The UK government ploughs £4.6 billion a year into science and research programmes. Currently, decisions about how this money is spent are left largely up to the scientific community themselves, with the government determining how much of the budget is allocated to different sectors of science. Government funds are apportioned to 7 research councils, and panels of experts from the council examine all requests for funding in detail before awarding grants – a process called peer review. The principle that scientific experts are the best positioned to decide which projects deserve cash – the so called ‘Haldane principle’ – has been at the cornerstone of scientific policy for decades. However, the peer review process often happens behind closed doors, with little discussion with the public about how funding should be directed. In recent times, with many controversial scientific breakthroughs hitting the headlines, there are increasing calls for the public to be more involved in the decision making process. So, how much say should the public have in what science is conducted using their hard-earned taxpayer pounds? And how is public engagement with science changing?
Imagine a future in which memories can be implanted into your brain. Want to go to the Caribbean? India? Mars? Can’t afford the trip? No problem – if you have the memories of going, what’s the difference?
Of course, this is the plotline from recent sci fi remake Total Recall, and not a world we’re ever likely to inhabit. Or is it? It may sound implausible, but last month, scientists from MIT announced that they had achieved false memory implantation in mice.
At the Future of Humanity Institute in Oxford, a group of academics attempt to unravel the likely cause of the end of the world. The top contenders, so called ‘global catastrophic risks’, include the sci fi stalwart totalitarianism, cold war favourite nuclear war and Jeremy Clarkson bugbear global warming. Also on the list is the threat arising from misuse of biotechnology. In an interview with the BBC in March of this year, the director of the FHI, Nick Bostrom, stated that synthetic biology was a primary concern in this area (along with artificial intelligence and nanotechnology). With these technologies advancing at such a rate, he argues, we are not fully able to comprehend the potential dangers of the tools we develop. This was likened to ‘a dangerous weapon in the hands of a child’ by Bostrom.
Admittedly, these guys are paid good money to let us know that the end is nigh. They are bound to err on the side of caution. But they’re not the only people raising such concerns
Synthetic Biology was not a term I’d ever come across before my boyfriend announced he was taking a job working on it. So, being a curious type, I looked it up. According to syntheticbiology.org (the natural first calling point for lazy googlers) synthetic biology is A) the design and construction of new biological parts, devices, and systems, or B) the re-design of existing, natural biological systems for useful purposes. To translate from jargon, synthetic biologists aim to manipulate existing biological ‘parts’ and put them together in new ways to generate organisms with new functions. This still sounds pretty vague to me, but it’s important to pay attention to synthetic biology. Regardless of how familiar you are
My name is Jenny and I am a developmental biologist. It’s a hopeless addiction, brought about by the awe inspiring process of making a baby. Get you mind out of the gutter! I’m talking about the process by which a single egg cell, fertilised by a single sperm, grows and divides over and over again to make the 100,000,000,000,000 cells present in a human body. What’s more, these cells don’t just replicate but also somehow organise themselves into lungs, a heart, bones, blood, eyes, a brain and much more. The day that I realised that I could get paid to spend my time trying to understand how this happens was the day I felt that I was finally onto a winner.
The papers love a scare story, this much we know. Every week a different food is denounced as cancer-causing, and we are instructed to avoid it like the plague for the sake of preserving the health of ourselves and our children. The data behind this kind of story is often quite wishy washy. In fact, some papers go so far as to report that the very same things that cause cancer can also protect us against it (here’s a comprehensive list of the every day objects, chemicals and foods that one particular newspaper claims will cause or prevent cancer, or both. And here it is in musical form).
Three model-esque girls in high heels and short skirts strut towards a male scientist in a lab coat. Looking up from his microscope, his chiselled jaw drops as the girls strike a pose in front of him. Rather than the opening of a blue movie, this is the beginning of a horribly misguided advert aiming to tempt girls to pursue science. It gets worse. Shots of bubbling liquid in beakers are cut with make up brushes and nail varnishes. ‘Come on girls!’ the ad cajoules us ‘You CAN do science! Look, it’s a bit like make up!’ This patronizing piece of sexism was taken down within 12 hours of the campaign launch, although naturally it lives on through the power of Youtube. But why didn’t the campaign leaders think to use some of the amazing women working in science today? Jane Goodall, chimpanzee whisperer, for example, or the less well known but equally cool Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard whose studies of fruit flies with genetic mutations provided huge insights into how an embryo develops, and won her a Nobel prize in 1995.