Science Interviews


Fri, 14th Feb 2014

Naked at the AAAS 2014 meeting

David Willets, Robyn Willams, Kathleen Kennedy, Marc Abrahams, Molly Jahn

Part of the show NAKED at the AAAS

Chris -   Welcome to this very special edition of the Naked Scientists which is coming to you live from Chicago and the annual meeting of the world’s largest scientific society (AAAS), The American Association for the Advancement of Science. 

My name is Chris Smith otherwise known as the Naked Scientist.  We’re here at this conference with people from all over the world who are authorities in their own rights and we’ve been hearing about lots of discoveries and challenges that are going on.  Revolutionary new steps were announced in the workings of the human body and modelling that inside a computer.  We heard about an eLiver for example and an eBrain.  So, in other words, a computer that pretends to be a liver or a brain.  I know I mentioned whether either of those things are susceptible to alcohol poisoning fortunately.  So, journalists and politicians, you're going to have to wait a bit longer before we have a faithful way to predict how your bodies work in respond to alcohol.  Most people watching the news will have also seen the images on television of the UK’s really important recent acquisition.  We have a new inland ocean.  It’s called Somerset.  That's one of our counties.  Meanwhile, for those of us who’ve been here in Chicago, you'll have noticed that it’s brutally cold here in the city and this city has been experiencing its worst winter for decades.  Hell, which is 238 miles to the east of here according to Google maps.  That has quite literally frozen over in recent weeks and the temperature has been dipping as low as minus 25 degrees.  To put that into perspective, that's roughly the sort of reception that Barrack Obama could expect if he went to Iran right now. 

Now, the AAAS meeting is all about science and innovation.  For this programme, we’re joined by you, the audience who were drawn from the conference and a very warm welcome to you.  But also, we have 5 wonderful panellists, who I'm going to ask to tell you a bit about themselves and to introduce themselves to you and they will be answering your questions in this session where we’re going to look at how science is conveyed to the general public, and also, talk about some key concepts in science.  And so first of all, let’s hear from our panel...

David -   My name is David Willetts.  I'm the Minister for Universities in Science in Britain.  I'm also a lay person, so I'm one of the people for whom the quality of science communication really matters.  I do notice, there are some scientists who are brilliant at explaining what they're doing so I can kind of understand it.  Others, I find completely incomprehensible.

Kathleen -   I'm Kathleen Kennedy.  I'm from the Cambridge on this side of the pond.  I work at MIT.  I am also not a scientist although I am married to one.  We focus on emerging technologies and their impact.

Robyn -   I'm Robyn Williams.  I've been broadcasting science since 1972 when there were no ATMs, no laptops, no DVDs, no CDs, no mobile phones, but they did do something very old fashioned in 1972 called walking on the moon in May and in December, Apollo 16 and 17.

Chris -   I think Sting did that as well, Robyn.

Robyn -   That's right, yes.  So, I've been broadcasting about science in the Science Show ever since then.

Molly -   I'm Molly Jahn.  I'm a Professor.  I am a Scientist and I'm a Professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.  So, up there in that tundra.  I have held positions in government and also, a joint appointment at the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory.  I'm really glad to be here.

Marc -   I'm Marc Abrahams.  I founded something called the Ig Nobel Prize Ceremony 24 years ago.  We give prizes for things that make people laugh and then think.  Several of the Ig Nobel Prize winners have come to this meeting.  I’ll mention just one, Chris asked me especially to mention this one.  It’s part of the team that didn’t experiment.  They took a shrew.  A shrew is a small animal about the size of a mouse.  They parboiled it and then by hand, separated that shrew into chunks and swallowed the chunks, being careful not to chew them.  Over the next several days, they carefully collected everything that came out the other end of the person because they wanted to see what bones got destroyed in the human digestive system by the chemicals there and what bones would survive.

Chris -   What did they find?

Marc -   They found something that shocked them.  It went completely against their expectations.  A lot of the large bones get dissolved.  They just disappear.

Chris -   Did they not just discovered that shrews don't taste very good?

Marc -   You can ask him that tomorrow when you meet them.

Chris -   Please welcome our panel of guests. First of all though, one of the things that you've been championing David, while you've been out here – what you dubbed, “The Eight Great Technologies” – can you just very briefly tell us what those eight great technologies are and what your motivation is for raising them?

David -   Right. Chris has asked me to describe eight big general purpose technologies in 3 minutes. So, here it goes. First, I start with high performance computing and the software you need to set it to work and the big data behind it because that's crucial for modern science.  Secondly, I turn to space and particularly satellite systems.  Both have a really efficient way of transmitting data.  Probably it’s still under appreciated, and also, a source of data, notably, satellite’s images for example of floods in England just recently.  Third on my list of big general purpose technologies which are robotics and autonomous systems themselves actually made possible by the advances in very sophisticated software, the different programmes you need for all the functions of a robot.  We in Britain are quite good at autonomous subC systems, autonomous planes.  They say in a future plane, it’s going to be flown by a man and dog.  The man’s job is to feed the dog and the dog’s job is to bite the man if he touches the controls.  So, those were some kind of dry IT related science.  Then the next technologies are from the life sciences and of course, the great discovery of the post-war period is that, the key to life comes in digital form.  DNA itself is digital.  They say in Cambridge, the future is the combination of dry and wet science and technology.  So, fourth in my list was synthetic biology. Fifth on my list was regenerative medicine, creating the cells that you can use to treat human conditions.  I've seen on a Petri dish in Imperial College, heart muscle cells beating like a heart.  I asked them when did they start beating?  Is there a Michel Angelo moment when they kind of put on an electric charge through? No. Just when these cells have grown to a certain critical mass, they start behaving like a heart.  The challenge of course is to get those in to treat real patients with heart disease which we’re working on.  And then sixth on my list was agritech, using these advances in understanding genetics as well to breed cattle, chickens.  In Scotland, we produce China’s chickens.  Every year, we send them thousand of the chickens with the best DNA we can do.  Next year, we have a new brand of chicken.  In the last 20 years, you get twice as much chicken flesh for a given amount of chicken feed as a result of those advances.  And the last two on my list were – seventh, advanced materials where our aerospace industry, our car industry, and also in the life sciences as well, people need to understand the composition of materials and we’ve got some fantastic instruments in places like Harwell that will enable us to do that.  Finally, and eighth on my list was energy and energy storage.  Here, I have just been a day or two ago to the Argonne Lab just outside Chicago where they're rising to the challenge of trying to use a battery within five years that is five times more efficient.  We need better energy storage.  The lithium-ion battery was discovered in Oxford over 30 years ago.  We haven’t really made any massive advances since we’re due for some.  I hope scientists at this great festival this week might be the people who’ll lead the advance on that.  There we are.  Those are our eight great technologies.

Chris -   David, thank you very much.  Robyn, your perspective?

Robyn -   Well first of all, a point about entrepreneurship which I find rather fascinating.  We mainly think about great entrepreneurs like Steve Jobs, but a point made by Professor Mariana Mazzucato, who’s at the University of Sussex and she specialises in innovation is that if you take Steve Jobs’ wonderful invention kind of, the Smartphone, all seven technologies and scientific discoveries for that device came from state-funded campuses and he put them together.  It wasn’t done in his firm.  It was done at state-funded universities.  So, we need to bear that in mind.  One of the most exciting innovations I've come across in recent times was actually to do with LEDs – the nano part, Minister of your list.  At the University of Edinburgh, they're actually trying to face the problem of how you will deal with the internet when you've got vast amounts being uploaded all the time and every 60 minutes, you've got 90 hours of video being uploaded every single day.  So, assume we’re going to run out of radio spectrum, what do you do?  In fact, you can do internet communication via the light and LEDs and that sort of research is being done at the University of Edinburgh and also, where I live in Australia at Monash.

Chris -   And also at Cambridge University, Professor Colin Humphreys has invented a new way of making LEDs and I was gobsmacked to learn David that Britain did not until recently make a single LED.  We imported all of them.

David -   Yeah, we’ve now recreated, Plessey, they're making them, mass producing them down in Plymouth.

Chris -   Questions from the audience.  Where is Seekon.  Hi.

Seekon -   My name is Seekon.  Is big data doomed?  Have we collected too much to actually sift through the information and make useful connections?  Also, how do we communicate big data concepts to the masses?

Chris -   Molly?

Molly -   Well, I'm happy to take that question.  Obviously, a very important question particularly in this country with respect to the opportunities and sensitivities that come with vast amounts of information.  While it was just mentioned, the degree that this information piles up.  Have we collected too much information?  That's one version of the question.  But another question I think is even more important is, are we collecting the right information to steer our systems towards more resilience and out of risky scary places?  Which whether you're in the UK floating away or in Australia burning up, or a little couple of hours north of here freezing, or in Alaska, really hot or Sochi, we have made some major changes on this planet.  I would argue, we don't know enough about that nor have we thought about the ways in which those eight technologies and a number of others can converge to the mechanisms by which we create change, support change towards safer places for all human beings on Earth and know that we’ve done it.

Chris -   Kathleen Kennedy...

Kathleen -   I’d love to add to that.  I was just in Singapore two weeks ago and moderated a panel.  One was a chief scientist from Facebook who has now actually moved over to New York and is applying a lot of the big data knowledge that they had at Facebook to life sciences now.  Jeff Hammerbaucher, he’s now at Beth Israel and building a lab there, applying that.  I would say, the answer is, I don't think we’re doomed at all.  I think it’s just very much early days.  There are a lot of things that we need to deal with, but I think there is a lot of exciting things ahead of us in the world, a big data that's going to impact our lives.

Molly -   And tools such as visualisation which synthesise and allows to explore the frontiers that big data create for us.

(Robyn) -   There's another aspect of it.  There's a problem with big data even with not so big data.  When you get lots of this stuff, how do you see what's there?  How do you see what patterns there?  Especially what people often are interested in is, they think they understand what this data describes, but they really need to know what's unusual.  Is there some scary pattern or something?  There is a tool that was invented about 40 years ago that almost nobody knows about.  Invented by a statistics professor at Harvard named Herman Chernoff, it’s called Chernoff Faces.  He realised that most people are very good at recognising different human faces which had enormous amounts of detail that are only slightly different.  So, what he did was take any set of data, any collection of big data – tax rates, death rates, all these things – and each of the kinds of data, he will instead have it show up in a diagram as one aspect of a face.  Maybe the width of the mouth or another, the tax rate might be the length of the nose, length of the hair, things like that.  you can have as many as you want.  He discovered that people can spot patterns really easily when you do this.  This was back about 1970 and one reason it didn’t take off was, he wrote a paper and the last thing he says in the paper was, “I did this using this particular computer model.  It’s very expensive to printout even one face, but I think that in the future, the price of printing something might come down.”

Chris -   David Willetts.

David -   Yeah, I agree.  I think that big data is very significant.  Now the absolute reason of what's just been said, the challenge is, identifying patterns and we will need very smart software to identify patterns.  Isn’t there a scientist I think in Israel who already just took all the data that was available on people who would suffer the particular form of cancer and identify using that, some of the underlying patterns that helped him to identify the genetic code that particularly triggered it.  So, I'm an optimist about what it can do.  What we have to do in public policy is ensure that the data that is publicly financed – think of all that health data that emerges from publicly financed medical research in the countries represented around this room today.  Imagine that future researches had all that in machine readable form so you could harness that big data to do more research.  that's the kind of thing which I think we need to do.

Brook -   Hi.  My name is Brook and my question is in a little bit of a different vein.  I was curious especially with the funding for science getting cut so much.  How do governments decide which projects to fund?

Chris -   Molly, let’s hear about the American story first and then we can ask David for the UK perspective.

Molly -   Well, the science community has clearly defended its ability to make decisions about funding grant proposals in particular, defending the objectivity and integrity of that process ferociously and it’s critically important.  We’re seeing right now a tendency in our legislative branch to scrutinise those processes and intervene.  I think there's a tremendous danger there.  Science investments are clearly unpredictable, clearly incredibly catalytic powerful forms of investment.  In a global world, I think there's tremendous opportunity to synthesise across national boundaries.  But I worry considerably about the reductions or at least flat federal investment in this country.  And I have to specifically commend Minister Willetts for his defence of research investments in the UK where I think both the science investment per se and the nexus between policy and science is really exemplary in a global sense, one that I envy in a number of respects.  So, I think recognising the critical public good in research and in science and in knowledge transfer is an insight that we have lost track of to some extent in this country.  The transparency that science creates is very, very important especially in a democratic society.

Chris -   Kathleen, you are nodding just then.

Kathleen -   Well, I feel like I'm in a lot of conversations around the world where you're looking at the US system and people question it and thinking about in places like Russia and China where it’s more of a command economy, how they're able to all work towards solving one problem rapidly.  There's an interesting I think, debate going on.  Chris told us that we wanted to introduce some concepts around debate.  But I think it’s a very interesting debate that I’d love to throw out to the panel on talking about sort of a bit of a command economy and a topdown strategy versus more of the strategy like we have in the US and Europe on how innovation is funded.

Chris -   Robyn, what do you think the role of the media is in connecting these things together.

Robyn -   Well, the media tend to beat up promises.  It’s going to be an absolute fantastic breakthrough and you virtually ring the bells about how this fantastic change is going to happen.  We usually say 5 to 10 years time.  What worries me is that while you're doing that, you're disguising the fact that it stops start funding a lot of the time.  I'm thinking of the hole they dug in the United States, the superconductor supercollider – a $2 billion hole and then they change their minds for bizarre reasons.  This is an equivalent to Cern and of course the hole is still there, I think they used it to grow mushrooms or something.  Now, this is all very well for big infrastructure, big science.  I'm concerned about what we do in the media, promoting science so that young people think, “Okay, I'm going to commit my life to doing this.”  They don't necessarily have to take a scientific career, but at least, commit many years sometimes up to the age of 28 to studying, preparing themselves for a career that's connected to science.  And then the bottom falls out of the Marcet.  Someone cuts the budget and these young people are stranded.  I meet so many of them and I think in whichever country that happens, it’s a disgrace.

Chris -   David Willetts, how does Britain decide what you're going to put your money into in terms of funding research?

David -   What we’ve been able to do in Britain is, we’ve got a protected flat cash budget of 4.6 billion pounds a year and that at least, we set it out in 2010 and we’re delivering it year on year to 2015.  So, it’s tough but it’s also predictable and stable and there's been no messing about.

Chris -   Can we just ask for the purposes of comparison, how does 4.6 billion pounds compare with what this country America spends on science?

David -   In the US, which is on a slightly different definition because it includes capital and things.  You're talking more like $25 to $30 billion.  So, it is a 5th, a 6th than what happens in the US, but we’ve been able to add to it now, again, on a secured long term basis, a billion pounds a year of capital investment, year after year, through to 2020.

Chris -   So, how do you decided what do spend it on?

David -   And on that, the role of the Science Minister is rightly very limited.  It would not be right for me to say, “We should fund project X, but not project Y.”  Those decisions are taken within the scientific community by peer review.  I think one reason why British science is pretty good is that the science minister has very little to do with that sort of decision.  What we can do is decide broad priorities and one thing that we’ve been able to do despite only being a medium size economy is for example, keep a broad base, where we keep our funding on humanities and social sciences, alongside physical sciences and medical sciences.  I wouldn't want us to cut one at the expense of the other.  What we’re now doing is consulting the community on big decisions on capital which will ultimately be for ministers.  So, when we spend this billion pounds a year of capital up to 2020, are there some really big projects that we could do?  Are there international partners with whom we can do it?  So, those big type of questions do come to ministers.  But after we’ve decided how much the budget is for research councils and I've kept the balance broadly unchanged, after that, within the research councils, what they spend the money on comes from the science community themselves.  I think that's the right way to do it.

Chris -   Let’s start looking at how we actually attract people into science for a little bit.

Julia -   Hi.  My name is Julia.  My question is how do you communicate the benefits of emerging technologies like robotics when we don't fully understand what they'll be used for and how they'll work yet?

Chris -   Molly, what do you think?

Molly -   Well, one  place for advocacy that I think in this country, we have often over looked is the private sector because where these technologies have specific benefits, there are very smart people watching that horizon for a living.  And so, ensuring that we have good quality interfaces there where that precompetitive investment – where exactly that sits and what it is, snaps on to competitive space, is a really powerful model.  I learned from the Dutch actually.  they called it the Polder strategy, something they have some experience with in terms of building common space to keep something bad out or grab something good.  So, I would say that's one specific tactic.  I see more and more.  Our diverse sectors banding together to explore potential and of course, it’s the technologies, but also their intersections that are really, really exciting, and really important.  Both in offensive, in focusing on opportunities, but also, in defensive ways because we’ve got some significant challenges ahead if we’re committed to using science and technology to care for our home and to care for our kind.

Chris -   Marc, there must have been some Ig Nobel moments relevant too.

Marc -   To attracting people to science?  I think doing odd things I think attracts people.  There was a television programme called Star Trek and if you talk to – I don't think this is much of an exaggeration.  Pretty much, any living scientist under the age of say, 60, they will start telling you stories about how watching that as a kid ended up not only pushing them, pulling them, inspiring them, whatever, to go and get involved in science.  But if you listen to them long enough, some of them tell you stories about how the thing they invented which ended up changing the world a little bit.  It really was just a twisted version of the thing in episode 27.  These things that seem kind of silly and are kind of silly – Star Trek and movies, and TV shows, and novels and things.  They're also pretty powerful.  They're pretty powerful in ways that you can either tell people in a million words that they are powerful and why they're powerful, or you can just look at the faces of people who were affected by them.

Chris -   Robyn Williams, when you are not busy on the set of Dr. Who and Monty Python, were you watching Star Trek?

Robyn -   Yeah, I was watching Star Trek – not as much as some of the other films.

Marc -   You're not under 60.

Chris -   I don't think we want to cover those films.

Robyn -   No, but that is the imaginative display of the future and as a science fiction, reading books, wonderful books, with all sorts of imagination from Jules Verne on to the most modern stuff.  It’s all there.  I really do think that making more of really what you can visualise, imagine, as well as putting in the public place, I would like to see places where like the AAAS to some extent.  We’ve got science on display, but people could play with it and see the robots, the gadgets of the future and what they might do, and experience them instead of having them remote and so far away that it’s not part of their lives.

Chris -   Star Trek fan, David Willetts?

David -   Yeah and Star Trek is a great example because I remember watching it as a boy when people just used to walk up to those glass doors in the spaceship and the glass doors parted.  There was no technology that made that possible.

Chris -   You forgot the fancy noise.  The pshhh!!

David -   There was whooshing sound.  That was two stage hands pulling on ropes on either side to open the doors.  Now, the other...

Marc -   David, I understand there are buildings in the British government that still use that.

David -   Who knows?  But you see now – I was used to that thing and the young person watching that wouldn't realise that that was – when it was first shown, ahead of what was technologically possible, well I asked as a layman is, I say to the biologist, “When are we going to have that device that Scotty had to work out what you were suffering from by pointing his kind of sensor at you and used to run it up and down, and then it would know what your medical status was?”  the experts told me we’re about 25 years off that, but I think we will go there.  If you read Isaac Asimov, it’s amazing some of the things, Marshall McLuhan, talking about envisaging a day when we would basically be on the internet.  You read that in the 1960s.  So, I think science fiction can set challenges and use its imagination to set challenges that then scientists rise to.

Marc -   Yes I think you'll find that the cosmic screwdriver is only 2 years away.

Kathleen -   Can I just say?  I just have to stress.  Robotics is a great example where opportunities at the middle and high school level have opened up incredible frontiers for students.  Some of whom might have this passion anyway and many of whom would not.  Clearly, that level of exposure at that time as people are setting their courses is a very important and exciting way to highlight the relevance and opportunity in the space and they need to work together.

Molly -   Yeah, I think Dean Kamen’s project with first robotics is very interesting on getting kids involved in robotics.  His point on that is that he wanted to create basically the NBA of science geeks and using robotics like kids aspire to be an NBA star – to be a first star.

Joel -   Joel Veness, science journalist.  Like most good ideas at this conference, this question came from some spirited drinks we had after the session yesterday.  Climate deniers often use the tools of propaganda to further their campaign.  Should science be embracing these similar tools?

Chris -   What propaganda?

Joel -   Yeah.

Marc -   Propaganda and lies, that's what you're asking?

Joel -   Maybe not lies because that goes against the whole principles of science I guess, but maybe propaganda?

Chris -   Marc?

Marc -   It’s difficult.  Arguments between somebody who wants to discuss whatever the topic is and somebody who simply wants to stick their foot out and trip the other person, they're not fair fights in either direction.  Does anybody here have any guidance for anybody in dealing with that?

Kathleen -   I've been doing a lot of work in Russia lately.  I was actually in Moscow 4 weeks ago, I think.  It’s interesting, this propaganda question that there's in society like that.  there is still this idea of – I'm in meetings and often they talk about science innovation policy that they're trying to build that we should just do that in the innovation Marcets.  They sort of talk about – if they talk about it enough, things will happen.  It’s such a counter thinking to how science and technology is done here and in the UK I'm sure.  That it’s a very much a bottom up type thing and I think propaganda is about being a top down methodology.  And so, I think that there are certainly places in the world that are trying to do that and they think if they push it down enough that it will happen.  My thinking is that I see the way science works here and I don't know that – it seems to me, counter the way that science actually happens.

Chris -   David...

David -   Yes, I think it will be dangerous to get into propaganda because the origins of propaganda is propagating the faith and science has to be a rational and sceptical inquiry.  I think the problem with the climate change deniers is that they've taken one of the tools of science which is scepticism and taken it to such an extreme.  It’s become a new form of kind of irrationality.  I think where science has to get it right is, how sceptical you can be.  If you're being asked to believe that almost all major western scientists and researchers working in this discipline are engaged in a kind of organised conspiracy, at that point, calling it scepticism doesn’t capture then the sort of irrationality of it.  So, I think getting the balance, getting the scepticism right is the best approach.

Marc -   Rather than going for the tools of propaganda.

Robyn -   It just so happens, I did my programme the Science Show, the first one in August 1975 and one would guess it was Lord Ritchie Calder and he happened to be talking about the energy crisis then back in 1975.  And he said, “Amongst other things, we’ve been so concerned about the use of oil and coal, and fossil fuels that this is going to change the atmosphere and affect the climate drastically.  We’ve been talking about this since 1961 and here we are in ’75 and no one has done anything yet.”  Which was, when I heard it back, rather chilling.  But I think what has been shown Naomi Oreskes who was at San Diego and is now at Harvard in her book “Merchants of Doubt”.  As Marc said, what one side is using is rational argument and trying to get the information over and it’s complex.  When there's something that knocks their ideas, they write a 20-page article which is published in one of the journal which their mates read and on the other side, the people who are knocking climate science are using all the techniques of advertising, of propaganda and the sowing of doubt.  Naomi Oreskes is sighting the tobacco companies who, for 40 years or more were trying to say that cigarettes may be okay.  There is doubt about the science.  So, it’s unequal and I think it’s time the scientists really got up, didn’t use propaganda, but use short, sharp sentences and fought equally.

Chris -   And stun guns might help as well.

Robyn -   Yes.


Chris -   Next question.


Kathleen -   Can I just say there's a very exciting opportunity I think for science to deliver in this conversation which is to step over the squabble about is it or isn’t it.  That's clearly a very important debate, but science actually isn’t about propaganda.  It’s about informing important things that human beings do every day.  There's terrible risk now that is born by very powerful people who can't yet fully quantify or reflect that risk when the very exciting areas of convergence I see.  And again, the UK is very central to this.  It’s not just science and policy but science, policy, and capital, particularly capital that underwrites risky dangerous practices and capital that may enable the delivery of the benefits of these technologies and innovations towards the very real dangers that are borne by all, not just scientists and not just those seeding the doubts.

Darah -   My name is Darah.  We heard at a talk this morning that only 1/3 of the American public believes humans evolved through entirely natural causes.  So my question is, how do we move forward in communicating science to a public who still questions its most basic foundations?

Chris -   Kathleen?

Mark -   Are you talking about unnatural sex?

Kathleen -   Well, the approach that we take around talking about sciences is talking about it from the perspective of how is technology and science solving problems.  So, we start with talking about framing the problem – what is the problem and then talking about the different areas of science and technology that are solving that problem.  So, I think you want to be able to appeal to people on a very personal level that they're seeing these problems in their lives and then think, worrying about it for their children’s world and then thinking about how science are solving them.

Mark -   One question related to that is, what does it matter?  There are so many different things in the world to pay attention to or not.  You just look around you when you're sitting in an almost empty room and you could spend all day describing all the things you see.  So, this question of, where did human beings come from?  It is very important, but at the same time, it’s maybe also completely unimportant to most people most of the time in their daily lives.  So, they happen to believe something that pretty certainly is completely untrue.  But effect does that have?

Chris -   So Robyn Williams, to most people, it doesn’t matter most of the time where we all came from.  Agree?

Robyn -   No, not good.

Mark -   I didn’t say good or bad.  I just said, what does it actually matter practically day to day for most people?

Robyn -   Well, the figures for the rejection of Darwin and Evolutionary theory I thought was something like in Australia about 30% of the population doesn’t agree with Darwin’s ideas.  I thought it was more like over half in the United States.  You're probably talking directly more about reproduction of human beings.  But I think one way to do something about it is actually happening at this very conference.  And the people from science and education, Eugenie Scott is one of my heroes, who has been trying to show how you should free up education in the United States so that you can actually teach Darwin’s ideas freely and exchange these ideas without the impediment of that kind of restriction which apparently exists in many states.  That sort of thing will change the way these ideas are discussed very quickly.

Chris -   David, have we had discussions in the British government about the issue of evolution and creationism?

David -   It’s come off a bit in education policies.  I think where you are in schools really matters and there, we have to just draw the line very clearly that there is science.  Kids who go to science lessons are entitled to be taught science.  People who have a set of religious beliefs are entitled to have those religious beliefs communicated in lessons to do with religion.  But what you can't do is have your religious beliefs taught as if they're somehow science.  That is the boundary I think that we need to set in the approach to education and that after all was famously fall out in that court case here in the US in the 1920s.  It’s a bit frustrating that those battles still keep on going on.  

I think where scientists get, sometimes make a rod for their own bat is that sometimes evolution is described as a theory.  When scientists use the word ‘theory’ – when you say ‘theory’, it doesn’t mean it’s some kind of abstract idea that may or may not be the case.  It’s like saying, gravity is a theory.  It is an account of reality.  Sometimes the word ‘theory’ is used like the word ‘scepticism’ to erode what seems to be a settled and empirical observation about the way the world works.

Imran Kahn -   First of all, my inner trachea will never forgive me if I didn’t point out.  It is actually Bones, not Scotty who had a medical tricorder.

Mark -   That is a proper Trekkie.

Imran -   But it did made me think about the tricorder and you know, what would happen if we invented and used it, and you would get the benefit from it.  It reminded me of a quote from Bill Gates who said that, “At the moment globally, we spend more research on male passing baldness than we do on malaria.”  Some members of the panel, my perspective of this would be...

It does give you pause for thoughts – As a nation, are we as countries like the UK and the US not doing enough to reverse global inequalities?  All the technologies we’re researching and prioritising are they going to deepen global inequality rather than reduce and what should we as people attending this conference do about that?

Chris -   What do you think, Molly?

Molly -   I think it’s a really important question for this century and I will say that as a science community, we don't even know how to characterise global inequality beyond economics.  I would argue there's a great deal more for us to learn about that.  One of the exciting things I see is the recognition of the fact that inequality is a characteristic of human systems is extremely important beyond doing the right thing.  For example, inequality tracks poverty.  It tracks civil instability.  It tracks a lot of things that are of concern.  It’s a very powerful player.  I find that and this gets back to the big data question, being able to scan for patterns that relate to outcomes in human dimensions of our choices in science and technology.  What innovations do we take to systems especially vulnerable people?  How did those innovations actually change the condition of vulnerable people in vulnerable places which will be more and more of us by the way including the UK right now?  I think learning how to ask and answer those questions is critically important.  I'm going to argue.  We need new taxonomies of the way human environmental systems work.  So, we’re really in some sense in a very primitive stage of development of this kind of science – with all due respect to any economist in the room – if we really care about – again, steering our global system towards safer places.

Chris -   Do you agree, Kathleen?

Kathleen -   I do.  We write a lot about different technologies that are being evolved in Africa.  There's actually a lot of interesting things that are developing there locally.  But I agree on sort of imploring big data to understand the patterns.  I can't talk enough about data visualisation.  We were really geeky now before this talk because it’s such an interesting area of people being able to understand what those patterns are and what the implications are.  So, yeah, for this one, I agree.

Molly -   And the democratisation of that capability is really incredibly important and exciting and it has some very significant perils as well with respect to privacy and vulnerability.

Kathleen -   Yeah.

Molly -   Where is the good land in Africa?  Important question

Robyn -   Bjorn Lomborg sometimes make the interesting point about how much we can get for our money by tackling climate change for billions versus maybe cleaning up the air.  Now, it just so happens that someone I know quite well, Jeremy Leggett who is involved with Solar Century has been trying to tackle a problem of kerosene lamps in the tiny huts in all sorts of millions of homes in South America and in Africa.  What they do is they developed a solar lamp which costs about 6 bucks to make and it can be the basis of a village economy that can develop it themselves.  I just read the other day that a million of these lamps have been distributed through Africa.  This, I think is a superb achievement.  It shows you how in fact, you can tackle the big stuff that you mustn't know – I would disagree with Bjorn Lomborg,  it’s not one or the other, but this is a line where you can show experimentally how you can develop an economy that the village can depend on that is simple technology which will make a vast difference because 2 million people a year die from the fumes of their kerosene.

Chris -   I guess that it’s worth bearing in mind that something like 5,000 people per day are dying just through lack of access to clean water which I’d argue is even worse, isn’t it?  It’s a fundamental, probably one of the most abundant molecules on Earth.  You're nodding, Molly.

Molly -   I am and it comes back to your point about inequity.

Mark -   Another thing about that too is, Africa is a good example.  Places where there are certain kinds of chronic disease – malaria being maybe the biggest, it affects a huge number of people – almost exactly are the same areas where there is unending poverty.  It’s because it seems that so many of the people spend most of their life just in terrible shape from this disease.  If they weren’t doing that, they would be a lot more vigorous, a lot more everything, and a much smaller chunk of all of the resources – food, money, electricity, whatever.  They'd be freed up to do the things that we do here in America and Britain, and places where we don't have millions of people who are spending their lives suffering from this horrible disease every moment.

David -   I think this is where there are real things that scientific advances can do and we shouldn’t forget the state of the debate about GM crops in Europe which is very different from here in the US.  If you're looking to do something, it would really help Africa feed themselves and tackle some of the illnesses and diseases affecting kids, then GM crops is crucial.  If Europe continues to send out this rhetoric, that GM crops are somehow banned and dangerous, and that has an influence on policy makers in Africa so that they do not feel that they can plant or use the drought resistant wheat that is being developed by GM Technologies, then that is something that is going to cost tens of thousands of lives.  So, we should never forget the real world consequences of some of these decisions taken in political environments around the world.

Chris -   What about the question and this is for everybody to consider that, when we spend the 10 billion it costs to make a new drug in a western country, most of that price being regulation because the test tube to patient time for any agent is 10 years and 10 billion give or take.  Unless it’s a dirt cheap agent and you're not sure you want to anyway if that's the case.  Those drug companies have got to make that investment.  It’s a risky investment and they've got to recoup.  So, we’re sort of struggling with the problem that we’ve got to invest in making the agent and underwriting the risk.  But then equally, if we can't recoup because we want to give it away to people in Africa to use then we have a serious problem on our hands don't we because can't recoup.  So, how do we incentivise companies?  Perhaps David, you could kickoff.  How do we incentivise and to address this?

David -   I think that's where the life sciences industry has made a lot of progress in the past 10 or 20 years.  My view is, there is a clear obligation on us in the advanced West to pay for our drugs at rates that support the R&D that's necessary.  The drugs industries themselves are under a reciprocal obligation to ensure that those are available at much lower prices in poorer countries.  If you look at the way in which HIV drugs are now accessible across Africa at much lower prices, I think there's been a real advance there.  Again, sometimes this research goes directly – sometimes these advances in science that people are nervous about have a direct impact.  Again, I'm a layman but my understanding is one of the most significant advances of synthetic biology, one of the first cases has been the production of artemisinin which is in turn very crucial for the treating of malaria.  So, some of these really significant scientific advances that people are aware about in the west actually are direct benefit for some of the poorest people on the globe.

Chris -   Molly...

Molly -   I think this is a great example where monitoring interactions between interventions is really important because I can tell you, in some places, part of the reason malaria has been difficult to eradicate is, we’ve been busy on the agricultural research site impounding water which creates terrific place for mosquitoes to breed.  It was the interaction between the agricultural intervention which is really laudable and net worthy, and the health consequences was detected only by scanning for patterns, and not, you'd like to think in some sense, originally by common sense.  So, just tracking the outcomes that matter to us in human dimensions, challenging the assumptions we’ve made as we deliver those innovations at scale is a really important capability.  It’s a scientific frontier and no question with respect to scaling and interactions, and the analytics, and satellites in space – a number of the things that were on Minister Willetts’ list.

Steve -   Hi.  My name is Steve.  I'm struck with the panel’s emphasis on the parts of science that affect technology and medicine.  There's also the part of science that – so to speak – is curiosity driven with no clear application at any given time other than the wonder and the adventure of the pursuit.  Could the panel comment on how we might encourage children or young people to pursue those parts of science?

Chris -   Robyn, does the Science Show encourage children to take up science or does it probably put them off forever?

Robyn -   One of the things that we do, I do two programmes a week and one of them has got an old fashioned title called Ockham’s Razor and that's a scripted talk.  Every week, someone does what's become known as a blog and the public talks to the public.  But each week as well, I put on a PhD student and I was stunned when I got a letter two weeks ago from university in Melbourne, La Trobe University saying at how moved they were to be broadcast because they didn’t think anyone in the public will be interested in what they did.  What they talk about is enthusiastic, it’s clear, it’s hoping to change the world.  The way you get other young people to realise this and respond to it is to have them on, to have them there.  I got one note.  Actually, it was at AAAS.  I interviewed a PhD student who was studying sea grasses in Kuwait.  She was from Kuwait.  She was studying actually in Vancouver in Canada.  I broadcast her enthusiasm and what she was doing and various things like the sea grasses absorb more CO2 than rainforests.  Next thing, I get an email from a 14-year-old New Zealand kid who somewhere in the gulf, who said he was listening to a little old Australian science show and he’s got his mates together and they are now going to study sea grasses in the Gulf.  They let me know how they get on.  That is how you do it.  You start a trend, you put them on, and the rest happens.

Kathleen -   I'm so glad you raised this point because knowledge for knowledge’s sake is a joy of being human, absolutely.  And that passion is a really important part of the science community.  I was just part of a dinner in London in a couple of weeks ago where one of my colleagues, very distinguished scientists focused on photosynthesis.  Another person said, “Oh, it’s so wonderful that in the UK, everybody is asked to justify the grant they just got in terms of practical impacts.”  And my friend turned and said, “That is an awful thing” because it forces scientists to tell stories that really, on some level are ad hoc stick it on the back because I have to tell somebody why I'm doing this when the real story is, “I love it and it’s really important”.  This particular person, he says, “He does happen to work in the most important enzyme in the world.”  But that's not why he works on it.  He works on it because he loves it.  Being honest about that removes the danger of hype and then of course, if you told that story, you better give some story about how you did what you say you were going to do and it drives us a number of very pernicious dynamics with respect to the overselling of public science.

Chris -   One of the things that we found with the Naked Scientists was that actually, science with a sense of humour is incredibly important.  I think the Ig Nobels Mark, really panned us to that.  Do you find that you attract young people more than you would?

Mark -   Yeah, I hesitate to say in public that I think we do any good, but I think maybe we do.  Our whole little mantra is things that make people laugh and then think.  When people find things funny, the kind of things we collect that tend to be about science, what's really funny about them to almost everybody is, they deal with something you've never had any reason to think about.  It’s just so completely foreign.  It’s beyond foreign.  It’s crazy.  It’s funny.  And so, your first immediate reaction is you laugh.  But then it sticks in your head and a week later, you're asking questions.  But more than that, all you really want to do is turn to your friend and tell your friend about it and get into an argument.  That's the kind of stuffs that we’re doing.  I kind of think I shouldn’t be saying even this much because I'm sort of saying, this might be good for you.

Chris -   Mark, just educate the audience what the best cure of hiccups is according to...

Mark -   Yeah, of course.  Okay, I make no claims as to the importance of this and it deals with medicine.  There's a touch of sadness in this.  Two weeks ago, a doctor died, somebody who had won Ig Nobel Prize.  I just read about it.  His name is Dr. Francis Fesmire.  He’s from Tennessee.  About eight years ago, we gave him the Ig Nobel Prize for Medicine.  He wrote a paper about what he did in a medical journal.  He came up with the first reliable cure for an ailment known as intractable hiccups.  Intractable hiccups is the kind of hiccups that goes on not just for a minute or hours, but for days, weeks, months, and nobody has ever been able to figure out how to stop that reliably until Dr. Francis Fesmire did.  His method he calls, ‘Digital Rectal Massage’.

Chris -   Does anyone have hiccups?


Mark -   When he came to the ceremony, he gave a little 1-minute acceptance speech and then we had a demonstration on stage which we had to call off at the last minute.  After he published his paper, other doctors read some of these medical journals anyway.  Some doctors in Israel read this and they had a case of intractable hiccup, so they decided to try Dr. Fesmire’s method.  It worked, so they published their own paper.  They ended up sharing the Ig Nobel Prize too.

Chris -   Robyn...

Robyn -   Well, I'm trying to control my diaphragm but...

Chris -   As well as your bowels.

Robyn -   Yeah.  My time goes back to the big data problem and of course, having too much data is something that's hitting all aspects of science.  One way to solve the problem is to go to the public.  This has been done with Galaxy Zoo where someone had – I think it was a million different galaxies that had to be categorised and he just went almost blind after a week, not being able to do it.  They thought, why not put this on the internet and ask the public to join in.  someone said that the server nearly melted.  There are other examples of this such as in Tasmania where they have a red map where you take a picture to see whether certain organisms have moved further south or north.  They normally are and showing that climate change is biting.  This was mentioned in a programme series on the BBC and the ABC by Lisa Jardine called “The 7 Ages of Science.”  In the last episode, Lord John Krebs in Oxford said, “We’ve been doing this in environmental science forever because you need to track say, where the birds are and how many of the population have changed, and various animals as well.”  So, that public science can elicit 6-year-olds or 90-year-olds, and they're working together fabulously and they're part of science, real science and it makes all the difference.

Molly -   I got an email of a couple of weeks ago that said, “Dear Dr. Jahn, I need to ask you some questions about genetics.  Can I call you?”  I assume this connects with what Robyn just said.  I think it was one of our undergraduates who hadn’t learn proper email etiquette.  So, I wrote back and I said, “Dear Sophie, I assume you're a University of Wisconsin-Madison undergrad and when you write somebody with requesting time, it would be good if you would explain what your project is and who you are, and what you're doing.”  Well, Sophie was a 6th grader.  And Sophie had been handed an iPod and Sophie had been involved in projects like this through her school.  And Sophie got really interested in genetics and wrote me.  So, I wrote back and said – I got this lovely email and did an interview and then I got an email from her mother.  She said, “Well, when I asked Sophie why she didn’t introduce herself properly, she said, “I've always been told I shouldn’t share personal information over the internet.”  So, that's a frontier I'm excited about exploring.

Chris -   And after she got Molly’s replies, Sophie is now in therapy. We’re running out of time.  So, just some closing thoughts from you Kathleen.

Kathleen -   Sure, I think I've been looking over your shoulder, hoping that we would get to this one question about 3D printing which was invented at MIT and one of my favourite topics.  But also, I think it could be having a 4D printing which is new and very exciting and seeing how it...

Mark -   It sounds like the history of razor blades where they keep adding one more blade.

Kathleen -   I know, exactly.  But the 4D is time and there's a lot of interesting applications with that, so across multiple areas of science.  So, that would be a parting thing to keep your eye on.

Chris -   Last words, David Willetts.

David -   Well, in this question about how we interest children in science, I think the evidence is that there's two things above all to get them interested – dinosaurs and space.  The number of scientists I meet were now biochemist but they said it was initially astronomy or the Apollo moon missions or something like that that got them interested.  We’re fortunate in Britain, we’re going to have our first major astronaut on the Space Station next year and we’re going to use that as a great opportunity to communicate to excitement of science around the schools and school kids in Britain.

Robyn -   And we’re going to send a dinosaur into space.

Chris -   You got them learning David Bowie numbers already?

David -   It’s Major Tim

Chris -   We have ran out of time.  Please join me in thanking our panel who are David Willetts, Kathleen Kennedy, Robyn Williams, Molly Jahn, and Mark Abrahams.

My name is Chris Smith.  You've been listening to a very special edition of the Naked Scientists recorded live here in Chicago at the AAAS.  We’re very grateful to the Science and Innovation Network here in Chicago and specifically Jack Westwood and also, Kerry Norton who have been tremendous and also instrumental in helping us to set up this thing.  I hope you all enjoyed it and thank you very much Kate for doing sound and Howard Benson who’s also been absolutely fantastic recording and helping to put this event on.  We’re really grateful.  Goodbye!



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