Wednesday, 20 October 2010

Students saved from science cuts?

The ‘Science is Vital’ campaign has successfully saved students from the worst of proposed science cuts. However this victory is not the end of the story and there is still a major risk of a “brain drain” of UK science graduates.

The recent Spending Review has announced that the science budget will be frozen at £4.6bn. This was despite a proposal of a 25% cut for all funding commitments of The UK department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) which supports universities as well as science.

The ring-fenced budget includes £1bn for university research through the Higher Education Innovation Funding Council for England. BIS has announced “the government will ensure the UK remains a world leader in science and research.”

The Campaign for Science and Engineering (CaSE) launched a sustained lobbying campaign to influence the government’s spending announcements. The ‘Science is Vital’ message was clear: science cuts would create “long term and irreversible damage.”

Committee members including Dr Jenny Rohn from UCL and Imran Khan (CaSE) organised a spectacular rally in central London with over 2,000 marching scientists and the public; a lobby in parliament, and a petition with 35,995 signatories so far.

The key message that science cuts would create “long term and irreversible damage” was echoed by key supporters such as Sir Patrick Moore “If we cut funds for science we’ll be shooting ourselves in the foot.”

However although the worst of the science cuts have been avoided by successful lobbying, the actual money available will result in real term cuts of about 10%. Savings of £324m will still need to be found yet it is argued that there is “no fat to cut.”

CaSE released this response “A 10% cut over four years is significant, especially at a time when our competitors like the US and Germany are having real-terms increases – but today saw an important ‘statement of intent’ from the coalition.”

The UK is currently listed 15th in the world in terms of the proportion of GDP spent on R&D. This relatively low investment contrasts with the fact that the UK is home to 29 of the world’s top 200 Universities, including three of the top ten.

This lack of funding for science results in many science graduates moving abroad in what has been described as a “brain drain”. Yet these talented individuals are vital for the UK to remain a world leader in science and innovation.

This is unlikely to change without an increase in funding for science as opposed to a real term cut. John Krebs, the chair of the House of Lords science and technology committee wrote to the science minister David Willetts to warn against this threat.

The letter said that several leading researchers had already lost scientists to overseas universities and warned that a cut in funding, while other countries increased their scientific spend, would raise "significant risks" to the UK's scientific research base.

Thursday, 23 September 2010

The 'buy button' in the brain

The idea that our unconscious desires can be manipulated by subliminal marketing is concerning. However the latest reincarnation of these techniques - neuromarketing has no grounding in modern neuroscience and seeks to capitalize on these fears.

Addressing an audience at the British Science Festival, Professor Nick Lee from Aston University argues that many of the claims of neuromarketing are simply “comic”. For example the idea that there is an area of the brain dedicated to our cravings.

Modern neuroscience tells us that this is simply not possible due to the way in which our brains process information. There is a fundamental difference between our experience of the world and what is actually happening in the brain.

Most people have a working assumption that there is a central location where perceptions are processed. However this working assumption is “Nearer to mediaeval witchcraft than how neuroscientists now understand the workings of the brain.”

Complicated messages from the outside world that our brains need to process are not transferred in their entirety. Instead the messages get broken up into small bits of information – in a similar way to the workings of the nervous system.

“The brain is specialized but not by complicated behaviour.” To induce ‘buying’ neuromarketing would need to influence a large number of brain regions at once. This is simply not possible with an advertisement whether we are conscious of it or not.

Neuroimaging by brain scans can only have a role in telling whether someone is conscious of a stimulus; whether they are paying attention, and what emotions the images may evoke. This knowledge is simply a more accurate extension of traditional market research.

When brain scans are involved there can be a tendency for people to believe any claims which are made. But neuromarketing is not magic. Any fears over the power of this technique “tell us more about ourselves than what neouromarketers can really do.”

Tuesday, 3 August 2010

Milk from clones: a storm in a tea-cup?

The latest tirade on "clone farm's milk" is yet another example of poor science understanding. Whilst there may be valid concerns about the animal welfare of cloned animals and some limited research suggesting these animals do not live as long as 'normal' animals this story has been over-sold. 

The milk that has been on sale in the UK is alleged to have come from a farmer who imported the embryo of a cloned cow from abroad. The cow that the milk was taken from was not in fact the animal derived from that cloned embryo but the offspring of a clone. In effect the clone was being used as a 'prize bull' to produce animals that yielded large quantities of milk.

This is simply a form of selective breeding and is simply what farmer's have already been doing for centuries. That is choosing animals with high yields and selectively breeding them to produce optimum animals. The farmer in question in this story decided to by-pass this process and purchase the embryo from abroad.

The outrage and disgust at the idea that we might be drinking cloned milk suggests a lack of knowledge of the scientific process involved. The public might recoil at the idea but there is absolutely no evidence to date that the offspring of cloned animals will produce milk that may harm public health.

In an analogy we could argue that we should not drink milk from a cow that has been sired by artificial insemination. This is a common practice in farming and there are no legislation against this process. However it is a similar process in that the sperm is taken from a 'prize bull' and this is used artificially to produce an embryo inside the womb.

The only difference with the cloning procedure is that the sperm from the 'prize bull' is used to fertilise an egg which has been stripped of it's DNA content and that this embryo is produced in a lab. The rest is the same: a valuable cow producing large quantities of milk.

Currently milk derived from a clone in this way is described as a novel food stuff and must be regulated by the FSA however is this necessary? I would suggest that a cautionary approach is important but as and when new research emerges we perhaps need to look again at this issue.