Blog has moved!

15 Nov

Hi readers,

This blog has now been moved to https://sciencepolicytalkingpost.wordpress.com/

A redirect is in place, but you may have to resubscribe on that page. Thanks for continuing to read posts at the Talking Post!

If there are any issues, please email me at James.Lush@biochemistry.org

Happy reading,

James

Government rejects criticism of FSS closure decision

1 Nov

This blog post was written by James Lush, the Biochemical Society’s Policy Officer.

Science and Technology Committee to keep close eye on FSS wind-down

I’ve been reading through the Government’s response to July’s House of Commons Science and Technology Committee report into the wind-down of the Forensic Science Service (FSS), which was published yesterday. On balance it is quite dismissive of the report, which strongly criticised the decision, with a couple of caveats (see the end of this post).

In short, it is clear that the commercial side of the decision remains at the forefront of the issue for those wielding the power. As Andrew Miller MP, chair of the committee, said yesterday: “It is disappointing that the Home Office has failed to recognise that the decision to close the FSS should not have been taken purely on commercial and legal grounds, but also on scientific grounds.” The Government states in its response that is not the role of the Forensic Science Regulator (FSR) or Home Office Chief Scientific Advisor (CSA, Professor Bernard Silverman) to give legal or commercial advice, and they reject criticism of Silverman’s role. But what about their scientific expertise? And even if it had been appropriate to announce a closure on these grounds alone, surely their expert opinions would have been useful?

Subsequent comments about the Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) Regulations (TUPE), with regards to the retention of forensic scientists within the profession and the UK – “We fully expect that the obligations arising from [TUPE Regulations] will be met… Ultimately police authorities hold these contracts” – bring to mind (perhaps unfairly) a quote by Arnold Schwarzenegger when asked about the environment early on in his governance of California. “Don’t worry about that,” he said. In the report, the Government do promise to report back to the Science and Technology Committee on the impacts of the closure on FSS staff next June. The time for judgement will be then.

The final point I find particularly interesting is that in their report, the Science and Technology Committee highlighted that there may be a problem with the Home Office’s use of scientific evidence in policy making. In their response, the Government denies this, citing positive messages in the Government Office for Science- Science Review of the Home Office and the Ministry of Justice, from 2007. But taking a closer look at this document, it also states several reservations regarding the Home Office, including that the CSA has no seat on the management board. As the Campaign for Science and Engineering (CaSE) recently pointed out (although the Home Office does fairly well in CaSE’s brief snapshot), this is still the case.

It isn’t all bad news. The response is positive in terms of ensuring the retention and continued operation of the FSS archive system (although the government has not revealed its long-term solution, noting that options are under consideration), and that forensic research and development should be established as a strategic research priority for the Research Councils. For the many other implications, we’ll have to see how private forensic service providers and newly (or soon to be) accredited police forensic departments adapt when the dust fully settles. Miller isn’t convinced that things wont go awry, stating: “I will be asking the committee to keep a close eye on the transition as I still fear that the forensic science research base and criminal justice system could be jeopardised if the Minister’s optimism is ill founded.” These are still worrying and uncertain times.

Supporting women in research – peer mentoring

24 Oct

This guest blog post was written by Irene Jacobsen, a PhD student at the MRC Centre for Developmental Neurobiology, King’s College London.

More than 80% of people occupying the highest academic positions in the EU are men. Whilst the proportion is decreasing, only slightly more women are deciding to stay in academia, reaching for senior positions (Innovation Union Competitiveness report 2011). What then, does it take to get there? As a female PhD student who has only recently learned how the academic career ladder works – with fewer and fewer positions available the higher you climb – I started wondering what support was out there to help women bridge the 80-20% gap.

Enter King’s College London and the ‘’Peer group mentoring for women researchers’ taster day. Not quite knowing what to expect, I arrived to meet a refreshing group of people – crossing disciplines and age brackets – some wondering whether to stay in academic research after a PhD, some looking for support after decades in academia. All were women and all in research. Discussions started regarding the support that is out there or may be missing, with one particular contribution raising immediate interest: the Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard Foundation in Germany. Professor Nüsslein-Volhard, a Nobel Prize recipient in 1995, initiated a foundation that awards monthly sums of money to women in the early stages of a scientific career, who also have the extra responsibility of taking care of young children. The money can go towards childcare or help with household tasks, helping these women to continue to produce high quality work as well as raise a family.

Whilst we may have to wait for a similar initiative to come to the UK, an alternative way of organising more basic support – which is available to everyone regardless of nationality, discipline or age – was introduced towards the end of the day: Action Learning. First described by Reg Revans, the idea is for people to present any issues they may have to the other members of a small group. The group can then ask questions to clarify the problem and provide alternative viewpoints free of preconceptions, as they usually only see each other in this peer mentoring setting. This allows the person raising the issue to leave the session with new perspectives, explanations and possibly even more questions, which may (or may not) help them to reach a solution.

As a member of such a group at the taster day, I was surprised to see how well it worked. Because it is not focused on providing advice, presenting an issue does not mean you will walk away with a sense of what you ‘ought to do’, but instead gives you an outsider’s view of your situation which may help you reach your own decision. The process is challenging, however, both for the ‘issue owner’ and the other members. The former may struggle to see the situation from a different standpoint and the latter to find the right balance between constructive questioning and careful listening.

Overall, the barriers for women in research in particular may be many, but the introduction to action learning does at least provide an opportunity for women in research to discuss in confidence the problems we face, and meet others who may present issues that you yourself could come across one day. Although I would first need to get used to the idea of disclosing personal problems to a group of people I know little about, I do see the undoubted value of having an objective, small and supportive peer group as one possible means of helping break through the barriers and increase the 20%.

David Willetts at the London Science Festival

20 Oct

Minister for Universities and Science, RH David Willetts MP, gave the third annual Gareth Roberts Memorial Lecture last night, held at the Royal Society of Medicine and organised by the Science Council. Here’s a brief storify of some of the key points.

The Minister, understandably, opened with positive statements, drawing on the encouraging messages from the days report on the International Comparative Performance of the UK Research Base (http://www.bis.gov.uk/policies/science/science-innovation-analysis/uk-research-base).

Willetts: UK science in great shape. We punch above our weight. #roberts2011
MarkatSocBiol
October 19, 2011
Willetts on UK research: excel by making the most of what we have eg intelligence, international connections + infrastructure #Roberts2011
LouWoodley
October 19, 2011
UK still efficient in terms of research outputs but our internationalism is a key attribute says Willetts at #roberts2011
DianaGarnham
October 19, 2011

He made some interesting points about open access.

Although @Richvn made an important point later…
more citations per $ (BIS report) needn’t mean UK is more efficient. Cld be we focus spend on academic, not industrial science. #Roberts2011
Richvn
October 19, 2011
UK success ‘depends on openness’ David Willetts #roberts2011
RobertMasseyRAS
October 19, 2011
“Research should not be hidden behind a paywall” #roberts2011
RobertMasseyRAS
October 19, 2011

On capital funding, Willetts noted that six of the eight high priority capital funding projects from the Research Councils were to be funded, despite concerns about falling capital funding levels. Diamond Light Source is one of the projects.

MT @kaythaney Maximise impact through transparency and access (no £ walls), says Willetts. #Roberts2011 #LSF11 #scipolicy
LouWoodley
October 19, 2011
Almost half of science research publications from 2006-2010 included a collaborator from outside the UK #Roberts2011
LouWoodley
October 19, 2011
But he did ackowledge (briefly) that all is not perfect.
Willetts says that @DiamondLightSou’s funding is safe. #Roberts2011
Psythor
October 19, 2011
On the subject of the REF, an ongoing bone of contention with researchers, the Minister sought to do some myth-busting.
Not all rosy. We don’t exploit science as well. #roberts2011
MarkatSocBiol
October 19, 2011
Willetts: wants to address fears about impact #roberts2011
RobertMasseyRAS
October 19, 2011
Willetts: “No desire to strangle curiosity-driven research” #roberts2011
RobertMasseyRAS
October 19, 2011
Do not support focus on pockets of excellence alone. Lone researcher still important. #roberts2011
MarkatSocBiol
October 19, 2011
Peer review not perfect. But of course important. REF is all about quality. Not which journal. #roberts2011
MarkatSocBiol
October 19, 2011
More to do to ensure REF and research councils can foster multi disciplinarity #roberts2011
DianaGarnham
October 19, 2011
Is impact assessment a way around the narrowness and restrictions arising from publications hierarchy? #roberts2011
DianaGarnham
October 19, 2011
“Important that impact assessment panels ensure cross-disciplinary research doesn’t slip thru the cracks – need breadth” #Roberts2011
LouWoodley
October 19, 2011

He also announced a new technicians register. @OliOHanlon got his wish, if a litle later than hoped.

#roberts2011 waiting for Willetts to mention technicians
OliOHanlon
October 19, 2011
RSciTech – Registered Science Technician. #Roberts2011
franknorman
October 19, 2011
RSciTech launched by Science Minister tonight. Time to recognise and applaud the key role technicians play #roberts2011
DianaGarnham
October 19, 2011

The Minister pointed out that those who leave the ‘academic pipeline’ are not necessarily lost to science, but did acknowledge a problem and referred to the recent Science is Vital report (http://scienceisvital.org.uk/2011/10/06/careering-out-of-control-a-crisis-in-the-uk-science-profession/).

#roberts2011 am waiting from Willetts to mention #scicareers report from @ScienceIsVital
ShaneMcC
October 19, 2011
Should a long term research career be the expectation of science undergrads? Willetts now discussing science career pyramid #Roberts2011
LouWoodley
October 19, 2011
Willetts asks whether we need to tweak the shape of the research careers pyramid #Roberts2011
franknorman
October 19, 2011
#roberts2011 those leaving academia might not be lost to science but are they fulfilling their ambitions? Is the lack of opportunity a prob?
ShaneMcC
October 19, 2011

And he didn’t get it all his own way with the last question either, as Imran Khan from the Campaign for Science and Engineering pinned him down with a question about long-term capital investment.

Interesting time at #roberts2011 lecture. Willetts paints rosy view of future for uk research. Apparently not shared by @sciencecampaign
Clmharvey
October 19, 2011
If you want more…
Thx to Science Council for the David Willetts evnt at the Royal Society of Medicine last night… follow #ROBERTS2011 to catch up on tweets!
LondonSciFest
October 20, 2011
We’ll have a full podcast available of the Willetts #Roberts2011 lecture available in the next few days. Assuming no tech problems.
poddelusion
October 19, 2011

Update: Here’s the Pod delusion link – http://poddelusion.co.uk/blog/2011/10/20/david-willetts-on-science-policy-the-roberts-lecture-2011/

And a write-up at Nature blogs – http://blogs.nature.com/london/2011/10/20/london-science-festival-roberts-science-policy-lecture-with-david-willetts-mp

Update 2: And now the full text of the lecture – http://www.bis.gov.uk/news/speeches/david-willetts-gareth-roberts-science-policy-lecture-2011

On the accreditation of bioscience degrees

18 Oct

This post was written by James Lush, the Biochemical Society’s Policy Officer.

As readers may be aware, the Society of Biology (SoB) is currently running a pilot accreditation scheme for bioscience degrees, initially focussing on biochemistry and in vivo sciences. Yesterday, stakeholders were consulted on the expansion of the programme, to discuss which areas of biology the scheme should next be expanded to. In fact, we actually spent a lot of time discussing the aims and workings of the scheme, which aren’t very easy to frame (or so it turns out).

The target of the SoB Accreditation Working Group is to develop a scheme that concentrates on learning outcomes, not on accrediting knowledge. Essentially the aim is to accredit courses with a significant research component (amongst other criteria), which validate students who take these degrees as research-ready and having the necessary transferrable skills. This laudable approach stems from the requirements of employers, differing from, for example, the Royal Society of Chemistry’s accreditation scheme, which (in its own words) recognises courses “of a high standard in terms of intellectual challenge and content.” As Working Group member Professor Simon van Heyningen put it in yesterday’s consultation: “It’s about what our students can do, because this is what employers say they want.”

This thought process lead to the development of the idea that accreditation should be subject specific, referring to the different skills necessary in different fields, which is where the difficulty arises. My earlier post on Professor J.B.S. Haldane suggests that we might generally be better off if we embrace the overlap and cross-relevance of different sciences. Along a related line, if we are to accredit ecology degrees as separate from zoology – acknowledging of course that they will be different in content – what knock-on effect might this have on those who study zoology and then move into ecology? Further issues arise where subjects span numerous fields, such as genetics. Some attendees felt that it might be better to have a general bioscience accreditation of core learning outcomes, with added specialisms effectively bolted on (subject-specific experts could be used to judge and validate these).

In reality, the scheme will – at least initially – be fairly exclusive, although it might be hoped that more universities adjust (and hopefully improve) their courses to fit the accreditation criteria. I say this warily as too many accredited courses would effectively devalue the system, and as noted, the scheme is not about knowledge gained but about skills and the transferable ‘learning outcomes’. Under the current proposals, standard three year degrees would not actually be eligible for accreditation. A further criterion is that students must spend a continuous six months actively doing research, usually in an industrial setting. This is a second area in which complexities arise. If accreditation drives universities and students towards four-year courses (potentially five in Scotland), how will the number of industrial placements be able to absorb the increasing demand? Will less well-off students be unable to afford to study an accredited degree? Will strong three-year degrees – such as those with the required laboratory component done in non-continuous blocks, or those which are effectively compressed four year degrees with shorter holidays – be penalised? There will be a big challenge in marketing a final scheme, to avoid the creation or perception of a two-tier system. This is not the intention, as the many students who do not intend to pursue a research career would not necessarily benefit from taking an accredited degree, given that the assessment criteria are research focussed. But the system will need to be flexible and adaptable to match shifting demands.

Unfortunately more questions seemed to be raised than answered, although the results of the pilot scheme should provide useful information (February and March 2012). Following this, the direction and aims need to be pinned down. There is a lot to think about and significant challenges and decisions lie ahead. If successful, we could be looking at an improvement in the quality of research employment-ready graduates. The idea is very laudable, but it needs to be ready.

You can follow news on the accreditation scheme on the Society of Biology website.

British Council: Science is one of the UK’s greatest assets

7 Oct

This post was written by James Lush, the Biochemical Society’s Policy Officer.

Science is an important tool to build bridges between nations and a great asset for the UK in cultural diplomacy. So said Lloyd Anderson, Director of Science at the British Council, when he joined the Policy Lunchbox network earlier this week to discuss how his organisation uses science to promote the UK overseas.

For a detailed event report, please visit the British Ecological Society’s Ecology and Policy blog, written by the BES’ Policy Manager Ceri Margerison.

The Haldane Principle (no, not that one)

7 Oct

This post was written by James Lush, the Biochemical Society’s Policy Officer.

The Royal Society this week invited Professor Krishna Dronamraju, geneticist and former Nobel Peace Prize nominee, to give a talk on Professor J.B.S. Haldane (not to be confused with the politician Richard Haldane, he of the Haldane principle). J.B.S. Haldane was a great biochemist, holding a Readership in biochemistry at the University of Cambridge for ten years, but much more than that he was a polymath who “knew no boundaries”, in the words of Professor Dronamraju.

Haldane’s contributions to biochemistry, genetics and biochemistry are well documented. He also learnt German, French and other languages at a very young age, and was a very talented mathematician by the age of 10. Whilst an undergraduate at the University of Oxford he co-published papers on physiology with his father, before obtaining a degree… in Classics.

Professor Dronamraju was of the opinion that Haldane achieved so much, and contributed so many new theories, because he saw across the traditional scientific boundaries. Although we at the Biochemical Society would claim him as a biochemist, it was his diverse experimental and educational background – along with his talent and enquiring mind – which allowed him to elucidate links between evolution, biochemistry and mathematics, and other breakthroughs like the ‘malaria hypothesis’. If this unified view of science and mathematics was more widely understood, would more people appreciate these subjects as vital interdependent disciplines?

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.