Summer School

News

A note has gone out on AlphaGalileo about yet another open access operation. We read in UK PubMed Central launched that "From today scientists will be able to access a vast collection of biomedical research and to submit their own published results for inclusion in a new online resource."

Yet another way for the biomeds to fill the media with their promises of cures tomorrow. Maybe the physical sciences will get their show on the road before too long.

It seems that one of the driving forces behind the show was the Wellcome Trust. The trust has, as in other things, dragged the public sector kicking and screaming into the 21st century, pushing up PhD grants for example, and generally being a force for good while the Research Councils dithered, perhaps because they had to check with their political paymasters before jumping to attention. The trust, being independent with a mere £10 billion or more in the bank, can go its own sweet way.

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Any editor worth the title wants to know what the punters like to read before going on and ignoring their input. So it is worth catching up on NewScientist.com's most popular stories of 2006.

Top of the list of "the ones you clicked on the most" was "Imagine Earth without people," and rounding off the list was "Revealed: What mosquitoes hate about humans".

As an aside, it was nice to see that New Scientist chose to list the top 13, thus poking fun at two cherished notions, that numbers can be unlucky, and that you have to draw up silly lists to grab the reader's attention.


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Perish the thought that scientists should talk to the media without some prior thought. They might make fools of themselves. That's one reason why the EU funded the MESSENGER project. This has now come up with a bunch of reports, including "Guidelines for scientists on communicating with the media".

The introduction to the guidelines point out why they think it helps to have this sort of thing:
"While there are numerous examples of how the media have ‘hyped’ science stories and generated unnecessary anxieties in the absence of real empirical evidence, there are equally examples of where scientists have communicated, say, data relating to risks in such a manner that public misunderstandings have been almost inevitable."
MESSENGER's outputs also include "A layperson's guide to decoding science and health stories". What a nerve, giving away all those nasty trade secrets.

There is also a draft of the "Messenger Final Report". (Be warned, this is a big file at 4MB.) At more than 400 pages, it will be a bit of time before we can digest this document, and see if it really is dangerous and subversive stuff.


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Another year, another shelf-load of science books. Over on USATODAY.com Dan Vergano has his take in The science books of 2006: A bountiful year.

Reading the list, you get the impression that in the USA authors are more adventurous in the subjects they write about. For example, while in the UK we get some fascinating insights into the history of military science, it rarely deals with anything since the Second World War. I certainly can't recall anything here that deals with the current connections between science and the military. Maybe nobody in the UK writes books like this is because the defence world here has abandoned science in its pursuit of better weapons.

As Vergano rightly says "A secret history of modern science could be assembled by looking at the links between military spending and research advances." In the USA they have the beginning s of that history, he says, mentioning "three good books out this year [that] might form chapters in this history". One of these books is by an ABSW member, Nigel Hey, who gave us The Star Wars Enigma: Behind the Scenes of the Cold War Race for Missile Defense.

One way in which the USA looks much like the UK when it comes to science books is the popularity of evolution as a subject. Then again, some of the books Vergano mentions are by Brits. With creationism rearing its head here to, expect this trend to continue.

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When the current issue of The Science Reporter finally arrives – it has been sat at the printers for a couple of weeks – you will find an article on a proposed "twinning" of the ABSW with science writers elsewhere. One idea is that we can support science writers in countries where this is a relatively new profession.

One possible "twin" is the Middle East, where Israeli science writers have had a club for years, but where there was, until now, no association for other countries. This has changed, as we read in the item on SciDev.Net, Arab science reporters get their own association.

The twinning idea will be on the agenda for the AGM in the New Year. All input welcome.

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A campaign is under way to debunk some of the sillier personality endorsements of wacky science. First we read the item on the BBC web site Stars must 'check science facts', and then there is the article in The Guardian Neutralise radiation and stay off milk: the truth about celebrity health claims.

Unfortunately, the BBC story is thin on juicy bits. The anonymous item offers not one example of a celebrity suffering from scientific foot-in-mouth syndrome. We just get some quotes from some of the usual rent-a-gob mob of scientists and an exhortation from Tracey Brown, director of Sense About Science, urging celebs to call this shadowy outfit before they go public.

It would be much better if they urged the people who passed on this tosh to check it before putting it into their magazines and newspapers. But that would not garner quite as much publicity as going for the celebs.

If you want to read to examples of celebrity tosh, you will have to download the brochure promoting the venture. We like the one from Jo Wood "wife of famous musician" who is quoted as saying "what you put on your skin goes into your bloodstream". She is mouthing off about why she uses organic beauty products.

Sadly, the response is a bit unscientific for us. It quotes Dr Gary Moss, a pharmacologist from the University of Hertfordshire, as saying "Ingredients in cosmetics are normally quite large and cannot get across your skin and into your bloodstream." We think this is a reference to the size of the molecules in all that gunk. He is right, though, when he continues "Your skin feels different when you apply cosmetics because their effect is on the outer surface of the skin."

The Guardian picks up the same story. Unlike the BBC, James Randerson has some of the quotes from the brochure. For example, he includes Madonna's comments on nuclear waste. "I mean, one of the biggest problems that exists right now in the world is nuclear waste ... that's something I've been involved with for a while with a group of scientists - finding a way to neutralise radiation."

The response here is even more suspect. Nick Evans, an environmental radiochemist at Loughborough University tells us that "Radioactivity cannot be 'neutralised', it can only be moved from one place to another until it decays away at its own rate. It comes in many different types: some last for billions of years, others decay away in a few minutes. There are no magical solutions."

Up to a point Lord Copper. By coincidence, we recently read an item on the EU's excellent Cordis web site, German researchers find solution to radioactive waste disposal. This reports that "German physicists ... have come up with a way of speeding up the decay of nuclear waste. The technique involves embedding the waste in metal and cooling it to ultra-low temperatures."

There have been other reports over the years of using accelerators and the like to transmute radioactive isotopes into something safer. Madonna may be talking tosh, but it is unwise to blind her with science that she can easily counter.

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With so many companies rushing to do R&D in China, it isn't surprising that the country is clambering on the Public Engagement in Science and Technology bandwagon. SciDev.Net reports that China encourages media to report more on science. The piece says that "the government will encourage publishers to distribute more popular science books in rural areas, with thousands of bookstores and newsstands planned for remote rural areas".


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In what is, unless he has been busy reading proofs, probably one of those "I didn't write the headlines" moments, last Saturday's Guardian says Tim Radford previews the best upcoming science books.

No matter, it is a chance to see what is coming along in the first half of the year, and to line up reviews, especially of books written by ABSW members. We like the bit about what is "probably" book number 102 from the Gribbin word machine.

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They have awarded the prizes for the "Best National Brain Science Writers" that we wrote about earlier. There is a press release from the organisers – the European Dana Alliance for the Brain, the British Neuroscience Association and At-Bristol science centre – over on AlphaGalileo.

Dr Angelica Ronald received the top award in the Researchers Prize category while Dr Rebecca Poole picked up the top title in the General Prize category. They also commended a bright young schoolkid, Flora Devlin, a 6th-form student from Manchester.

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