Join us on our new site

November 1, 2011 at 2:25 pm | Posted in Editorial Comment | Leave a comment

That’s right – after months of promising a new site, we finally have one. All the things we have here now have a new home on www.labnews.co.uk. Why not head on over there and read the latest Science Lite, or check out our latest book review?

This blog will stay up for a little while, but we just won’t be adding any new content. Thanks for reading and do come join us on the new site.

Love the Lab News team xx
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Happy birthday to us…

October 3, 2011 at 8:50 am | Posted in 40th birthday celebrations, Editorial Comment | Leave a comment

Welcome to the 40th anniversary edition of Laboratory News! I am pleased and indeed very proud to bring you this special birthday edition.

Starting on p15 you’ll find a special anniversary section where we celebrate the last 40 years of the magazine, and the science and people that have played a part in it. On page 16 we hear from some previous editors – each has put their own inimitable stamp on the publication over the years and each has contributed to the magazine it has become. But of course we aren’t just celebrating the magazine as it is today; throughout the last 40 years Lab News has been a stalwart of the science community – and it is a community that has seen many changes and challenges. On page 18 we take a look at a few past headlines, some of them particularly reflective of today’s scientific climate.

Of course science itself has advanced in ways that would astonish the team that worked on the launch issue of Laboratory News back in 1971 – and on page 20 we have charted some of the highlights of scientific discovery and development over that time. But if you think we have missed something, or would just like to comment then please do e-mail me – as always I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Just as important as what we have seen over the past 40 years is what the next 40 may hold. On page 24 some good friends of the magazine give their fascinating insights into what course we might expect science to take in the future.

Like any good retrospective however, my aim isn’t just simple nostalgia – we must endeavour to look back and learn from history. These are challenging times for UK science, yet something that has become evident from looking back over past issues of the magazine is that science has always faced barriers. Headlines involving a funding crisis, job security issues, and education apprehensions have adorned our news pages for as long as they have existed – and this is no different today.

I hope you enjoy the issue, and I hope that it might go some way to framing the problems – and the potential successes – that science faces today and in the future. But most of all I’d like to thank you, the readers. This is your magazine and it is down to you that it has gone from strength to strength. Happy Birthday Laboratory News – and here’s to the next 40!

The office party…why we get drunk

September 22, 2011 at 10:44 am | Posted in 40th birthday celebrations, Editorial Comment | 2 Comments
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Its our 40th birthday next month – hurrah – and we intend to celebrate. But just like the office Christmas party, we need to make sure we don’t embarrass ourselves by getting too intoxicated!

Why is it that we always get drunk at the office party? New research from the University of Birmingham – published in Alcohol and Alcoholism – suggests drinking in an unfamiliar environment can lead to an inability to reign in unsuitable behaviour. When drinking in familiar environments, we learn a conditioned compensatory response that enables us to learn the anticipated effects of alcohol – but when in an unfamilar context we lose this response say researchers.

“The implications for drinking in a real life situation are that if you have an alcoholic drink somewhere new, for example, at the office party or in some other environment that you don’t associate with alcohol, you may experience more of these effects of disinhibition because you lack the conditioned compensatory response that you would experience in your usual drinking environment,” said Dr Suzanne Higgs, lead investigator.

So our advice – once you know where the office party is going to be – head over there for a few drinks before the night – it might just save embarrassment!

Science and social media

September 1, 2011 at 8:38 am | Posted in Editorial Comment | Leave a comment
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After the Arab spring, and the recent English riots it is now clear to anyone who doubted it that web based social networking is having an enormous impact on the world. The number of interactions that can occur between vast swathes of people – largely irrespective of their global location – in such compressed time scales is unprecedented.

Understanding the science behind this novel mix of technology and social interaction has to a large degree foxed current expertise in networks and systems science. This is something that DARPA – the US defence research agency – is so worried about that it is offering $42million in grants for researchers to develop what it calls “a new science of social networks”.

Their motivation is of course to develop better mechanisms to monitor any uprisings – “or adversary influence operations” as they put it. And what a gold mine of information on the population social media is – I’m sure governments across the globe are drooling at the prospect of fully mining such a resource.

Yet Twitter in particular has a bad reputation amongst nay sayers – when pushed many will subscribe to the idea that ‘never before has it been so easy for people to say something, yet seemingly they have nothing to say’.

But let’s not forget social media is just a tool, and it is how it is used that should define it. And this got us thinking – how are you using it? Can it really be a useful scientific tool?

Well, certainly there is a growing camp of scientists that think so – and of course it isn’t such leap to see why they think that. Science is rooted in the formulation and exchange of ideas and what better way to do that than through the ever growing plethora of social network sites?

This is a view best explained to me by a good friend of mine, in what may seem to the social networkers as a quaintly old-fashioned way – face-to-face over a few beers. He is an expert on many things, especially after a few beers, but on one thing I trust him implicitly – the use of computing in research. With a background in bioinformatics and genomics, he is acutely aware of the importance micro-blogging for scientists to communicate their work – and thinks that nothing could be more useful for young researchers to increase the impact of their research than a carefully applied bit of tweeting.

“I know it has a dubious rep” he says of Twitter, “but the truth is it can really increase the amount of people interested in your work, and for a PhD student for example – that level of interest can be really hard to come by otherwise. That aspect of micro-blogging shouldn’t be spoilt by a constant barrage of people detailing what they had for dinner last night.”

On p31 you can see what scientists are saying about their experience of using social networking – and it makes for fascinating reading. But let us know what you think – do you use social media? Do you think it is over rated? Can it really be useful in your research?

Marital transitions make us pile on the pounds

August 30, 2011 at 8:04 am | Posted in Editorial Comment, Science Lite | Leave a comment
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Both marriage and divorce are bad for the waistline according to American researchers, with women piling on the pounds once they’ve bagged their man, and blokes after divorce.

Marriage and divorce act as ‘weight shocks’ which lead people to add a few extra pounds to their middle – especially among those over 30, says new research.

“Clearly the effect of marital transitions on weight changes differs by gender,” said lead author Dmitry Tumin, a doctoral student from Ohio State University. “Divorces for men , and to some extent, marriages for women promote weight gains that may be large enough to pose a health risk.”

So what causes the weight gain? The researchers think married women are too busy around the house to exercise, and that being married has a health benefit for men – which is lost when they get divorced.

This wieght gains is more pronounced in those over 30 say the researchers who think that the shock of marriage or divorce  is a bigger later in life.

Either that or we just give up trying!

Picking apart the media

August 3, 2011 at 8:32 am | Posted in Editorial Comment | Leave a comment
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As News International continues to self destruct in the midst of editorial practices that would make Dr Evil blush, all eyes are once again on the media – and for scientists at least our incredulous gaze is being drawn toward the BBC.

Back at the beginning of 2010 the BBC Trust decided to review the accuracy and impartiality of the BBC’s science coverage. This, only the third ever such review, came about largely due to the Beeb’s reportage of climate issues. Climate change sceptics were up in arms over the fact that information on the now infamous Climate Gate appeared to have been leaked to the BBC months before it was reported. The fact that it wasn’t immediately splashed all over the News at 10 seems to have led some to cry foul and pin labels of ‘institutional bias’ on the Beeb. And it was a label that the Trust took seriously – for the review was to be carried out by none other than genetics superstar Professor Steve Jones, and he was asked specifically to look at accuracy and impartiality.

And what of his findings? Well, in a nut shell, the Beeb appears on the whole to be accurate – on the thorny issue of impartiality however, Professor Jones has a problem and I suspect it is not the problem that the sceptics who were largely responsible for the report thought he would find. You see, Jones thinks that when it comes to science coverage, the BBC can be guilty of overplaying the impartial card.

Indeed, he suggests that at times the over-rigid application of the editorial guidelines on impartiality fail to take into account the non-contentious nature of some stories. He even goes so far as to point out the need to avoid giving “undue attention to marginal opinion”.

Clearly not something the sceptics wanted to hear. It is clear the BBC is being held accountable to higher standards than the average media outlet, but of course that is absolutely correct and proper. It is our national broadcaster – and should be a bastion of openness and impartiality – especially when it comes to science.

However, I do hope that the BBC heeds Professor Jones’ words, and in their efforts to be impartial they don’t tip the balance too far and give a voice those who really don’t deserve one. Any science journalist worth their salt needs to apply some kind of critical filter to the work and people upon which they are reporting – being passively impartial and giving all and sundry the same amount of credence is, I would argue, less helpful than applying an experienced and knowledgeable appraisal of who has said what.

After all ­­– if done correctly, nothing is more impartial than science itself. A fact has no bias – let us hope that the media at large get used to giving them the respect they deserve.

Questioning evolution

July 4, 2011 at 8:25 am | Posted in Editorial Comment | Leave a comment
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At the recent, and rather good, Science World exhibition at the Magna Centre in Rotherham I had the pleasure of watching Professor Richard Dawkins deliver a talk on the importance of evolution in modern medicine. He was to touch on why the intertwined evolution of pathogen and host should be considered more closely in the medical practices of today. A topic that was in its own right interesting enough to draw a crowd – but that was only half the story behind the massive attendance that day.

For it was Dawkins himself that people wanted to see – a modern day, bona fide science superstar. Something that was brought into sharp focus when a reverential silence fell over the crowd as he took to the podium, lingering as we hung on each of Dawkins’ softly spoken words. His ideas were as always enlightening and exciting, and true to form whilst fielding questions he didn’t miss a beat – nothing wrong footed him, except for one question which was met with a perceptible pause.

“Do you think medical advances will in effect stop human evolution?” Asked the crowd member.

A question that could have neatly turned the discussion towards the future of human evolution, yet with Dawkins’ momentary pause and rather abridged answer he seemed to sidestep this. Followers of Dawkins will perhaps be unsurprised by this – he has been quoted as saying this is the topic that he is most often asked about, and “a question that any prudent evolutionist will evade.”

In The Evolutionary Future of Man he says: “The likelihood is that, in 100,000 years time, we shall either have reverted to wild barbarism, or else civilisation will have advanced beyond all recognition–into colonies in outer space, for instance. In either case, evolutionary extrapolations from present conditions are likely to be highly misleading.”

But the question is being raised ever more frequently as researchers and thinkers contemplate our future. Indeed there are many varied and wonderful predictions about what the evolutionary clock will dial up for our species in the future. Yet, in order to predict where we are going – we must understand where we have come from.

Many will subscribe to the idea of early humans – even pre-humans – conforming to the majestic hunter-gatherer form, yet on p24 Professor Brian J Ford suggests that it was, in fact, an existence as scavengers that shaped us as a species.

It is most certainly an interesting thought – notions of identity pervade human society in an incalculable number of ways, would they be changed if we thought that the heroic predator at our evolutionary heart was misplaced? The inherent machismo of our species would surely take a knock. Great sporting events that have developed out of homage to our perceived evolutionary origins (man as strong and fast – the classic hunter) would perhaps seem like overcompensation for a species with origins as bipedal vultures rather than all conquering predators.

There is also one more surprise in Ford’s theory – something that may surprise the dog lovers amongst you…

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