28 January 2007

Future of science debate begins

The BBC's take on Sciencehorizons, Future of science debate begins, naturally avoids the gobbledigook churned out by the people behind the venture .

26 January 2007

Sciencewise – or may be sciencedumb

For a movement that strives to reach out to a wider public, the PEST (Public Engagement in Science and Technology) brigade knows how to shoot itself in the foot. For example, it is hard to know what to make of this:

"...creating excellence in public dialogue to inform better policy"
What does it mean? How do you "inform policy"? What is the guff about "creating excellence"?

Here's are simpler alternatives that say the same thing:
"... public dialogue for better policy"

"... better policy through public dialoque"
You could even make it truly revolutionary with something like:
"... listening to people for better policy"
Not great, but that's because the starting point doesn't help. It would be better to come up with something altogether more punter friendly. It might also help to add what policy they are on about here rather than deeper down in the page. Catchall slogans like that are meaningless.

Life is too short to dismember the page's title:
Building the commitment and capacity of government to engage in public dialogue on scientific developments
Go on, unpick that one yourself. Catchy isn't it.

The first sentence on the page, a mere 41 words, is not much better. It rambles on, saying, among other things, that the idea is that it "helps policy makers in Government departments and agencies commission and use public dialogue to inform decision-making in emerging areas of science and technology".

For a start, they mean "help to commission". In general that's how you should use "help" in this sort of context. Often you can get away without the "to" but in this case it is essential if you don't want the reader to lose the thread. Good grief they even get it right when they they say "to inform decision-making" although once again they are informing something decidedly odd. You can inform "decision makers," perhaps even "the decision making process," but not decision making.

And what are these "emerging areas of science and technology"? What makes them so important? Why put it in unexplained? Why can't we talk about the old areas of science and technology?

All this, and more is on a new venture, Sciencewise "funded by the Office of Science and Innovation (OSI) at the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI)".

I wouldn't go on about stilted writing in webland, such is its prevalence, were it not for the fact that this is supposed to be about communication and talking to, or is it at, the public. The underlying idea also seems to be pretty sound, which makes it all the more sad that the front door for the venture is so intimidating.

This page reads like one of those reports – written, I might say, without the help of a professional to keep out waffle – used to justify throwing more money on to the PEST bandwagon.

Sad, really, that after 20 years or more PEST has sunk to such depths. Those of us who kicked it off, when they used the term understanding rather than engagement, just wanted to persuade people to take science, engineering and technology more seriously. We've won that battle in some important circles. The Treasury, for example, now sees the value of investing in R&D. But you won't get much further if you obfuscate like that.

The danger of falling into the jargon trap, where only the initiated can understand the language, is that it intimidates newcomers. It doesn't have to be like that. Indeed, the DTI proves as much in its own press announcement of the new venture.

The press release that unleashed this stuff on to the world tells us that the initiative is "designed to get the nation talking about the science and technology of the future". As this shows, the press release is written in English, which just goes to show that you can get this sort of thing right if you put professionals on the case.

The press release says that "Community groups, schools, families and friends up and down the country are invited to get together in village halls, classrooms, living rooms and pubs to have their own sciencehorizons discussions using the free packs." Great. Let's hope they don't go near the web site. With luck they will, instead, land on sciencehorizons, "a national series of conversations about new technologies, the future and society".

Saying all this may screw up my chances of getting any more work out of the DTI, but someone has to warn them that it is important to use language that matches the messages you want to convey.

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25 January 2007

Dirty tricks close in on open access

There's an interesting taster over on IWR Blog about a nice scandal uncovered by Nature. It seems that the heavyweight publishers of expensive journals have been, horror of horrors, using PR people to advise on their campaigns to fend off the rush to open access.

There probably wouldn't be much surprise at this revelation were it not for the fact that "Elsevier, John Wiley & Sons, American Chemical Society as well as the Association of American Publishers (AAP)" had signed up "a PR man whose career has been spent putting a positive spin on fraudsters like Jeffrey Skilling of Enron and denying scientific evidence of climate change".

The puzzling things is that the advice they got is so lame. As Jim Giles on Nature puts it:

The consultant advised them to focus on simple messages, such as "Public access equals government censorship". He hinted that the publishers should attempt to equate traditional publishing models with peer review, and "paint a picture of what the world would look like without peer-reviewed articles".
Other advice, that the opponents of open access should paint the move as some sort of communist plot, seems to come from someone completely out of touch with the scientific world. Scientists are notoriously non-conformist.

It would be amazing if commercial publishers, including Nature, which has done its bit to question the open access movement and is flooding the market with new paying only journals, did not indulge in some lobbying, subtle and not so subtle. But it seems counterproductive to have to sign up someone who, from these reports, makes Tony Blair's spin doctors sound like models of correctness.

There's a nice "Editor's note" at the end of Jim's story:
In the original version of this story, Susan Spilka was reported as emailing a note that said "Media massaging is not the same as intellectual debate." It should have read "Media messaging", and has been changed accordingly.
Both versions seem perfectly reasonable to me. And since when did people check their emails that carefully?

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24 January 2007

Do these people really want you to write about them?

Welcome to Advance Nanotech it says on the home page. Unfortunately, it says the same thing on every page I visited. That's because the poor souls at Advanced Nanotech have been sold a pup by some whizzy web site designer.

Here's what's wrong with it. You have to visit the web site to see what's new.

I have several ways of tracking web sites for their press releases. The most obvious, but least productive, is that you sign up to receive press releases from the people behind the site.

A slightly better choice is to use a "robot" to visit the page at predetermined intervals and to report back when it finds something new. For this I use a nice bit of software called Copernic Tracker. I have it set to do an early morning trawl before I start work. It checks some pages daily, others once a week, and some every month. If it finds that a page has changed, it highlights the new bits. I can then click on the links to get the new material.

The best option for following a changing web page is the RSS feed. This automatically lets me know when there is something new. Such is the boom in RSS feeds that you almost feel tempted to forget about any company that doesn't offer this feature.

None of these approaches works on the Advanced Nanotech web site. Whoever designed the pages has come up with some neat visual effects. Sadly, they are user hostile. No "sign up here for press releases" slot, no RSS feed, and pages where Tracker can't find a unique address that will change when something new crops up.

Pity, it is an interesting company, worth reporting. I'll see if the company's PR consultants can explain this strange behaviour.

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23 January 2007

Perishing publishers

"Scientific articles are tailored to present information in human-readable aliquots." There you have it then. The foundation stone of all those journals that researchers love.

This is the first sentence in the abstract of a paper on BioMed Central, Publishing perishing? Towards tomorrow's information architecture.

Funnily enough, the rest of the abstract is in English and makes sense. Who would argue with the sentiment that "To truly integrate scientific information we must modernize academic publishing to exploit the power of the Internet."?

The language of the first sentence reminds me of a comment someone made at a meeting last week. It was a reference to an engineer who had written an impenetrable report. His excuse, my contact said, was that if he had known how to write he would have gone to Harvard. The authors of the paper with that delightful first sentence are from Yale.

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21 January 2007

Cooking up some PR

Given that much of cooking is chemistry, it isn't unreasonable for the Institution of Chemical Engineers (IChemE) to turn to a chef when seeking publicity as it has in its latest press release, Chemical engineers look for the ‘Jamie Oliver’ factor.

The challenge will be to find "50 ‘ChemEnvoys’ who will take up the gauntlet for chemical engineers worldwide, promoting their essential contribution to the world we live in". Engineers in general have a hard time explaining what they are up to. Chemical engineers may find it even more difficult than the rest of the pack, given that they deal with those nasty "chemicals" that everyone loves to hate.

Some put the engineers' poor record in communications down to the fact that they spend a lot of their time writing arcane reports that only other engineers can understand. Another line is that the whole life of an engineer is spent worrying about, and solving, problems. Scientists, on the other hand, can dream to their heart's content and make all sorts of fanciful claims. They aren't the people who will have to turn their discoveries into inventions. That will be down to the engineers.

All power to the IChemE's elbow. But even if they can find, and train, 50 brave souls, they will have to put a lot of effort into getting the message across, not least because the media have never worked out how to cope with engineering as a subject.

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18 January 2007

The clock ran out the mouse

The "doomsday clock" promulgated by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists is a PR stunt of breathtaking simplicity, and longevity. The clock is 60 this year, making it one of the oldest marketing tricks around.

Originally there to warn of impending nuclear Armageddon, the clock is now just one of those portfolio tools that doom mongers throw around. To confirm its status as a PR stunt, look no further than the Royal Society, which now latches on to any piece of paper with a slightly scientific tinge and uses it as an excuse to cook up quotes from its President. The latest such emanation, Martin Rees comment on doomsday clock, contains the usual stuff that is all to easy to agree with but that leaves you asking "so what?"

The answer to that so what, of course, is that an increasingly gullible science media will give mileage to this stuff. Optimists will say that it is a sign that science is now more important, hence the media interest. More cynical souls will say that the Royal Society puts it out because it knows that an uncritical media will publish just about anything thrown at it.

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16 January 2007

A video nasty heads for court

The US's patent system must be in a mess when the country's most successful patenter gets hot under the collar. IBM used its recent appearance at the top of the US's patents league last year to have a go at the state of the country's patent system.

The computer company doesn't actually go for patent trolls so much as the general issue of patent quality. But you can see why the system is in bad odour when you read Internet video patent suit hits Google and Apple.

The law firm Pinsent Mason, on Out-law.comm, reports that a company that isn't in the online video business any more is suing a bunch of people who are in that trade. The company flicking its writs turned off the lights on its video operation in 2002. Now it has rubbed the magic lantern and become a patents business.

Just how strange they do things over there becomes clearer when you read that the litigant didn't even file for its patents until 2001, "five years after the company was founded and after some companies were already offering video and audio material for download".


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14 January 2007

That's the way to do it

Headlines really can capture the subject of a press release without being too complicated. Hot on the heels of the University of Edinburgh's baffling press release about a centre that will do something unknown, comes an announcement from an outfit just down the road and that just happens to be about that very same seat of learning. This time the headline says it all:


Apart from the shouty capital letters, there's nothing to upset anyone here. Well, up to a point, the people behind this press release insist on using the label "Edinburgh Technopole" to describe what is in reality a property venture. "One hundred and twenty-six acres of rolling parkland located at the heart of a cluster of internationally recognised research institutions, provide the backdrop for up to 500,000 sq ft (46,450 sq m) of high quality buildings designed to meet the flexible needs of research and technology based companies."

There's nothing wrong with universities bringing in the professionals like Grosvenor to handle their property schemes, but why not use the well recognised "science park" label?

The technopole tries to deal with this one by explaining that the idea is "to become not just a Science and Technology Park but a genuine scientific community where shared resources encourage shared ideas, engendering cross-fertilisation between different disciplines and synergy between different projects". Quite a few traditional science parks would insist that they manage to achieve this fashionable mixture of buzz words without borrowing a label invented in France.

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Religious right denies gory truth about climate change

Oh dear, the religious fundamentalists in the USA who don't believe in evolution are now using their "it is only a theory" argument to remove discussion of climate change from America's schoolrooms.

The Seattle Post Intelligencer (P-I) has a report Federal Way schools restrict Gore film with some depressing quotes from a parent objecting to classroom screenings of Al Gore's disaster flick An Inconvenient Truth. "The Bible says that in the end times everything will burn up, but that perspective isn't in the DVD," complains Frosty Hardison, described by P-I as "a parent of seven who also said that he believes the Earth is 14,000 years old".

At least one person has been listening to Mr Hardison, his wife. As P-I puts it:

"From what I've seen (of the movie) and what my husband has expressed to me, if (the movie) is going to take the approach of 'bad America, bad America,' I don't think it should be shown at all," Gayle Hardison said. "If you're going to come in and just say America is creating the rotten ruin of the world, I don't think the video should be shown."
Maybe there is some good news here for any movie maker who wants to tap into the wealth of the religious right. The school's board wants any viewing of Gore's movie to run alongside something that can ensure that a "credible, legitimate opposing view will be presented". Anyone want to volunteer? Mel Gibson?

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13 January 2007

Research into what?

The first note we saw about this new research centre simply said:

First Director Appointed to New Research Centre

Professor David Hume has been appointed as the first director of a new world-class research centre being established in Edinburgh.
The only journalist likely to follow up that sort of vague lead – centre for what? – is one looking for something to ridicule. Which is how we came to find First Director Appointed to New Research Centre on the University of Edinburgh's web site:
"The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) and the
University of Edinburgh are pleased to announce the appointment of Prof David
Hume as the first director of a new world-class research centre being
established in Edinburgh."
Still none the wiser, we had to dig deeper to find that the subject in question is, well we still aren't sure.

Near the end there is a quote from the Prof.
"This is a key opportunity to help maintain Scotland's world-leading status in
animal science through the establishment of an interdisciplinary and unique
intellectual environment that will foster new ideas and new ways of working
between researchers from different scientific disciplines."
So it is animal science then. But that could be anything. The place doesn't have a name, it seems.

Still they have time to find one. The place won't open its doors until 2008 and its new building isn't due until 2010.

Maybe they are being careful to avoid the attention of the Animal Lunatic Fringe. Sadly the extremists who hate people more than they like animals are bound to get the wrong end of the stick and will try to cause misery anyway.

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12 January 2007

Fellowships for Science Reporters

Chinese reporters are the focus for this year's Fellowships for Science Reporters in Developing Regions. These awards will pay for "six promising journalists from the region to attend and cover the AAAS Annual Meeting in February".

The announcement has some comments on science writing in China from William Chang of the US National Science Foundation's Beijing office who was the independent judge for the selection process. According to Chang, open and unbiased news reporting is on the rise in China, "but there is still great room for further improvement. I feel that all the applicants recognized this, and made their best efforts under the present constraints."

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11 January 2007

Nuclear waste spins in its grave

Scientists love to beat the media round the head with accusations of spinning science stories. But who needs hacks to do it when the scientists' own PR folks have their own ultra-fast centrifuges?

Here are two headlines:

Cambridge scientists lay groundwork for safer nuclear waste storage

Radiation degrades nuclear waste-containing materials faster than expected

Which press release do you think will get the biggest coverage?

I agree. Number 2.

But hang on. Read below the headline and you will find that they are based on the same scientific paper.

Interestingly, the journal carrying the paper, Nature, takes a middle way in the headline on its own report of the paper. This reads "Materials Science: Displaced by radiation".

Of course, the scientists who wrote the "Letter," Nature's way of describing shorter papers, opt for the impenetrable but scientifically accurate "Quantification of actinide alpha-radiation damage in minerals and ceramics".

As Nature's own write up says "The mineral zircon suffers more structural damage from the alpha-decay of plutonium present in its crystal than was thought. That could have a knock-on effect on strategies for managing nuclear waste."

So, as you would expect, the paper supports both headlines. It is just that the folks who wrote the more "sensational" of the two have a better appreciation of which buttons to press to make a journalist jump.

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08 January 2007

Universities as R&D partners

Over on The Manufacturer.com, they have an interesting article on Universities as R&D partners. This describes the efforts that some universities in the USA have put into developing links with industry. The particular interest here is that the article focuses on manufacturing, not one of the areas where you would traditionally think of universities as R&D powerhouses.

The article makes the point that a number of universities have set up centres just to help business. For example, they describe The Center for Integrated Manufacturing Studies (CIMS) at Rochester Institute of Technology in Rochester, NY. Established in 1992, its mission is to "increase the competitiveness of US manufacturers through applied technology and training".

The UK is not devoid of similar operations. The Institute for Manufacturing in the Engineering Department at Cambridge and the Warwick Manufacturing Group spring instantly to mind. They are one small sign that the country has not quite given up on manufacturing, despite many reports of its death.

05 January 2007

Where is Lord Sainsbury when they need him?

It may be just a coincidence, but within weeks of losing its Minister for Science, Tony Blair's government suddenly manages to provoke panic among the nation's scientists. It would not have happened in Lord Sainsbury's day.

First there were hints that the Department of Trade and Industry would raid the science budget to fill a hole in its own accounts. Now there is a threat to put a brake on stem-cell research. Reuters has the story, Stem cell experts slam UK stance on hybrid embryos.

It may just be scientists crying wolf. If so, they have come along way. Perhaps they have been talking to the same spinmeisters who have done such good work for the image of Number 10.

03 January 2007

Madonna was right

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."

He even puts numbers on the possible reduction in half life. Dr Rolfe says "We are currently investigating radium-226, a hazardous component of spent nuclear fuel with a half-life of 1,600 years. I calculate that using this technique could reduce the half-life to 100 years."

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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02 January 2007

Stories that clicked on NewScientist.com

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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