Hello and welcome to my blog! My name is Caroline and I am a PhD student at the University of Sheffield. My research project focuses on Striga - a genus of parasitic plants that devastates harvests by infecting food crops. I am exploring the defence reactions that can make host plants more resistant against Striga. Due to my ongoing battles with anorexia, I haven't made as much progress as I would have liked but I am determined to finish the course.

This blog charts the ups and downs of life in the lab, plus my dreams to become a science communicator and forays into public engagement and science policy....all while trying to keep my mental and physical health intact. Along the way, I'll also be sharing new plant science stories, and profiles of some of the researchers who inspire me on this journey. So whether you have a fascination for plants, are curious about what science research involves, or just wonder what exactly I do all day, read on - I hope you find it entertaining!

Friday 7 November 2014

A conference with a conundrum: does Science drive Policy? Or does Policy drive Science...

One of the things I love about the University of Sheffield is the strong support for staff and students to set up their own initiatives for outreach. A great example of this is the Science in Policy group, founded by a group of inspired early career researchers and technical staff . Despite only being in existence since May 2013, they have lost no time in organising a brilliant series of seminars to date and today hosted their very first day conference.

And hats off to them! A diverse range of speakers, ample networking opportunities, brilliant food ( who would have thought it was all vegetarian...) and lively workshops...it certainly left me feeling inspired to consider moving into a science-policy career full time.

Dr Kate Dommet ( of the Crick Institute at the University of Sheffield for the Understanding of Politics) started the day by highlighting how it is essential for scientists to learn to demonstrate the impact of their work with the increasing pressure for 'impact-led' research. Which raises the question: is government policy driving science more than science is driving policy? Whilst it feels satisfying to work on a project that could obviously contribute to the greater good, I still believe that there is a need for 'blue skies' research where the ultimate benefit, if any, is not immediately obvious. My favourite example is the internet - an unplanned 'spin-off' benefit from the large hadron collider at CERN. Who would argue that this hasn't been useful?!

      For me, Dame Bridget Ogilvie's talk was the standout of the morning. Her entertaining account opened with a brief description of her career. She raised a gleeful chuckle from the audience when she recounted how, on joining an all- male cohort of rural sciences students within their second year, the average mark shot up by 15% ( men work better when there are women around!). From there, she went on to work at numerous establishments, including the National Institute of Medical Research, the Wellcome Trust and the Medicines for Malaria Venture Board. Since retiring, she has been particularly active in public engagement, serving as a trustee for the Science Museum and the AstraZeneca Science Teaching Trust, among other things. The variety of roles and projects she has taken up make for a career to aspire to- no wonder she has a Wikipedia page!
Professor Dame Bridget Ogilvie

          Dame Ogilvie then went on to describe some of the blunders that have occurred due to misunderstandings between the research community and national governments / businesses. Liquid crystal displays, for instance, were first invented by the company GEC, who had a contract with the UK Ministry of Defence to develop cockpit displays. The MoD however, did not recognise the potential of the technology and refused to patent it, allowing Japanese companies to rediscover and profit from it. Dame Ogilvie also highlighted how improper reporting by the media can damage progress in research, citing the example of how the MMR vaccine became erroneously associated with autism. The crisis now is GM crops; years of research into the potential benefit of these crops has done little to dent the 'FrankenFood' image purported by GreenPeace and other organisations. It felt like a call to arms and certainly demonstrated that results alone don't always speak for themselves; as scientists, we must develop healthy channels of communication to engage governments and the public. Reassuringly, Professor Andrew Watkinson (an environmental scientist at the University of East Anglia) later provided some successful examples of how research has influenced government policy, including in managing flood risks. This was partly due to the National Ecosystem Assessment being co designed with DEFRA, allowing policy workers to be involved from the very beginning of the evidence-gathering process. He cautioned, however, how it can be frustratingly difficult to get different organisations to work together - even when they share similar aims and sympathies.

       Professor Watkinson also highlighted the increasing need to demonstrate impact in order to secure scientific research funding. Even if we don't engage with the public or the media, every scienctist who fills out a grant proposal is effectively acting as an advocate for science! Typically, research acts as a 'linear pipe' model, with money shovelled in at one end and slowly, methodically, progressing through basic then applied research, development into applications and then technology transfer. All too often, governments are asked to keep throttling money in to this pipeline and just trust that some benefit will come out in the end. In a era of constant cutbacks, this isn't very sustainable. Professor Watkinson introduced the idea of Pasteur's Quadrant ? See below) , stating that too many scientists fall into the bracket where their work is 'not much use and not very interesting'! Whilst that feels a bit steep for me (who can kindle an interest in just about any biology related topic), I suppose MPs and funding bodies have different ideas on what makes for useful and interesting science!

Pasteur's Quadrant model for Applied and Basic Research:
Considerations of use?
Quest for Fundamental Knowledge?
Use-inspired basic research – including the work of Louis Pasteur: French microbiologist who contributed significantly to vaccination and pasteurisation methods
Pure  basic research – exemplified by Niels Bohr, a 20th century atomic physicist
Pure applied research – as demonstrated by the inventor Thomas Edison

      After a delectable lunch with delicacies as diverse as strawberries and sushi, Daniel Wood (an Outreach Officer for the Houses of Parliament) gave some practical advice about 'getting at' those all-important MPs. First of all, don't go to the MPs themselves, target their secretaries - the "gatekeepers of the diary"! Introduce yourself, state why your concern is relevant and say exactly what you would like them to do. Apparently, MPs receive hundreds of letters that express great passion for a subject, but do not suggest any course of action. Given that MPs are so time pressed, it can only help to give them a few ideas! And whilst it may be so easy to just fill in an online petition or send an email apparently the personalised letter is still the most effective way in.
A spot of networking...

      The most enjoyable part of the day for me though, was the activity session on 'How to Engage with Select Committees'. This answered many questions I had about HOW EXACTLY scientists can present their evidence directly to the government. I was amazed to learn that during a 'call for evidence' to help shape new legislation anyone, indeed ANYONE AT ALL- a PhD student, you, your neighbour, their dog- can submit written evidence - and the parliamentary office is obliged to read it! Only the best, most well reasoned accounts get called up to submit oral evidence however. Being able to see some real examples of submitted evidence certainly got me dreaming that I might one day present a scientific argument to a parliamentary committee....
Activity session - How to engage with Select Committees

A little more networking, a few more talks and then the day was rounded off with a lively panel discussion. The overriding message was that scientists frequently forget that they are trained to fundamentally think about the world in a different way - which means they run the risk of losing the ability to communicate to the general public. Hence, we were urged to take advantage of any media and communication training available and to take part in discussions and debates. So I have set myself the challenge of asking a question at the next Departmental Seminar! Meanwhile my mind is buzzing with possible activities and carer options...the civil service, POST notes, select committees, MEP shadowing.... For a creative and truly inspiring day, a big thank you to the Science in Policy Group!

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