Talking science policy and Trump politics at this year’s Voice of the Future

By Greg Satchell, BSc (Hons) MRSC MRSB ACSFS, junior forensic scientist for Thames Valley Police and representative for the RSB at this year’s Voice of the Future

Having only ever walked past Parliament on a number of occasions, never had I thought that I would be sitting in the Boothroyd Room, conversing with senior members of Government discussing some of the biggest science policy topics.

As if this wasn’t a new-enough experience in itself, being fortunate enough represent the Royal Society of Biology for this year’s Voice of the Future, on behalf of other young and up-and-coming scientists and engineers, was something of a privilege.

After registering and walking into in one of the many side rooms, it dawned on me that I wasn’t the only one and found myself in the middle of multiple discussions with fellow representatives from other associated bodies, sharing our experiences and working backgrounds. With everyone being as intrigued and excited to be there as everyone else, we were ushered into the Boothroyd room awaiting the arrival of the multiple MPs about to be questioned, by us!

Greg, representing the Royal Society of Biology, poised and ready to ask questions

Session one began with Chi Onwurah MP, the Shadow Minister for Industrial Strategy, Science and Innovation, who answered questions ranging from renewable energy to the science policies of the Trump administration.

Diversity also became a big topic in this first session, with Onwurah commenting: “there are opportunities for science and technology to become more diverse, which is then able to reflect those of the societies they represent.”

Other lines of inquiry included the amount of women in science, and keeping the invitation of oversees Scientists to the UK open.

Second in the chair was Sir Mark Walport, UK Government Chief Scientific Advisor (GCSA) and recently appointed chief executive of UKRI.

After introducing himself with his distinguished CV, I was fortunate enough to open the session with my question regarding the potential development of new and existing police forensic scientists, despite continuing budgetary cuts.

Alongside this, Walport then talked about science publishing and regulation, post-Brexit. On a personal level, it was encouraging to learn, as a forensic practitioner, that due to the UK’s influence on EU standardisation, we as a nation are well-placed to continue this once Article 50 has been and gone and we move into a non-EU way of living.

With a few questions being raised regarding the promotion of scientific careers, an interesting thought provoking speech from Walport outlined that we, as young scientists and engineers, need to put ourselves “out there,”, and do our part in nurturing and encouraging young school children to take up science from an early age.

The third session invited Jo Johnson MP, the Minister of State for universities, science, research and innovation. Naturally, the subject of Brexit came up again in many of the questions, as well as immigration (with regards to students coming to the UK to study the sciences). However, Johnson was adamant that the government “values our European partners…and that we hope collaborations continue in years to come.”

Jo Johnson MP answering questions from representatives

The final session was with Stephen Metcalfe MP and members of the House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee. Enquiries began with questions relating to artificial intelligence (and the potential future of Spaceflight and travel), and then continuing to more “down to earth” topics relating to working relationships between politicians and scientists and the financial and social compromises being faced with regards to evidence based policy making.

Having the opportunity to not only attend, but also be nominated to speak directly with the GCSA, and members of the select committee is such a privilege to have experienced so early on in my forensic career, for which I would like to thank the Royal Society of Biology for presented me with the opportunity to do.. Very few people in my position ever get this opportunity, so being able to represent the RSB on behalf of scientists in my field is definitely a milestone in my career.

If there is one thing that I can say to any young scientist – whether they are members of the Society or not – please look out for this event in the future. And do consider being a member of RSB; you’ll learn many skills, and there are so networking opportunities. Take advantage of them!

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Podcast: Indian tigers as flagships for conservation

By Rebecca Nesbit MRSB, ecologist and author 

Before I attended the Biology Week debate on ‘Should we save the panda?‘, I was conflicted. The loss of such an incredible species felt like a tragedy, yet ‘it’s cute and furry’ seemed no reason to allocate scarce conservation funds to its protection.

I left the debate with my conflicts resolved: far from being a drain on conservation resources, the panda attracts money and attention. By protecting the panda, we are protecting many species which share its habitat. Read more »

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Lead: What do people know?

By Natalie Lamb, PhD Student at The University of Sheffield and Anglian Water, and chair of the Royal Society of Biology East Anglia branch

Most people in the UK are aware that lead is a problem. The presence of lead can have an adverse impact on mental development and may be a factor in behavioural problems. W
hen people in the UK think of the health hazards surrounding lead, they often think of paint or petrol, because these sources have been very publicised, both through official sources like the HSE and through the media. There have even been claims that removing lead from petrol has sparked a decline in crime! But I don’t think people often associate lead with water and in particular would not expect lead to be in water in the UK today.
Read more »

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Returning to work after a career break? The four things you should know

By Dr Ruth Griffin, lecturer in biochemistry and genetics at Kingston University

Being a parent, I have come across many professionally accomplished full-time mums at school, yet so few have returned to their career. Particularly in science, there is a misconception that it is impossible to get back in if you’ve taken a career break, as the sector is very competitive. My advice is: if you are considering returning, please know that research today is suffering without you, and the contribution you can make is much needed.

When, out of the blue, I was struck with illness; I thought my career was over. Six years later, however, I returned to academia and I now work as a full time lecturer at Kingston University, where I run my own research group in medical molecular microbiology.

For those who are contemplating returning to a career in science, here are some of the things this experience has taught me:
Read more »

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How can we adapt to climate change?

By Barney Slater AMRSB, BBSRC PhD student at University of Cambridge and policy intern at the Royal Society of Biology.

Global climate change is an increasing threat for the UK. Research shows an average temperature increase of almost 1C over the last 50 years in the UK, and climate projections predict that this could climb by 2.5-3C by 2100. In 2008, the Climate Change Act was passed, part of which requires the Government to carry out a Climate Change Risk Assessment (CCRA), every 5 years. This takes recent research evidence and uses it to identify the most pressing risks to the UK made by climate change, along with a plan to prepare and adapt. The latest CCRA was published last month, highlighting six major risks to the UK, and setting out the Government’s plans to increase resilience.
Read more »

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Here’s to Hypatia: the world’s first female superstar scientist

By Tom Ireland MRSB, editor of The Biologist and managing editor at the Royal Society of Biology.

Today is International Day of Women and Girls in Science, a day for celebrating the contributions of women to scientific progress and for inspiring girls to consider careers in STEM subjects. It’s a day to celebrate the great female scientists of our time and centuries past: Mary Anning, Rosalind Franklin and Jane Goodall to name just a few in the biosciences.

Hypatia of Alexandria, sketch by Elbert Hubbard, 1908

But arguably the world’s first superstar female scientist lived and worked in fourth century Alexandria, then the great intellectual and cultural centre of the Byzantine Empire.

Hypatia (355-415 AD) was the first female mathematician whose work we know about. As well as being a charismatic lecturer and teacher, she was also an astronomer and philosopher – activities that were almost unheard of for a woman to be delving into in ancient Egypt. She invented equipment for scientific experiments, and became head of a famous school of philosophy. People would come from miles around to hear her speak.

She was basically the Brian Cox of the ancient world.

Read more »

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Seven surprising sunfish facts

By Natasha Phillips, PhD student at Queen’s University Belfast studying the diet & behaviour of ocean sunfish.

Last summer Natasha spent two months studying ocean sunfish in Camogli, Italy, with the support of a Travel Grant from the Royal Society of Biology. Grants applications for 2017 are currently open.

Over the last two years I have seen hundreds of sunfish and these close encounters have given me plenty of opportunity to note a few things about their unusual behaviour. Here are the seven strangest things I have learned about sunfish so far:

Cheeks puffed out pre-grunt

 1. Sunfish are noisy! It may sound strange, but fish really can make noises (a useful communication tool in the marine environment as sound travels more easily through water than air). Our sunfish grumble (a lot!) in a disgruntled fashion, especially when we weigh them, (but then no-one likes having their weight read out loud I suppose?)

2. They can throw mucus a distance of several feet! I’m pretty sure this is an unintended consequence of being very mucus-y fish with powerful flapping fins, so if anyone else is planning on working with them, beware of flying gunk – it gets everywhere: clothes/arms/ears/hair etc. eugh. Read more »

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Survey finds fewer than 300 Scottish wildcats remain in Highlands

By Vicky Burns, Scottish Wildcat Action

Vicky previously blogged about Securing the future of Scottish Wildcats, here she updates us on SWA’s monitoring and protection work.

Image: Scottish Wildcat Action

Scottish wildcats are our only remaining native cat species, and they perform an important function in a healthy ecosystem. They are also part of our cultural heritage in Scotland, with some clan crests featuring the species. Wildcats in Scotland are near the brink of extinction, with a recent estimate based on a range-wide trail-camera survey putting the figure at around 100-300 left in the wild.

After extensive survey work using 347 trail cameras, Scottish Wildcat Action found at least 19 wildcats in the Scottish Highlands based on coat markings (also known as pelage scoring). With the help of 150 fantastic volunteers, the huge task of sorting approximately 200,000 images from the trail cameras used last winter/spring is now complete and the data is being analysed using capture-mark-recapture models. Somewhat less intensive survey work will continue but this vast bank of data is helping staff on the ground to target their conservation efforts. As well as wildcats, the trail cameras also showed where feral cats and hybrids are living wild. An extensive Trap Neuter Vaccinate and Return programme is currently underway, in a huge effort to prevent feral and obvious hybrid cats from breeding with wildcats and passing on their diseases. Read more »

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The Physics of Freezing Frogs

By Ellie Welch, science media researcher at STFC’s ISIS Neutron and Muon Source

Water is the most ubiquitous substance on the planet, not only covering 70% of the Earth’s surface but also being the most abundant substance found in living things. However, our understanding of water on the molecular level is still limited. Researchers are using a number of techniques, including neutron studies, to further understand the properties and dynamics of water.

Using the Science and Technology Facilities Council’s ISIS Neutron and Muon Source in Oxfordshire, researchers from the University of Leeds have been looking at water at low temperatures, and its interaction with glycerol, nature’s answer to antifreeze. Glycerol is an example of a cryoprotectant molecule, which prevents damage occurring to cells, tissues, or other biological material when it is cooled to very low temperature for preservation (cryopreservation).
Read more »

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Plant Health Studentships: opportunities for undergrads and providers

Dr Celia Knight FRSB, plant science education and employability consultant, shares her thoughts on undergraduate opportunities.

What does a summer studentship mean to an undergraduate?

When considering whether to undertake a summer research studentship, placement, internship or work experience, undergraduates might wonder:

  • Does applying for a research studentship mean you have to know you want to do a PhD?
  • If you are an intern, should you expect to be paid?
  • Do placements mean you do a year out or year abroad?
  • Does work experience mean you don’t want an academic career?

Sometimes the answer to these questions is ‘yes’ – but it doesn’t have to be! Read more »

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