Not-So-Instant Karma

At school, the Biology lab with its mercury vapour lamp and slightly smelly combination of plants, fruit flies, toads and spiny mice seemed a strangely cozy and welcoming place. Our teachers, Mr Hugall and Mr Allen, made biology seem easy, interesting and important. I feel I owe them so much.

One of my Biology teachers, Mr Allen, seen in 1989.
One of my Biology teachers, Mr Allen, seen in 1989.

The most important thing I learned was that science wasn’t just about facts that someone else had already figured out, it was about finding the answers to new, unsolved mysteries.

We were lucky to get to design and run our own experiments for the first time as part of our A-level. It’s a bit hazy, but I did mine on human hearing and looked at the accuracy with which people could tune one frequency to match another. Nearly 30 years later, I am still fascinated by the biology of human behaviour, still designing and running experiments. And now I am teaching my own students, and they’re going on to devise and run their own experiments and making discoveries of their own.

I know that at least one member of my small A-level class of six or seven went on to a career in cancer research and several others including myself went on to degrees and research careers in the biosciences. That was just one year, so there must have been many, many more.

Today I learned that when Mr Allen was diagnosed with a large lymphoma in his chest, his life was saved by treatment with a new, potent and highly selective drug. I am happy to say he is fit and well. It seems karmic that he was able to benefit from the science that he’d spent so many years working to inspire.

His son, Jeremy, who was in our class, is now doing a sponsored triathlon for Leukaemia and Lymphoma Research. So it seems like a good opportunity to me say a proper thank you to my teacher, and to inspirational teachers more generally. And I hope that if you’ve been inspired by a great teacher, you’ll consider making a donation, too.

Hidden Gem III: What’s Wrong with Science?

The final hidden gem is this article on reforming science. Although it appears in the journal Infection and Immunity it is concerned with the culture of science as a whole and will be of interest to all scientists. The authors Arturo Casadevall and Ferric Fang diagnose some serious systemic problems with 21st century science and prescribe some reforms by way of treatment. At the bottom of this article there is a survey for you to express your views.
Continue reading “Hidden Gem III: What’s Wrong with Science?”

Science is Still Vital!

Ice Covered DNA Fountain

A DNA sculpture frozen like the science budget.

Last year’s Science is Vital campaign was launched to defend Britain’s scientific research from cuts in the Comprehensive Spending Review that the new government undertook shortly after taking office. The campaign’s petition garnered 35000 signatures from scientists and their supporters, and several thousand of us attended a rally at the Treasury on 9st October last year. The campaign was successful, and scientific research was spared from the worst of the cuts. But the research budget was frozen and, once inflation is taken into account, that amounts to a cut of around 10%.

One of the reasons scientists had to speak up before the spending review was that the contribution of scientific research to the wider economy is not as broadly appreciated as it should be. It might seem obvious that the developed world has benefitted hugely from scientific advances but evidently there is some truth to the saying “familiarity breeds contempt”. British-based scientists are being pressured to do more with less, despite the fact that the UK already punches well above its weight in terms of scientific output and influence.

While we escaped the worst of the spending cuts in the CSR, I argued back in October 2010 that scientists cannot afford to wait for the axe to fall before speaking up in the future. We need to continue to get out of the lab and to engage with public debate to ensure that the scientific contribution to the economy and to our society’s well-being is not taken for granted.

The Science and Technology Committee of the House of Commons is a committee of sitting MPs whose job it is to hold the government to account over science policy. They have decided to look into the impact of the spending review on research and they have asked for the views of the scientific community on the state of science funding (by 27th April).  This provides scientists with a critical opportunity to have their voices heard. If scientists don’t speak up, we can hardly complain if Parliament decides that the current level of funding is sufficient. To avoid this, Science is Vital is providing a one-stop web page with all the information you need to prepare a submission for the committee. It needn’t take long, and the committee’s report will make a real difference to the way the current policy is evaluated and the way government funds science in the future – so let’s provide them with the evidence they need.