You must be joking. That got published where?

I am no stranger to a controversial piece of work, my first post-doc publication took a solid pounding from one referee, and I have taken a fair bit of flack since its publication both in person or otherwise (nothing online bar comments in the following links, so no gratuitous trolling I am afraid). Some people also said nice things about it (here ($) and here (free)) though.

The reason I mention this is because yesterday a paper was published in a notable journal that could well indeed fit in to this category of “controversial”. A key difference between this and my work though, is that amongst the people I spoke to, we were not divided. About half the people I discussed with were critical of my work, but we appear to be unanimous that the work from yesterday is not worthy of publication where it was published, by a long shot.

[It should be noted we might all be completely wrong, after all, we are all friends and therefore probably have a similar outlook; but if not….]

There are many reasons why this is upsetting, but for me the main one is this: many people toil for a long time on their work, they have it criticised and rejected, stamped on and sometimes even treated unfairly. This is a hard thing to take when you commit so much to a piece of work, but then to see work that really appears significantly unworthy of publication in a given place is demoralising and upsetting. It is not only a kick in the teeth for those who have work rejected, but devalues other work published in the same place. This is bad for the journal, scientists and research as a whole.


A Skewed Morality – Dow Chemicals at London 2012

US-based Dow Chemical Company (Dow) are a major sponsor of London 2012, and as part of their sponsorship will manufacture a £7,000,000 wrap that will engulf the Olympic Stadium for the duration of the games. Dow agreed to cover the cost as part of their ‘top tier’ Olympic sponsorship deal after governmental funding was cut. Dow’s involvement in the Olympic Games has caused a furore amongst many due to their association with a major industrial accident in Bhopal, India, in 1984. Indian chief minister Shivraj Singh Chauhan called for a boycott of the games by Indian athletes, though a recent report suggests this is unlikely. Protests and calls for the International Olympic Committee to cut all ties with Dow have been continuous since the announcement, and Meredith Alexander a member of the Commission for a Sustainable London board quit her role live on Newsnight.

Dow are arguably the hereditary owners of responsibility for what is regarded by many as the greatest industrial disaster in history, after a take over Union Carbide Corporation (UCC) in 2001; UCC were part owners of the company that owned and operated the industrial plant in Bhopal at the time of a lethal gas leak. The Bhopal disaster resulted in the region of 20,000 deaths (a conservative estimate by some accounts, an over-estimate by others) as a result of a leak of tens of tons of poison gas (a major component of which was methyl isocyanate). The long-term effects of this disaster are still very much debated, though it is without question that the people of Bhopal still live in its shadow.

At the time of the disaster the Bhopal plant was owned and run by UCIL, an  Indian company of which UCC owned just over 50%. Dow bought UCC  in 2001 after they had sold both their shares in UCIL and the plant itself, and more than ten years after the Indian Supreme Court confirmed settlement, and closed the legal proceedings associated with the liability of Union Carbide Company. Several attempts to re-open proceedings since Dow purchased UCC have failed, and Dow refuse to accept liability for the accident. I can not comment on the settlements legal validity, or whether it was conducted in an appropriate manner – and it is impossible to find an objective analysis of such an emotive topic – but it is reasonable for Dow to refute liability for an event that occurred prior to ownership, when the consequential legal investigation had been settled. Had Dow bought the company prior to settlement they should have inherited the liability as you would debt, but this was not the case.

The debate about Dow’s involvement in the Olympic Games will continue until London 2012 is over, and the issue will never be resolved to the satisfaction of all parties, so a continued discussion is somewhat pointless. In contrast, the moral standpoint of those involved in the protests, including Meredith Alexander, is an interesting point to consider. Alexander’s desire to see

that real justice is achieved for the victims and the families of those who died.”

is admirable and shows a great deal of empathy for those that were affected by something that could now easily be forgotten nearly 30 years later. What is challenging to understand though, is why Alexander (and others in less limelight) feels that Dow are more morally reprehensible than any of the other major Olympic sponsors and associates who are reportedly involved with ongoing  human rights abuses or illegal work practices; especially considering Dow’s involvement is purely due to the acquisition of UCC.

For the Observer, Gethin Chamberlain recently reported on the abuse of staff in Bangladesh for those supplying clothing for Puma, Adidas, and Nike. Following an investigation by War on Want entitled ‘A race to the bottom’, he reported exploitation of staff with respect to wages and hours, instances of physical abuse reported for all three clothing manufactures, and sexual abuse in the case of Adidas and Nike. And what about other major sponsors? The reportedly questionable ethical backgrounds of Coca-Cola and McDonalds; the Deepwater Horizon oil spill of which BP were partly responsible; or even EDF’s fine for spying on Greenpeace. Surely these all require at least a footnote from Alexander?

I have a lot of respect for Alexander taking a stand for what she believed in, but why she thinks Dow are particularly worthy of exclusion from their roles as sponsors of the Olympic games I do not understand. Maybe she believes – though I would argue against – that Dow’s behaviour is the most abhorrent of all the sponsors. Is it that chemical companies are still perceived as particularly evil, and therefore a valid (easy) target? Or, maybe it is simply that people do not perceive themselves as ‘users’ of chemicals, and therefore they do not feel they are faced with the same moral conflict they would be when criticising a brand that is in their fridge at home, on their feet, or fueling their car to the nearest drive through. I think it is easy to criticise when you do not consider yourself part of the problem, but rest assured, as a modern consumer I can just about guarantee we all own a little bit something produced by Dow.

Why I resigned over Bhopal – Meredith Alexander

Bhopal Information Center

Dow Corporate Responsibility – Bhopal

25th Anniversary of Bhopal – Photo Gallery 

London 2012: Dow Chemical deal is fine by me, says David Cameron

The Bhopal disaster and its aftermath: a review Free access

Francis Maude: Show me your evidence – Tanker strikes will put lives at risk

Today Francis Maude has, without any evidence to support his statement, made a frankly unnecessary and inflammatory claim, that a tanker strike will put lives at risk. Just whose lives will be put at risk? How many? Why?

I presume – though he clarified his statement only a little – that he is primarily suggesting emergency services may not have the fuel required, and that care workers, nurses, doctors, and the like, will be unable to get to their respective places of work. This may even sound reasonable, and whilst yes, there may be some risk involved, is this any different to a foot of snowfall overnight? Actually, yes it is. We can can prepare for a tanker strike with a (required) weeks notice much more easily. This is plenty of time to ensure essential services (emergency services) have stockpiled what is required, military personnel can be prepared to limit the impact of the strike (a very positive step by the government), and people doing critical jobs, will have plenty of time to prepare.

I have to be honest, I have not seen the death rates for the periods in 2000 and 2005 when previous fuel protests were occurring, so I can not compare these to equivalent periods (excluding times with other significant factors affecting death rates) when access to fuel was not restricted, but has Maude? Has he observed an increase in death rates that can be attributed to the fuel protests/tanker strikes for these periods? If not, his claims are spurious, and risk not only provoking the panic buying the government is trying to avoid*, but inflaming the obviously highly strained relations between Unite and the government, increasing the probability of a strike in the first place.

Francis Maude: Show me your evidence, or shut your mouth.

*Maude also suggests storing a little extra in a jerry can, and topping your car up with a bit more than usual.

Francis Maude: ‘Lives at risk’ if fuel strike goes ahead.

Francis Maude Wikipedia

I Hate Lee Cronin

I first came across Lee Cronin (wiki page, group page) in the Observer newspaper last year whilst sat in the pub on a Sunday afternoon having a few pints, and watching Arsenal get pummeled 8-2 by Manchester United.  A very good Sunday by all accounts, but browsing through the paper I came across an interview with Lee Cronin, and a picture of him with a ‘sexy’ looking ‘chemistry experiment’ that immediately filled me with rage.

Why? you might ask.  Well, I will tell you. It wasn’t Cronin himself, or the answers to the questions – I was so incensed by the photo alone I didn’t get that far. Just look:

This looks like a very exciting experiment, yes. But do you see where those blue arrows are pointing? Well let me tell you about those little silver trays the round bottom flasks are sitting in. Those little silver trays are not just pretty stands as it may appear, but very expensive kit used when you need to heat chemical reactions. They cost nearly $200 EACH.

It is important to know that these are not magic, they do not generate heat alone (note the lack of cables). Their function is to transfer heat efficiently from an electrically powered stirrer hot plate (the blue thing in the bottom middle of the picture) to the chemical reaction in the flask, and to do this they have to be ON TOP of the stirrer hotplate.  Quite clearly this is a terrible misuse of equipment, and their role in reality, is just to make a sexier picture.

To be honest this does not really bother me at all, I love a sexy science picture (via @L_Howes) as much as the next person. What it really comes down to is jealously. If I need a little stand for my round bottom flasks I have to use this:

A very unsexy cork ring (this is the best photo of a cork ring you can find, so bear in mind that in real life they don’t even come close to what you see in this photo – these are back-lit, airbrushed, celebrity cork rings). These come in at a still excessive, but comparatively reasonable £8.60 each.

Maybe it was just naked jealousy, maybe it was the 3 (or 5) pints, or maybe even the fact Arsenal had just pulled a goal back, but my building internal rage was enough to dismiss the article and hate Lee Cronin forever. If I never read about him again it would be too soon.

But it is here a problem arises. As a scientist, I tend to read about science quite a lot, and if someone has something interesting to say they tend to crop up time and time again – and try as I may, I just couldn’t keep away from Mr Cronin.  Fortunately for him though, next time he popped into my life was via TED, and I like TED. I was not in the pub. No football was on the television. I was at an emotional equilibrium. This meant Leroy Cronin, the lucky man, got a second chance. And boy did he take it.

Cronin’s talk is essentially about creating life, but not within the traditional realm of biology and carbon based organisms (including us) we are used to. He suggests we should re-define ‘life’ and consider anything that competes, replicates and survives as being alive. Using this definition Cronin discusses his goal is to create ‘life’ using non-organic i.e. non-carbon based materials. This is a fascinating talk whether you agree with his premise of not – personally I think he definitely has some room for manoeuvre. It fits very nicely with what many of you have recently suggested, that ‘chemistry is life’.

As you can probably tell, I don’t hate Lee Cronin at all. It is just as everybody knows:  as well as a sexy photo, every story needs an attention seeking headline!

[Just a note for those of you who do not know TED, the videos are very accessible and require no scientific background]