Time to reclaim the values of science

This post is dedicated to Paul Picard, my grand dad, who was the oldest reader of my blog. He was 17 (and Jewish) in 1939 so he did not get the chance to go to University. He passed away on the first of October 2016. More on his life here (in French) and some of his paintings (and several that he inspired to his grandchildren and great-grandchildren). The header of my blog is from a painting he did for me

A few recent events of vastly different importance eventually triggered this post.

A  (non-scientist) friend asked my expert opinion about a campaign by a French environmental NGO seeking to  raise money to challenge the use of nanoparticles such as E171 in foods. E171 receives episodic alarmist coverage, some of which were debunked by Andrew Maynard in 2014. The present campaign key dramatic science quote “avec le dioxyde de titane, on se retrouve dans la même situation qu’avec l’amiante il y a 40 ans {with titanium dioxide, we are in the same situation than we were with asbestos 40 years ago}” is from Professor Jürg Tschopp. It comes from an old media interview (2011, RTS) that followed a publication in PNAS. We cannot ask Professor Tschopp what he thinks of the use of this 5 years old quote: unfortunately he died shortly after the PNAS publication. The interpretation of this article has been questioned since: it seems likely that the observed toxicity was due to endotoxin contamination rather than the nanomaterials themselves. There is on the topic of nanoparticles a high level of misinformation and fear that finds its origins (in part) in how the scientific enterprise is run today. Incentives are to publish dramatic results in high impact factor journals which lead many scientists to vastly exaggerate both the risks and the potential of their nanomaterials of choice. The result is that we build myths instead of solid reproducible foundations, we spread disproportionate fears and hopes instead of sharing questions and knowledge. When it comes to E171 additives in foods, the consequences of basing decisions on flawed evidence are limited. After all, even if the campaign is successful, it will only result in M&M’s not being quite as shiny.

I have been worried for some time that the crisis of the scientific enterprise illustrated by this anecdote may affect the confidence of the public in science. In a way, it should; the problems are real, lead to a waste of public money, and, they slow down progress. In another way, technological (including healthcare) progress based on scientific findings has been phenomenal and there are so many critical issues where expertise and evidence are needed to face pressing humanities’ problems that such a loss of confidence would have grave detrimental effects. Last week, in the Spectator, Donna Laframboise published an article entitled “How many scientific papers just aren’t true? Enough that basing government policy on ‘peer-reviewed studies’ isn’t all it’s cracked up to be“. The article starts by a rather typical and justified critique of peer review, citing (peer-reviewed) evidence, and then, moves swiftly to climate change seeking to undermine the enormous solid body of work on man-made climate change. It just happens that Donna Laframboise is working for “a think-tank that has become the UK’s most prominent source of climate-change denial“.

One of the Brexit leaders famously declared that “people in this country have had enough of experts”. A conservative MP declared on Twitter that he”Personally, never thought of academics as ‘experts’. No experience of the real world. Yesterday, Donald Trump, a climate change denier was elected president of the USA: “The stakes for the United States, and the world, are enormous” (Michael Greshko writing for the National Geographic). These are attacks not just on experts, but on knowledge itself, and, the attacks extends to other values dear to science and encapsulated in the “Principle of the Universality of Science“:

Implementation of the Principle of the Universality of Science is fundamental to scientific progress. This Principle embodies freedom of movement, association, expression and communication for scientists, as well as equitable access to data, information and research materials. These freedoms are highly valued by the scientific community and generally well accepted by governments and policy makers. Hence, scientists are normally able to travel to international meetings, associate with colleagues and freely express their opinions regardless of factors such as ethnic origin, religion, citizenship, language, political stance, gender, sex or age. However, this is not always the case and so it is important to have mechanisms in place at the local, national and international levels to monitor compliance with this principle and intervene when breaches occur. The International Council for Science (ICSU) and its global network of Members provide one such mechanism to which individual scientists can turn for assistance. The Principle of the Universality of Science focuses on scientific rights and freedoms but implicit in these are a number of responsibilities. Individual scientists have a responsibility to conduct their work with honesty, integrity, openness and respect, and a collective responsibility to maximize the benefit and minimize the misuse of science for society as a whole. Balancing freedoms and responsibilities is not always a straightforward process. For example, openness and sharing of data and materials may be in conflict with a scientist’s desire to maintain a competitive edge or an employer’s requirements for protecting intellectual property. In some situations, for example during wars, or in specific areas of research, such as development of global surveillance technologies, the appropriate balance between freedoms and responsibilities can be extremely difficult to define and maintain. The benefits of science for human well-being and development are widely accepted. The increased average human lifespan in most parts of the world over the past century can be attributed, more or less directly, to scientific progress. At the same time, it has to be acknowledged that technologies arising from science can inadvertently have adverse effects on people and the environment. Moreover, the deliberate misuse of science can potentially have catastrophic effects. There is an increasing recognition by the scientific community that it needs to more fully engage societal stakeholders in explaining, developing and implementing research agendas. A central aspect of ensuring the freedoms of scientists and the longer term future of science is not only conducting science responsibly but being able to publicly demonstrate that science is being conducted responsibly. Individual scientists, their associated institutions, employers, funders and representative bodies, such as ICSU, have a shared role in both protecting the freedoms and propagating the responsibilities of scientists. This is a role that needs to be explicitly acknowledged and embraced. It is likely to be an increasingly demanding role in the future.

It is urgent that we, scientists, reclaim these values of humanity, integrity and openness and make them central (and visibly so) in our Universities. To ensure this transformation occurs, we must act individually and as groups so that scientists are evaluated on their application of these principles. The absurd publication system where we (the taxpayer) pay millions of £$€ to commercial publishers to share hide results that we (scientists) have acquired, evaluated and edited must end. There are some very encouraging and inspiring open science moves coming from the EU which aim explicitely at making “research more open, global, collaborative, creative and closer to society“. We must embrace and amplify these moves in our Universities. And, as many, e.g. @sazzels19 and @Stephen_curry have said, now more than ever, we need to do public engagement work, not with an advertising aim, but with a truly humanist agenda of encouraging curiosity, critical thinking, debates around technological progress and the wonders of the world.



I ran today a one hour training session for researchers at the University of Liverpool about online presence. About 20 researchers from very different backgrounds (from language to physics, chemistry  ecology, etc) mostly at the post-doctoral level attended. We started with a round table where I asked each participants to tell which social media they use and what they expected from the workshop.

Many were Facebook users, mostly for personal networking, while a few had started to use it for professional networking too. Research Gate and LinkedIn were prominent as well (often with low level of usage). Google+ had one mention. One or two had limited experience of Twitter. One question that came several times was the personal versus professional limit. How much should we keep private? I don’t think there is any easy answer to this question, except that it is useful to understand how each tool you use work and therefore how to control what you are actually sharing or not. In that context, Facebook is a bit of a pain while Twitter is simple: everything is public so don’t share what you want to keep private.

Does it mean though that everything on your Twitter feed has to be serious professional stuff devoid of any personal aspect? I asked this question to Twitter during the event itself

Vladimir Teif responded immediately

I don’t actually agree with Vladimir (you can check my reply to him on Twitter), but thanks to him for this nice demonstration of the power of real-time conversation and crowdsourcing of  information.

When preparing this session, 12 hours before the event, I had asked on Twitter suggestions on of posts an points on social media for academics. I got a number of responses:










I ended up talking too much, mostly advertising the benefits of Twitter. Whether I have convinced them or not will be seen in the number of them that join and tweet me in 2015. Or participate in the comments section below. So far so good:


Shocking: France spends money to access the research produced by its researchers

That is pretty much the title of an news article published today in L’OBS avec Rue 89

La France préfère payer (deux fois) pour les articles de ses chercheurs

Au lieu de donner à tous l’accès aux travaux de ses scientifiques – qu’elle a financés –, la France choisit de verser 172 millions d’euros à un éditeur néerlandais. Rue89 dévoile le texte de cet incroyable marché.

The article has a few flaws, but over all, it is good. It clearly points out the incredible margins of publishers and the absurdities of the system in a way not too dissimilar to my recent blog post “Where to publish our next paper? Letter to a group member“.

Now this article has a few flaws. In particular, it puts all the blame on the state and suggests that other countries, in particular the UK, are doing much better. That is far from being the case. In fact, in many countries, including the US and the UK, negotiations with publishers do not happen at a national level which gives more power to the publishers to secure advantageous deals (and there was no transparency until some data were released thanks to freedom of information requests). [Update 11/11/2004: one of the author commenting below notes that their article did not cite the US or UK as positive examples, but the German and the Dutch]

The main error of the article though is in putting the blame squarely on ministers and politicians when researchers themselves have a huge responsibility for the continuation of this system.  This was immediately seen in the responses on twitter as illustrated on this thread (click to see the conversation, many more tweets) where colleagues appeared to rush to the defence of Elsevier’s profits [slight exaggeration/bait, which I hope may lead them to post some comments below].

Founders of bionanotechnology?

In a 2009 JACS editorial (10.1021/ja9038104), Thomas E Mallouk and Peidong Yang wrote

Although the use of colloidal particles of metals and semiconductors as pigments dates back many centuries, and although the recipe for stable 6 nm diameter particles of gold (“Ruby gold”) was famously devised by Faraday in 1857,[1] the unique properties of nanomaterials and their promise for applications in biochemistry, cell biology, and medicine have only recently been appreciated. Prior to the 1990s, the principal role of inorganic colloids in biological research was as high-contrast stains for electron microscopy.[2] A paradigm shift occurred in 1996, when Mirkin, Alivisatos, and co-workers coupled metal nanoparticles to DNA.[3] Their experiments demonstrated not only that DNA could be used for the organization of nanostructures, as had been suggested in earlier experiments by Seeman,[4] but also that nanoparticles were highly sensitive spectroscopic reporters for the base-pairing of DNA

This is a commonly held view and there is no doubt that the 1996 paper is an important milestone.

Yet, beyond electron microscopy, gold nanoparticles had been introduced as a diagnostic tool based on a color change 84 years before Mirkin, Alivisatos and co-workers paper. In 1912, Carl Friedrich August Lange introduced gold nanoparticles to detect diseases [1]. Writing a few years later in the Journal of Experimental Pathology [2], John Cruickshank, MD, writes:

It occurred to Lange to examine syphilitic and normal sera by this method, and later to apply the reaction to spinal fluids, as the amount of globulin and albumen was known to vary in different pathological conditions of the central nervous system. Lange found, however, that certain spinal fluids, in addition to exhibiting protective effect on gold colloid, had also unexpected precipitating properties. The spinal fluids of cases of dementia paralytica in particular showed this precipitating property, and as a result of the examination of a series of cases Lange recommended the test for the diagnosis of this disease.


For several decades, the Lange test based on gold nanoparticle color change was used in clinics as reported in numerous papers. It also motivated the synthesis of suitable nanoparticles, e.g. “The Preparation and Standardization of Colloidal Gold for the Lange Test”  in 1931 by Jocelyn Patterson.

[1] Lange, C. Die Ausflockung kolloidalen Groldes durch Cerebrospinalflussigkeit bei luetischen Affecktionen des Zentraluerxensystem,^’ Zeitschr. f. Chemotherap., 1912, 1, 44

[2] Cruickshank, J. Br J Exp Pathol. Apr 1920; 1(2): 71–88

[3] Br J Exp Pathol. Jun 1931; 12(3): 143–146. PMCID: PMC2048186



join the discussion of the previous post

It’s happening on Twitter.

There is a Storify here to catch up.

I am looking for examples of convincing experimental demonstration of nanoparticles diffusing through membranes (if there are any). Please tweet your suggestions to  or add in the comments sections of this post.

Nano talk for 15 years old

About two weeks ago, the Institute received an inquiry from Shevington High School near Wigan (~ 30 min drive from Liverpool). Clare Ingham, a student teacher in the School, wrote:

Recently I’ve been discussing nanoscience and nanotechnology with my year 10 students. They were very interested and enthused on the work that is being led in the north west in this area. 

Indeed, you can see on the School news blog that they really enjoyed making some model fullerenes some weeks ago [scroll down on that page to “Year 10 Chemistry”]. Clare continued:

I’d like to keep that enthusiasm high by hopefully inviting one of your research team to the school to give a short talk/Q&A with a small number of pupils in the near future on some Liverpool led developments in nanotechnology? Would this be a possibility? I’m keen to enthuse the pupils of the science they could be part of and leading in the future.

I volunteered. I have done some outreach talks before, e.g. Christmas lecture and Scibar, but I thought I’d ask Twitter for new ideas. Thank you to @Zen_of_Science@bardmital@drheaddamage@DaveFernig@PSBROOKES and @medickinson for their suggestions which I have collected in this Spotify (send me more ideas via twitter and I’ll add them there).

I visited this morning.

I was introduced as a “distinguished scientist”. I asked the children if I looked like a “distinguished scientist”. One was brave enough to say “no”. I told them a little bit my study and career path. Then, I presented to them some real “distinguished scientist” via this picture of three members of my group at a conference in France. The aim was to challenge their (?) preconceptions about scientists and make it clear that scientists look very much like them. That was not so much inspired by the Twitter response but more by my former student Rachel Gilbert’s project, the excellentThis is what a scientist looks likeas well as what I learnt through my involvement in the Institute Athena Swan committee.

We moved to “nanotechnology”. I asked them what “nano” meant. They replied:

Very small. So small you can’t see

That was a good start but of course everything is relative; 1 meter is very small compared to the Earth-Sun distance. We need to be more precise. How small is very small? From meter to millimeter, from millimeter to micrometer and finally from micrometer to nanometer. Next, I asked them for things which have dimensions in this range. Their responses, after a bit of prompting, included:

red blood cells, viruses, fullerenes and atoms

A really good base for discussion. Red blood cells a bit big for nano? Atoms, a bit small? Viruses and fullerenes: spot on! I added a few biological ingredients: proteins, DNA, membranes. I then remarked that there were two types of objects in our list. One student did get the hint and said “Biological versus non-biological” which led me to introduce how we can make things on the nanoscale via either top-down (carving a block of matter) or bottom-up (assembling parts, or better, self-assembly although I did not really get into that). Nanotechnology is in their everyday life. It is even in their pockets. I showed them this picture of how a state-of-the-art computer looked like when my parents were born. It filled a room and was infinitely less powerful than their mobile phone. I also showed them pictures of a modern transistor and of the kind of gigantic plants which are required to make these.

I asked them what they knew about light.

travel in a straight line.

speed of light is 300 ooo km/s.

white light can be separated into different colors.

I pushed a bit more on the differences between colors and a student mentioned “wavelength” but they could not really explain what this was nor how small/big were the wavelengths of visible light. Visible light is nano (blue ~ 400 nm, green ~ 520 nm, red ~ 600 nm). Nano is everywhere 😉

Since we are scientists, we do experiments. I asked for two volunteers. Before I could say one more word, I had plenty of hands up. I then specified that I required a sample from those volunteers (at that points, I think there was a hint of worry in the teacher’s eyes) but I quickly explained that I required only one hair from each (the worry dissipated). We did the hair experiment with the laser pointer as suggested by @drheaddamage (check his videos here and here). Before doing the experiment, we tried to predict the result. Given their everyday experience of light and the fact that they learnt that light travel in a straight line, the prediction is what we should see a shadow of the hair in the laser spot. The reality is quite different. We see a scattering line perpendicular to the hair with maxima and minima along the line. This is due to the fact that light is a wave. I used this experiment to show one way by which we can get information on the size of things we can’t see.

Gold nanoparticles in water

Gold nanoparticles in water. Looks like Ribena.


We then moved to nanoparticles, first gold, and then superparamagnetic iron oxide nanoparticles.

The superparamagnetic nanoparticles are also quite fascinating as you can move the liquid around with a magnet and even defy gravity (picture below).

To conclude my presentation and link with our current research efforts, I explained the need to track STEM cells in the body and how those nanoparticles, both the superparamagnetic iron oxide nanoparticles and the gold nanorods, can be developed as contrast agents for animal/human imaging.


Superparamagnetic nanoparticles in solvent. The liquid is held up by the magnet.


Update: Proof that I have been there; from Shevington High School news:

George and Hannah, Nuffield Research Placement

The lab hosted George and Hannah, respectively from Chesterfield High School and from St Edwards college for four weeks this summer. Instead of going to the beach, they joined us to do a Nuffield Research project on the stability of gold nanoparticles capped by various ligands. Elena Colangelo kindly did most of the supervision. We wish them both good luck for the continuation of their studies, and, more immediately, for the celebration evening on the 4th of October where they will present their work to family, friends, colleagues as well as judges!

George and Hannah

George and Hannah in the lab