Science is a collaborative kind of thing. People find things out, write it and disseminate it to tell your colleagues and the world at large what you’ve done – and read up what everyone else is doing too, to guide your way.

Most people are familiar with the concept of a scientific journal – the practising scientist makes an observation, writes a report and publishes it in a funny-looking journal. The problem, at least according to Randy Schekman, is that the race to the top, to be published in the most prestigious journals, distorts the scientific process and favours eye-catching research over solid research.

In an article for the Guardian, Schekman, Nobel laureate and Professor of Cell Biology at University of California Berkeley, says he will be boycotting top-ranked scientific journals, such as Nature and Science, presumably favouring less prestigious but more balanced publications. This highlights a looming problem the scientific community currently faces: publication in such journals is highly desirable but often provide an inaccurate representation of the field. Top journals commonly favour either dazzling results or controversial ideas, picking a very select subsection of all scientific material published, biased towards the headline grabbing. As such, scientists are encouraged to work on fashionable or contentious topics, often disfavouring fields that are not seen as ‘up and coming’.

I would like to argue the problem is not the race to the top – it’s hiring the best climbers.

While there is a selection bias towards exciting and cutting edge research, that is human nature – we are attracted to it and scientists have the freedom to choose what topics to study. The intrinsic idea of a ranking for scientific journals is also not surprising; it is useful to know if an article is a deal breaker, or more of a run of the mill finding, based on where it appears in the literature.


What gets to the core of the issue is publication bias being sustained by the academic assessment system. Publication in prestigious journals is seen as necessary for success in academia – the more of these you accumulate, the better your chances of landing a job or securing a grant. For institutions, it forms the core of their assessment, with laboratories, departments and universities ranked based on their ability to continuously produce high impact publications and directly affecting their ability to secure essential funding to continue operating.


So while Prof Schekman has made a valuable stance to highlight the deficits in the current system, it does little to propel change. Change would come from the places where value is given to such things, at the meeting rooms of grant-awarding bodies, populated by the likes of Prof Schekman. Indeed, he would be better of saying “I will judge applicants based on the quality of their work and not the impact factor of their citation list” rather than “I won’t publish in Science”.

Science has always been about understanding the world around us, so let us reward those who help us see the vistas, and not those who race to the summit.

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Original article published in The Guardian, as well as more journalistic coverage here and here. For more information on academic rankings, see Wikipedia articles on Impact Factor and H-index.

The big news of the day is, of course, the United States government shutdown. In short, due to a lack of political consensus, many government-funded activities are grinding to a halt, science included. This is no small matter – the US National Science Foundation is sending 98% of its employees home while the National Institute of Health has introduced a halt in clinical trials. We are witnessing an unprecedented hit on state-funded science for the nation that produces the most scientific publications by a long shot.

Science, particularly big science (think CERN) depends heavily on government money. Without large federal grants many important achievements would not have happened, from the human genome project to the international space station. So while science is dependent on government, and most of academia has come to accept that, it seems absurd it should be held ransom to the political process in Washington.

So what does this mean? On practical terms, quite a lot; projects being frozen or stopped altogether, funding cycles delayed for months to years and the general machinery of scientific research taking a large blow to its capacity to operate for an undefined amount of time, as of now.

But beyond the day-to-day practicalities, this sets a precedent for the relationship between government and state-sponsored science. It sets science as a low-priority activity amongst the jobs that must be safeguarded in the event of fiscal debacle, and that is not a good thing. Here are two reasons; first, medical research. Clinical trials typically take years, if not decades to carry out – undermining these either directly by understaffing or indirectly through insufficient funding, potentially delays life-saving treatment being available to those in need.

Second, and perhaps more nuanced, is the disruption in basic research. One of the strongest arguments for funding basic research is that you never know what may turn up further down the line. Abstractions in theoretical physics lead to atomic energy. Radio was invented because a James Clerk Maxwell and came up with a theory of how electricity works. Practical applications often come from non-practical research and restricting the latter would certainly damage our chances of finding new solutions to current problems. This has real economic implications – non fossil-fuel cars? Stopping climate change? It is from the improbable hands of basic research that real solutions to these problems will come, changing the economic landscape.

So while the politicians bicker up in Capitol Hill, spare a thought for federally funded science. Scientific progress is shackled by the makings and undoings of government budget, and will continue to be so for the foreseeable future. This is poor policy for any country that takes investment in its future seriously.

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News on the effects of the US government shutdown on publicly funded science has been published by Nature News, Science Magazine, PBS and the AAAS, among others.

Before your get your pitchforks and torches, I realise the headline is a bit misleading, but the temptation was too great, as I am sure was the case for other news outlets.

Some of them went for

Plants ‘seen doing quantum physics’

Or

Uncovering quantum secret in photosynthesis

And my personal favourite

Plants use quantum physics even if we can’t

So what is this all about? In a nutshell, a Spanish team of scientists have discovered that plants exploit certain effects of the quantum mechanical world to their advantage, and may have been doing so a very long time before we realised there was a special set of rules for the physics of very small things, which we call quantum physics now.

The crucial bit of information, the truly novel finding, is that living organisms (Rhodopseudomonas acidophila, a charismatic purple bacterium in this case) exploit the superposition of photons, that is, their ability to be at multiple locations at the same time, to absorb energy more efficiently – so a quantum photosynthetic trick.

What I love about this story is how despite having a huge scientific background to cover (biology, physics, quantum mechanics), it conveys something quite amazing that we can appreciate without a great deal of knowledge on any of these specific topics. That, I think, is the sign of good science journalism – making the monumental mundane and allowing us to gasp and be impressed, not at the complicated technical stuff, but at the simplistic beauty of nature in action.

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Original article available at Science magazine and news articles as reported in BBC News, Science Daily and MSN Now. 

On the 3rd of July this year, the UK Home Secretary announced her intention to introduce a ban on the psychoactive stimulant khat. Interestingly, this story comes scarcely 5 months after a report from the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) issued a report on khat, which stated khat should remain legal, due to insufficient evidence on its health effects and no direct link to serious or organised crime at present. In fact, the report suggests making khat illegal would funnel funds into criminal organisations, which would manage the plant’s trade in the absence of a legal route.

Why is this story relevant? First of all, it really gets to the heart of relationships between science and policy. The ACMD provided a report on the latest scientific evidence for and against the criminalisation of a drug. As such, the government is expected to take the advice on board, along with all other considerations and make an informed decision. The great surprise here is of a government that claims to follow evidence-based policy, and yet seems to have taken little heed of this report. It is clear the other considerations, such as policing and the role of Britain in the international trade of khat, have weighted against the scientific evidence.

Which brings us to the second point; accountability. While it is perfectly acceptable that a government to make policy opposed to its advisors opinions, the public has a right to know why the evidence was ignored. Science cannot dictate policy, but it can learn from past experience, particularly if we know the reasons why a particular course of policy was followed and what the consequences were. This aspect was conspicuously missing from the recent debate, where the reciprocal relationship between science and policy is crucial to understand the impact of such rulings.

So, what should be the role of science in government policy? To advice, first and foremost, but also to make clear what the implications of taking any decision are, and their associated risk. This was perhaps the weakest point of the ACMD report on khat, where the long-term consequences of criminalisation or continued legality were described, but little discussion was had on the risk and uncertainty surrounding these predictions. While it may seems as a side point, a frank discussion of risk should be a key point driving the issue for both policy makers and the public at large.

Finally, science needs to play a role in public consultation. When large-scale policy decisions are made, scientists need to be at the forefront of informing the public on the evidence and likely effects of future policies. Not to push an agenda, but to put all the cards on the table and allow people to decide. This is how science and policy can truly coexist, forming a democratic framework for informed decisions at the time of casting the ballot.

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Khat ban as reported in BBC News and The Huffington Post. The ACMD report on khat is publicly available here.

What do ancient horses, cutlery, applause, randomised trials and snail genetics have in common? For a pretty random assortment of topics, they have a lot to do with each other, as they all featured in the last couple of episodes of BBC Radio 4 Material World, which after a stellar decade-and-a-half of being on air, has been taken off the airways.

The question of why a eulogy for a radio show has a simple answer; aside from being a personal favourite, Material World was at the forefront of science journalism and engagement – combining cutting edge research and genuinely interesting news on the grandiose and bizarre. So, what did it get right, wrong and all in-between?

First and foremost, Material World was well presented. From the unmistakable style of Quentin Cooper’s pun-filled introductions, to live interviews with real, practising scientists, Material World excelled in bringing you not only the new and exciting, but also a sense of being in there, at the edge of what is known and sharing your puzzlement with the very people who are pushing the boundaries of science. Giving a voice to scientists is important, both to the professional ones but also those who don the lab coat in their spare time – and Material World took citizen science seriously. Running the So You Want To Be A Scientists competition, it brought the world of science to the layman (and woman), allowing the public to propose experiments based on their ideas and experiences. Most importantly, it gave the intellectual lead to the citizen scientists, reminding us all that you don’t need a title or a fancy office at a university department to ask good questions.

Finally, one thing I would look forward to every week, was Cooper’s unrelenting insistence to put complex ideas in understandable terms, to take the magnificent and intricate and make it into the mundane and graspable, a great achievement in any field of science, let alone in the myriad covered in 14 years of broadcasting. Perhaps the highest point of every episode was hearing about quantum mechanics in terms of airborne pies or cheetahs racing skills in terms of the Dakar rally.

Science has had many voices, and few so quirky and charismatic as Quentin Cooper. I, for one, will look forward to his new adventures in science journalism and will gleefully remember pun-laden episodes from archaeology to zoology. So thanks for all the fun, and for reminding us we live in a Material World.

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Past programs of Material World are available from BBC Radio 4 and Quentin Cooper’s past, present and future musings can be spied on @MaterialWorld.

Late afternoon, Russell Square underground station in London. The plataform is mostly empty as I wait to take the next train and my eyes wander up to a large poster offering:

Inner engineering: The science and technology of inner wellbeing

Well, that certainly caught me by surprise. This was an advert by the non-profit organisation Isha Yoga, which was attracting Londoners to take part in a day long seminar about the ‘inner science’ of yogic mysticism.

What struct me as interesting was the careful use of technical language to lend credibility to the overall message. For example, ‘inner engineering’ and ‘yogic science’ are both phrases used in the organisation’s website to describe their particular practises. Both of these contain a dualism between a technical term and something in the realm of spirituality. Similarly, the comparison between an ‘external science of wellbeing’ (read: medicine) and an ‘internal science’ is drawn up multiple times; the message seems to be that while you have satisfied your physical health, you are missing the mystical or spiritual aspect.

Which led me to ask the question, why use words like science, technology and engineering? In short, I see two main reason; 1) to distinguish themselves from the many other spiritual groups and 2) to grant legitimacy to their claims.

The first one is straightforward; they have an edge, something that sets them apart. Perhaps interesting from a marketing perspective, but that needs not concern us here. What I would like to address is the second point: legitimacy. This refers to the idea that we accept something as it is. Obtaining tacit acceptance, or at least not attracting criticism is something that advertisement strives for and can be achieved in a variety of ways.

In this particular case, legitimacy is strived for in three ways; first, by associating the message with words like science and technology; there is a certain gravitas that goes with these concepts that is bound to stick. Second, while never stated explicitly, there is an assumption that whatever practises are followed by this group are somehow based on facts, on some solid foundation that is implied by the use such language. Third, is the interesting dualism I alluded to regarding external and internal ‘science’. Since the external sciences of medicine and technology have legitimacy, by placing their ‘inner science’ next to it, it is legitimised by proxy.

Which leads us to the final point: is it wrong? Not necessarily, but I would argue that it is misleading. At no point in my perusing of the multiple websites mantained by followers of Isha Yoga it seemed their practises were based on any kind of solid scientic work. Instead, there is a lot of technical waffling and mysticism that falls squarely outside the province of modern science.

Spirituality is a large aspect of human culture and there is no reason to deny its rightful place; but when it is merged with technical vocabulary to lend credibility, it comes across as a deliberate attempt to misinform. If we are going to talk about science, let’s talk about science – but let’s not mistake spirituality and religiosity for scientific endeavours.

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I was unable to find a digital version of the original advert that caught my attention, but there is plenty of information at the Wikipedia article, as well as the official foundation websites here, and here.

Perusing the media coverage of science news, I am often struck by words such as ‘fact’ and ‘scientific theory’ being used roughly interchangeably. While not the most sexy of aspects of science, the meaning behind these words represent some very specific ideas that help us construct our understanding of science and more importantly, our critical appraisal of the meaning and significance of any reported story. So here is a quick round-up of the ideas behind such words.

To start off, words like hypothesis and theory have very specific meanings in science, and not necessarily the same as in common speech. Let’s start off with a fact. A fact is simply an observation, like ‘the sun rises and sets every day’, descriptions of what is there. Crucially, they do not explain why something is, nor predict what is going to happen in the future. From the observation, we can make a hypothesis to explain the fact. The sun might be affixed to a celestial dome that constantly moves or alternatively, the sun and the earth might be two spheres and the rotation of the latter causes the sun to appear and dissapear on a 24-hour cycle.

In order to decide which hypothesis is likely to be true, we go and make some more observations (e.g. sending a satellite to orbit to take some pictures) to generate evidence. Therefore, we can call the hypothesis that is supported by evidence a theory. A theory has three important facets; a) it provides an explanation for the fact, not just a description, b) it predicts future behaviour – e.g. if the Earth keeps revolving, the sun will rise and set tomorrow and c) it is falsifiable; if we find new evidence against our current theory, we can discard it as false.

These five concepts (fact, hypothesis, evidence, theory and falsifiability) are at the core of the scientific method and the way we do and interpret science. With these, we can now go and read articles with a critical eye and a critical mind.

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Disclaimer: The explanation above is an unashamedly post-positivist, Popperian approach to the scientific method. Nearly all of it would be considered debatable to an epistemologist, but it is aimed to represent the current majority consensus amongst practising scientists.

What if you could only write using the 1,000 most common words in the English language? Turns out this mental exercise forces you to write so clearly and succinctly, an 8-year-old could understand. Always wanting to try things out, I had a go at explaining the role of superior colliculus in multi-sensory integration and single cell electrophysiology. Let’s see how I did:

Inside our heads, in each one of us, there is a brain. The brain has many bits, but one interesting one is deep in the middle and called the “upper-tall-thing” by people who know stuff about the brain. The upper-tall-thing has many jobs, and need to do all of them at the same time. One important job it does is passing words from outside the brain to inside the brain.

When your eyes see things, they tell the upper-tall-thing about it, and the upper-tall-thing then tells other parts of the brain what the eyes saw. It’s the same when you hear things and when you touch things. When we go around doing stuff, like playing, we need to do all those things; see, hear and touch. We often do all those things at once – if we found a ball, we can see that it’s round, we can hear it go up and down the floor and we can touch its skin. We known that we are seeing, hearing and touching the same thing thanks to the upper-tall-thing, which grabs what we see, hear and touch and put it together, so we know that it’s a ball.

To find out how this works, we use animals instead of humans. We grab the animal, send him to sleep and put long but really small glasses inside the brain which let us hear what is going on. There are many many cells inside the brain, even the upper-tall-thing is made of many many hundreds. With our long-but-small glasses we can listen to a single cell and how it talks to the other cells. By listening in, we can try and work out how does a cell that talks about seeing can also talk to a cell that talks about hearing. That way, we can start to find out how seeing and hearing come together in the upper-tall-thing.

Want to have a go yourself? Try UpGoerFive, inspired by this XKCD comic.

On the occasion of the 2012 UCL Neuroscience Symposium, I have written a little piece with Joseph Jebelli for the UCL Events blog here. It’s all about multidisciplinary research, cutting-edge science and why neuroscience is such an exciting field right now.

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The Events blog is a general news channel from UCL, often written by students; other University sources worth checking out include the Oxford science blog and Berkeley blog.

It seems like science journalists never shy away from a good headline. And by a good headline, I mean one that can prove controversial to the meandering eye of an unwary reader. Reported under the provocative title “Religious experiences shrink part of the brain” by Scientific American, and less dramatically elsewhere (Pacific Standard, MedicalXpress) is a study on how religiosity, it seems, might affect your hippocampus.

In a paper by Amy Owen and colleagues from Duke University, they investigated how the volume of your hippocampus, a small structure well tucked near the base of the brain and principally involved in memory and spatial navigation, might be related to your particular confession.

The idea is fairly straightforward: get a bunch of people, ask them where do they go for Sunday mass and scan their brains. The findings are fairly striking: self-report of a life-changing religious experience was related to smaller hippocampi. Also, those who identified as born-again Protestants, Catholics or not belonging to a religious group showed greater atrophy over time, compared to non born-again Protestants.

What does this tell us? In the author’s view these results are a showcase of complex social behaviour (religiosity) impacting our biology (hippocampal size). Owen highlights that the extra atrophy may be caused ‘by the stress of belonging to minority religious groups – since the study was conducted in the United States, that would be anyone who is not a run-of-the-mill Protestant.

Arguably, there is a long leap of logic in all these articles in saying that hippocampal atrophy is related to religious affiliation and I would argue there are three main reasons for this;

1)  Correlation ≠ causation. This one has become a bit of a mantra, but you can never say ‘correlation does not equal causation’ too much. The fact that born-again Protestants have smaller hippocampi does not automatically mean that being religious causes brain atrophy.

2)  Generalisation. Looking at religious behaviour and self-reported faith confessions is a very complex task. While we may see the commonalities among, say, Catholic groups across nations, it is also easy to see how two congregations of the same denomations may differ greatly in their ideas, experience and self-image. Being a Protestant in Illinois is certainly not the same as being a Protestant in Namibia.

3)  Complexity. Religiosity is a large number of behaviours and cognitive patterns that affects many facets of an individual’s life. To reduce all this to societal stress seems severly reductionist and ignores the vast complexity of behaviour and thought that is religious life. Arguably stress may play a significant role, but it is by no means the only aspect of religiosity which may be linked to physical changes in the brain.

With this, I would argue that it is a gross over-simplification to say that “Religious experiences shrink part of the brain”. We have to accept that the complex methodological framework is going to be lost in translation into popular media and all the more reason to emphasize what this study does not show (if you are in doubt, go to the MedicalXpress comments section). It does not show that being religious shrinks your brain. It does not show that being a born-again Christian makes you stupid. And it certainly does not show that religiosity leads to ‘brain damage’, as some keen readers are quick to point out.

What it does show, is that exciting science does take place at the core of controversial issues, that we need to incorporate discussions about method, generalisation and complexity and that we need to talk about what results mean and do not mean in our popularisation of current science.

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Original paper at PLoS ONE.