, a number of his former female collaborators and confidants have recently spoken out in support of Tim’s character – including Manchester University’s own President and Vice-Chancellor Dame Nancy Rothwell.

A few years ago I also had the pleasure of meeting Tim with a small group of PhD students. To be honest, at the time I was stuck in an academic rut and felt like science just wasn’t my calling – volunteering for the discussion group with Tim was really just my elaborate way of escaping the lab for a few hours. However, I found the resulting discussion both stimulating and inspiring. Tim presented as a very ‘down to earth’ chap; he extolled the benefits of collaborations in science, acknowledged how hard discovery really is and encouraged us to nurture a healthy work-life balance. Although I certainly didn’t “fall in love with him”, I left with a positive impression of him both as a person and a scientist but, most importantly, I felt rejuvenated and ready to get back in the lab.

So, what happened? Why would a man surrounded by successful professional women make such a tasteless comment? And, was UCL’s response to the media storm that followed justified?

To answer these questions there are three important points we must first consider:

1) Context.

Twitter’s 140 character restriction is pretty limiting when it comes to contextualising statements. So, I’m happy to stand up and say that I don’t really have a clue how Tim’s remarks were delivered, or what his intention was at the time. But, one thing I’m beginning to realise is that reporting of both his intention and, in some cases, his actual words has been far from accurate. One of the most damning examples of this type of shoddy journalism is the observation that many mainstream media sources state that Tim admitted to being a chauvinist during his speech – a statement I believe to be misleading.

Whilst researching this article I listened to the original broadcast of BBC’s Today show discussing Tim’s comments and I was intrigued to hear conference attendee Connie St Louie state that “Tim stood up and said ‘I hope the women have prepared the lunch, I’m a male chauvinist pig”. Was this the comment these articles were referring to? If so, they were without doubt way off the mark in reporting his chauvinistic confession. To my ears this comment was undoubtedly said in jest. Indeed, if I were at the luncheon listening to his speech he certainly would have got a laugh from me! Further to this, I noted that, on the same show, Tim was introduced as “the scientist who said that women are for loving not for science” – if this isn’t a case of twisting his words to better fit their intended portrayal of his character I don’t know what is?

It seems to me that a whole storm of media attention and twitter hashtagging has spawned from a few lines presented without any real context. Personally, I’m waiting for someone to report Tim’s speech in its entirety since, until this happens, I can do little more than watch what’s going on from a comfortable position on the fence.

2)  Zeitgeist

Science is in a state of transition. Gone are the days of the ‘gentleman’ scientist, acting on instinct and funding research into whatever takes his fancy. With the introduction of government funding and charitable contributions, the scientific career path is open to many more people – and this is great. But, one striking observation is that, despite similar achievement and engagement early on in the education system, women still make up a shockingly low proportion of academic scientists (for facts and figures see here). A debate currently rages as to why so few women pursue the scientific career path, is it nature, nurture, or stern looks from the patriarchy? The jury is still out, but one thing is certain, it’s an emotive and very personal topic for many women.

Enter Tim. Speaking at a luncheon for women scientists and engineers Tim was entering a heated emotive atmosphere. Amongst the audience you would likely find a number of women who felt confident and comfortable combining their femininity with an academic career but, undoubtedly many others felt persecuted and let down by a male-driven field. Perhaps he was nervous, perhaps he’d had a little too much complimentary Champagne or perhaps he was used to being surrounded by happy, confident female academics who enjoy the occasional jibe…Whatever the case, Tim missed the mark by a mile and left many believing that he was part of the problem.

3) Reasonable punishment.

So, considering what we know about Tim and about what he said, where does this leave us?

A basic background check on Tim comes up clean, he seems like a pretty reasonable guy and a number of eminent female scientists are happy to defend his character. But, he did make some thoughtless comments, which he later defended – in his statement to the BBC he says “It’s terribly important that you can criticise people’s ideas without criticising them and if they burst into tears you tend to hold back from getting at the absolute truth. Science is about nothing but getting at the truth and anything that gets in the way of that, in my experience, diminishes the science”. This statement certainly makes his comments seem less jocular and lends credence to the idea that there may indeed be a kernel of truth behind his ‘jokes’. But, where should we go from here?

This is where the debate becomes heated. I personally believe that the punishment doled out to Tim does not fit the crime. Alongside a good track record of facilitating and working with female academics, Tim is also an outstanding scientist who, as a whole, seems to be spending his post-research years promoting the scientific career path (to both men and women). Stripping him of his position at UCL and, as a result, also of his other academic positions and making him ‘toxic’ to the industry does not seem appropriate. I’m certainly not suggesting that punishment isn’t necessary, only that we have taken this too far.

I also wonder if this backlash is side-stepping some important questions? Does Tim’s comment about women ‘crying’ highlight a viewpoint held by other academics? If so, is it then pertinent to use this as a springboard into discussions about managing researchers with different personality types and how to get the best out of all employees? Perhaps we can even use this as an opportunity to build a better understanding of existing prejudices in the field and work towards addressing these?

One thing is certain, Tim’s comments and his subsequent treatment have divided opinions both within and outside the academic community. Although I personally believe he has been treated too harshly, I know colleagues who think differently – In a recent Facebook debate, two of my fellow female colleagues had this to say:

I still think it’s sad that he didn’t offer a genuine apology before he ruined his and his wife’s career. Women today might think that they don’t have to be feminist because they have it all, but they have no idea how precarious our position is and how little sexism needs to become rampant again. Mysogyny is an aggressive weed with deep roots and it needs to be stamped on as soon as it raises its head, even as a joke. So I agree that unfortunately there was nothing else UCL could have done.” – Quote: Jadwiga Nazimek

He isn’t being demonized as sexist, he said a sexist thing, followed by a ‘sorrynotsorry’, and therefore has been rightly called sexist. It’s not fair to generalise his personal experience to all women, or in fact to all men, by implying these are female-specific behaviours, and that ‘girls’ are impossible to work with because of them.” – Quote: Sarah Ryan

We’d love to hear your opinions on the topic, so please add your voice to the debate in the comments section below.

Post by: Sarah Fox

The open access debate: Should we pay for knowledge?

One of the bigger issues facing researchers today is how to access scientific information. A lot of research is published in restricted access journals, where the information is hidden behind a paywall. But, many scientists feel like this should not be the case and that all research should be accessible to anyone who needs it.

I’m going to start this post with a confession. Whilst I knew that the ‘open access’ debate was rife amongst the online scientific community, particularly on Twitter, I never really paid it much attention. The reason for this was that if there was a paper I wanted to read I just popped my university username and password into the publisher’s website and downloaded the article. I never thought about whether this information was open access or not.

BooksThe principle of open access is that scientific content should be freely available to everyone and can be read immediately online with full re-use rights (with correct attribution). However, many scientific journals are closed-access meaning that a fee must be paid in order to read a particular article.

I became aware that there was a problem with this restricted access when friends who worked at different universities complained that they couldn’t access certain articles that were important for their research. I began to realise that, whilst my university had paid for very thorough access, not everyone’s did. Amazingly, this subscription system was actually preventing researchers from accessing information that could be crucial to their research.

I have now left academia but still have an active interest in the world of research. However, since my graduation, my access to scientific journals has been revoked and I have now found the door to scientific knowledge slammed in my face.

It came as somewhat of a surprise to me when I started my undergraduate degree that universities have to pay subscription fees to access certain journals. This includes what are considered the ‘gold standard’ journals – Science, Nature and Cell – published by AAAS, Nature Publishing Group and Cell Press respectively. The prices that are paid for these subscriptions are staggering. My alma mater, the University of Manchester, states on its website that it is currently spending £4.5 million a year on these subscriptions.

Using a computerBeyond the lab, the wider importance of open access was brought home to me recently when I was chatting to someone who had read about a “new cure” for a previously incurable disease. When I asked how they had come across this information, the reply was “I found it on the internet”. I tried to gently tell them that the “cure” in question was not currently backed up by scientific research. However, my scepticism was immediately shot down by the reply, “Well, how can I see this scientific information?”

Here is the crux of the matter. I feel that people should be able to access the information that they need. If this person could find plenty of non-scientific articles proposing miracle cures, surely they should also be able to find the primary scientific literature to determine whether these articles reflect the actual research?

It does appear that the publishing scene is slowly changing. There are now a number of publishers who proudly declare themselves as open access. This includes the Public Library of Sciences (also known as PLoS) and BioMed Central. Another open-access publisher is eLife, which counts Nobel Prize winner Randy Schekman amongst its editors. Prof Schekman is outspoken about the need for open access, writing in the Guardian that “it is the quality of the science, not the journal’s brand, that matters”.

One of the arguments against open access is that journals obviously have to make money. However, journals also make money by charging the authors of the scientific papers to publish in them. It can cost the authors thousands of pounds to publish an article in a high-impact scientific journal. Another concern about open access is that it may erode the quality of scientific publishing and science in general. Whether these concerns are founded remain to be seen.

moneyTo get around the cost issue, open-access journals have to charge extra for their articles – BioMed Central has an article processing charge of £750-£1520 per article, depending on the journal. One of the advantages of these open-access publishers is that the articles are published instantly online. Therefore, the lack of printing costs should keep the journal’s overheads down.

Some closed-access journals are now responding to the increased pressure to make their articles freely available. AAAS have announced a new open-access journal called Science Advances. However, this move has provoked unhappiness amongst open-access advocates for two reasons. Firstly, many scientists balk at the fact that AAAS plans to charge authors a steep £3,300 to get certain extras like a CC-BV licence (which allows for full reuse of papers and is required by the Research Councils UK for their funded researchers). There is also a surcharge if the article is over 10 pages long. The other reason for the dismay of the open access community is the appointment of Kent Anderson as the journal’s publisher, who is at odds with the founder of PLoS, Michael Eisen, over the benefits of open-access publishing. These concerns have prompted over 100 scientists to publish an open letter to AAAS, asking them to remove the extra charges.

So, should all research be open access? I truly believe that science at its very heart should be free to anyone who wants to use it, be they researchers or interested members of the public. The shift towards open access is encouraging and hopefully someday the big journals will understand the need for everyone, not just academics at rich universities, have the right to see any scientific research which is of interest to them.

Post by: Louise Walker

The decline of the antibiotic – taking medicine back to the dark ages?

Anti-bioticAfter being struck down with a particularly nasty chest infection, I initially put off going to see the doctor and instead opted for lots of rest, fluids and self-medication. After suffering at home for a few weeks with no alleviation of my symptoms, I eventually decided enough was enough and went to see the doctor. I was subsequently diagnosed with pneumonia and prescribed antibiotics to treat the infection, after which my  symptoms finally began to ease.

My reluctance to seek medical intervention was due in part to two reasons;

  • My general dislike for going to the doctors
  • Concern over recent news articles discussing the demise of the antibiotic due to over- prescribing.

It is the second of these reasons which seems to be a particular cause for concern.

The evolution of disease-causing bacteria, leading to antibiotic resistance, is a concern which has been high on the scientific agenda for decades. However, the media are only just starting to catch on to the stark reality that faces us. David Cameron has recently taken notice of this impeding issue, referring to the problem as ‘taking us back to the dark ages’. Cameron has called for a review into microbial resistance and has called for drug companies to invest in finding the next generation of antibiotics. But is this too little too late?

If our bodies become infected with foreign bacteria our internal immune system (white blood cells) act swiftly and efficiently to stop the spread of infection – usually before it has the chance cause noticeable symptoms. More often than not, our bodies are able to cope with such an attack without intervention. However, sometimes our bodies become overwhelmed and are unable to cope on their own – this is when we need to seek help from antibiotics.

Antibiotics have been relied on for the last 70 years and are vital in the treatment of bacterial infections (they are useless in the fight against viruses). These drugs work in one of two ways:

  • By interfering with the bacterial cell wall or the contents within – a process which destroys the bacteria (bactericidal).
  • By slowing down the growth of bacteria that can cause illness or disease (bacteriostatic). Thereby, ensuring that the bacteria is no longer able to multiply and infect us.
MRSA superbug showing resistance to antibiotics as the bacteria (yellow) overwhelm the white blood cells (red).

The development of antibiotics peaked in the 1950’s, after which there was a sharp decline in their development – no new classes of antibiotics have been developed since the ‘80’s! This is perhaps because there is not much money to be made from discovering new forms of antibiotics, so the pharmaceutical industry tend to focus on other, more lucrative, areas of research.

But how exactly does resistance to these drugs occur? When our bodies become infected with bacteria, there is a small chance that some of the bacterial cells show a natural resistance to antibiotics and therefore remain unaffected by the drug. This resistance could be due to a mutation that occurred by chance, or could be as a result of evolution – effectively the bacteria out-smarts the drug. These few remaining resistant bacteria survive, and rapidly reproduce so that the body becomes overwhelmed by this resistant strain. Drug resistance can then be transferred between bacteria through reproduction, physical connections between different cells and also through viruses called bacteriophages.

The mechanism of antibiotic resistance

Antibiotic resistance is accelerated by over-use in the health-care and farming industries. Which is a growing concern, as many patients fight with doctors to be prescribed antibiotics for all minor ailments without considering the consequences of using them unnecessarily.

Resistance 2
Bacteria presented with 4 different types of antibiotic. In three cases the bacteria is resistant to the antibiotic and in one case only the drug is sufficient to treat the bacteria.

Antibiotics are also heavily used for intensive farming. With such a demand on farmers to produce lots of cheap meat, animals are housed in cramped conditions where infections are easily spread. Of course to prevent this spread, copious amounts of antibiotics are often used. This overuse facilitates resistance. Resistant bacteria are then able to spread from farm animals to people via our water supplies, which can then spread further from person to person by physical contact, coughing and sneezing.

Now that we know the extent of the issue of antibiotic resistance, what can be done to tackle the problem both in the short and long term? Currently, drug-resistant superbugs such as MRSA and C.difficile cause 5,000 deaths a year in Britain. This has been controlled to some extent by implementing more stringent hygiene procedures in hospitals such as frequent hand washing and anti-bacterial hand scrubs. However, the occurrence of other resistant bacterial strains are on the rise; E.Coli cases have risen by two-thirds over the last few years.

In the short-term, a 5 year Anti-microbial Resistance Strategy has been put in place by the Department of Health which outlines a number of different points that are effective in the fight against antibiotic resistance;

Aim #1 To understand antibiotic resistance: to collect as much information as possible about the mechanisms that bacteria use to become resistant and to understand how the resistance spreads.

Aim #2 To conserve our current antibiotics: by improving hygiene in hospitals and by educating doctors and nurses about the issue of resistance, and encouraging them to only prescribe antibiotics when absolutely necessary.

Aim #3 To encourage the development of new antibiotics: by providing more incentives for pharmaceutical companies to invest in antibiotic development.

In terms of addressing antibiotic resistance in the long-term, several approaches can be taken. Firstly, we need to tackle the issue of over-prescribing. Currently, there are no diagnostic tests that allow doctors to determine whether infections are caused by bacteria or virus. So, developing a test that could determine the basis of aninfection would help doctors give the correct prescription. Secondly, drug companies need to create new classes of drugs to tackle bacterial infections. Thirdly, we can try to reduce the use of antibiotics in farming. Lastly more research needs to be conducted into a new innovative approach to tackling infections which uses viruses to treat bacterial infections.

A combination of over-prescribing and the lack of development of new antibiotics means that these drugs are rapidly becoming less effective in their fight against infections. There is the fear that, in the very near future, these drugs will cease working completely and simple things to treat such as cuts and flu will be likely to make us very ill and even cause deaths.  With no suitable alternatives to antibiotics we could be looking at a very bleak future for medicine.  With all of this in mind it is clear to see that the pharmaceutical and medical industry needs to make huge investments into developing new classes of antibiotics to fight these super-resistant bacteria. Alongside this, doctors need to be sure to prescribe these precious drugs sparingly and patients need to be careful not to rely on them so much for minor ailments.

Post by: Sam Lawrence

Is pressure to publish causing scientific fraud?

A paper which was widely regarded as an exciting breakthrough has come under scrutiny, with some people suggesting that the results were false, or even fabricated. This is not the first time that a major study has been subject to accusations of fraud. Is there a reason that some scientists are willing to disregard scientific integrity in order to publish?

scientist stock photoIn January 2014, researchers at the Riken institute in Japan published a paper stating that they had found a simple way to make stem cells from adult cells. All you needed to do was wash the adult cells in acid and they would revert back to their stem cell form. The study was published in the top journal Nature and caused a ripple of excitement in the scientific community – stem cells are an extremely useful but controversial tool and finding a way to make them so easily, and without any ethical problems, was considered a game-changer.

However, doubt began to arise about these so called STAP (Stimulus-Triggered Acquisition of Pluripotency) cells as other labs were not able to reproduce the results. The lead author of the paper, Haruko Obokata, has been found guilty of misconduct after investigators at the Riken institute found that some images had been manipulated. However, this did not directly affect the result of the paper and Nature has not retracted it. Dr Obokata has apologised for the mistakes but maintains that her results are genuine. The latest twist in the tale is that an independent scientist, Kenneth Ka-Ho Lee, has managed to recreate STAP cells using a different method, although his results have yet to be verified.

Dr Obokata and her team are not the only people to have published in a high-level journal to then be suspected of fraud. The most infamous example is ex-Dr Andrew Wakefield, whose study into a link between the triple MMR vaccine and autism was published in the Lancet and widely publicised in the media. Subsequently, a thorough investigation discovered huge amounts of misconduct and fraud. Another example from the field of stem cell research is the South Korean researcher Hwang Woo-Suk, who published a series of high profile articles in Science suggesting that he had achieved human cloning; it later turned out that these results had been falsified.

But this blog post is not about whether the STAP cell result was genuine or not; that is up to the investigators and other stem cell biologists. The question I’m asking here is – how and why does scientific fraud occur in the first place?

Pressure to publish well

doctor with a headache - pressureWhen the validity of a scientific article comes into doubt, it is often retracted by the journal (the website Retraction Watch monitors this). Journals are ascribed an “impact factor”, giving an idea of how influential the journal is in scientific circles. Those with the highest impact factors include Nature, Science and Cell. These high-impact journals have amongst the highest rates of retraction. This indicates that the more prestigious the journal, the more likely it is that people may fake their results to get published in them.

Why would people fake results to get published in a better journal? The answer is simple and unsurprising: money. The more papers you publish in high-impact journals, the more publicity you get and the more likely you are to be able to secure grants to continue your investigations.

Researchers at the beginning of their careers, like Dr Obokata, may feel under pressure to perform almost-miracles to get their results published in a high-impact journal. The pressure may come from their immediate boss, or the institution, or the fact that other researchers are working on the same thing – publishing breakthrough results first is always the key to getting into high-impact journals. In some cases, this may lead to the fabrication of good results in order to try and relieve some this pressure.

Just plain old greed

moneyThere are some researchers, Andrew Wakefield and Hwang Woo-Suk amongst them, who wilfully commit fraud for monetary gain – not just through increased grants but from private companies. Wakefield was developing his own single vaccine for measles, and so had a vested monetary interest in discrediting the triple MMR vaccine. Woo-Suk embezzled a lot of the money given to him to carry out this research.

It should be pointed out that scientists such as this are extremely rare. Ethics and good lab practice are taught and enforced throughout degrees and at PhD level. The majority of scientists realise that faking results would ultimately lead nowhere.

An honest mistake

One of the reasons that the warning flags went up about the STAP cells is that other labs could not reproduce the results as described in the paper. Reproducibility is the cornerstone of a good scientific finding – it is only considered to be a genuine result if independent labs can recreate it. However, there are many differences between labs – techniques, reagents and work ethic are variable. This means that it may actually be quite difficult to exactly recreate someone else’s work. Therefore it may be that a difference in techniques or practices is causing these problems, rather than direct fraud. If this is the case, it does not mean that the result is fraudulent, but maybe that it is not as far-reaching or ground-breaking as first thought.

A lot of scientific “fraud” or retracted papers could possibly be attributed to the researchers accidentally misinterpreting results or unwittingly doing something during the protocol which has affected the result. Scientists are people too and mistakes are made; some are just more high profile than others.

This point comes back around to the pressure to publish. With the need to get good results out quickly, it’s possible that these mistakes happen because the researchers are rushing to get their results out to the good journals.

A problem with the peer-review process?

magnifying glassArticles published in high-impact journals have to go through a process called peer review, where study results are scrutinised by other top scientists in the field. This is supposed to filter out the questionable results, so that only good science gets published. However, peer reviewers can only study the presented results; it is not always possible to detect a fraudulent result this way. The benefits versus problems with peer review are outside of the scope of this article and have been discussed at length elsewhere, but the fact that the peer reviewers can be fooled by fraudulent results may contribute to the reason that some scientists risk it.

Scientific fraud is still relatively rare but does exist. So far it is unclear what the best way is to combat it, because publication in high-impact, peer-reviewed journals remains the best way to get results out to the scientific community. Possibly more transparency between different labs would help – then results can be tried for reproducibility prior to initial publication.

Whatever the answer, this example and others alike represent a problem that must be addressed. Apart from the obvious impact on the scientific community, the public’s belief in scientists and scientific research is strengthening all the time; stories like the STAP cell report are damaging this fragile trust. Steps must be taken to prevent researchers sacrificing scientific ethics and integrity under the pressure to publish well and for monetary gain.

Post by: Louise Walker

Should Backyard Brains bug out?

roach1A US company, Backyard Brains, has recently been criticised for marketing a device which allows users to create their own ‘cyborg’ cockroach, using a mobile phone app to control the critter’s movements. The ‘kickstarter’ funded project, headed by graduate students with a passion for science education, has caused serious controversy, including accusations that the device will “encourage amateurs to operate invasively on living organisms” and “encourage thinking of complex living organisms as mere machines or tools”. But is it possible that these concerns are misguided?

As a scientist with a passion for public engagement, on many occasions I’ve struggled with two fundamental and opposing concepts which make this work a very delicate balancing act:

  1. Science is complicated and often a bit dry.
  2. If you want to engage non-scientists, it is often necessary to ‘sex things up’ with provocative language and concepts which pique their interest.

And here lies the problem.

Let’s take Backyard Brains’ ‘RoboRoach’ as an example. The students who began this project noticed a fundamental problem: “One in five people are likely to suffer from a neural affliction at some point in their lives and many such disorders are currently untreatable. Thus, we are in desperate need of more research in this area”. However, unlike chemistry, physics and some other aspects of biology; there are no hands-on ways to engage young people with neuroscience.

This means that when most budding nBrain copyeuro-researchers reach university (myself included), they are often woefully unprepared for the work they will be doing. I still remember struggling with the concepts of electro-chemical gradients and the technology used to record signals from the living brain. After 8 years I’d say I’m finally getting there. But, with our lab looking into early Alzheimer’s diagnostics and treatments, I can’t help but wish I had been better prepared to move quickly into this complicated and immensely important field of study.

The Backyard Brains tool kit certainly ticks all the boxes as a cheap, easy to use method to teach future scientists. And I don’t doubt that the procedures they use balance causing the least possible harm with giving young scientists a chance to learn things they would otherwise not encounter until late in their university education. So I have no qualms with the premise behind ‘RoboRoach’. But I do see a problem with how this teaching tool has been marketed. Terms like ‘RoboRoach’ and ‘cyborg’, not to mention this t-shirt, cheapen the premise behind this project and give critics ample fodder to argue that these scientists are heartless and happy to make light of (and profit from) a serious matter.

So this is where my earlier points come into play. I understand why Backyard Brains used this marketing technique. I’ve been to a number of public engagement lectures where one message is constantly driven home: if you want people to care about your scientific work, you have to make it sound “cool”. So, to be honest Backyard Brains are following this message to a tee. If you read through their web page they even admit this:

“The name “The RoboRoach” and the tagline “Control a Living Insect from Your Smartphone” was chosen to be provocative and to capture the public’s interest. A more accurate though much drier title would have been: “The RoboRoach: Study the effect of frequency and pulse duration on activating sensory circuits in the cockroach locomotion system, and the subsequent adaptation.” This is an accurate description, and these devices are currently used by scientists at research universities. However, such a description though would have alienated novices who have never had any exposure to neuroscience or neural interface experiments. We aim to bring neuroscience to people not necessarily in graduate school and thus chose an easily understandable, provocative name.”

However, I also understand why critics have called their stance ‘disingenuous’, especially when their website contains honest, well argued, ethical considerations alongside seemingly flippant statements which appear to trivialise the whole project; like this: “The RoboRoach is the world’s first commercially available cyborg! That’s right… A real-life Insect Cyborg! Part cockroach and part machine”statement from their kickstarter page.

Unfortunately, although this marketing may have bought them funding, it has also cost them the trust of many critics.

But if you can step outside the controversy and look at the basics of this project, I do believe that this work is both timely and necessary. Here, budding researchers learn how nerve cells communicate and, on a basic level, how to interface with a living brain. The techniques they learn are similar to those used in deep brain stimulation for treatment of Parkinson’s disease; a procedure which has given many sufferers a whole new lease of life! (see video below) And, to top it off, the cockroaches in question continue on to live a full life following the experiments (a fate preferable to that of most wild roaches).

So, although I certainly understand the criticisms aimed at this product. I also honestly believe that, if used as intended as an academic tool, this kit could be an important first step in training future neuro-researchers; perhaps even giving them the head start they need to cure some of the most devastating neurological afflictions.

Post by: Sarah Fox

Comments: The future of secondary school science

Exam time is fast approaching and once again this year pupils will not only be fretting MH900410098about their potential grades, but also over the following inevitable barrage of claims concerning falling exam standards. Yes, however hard you may have worked for that A* to C grade, according to the tabloids, your efforts were futile. Particularly since modern GCSEs are now little more than the academic equivalent of an award for ‘taking part’ – spell your name correctly and walk home with a qualification. But we all know that this is not really the case, that the real situation is significantly more complex.

The truth is, contrary to what we hear from politicians, comparison of exam standards is not an exact science. A seminar held in 2010 by the examinations group Cambridge Assessment concluded that “it is not possible to compare standards, definitively, over long periods of time and perhaps attempting to do so is simply confounding the problem.” Professor Gordon Stobart, from the Institute of Education compared the debate over exam standards with climbing Mount Everest noting that: “In 1953 two people got to the top of Everest, an extraordinary achievement at the time. Yet on a single day in 1996, 39 people stood on the summit.” Does this mean that the mountain is getting easier to climb? Not necessarily, it may simply reflect the fact that more people are attempting the climb and that those who do so are now better equipped.

MH900401121I took my GCSEs around 12 years ago and still remember feeling my success was tempered by claims that exams were ‘getting easier’. I can certainly vouch for the fact that they didn’t feel easy! But, then again, I had nothing to compare them to since, at that time, they were the hardest exams I’d ever taken. Interestingly, the small amount of research which exists in this area shows modern GCSEs are not equivalent to their predecessors the O-levels. A study by the Royal Society of Chemistry (the Five Decade Challenge) found that current students had a harder time answering exam questions taken from the old O-level syllabus than questions written after the GCSE switch-over. The scores for all GCSE-style questions, irrespective of date, remained relatively stable. The study found that students performed well on tests of recall but found problem-solving and tests of quantitative skill challenging.

There are many explanations for these and similar results. It is possible that exams are getting easier. However, it’s equally possible that changes to the syllabus and style of question mean that modern students show different strengths than those required to answer O-level style questions.

MH900402266Anecdotal accounts argue that a culture of ‘teaching to the test’ means that modern students are encouraged to play the system, favouring lessons on exam technique over studying all available material. A particularly worrying example of this can be seen here. To be honest, I do remember a lot of emphasis being placed on past paper learning, knowing how to answer questions and rote learning of facts and figures – something I’m actually pretty terrible at. Add to this a survey by the Confederation of British Industry showing that “more than four out of 10 employers are unhappy with youngsters’ use of English, while 35% bemoan their numeracy skills” and the notion that lecturers often complain about students’ lack of initiative, a worrying picture starts to emerge.

Wherever the problems lie, I believe that it is unfair to blame the students for these failings. Constantly reminding them that the exams they agonised over for the last few years were ‘easy’ won’t solve anything and at worst could be damaging. I also doubt teachers are at fault; they are instead victims of a culture that craves an end result without caring how it is achieved. Instead, we need to take a long hard look at the current system itself and decide whether or not it is still fit for purpose. Luckily this is exactly what education secretary Michael Gove is doing right now. In a recent letter to Ofqual he argues that that “there is an urgent need for reform, to ensure that young people have access to qualifications that set expectations that match and exceed those in the highest performing jurisdictions.”

He is embarking on a mammoth task, which I certainly don’t envy. Not least when it MH900426563comes to science education. With public debate ranging from GM crops to vaccinations, scientific understanding is a must in today’s society. Especially since it has been argued that individuals without a working appreciation of science are more likely to be swayed by pseudo-science and unfounded propaganda. Therefore, providing our children with a strong working understanding of basic science is a must.

Unfortunately I worry that Mr Gove’s reforms run the risk of ‘missing the mark’ when it comes to science. They appear to concentrate heavily on standardising the format of secondary school teaching, removing emphasis on coursework and ensuring qualifications are “linear, with all assessments taken at the end of the course.” This may indeed provide “qualifications that set expectations that match and exceed those in the highest performing jurisdictions.” However, I worry it will fail to tackle the true failings in our current science curriculum.

The Science and Technology Committee Report of Science Education – 2002 states that: “the current curriculum aims to engage all students with science as a preparation for life. At the same time it aims to inspire and prepare some pupils to continue with science post-16. In practice it does neither of these well.” Even more damning is the report’s observations on course structure. It states that “practical work, including fieldwork, is a vital part of science education. It helps students to develop their understanding of science, appreciate that science is based on evidence and acquire hands-on skills that are essential if students are to progress in science.” However, it recognises that due to pressures and time constraints placed on teachers, coursework now has “little MH900448347educational value and has turned practical work into a tedious and dull activity for both students and teachers.” From this they conclude that “many students lose any feelings of enthusiasm that they once had for science… neither enjoy or engage with the subject… they develop a negative image of science which may last for life.” And I can’t see this situation improving if reform means more emphasis on achievement in a final exam and less emphasis on continuous coursework assessments.

The proposed system may place more pressure on teachers to maintain standards through exam achievement alone, running the risk of exacerbating our ‘teach to the test’ culture and marginalising the significance of practical skills development. I hope that if these changes are thoughtfully implemented such problems may be avoided. However, the outcome of this still remains to be seen.

I wonder if there is scope for the scientific community to become further involved in secondary school science education. Successful projects such as I’m a Scientist Get me Out of Here are already gaining in popularity. But, there is still much more we can do. For example: developing online e-learning resources covering the basic curriculum whilst also enabling active scientists, working in related fields, to communicate with students through blogs and forums – placing the curriculum on the context of real-world research. I know scientists are concerned about how their subjects are taught, so perhaps it’s a good time to start building better links with schools and really getting involved?

Post by: Sarah Fox

News and Views: The Brain Activity Mapping Project – What’s the plan?

“If the human brain were so simple that we could understand it, we would be so simple that we couldn’t” – Dr. Emerson Pugh

Isabelle Abbey:

An ambitious project intended to unlock the inscrutable mysteries of nerve cell interactions in the brain is on its way. Labelled America’s ‘next big thing’ in neuroscience research, the ‘BRAIN’ (Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies) initiative will use highly advanced technologies in an attempt to map the wiring of the human brain.

Cajal drew some of the billions of neurons in the human cortex..technology has come a long way since 1899

Also referred to as the ‘Brain Activity Map’ Project (BAM), the BRAIN initiative aims to decode the tens of thousands of connections between each of the ~86 billion neurones that form the basis of human brain. Scientists believe completing the map will be an invaluable step that may have huge implications for therapeutically tackling neurological pathology.

Moving forward in this manner does seem particularly appropriate. For the past 10 years, we have been reaping the benefits of technologies like fMRI and PET scanning, which have allowed us to visualize the brain in a way that has never been done before. From measuring behaviours to diagnosing abnormalities, the contribution of neuroimaging to our understanding of brain physiology and pathology is undeniable.

Paul Alivastos, the lead author of the paper detailing the BAM proposal, aims to develop novel toolkits that can simultaneously record the activities of billions of the cells in the live brain, rather than from macroscopic slices. Eventually, these technologies will allow for the accurate depiction of the flow of information in the human brain, and how this may differ in pathological states such as in Alzheimer’s or autism.

Despite the daunting nature of the task at hand, this proposal has been met with much political enthusiasm. On 2nd April Barack Obama announced the American Government would be backing the project by approving a $100m funding budget for its first year of operation.

The humble nematode worm, 1mm long

But might this project need some grounding? After all, Alivastos and his co-authors are yet to establish the basis for which such tools can be developed or the extent to which these technologies could be used. The years of extensive research that has concentrated on mapping the wiring of a simple nematode worm, consisting of only several hundred nervous system cells, is yet to allow us to accurately predict the worm’s behaviour. So, some scepticism does seem reasonable.

While we must be cautious in predicting ambitious benefits from such a project, the map Alivastos and his colleagues have envisaged gives reason enough to be hopeful for the next decade in our neuroscientific appreciation of human cognition.

Natasha Bray:

As a neuroscience researcher, I can’t help but take an interest in the BRAIN initiative proposed by President Obama earlier this month. It’s a massive pot of cash designed not only to further the neuroscientific knowledge base, but also to create jobs and technologies that can’t even be described yet. As Izzy mentions above, the project is an ambitious and important undertaking that merits the now fashionable label of ‘big science’.

The BRAIN initiative is funded by a big pot of money from different resources including DARPA (the Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency), the National Science Foundation, the National Institute for Health, Google and various other institutes and charities.

So far, even defining the project and choosing suitable methods has been a challenge. The research leaders have proposed “to record every action potential from every neuron within a circuit”. Bear in mind action potentials (nerve impulses) happen in a matter of a couple of thousandths of a second, while a single circuit may encompass many millions of cells. At the moment, neuroscientists can record action potentials from up to about 100 cells simultaneously. We can work out anatomical circuits. We just can’t record from every cell within them; there is not one single tool in neuroscience’s toolbox that is currently capable of gathering that kind of data (yet).

There are, however, candidate techniques that could be improved or perhaps combined. Imaging techniques, including optical, calcium or voltage imaging, or magnetic imaging such as fMRI and MEG can scan on different scales in both time and space. Neurons’ electrical activity can be recorded using silicon-based nanoprobes or very tightly-spaced electrodes. Researchers have even suggested synthesising DNA that records action potentials as errors in the DNA strand like a ticker tape. Advances in all these technologies are still being made, making them the most likely candidates.

Added to the difficult choice of method is the serious task of storing and analysing quadrillions of bytes of data, plus the fact that it’ll take about ten years just to complete an activity map of the fly brain. It’s clear there are significant hurdles to jump. Then again, no one said big science would be easy…or cheap. But the potential benefits of big science are huge. The Human Genome Project had a projected cost of $3 billion, but was completed within its budget and has already proved a huge investment both intellectually and financially. It’s famously estimated that for every dollar originally invested in the Human Genome Project, an economic return of $140 has already been made.

I see the BRAIN initiative as a very worthy cause, a good example of aspirational ‘big science’ and a great endorsement for future neuroscience. One gripe I have with it, however, is that it seems a little like Obama’s catch-up effort in response to Europe’s Human Brain Project (HBP). The HBP involves 80 institutions striving towards creating a complex computer infrastructure powerful enough to mimic the human brain, right down to the molecular level. Which begs the question: surely in order to build an artificial brain you need to understand how it’s put together in the first place? I really hope that the BRAIN initiative and Human Brain Project put their ‘heads together’ to help each other in untangling the complex workings of the brain.

News and Views: The Festival of Neuroscience – A 5 minute guide.



Between 7th-10th April 2013, neuroscientists from across the globe met in London for the British Neuroscience Association’s ‘Festival of Neuroscience’. Here is my whistle-stop tour of the main talking points.



Drugs, neuroscience and society

Instigated by the divisive Professor David Nutt, delegates heard about research into cognitive enhancing drugs. Professor Judy Illes suggested these drugs should be labelled ‘neuro-enablers’ not ‘neuro-enhancers’ to focus on their role in improving cognition in those affected by diseases such as Down’s syndrome. Topics debated included: Should we criminalise use in healthy people?; Should we allow their use in exams, job interviews etc.?; Should we allow them only if declaration of use were compulsory?; Would this lead to two-tiered exams – users and non-users?


Dr Paul Howard-Jones spoke of ‘neuromyths’ in education. He highlighted the oft-cited theory that children all have their own learning style (visual, kinaesthetic, auditory etc.) as having no scientific basis. ‘Neuromyths’ are routine in the field of education, he said.


Professor Emeritus Nicholas Mackintosh described findings in the Royal Society’s report into neuroscience and the law. Bottom-line is that there is very little evidence thus far to suggest one can use brain scans successfully in a court of law. Only once has neuroscience been used successfully in court.


Pain, placebo and consciousness

Professor Irene Tracey gave a fantastic plenary talk on imaging pain in the brain. She gave wonderful insights into how the placebo effect is very real and can be seen in the brain. A placebo can hijack the same systems of the brain that (some) painkillers act on. This could have strong implications for the experimental painkiller vs. placebo set-up of randomised controlled trials.


Professor Ed Bullmore spoke about the connectivity of the brain. He described the intricate connections of the brain and how some regions are highly connected whilst others have only sparse connections. He noted that in a coma, highly connected regions lose connectivity and sparsely connected regions gain connectivity. This goes nicely with the work by Giulio Tononi into theories of consciousness.


Professor Yves Agid entertained with his animated talk on subconsciousness. He argued that the basal ganglia are crucial for subconscious behaviours. He showed that the basal ganglia become dysfunctional in diseases such as Tourette’s syndrome and Parkinson’s disease – both of which involve defective subconsciousness.


Great science

Professor David Attwell told a wonderful story about glia, the support cells of the brain. Glia are often forgotten about when talking about functions of the brain, but Prof Attwell described fantastic research condemning this. Glia are involved in brain activity, both in health and disease. Glia are involved in regulating the speed of nerve cell communication. Glia may also be involved in learning and memory.


Professor Tim Bliss, one of the pioneers of research into memory formation, spoke about his seminal discovery of long-term potentiation. He recalled the story behind how he and his colleague Terje Lømo discovered one of the mechanisms that mammals use to store long-term memories. He even owned up to falling asleep during the published night-time experiment and failing to jot down the data for a short period! #overlyhonestmethods


Professor Anders Björklund gave a public lecture on his life’s work into stem cell therapy to treat Parkinson’s disease. He showed some wonderful results that have really made a difference to patients’ lives. This therapy shows good improvement in ~40% of cases. Work continues into why it does not work in all cases.


To follow what else was said during the conference, see #BNAneurofest.


By Oliver Freeman @ojfreeman

News and Views: The importance of vaccination

NeedleThere has been a story in the news recently about a measles outbreak in Swansea and certain other areas of Wales. The cause of this outbreak is attributed to a lack of children being vaccinated with the controversial Measles, Mumps and Rubella (MMR) jab. This measles outbreak highlights the troubled relationship between the general public and vaccination.

The drop in numbers of children receiving the MMR jab can probably be traced back to a 1998 news story. A paper was published in the journal The Lancet stating there was a link between the MMR jab and cases of autism and bowel disease. The study was led by Andrew Wakefield, a former surgeon. Wakefield claimed that instead of the single MMR jab, a vaccination should be administered in three single doses, one for each disease.

However, there were several major problems with the science in the paper. No other scientists could identify the link between the MMR jab and autism that Wakefield and his team claimed. Investigation by the journalist Brian Deer also revealed that Wakefield had a “conflict of interest”, in that he was being paid by a law firm trying to prove that the MMR jab was harmful. This should have been declared to the Lancet, but wasn’t. Therefore his motives appeared to be more financial than scientific1. Eventually after a large, long hearing Wakefield was struck off the medical register in 2010.

A greater problem has arisen from all this. However dishonestly Wakefield behaved, his original claim was never that “all vaccinations are bad”. He claimed that one particular vaccine had a (disproven) link to disease.  However, it appears that some people have become generally mistrustful of all vaccines and worry that they all cause serious disease.  For example Michele Bachmann, a US congresswoman contending for the Republican nomination for president in 2012, claimed that the HPV vaccine led to mental retardation. This statement was not based on scientific evidence or due to any research on the HPV vaccine; she was quoting a parent who had also made that claim without any actual evidence. Other people, including celebrities, both here and abroad, have begun to claim links between some vaccines and diseases which have never been scientifically proven. This had led to a multitude of preventable illnesses and deaths because people are unsure about whether to be vaccinated or not.

Can vaccines be harmful? They do sometimes contain “attenuated” or less virulent versions of the disease-causing microbe to stimulate the immune system. This could theoretically lead to a person who is vaccinated getting the disease instead if the virus reverts to virulence. However, vaccines are rigorously tested before being administered, so any side effects can be detected and assessed before it enters the general population. If the side effects are too bad or the vaccine is not effective enough, it will not be administered. Occasionally things can go wrong, but the prevention of these diseases generally outweighs the risks of using the vaccine.

The media has apparently made little attempt to rectify the public’s mistrust in vaccines. Whilst the original story about the link between MMR and autism was blasted across the front pages of the national papers, the subsequent retraction of the paper (in 2010) and Wakefield’s dismissal have not been as heavily reported. This means that people still have a vague remembrance that “vaccinations are bad” and are not being vaccinated because the story has been poorly clarified. Unfortunately, this has led to several outbreaks of measles, as well as other diseases such as whooping cough that can be prevented by vaccination.

It is important that as many people get vaccinated as possible. When enough of the population is vaccinated against a certain disease, the spread of that disease is limited. This protects people that have not, or cannot, be vaccinated. This concept is known as “herd immunity” but, for it to be successful, a large number of the population need to be vaccinated. This is called the “herd immunity threshold” and may need to be up to 95% of the population to be effective.

I’m not suggesting that you should get every vaccine which is available. However, if you or someone you know is due to have a vaccine and you’re worried, ask your doctor (and get second opinions) about potential side effects or the importance of the vaccine. It is important to make an informed decision about whether to be vaccinated or not based on scientific and medical evidence rather than hysterical celebrities or a retracted paper.

1 Reference: http://www.bmj.com/content/342/bmj.c5347 and references therein

Post by: Louise Walker

NEWS AND VIEWS: Standing Up For Science – Improving the relationship between science and the media

Historically, scientists and journalists have never really got along. In general, scientists tend to be a little … mistrustful of the ability of a journalist to accurately portray their research to a wider audience. In return, journalists may find that scientists can be difficult to work with. The research the scientists present can also be a bit confusing or complicated. But they need each other. Scientists need journalists to get the message about their research across, and newspapers like to print science stories  because their readers are interested in it.

Knowing that the science/media relationship can be somewhat antagonistic, the charity Sense About Science has set up a series of workshops as part of their “Voice of Young Science” section. The aim is to help foster a better relationship between early career scientists and the journalists that report scientific stories. These workshops encourage scientists to stand up for themselves and their subject by responding to misinformation or dubious claims in all kinds of media.

I was lucky enough to be able to attend the recent Voice of Young Science media workshop at The University of Manchester. The day was split into several panel discussions; the first involved scientists discussing their experiences with the media – both good and bad – and advising how to get the best out of their situation. Amongst the speakers was Professor Matthew Cobb, from the University of Manchester, one of the advisors on the BBC’s recent “Wonders of Life” series (this counted as one of his “good” experiences!). Professor Cobb’s main advice was to “Just say yes”, because nothing will happen if you say “No”. It may not turn out as well as you’d hoped, but the experience will still be valuable.

It’s easy for scientists to be scared about the way their results may be interpreted by the media. These fears are illustrated by a horror story from another panel member, the evolutionary biologist Dr Susanne Shultz. Dr Shultz had discovered an evolutionary link between social animals and increasing brain size over time, as opposed to solitary animals, whose brains had more or less remained the same size. A misunderstanding somewhere along the line meant it was reported that she had discovered that dogs (as a social animal) were more intelligent than cats (as a solitary one). These were not her results, meaning she had to repair quite a lot of damage. However, whilst Dr. Shultz had a horrible time dealing with misinterpretation of her research, she didn’t think it had done permanent damage to her scientific credentials, which was a relief to hear.

Another panel consisted of people on the media side of the equation, including the science journalist David Derbyshire, as well as Radio 5 Live producer Rebekah Erlam, and Morwenna Grills, the press officer for the Faculty of Life Sciences here in Manchester. There was a sharp intake of breath when Derbyshire admitted that he has written for certain tabloids which are not particularly well-regarded for their science reporting! However, he raised some very good points that I’ve never thought about before. The one that stuck with me was that the turnaround time for getting a story into a newspaper is incredibly short. You’ve got to investigate the story, track down those involved, write it and send it off, sometimes in the space of a few hours. This is not an ideal situation, as scientific stories in particular need proper research to make sure you thoroughly understand it, and this takes time. But what do you do if that time is not available to you? And if your piece is sub-edited into something different, is there a lot you can do about it?

The thing that struck me most about the workshop is that scientists and journalists really need to communicate with each other more effectively. Without journalists reporting on scientific matters, scientific research would never reach the public consciousness; and when you have an important message to get across that would be a very bad thing. Scientific breakthroughs are usually of great interest for the general public, whether it’s about a potential cure for cancer or horsemeat in our burgers. It should ideally be a trusting relationship for both sides to get the best out of the arrangement, and at the moment it is inherently the opposite. The good thing about workshops such as this one is that it helps each side see the situation from the other’s point of view; I certainly feel a bit more understanding towards science reporters. Hopefully the journalists on the panel feel more sympathy towards scientists and why they can be quite protective about their work. Perhaps more events like this can help to heal the rift between these two opposing factions.

For more information about the Voice of Young Science media workshops, please go to: http://www.senseaboutscience.org/pages/workshops.html