Conspiracy theories and the rise of anti-science

By Tom Ireland, managing editor at the Society of Biology and freelance journalist

SONY DSCWhen I was teenager I loved a good conspiracy theory. I was obsessed with the X-Files and watched dodgy American documentaries about Roswell and Watergate and Kennedy’s assassination. I even had the famous ‘I want to believe’ poster on my wall.

Fast forward to 2014 and conspiracies theories are not quite as cool. They’ve become inflated and angry, and many are focused on discrediting people working on pressing global issues like climate change, vaccination, or feeding the world’s population.

All sorts of people are now implicated in these theories: researchers, journalists, feminists, drug developers… This year even video games critics and Ebola aid workers were inexplicably drawn into absurd-sounding global conspiracies. Thanks to modern communications, people in these industries can be discredited, harassed and even driven out of their jobs and homes by organised units of web-users in tinfoil hats. Read more »

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Science and Innovation strategy: proceed with care

By Dr Laura Bellingan FSB, Director of Science Policy at the Society of Biology

Dr Laura Bellingan FRB

Dr Laura Bellingan FSB

Research in the UK attracts public and private investment because it is seen, and a high proportion of it can be measured, as excellent. This is a judgement that takes time to develop and is acceptable as robust because it is applied over a reasonable length of time – in the case of the Research Excellence Framework, five years. Building a research base, team and reputation clearly takes time and resources – not surprisingly we and others are calling for strong, assured and long-term investment in science research – indeed stronger, more assured and longer-term!

The Government’s Science and Innovation strategy published on December 17th sets out that it is “underpinned by 5 key principles for all scientific research and development in the future:

  • excellence
  • agility
  • collaboration
  • place
  • openness

From these principles the strategy focuses on the Government’s priority areas, how to nurture scientific and innovative talent, where it will invest in their infrastructure, how it will support research and catalyse innovation, and in which international projects and priorities it will invest.” Read more »

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Policy Lates: Dodging a Biological Bullet

The Society’s latest Policy Lates event ‘Dodging a Biological Bullet: What can we learn from the US and Europe about Biosecurity?’ saw international experts come together to discuss what should be done about dual-use research, which has the potential to be misused for harmful purposes.

For an introduction to dual-use and biosecurity read ‘Dual-use for Dummies’ on our blog.
This event built on the biosecurity debate at a previous Policy Lates ‘Bioscience to bioweapons: how do we benefit from open dual-use research while avoiding misuse?’


Professor Mike Imperiale – Professor of Microbiology and Immunology, University of Michigan, United States. Read Mike’s article ‘What are we pausing? on our blog. In his talk he gives a history of biosecurity in the US and how they have responded to the H5N1 avian influenza controversy. Read more »

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Birute Galdikas: Born to be wild

By Gabriele Butkute, Student Enterprise & Marketing Intern at London Metropolitan University

People who live in the western countries rarely think about rainforests, orangutans, or the fact that they are going extinct, it just feels too far away. Well, unless they are sitting in comfortable IMAX cinema chairs munching popcorn and watching a documentary.

Image by Maritime Aquarium at Norwalk

Dr Birute Galdikas. Image by Maritime Aquarium at Norwalk

Renowned scientist and primatologist, Dr Birute Galdikas was featured in the film Born to be Wild, where she spoke about her passion for orangutans and Borneo rainforest and her efforts to keep them safe.

Dr Galdikas was born in Germany in 1946, when her parents were en route to Canada from Lithuania. Having spent her childhood in Canada, she later went on to study at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA), where she earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology and zoology, followed by a master’s degree and a doctorate in anthropology.

Birute approached anthropologist Dr Louis Leakey to discuss her desire to study orangutans, and eventually, three years later, he found the funding to facilitate her research in Borneo, Indonesia, as he had previously helped both, Jane Goodall and Dian Fossey in their studies on chimpanzees and mountain gorillas. Birute’s goal was to learn more about the origin of human behaviour by studying orangutans. However, the task turned out to be much bigger. She says, “Even though I’m a scientist, the animals I’m studying are going extinct so I’ve had to get involved in political activism.” Read more »

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How does current research culture affect science and scientists?

By Dr Laura Bellingan FSB, Director of Science Policy at the Society of Biology

Dr Laura Bellingan was part of the steering group

Dr Laura Bellingan was part of the report’s Steering Group

The Nuffield Council on Bioethics have published the report of a project that explored the wide range of influences that act upon science researchers and affect their practice.

For researchers, the expectations that they place upon themselves and feel are applied by others; the working practices that they develop or learn; the opportunities or limitations defined by their available funding and career structure, are among a wide range of influences that make up the environment in which they work. Influences and experiences also help to mould the overall culture for research and in turn the research that is carried out and how it is recorded and used.

Given the importance of science to so many spheres it is vital that the culture for research is carefully observed and that all efforts are made to ensure that it develops to support the production of high quality science and an equitable researcher community. Read more »

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Location, location, habitat – who shares our neighbourhood?

By David Urry, regional coordinator for the Society of Biology.
Applications for the regional grant scheme close on 12th January 2015.
Please contact David to find out more or to get involved with running activities in your local area.

bug box 1Curiosity is an innate and essential human quality. It is also the main driver for scientific endeavour. A healthy nosiness is an important tool in the arsenal of any budding scientist trying to make sense of the world around them, so I am delighted to report that the art and science of curiosity is alive and well in rural West Norfolk.

Under the guidance of two local biologists, Dr Ray Mathias and Mr Dennis Doman MSB CBiol, around a hundred local primary school children, and their parents and teachers were encouraged to act as nosey neighbours, discovering who or what they share their local habitat with. No stone was left unturned, no quadrat left uncounted, and last week I had the pleasure of visiting the colourful exhibition of results created by the schools. I attended a special assembly at St Andrew’s CE VA Primary School in North Pickenham, where aspiring young biologists expertly reported upon their findings and those of the neighbouring school, Caston CE VA Primary. Read more »

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Autumn Statement promises bright future for UK science

By Dr Supatra Marsh, BBSRC Policy Fellow at the Society of Biology

GOThe Chancellor George Osborne’s announcements for science in the Autumn Statement this week included investment in science in the North of the country, new student loans for postgraduate Masters degrees, and Britain taking a lead role in Europe’s ExoMars mission.

George Osborne said that the Rosetta comet mission “captured the nation’s imagination” and he was pleased to announce that Britain was awarded the “lead role” in the mission to explore the red plant. The ExoMars programme, established by the European Space Agency, aims to investigate the Martian environment for signs of life as well as demonstrating technologies essential for future missions. Read more »

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Starling Survey: Not just blue skies research!

By Amanda Hardy AMSB, Schools and Colleges Officer at the Society of Biology.

Starling in NewquayHaving lived in Kent, I am familiar with the charismatic and sociable starling. I remember seeing starlings huddled in rows on rooftops in the autumn and watching as they fly down to a garden lawn to feed. They land in small groups of six to eight birds but appear in waves, so a moment later if you are lucky there are forty to fifty birds strutting across the grass picking out morsels of food as they go; each moving in their own space quietly and systematically covering the area. But when startled the small flock fly off as one in an instant. Read more »

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Art Neuro: Brain Evolution

Supatra Marsh at the Art Neuro exhibtion

Dr Supatra Marsh at the Art Neuro exhibition (Image: Eddie Andress)

By Dr Supatra Marsh, BBSRC Policy Fellow at the Society of Biology, Founder of Art Neuro, and awardee of the Society of Biology Regional Grant Scheme.

Art Neuro is a science communication project that aims to inform and excite the public about current neuroscience research through the medium of art. Over the past four months Art Neuro has brought together a collective of more than 30 neuroscientists and artists who have been collaborating to bring current neuroscience research to the public in the form of 16 original art pieces. These were displayed at the Art Neuro exhibition that took place from the 6th-9th November in East London. Over the four days we hosted a number of interactive events and workshops where visitors got the chance to learn about the brain and get involved in science and art, e.g. a memory workshop, knitting neurons, a mental health panel discussion, and screen printing the evolution of the brain. Read more »

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Gain-of-function experiments: Putting meaning back into words

Professor Simon Wain-Hobson, professor of virology at the Institut Pasteur, will be speaking at Policy Lates on Thursday 20 November: Dodging a Biological Bullet: What can we learn from the US and Europe about biosecurity?

Simon Wain-Hobson (2)The US pause and de facto moratorium on gain-of-function research on the influenza, SARS and MERS viruses provides a welcome opportunity for the virologists. It should not be wasted.

First, we must put meaning back into words. Gain-of-function (GOF) was coined to efface the negative connotations of ‘Dual Use Research of Concern’. GOF is not a run of the mill experiment. It means deliberately selecting for viral variants so that the resulting strain is more dangerous for humans. This can mean stabilizing the virus making it more infectious, increasing its pathogenicity, or changing the transmission route of the virus. For example, the bird flu virus, H7N1, has been engineered so that it is very probably transmissible between humans, and is 30 times more lethal than Spanish flu in an animal model! Read more »

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