Scientists do it better?

On the 29th of November, I went to a debate posing the question, ‘Do we need more scientists in parliament?’ The first in a new series of debates about policy hosted by the Society of Biology was fully booked, heralding a positive future for the series. Haralambos Dayantis, Science Communication graduate from Imperial College, organised the debate after exploring the subject for his dissertation and finding that many questions were yet to be answered. Given that the event was fully booked from early on, it seems that others are also keen to discuss the topic. An online poll conducted by the Society of Biology prior to the event was a landslide of 96% voting in favour of more scientists in parliament. I have to admit, my vote was also in favour, which, in hindsight, was a bit of a knee jerk reaction. This probably went something along the lines of, ‘Of course! Scientists have an evidence-based decision matrix and that will help sort out politics!’ I now think differently, but more of that later. The panel was balanced having an academic and a politician on each side who put their views across eloquently, despite some political posturing in the middle of the debate!

The debate

The panellists arguing for a greater number of scientists in parliament were:

* Dr Phillip Lee MP (Conservative MP for Bracknell, member of Energy and Climate Change Select Committee, and Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Environment Group)

* Dr Jennifer Rohn (Cell biologist, novelist, founder and Chair of Science is Vital, and much more) The main arguments for an increase in scientifically trained parliamentarians (NB: an increase only, not a vast majority necessarily) in a very concise summary are:

  • The country faces a large number of strategic challenges (climate change, an aging population, energy, access to food and water, healthcare) that require a scientific or engineering solution. The strategic problems we currently face have many aspects to them and scientists are trained in examining multiple variables and at finding a solution that takes account of them.
  • Many in parliament are career politicians, which can mean that discussions are of poorer quality as a result of reduced diversity in academic background.
  • More scientific representation in politics is required because scientific training provides skills that would be enormously beneficial in a political landscape alongside the lawyers, philosophers and theologians. Evidence-based decision-making, a good measure of scepticism to not accept things at face value, tenacity and analytical skills would all be advantageous for addressing policies.

This does not necessarily require professional scientists, just individuals with scientific training that equips them with learning how to examine a problem, determine workable solutions and analyse the results in a systematic way.

Debating against were:

* Dr Jack Stilgoe (Lecturer in Social Studies of Science, science and technology policy expert and blogger)

* Dr Evan Harris (former Liberal Democrat MP for Oxford West and Abingdon, writer on science policy)

Arguing against, yet not quite opposing – i.e. the argument was not that there need not be any more scientists in parliament, rather that focussing on that was detracting from the actual issues that we face so that we forget about solving the actual problems and just waste time arguing about how great scientists would be in politics. Dr Stilgoe gave a balanced view taking account of the merits of the arguments for increasing scientific presence in parliament and explained why he thinks that those arguments, although valid, are weak. You can explore his reasoning further in his own words on his personal blog. I particularly thought his quote from Lord Martin Rees, former president of the Royal Society, was relevant in this discussion, “every scientist out of their speciality is depressingly lay.” The main points from Dr Harris were that it is the actual policies that are put in place that matter; the point of focus should not be placed on who makes the policies but on whether the policies are serving the people of the nation. He also feels that the argument from the other side of the debate of the benefits of increased representation of scientists in parliament is weak – after all, many other professions may wish to be represented in politics but that is a very unlikely scenario. From his own personal experience in politics, he found that it is harder to convince scientifically trained members of the House of Lords, possibly due to a measure of prejudice about the evidence presented as they may have already come their own conclusions and be biased. A better use of resources would be to educate parliamentarians on technique in assessing scientific evidence and statistics.

Will they do it better? Well, yeah….but….no….but….

All the panellists agreed on one factor – insufficient scientific literacy due to fear that science is too difficult to comprehend, stigma attached to showing any kind of academic interest (during school years) or mere disinterest. One of the reasons why I am interested in communicating science is to diminish some of that fear factor – it really need not be scary but some people would benefit from innovative explanations or real-life links to it. The problems of stigma and disinterest are beginning to be tackled by the increasing amount of curricular enrichment of science, technology, engineering or maths (STEM) in schools. Academics are eagerly taking on the role of this enrichment to meet public engagement targets issued by their funding bodies, raise the profile of their research topics, and because it is fun and stimulating to discuss your research in novel ways. Enthusing and impressing the importance of science to successive generations will help to safeguard against scientific illiteracy in the government in the future. Although that does not solve the problems discussed about parliament right now but at least all governmental departments now have chief scientific advisors so it certainly seems like the importance of taking scientific advice is apparent to those in parliament.

It does come down to having a certain aptitude for doing the role as well though. If a scientist is going to be interested in becoming a politician and is able to thrive in the environment, of course they should enter into it. But mere training in a certain way of approaching problems, one that has many merits and the opportunities to gain a range of transferrable skills, does not translate to the individual being able to apply themselves to a different field. In the end, it is the person – whether their training was in the sciences, law, geography, or welding – that has the potential to make a difference. I also think that the arguments on the opposing side from Drs Stilgoe and Harris were valid and I agreed with them that the issue is to figure out making policies that focus on what we need for the future. Our energies should be focussed there rather than on how to get more scientists in parliament. If there are scientists out there that are eager and suited for the role, I am certain that they will find a way in.

However, following on from that point but somewhat on the flip side, I do think it is entirely possible for parliament to become more populated with scientists – a point that Dr Rohn made and one that I have touched on briefly in an earlier post – far more PhDs are attained than can be accommodated in academic positions. Many PhD projects are now funded with stipends that have a liveable allowance so more people are attracted to pursuing what may have been more of a luxury in the past. The severe bottleneck that these PhDs are faced with in terms of careers in academia necessitates they broaden their transferrable skill set and consider other options. Just because someone has a degree in science does not preclude them from an interest and flair for politics so I think it is likely we will see an increased representation in the future.

So, for me – an interesting and lively debate, entertaining also as all the speakers were eloquent and knowledgeable but also made the audience laugh whilst making their case. And it wasn’t just my mind that was changed by the debate – a rough poll taken in the room showed that the nearly unanimous vote on the Society of Biology website in favour (which was always going to be a biased place to put the poll) had changed to approximately a third in favour, a third against and a third undecided. A great start to the Policy Lates series and I look forward to attending future events!

Entry for science writing competition

As I did not receive any feedback for my entry to the science writing competition run by the Wellcome Trust in association with The Guardian and The Observer, I thought I would post it up here and see what people think of it. It was submitted for the 2011 competition and the subject matter is not from within my own field of expertise.

The topic was prompted by a close friend, who happens to be a very talented jeweller. Around the time of the competition, we were marvelling over a new ring she had bought that had been produced by 3D printing technology and I thought it was the perfect topic for the competition. Obviously, I did not win or even make runner up :( but that means I need to focus on how to improve. However, that requires some help – constructive feedback on what can be improved. Although, people are different and what excites one person, does not necessarily excite another. Well, here is my entry….make of it what you will and leave some (constructive) feedback if you wish.

Printing the Future

A close friend of mine happens to be a talented jeweller. Heather is often adorned with interesting pieces of jewellery and I was recently admiring a piece of hers – a metal ring with cavities resembling a cellular structure – and wondered if it was part of a new range she was designing. I listened in disbelief as she explained that the entire ring had been printed in its completed form, that is, no other work required after the printing was complete! Intrigued, I searched for more information on this technological marvel.

3D printing, it turns out, is not as recent a development as I initially thought – it has been in use since 1986 and is part of the new field of ‘additive fabrication’, which simply means construction by building up a structure rather than by chipping away. The term refers specifically to automated layering to create entire pieces, not additive in terms of using techniques such as welding, screwing, forging, etc in the assembly of the product.

Charles Hull developed the first of these technologies that he named stereolithography. This technique uses 3D modelling software that slices a 3D model of the object to be produced into several 2D sections. A UV laser ‘draws’ the first 2D section on a bed of resin to solidify and fuse that region. The building platform is lowered by 0.05-­‐0.15mm (depending on the precision of the instrument) and a fresh layer of resin is applied by a blade that sweeps across the platform. The next 2D section is etched that bonds to the previous layer and so on until the object is completed. The un-­‐solidified resin is cleared away and ta-­‐da! the completed product is ready.

This concept is now applied in a few different ways in terms of the raw materials and the layering technology – these include other types of lasers that fuse particles of a variety of materials into a uniform structure (plastic, glass, ceramic or metal) known as selective laser sintering. Another commonly used apparatus uses a heated nozzle that melts the raw material to extrude it that then promptly solidifies where it has been layered. An obvious limitation of these examples is that the product is made of a single material. The key to this method of manufacturing, however, is speed, precision and adaptability. The machines are currently used by a wide variety manufacturers that use it to rapidly create prototypes of new designs. In aerospace engineering, for example, where precision is key but one-­‐off parts for prototypes are costly. Using additive fabrication, the new part can be produced from powder of aerospace-­‐grade titanium with high precision, quickly and with little to no waste as unused powder can be reused.

Being a biologist who actually studies cell culture myself, I was particularly astounded when I stumbled across a TED talk by Anthony Atala in which he described using an inkjet printer that used different cell types as the ‘ink’. Still it its infancy, this novel tissue engineering technique aims to develop the technology for organ transplantation or wound healing by printing whole organs or skin grafts. Atala envisions a day (likely very far away) when a patient can lie on the hospital bed and the printer hovers over the wound sweeping across and depositing different cells where they are required. Seems quite ‘out there’ but such innovative vision is important for making these leaps forward.

Inevitably, debates about the implications arise and it is important to think of consequences within a given field that adopts this method of production. Take for example the jewellery industry – a jeweller may not know that someone is infringing their copyright halfway across the world or in the house next door. Seedier situations are also possible: a black-­‐market weapons dealer modifying semi-­‐automatic guns into automatics with the greatest of ease merely by clicking print. All the gadgetry required for building an organ in highly sterile conditions will cost a lot of money – one would hope that this did not render it a service available to the privileged alone.

What I find most interesting about this is how versatile these additive fabrication technologies will be. Any item that requires a design – from jewellery to a lamp in your house – the customer can have design control via applets on the web so that the artist or manufacturer can produce and deliver a unique and personalised item. In addition, software for the printers may be sold or made available for others to use under a creative commons license. When I first heard of 3d printing, ‘replicators’ – voice operated machines from ‘Star Trek’ that reproduced food or clothing – were brought to mind and, similarly, the idea of the sweeping cellular printer makes me think of the hand-­‐held ‘dermal regenerator’. The possibilities are limited only by our imagination.

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