26 March 2007

Slaves to science

One of the delights of the Royal Society is its historical archive. It must be one of the oldest repositories of scientific history.

It is also good that the RS takes this part of its activity seriously. Hence its efforts to buy up important documents when they become available, even when they were previously "liberated" from the RS's own collections by dubious means.

The latest entry on the history front is the piece on Slavery and the Royal Society. There is also a short video by Professor Lisa Jardine, whose dad, Jacob Bronowski, was also a fine commentator on the history of science.

The piece points out that certain prominent members of the RS were themselves involved in companies that were active in the slave trade.

Now, of course, the only form of slavery that the RS supports is that of lab grunts who are chained to their test tubes and petri dishes in the pursuit of yet more publications.

22 March 2007

Is the best science buried on the internet?

With the word Google turned into a verb, the world of research has changed. And that includes how journalists do their research. Want to bone up on an obscure topic that has hit the news? Google it. Much easier than maintaining a tattered contacts book.

There are, though, pitfalls in using Google, or whatever search engine turns you on. It is by no means a guarantee that you will find the best information.

We have evidence for this in a research paper from a group at the Oxford Internet Institute at Oxford University. The group took home a grant from the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) of £45,173.12 for the project The World Wide Web of Science: Emerging Global Sources of Expertise. "The aim of this research project is to assess whether and to what extent the Internet and the Web are transforming access to sources of scientific expertise."

The paper that wraps up the project The World Wide Web of Science: Reconfiguring Access to Information describes what they got up to in great detail. It tells us that they looked at a set of hot topics, including "climate change, HIV/AIDS, water and sanitation, governance, and trade reform". They also set out to "triangulate on patterns of access through the use of Webmetrics, interviews and case studies of issue areas".

While this use of language explains why they got the grant from the ESRC, it doesn't make the resulting paper all that user friendly. But read on and you can see how some of the researchers they talked to go about their "Googling"and such. In essence, without the Web, these folks would have a hard time.

The Oxford group then took the interesting step of checking what is out there on the Web, a "Webmetric Analysis," and compared it with the strategies of the people they talked to. They plugged in a set of keywords and stood back and watched what happened.

One such analysis looked into the keywords "Climate Change, Climate Changes, Ozone Depletion and Global Warming". Then they refined it and drew a "Web space graph" showing the connections between the hits. The graph looks like a web created by a spider on some very dodgy drug.

The outcome is that these days many researchers "rarely use libraries or seek out offline copies of journals; this is too costly in terms of time and effort (and perhaps money for photocopying)".

The Oxford researchers really wanted to look into the notion that the Web is "democratising" science. As they put it they wanted "to explore how the Internet and Web are reinforcing the role of existing sources of information, or tending to either ‘democratize’ or centralize patterns of access conforming to the expectations of a ‘winner-take-all’ process of selection".

Their conclusions are frustratingly inconclusive. They conclude that the results:

... could suggest a reinforcement of existing networks of communication and research. Alternatively, it might represent a winner-take-all process within more specifically defined research areas. Finally, proponents of the globalizing and democratizing impact of the Internet and the Web might find evidence in the sheer size and scale – and low density - of the global networks of information exchange identified by our Webmetric analyses.
Fortunately, the researchers have let their hair down a bit and allowed themselves to put out a press release over on the ESRC's web site. Even the title, Key science websites buried in information avalanche, goes beyond anything you can immediately detect in the paper.

The release also tells us that:
New research funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) clearly shows that anyone using the Web to make their information available must now pay attention not only to the quality of their sites but also how easy they are to find.
I like the "clearly shows" bit. It wasn't that clear to me, but I am not a researcher in the social sciences. Other bits on the press release that are also hard to find in the paper include some interesting points.
The "visibility" of information on the Web is of increasing importance. Do people looking for research results on climate change or terrorism find themselves directed to a few top sites rather than a wide array of diverse sources? Do they encounter the most highly regarded researchers rather than marginal ones?
There's more in there, and anyone interested in the topic should read the press release as well as the paper. Dr Ralph Schroeder, one of the researchers, sums up the key messages in one of those cooked up quotes:
"This will be an issue not just for policymakers, but for educators, organisations involved in science and research communication, regulators responsible for access to the Web, and citizens who are concerned with the diversity and richness of the information world around them."
Our take is that scientists need to be a bit more careful in how they manage their web sites. Not only do they have to make them user friendly, they should also ensure that they stay up to date.

21 March 2007

Still time to dash downunder for the science hacks gabfest

AlphaGalileo has this one on the 5th World Conference of Science Journalists.

Participants include science editors from the Economist, Financial Times, Asahi Shimbun, the editors-in-chief of Nature and of Scientific American, senior reporters from BBC TV, radio and World Service, and some 50 journalists from developing and emerging countries.
Anyone want to sponsor another delegate?

20 March 2007

Channel 4 and its problems with science

The last person I'd usually point to is George Monbiot, who lives in an alternative world with his constantly negative view that always stops short of offering solution to the problems he posits. But it is too good to miss Don't let truth stand in the way of a red-hot debunking of climate change on Guardian Unlimited.

Sadly, it isn't Monbiot who makes it worth visiting the page. It is the observation from one of his readers, RogerINtheUSA:

Channel 4 has always had a problem with science. No one in its science unit appears to understand the difference between a peer-reviewed paper and a clipping from the Daily Mail.

Manages to skewer two fine media outlets in one go.

19 March 2007

FT referees war between medical journals

When The Lancet came out against its owner's trade in arms fairs, it seemed like a possible case of biting the hand that feeds you. But now, in Spat erupts between medical journals the Financial Times reports that the BMJ, "the former British Medical Journal," has called on researchers to boycott The Lancet.

As you would expect, the FT refrains from taking sides. It is up to others to decide if Reed Elsevier's small income from the unsavoury activity, "a little more than 0.5 per cent of its total annual sales of £5.2bn last year," says the FT, is any less palatable than the BMJ's income "largely from pharmaceutical industry advertising".

The odd thing is that The Lancet set the ball rolling back in September 2005, but only now has the BMJ weighed in. Perhaps they were responding to the recent piece on The Guardian's blogfest.

Now we have the item pasted all over the BMJ's home page. This has a link to the editorial in question.

You will have to buy access to the article, if you do not have it already. You can, though, for the time being at least, read the "rapid response" slot to the editorial. At last count, the comments were two to one against the BMJ's stand.

As Christopher E Nancollas, a GP from Gloucester, puts it

You write "The BMJ has no wish to see the Lancet diminished." Well, you could have fooled me. Calling for contributors to boycott the Lancet will lead to its closure, which would almost certainly benefit the BMJ. Is there a hint of self interest dressed up as moral outrage in this article?
This one could run and run. But there is still little sign of action on the part of other publications the Reed Elsevier roster.

Declaration of interest: I hold a few shares in Reed Elsevier, from the days when I worked for them. Now they just pay my pension.

13 March 2007

Global warming gets Media hot under the collar

Any journalist worth their salt wants to be provocative. It goes with the teritory. That's why they will happily pounce on flimsy stories that don't really stack up. The journalists will try to justify their behaviour on the grounds of public interest, the same excuse they use when publishing pictures of princes out on the razzle with their girlfriends.

This is the only possible justification for the recent Channnel 4 programme on climate change, The Great Global Warming Swindle. The TV programme, it seems, presented the sceptics' view that climate change has nothing to do with people. Or rather, they aren't the cause of it.

For once, the rest of the media have not allowed their colleagues to get away with murdering science. They have come out flaming. One such response comes from medialens in an article Pure Propaganda - The Great Global Warming Swindle.

As usual, the people who have always taken a contrarian view, often because that is how they earn a living, welcomed the programme. But medialens brings together a pretty devastating overview of the media coverage of the programme.

In particular, they quote The Independent, which talked to one of the experts who appeared in the programme, Professor Carl Wunsch. It is worth quoting Wunsch at length:

"I am angry because they completely misrepresented me. My views were distorted by the context in which they placed them. I was misled as to what it was going to be about. I was told about six months ago that this was to be a programme about how complicated it is to understand what is going on. If they had told me even the title of the programme, I would have absolutely refused to be on it. I am the one who has been swindled."
The moral of the story is that scientists should be careful, very careful, when they talk to reporters. In particular, don't talk to people if you are not familiar with their work.

When advising scientists on dealing with the media, I tell them never to talk to certain tabloids, those that have never shown the slightest interest in writing sensible science stories. It seems that Channel 4 now has to join that list of media that you don't touch with a bargepole.

07 March 2007

Cool response to global warming

You may have thought that the media went into overdrive on the recent IPCC report on climate change. Some observers beg to differ. Matthew Nisbet, Assistant Professor in the School of Communication at American University, reckons that "The inability of the IPCC report to break through to the public about the urgency of climate change is just more evidence that relying on traditional science communication strategies has increasingly limited returns."

He explains his stance in A “Two Step Flow of Popularization” for Climate Change. His line is that "other public engagement methods are sorely needed".

Why? Partly because of some fundamental errors. As he says, "the Friday scheduling of the report's release couldn't have been worse".

You can always argue about when best to launch something. I always suggested something that gave the weeklies – Nature, New Scientist, Science, The Economist etc – a chance to dive in with their usually deeper analysis. Governments certainly like Friday for bad news stories because readers' minds are on other things.

Then there is the report itself. By being "a technical backgrounder, a massive synthesis of the state of climate science" this means that, for journalists, "an authoritative distillation of past research [is] a tough story to make exciting. The there is the fact that "the main themes of the draft report had been predicted for a few months, eliminating any real surprises".

Lots of leads to similar assessment so the media coverage. Well worth reading. His view that those seeking to get the message across should look beyond the media makes sense. But then it is much harder to tell if the report has had any impact. Indeed, maybe the very methods that he advocates really happened. It just won't show up in the headlines. Which is where we came in.

04 March 2007

Do biomedical researchers believe in evolution?

Is this article, we saw it first on Slashdot, another good story missed by the pack? It refers to an essay, effectively an opinion piece, on PLoS Biology Evolution by Any Other Name: Antibiotic Resistance and Avoidance of the E-Word.

With the usual overkill list of authors that makes it hard to give due credit, the introduction to the essay says:

The increase in resistance of human pathogens to antimicrobial agents is one of the best-documented examples of evolution in action at the present time, and because it has direct life-and-death consequences, it provides the strongest rationale for teaching evolutionary biology as a rigorous science in high school biology curricula, universities, and medical schools. In spite of the importance of antimicrobial resistance, we show that the actual word “evolution” is rarely used in the papers describing this research. Instead, antimicrobial resistance is said to “emerge,” “arise,” or “spread” rather than “evolve.” Moreover, we show that the failure to use the word “evolution” by the scientific community may have a direct impact on the public perception of the importance of evolutionary biology in our everyday lives.

The authors looked at papers published in recent years on antimicrobial resistance. They then ruled out any that didn't really deal with the evolutionary aspects of the topic. Next they looked at where the authors reported their work, in journals given over to evolutionary biology or biomedical research.

Guess what, "in journals with primarily evolutionary or genetic content, the word 'evolution' was used 65.8% of the time to describe evolutionary processes" but "in the biomedical literature, the word 'evolution' was used only 2.7% of the time".

The bottom line, the essay says, is that "evolutionary terminology, biomedical researchers could greatly help convey to the layperson that evolution is not a topic to be innocuously relegated to the armchair confines of political or religious debate. Like gravity, evolution is an everyday process that directly impacts our health and well-being, and promoting rather than obscuring this fact should be an essential activity of all researchers."

Another tree or two saved from the paper mill

So many publications are rushing into electronic only versions that it is hardly news. One, though, caught our attention when it appeared in the Romeike Daily Media Bulletin.

We read there that:

The Waste Paper Magazine is no longer available in print. From this month, the newsletter covering sustainable waste management is available online at http://www.crn.org.uk/wastepaper and is updated on a monthly basis.

With that title, you wonder why they bothered with dead trees in the first place.

02 March 2007

DTI raids science budget, but hacks miss the details

I am surprised that none of the reports that I have seen so far of the raid by the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) on the science budget refer to the fine print. Can it be that they have done no more than read the press release?

As I reported in my "Labnote" on Science|Business, The vultures descend on the UK's science budget, there are some nice ironies buried in the detailed "explanation" from the Treasury. This reveals where some of the money has gone.

One interesting statistic is that £27 million went from the science research councils for the "Waste Electronic and Electrical Equipment Directive". By coincidence, this number is just £2 million shy of the amount taken from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council. And what does EPSRC do? Among other things it supports research into electronics and electrical equipment.

There's another one. Science is all about measuring things. So laugh as the DTI switches six million smackers "between Science Research Councils and National Measurement System".

We are supposed to be talking to the world about science, so smile ruefully as you watch them switch money between "Science and Society and nonvoted expenditure on the Natural Environment Research Council". Not much money, to be sure, but a lot for a programme that does not need lots of expensive kit.

You need to be a better bean counter, or a journalist with more time to kill, than I am to understand will the switching of "non-voted non-cash to capital".

I'm sure there are other tales like that buried in the data. But to get them you need to put in a bit of effort.

01 March 2007

Why The Lancet is up in arms

I know from personal experience that relationships between editors and publishers can be fraught. The Lancet has taken the feuding to new levels. As Richard Smith, ertswhile editor of the British Medical Journal writes in A matter of life and death on the Guardian's Comment is free blogfest.

Smith reports on the moves by the editorial team on The Lancet to get their owner, Reed Elsevier, out of the arms trade. Well, trade in arms fairs.

His line is that "The hypocrisy of selling arms and health is particularly galling for the Lancet and its readers - because the Lancet has established itself as the world's leading global health journal. It is concerned not simply with scientific research that advances western medicine but also with poverty, injustice, environmental destruction, and war - the factors that mean life expectancy in the poorest countries is little over 30."

Where, Smith asks, are the other editors in the empire? "The Lancet has taken the bold step of speaking out against its owner's excesses, but little has been heard from the editors, authors, and readers of the other 2000 journals published by Reed Elsevier."

It is all very well for the editor and staff of "the world's leading global health journal" to campaign, but what about the people who work on a small trade journal that is hanging on by the skin of its teeth?