Monthly Archives: September 2010

Canada’s 2nd science policy conference in 2010

In about another month or so, the group that organized the *Canadian Science Policy Conference last year will be holding it’s 2nd annual conference in Montréal, Québec from Oct. 20-22, 2010. My June 7, 2010 posting featured their preliminary programme and five listed themes. I’ll repeat the themes here,

* Increasing the Productivity of Canada’s Economy using  Science and Technology
* Global Perspectives on Science and Technology
* Creating and Retaining Scientific Talent in Canada
* A Glance at Bioscience in Canada
* Major Issues in Canadian Science Policy

They have since attracted two keynote speakers:

  • Dr. Marc Garneau (Former Astronaut turned Federal MP of Westmount Ville-Marie).
  • Dr. Nina V. Fedorov (Willaman Professor of the Life Sciences and Evan Pugh Professor, Huck Institutes of the Life Sciences, Penn State University, Distinguished Visiting Professor, King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST), and Member, External Faculty, The Santa Fe Institute).

I have looked at the agenda and must admit to a little disappointment as it all seems a bit pedestrian. Given the themes, I suppose I shouldn’t be all that surprised but it does seem a waste when a little imagination and verve could have produced something thoughtprovoking.  For example, instead of this theme:

Creating and Retaining Scientific Talent in Canada

We could have this one:

How many scientists do we need in Canada and what should they be doing?

I’m also wondering why there are no sessions about citizen science or public engagement or the lack of industrial science or the muzzling of government scientists at Environment Canada, Health Canada, and Natural Resources Canada?

Still, there are a few unexpected sessions such as this one: Educating Socially Engaged Scientists and Engineers. In any event, I wish the organizers and attendees a very fruitful science policy conference.

* There is appears to be another group that organizes Canadian science policy conferences although their target market appears to be scientists in the civil service (and I believe they hold their conference every two years). I posted about their 2010 conference here and here.

Higher education and political violence

There’s a fascinating study by Oxford sociologist Diego Gambetta and political scientist Steffen Hertog, of the London School of Economics, first published in 2008, where amongst other findings they noted a disproportionate number of engineers were found in right-wing groups that practice or advocate political violence. Since the 2008 publication,  Gambetta and Hertog have continued the study and are preparing to publish a book on their work. Steven Curry at the IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers) Spectrum recently (Sept. 15, 2010) interviewed Hertog about the findings. You can find the podcast here.

Thanks to Christine Peterson’s (Foresight Institute) Sept. 16, 2010 posting for pointing to this podcast and here are a couple of excerpts on her thoughts about the study,

I have not listened to this, but the obvious answer would seem to be that many people might wish to be effective terrorists, but only the more technical ones have the needed skills to carry out an action that causes significant harm. (I have often been thankful that the superb technical people I know appear to have no leanings in that direction.)

For now, nanotechnologies are primarily being developed by people who are not likely to deploy them for terrorist purposes, but as time passes this will change. It took about a century for airplanes to be used outside traditional warfare to do major harm; probably that sequence will be faster for nanotechnologies.

I did listen to the podcast and Hertog was very careful to make clear that there are some nuances to be considered. First, the study was not focused on engineers or right-wing groups.  As he points out in the podcast, left-wing groups also practice or advocate political violence but they don’t tend to have disproportionate numbers (as compared to what you’d expect from a random sampling of the population) of engineers. If I understand Hertog correctly, left-wing groups tend to attract students and graduates from the humanities and social sciences and can be just as successful with their attempts at political violence. (Note: In the Vancouver (Canada) area, there was the Squamish Five [aka Direct Action] in the early 1980s who firebombed three porn video outlets, a munitions manufacturer (located in the Toronto area), and a BC Hydro substation on Vancouver Island amongst other activities to protest capitalism and the failure of other forms of political activism. Not a single one of the ‘activists’ was an engineer. Wikipedia essay here.)

In much the same way that trying to establish simple causal relationships has led to some of the disappointments in gene therapy and other recent scientific endeavours (my Sept. 21, 2010 posting), Hertog is careful to provide some nuance to this social discussion.

The researchers broke down Islamist and other groups by country and found that in Middle Eastern countries engineers are held in high esteem so ambitious young people study to be engineers. High numbers of recently graduated engineers when coupled with a poor labour market in Middle Eastern countries that also host groups advocating/practicing political violence had a higher than expected  proportion of engineers. In other words, the engineers’ job prospects were not good.The two Middle Eastern countries with the best labour markets for engineers didn’t have disproportionate numbers of engineers in right-wing groups advocating/ practicing political violence.

The researchers also noted that engineers regardless of their geographic location tend to be more politically right-wing than other occupations which, if they are frustrated, may predispose them to right-wing causes. By that token, I imagine that frustrated social scientists and humanities graduates would be predisposed to left-wing causes. In any event, having a predisposition to left-wing or right-wing causes and being frustrated in the labour market doesn’t guarantee that you will be practicing political violence. It’s not that simple but the study does provide some food for thought as we try to figure out why people are moved to political violence and whether we can find better ways to respond ahead of time. Bravo to Steven Curry and the IEEE for opening a discussion about this work.

Science envoys and science with football and Dancing with the Stars

The US government established science envoys (scientists as part of the diplomatic service) in 2009. According to this  Sept. 19, 2010 posting on the Pasco Phronesis, three more people have been appointed,

The newest science envoys are:

Dr. Rita Colwell, former Director of the National Science Foundation. Her background is in biotechnology and microbiology, and her current research interests include infectious diseases.

Dr. Gebisa Ejeta, an agronomist at Purdue University and a native of Ethiopia. His research interests focus on sorghum, an important cereal and feed crop worldwide.

Dr. Alice Gast, president of Lehigh University. Dr. Gast has a background in chemical engineering, and served as the vice president for research at MIT prior to becoming the Lehigh President.

(You can get links and more details from Pasco Phronesis.) I find this introduction of science into areas that I don’t ordinarily associate with it quite interesting. Here’s another example also from Pasco Phronesis, science with US style football (Sept. 17, 2010 posting),

Continuing a project started during the recent Winter Olympics in Vancouver, NBC has partnered with the National Football League (NFL) and the National Science Foundation (NSF) to provide science content to augment the network’s football coverage. With the help of high-speed cameras, a scientist (most sponsored by NSF) will introduce a scientific principle and a former or current NFL player will explain how the principle applies to their position. Scientific fields represented include kinesiology, engineering and nutrition.

David (Pasco Phronesis) goes on to suggest that a segment on concussions (not currently part of the series) would be a good idea and I have to agree with him on that one.

To my delight I found that Science Cheerleader (Darlene Cavalier) helped develop this program (from her Sept. 9, 2010 posting),

Man, this was one of the most exciting projects I’ve ever worked on (partnership director). I originally pitched this as the Science of Pro Cheerleading but, what the heck, this ain’t too shabby. Huge round of applause to the National Science Foundation for making this possible. Together, with the incomparable professionals at NBC and NFL, we present to you, the Science of NFL Football….with a few procheerleaders-turned-scientists- and engineers sprinkled in here and there. Can’t help it. And, these gals do a great job inspiring young women to consider careers in science and technology so SciCheer is broadening the distribution of this series. We will debut new video stories every week for the next seven weeks.

Given her engaging perspective, I imagine the US National Football League’s and NBC series will also be engaging and creative.

Both David and Darlene have made me realize just how much science is being snuck into unexpected places these days. This reminded me that Dancing with the Stars also had a science segment. One of the nights they broadcast the show (can’t remember which season), they included information about the kinesiology and physics of ballroom dancing and compared dancers to athletes. Science is everywhere.

Overpromising and underdelivering: genome, stem cells, gene therapy and nano food

When people talk about overpromising (aka hype/hyperbole) and science, they’re usually referring to overexcited marketing collateral and/or a public relations initiative and/or news media coverage.  Scientists themselves don’t tend to be identified as one of the sources for hype even when that’s clearly the case. That’s right, scientists are people too and sometimes they get carried away by their enthusiasms as Emily Yoffe notes in her excellent Slate essay, The Medical Revolution; Where are the cures promised by stem cells, gene therapy, and the human genome? From Yoffe’s essay,

Dr. J. William Langston has been researching Parkinson’s disease for 25 years. At one time, it seemed likely he’d have to find another disease to study, because a cure for Parkinson’s looked imminent. In the late 1980s, the field of regenerative medicine seemed poised to make it possible for doctors to put healthy tissue in a damaged brain, reversing the destruction caused by the disease.

Langston was one of many optimists. In 1999, the then-head of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, Dr. Gerald Fischbach, testified before the Senate that with “skill and luck,” Parkinson’s could be cured in five to 10 years. Now Langston, who is 67, doesn’t think he’ll see a Parkinson’s cure in his professional lifetime. He no longer uses “the C word” and acknowledges he and others were naive. [emphasis mine] He understands the anger of patients who, he says, “are getting quite bitter” that they remain ill, long past the time when they thought they would have been restored to health.

The disappointments are so acute in part because the promises have been so big. Over the past two decades, we’ve been told that a new age of molecular medicine—using gene therapy, stem cells, and the knowledge gleaned from unlocking the human genome—would bring us medical miracles. [emphasis mine] Just as antibiotics conquered infectious diseases and vaccines eliminated the scourges of polio and smallpox, the ability to manipulate our cells and genes is supposed to vanquish everything from terrible inherited disorders, such as Huntington’s and cystic fibrosis, to widespread conditions like cancer, diabetes, and heart disease.

Yoffe goes on to outline the problems that researchers encounter when trying to ‘fix’ what’s gone wrong.

Parkinson’s disease was long held out as the model for new knowledge and technologies eradicating illnesses. Instead, it has become the model for its unforeseen consequences. [emphasis mine]

Langston, head of the Parkinson’s Institute and Clinical Center, explains that scientists believed the damage to patients took place in a discrete part of the brain, the substantia nigra. “It was a small target. All we’d have to do was replace the missing cells, do it once, and that would cure the disease,” Langston says. “We were wrong about that. This disease hits many other areas of the brain. You can’t just put transplants here and there. The brain is not a pincushion.”

Disease of all kinds have proven to be infinitely more complex than first realized. Disease is not ’cause and effect’ driven so much as it is a process with an infinite number of potential inputs and any number of potential outcomes. Take for example gene therapy (Note: the human genome project was supposed to yield gene therapies),

In some ways, gene therapy for boys with a deadly immune disorder, X-linked severe combined immune deficiency, also known as “bubble boy” disease, is the miracle made manifest. Inserting good genes into these children has allowed some to live normal lives. Unfortunately, within a few years of treatment, a significant minority have developed leukemia. The gene therapy, it turns out, activated existing cancer-causing genes in these children. This results in what the co-discoverer of the structure of DNA, James Watson, calls “the depressing calculus” of curing an invariably fatal disease—and hoping it doesn’t cause a sometimes-fatal one.

For me, it seems that that the human genome project was akin to taking a clock apart. Looking at the constituent parts and replacing broken ones does not guarantee that you will be able assemble a more efficient working version unless you know how the clock worked in the first place. We still don’t understand the basic parts, the genes,  interact with each other, within their environment, or with external inputs.

The state of our ignorance is illustrated by the recent sequencing of the genome of Bishop Desmond Tutu and four Bushmen. Three of the Bushmen had a gene mutation associated with a liver disease that kills people while young. But the Bushmen are all over 80—which means either the variation doesn’t actually cause the disease, or there are other factors protecting the Bushmen.

As for the pressures acting on the scientists themselves,

There are forces, both external and internal, on scientists that almost require them to oversell. Without money, there’s no science. Researchers must constantly convince administrators who control tax dollars, investors, and individual donors that the work they are doing will make a difference. Nancy Wexler says that in order to get funding, “You have to promise cures, that you’ll meet certain milestones within a certain time frame.”

The infomercial-level hype for both gene therapy and stem cells is not just because scientists are trying to convince funders, but because they want to believe. [emphases mine]

Scientific advances as one of Yoffe’s interview subjects points out involve a process dogged with failure and setbacks requiring an attitude of humility laced with patience and practiced over decades before an ‘overnight success’ occurs, if it ever does.

I was reminded of Yoffe’s article after reading a nano food article recently written by Kate Kelland for Reuters,

In a taste of things to come, food scientists say they have cooked up a way of using nanotechnology to make low-fat or fat-free foods just as appetizing and satisfying as their full-fat fellows.

The implications could be significant in combating the spread of health problems such as obesity, diabetes and heart disease.

There are two promising areas of research. First, they are looking at ways to slow digestion,

One thing they might look into is work by scientists at Britain’s Institute of Food Research (IFR), who said last month they had found an unexpected synergy that helped break down fat and might lead to new ways of slowing digestion, and ultimately to creating foods that made consumers feel fuller.

“Much of the fat in processed foods is eaten in the form of emulsions such as soups, yoghurt, ice cream and mayonnaise,” said the IFR’s Peter Wilde. “We are unpicking the mechanisms of digestion used to break them down so we can design fats in a rational way that are digested more slowly.”

The idea is that if digestion is slower, the final section of the intestine called the ileum will be put on its “ileal brake,” sending a signal to the consumer that means they feel full even though they have eaten less fat

This sounds harmless and it’s even possible it’s a good idea but then replacing diseased tissue with healthy tissue, as they tried with Parkinson’s Disease gene therapies, seemed like a good idea too. Just how well is the digestive process understood?

As for the second promising area of research,

Experts see promise in another nano technique which involves encapsulating nutrients in bubble-like structures known as vesicles that can be engineered to break down and release their contents at specific stages in the digestive system.

According to Vic Morris, a nano expert at the IFR, this technique in a larger form, micro-encapsulation, was well established in the food industry. The major difference with nano-encapsulation was that the smaller size might be able to take nutrients further or deliver them to more appropriate places. [emphasis mine]

They’ve been talking about trying to encapsulate and target medicines to more appropriate places and, as far as I’m aware, to no avail. I sense a little overenthusiasm on the experts’ part. Kelland does try to counterbalance this by discussing other issues with nanofood such as secretiveness about the food companies’ research, experts’ concerns over nanoparticles, and public concerns over genetically modified food. Still the allure of ‘all you can eat with no consequences’ is likely to overshadow any journalist’s attempt at balanced reporting with resulting disappointment when somebody realizes it’s all much more complicated than we thought.

Dexter Johnson’s Sept. 22, 2010 posting ( Protein-based Nanotubes Pass Electrical Signals Between Cells) on his Nanoclast blog offers more proof that we still have a lot to learn about basic biological processes,

A few years back, scientists led by Hans-Hermann Gerdes at the University of Bergen noticed that there were nanoscale tubes connecting cells sometimes over significant distances. This discovery launched a field known somewhat by the term in the biological community as the “nanotube field.”

Microbiologists remained somewhat skeptical on what this phenomenon was and weren’t entirely pleased with some explanations offered because they seemed to fall outside “existing biological concepts.”

So let’s start summing up.  The team notices nanotubes that connect cells over distances which microbiologists have difficulty accepting as “they [seem] to fall outside existing biological concepts. [emphasis mine] Now the team has published a paper which suggests that electrical signals pass through the nanotubes and that a ‘gap junction’ enables transmission to nonadjacent cells.  (Dexter’s description provides  more technical detail in an accessible writing style.)

As Dexter notes,

Another key biological question it helps address–or complicate, as the case may be–is the complexity of the human brain. This research makes the brain drastically more complex than originally thought, according to Gerdes. [emphasis mine]

Getting back to where I started, scientists are people too. They have their enthusiasms as well as pressure to get grants and produce results for governments and other investors, not to mention their own egos.  And while I’ve focused on the biological and medical sciences in this article, I think that all the sciences yield more questions than answers and that everything is far more complicated and  interconnected than we have yet to realize.

Alberta’s Minister of Advanced Education visits Ulster’s Nanotechnology Centre

The Sept. 20, 2010 University of Ulster news release caught my eye since it concerns Alberta’s Deputy Premier, Minister of Advanced Education, and Minister Liaison to the Canadian Forces, Doug Horner. (The province of Alberta hosts Canada’s National Institute of Nanotechnology and also supports and promotes nanotechnology through one of five Alberta Innovates agencies, the Alberta Innovates Technology Futures [formerly nanoAlberta] and other initiatives.) From the news release,

The visit came as part of a four-day fact finding visit to Northern Ireland by Mr Horner, who is Deputy Premier of Alberta, Minister for Advanced Education and Minister Liaison to the Canadian Forces.

During his visit to the Jordanstown campus, he met Professor James McLaughlin, Director of the Nanotechnology & Advanced Materials Research Institute and Director of Innovation Tim Brundle for a breakfast briefing on the University’s work.

Mr Brundle said: “We’re very excited by the opportunities partnership with Alberta can offer. There are a lot of similarities between the economic focus of Alberta and the interests of Northern Ireland and we hope to move forward quickly to build on these opportunities.”

Professor McLaughlin concurred: “The University already has links with several leading Canadian universities , especially in nanotechnology. Our aim is to try to develop funded links between Ulster and colleagues in Canada, focusing on the way that healthcare sensor technology innovation can be underpinned and enabled by increased nanotechnology research.

“Connected health is a growing focus in Canada as well as here in Northern Ireland: they also have an interest in clean technology – also a focus here at Ulster. “

I find this interesting not only for the Canadian connection but because there’s been a fair amount of news floating about nanotechnology initiatives in Ireland, especially some recent joint initiatives with RUSNANO (Russian Corporation of Nanotechnologies). Note: I recently posted about a Canada-RUSNANO venture capital initiative, Sept. 14, 2010 posting.

Nanotechnology and the ancient Romans: the Lycurgus Cup

The Lycurgus Cup has long fascinated me. It’s an ancient piece of art that is nanotechnology-enhanced so that depending on how the light hits it, the cup glows either green or red.

The Lycurgus Cup 1958,1202.1 in reflected light. Scene showing Lycurgus being enmeshed by Ambrosia, now transformed into a vine-shoot. Department of Prehistory and Europe, The British Museum. Height: 16.5 cm (with modern metal mounts), diameter: 13.2 cm. © The Trustees of the British Museum

I must admit to a preference for the red simply because I can better see the designs.

The Lycurgus Cup 1958,1202.1 in transmitted light. Scene showing Lycurgus being enmeshed by Ambrosia, now transformed into a vine-shoot. Department of Prehistory and Europe, The British Museum. Height: 16.5 cm (with modern metal mounts), diameter: 13.2 cm. © The Trustees of the British Museum

The *History of the Ancient World website (as Nov. 21, 2013 the link has been changed to the Université de Strasbourg,, Matière Condensée et Nanophysique website) recently featured a 2007 article about the Lycurgus Cup by Ian Freestone, Nigel Meeks, Margaret Sax and Catherine Higgitt for the Gold Bulletin, Vol. 40:4 (2007),

The Lycurgus Cup represents one of the outstanding achievements of the ancient glass industry. This late Roman cut glass vessel is extraordinary in several respects, firstly in the method of fabrication and the exceptional workmanship involved and secondly in terms of the unusual optical effects displayed by the glass.

The Lycurgus Cup is one of a class of Roman vessels known as cage cups or diatreta, where the decoration is in openwork which stands proud from the body of the vessel, to which it is linked by shanks or bridges Typically these openwork “cages” comprise a lattice of linked circles, but a small number have figurative designs, although none of these is as elaborate or as well preserved as the Lycurgus Cup. Cage cups are generally dated to the fourth century A.D. and have been found across the Roman Empire, but the number recovered is small, and probably only in the region of 50-100 examples are known. They are among the most technically sophisticated glass objects produced before the modern era.

The article itself can be viewed or downloaded from here. The cup as noted can be two different colours,

The glass of the cup is dichroic; in direct light it resembles jade with an opaque greenish-yellow tone, but when light shines through the glass (transmitted light) it turns to a translucent ruby colour

The presence of colloidal metals (gold-silver) give the glass at least some of its unusual optical properties according to the authors. Although reading between the lines, it seems that even today we can’t duplicate what those 4th century Roman glassmakers achieved.

The Lycurgus Cup demonstrates a short-lived technology developed in the fourth century A.D. by Roman glass-workers. They discovered that glass could be coloured red and unusual colour change effects generated by the addition of a precious metal bearing material when the glass was molten. We now understand that these effects are due to the development of nanoparticles in the glass. However, the inability to control the colourant process meant that relatively few glasses of this type were produced, and even fewer survive. The Cup is the outstanding example of this technology in every respect – its outstanding cut work and red-green dichroism render it a unique record.

There you have it, ancient Roman nanotechnology.

*Nov. 21, 2013 I changed the link to the article as the History of the Ancient World website is no longer hosting this article.

ETA July 21, 2014: April Holloway has written a piece about the Lycurgus Cup which has been published in two places,

Epoch Times: (this features an image of the green and red ‘cups’ side-by-side with a ‘nano’ background)

Ancient Origins:!bjfuCU (image of the green and red ‘cups’ side-by-side featured)

Women in science blogging

There was a recent blog/twitter event about women science bloggers which nicely complements my Sept. 2, 2010 posting about women in nanoscience (science). The event started with a Sept. 15, 2010  posting by Jenny Rohn on her Nature Network blog, Mind the Gap (the original post includes a bar graph illustrating her point),

Celebrated science bloggers are primarily male.


*Note added retrospectively: I have been asked why I have not included self-organizing, grassroots blogging collectives, or indeed Nature Network itself, on this graph. The reason is because I was interested in the composition of high-profile collectives driven by prominent media outlets who are cherry-picking a select few independent power-bloggers. Hence the word ‘celebrated’, which was used ironically

Martin Robbins, one of the Guardian Science bloggers, responded the next day, Sept. 16, 2010, by creating a Twitter hash tag #wsb (women science bloggers) and inviting people to create a list. (I don’t think these hash tag convos sit around for too long, so check it now if you’re curious.) The next day, Sept. 17, 2010, Robbins posted the list of names collected on Sept. 16, 2010 and over 50 blog responses (lots of people didn’t get on the list) on his Guardian blog, The Lay Scientist.

Nanoparticles, art conservation, and cultural heritage

Piero Baglioni, a professor of Physical Chemistry at the University of Florence (whose work was mentioned previously in my October 26, 2009 posting) spoke at the 3rd EuCheMS Chemistry Congress: Chemistry – the Creative Force, August 29 – September 2, 2010, Nürnberg / Germany about his team’s to better preserve wall paintings at a site in Mexico. From the news item on,

La Antigua Ciudad Maya de Calakmul is located in the Campeche state (Mexico) and is one of the most important cities of the Classic Maya period (AD 250-800). The excavation of this site (set up in 1993) involves, under the supervision of the archaeologist Ramon Carrasco, archaeologists, architects, engineers, conservators and epigraphists, besides other specialists. Since 2004, the Center for Colloid and Surface Science (CSGI) at the University of Florence (CSGI), and currently directed by Piero Baglioni, has been an active partner, being involved in the study of the painting technique and in the development of nanotechnology for the consolidation and protection of the wall paintings and limestone.

There is a published article available in Chemistry: A European Journal,

Nanoparticles for Cultural Heritage Conservation: Calcium and Barium Hydroxide Nanoparticles for Wall Painting Consolidation.

1. Rodorico Giorgi Dr.,
2. Moira Ambrosi Dr.,
3. Nicola Toccafondi Dr.,
4. Piero Baglioni Prof.

Article first published online: 23 JUL 2010
DOI: 10.1002/chem.201001443

The article is freely available at this time. If you’re interested in this history of the mural, there’s an article (Chemical & Engineering News, Central Science)by Sarah Everts,

Sometime before 600 BC, Mayan artists painted one of the few frescoes–still in existence–that displays the domestic life of normal people in this ancient civilization (other Mayan frescoes display the lives of deities and rulers). The frescoes were found in a pyramid at the Calakmul archaeology site in Mexico. Calakmul is one of the biggest Mayan sites around, but it hasn’t been excavated to the same extent as say, Tikal, which had a cameo in “Return of the Jedi” as the Ewok planet and is also host to a constant throng of tourists.

I expect there’ll be more about nanotechnology and art conservation as time goes on, the promise being that taking samples and working at the nanoscale promises to minimize damage of an art piece we are trying to preserve.

ETA: I forgot to include the recent McGill University research on a photoacoustic technique for art restoration in my Sept. 2, 2010 posting.

Scientists learning to speak and engage

I’ve come across a couple of US projects designed to help scientists speak and engage with the public. The Scientist (online journal) highlighted an acting workshop for scientists led by Alan Alda (known for the MASH tv series, Woody Allen films, and as the host for Scientific American Frontiers tv series). From the article (you do have to register for free access) by Daniel Grushkin,

This is what happens when you cross doctoral work with improvisational acting: A line of fifteen PhD students face each other in an imaginary tug-of-war. “Make sure you’re all holding the same rope,” says Valeri Lantz-Gefroh, their drama coach and a theater professor at SUNY, Stony Brook. “You don’t want to hold a shoelace when the person in front of you is holding a python.”

The students are part of a daylong seminar on communicating science to non scientists at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York. Prior to the imaginary tug-of-war exercise, they stood before each other and delivered short, off the cuff, introductions to their research meant for public consumption. Their talks were stilted and confused. Some swallowed their voices as they spoke. Others talked at the wall behind their audience.

Asked to describe their emotions during their presentations, one researcher complained, “It felt like I was almost insulting myself by dumbing it down.” Others nodded in agreement. The doctoral students were playing out Alda’s criticism of the science community. Alda believes scientists have been unable to make themselves understood by lay audiences. And as a result are failing to inform the public and policy.

A 2009 poll conducted by the Pew Research Center reflects Alda’s concern. Though the public ranks scientists third after military personnel and teachers in their contribution to society, only half of Americans believe in global warming and a mere 32 percent believe in evolution. Meanwhile, scientists complain that they’re not being heard. Half say that news media oversimplifies their findings, and 85 percent say the public doesn’t know enough about science. The numbers show a clear gap between the esteem that scientists hold in the public and the knowledge they’re able to transmit.

The other project highlighted by Matthew Nisbet at the Age of Engagement blog is a fellowship program for training in leadership and public engagement for scientists.  Pop Tech, an organization which focuses on social innovation and problem-solving ideas, is behind this effort. From the Sept. 15, 2010 posting,

PopTech is perhaps best known for its annual PopTech conference held every October in Camden, Maine. Called by Wired magazine a “must-attend for intellectual heavy weights…,” the conference features a line up of interactive talks by social innovators, scientists, researchers, and problem-solvers, with the goal of identifying new ideas and brokering collaborations.

PopTech … has announced its inaugural class of 20 Science Fellows. The fellows are early to mid-career leaders in fields such as energy, food supply, sustainability, water, public health, climate change, conservation ecology, green chemistry, computing, education, oceans, and national security.

The fellows were chosen based on their scientific credentials but also for their innate communication and leadership skills. As PopTech describes, the program is designed to provide the Science Fellows with long term communication and leadership training, mentorship, and access to thought leaders across sectors of society including those from the fields of media, business, social innovation, and education.

These projects provide an interesting contrast to the furor which greeted a paper that Chris Mooney wrote about scientists needing to pay more attention to the art of listening (my June 30, 2010 posting). I can certainly see how the acting class could lead to better listening skills (or paying better attention to your audience) but am not so sure about the Pop Tech fellowship project (a bunch of really interesting people getting together and getting excited means they tend to proselytize to the uninitiated for at least a short period afterwards).  Despite my reservations about the fellowship project I find these efforts encouraging.

One more muzzle for Canadian government scientists

It’s a wee bit puzzling as to why government scientist (Natural Resources Canada), Scott Dallimore had to get permission from the minister before talking to journalists about his co-authored study featuring a flood in northern Canada that took place 13,000 years ago. From the article by Margaret Munro for PostMedia News on (ETA Jan. 6, 2014: Munro’s article seems to have been removed for all the news sites but it  can be found on her own blog here.)

NRCan [Natural Resources Canada] scientist Scott Dallimore co-authored the study, published in the journal Nature on April 1, about a colossal flood that swept across northern Canada 13,000 years ago, when massive ice dams gave way at the end of the last ice age.

The study was considered so newsworthy that two British universities issued releases to alert the international media.

It was, however, deemed so sensitive in Ottawa that Dallimore, who works at NRCan’s laboratories outside Victoria, was told he had to wait for clearance from the minister’s office.

Dallimore tried to tell the department’s communications managers the flood study was anything but politically sensitive. “This is a blue sky science paper,” he said in one email, noting: “There are no anticipated links to minerals, energy or anthropogenic climate change.”

But the bureaucrats in Ottawa insisted. “We will have to get the minister’s office approval before going ahead with this interview,” Patti Robson, the department’s media relations manager, wrote in an email after a reporter from Postmedia News (then Canwest News Service) approached Dallimore.

Robson asked Dallimore to provide the reporter’s questions and “the proposed responses,” saying: “We will send it up to MO (minister’s office) for approval.” Robson said interviews about the flood study needed ministerial approval for two reasons: the inquiring reporter represented a “national news outlet” and the “subject has wide-ranging implications.”

At this point Environment Canada and Health Canada have similar rules in place for their scientists and any potential media interviews. I have commented on a similar situation previously in my Sept. 21 2009 posting, which includes a link to an earlier story by Margaret Munro about Environment Canada and its gag order.

I gather the scientists can discuss the gag order without recourse to the ‘Minister’s Office’, they just can’t discuss their own work. That seems rather odd especially in light of a government that loves to trumpet its investment in science. If the public never gets to hear about the exciting discoveries that our publicly funded scientists are making, how can the government expect to get support for its science spending policies?