UK Young Scientist of the Year awarded

The UK Young Scientist of the Year is a new competition for people aged 13-19 who have shown exceptional achievement in discovery, exploration and explanation in the sciences (natural, medical and social) and mathematics (there’s also a UK Young Technologist of the Year for achievement in technology or engineering).

The first Young Scientist award has been given to Peter Hadfield, a 17-year-old student. Here’s a BBC radio clip where he discusses his invention – a hand-held particle detector called Lucid – which is based on one of the particle detectors used in the Large Hadron Collider. Lucid will actually be used in space in 2010.

Nice one, Peter.

Update on PM Brown’s science address at Oxford

The address has happened:

Gordon Brown has said that science provides an opportunity for young people to be “more inspired by those who give to the world, than by those who take from it”.

Speaking in Oxford on Friday, the prime minister was also set to outline new targets to increase the number of pupils studying science and maths.

He said that within five years 90 per cent of all state schools will offer the ‘triple science’ option of physics, chemistry and biology.

That would mean a rise from the 32 per cent of state schools which currently provide the option.

The government aims to at least double the number of state school pupils taking the three science subjects.

And the prime minister is also setting a new target to increase the numbers of young people sitting A-level maths, from 56,000 at present to 80,000 by 2014.

His keynote speech will also pledge to ensure that science funding does not become “a victim of the recession”. [emphasis mine: That’s good, and I hope it’s a promise that holds, otherwise the economy will stall when the pendulum swings back]

And graduates with science, maths and IT degrees who lose their jobs are to be encouraged to retrain as teachers. [emphasis mine: Good idea, if teachers are still needed. Are they?]

PM Gordon Brown to address link between science and the economy at Oxford today

I heard about this on Radio 4 on the way in today:

Prime Minister Gordon Brown is to give the prestigious Romanes Lecture at Oxford University. The speech focuses on the connection between science and economics and comes as debate rages within the science community over what kinds of scientific work should get public funding. Professor Don Braben, a physicist at University College London and Lord Krebs, principal of Jesus College, Oxford, discuss if the government should increase funding for science.

If you go to the Listen Again page today and scroll down to the 07:38 mark you can listen to the short segment.

Science is the key to economic recovery

From the Guardian’s science blog, MP Ian Gibson explains why he thinks science and innovation might be Britain’s way out of the economic downturn.

Science, innovation and technology will have a critical role to play in our recovery from the current economic crisis. Rather than cutting public spending in these areas, we should be investing more. Science should be at the very heart of efforts to boost the economy.

I welcome prime minister Gordon Brown’s announcement that the government will create 100,000 new jobs in the green sector, but this should be just the beginning of a series of government initiatives that put science and innovation at the centre of public policy.

[Read more]

DIUS on Twitter

If you’re interested in what the UK government is doing to support science, the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills – which I’ve blogged about before – has a Twitter presence.

Yesterday, for instance, I’ve learned that Lord Drayson – the Minister of State for Science – is stopping off at ACAL Energy on his way to one of the UK road-trip cabinet meetings. ACAL produce Proton Exchange Membrane (PEM) fuel cell technology.

Part of DIUS’s mission statement is to

[work] with partners from the commercial, public and voluntary sectors to:

  • Accelerate the commercial exploitation of creativity and knowledge, through innovation and research, to create wealth, grow the economy, build successful businesses and improve quality of life.
  • Improve the skills of the population throughout their working lives to create a workforce capable of sustaining economic competitiveness, and enable individuals to thrive in the global economy.
  • Build social and community cohesion through improved social justice, civic participation and economic opportunity by raising aspirations and broadening participation, progression and achievement in learning and skills.
  • Pursue global excellence in research and knowledge, promote the benefits of science in society, and deliver science, technology, engineering and mathematics skills in line with employer demand.
  • Strengthen the capacity, quality and reputation of the Further and Higher Education systems and institutions to support national economic and social needs.
  • Encourage better use of science in Government, foster public service innovation, and support other Government objectives which depend on the DIUS expertise and remit.

It seems to me that social media is likely to provide a better means for achieving some of those public-engagement goals than has been possible in the past. So Twitter on!

Antivaccination journalist to address UK parliament: why?

UK readers will know about the damage done to the temporary damage done to childhood vaccinations by Andrew Wakefield: he claimed a link between the MMR jab and autism. It’s since been shown that he never had any good evidence of such a link, and was charged with professional misconduct. My sense is that public perception is recovering to the fact that vaccines are safe and a good idea for your children.

There’s a vocal (but equally misguided) antivaccination group in the US, however. It’s become more high-profile than ever with a supporting book and media appearances from a journalist named David Kirby.

Kirby – emboldened, I think, by recent government settlements that don’t prove anything – is coming to the UK next week to do a bunch of media appearances. The Telegraph has amazingly granted him anough credibility to write an article that claims the debate about vaccine safety rages on. Fine, whatever. He has the right to be wrong in public.

What really bugs me is that Kirby has secured (via Lord Robin Hodgson, aka Baron Hodgson of Astley Abbotts, who obviously puts some credence in this crap) a briefing to Parliament! I don’t want a crank who doesn’t have the support of the science community and whose book was lambasted by the British Medical Journal to be addressing Parliament as some kind of expert.

I’ve written to my MP to say that I’m not happy about this. I hope no one shows up to his briefing.

Embryo research in the UK

Continuing the genetic theme from my last post (but dropping the mouse theme from the last two), I note that we’re smack dab in the middle of Parliamentary decisions on matters of embryology and stem-cell research.

Yesterday MPs debated changes in the proposed Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill, which would update laws last set in 1990. Two related challenges before the house were voted on:

  1. To ban hybrid human-animal embryos
  2. To ban so-called “saviour siblings”

Both challenges were defeated in a free vote, and so both practices upheld, by margins of 336-176 and 342-163 respectively. This is a good result, and I’m glad that science and reason and – yes – ethics won over sensationalism and superstition.

Human-animal hybrid embryos are the best means for us to do stem cell research that might be used to treat diseases like Alzheimer’s. Stem cells have been produced from other sources, but they’re not as adaptable as embryonic ones. Some people have reacted viscerally to the idea of the “Frankenstein” production of a hybrid. The reality is that there are far too few human eggs donated to do the research. Tests have shown that using animal eggs, removing almost all the genetic material, and then inserting a human cell nucleus into the shell produces stem cells that are as useful as purely human ones. And the proposed changes to the legislation mean that all such testing would have to be pre-approved by government bodies, that no such hybrid embryo would be allowed to be implanted in a human, and that all such embryos would have to be destroyed 14 days after they were created.

“Saviour siblings” refers to a parent with a child who has a disease or disorder that can only be treated by material from a close genetic match using IVF to create embryos, testing them to see if one provides the life-saving match, and then letting that one develop while the other embryos are discarded. People have done this in the past already by simply having more babies; they just didn’t have the means to detect the compatibility at the embryonic stage. Discarding unwanted embryos has always been a part of IVF treatment in any case, since the procedure almost always produces several.

The Roman Catholic Church and other religious groups supported these challenges, of course, as they believe that life begins at conception. They don’t like it, but the law in the UK says that embryos are not persons. So long as abortion is legal here it would be hard to outlaw these new practices. But I believe there are strong ethical cases to be made for these practices on their own merits: there is a good chance that they could save many lives in the future. Stem cell research , especially, holds a lot of promise and needs to be explored.

Abortion itself is one of the next topics under debate. As I write this, MPs are considering whether to reduce the upper time limit on abortions from 24 weeks down to 20 weeks. To be completely honest I don’t have too much opinion on this one: I don’t know the science well enough and only about 1.5% of abortions in England and Wales happen after 20 weeks anyway.

In addition, today they’ll look at removing a current requirement for IVF clinics to consider “the need of that child for a father” before offering treatment. If that goes, it’ll make it easier for lesbian couples to receive IVF treatment and have children. I honestly believe it’s very important for children to have male and female role models. But while it’s clear that a departed father can have a negative effect on a child there’s no evidence that there’s any detrimental effect if there never was a father to begin with. And having a father is certainly no guarantee of love and support. Ultimately, I don’t think it’s right to dictate what structure is right for any particular family, so I support removing the requirement. I’ve read that this is what IVF agencies have effectively been doing in recent years anyway, since recent Human Rights rulings support children for same-sex couples.

A day in Bedfordshire

At the start of the long weekend, the weather forecast was calling for heavy rain on Monday. By the time Monday rolled around it seemed the rain has stayed in the west. Making the most of the unexpected sunshine meant going to a county I’d not visited before: Bedfordshire.

In short, it’s small but nice.

We dusted off our English Heritage memberships for free entry to Wrest Park, a manor with fabulous gardens. It’s got a nice mix of open lawns, wooded areas, water features, out-buildings, statues, and flower beds. There were families picnicking, the sun was shining: very pleasant.

Afterwards we drove to the pretty village of Turvey to do one of the Ouse Valley Ramblers walks (detailed route in a large PDF here, if you’re interested). It wasn’t the most picturesque walk we’ve done, but it covered over 9km of farmland without seeing another soul (just rabbits, deer, and woodpeckers). Afterwards we stayed for a drink and dinner at The Three Cranes pub.

Moose return to Scottish Highlands after a couple thousand years away

Some rich guy is reintroducing wolves, wild boar and moose to Scotland, albeit in an enclosed area.

I think it’s  shame that human hunting and development has driven native species to extinction, but I recognise that nature (and we’re part of nature) does this from time to time. So I have mixed feelings about attempts to reintroduce species to where they once were. On the one hand conditions have changed, and reintroducing may be artificial (as in the case of this enclosed area) or could actually create new and unexpected problems. On the other hand, being Canadian, I like knowing there’s moose nearby.

Back to Winchester

Monday was supposed to hold the nicest weather for London’s Easter weekend. That might have been strictly true, but it was still rather unpleasant.

Nonetheless, PC joined us for a countryside drive. We went back to Winchester, where we’d been only a couple of months ago.

This time we entered Winchester Cathedral, and we’re glad we did. It’s pretty impressive. It’s huge and full of history. The many stages of its architecture, from Norman to medieval gothic to more modern supporting work, are apparent. It’s got art both ancient and modern. It has towers and crypts. It has connections to the Arthurian legends, and was the capital of England in the middle ages. It has ancient books and the tomb of Jane Austen. We timed it just right to join one of the guided tours, and so felt we really got our money’s worth (a fiver). It’s a worthy visit.

For lunch we returned to the Flower Pots Inn in nearby Cheriton, for some of their own-brewed beer and tasty food.

We tried to go back into Winchester for a walk, but it started raining and hailing. We didn’t want to spoil an otherwise nice day, and headed back to London.