Tuesday, 26 January 2016

Spreading the word: 10 reasons why science communication is so important

Although there have been science-promoting societies since the Renaissance, most of the dissemination of scientific ideas was played out at royal courts, religious foundations or for similarly elite audiences. Only since the Royal Institution lectures of the early 19th century and such leading lights as Michael Faraday and Sir Humphry Davy has there been any organised communication of the discipline to the general public.

Today, it would appear that there is a plethora - possibly even a glut - in the market. Amazon.com carries over 192,000 popular science books and over 4,000 science documentary DVD titles, so there's certainly plenty of choice! Things have dramatically improved since the middle of the last century, when according to the late evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould, there was essentially no publicly-available material about dinosaurs.

From the ubiquity of the latter (especially since the appearance of Steven Spielberg's originally 1993 Jurassic Park) it might appear that most science communication is aimed at children - and, dishearteningly, primarily at boys - but this really shouldn't be so. Just as anyone can take evening courses in everything from pottery to a foreign language, why shouldn't the public be encouraged to understand some of the most important current issues in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), at the same time hopefully picking up key methods of the discipline?

As Carl Sagan once said, the public are all too eager to accept the products of science, so why not the methods? It may not be important if most people don't know how to throw a clay pot on a wheel or understand why a Cubist painting looks as it does, but it certainly matters as to how massive amounts of public money are invested in a project and whether that research has far-reaching consequences.
Here then are the points I consider the most important as to why science should be popularised in the most accessible way - although without oversimplifying the material to the point of distortion:

1. Politicians and the associated bureaucracy need basic understanding of some STEM research, often at the cutting edge, in order to generate new policies. Yet as I have previously examined, few current politicians have a scientific background. If our elected leaders are to make informed decisions, they need to understand the science involved. It's obvious, but then if the summary material they are supplied with is incorrect or deliberately biased, the outcome may not be the most appropriate one. STEM isn't just small fry: in 2010 the nations with the ten highest research and development budgets had a combined spend of over US$1.2 trillion.

2. If public money is being used for certain projects, then taxpayers are only able to make valid disagreements as to how their money is spent if they understand the research (military R&D excepted of course, since this is usually too hush-hush for the rest of us poor folk to know about). In 1993 the US Government cancelled the Superconducting Super Collider particle accelerator as it was deemed good science but not affordable science. Much as I love the results coming out of the Large Hadron Collider, I do worry that the immense amount of funding (over US$13 billion spent by 2012) might be better used elsewhere on other high-technology projects with more immediate benefits. I've previously discussed both the highs and lows of nuclear fusion research, which surely has to be one of the most important areas in mega-budget research and development today?

3. Criminal law serves to protect the populace from the unscrupulous, but since the speed of scientific advances and technological change run way ahead of legislation, public knowledge of the issues could help prevent miscarriages of justice or at least wasting money. The USA population has spent over US$3 billion on homeopathy, despite a 1997 report by the President of the National Council Against Health Fraud that stated "Homeopathy is a fraud perpetrated on the public." Even a basic level of critical thinking might help in the good fight against baloney.

4. Understanding of current developments might lead to reliance as much on the head as the heart. For example, what are the practical versus moral implications for embryonic stem cell research (exceptionally potent with President Obama's State of the Union speech to cure cancer). Or what about the pioneering work in xenotransplantation: could the next few decades see the use of genetically-altered pig hearts to save humans, and if so would patients with strong religious convictions agree to such transplants?

5. The realisation that much popular journalism is sensationalist and has little connection to reality. The British tabloid press labelling of genetically-modified crops as 'Frankenstein foods' is typical of the nonsense that clouds complex and serious issues for the sake of high sales. Again, critical thinking might more easily differentiate biased rhetoric from 'neutral' facts.

6. Sometimes scientists can be paid to lie. Remember campaigns with scientific support from the last century that stated smoking tobacco is good for you or that lead in petrol is harmless? How about the DuPont Corporation refusing to stop CFC production, with the excuse that capitalist profit should outweigh environmental degradation and the resulting increase in skin cancer? Whistle-blowers have often been marginalised by industry-funded scientists (think of the initial reaction to Rachel Carson concerning DDT) so it's doubtful anything other than knowledge of the issues would penetrate the slick corporate smokescreen.

7. Knowing the boundaries of the scientific method - what science can and cannot tell us and what should be left to other areas of human activity - is key to understanding where the discipline should fit into society. I've already mentioned the moral implications and whether research can be justified due to the potential outcome, but conversely, are there habits and rituals, or just societal conditioning, that blinds us to what could be achieved with public lobbying to governments?

8. Nations may be enriched as a whole by cutting out nonsense and focusing on solutions for critical issues, for example by not having to waste time and money explaining that global warming and evolution by natural selection are successful working theories due to the mass of evidence. Notice how uncontroversial most astronomical and dinosaur-related popularisations are. Now compare to the evolution of our own species. Enough said!

9. Improving the public perspective of scientists themselves. A primary consensus still seems to promote the notion of lone geniuses, emotionally removed from the rest of society and frequently promoting their own goals above the general good. Apart from the obvious ways in which this conflicts with other points already stated, much research is undertaken by large, frequently multi-national teams; think Large Hadron Collider, of course. Such knowledge may aid removal of the juvenile Hollywood science hero (rarely a heroine) and increase support for the sustained efforts that require public substantial funding (nuclear fusion being a perfect example).

10. Reducing the parochialism, sectarianism and their associated conflict that if anything appears to be on the increase. It's a difficult issue and unlikely that it could be a key player but let's face it, any help here must be worth trying. Neil deGrasse Tyson's attitude is worth mentioning: our ideological differences seem untenable against a cosmic perspective. Naïve perhaps, but surely worth the effort?

Last year Bill Gates said: "In science, we're all kids. A good scientist is somebody who has redeveloped from scratch many times the chain of reasoning of how we know what we know, just to see where there are holes." The more the rest of us understand this, isn't there a chance we would notice the holes in other spheres of thought we currently consider unbending? This can only be a good thing, if we wish to survive our turbulent technological adolescence.

Saturday, 26 December 2015

Beetlemania: can eating insects help save the environment?

Christmas - along with Thanksgiving for Americans - has probably got to be the most obvious time of the year when Westerners over-indulge in animal protein. However, this meatfest comes at a severe cost to the planet, as anyone who is environmentally aware is likely to know. Although many people have started making changes to mitigate climate change and pollution, compared to say recycling and reducing your carbon footprint, cutting down on meat seems to be far more challenging.

Actor and former California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has suggested Americans should have one or two meat-free days each week, but that's easier said than done in a continent raised on heaped platefuls of red meat. It isn't as if switching from cattle, sheep and goat to more unusual species would help either, as recent research confirms the likes of kangaroo and reindeer as sources of high methane emissions too. As a side note, it isn't just meat consumption that needs to be reduced; there's also dairy farming to consider. Does anyone really like soya milk? Mind you, I haven't tried almond milk yet...

United Nations reports suggest that greenhouse gas emissions from farming, primarily due to livestock and artificial fertilisers, have almost doubled in the past half century. As you might expect,these are likely to continue increasing at a similar rate over the next fifty years. In addition, vast tracts of Amazonian rainforest - amongst other unspoilt natural habitats - are being destroyed to make way for cattle grazing. At around three million acres lost each year, there's obviously not much in the way of sustainability about this particular development!

So is there any good news in all this culinary doom and gloom? Both Europe and especially North America have recently seen a profusion of companies marketing manufactured foods intended as meat replacements that are derived from of all things…insects. These products range from burgers to crackers and usually offer little appearance or taste to indicate their source material. Is it possible that the future for developed nations could include the delights of grasshopper goulash and wormicelli pasta?

It isn't as strange as it sounds. Over a quarter of mankind routinely eats insects from several thousand species as part of their traditional diet, usually with the source animal obvious in the presentation. This makes sense for developing nations, since wild insects can be caught en masse, farmed bugs fed on cheap waste material that can't be converted into conventional animal feed - and of course they require comparatively little water. Although the material isn't being converted to highly processed foodstuffs, Thailand - with over 20,000 insect farms - is an example of a nation currently increasing its insect consumption.

The species used in the new ‘hidden' insect foods varies widely, with crickets prominent on the menu. It isn't as straightforward as just killing the wee beasties and grinding them into powder, but many of the new American and European companies are conducting extensive research, developing mechanised processes that bode well for industrial-scale production.

The nutritional analysis shows promise to say the least, with some Hymenoptera species containing up to three times the protein yield of domestic cattle. The vitamin and mineral statistics are pretty good too, sometimes exceeding both farmed mammals and birds as well as plant staples such as soya beans. Not bad, considering that bug farming should prove to be at least four times as efficient as cattle husbandry.

Whether a trendy novelty can become mainstream remains to be seen, since the fledgling industry faces more than just the ‘yuck' factor. As with much cutting-edge technology, legislation has yet to catch up: there could be issues around safety concerns, with short shelf life, uncaught impurities or pollutants and allergic reactions all potential factors that could inhibit widescale production.

Bug protein isn't the only dish on the table (see what I did there?) as there are even more sophisticated approaches to reducing the environmental degradation caused by meat production. One well-publicised technique has been the cultivation of animal flesh in-vitro. However, it's only been a couple of years since the (nurturing? propagation?) of the first petri dish burger and so the process is still prohibitively expensive. By comparison, insects (bees and butterflies excepted) are not currently in short supply.

As a someone who hasn't eaten any land-based flesh for over a quarter of a century - and yes, I try to be careful with which aquatic species I consume - I suppose I have a fairly objective opinion about this matter. It does seem to make environmental sense to pursue processed insect protein as a replacement for domesticated mammal and bird species, but how often has logic taken a backseat to prejudice and the irrational? I look forward to near future developments, not least the massive brand campaigns that will no doubt be required to convert the Western public to the likes of Cricket crackers and Wormer schnitzel. Look out turkeys, your Christmases could be numbered...