As chief surgeon in hit US TV series M*A*S*H, actor Alan Alda had to learn a lot about science and medicine in order to deliver a convincing performance. Many of the scenes were created after complex and often brain-draining discussions with real surgeons, Alda told delegates at the AAAs meeting in Chicago in February 2014. Years later, he recalled how he surprised medics by saying he himself needed a surgical procedure known as ‘end to end estenosis’ – a procedure he had regularly carried out on film.
Today, Alda is putting some of those lessons to use at the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University in the US, where he is dispensing some of his top tips about how scientists should better communicate with the lay public about their work. The first thing to remember, Alda said, is that good communication is a bit like ‘a blind date between two strangers’, moving from attraction through infatuation to commitment. For effective communication to happen, he advises scientists need to ‘forget the podium’ and engage face to face with their audience.
They also need to talk slowly, start at the very beginning and never assume too much knowledge, and perhaps most critically of all, to tell a good story in order to grab the imagination and catch interest. A point that Alda demonstrated by asking a woman to move a full glass of water from one side of the stage to the other and place it on a bench; when the same task was performed with the caution that if she spilled a drop on the way her entire village would die, the audience suddenly became much more alert.
Scientists, Alda said, often suffer not only from a lack of emotion or detachment when talking about their work, but also from the ‘curse of too much knowledge’ that can make it difficult for people to understand their train of thought. The trick, he says, is: ‘Don’t say everything you know, just enough to get your audience interested.’
Three years ago, Alda started an international contest called The Flame Challenge that asks scientists to communicate complex science in ways that would interest and enlighten an 11-year-old. The winner of the first question ‘What is flame?’ was a physicist, for a short film and song – judged as the best of hundreds of entries by a panel of 11-year-olds, while last year’s winner for the best explanation to ‘What is time?’ was won by a chemist.
This year, the question that scientists are being asked to address is: ‘What is colour?’ Anyone interested in entering should click here. But hurry - scientists have until 1 March 2014 to submit their answers in writing, video or graphics. And good luck!
Cath O’Driscoll - Deputy editor
Confusion over the Merck name has been a constant since the end of World War I, when the German pharmaceutical company was split up as part of the war reparations. The US portion of the company became Merck & Co, but this name could only be used within the US – in the rest of the world it became Merck Sharp & Dohme, or MSD. The German headquartered Merck has tried to distinguish itself as Merck KGaA, but in today’s global market it became inevitable that confusion and conflict would arise.
In the pages of C&I, we have striven to make the difference obvious, but far too often observers have lapsed into using Merck for both companies, further fuelling the confusion.
And while this situation has rumbled on at a relatively low key, the situation has hotted up recently in our increasingly brand-conscious world.
The problem has come to a head with a number of recent incidents, including protestors demonstrating outside Merck KGaA’s London, UK, office about a position adopted by US-based Merck & Co over lobbying against new generic drug rules in South Africa! We truly live in a global marketplace, but the demonstrators ‘rubbed salt in the wound’ by using Merck KGaA’s logo rather than the US version! The demonstration organiser has since apologised to Merck KGaA, but the company sees this as just another example of how the ‘real Merck’ – as its ceo Karl-Ludwig Kley describes his organisation - suffers by being confused with its US namesake. He also objects to having to use the KGaA suffix: ‘We are Merck in practically all countries around the world’.
The problem even spread to the domain name ‘Merck’ on the internet, with both companies appearing on the same Facebook page for a short period. This situation was finally resolved with Merck KGaA having its name on the page, while Merck & Co has moved to MerckBeWell.
Since the Merck KGaA name can be used all over the world, unlike the US company, which has to use MSD, the German company believes that it has the full right to the Merck name and the family name has been used for 350 years, especially as it also does not claim a major market share in the US.
As Timothy Calkins, a professor of marketing at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management told the news service Bloomberg: ‘There’s no question that having two major pharmaceutical companies with the name of Merck causes a lot of confusion. It is something I think they should address. As we get more global, and as these companies bump into each other more often, it’s going to become more and more of a challenge.’
But Merck KGaA is not in the mood to discuss possible name changes. In fact, its boss has also been quoted as saying that he will be much more aggressive about protecting the ‘real Merck’, even if that means taking legal action. The battle lines are being drawn but who knows who will blink first?
Watch this space for the next instalment in this name game!
Neil Eisberg - Editor
Obesity is a growing problem, as C&I’s editor points out in the leader in the current February issue of the magazine. And not just for developed countries but in the developing world too. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), over-eating is the fastest growing form of malnourishment in the world, while for the first time in history, notes a report by Worldwatch Institute, the number of overweight people rivals the number who are underweight, both estimated at 1.1bn.
It is timely then, that this week sees the announcement of a new UK funding initiative to invest in research that promises to help tackle some of the problems of food nutrition, along with issues of food safety, specific dietary requirements and food waste. The £8.5m funding competition, called Nutrition for Life, is a UK Technology Strategy Board initiative and will support 39 projects, including a low calorie chocolate bar that should taste ‘as good as the real thing’; a high fibre white bread; and work to identify food constituents to prevent or treat osteoporosis.
Technological fixes alone, however, are unlikely to solve the problem of over-eating. As the Worldwatch report points out: ‘While the US Agriculture Department spends $333m/ year to educate the public about nutrition, the US diet and weight-loss industry records annual revenues of $33bn.’ It notes that liposuction is now the leading form of cosmetic surgery in the US with 400,000 operations/year, while recent reports in the UK suggest that overweight people here are eating more in order to achieve the necessary body mass index (BMI) for gastric band surgery. And remember Olestra? A calorie-free fat substitute that also loosens stools and lowers vitamin absorption.
Perhaps most tellingly, Worldwatch reports that food companies spend over $30bn/year on advertising in the US, more than any other industry, often on foods of dubious nutritional value. Children, it says, are some of the biggest viewers of these commercials - watching an average 10,000 commercials/year, 90% of them for sugary cereals, candy, soda, or other junk food, according to surveys by the Center for Science in the Public Interest.
The film and tv industries have not gained a very complimentary reputation among scientists for their portrayal of science, but in fairness, it should be pointed out that it is not necessarily the fault of producer and writers – they are, after all, looking to entertain. The blame does partly lie at the feet of scientists, as was revealed at the recent Informex event in Miami Beach by the scientific adviser for a major US tv series.
The case in point was Breaking Bad, the hit tv show that aired in the US from 2008 to 2013, and in the UK on cable television. The crime drama depicted the downward journey of a US high school chemistry teacher, Water White, who, when diagnosed with terminal cancer, decides to secure his family’s financial future by applying his expertise in the production of illicit drugs, in this case methamphetamine, more commonly known as crystal meth.
Unusually, the producers of the proposed series had asked for volunteers to provide ‘constructive criticism’ of the science they planned to feature in the American Chemical Society’s weekly magazine Chemical & Engineering News (C&EN). ‘Because we are very concerned about getting more students interested in science,’ Donna Nelson, a professor in organic chemistry at the University of Oklahoma, told delegates at the Informex conference that she jumped at the chance to help put science in front of a ‘hip young audience’.
‘When I first got a copy of what they had written, I thought they really are going to need me. It was really messed up,’ said Nelson. But she added that she was also worried about being affiliated with a show about crystal meth – ‘most of us are conservative about drugs’ – but she saw that it did not glorify drugs or the drug culture. ‘In fact, we watched Walt being punished for what he was doing.’
One of the first things Nelson was asked was: why would someone would become a scientist, to provide background for the main character. She was also asked about chemical structures that would be used on a classroom blackboard, about alkenes and also about nomenclature. Nelson saw her role as ensuring that nothing would jar with anyone in the audience that had a scientific background. ‘They wanted everything to be correct therefore I had to give information in a way that was easy to understand – I tried to change as few words as possible in the scripts as I had to respect their needs.’
One particular incident stood out for Nelson, who had accidently used the term ‘precursor’, which the production leapt on and used, correctly, on a number of occasions during the production.
Another issue Nelson highlighted was the fact that the production team used non-SI measurements, for example, she was asked how much crystal meth could be produced from 30 gallons of methylamine, which the main character was going to steal. At this point, the production team also had the involvement of agents from the US Drug Enforcement Administration involved as they wanted to ensure that while the details were accurate, they were not sufficient for anyone watching to be able to go out and start production themselves.
On checking the literature, Nelson found a variety of routes for the synthesis, but eventually homed in on the aluminium/mercury route ‘as it was easy for the actors to say’. Once the route was decided, Nelson was then able to calculate the yield.
Ultimately, Nelson said there was only one major error in the show: crystal meth, a white substance, was actually coloured blue in the show, but Nelson said the producers were looking for something to ‘brand’ it so she let that go through.
Nelson believes that her involvement demonstrates three benefits: scientists get to increase accuracy; writers get to learn about science; and the public is exposed to correct information.
The outcome from her involvement in the six-series show was for Nelson to put together a symposium Hollywood Chemistry for the ACS in Anaheim, and again in Denver, and she has since been involved in other projects, even consulting with law enforcement agencies – ‘reality following fiction’, as she expressed it.
The twist to the story, however, is that after Nelson had become involved in the tv production she discovered that she was the only person to have volunteered their services, out of 160,000 readers of C&EN.
Communication is about getting involved and if scientists want to see their particular speciality portrayed correctly on out screens, then they have to get involved.
But perhaps the most telling comment from Nelson was that while she had seen a dramatic increase in the discussion about chemistry and the tv series among young people, no-one among her chemical contemporaries has even seen the series, something that was echoed across her audience!
I have actually now bought the DVD box set of Breaking Bad and will watch it with new interest! Please don’t telephone me at home for the next few weeks!
Neil Eisberg - Editor
At last some good news about the problem of ash dieback affecting an increasingly sizable proportion of the UK’s trees. Scientists at the University of Sussex this week report the development of a fungicide with the potential to inhibit growth of Chalara fraxinea that is the cause of the disease. The news follows a story in C&I back December 2012 - when the ash problem first began to make headlines - which referred to concerns that the large-scale application of fungicides may be impractical and could result in ‘susceptible plants’.
Instead, the Sussex team claims that the new treatments should get around this problem by inhibiting the alternative oxidase (AOX) enzyme that is the cause of fungal resistance problems. The compounds are claimed to be particularly effective when combined with a traditional fungicide that targets a different enzyme, and have recently been subjected to independent trials by the UK’s Sainsbury Laboratory in Norwich. Data are available for other scientists to analyse on the crowdsourcing website OpenAshDieback.
The arrival of ash dieback, meanwhile, has added to a growing list of pests and diseases arriving in the UK over the past decade. As an earlier blog on the C&I website pointed out in 2012, the crisis has even attracted the attention of the government’s crisis committee Cobra, which convened a special meeting that year to discuss the problem.
Public help in tackling the problems is also being urgently sought. Numbers of sightings of Ash dieback recorded on the website AshTag, for example, continue to grow as the fungus spreads – with current estimates suggesting that as many as 90-99% of the country’s ash trees could ultimately be killed by the disease.
But while there’s a glimmer of good news on ash dieback, another citizen science study of horse chestnut leaf-miner – involving more than 3500 people across the UK – has revealed more worrying news about the spread and establishment of the moth (Cameraria ohridella). The findings also suggest that a native species of wasp that preys on the moth will not be able to curb its impact, according to a 25 January report on the BBC Science and Environment website.
Our native British woodlands, it would appear, are coming under threat on all sides. We can only hope that modern science and technology finds solutions fast enough before many of our precious trees and other flora and fauna may disappear from the landscape altogether.
Finally, the University of Sussex is currently working with the Sussex Innovation Centre to help bring the AOX fungicides to market, and is seeking commercial partners to develop the compounds for a range of applications. Interested parties are asked to get in touch.
High throughput screening techniques and automated robotics have accelerated dramatically the pace of modern drug discovery and development by rapidly identifying compounds of interest as leads among sometimes thousands of other potential candidates. This week sees the announcement of a new deal, involving The Institute of Cancer Research (ICR), London, Cancer Research Technology (CRT) and Denmark-based drug discovery company Nuevolution, which promises to speed development of much sought-after cancer therapies, by employing an innovative new screening technology to assess up to a billion prototype drug molecules for anti-cancer activity.
Nuevolution’s novel screening technology, Chemetics, will allow researchers to screen libraries of DNA-tagged compounds to identify those that act on a key protein in the stress response pathway, which has an important role in cancer cell survival and resistance to cancer treatments.
‘The stress response pathway is increasingly being seen as an exciting source of future drug targets. But for some of these targets it is technically very challenging to identify prototype small molecule drugs,’ according to Paul Workman, deputy chief executive of the ICR and director of the Cancer Research UK Cancer Therapeutics Unit: ‘The collaboration will allow us to screen very rapidly and efficiently for compounds that are able to bind to a key component of the stress response pathway that we have identified as especially important, and could help us to identify new drug candidates far more quickly than would otherwise be the case.’
It will give scientists at The Institute of Cancer Research (ICR) access to data from screens of Nuevolution’s proprietary library of small-molecule compounds, each of which is tagged with a unique strand of DNA – marking it like a barcode.
’Our role is to build global industry-academic partnerships to bring the best technologies and expertise together to develop new treatments for cancer patients – ultimately saving more lives from the disease,‘ noted Phil L’Huillier, Cancer Research Technology’s director of business management.
It is an admirable goal, and with more new and better high throughput screening technologies increasingly at the researchers’ disposal, one that would appear to be increasingly achievable.
Supply chains are very much at the top of the agenda at the moment. In the UK, the restoration of supply chains is a major component of the Chemical Growth Partnership strategy for the future development of the domestic chemical industry (C&I, 2013, 12, 4). However, the chemical industry is not alone in its concerns about the problems of linking up all the aspects on an industry from raw materials through to the final consumer. Around the world, executives are battling with the issues that range from legislation, through costs, to concerns about security and spoilage.
In North America, the majority of logistics executives, around 54%, view increasing regulations and the changes in the healthcare legislation (53%) as the main concerns, according to the sixth annual Pain in the (Supply) Chain Survey, released recently by global logistics specialist UPS. Executives in Western Europe also highlight the same concerns but not to the same degree, being identified by less than 40%of respondents. Meanwhile, in Asia, although increased regulations were cited by over 50% of respondents, a similar number emphasised increasing competition.
Also in Asia, product security is of more concern than regulatory compliance although both were identified as key issues by over 70% of respondents.
Among healthcare executives, some 75% said they plan to enter new markets over the next five years. However, they also highlighted that the legislative outlook is murky (58%), while new market complexities and the costs involved with managing multiple countries’ requirements were emphasised by 57% and 52%, respectively. The leading markets identified are China (27%), the US (21%), Brazil (18%), and India (13%).
For the first time in this survey, product protection has overtaken cost as a top priority, with 48% of respondents highlighting growing counterfeiting sophistication, inadequate law enforcement (37%), grey markets or parallel trade (30%), and under-regulated wholesalers and re-packagers (28%).
Problems with counterfeiting are well known in the healthcare market; however, the trade in illegal pesticides is also a growing global problem. This week in the UK, a year-long, national industry campaign is being launched to combat this problem. The Watch Out! Campaign is supported by the Voluntary Initiative and Red Tractor Assurance, with funding from the UK Crop Protection Association, the National Farmers’ Union and the Agricultural Industries Confederation.
The Voluntary Initiative is an industry-led initiative , established in 2001, that is designed to develop and promote best practice advice for the use of pesticides in agriculture and horticulture. Its chairman, Richard Butler said: ‘The Voluntary Initiative is all about responsible pesticide use….It is really sad that farmers now have to be aware of the danger posed by unscrupulous professional counterfeiters who want to undermine the professionalism and competence of UK farmers and spray operators.’
And that is the key aspect of supply chains, it is all about ensuring that products are produced, moved and used without at any point there being concerns, whether they be regulatory compliance of product security. Unfortunately, there will always be someone looking for a quick profit so everyone from manufacturers, through logistics specialists to the final consumer, cannot afford to not be on their guard.
The lifting of work restrictions on Bulgarians and Romanians coming to the UK since 1 January 2014 has reignited the ever contentious immigration debate. But while public surveys reveal a growing scepticism over the claimed benefits, many research institutions and scientific organisations warn that the UK economy depends on migrant workers for future growth and prosperity.
A British Social Attitudes Survey this week suggests that more than three-quarters want to see a cut in immigration, while nearly half of those surveyed thought immigration was bad for the economy. Responding to the survey, however, the UK’s Institution of Chemical Engineering (IChemE) pointed out that, ‘for engineering alone’, the UK will need around 87,000 graduate level engineers per year over the next 10 years. In 2013, we produced only 50,000.
‘One of the solutions is to make sure we attract and encourage talented migrants to come to the UK to help close these skills gaps,’ said IChemE’s chief executive David Brown.
That view was supported by Campaign for Science and Engineering (CaSE), whose assistant director Beck Smith also wrote on the topic for C&I in a Comment feature in March 2013 (page 11), which began by posing the question: ‘What do footballers, investors, entrepreneurs and ministers of religion have in common?’ The answer, we were told, is that they don’t count towards the government’s annual limit of around 22,000 non-EU economic migrants – a stark contrast to how scientists and engineers seeking work in the UIK are treated, according to Smith.
In 2008-2009, non-EU students in UK universities contributed tuition fee income alone of £4bn, Smith pointed out, particularly important in the sciences where international students account for over 40% of UK postgraduate students and 50% of those doing full-time degrees. Universities get 10% of their total income from non-EU students.
Such arguments, however, are unlikely to win over the general public, many of whom in areas like my own in West London are already witnessing for themselves the growing burden on local education and health services. The answers to the immigration debate would appear to be as elusive as ever.
Cath O’Driscoll- Deputy editor
My husband is an avid birdwatcher and moths and butterflies enthusiast. Rows of notebooks dating back to the 1970s record countless hours of fieldwork documenting weather conditions, location and numbers of observed species, painstakingly transferred to the Mapmate database before being sent off to national recorders.
And my husband is not alone. Up and down the country, an army of other natural history enthusiasts are doing the same, recording information that is vital for providing insights onto population dynamics, habitat loss and climate change.
Today, however, it appears that the role of such so-called citizen scientists is expanding. A story on page 6 of the next issue of C&I for example, due out in January 2014, reports on a new project called ILIAD (International Laboratory for Identification of Antibacterial Drugs) that encourages amateur scientists to try their hand at testing for antibiotic activity at home. A simple three-step kit enables them to first identify a sample – say part of a plant or insect, and then test for activity against (non-pathogenic) bacteria on an agar plate.
The findings are documented on a website for other scientists to analyse – results that the project organisers believe may help to throw up leads to potential new antibiotics.
Low cost and easy-to-use diagnostic kits, allied with modern computational technologies, have spurred the development of Open Innovation activities inviting participation in activities from developing new water treatment technologies to finding novel agrochemicals and drugs. Meanwhile, other crowdsourcing science efforts – such as FoldIt, Zooniverse and Cancer Research UK’s Cell Slider, also recognise the power of the public.
And as ILIAD co-founder Josiah Zayner, from Chicago University is quoted as saying in the C&I story, engaging people in such work ‘is to not only have people participate in an open science project with consequences but to also learn and be more familiar with science by doing actual experiments. In science, we are starting to admit to ourselves that a person can still do science without a PhD.’
So as C&I readers settle back to enjoy the Christmas Festivities, you might be interested to try a few experiments for the Christmas dinner table from Science Learning Centres, including making instant snow from superabsorbent polymers. Of course, you might just prefer to put your feet up and watch the telly.
A happy Christmas to all from C&I.
Cath O’Driscoll - Deputy Editor
In its latest report on the 4th Carbon Budget published this week, the Committee on Climate Change says that there has been no significant change in the climate science, international and EU circumstances on which the fourth carbon budget (2023 – 2027) was set in 2011. Therefore, in these regards, the committee says there is no legal or economic basis to change the budget at this time.
The 4th Carbon Budget was designed to reflect the cost-effective path to the 2050 target in the UK Climate Change Act, which is to reduce carbon emissions by at least 89% relative to 1990. As part of the agreement to set the budget, the UK government said the budget would be reviewed in 2014. If there is to be such a review, however, then the Climate Change Act states that it must be based on advice from the Committee on Climate Change, and must consider whether there has been any significant change in the circumstances upon which the budget was set.
While the committee’s advice seems to be that there hasn’t been a change, clearly there has been a major change - the introduction of shale gas into the US energy mix. Shale gas has altered global energy markets and had a severe impact on energy-intensive industries like UK chemicals which have seen a major negative impact on competitiveness.
In response, Steve Radley, director of policy at EEF, the manufacturers’ organisation, emphasised that impact: ‘Industry will be deeply concerned that the Committee on Climate Change is advising that the UK remains on a unilateral trajectory towards a 50% reduction in emissions. With other EU members showing little appetite to match our ambitions, this will continue to push electricity prices above our competitors and risks pushing investment abroad.
‘This move will this do nothing to reduce EU or global emissions or strengthen our claims to global leadership. By signing up to cost increases that are out of line with our competition, the committee risks weakening our manufacturing base and undermining its policy of “leading by example”. Government must now demonstrate it understands the competitiveness issues at stake by undertaking a hard-edged review of the Committee’s evidence,’ he added.
The UK has a reputation for ‘going it alone’ but in this case, such a strategy flies in the face of the evidence that the Chemical Growth Partnership has presented to the UK government regarding the huge impact the sector is having to contend with regarding energy pricing. A review of the Carbon Budget could bring some welcome relief and show that the UK government is listening to its best-performing manufacturing sector.
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