Science is Vital Rally 09/10/10

A love of science, some geeky jokes, some well crafted banners, and some bad singing – Trish and I fitted in well at the Science is Vital rally on Saturday. It was organised very quickly as an emergency response to the proposed budget costs. So here are our thoughts on the issues and a link to the song (cringe). 

Video: We need science innovation sung by Evan Harris

It got me thinking about our (OK maybe ‘our government’) obsession with the short term. A lady spoke well about Alzheimer’s research. Her mother recently died after suffering for 8 years so she saw firsthand how inadequate our treatments are. If we put some of the money that currently goes to the NHS for treating people with inadequate drugs into researching better ones we’d improve lives. Yet that requires a longer term vision, and more funding for science.

The focus on medical research did, however, make me wonder if we too are guilty of short-term thinking. Our long-term wellbeing is dependent on natural resources, but medical funding seems more immediate. Are we spending our science budget in a short-sighted way?

On a lighter note, I had a stylish banner made from, amongst other things, a bamboo hoop that’s meant to inhabit my aunt’s garden but never made it beyond the kitchen. I looked good. And one of the songs is up on my YouTube channel.

The official website is:

Listen to the talks on a podcast at:

But Trish did a very good job of summing up what the key messages were:

– other countries are investing more in research in times of recession to help get out of trouble, but Britain is cutting funding.

– England doesn’t export much – the service industry (Eg Banks) is not reliable or can easily be exported, these are not sectors that we can depend on. Science is something that is world class in Britain and a sector that can drive the economy

– Researchers in England make up 1% of researchers globally and produce 10% of the good research (most cited papers). The phrase ‘punching above their weight’ was used often.

– Scientists are mobile and will move out of the country to get jobs, this will have a negative impact on the country.

– Scientists earn a fraction of what people in other educated professions receive – how many top graduates start off with a stipend of 13 grand a year?

Posted in Politics | 4 Comments

Cull the Badger?

Bovine Tuberculosis is a serious disease in British cattle costing over £100 million annually and badgers are known to transmit the bacteria. So logically removing the badgers should help combat the disease. This is the idea behind the Randomised Badger Culling Trial carried out for 5 years starting in 1998. It is also behind the proposed introduction of culls in parts of Wales.

But the badger is a charismatic character. A sweet bumbling animal that the general public don’t want to see trapped and killed. Which may be part of the reason there has been so much opposition to the proposal.

Now a recent study suggests that there are other reasons to avoid the cull. For one thing, although the original trial may have showed a moderate reduction in the incidence of TB within the target areas, there was actually an increase in surrounding areas presumably due to the movement of badgers misplaced by the culling.

The study monitored the incidence of TB in the 10 trial areas and 10 matched, un-culled areas for the 4 years after culling was ceased. The study showed that there was a continued decrease in TB incidence following the culling, but this unsurprisingly decreased over time until there was no noticeably reduction after 4 years. It was concluded that to effectively implement a method to combat the spread of TB would require large scale, continued culling of badgers. This would be very costly. In fact the study showed that, whilst large scale culling can decrease the incidence of TB, it is not cost effective.

So is the proposed badger culls just a way to make helpless farmers feel like they are actually doing something? Or is the cost worth it?

Jenkins, HE; Woodroffe, R & Donnelly, CA. (2010) The duration of the effects of repeated widespread badger culling on Cattle Tuberculosis following the cessation of culling. PLOS One 5(2): e9090

Posted in Conservation | 15 Comments

One Child Policy Brings Many Problems

It has been suggested that the world population could increase to over 9 billion by 2050. This overpopulation will require a doubling of global food production and lead to many other problems besides. But what is the alternative?

Four decades ago the impending problem of population growth was picked up in China where the government made a drastic decision. They would halt their country’s population growth by drastically restricting births. This began in the 1970s with a ‘later, longer, fewer’ method encouraging couples to marry later, wait longer between children and ultimately have fewer children. The method was a success reducing the fertility rate of the country from 5.5 in 1970 to 2.7 in 1979. But for the Chinese government at the time this was not enough. 30 years ago this week the controversial one-child policy was introduced.

The one-child policy has done what it set out to do – reduced population growth. Unfortunately it has also left China with an aging population and shrinking labour force not to mention a skewed sex ratio as male children are kept preferentially over females. For decades experts and welfare groups have argued against the policy which led millions of children to be aborted, sometimes without the parents’ consent.

These graphs show the increasingly skewed sex ratio (top), predicted lop sided age structure (middle) and decreases in fertility rate seen in countries without the one-child policy (bottom).

A group of demographers and sociologists have spent the past decade collecting data and forming arguments against the policy. This anti-one-child advocacy group point out that other countries have managed to decrease fertility rates without resorting to such drastic measures. But so far their arguments haven’t been met favourably by the government who fear that scaling back the policy will lead to a baby boom.

Now, in some areas, children of the one-child policy are allowed to have two children, if they wish, but a stunning survey of almost 20 000 women given this choice shows a large proportion of women happy to stick at one. In fact the average ideal found in this survey was for families to have 1.46 children. This suggests that were the policy to be lifted, or at least scaled back, there would not necessarily be a dramatic boom in births.

The advocacy group will continue to fight against the policy but know that it won’t be easy. “They are discussing relaxing the policy,” Says Wang Feng, a demographer at the University of California (UC), Irvine. “The process is just very slow. For now.”

Posted in Emma, Politics | 1 Comment

A vision for 2050: evidence-based conservation

Conservation is getting ever more attention – governments are realising that they need to act, scientists are learning more, and millions of people worldwide are part of conservation charities. In fact the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity is one of the world’s most widely ratified treaties.

Yet biodiversity is still lost at an alarming rate, which is followed by a decline in the benefits biodiversity provides for us. There are lots of pressures responsible for these declines – climate change, pollution, expansion of agricultural land, overfishing, unsustainable logging…

Mike Rands from the University of Cambridge joined with experts from conservation organisations and from various departments at the university to take a holistic view of the challenges that conservation faces.

They identified some key gaps in our knowledge. We know little of the diversity of microbes, invertebrates and many groups of plants. We know less about the tropics than about temperate regions. Our knowledge of genetic diversity, as opposed to species diversity, is lacking. We don’t know enough about how different parts of the ecosystem interact, or about ecosystem management.

So how do we tackle the decline of biodiversity? The authors highlight the need to link science to economics, to empower developing nations to protect biodiversity, and to turn scientific knowledge into policy. Our approach to conservation has changed over time and we need to identify and build upon what works.

2010 is international year of biodiversity, and the Convention Biological Diversity is to be held this month in Japan. Here governments are expected to adopt a vision for 2050 and set biodiversity targets to be achieved by 2020.

In advance of this meeting, Rands and colleagues have put forward three necessities for halting biodiversity loss:

  1. Manage biodiversity as a public good

The people who suffer the consequences of biodiversity loss are often not the ones who caused it. So biodiversity must be seen as a global good, and protection needs to be achieved through collective choices. An understanding of the economic value of biodiversity will help develop a strategy to manage it. Incentives and regulations are then needed to change behaviour.

2.   Integrate biodiversity into public and private decision-making

Social, economic and political decision-making must take biodiversity into account. Governments’ concern for biodiversity cannot be restricted to the environmental ministry – other departments have a role to play.

3.   Conditions are created for policy implementation.

We need to make the jump from understanding the science of biodiversity loss to actually doing something about it. Conservation works best where knowledge is combined with appropriate institutional structures and patterns of behaviour that mean we can meet targets. Actions to counteract biodiversity loss must be enabled by institutions, governance and appropriate behaviours.

2010 is the year in which society can decide to take the role of biodiversity in human wellbeing seriously, and invest in ways of conserving nature’s services for future generations.

Rands MR, Adams WM, Bennun L, Butchart SH, Clements A, Coomes D, Entwistle A, Hodge I, Kapos V, Scharlemann JP, Sutherland WJ, Vira B. (2010) Biodiversity conservation: challenges beyond 2010 Science. 329:1298-303

What do you think we can achieve this year?

Posted in Biodiversity, Conservation | Leave a comment

The nightjar’s amazing gape on video

I’m pleased to have a link to our 1st video – it is ringing nightjars in Dorset, a beautiful adult and juvenile caught on 29th August 2010.

The British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) runs a network of over 2,500 trained amateurs, who together ring over 900,000 birds each year. The scheme is designed to provide vital information for conservation – how long birds live, when and where they move, and whether they return to the same areas. They study how many young birds leave the nest and survive to become adults, and how many adults survive the stresses of breeding, migration and severe weather. Changes in survival rates and other aspects of birds’ biology help to understand the causes of population declines. Although bird ringing has been taking place for nearly 100 years, we are still discovering new facts about migration routes and wintering areas.

The BTO website answers questions about how and why we ring. It reports birds that have been recaught, and gives information about trans-continental migrations that this has helped provide.

Posted in Biodiversity, Birds, Videos | 2 Comments

Ethanol from willow trees – is it worth it?

The current obsession with ‘carbon neutral’ – in many ways a very good one – has meant that people are very keen to label things carbon neutral when in fact they are nothing of the sort. Biofuels is a prime example. If you look at it simply – you burn a tree and release carbon but, through photosynthesis, it took in that much carbon while it was growing. However, a whole lifecycle analysis is needed to understand how sustainable these crops are. This takes into account emissions from transportation, inputs such as fertiliser, and the disposal of waste products.

Cambridge scientists did this analysis for the production of bioethanol from willow in the UK. Their results showed that bioethanol from willow would produce over 80% less greenhouse gas than burning gasoline from fossil fuels. These savings are much greater than the ‘first-generation biofuels’ that have been grown in the US and come from crops such as corn. They make ethanol from willow seem like an appealing option.

A major advantage of willow over first-generation biofuels is that it can be grown on marginal land. It even improves the soil quality; willows are coppiced so only replanted every 30 years. The soil isn’t ploughed in this time so any carbon that the tree sequesters in the soil remains there.

However, it’s not yet economically viable. A high capital investment is needed, and the provision of the willows themselves and enzymes needed to make the ethanol are expensive. The study suggests that selective breeding can help change this. The significant genetic diversity of willows can be exploited through breeding to make them even more suitable for biofuels use. For example, a higher ratio of cellulose to lignin would increase the yield of ethanol.

A.L. Stephenson, P. Dupree, S.A. Scott and J.S. Dennis (2010) The environmental and economic sustainability of potential bioethanol from willow in the UK. Bioresource Technology 101, 9612-9623

I think this research again highlights the point that has come up in our discussion of GM crops – just because some of the earlier biofuels ideas using food crops turned out to be a bad idea, it doesn’t mean that there’s no potential for biofuels to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Posted in Biofuels, climate change | 6 Comments

Tiny seahorse caught in big oilspill

From Emma:

The world’s smallest seahorse is now being threatened by the world’s largest accidental marine oil spill.

The BP oil spill began with the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig in April this year and led to the release of almost 5 million barrels of crude oil.  The effect of the spill on local wildlife is still being felt. The immediate effect was obvious on seabirds that became coated in the crude oil which destroyed their plumage and was poisonous if ingested.

Now the effort to combat the spill may be bringing its own problems. By burning off oil caught in seagrass mats, those trying to combat the spill are now destroying the habitat of the dwarf seahorse; Hippocampus zosterae.

Dr. Heather Masonjones, a seahorse biologist at the University of Tampa, says: “It’s absolutely critical that measures be taken to preserve the seagrass mats and beds during this vulnerable time.” The alternative is to use “booms in the clean-up to isolate the oil slicks. These can be skimmed, left to evaporate, or treated with biological agents like fertilisers, which promote the growth of micro-organisms that biodegrade oil.”

BP have now admitted that they missed critical warning signs before the explosion, but they are equally happy to blame other companies involved including Halliburton who chose the cement. Are they just shifting the blame? Does this new information give clues on what can be changed to prevent future disasters? And is it all too little too late? Especially for this tiny seahorse.

Posted in Biodiversity, Emma | 4 Comments

Poverty reductions from Bt cotton – 15 years on

In 1995 the USA controversially approved Bt cotton for commercial use. Fifteen years on its effect on farming and the rural community have been analysed in a study from the University of Göttingen.

Bt cotton is resistant to many caterpillar and beetle pests, so it reduces the amount of pesticide needed to control these species. The reduction in the amount of pesticide sprayed on the crops has benefits for the environment and for the health of the farmer. More recently, varieties resistant to a wider range of pests have been brought out.

In 2009, Bt cotton was grown on 16 million hectares – nearly half of the total area of cotton grown throughout the world. This rapid spread of the technology suggests that farmers believe it increases profits, and many studies have shown considerable socioeconomic benefits.

A 3 year study in India reported that farmers growing Bt cotton sprayed on average 41% less pesticides than those growing traditional varieties. Not only that, but less damage by pests meant they also got more cotton – yields were 30-40% higher when Bt cotton was grown. Higher yields and less pesticide meant that average profit was increased by a staggering 89%.

The effect of Bt cotton on rural development and was again reported to be very positive. More cotton means more work not just for farmers but also anyone processing the cotton. Transport infrastructures are improved to deal with the extra crop. It was concluded that for every $1 gain in profit for the farmers, there was an additional 83 cents of benefit for the local economy. What was, for me, one of the most important findings was that 60% of the gains were to the moderately or extremely poor.

Some of the worries about GM crops were social rather than environmental – will the poorest farmers be able to afford the seed for example? In India, the government has capped seed prices to ensure more farmers can get hold of it. Also, early issues which meant that some farmers didn’t benefit from the technology have been overcome. For example, some farmers didn’t have enough information to use the technology effectively. Also, there weren’t initially enough varieties to be suitable for all conditions.

The study does warn against extrapolating these benefits to other regions or for other crops. The effect of Bt cotton on pesticide use and on yields also varies considerably between countries – for example, although it halves the pesticide use in Australia, it doesn’t increase yield. There are also great variations between years. The increase in profits varies even more considerably between countries, partly because of variation in the cost of seed. But the fact remains that Bt cotton has produced profit gains around the world.

Too good to be true? Or proof this is one GM crop we should embrace?

Qaim M (2010) Benefits of genetically modified crops for the poor: household income, nutrition, and health New Biotechnology doi:10.1016/j.nbt.2010.07.009

Posted in Advances in technology, Food security, GM crops | 7 Comments

Famous Females Forgotten

From Emma:

A recent ICM survey suggests that 2/3 of the general public are unable to name a single famous female scientist! In fact 90% of 18-24 year olds were at a loss to think of a current or historical female scientific figure…shocking!

Then again only about half could name a famous scientist at all…

Which got me thinking…could I think of any famous female scientists?



Jane Goodall:

British primatologist, ethologist, anthropologist, and UN Messenger of Peace (according to wikipedia). Mostly I just know her as ‘That chimp woman’. Most well known for her work studying chimps at Gombe Stream National Park (Tanzania) she also set up the Jane Goodall Institute to support further research and is an active animal rights activist.

Rosalind Franklin:

Much overlooked biophysicist, physicist, chemist, biologist and X-ray crystallographer. It was drilled into us at school (an all girls school of course) that Rosalind did much of the work behind that famous discovery by James D. Watson and Francis Crick; discovering the structure of DNA.

Marie Curie:

Physicist and chemist. Unfortunately most well known for her death of radiation poisoning (well from aplastic anemia presumably brought on by exposure to radiation), her name is given to a charitable organization which provides nursing care for cancer sufferers. But amazingly this woman, a pioneer of radiation study, was awarded 2 Nobel prizes!


And that’s where my (still slightly hungover and over worked) brain kinda ran out… I am a scientist myself, well educated and from (at least at some point in my education) an all girls school, and yet I can only think of 3 off the top of my head. Admittedly I know of other female scientists (I work with quite a few) but I’m not sure I’d say they were famous. Famous in my area of research, famous in certain circles, but famous famous?

So why do I find it easier to remember Darwin, Einstein & Newton than any of their female counterparts? I find it hard to believe that there aren’t potentially famous female scientists out there, so why don’t I know about them?

So I have decided to start a campaign…well I’ve decided to find random female scientists and their work and then share it with you good people so that hopefully next time ICM or whoever else decides to survey maybe someone out there will know of at least 1 famous female scientist.

Oh and maybe I’ll add some interesting male ones as well, it’s no good me being sexist now is it?

Posted in Emma | 10 Comments

Top places to save for Europe’s insects

When people first realised the effect we have on wildlife, they instantly started to protect it. Generally the more impressive a species was the more it was deemed to be worth saving. But now we’re realising that there are far more reasons for protecting wildlife than ‘we like it’, and this changes what we choose to save.

Most invertebrates don’t come under the ‘impressive’ category, but they do provide essential services – pollination, decomposition, maintaining soil quality, essential parts of the food chain etc. But lots of the services they provide are far more complex, and they act in ways we don’t understand. What we also don’t know, particularly in less studied parts of the world, is the distribution of most insects.

Two German scientists recently published a study in Biological Conservation which asked the question – if we choose which areas to protect based on which vertebrates or plants live there, are we effectively protecting invertebrate diversity?

They found that, on a large scale, the regions of Europe that have a high diversity of plants and vertebrates also have a high diversity of invertebrates. One of the reasons for this is that, in the last ice age, glaciers were widespread in Europe. Where there were glaciers there were obviously few plants and animals. When the glaciers receded it still took time for the wildlife to return – so the diverse areas now are the ones where the glaciers didn’t reach.

They found that the diversity of vertebrate species was more closely related to the diversity of some groups of invertebrates than others. Ants and ground beetles, for example, represent the diversity of other species of vertebrates and invertebrates. They would, therefore, be good groups to act as surrogates to work out the diversity of the region – the diversity of ground beetles could be used to identify diversity hotpots, without the need for accurate surveys of all plants and animals.

Invertebrates, despite their essential role in supporting life on Earth, have often been neglected in conservation schemes, and this study suggests how we can best incorporate them.

Schuldt A and Assmann T (2010) Invertebrate diversity and national responsibility for species conservation across Europe – A multi-taxon approach Biological Conservation doi:10.1016/j.biocon.2010.07.022

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