Social and economics aspects of science

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.

 

The Internet of NanoThings

Nanosensors and the Internet of Nanothings” ranks 1st in a list of ten “technological innovations of 2016” established by no less than the World Economic Forum Meta-Council on Emerging Technologies [sic].

The World Economic Forum, best known for its meetings in Davos, is establishing this list because:

New technology is arriving faster than ever and holds the promise of solving many of the world’s most pressing challenges, such as food and water security, energy sustainability and personalized medicine. In the past year alone, 3D printing has been used for medical purposes; lighter, cheaper and flexible electronics made from organic materials have found practical applications; and drugs that use nanotechnology and can be delivered at the molecular level have been developed in medical labs.

However, uninformed public opinion, outdated government and intergovernmental regulations, and inadequate existing funding models for research and development are the greatest challenges in effectively moving new technologies from the research lab to people’s lives. At the same time, it has been observed that most of the global challenges of the 21st century are a direct consequence of the most important technological innovations of the 20st century.

Understanding the implications of new technologies are crucial both for the timely use of new and powerful tools and for their safe integration in our everyday lives. The objective of the Meta-council on Emerging Technologies is to create a structure that will be key in advising decision-makers, regulators, business leaders and the public globally on what to look forward to (and out for) when it comes to breakthrough developments in robotics, artificial intelligence, smart devices, neuroscience, nanotechnology and biotechnology.

Given the global reach and influence of the WEF, it is indeed perfectly believable that decision-makers, regulators, business leaders and the public could be influenced by this list.

Believable and therefore rather worrying for – at least the first item – is, to stay polite, complete utter nonsense backed by zero evidence. The argument is so weak, disjointed and illogical that it is hard to challenge. Here are some of the claims made to support the idea that “Nanosensors and the Internet of Nanothings” is a transformative  technological innovations of 2016.

Scientists have started shrinking sensors from millimeters or microns in size to the nanometer scale, small enough to circulate within living bodies and to mix directly into construction materials. This is a crucial first step toward an Internet of Nano Things (IoNT) that could take medicine, energy efficiency, and many other sectors to a whole new dimension.

Except that there is no nanoscale sensor that can circulate through the body and communicate with internet (anyone knows why sensors would have to be nanoscale to be mixed into construction materials?).

The next paragraph seize on synthetic biology:

Some of the most advanced nanosensors to date have been crafted by using the tools of synthetic biology to modify single-celled organisms, such as bacteria. The goal here is to fashion simple biocomputers [Scientific American paywall] that use DNA and proteins to recognize specific chemical targets, store a few bits of information, and then report their status by changing color or emitting some other easily detectable signal. Synlogic, a start-up in Cambridge, Mass., is working to commercialize computationally enabled strains of probiotic bacteria to treat rare metabolic disorders.

What is the link between engineered bacteria and the internet? None. Zero. I am sorry to inform the experts of the WEF that bacteria, even genetically engineered ones, do not have iPhones: they won’t tweet how they do from inside your gut.

I could go on but will stop. Why is such nonsense presented as expert opinion?

Please read this leaflet carefully before taking to Twitter

Please read this leaflet carefully before taking to Twitter

1. Name of the medicinal product

TWITTIVIR 5% w/w cream

2. Qualitative and quantitative composition

TWITTIVIR 5% medical grade w/w cream (cis:trans isomer 95:5)

3. Pharmaceutical form

Cream for topical application (usually to the finger tips).

4. Clinical particulars

 4.1 Therapeutic indications

TWITTIVIR 5% w/w cream is indicated for the treatment of Anemic Network Infection, Grant Blood Clot, Publication Circulatory Virus and Altmetric Intestinal Flu

4.2 Posology and method of administration

TWITTIVIR 5% w/w cream is suitable for adults, children of 13 years  of age and above, and the elderly. TWITTIVIR 5% w/w cream is for external use only and should not be applied to broken skin, mucous membranes or near the eyes.

4.3 Contraindications

TWITTIVIR 5% w/w cream is contra-indicated in subjects with known hypersensitivity to the product and its components. (group 1)

TWITTIVIR 5% w/w cream is contra-indicated in highly obsessive subjects. (group 2)

TWITTIVIR 5% w/w cream is strongly contra-indicated in subjects that cannot resist a Twitter spat with Louise Mensh. (group 3)

4.9 Overdose

There are rare cases of overdosage of TWITTIVIR 5% w/w cream, usually in patients from group 3 above. The effects can be serious, leading to grumpiness and even, in extreme cases (in parents), child neglect. In such cases, the treatment should be immediately stopped.

 

9th of May is Open Access day at the IIB

I am delighted to announce that we will have two external speakers on the 9th of May:

Stephen Curry, Open Access for Academics – the problems and the potential

Michelle Brook,  The cost of academic publishing

 

The talks will take place from noon in LT2, Biological Sciences building. They will be followed by sandwiches and discussions in the common room. University Librarian Phil Sykes will join us too (see him talking about open access here).
At 2 pm, IIB academics will also be invited to a University of Liverpool open access roadshow (SR6). See below for details.

Stephen Curry

Stephen Curry

Stephen Curry is Professor of structural biology at Imperial College London. He is an open access advocate. He blogs at the Reciprocal Space and at the Guardian. You can find him on Twitter@Stephen_Curry.

Michelle

Michelle Brook

Michelle Brook blogs at Quantumplations and works with the Open Knowledge Foundation where she recently published a blog about the cost of academic publishing. You can find her on Twitter @MLBrook.

 

 

* University of Liverpool Open Access roadshow

Presentations from the library (Martin Wolf) and Research Policy (Jane Rees) will explain current funder requirements for OA, and explain how the new institutional repository can help make your publications OA compliant. In addition, we will be high-lighting some of the issues to be considered in developing an Institutional Policy on Open Access. There will be time for questions during the session.

The proof by Twitter – responses to Schekman’s move prove his point

A lot has been written already about Randy Schekman column in the Guardian. The first paragraph criticizes the flawed incentives structure of the research professional world.

I am a scientist. Mine is a professional world that achieves great things for humanity. But it is disfigured by inappropriate incentives. The prevailing structures of personal reputation and career advancement mean the biggest rewards often follow the flashiest work, not the best. Those of us who follow these incentives are being entirely rational – I have followed them myself – but we do not always best serve our profession’s interests, let alone those of humanity and society. […]

The importance as well as the (many) shortcomings of his piece and the potential conflict of interest have been noted. One feature of the response on Twitter is that some of the critique ends up proving his point, i.e. that the pressure to publish in such journals is enormous and has a direct (and disproportionate) effect on careers, e.g.:

 

At least, that is something everybody – critics or supporters of Scheman’s move – seem to agree upon…

The stripy controversy as a window into the scientific process*

* h/t Retraction Watch for the title

Stripy Nanoparticles Revisited was published a year ago.

Science is self correcting? [part one: doing the right thing]

At the core of the scientific process as we imagine it, there is the principle that science is self-correcting. Errors are made, but then, if they have any bearing on future studies, they get corrected. That principle failed (and continues to fail) dramatically. Consider the following.

The first “stripy nanoparticles” article was published in 2004 in Nature Materials. The flaws in that article were many and obvious but colleagues most qualified to identify those flaws, i.e. SPM experts, were not interested enough to react: they privately laughed but publicly did nothing. Correcting the flaws in the literature was “somebody else’s problem“.

In 2005, a graduate student in Francesco Stellacci’s lab at MIT also recognized that the observed stripes were a scanning artifact. He did control experiments and showed that the same stripes occur in the absence of particles on the same instrument with the same settings. He also did simulations that explain how those patterns can be generated by the STM feedback system.  At that point, retracting the Nature Materials paper would have been “doing the right thing“. It was not retracted.

In 2006, the first article was followed  by a second article (in J Am Chem Soc), which acknowledges the presence of the artifact, but desperately tries to demonstrate that the features on the particles are the “reality” (with no less than 18 figures). The article is surreal – it makes the case that the artifact is present everywhere except on the particles, where those stripes which look just like the artifact, are instead, the “reality”. An extraordinary case of confirmation bias.

What happened in 2006 is the very exact opposite of self correction. Predrag’s demonstration was simple and clear but remained confined within MIT [it only became public when Predrag contacted me after the publication of our article last year]. Instead, in the official scientific record, no doubt were raised and an impressive pile of stripy figures and articles started to accumulate. That pile continues to grow at an impressive rate, even after the publication of our article. The count is now at about 35 articles from the same group, with more striking examples of confirmation bias.

Science is self-correcting? [part two: crossing the line]

Universities, journals and funding agencies have proclaimed ethical rules which thankfully generally align. One of those shared rules is that re-use of text or figures (even your own text or figures) is not allowed without proper attribution. If this rule is broken, you would therefore expect rapid action to correct the scientific record.

The stripy controversy includes several examples of data re-use and it is informative to look at how editors and institutions have responded to those cases and what have been the final (?) outcome.

Nature Materials was informed as early as 2009 of this issue since my letter to the editor accompanying our submission did mention that “The same image of the same nanoparticle is used in both the ChemComm and the Nature Materials articles.” That did not lead to any action (and our submission to Nature Materials was rejected)At the end of 2012, with the increased scrutiny brought by the controversy, several other data re-use cases were discovered. Editors of the corresponding journals were contacted by Dave Fernig. MIT and EPFL were also informed of these concerns as well as of other concerns regarding data sharing. The initial responses from Editors are reported by Dave here. Eventually, corrections were issued at both PNAS and Nature Materials. Both of these journals are members of the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE).

The Journal of Scanning Probe Microscopy however is not a member of COPE and its Editor clearly indicated (within minutes of Dave’s email) that he had no intention to enforce any ethical policies. More worryingly maybe, the EPFL investigation has closed and while it has been successful in ensuring compliance of Francesco Stellacci with his obligation of sharing data, it has not led to the correction of the scientific record in the case of the Journal of Scanning Probe Microscopy article. Three figures of that article contain image reuse (from two different articles) without attribution and the analyses presented in other figures correspond to data from yet a third article. The extent of data re-use in this article would probably warrant a full retraction in a journal that follows COPE guidelines. However, the paper is not retracted; instead is still cited in all recent publications as evidence of thorough and rigorous statistical analysis of the stripes [more on this here for the interested reader].

I guess that the conclusion for this part is somewhat nuanced: the system kind of worked for PNAS and Nature Materials; the editors eventually did the right thing and followed COPE guidelines. The system did not work for the more obscure Journal of Scanning Probe Microscopy and EPFL/MIT/COPE rules were not enforced (that may still happen, or maybe there is an explication/justification for these instances of data re-use in which case I will happily publish a correction to that post and other relevant posts as soon as it is communicated to me). As an aside, I note that the Royal Society of Chemistry is a member of COPE and that therefore Nanoscale Editor-in-Chief (European office) is in charge of applying COPE guidelines to Nanoscale authors.

Science is self-correcting? [part 3: critiquing is not nice]

For science to be self-correcting, there should be an incentive for authors to publish failed replication studies and disseminate analyses which identify fundamental flaws in the peer reviewed literature. Quite clearly there is currently no such incentive. I do sometimes get  asked why I engaged in this controversy. I have no personal conflict with Francesco Stellacci. I had not met him when I submitted a technical comment to Science, and, I had still not met him when I submitted the first version of Stripy Nanoparticles Revisited to Nature Materials. My reason to engage was simple: I had identified flaws in articles which had a significant impact on my field of research and I concluded that it was important to correct the record so that we could build on more solid foundations. I was conscious it would be difficult but I certainly had not predicted it would take three and a half years to publish our manuscript. I also had not predicted the extravagant events of the past 12 months, e.g. Predrag contacting me, a Nature Editor trolling my blog anonymously, the data re-use mentioned above, etc.

We need a system where confrontation of ideas is encouraged and is part of the norm, not one where it takes enormous amounts of effort and unreasonable length of time to publish a “revisited” paper. We need a system where engagement in scientific discussions is rewarded, not one where criticism (online or through the peer-reviewed literature) is seen as not nice “because we are all humans“. The latter quote is a reference to the now famous ACS Nano editorial (excellent responses at Chembark, Nature and Pubpeer). Various reasons for this specific editorial at this specific time have been proposed, from ongoing discussions at PubPeer of papers from one of the ACS Nano Editors to the uncovering by bloggers of a recent cases of fraud. Paul Weiss chief-editor of ACS Nano has denied that any single blogger were targeted but, like Paul Bracher, I certainly took it as a personal attack, especially since the latest stripy article was published in the same journal issue.

The “critiquing is not nice” line is not  very different from the initial response to Monica Byrne naming Boraz as her harasser.  This is inappropriate, not nice. A standard response to expressions of concerns about sexism or racism: we can’t talk about this, it is too serious and too damaging (to the reputation of the offender). There is one additional reason to stay silent. This is from Priya Shetty’s (excellent) piece about sexual harassment and the “deafening silence” that surrounds it:

Other than in whispered conversations in coffee shops or quiet meeting rooms, I’ve never known any woman to name the man involved, for the same reason that most women don’t speak up about sexual harassment in the workplace in general – science and journalism are both fields in which funding and job opportunities are increasingly precarious, and women stay silent for fear that their careers will suffer.

The same peer pressure applies in science around cases of bad science or misconduct and the grey area in between.

Conclusion?

None. You write it.

Guest post: teaching biodiversity and challenging sciency stereotypes in a Primary School

Rachel Gilbert

Rachel Gilbert

This is a guest post by Rachel Gilbert who did her Hns project with me this year (2012-2013). Some of our Hns students choose the opportunity to do a teaching project as their Hns 3rd year research project. Rachel decided to do a teaching project with a Primary School, St Michael in the Hamlet.

There is a trend in which science is viewed in a very stereotypical, one dimensional way. At the extreme, scientists are seen as mad men in white coats with crazy hair who blow up test tubes doing not much of anything, while occasionally discovering something apparently important. This view is especially prominent in young people, which is problematic, because these are the individuals who we need to take up science as a career if we have any chance of solving the world’s vast array of problems. One such problem centres around biodiversity, more accurately, it’s loss.

In today’s world, less is more. Fewer buttons, more commands; smaller screens, more power; but what is the less to our ever increasing population? More people, more houses, more man-made. Less space, less habitats, less natural-world. With the population expanding at its current rate there is only time for short term solutions – more housing. Fast. Over 50% of the world’s population lives in urban areas, and these are growing at an alarming rate, mainly to relieve the need for housing. This urban growth has large, intrusive effects. Biodiversity isn’t confined to far away, exotic places such as the forests of Africa. It’s here, outside our doors. Or at least, it should be. To put it in context, the current rate of biodiversity decline mirrors that of the previous five great mass extinctions shown in the fossil record.

Conserving global biodiversity has some obvious benefits, namely the protection of endangered species and maintenance of our world’s ecosystems. Conservation of biodiversity has other, equally important, benefits which may be less immediately recognisable. Biodiversity improves our own well-being and provides us with a multitude of services, and as such its conservation is also often considered ethically important.

The question is, how can we help? No one person can save the planet, but each little step will make a difference. But you can’t make a difference if you don’t know about the problem. So, step one: education. It seemed obvious to me that this was something that could be taught to younger students, instilling an understanding of biodiversity and it’s importance early on, allowing the students to take a positive understanding of nature through into adulthood. For my Hns Project, I decided to work on educating children early on about biodiversity, while improving their attitude towards science and changing their preconceptions about what a scientist is. After all, I am a young (sane) female scientist, who has never blown up a test tube (although I cannot ignore the occasional the crazy hair).

Upon visiting the school it was immediately obvious that they had a perfect set up for a simple biodiversity experiment. The school is fortunate to have a rather beautiful ‘wild garden’, or small woodland area, within its grounds which provided a contrast to other areas around, namely the concrete playground and grassy fields. The experiment would go as follows: students were put into groups of 4 and given a sample pot, hula hoop and work sheet. One member from each group stood in a circle around me and through their hoop out into the area. This was to imitate quadrats and random sampling, increasing the experiments reliability, and making the students feel like that were really partaking in an experiment. Then then recorded all the plants they found in their hula hoops, and anything else they thought they should also record, such as the weather, time, number of trees around. This is an experiment which can be replicated at any school, as long as there are three different environments near it.

I began the lesson by challenging the students’ preconceptions around science with an introduction which included a small quiz. The children had to match 4 semi-famous people to their professions, two males and two females, with the photos taken out of context of their profession, Fig.1.

Figure 1. Images, including the names and professions, shown to the students in the introductory talk. Originally the children were shown the photos without the text. After class discussion the names and professions were revealed

Figure 1. Images, including the names and professions, shown to the students in the introductory talk. Originally the children were shown the photos without the text. After class discussion the names and professions were revealed

What was interesting was that during the project, the students revealed that they did indeed see scientists as alien, with only one student out of 55 indicating a desire to become a scientist before they began the project. During the quiz, the students all believed the man in the white shirt (Paul Smith) was the scientist. In fact, it is the female, top left, who is the scientist: Linda Buck. What further surprised them was the notion that I was a scientist. Did that mean they too could be scientists, one day? After all, I don’t look like anything they couldn’t be.

In answers to a word association question posed before the project, many students wrote ‘boom’, ‘chemicals’ and ‘explosions’ as words they associated with ‘science’, further indicating how little they knew about science as a career, showing that the majority of the students believe that scientists only work in laboratories.

By the end of the project, which spanned two days, there was a change in the students understanding of science. In a post-project questionnaire, students commented: ‘we can be scientists too’ and ‘science can be outside’ as interesting things they had learnt. There was only a slight increase in positive responses held by the students after the project, but there was a great decrease in negative associations, with the majority moving to a neutral stance.

Correcting misconceptions about what a scientist actually is needs to start early on, before they become ingrained in students, making them much harder to correct as the children age. As it is my aim to become a primary school teacher, I have attended many talks about teaching and becoming a teacher. I often find myself among the considerable minority as a female scientist, and that doesn’t change much when you include males. This lack of scientists teaching students will have an effect, if just subconsciously, on the students being taught. Does this indicate a need for more scientists teaching our younger generations, or just more accurate information on what scientists are?

My experiment was fun (according to those involved) and a difference in the usual routine of the school day. While the main reason for the experiment was to produce a science-based resource for schools to teach biodiversity, it highlights an increasing problem in which science is falling victim to negative stereotypes which are not being offset at a young age possible due to the lack of scientist role models in the class rooms.

Therefore, while my project did cause an increase in the kids knowledge on biodiversity, it also exposed them to a non-stereotypical scientist (myself) and showed them that science isn’t all about lab coats and big confusing words. More projects like this, kept on a one-off basis but continued throughout primary and secondary school, could really help to increase children’s understanding of what a scientist actually is (just a normal person with a passion for scientific discovery) and what they do (almost anything!)