25 August 2007

He advised Mrs Thatcher so he must be right

You have to be desperate to quote a clapped out advisor to Mrs Thatcher in support of your argument. When that person, Lord Monckton, is also a hereditary peer, and a retired journalist and "inventor" to boot, that desperation becomes terminal. But that is just what they do over at the grandly named Science and Public Policy Institute, SPPI, which has just published Papers by British Peer Disprove Catastrophic Human-Induced Global Warming and "Consensus".

Plenty of people have weighed in to dismember the peer's ideas. The puzzling bit for me is that an organisation should feel that advising Mrs Thatcher and being a "Lord" adds weight to their views. Both could equally be signs of eccentricity, or something even more deranged.

The idea that such a person can "disprove" all the stuff we read about climate change must also raise doubts about the credibility of SPPI. It seems that anyone can throw a bunch of grand words into its title and some people out there will take it seriously.

The problem with this set of initials, well, one of the problems, is that its title is awfully similar to a once credible outfit, the Scientists' Institute for Public Information. SIPI was in on the public engagement game, and in "educating" the media, long before the current bandwagon hit the road.

06 August 2007

Would you report on Nature Precedings?

The recent discussion about journals and their love of embargoes looks slightly strange in the light of the development of services such as Nature Precedings. This new web site describes itself as "a place for researchers to share pre-publication research, unpublished manuscripts, presentations, posters, white papers, technical papers, supplementary findings, and other scientific documents".

The description goes on to say that something called their "professional curation team" will screen submissions "for relevance and quality". But there will be no peer review.

The site seems to be a scientific version of "Digg" and the many other social networks that encourage members to vote on submissions. Nature Precedings has a place for "Most popular submissions". When we looked the hot paper, with 32 votes, was Henry Niman's "Swine Influenza A Evolution via Recombination – Genetic Drift Reservoir".

They offer RSS feeds so that you don't have to go and visit the web site to see what is happening. But how should science writers respond to this sort of thing? Are the papers "legit" enough to warrant coverage.

Friends over at AlphaGalileo used to tell me that in most of Europe science writers will not cover anything that has not been peer reviewed. How will they take to such a development when it emanates from a publishing outfit as prestigious as Nature?

The FAQ for the service says that the aim is "to share, archive and cite material that is preliminary or supplementary". You could, they say, use it as a "preprint server". Here they are following the lead of arXiv.org, which has done this sort of thing for years. This is also why Nature does not accept stuff on physics, perhaps fearful that people would see this as the heavy hand of a commercial outfit trying to respond to the open access movement.

The FAQ does not explicitly deal with media coverage, but it does say that "the content may be quoted, copied and disseminated for any purpose, but only if the original source is correctly cited". Maybe this would be an insurmountable barrier for the many newspapers that refuse to provide full details of authorship and publication when they write about papers.

05 August 2007

Foot-in-mouth disease

The whole world, if the news coverage is anything to go by, is probably beating its way to the door of the Institute for Animal Health, whose laboratory at Pirbright is implicated in the spread of the UK's latest outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease (FMD). But click on that link and you will find that Pirbright has yet to wake up to the fact that we all want to read about FMD.

The page in question is headed "Disease factsheets". It is blank and, like the rest of the "new" web site, has a copyright date of 2006. In stead they urge visitors to "Click here to visit our old site." Follow the link and you can retrieve a file about Foot-and-mouth disease. The documents is sadly thin on useful details. Far better to read the pages on Wikipedia.

It would be unfair to expect the web weaver at the Institute for Animal Health to drop everything and rewrite the web site when news of the latest outbreak of the disease hit the headlines late on Friday evening, especially in the August holiday period. But there doesn't seem to be any sign that anyone at this institute or its paymaster, the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, is awake.

There is nothing on the BBSRC's home page or on its news page. The least they could have done would have been to post a link to the pages of the government department that is picking up the pieces.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), has the story at the top of its front page. This takes you to a constantly updated statement.

One thing you will find at the BBSRC site is a PDF file of the most recent, 2002, review of Purbright. This tells us that:

"The condition of much of the Pirbright Laboratory, site infrastructure and associated housing is unsatisfactory and there is a clear need for urgent investment over the next five years in new laboratories and facilities. This should be part of a phased medium-term (10-year) rolling plan for the Pirbright Estate to be developed by the new Director with BBSRC and in consultation with DEFRA. We further recommend that IAH, in concert with BBSRC, develop a realistic and achievable plan for renovating its housing stock. We view these as urgent issues."
If there is any link between Pirsight and the current outbreak, the opposition parties are bound to beat up the Government for not responding to this statement. Such is the short term thinking of these people, and their poor knowledge of science, that they will ignore the fact that Pirbright's decline did not happen overnight, or even in the five years after the change of government.

It takes many years of neglect and underfunding to bring a laboratory to its knees. It then takes time to undo the damage. I bet they won't say that in the Daily Mail.