I spend a lot of time worrying about the image of chemistry. I want people to know that you don’t have to be a ‘geek’ to be great at science. I also think this image can dissuade great young minds from following their instincts and passion for science (particularly chemistry of course) because they do not ‘fit’ in to what they perceive is the image of a scientist.
I am hoping that this new ‘reality show’ out of MIT will give people a bit of an idea about what chemistry at university is about, and will show a broad spectrum of people and personalities. I know MIT is probably not that representative of science education as a whole, but we can can hope a little that the result of this is positive for the perception of chemistry and chemists.
Though a deeply buried and cynical part of my being, despite my audible protestations, thinks probably not!
Having just turned thirty, I most definitely wasn’t around to see Neil Armstrong take those first inspirational steps on the moon way back in July, 1969. My parents were though, and to this day they remember exactly where they were and who they were with. At 14 and 15 years respectively, and neither particularly scientifically minded, it is fantastic to imagine the impact this had on them, and on the other 500-600 million people (1) that watched on television.
Following the death of Armstrong last week, the internet has been awash with people lamenting the lack of progress mankind has made in space exploration since this historic moment; considering that in 1969 colour televisions had only just made the mainstream, yet still, men were bouncing around on the moon playing golf, you can see their point. We seem to have fallen a little behind in space exploration if you consider it in parallel to the of progression of, for example, the TV - just have a look in your pocket, or consider what is beyond the screen of that tiny device in your hand right now.
The problem with space exploration is that it is prohibitively costly, and given the current economic woes of the Western world, who would fund it? People want value for money and a return on their investments, and this is as true in scientific research as it is in any other business. This may seem like common sense, though the consequence of this is significant. If these values had been applied in the 50s and 60s, man would never have made it to the edge of the atmosphere, never mind to the moon.
Going to the moon was achieved because people had freedom to explore, and the desire to do something amazing. There was no profit, no obvious impact on society – except to those astute enough to see value in just figuring out if we can get there, and believing that what we learn on the way could change the world we live in – this was curiosity driven science, or as it is now more colloquially known, ‘blue skies research’. This kind of research is getting harder to fund, and understandably so. Scientific research is hugely expensive, and university research in the UK (2) is funded heavily by the tax payer (my PhD alone cost the taxpayer more than £100,000), and people rightly want value for money.
So is it worth it? Was spending millions getting to the moon, and is spending billions more getting to Mars value for money? Is funding any ‘blue skies’ research really worthwhile, or is it just a luxury we can no longer afford? It seems the answer to this question, in the UK anyway, is no. The research councils in the UK, which is the arm of the government that distributes funding for scientific research is becoming increasingly focused on research ‘impact’, and if your impact isn’t obvious and no financial return is forthcoming, then your research won’t get funded.
Only funding research with a significant ‘impact’ may seem a reasonable way to discriminate between hundreds of applications for a limited pot of money, but here is where the most significant problem arises: how can you predict ‘impact’? How do you know what will change the world? Or bring in millions to the economy? The answer is simple. You can’t. Chemistry Blog nicely illustrates this with discussions on the laser, ‘a physicists toy’ that became so ubiquitous, we use it to point at blackboards. Try searching Google for NASA inventions we use everyday to see the real impact of space research. Then we have graphene, a material that was isolated with sticky tape and what can essentially be described as a block of pencil lead – and stemmed from the ‘Friday night experiments’ (3) which have also given us floating frogs - not the kind of research that you could argue great ‘impact’ for . The properties of graphene resulted in a Nobel prize being awarded to Geim and Novoselov of the University of Manchester, and now millions of pounds world-wide is being pumped into research following this discovery. NOBODY would have predicted this, and thus would not have initially funded it, and that is the significant issue.
If you hear a scientist bemoaning that they can not get funding for their research into ‘thisideaisnuts’, or read an article about £200,000 research funding for ‘whatthehellisthepointinthat’, take a moment to think about what you have just read. The greatest discoveries are rarely planned, they are often consequence of doing something ridiculous/exciting/exploratory/crazy/stupid/grand/almost unimaginable (delete at will) – all of which could also be called blue skies research – just like going into space. So although we need value for money in research, scientists need the freedom to explore and be creative, otherwise scientific progress will become incremental, iterative and stagnant. This isn’t a call for researchers to be given free rein on how to spend tax payers money, just for those who don’t necessarily have a scientific background (and who are generally in charge of the money), to give a second thought to what really is important. Immediate impact doesn’t even come close to the unknown possibilities of the universe if we are bold and brave in our research.
Hands up for a (wo)man ot two on Mars.
(1) According to several internet pages of varying reliability
(2) Probably elsewhere in the world as well – though I don’t know this to be fact
(3) I was luck enough to see Geim give a lecture after he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics a couple of years ago, so this is pretty much first hand information.
So this is it, the time has come to get back into the blogging world. I was recently asked to undertake a bit of writing as a blogger, so I thought it a little unreasonable to continue my sabbatical from my own blog and still claim my place as part of the science blogging community.
Since my last period of regular blogging a lot has happened: I have graduated with a PhD in Organic Chemistry; I have left the glorious city of Manchester that had become my home, for the Glorius town of Muenster in the Nordrhein-Westfalen region of Germany – you should visit, it is beautiful; I have begun my first professional job as a post-doctoral research assistant (for those who worry about this kind of thing, fear not, I am paid via a fellowship, and thus am still yet to contribute to the tax man significantly in any country); I have even climbed a mountain in Wales, been cycling in the Yorkshire countryside, taken a trip to the beach, had a drunken eve in Birmingham and watched the (amazing) Olympics in Hyde Park. So although I was sorry the blogging dwindled some what, the sacrifice was worth it.
The plan is to pick up where I left off, with general musings on science, education etc., but with one significant change…..without the Mega Chemist Challenge. But fear not, the MCC is not over, it has just moved to a new dedicated home here. The reason for this is simple: when I began blogging the idea was engage those not only with an interest in science already, but also those without. I feel that being faced with a screen of organic synthetic chemistry, unless you are an organic chemist of course, is unlikely to inspire you to return, and thus was counterproductive to my initial goal. As a consequence the Mega Chemist Challenge will continue not here at A Retrosynthetic Life, but over at www. megachemistchallenge.wordpress.com. So, if synthetic chemistry is your thing, check out its new home, add it to your reader/bookmarks, and spread the word. Do you know who this weeks Mega Chemist is?
So, back to the slightly reformatted – aesthetically, as well as with respect to content – A Retrosynthetic Life. I will start to blog again weekly (I hope), about anything that peaks my interest, but as you would imagine, science and education are pretty high on my list. In return for the grand enjoyment I hope you will get from the blog, I would like to ask a favour of those in the UK (and to some degree the USA). As I now reside in Germany and my access to the news and UK newspapers is somewhat restricted (I know I have the internet, but still), I would love it if you would send me links to things you think I may find interesting. You can do this via twitter @karldcollins, the blogs facebook page, or you can find me soon on google+.
Much appreciated, and welcome back.
Having temporarily forsaken the shining lights and heavy atmosphere of Manchester city living for the clear skies and peace of East Yorkshire country life, my weekends have a different, less foggy, more wholesome feel about them.
Today I mainly read the newspaper – a real one made of paper, not one of those pesky ones that you can find on the internet – and I had a really great time. Here are some of the stories that made my day so interesting:
- Being a massive pro-choice advocate and a massive fan of not being ridiculous, I have been following “Vaginagate” for the last few days. It turns out the word vagina is highly offensive in the Michigan house of representatives. The word is….”so offensive [Mike Calton] doesn’t even want to say it in front of women” and has resulted in no less than two (female, of course) politicians being temporarily banned from speaking in the house.
- A brilliant interview with the incredibly intriguing 92-year-old James Lovelock. Lovelock is the man behind the Gaia theory, and has made the news more recently with the not so small admission that his prediction that billions will die by the end of the century due to global warming may have been ‘extrapolating too far’.
- A very interesting extract from Florence Williams‘ new book Breasts: a Natural and Unnatural History. The extract begins discussing the lack of knowledge and understanding of the constitution and function of breast milk, moves onto the virtues of breast-feeding, before a worrying turn to discuss the passing of chemicals accumulated in breast tissue onto the child. Be wary though….no references for the science are forthcoming and I have no knowledge of her reputation as a science writer. The science may be incomplete, plain wrong, or, the evidence may back up all of her statements – I just don’t know. Read this critically!
- The front page one liner ‘What makes a good wife?’ had me riled before I got to the article, but this opinion piece by @tanyagold1 is darkly amusing and poignant. “Sally Bercow is not a good wife, and she is punished for it, because conservative newspapers are run by conservative men”.
- Or how about this brilliant feature on controversial Russian photographer Irina Popova. At 21 Popova moved in with Lilya whom she met on the street in the middle of the night. Lilya was drunk/high having a pee on the street, and was out with her baby daughter. Popova’s photos of Lilya’s family life have caused uproar in Russia, and bring into question the role of the photographer.
The Chicago based “ultra-conservative” think-tank, The Heartland Institute, known for associations with tobacco giant Philip Morris in questioning the damage of second hand smoke and for their hardline skepticism about climate change, have called for the barring of water expert Dr Peter Gleick from speaking at a lecture series in Oxford.
Gleick was in part responsible for an expose on The Heartland Institute published on the DeSmogBlog, highlighting their stance on global warming and their attempts to influence the school curriculum in the USA with regard to climate change. Gleik’s role in obtaining documents from the think-tank is regarded as highly questionable by some, and he is currently the subject of a board investigation at the Pacific Institute: Gleik is the president and founder of the Pacific Institute and is currently on leave as president pending the result of the inquiry.
The language used by Joseph Bast – the president of The Heartland Institute – in calling for Gleick’s suspension from the lecture series is strong to say the least:
“The actions Gleick has admitted to having taken – lying repeatedly and committing fraud, and then denying responsibility and refusing to take corrective action – all make him unqualified to speak to students or as a scientist.”
“The members of the scientific community who invite him to speak are sullying their own reputations. How can you respect a scientist who committed fraud and theft? How can the public trust the veracity of Gleick’s science after his confessed deceptions? The answer to both questions is: you can’t.”
I am not condoning Gleik’s (still undetermined) role in the expose on The Heartland Institute but I think these comments are a little over the top and somewhat hypocritical.
For an organisation like The Heartland Institute who were strongly associated with the campaign to question the science of second hand smoke with tobacco giant Phillip Morris; whom are known for attacking the science behind global warming and trying to influence the teaching of climate science in schools; and whose lobbying of the US government is reported as being legally questionable; I feel they are in no position to question the integrity of Gleik.
Gleik’s method of obtaining documents from The Heartland Institute may have been morally questionable, but his reasons and his cause are not – human impact on global warming is scientifically beyond doubt. More importantly, his scientific integrity is discreet from his actions in this instance and remains completely intact. I would be honoured to hear him speak, and would have no doubts about the veracity of his science. I hope Oxford University hold their position and do not bow down to what appears to be corporate pressure by proxy.
Check Wikipedia references and the links below for sources all all statements made here within.
The Heartland Institue - Own website
General Motors Reposts EDF, Revokes The Heartland Institute – Environmental Defense Fund
The Pacific Institute - Own website
Leak Offers Glimpse of Campaign Against Climate Science – New York Times