Prof James Hansen warns public not to be fooled by 'diversionary tactic' from deniers
Suggestions that global warming has stalled are a "diversionary tactic" from "deniers" who want the public to be confused over climate change, according to the world's best-known climate scientist. Prof James Hansen, who first alerted the world to climate change in 1988, said on Friday: "It is not true that the temperature has not changed in the two decades."
Since 1998, when the Niño climate phenomenon caused global temperatures to soar, the rate of increase in warming has slowed, causing some sceptics to suggest climate change has stopped or that the effect of rising carbon dioxide levels on climate is not as great as previously thought.
Prof Hansen, speaking to BBC Radio 4's Today programme, rejected both arguments. "In the last decade it has warmed only a tenth of a degree compared to two-tenths of a degree in the preceeding decade, but that's just natural variability. There is no reason to be surprised by that at all," he said. "If you look over a 30-40 year period the expected warming is two-tenths of a degree per decade, but that doesn't mean each decade is going to warm two-tenths of a degree: there is too much natural variability."
Prof Hansen said the focus by some on "details" was a smokescreen. "This is a diversionary tactic. Our understanding of global warming and human-made climate change has not been affected at all," he said. "It's because the deniers [of the science] want the public to be confused. They raise these minor issues and then we forget about what the main story is. The main story is carbon dioxide is going up and it is going to produce a climate which is going to have dramatic changes if we don't begin to reduce our emissions." In 2008, scientists anticipated an upcoming slowing in temperature rises.
Prof Hansen, who recently stepped down from his Nasa post after almost 50 years to focus on communication, said the forecast impact of climate change was little affected by the recent slowdown in the rate of rising temperatures.
"Climate is a complicated system but there is no change at all in our understanding of climate sensitivity [to carbon dioxide] and where the climate is headed," he said. "Our understanding of sensitivity is based on the Earth's history, not on climate models, and we have good data on how the Earth responded in the past when carbon dioxide changed. So there is no reason to change the forecast for the long term." On 9 May, a new study of lake sediments from a remote meteorite crater in Siberia showed temperatures in the region were 8C higher the last time CO2 levels were as high as they are today. Last week, atmospheric CO2 concentrations reached the milestone 400 parts per million, for the first time in millions of years.
Prof Hansen has caused controversy in the past with statements including "CEOs of fossil fuel companies should be tried for high crimes against humanity and nature" and the assertion that "coal-fired power plants are factories of death".Damian Carrington
If we don't recognise the politics of science, we will just get played by those who do
At the BSA Science Communication conference this week, I was invited to speak about science policy, under the title "All hail to the chief". Except, I think science involves way too much hailing already. I'm not about to start bowing to Sir Mark Walport, just because he's the government chief scientific adviser. Neither do I think we should be worshiping Science Media Centre CEO, Fiona Fox as a "high priestess" (Roger Highfield's rather telling nickname for her).
Science today, and the way we share it with the rest of the world, is based on layers upon layers of deference. We spend our lives crawling up to senior scientists, and those who pay them, sitting and waiting to be told what to think. We shouldn't be so complacent.
The Government Office of Science and Technology, the Science Media Centre, journalists, museums, school curricula and a host of other systems for sharing science act as filters for scientific information, choosing which is the most important and useful. This is what makes them so useful, but such choices are always going to involve more than simply science and we need to recognise this.
We've been here before. It's the critique of the so-called "deficit model" many of us have been dancing to for decades. The deficit model, if you're lucky enough not to have come across the term, assumes science has the knowledge the public are deficient in, and that many of our social ills will be solved if we all listened to the experts. It'd be a nice idea maybe if science, the media, policy or people were that simple, but they're not (I talked about similar issues in my Radio Four piece on scientific literacy last year).
The deficit model sticks around partly because it feeds scientists' social status, implicitly underlining their powerful position as people who get to define what counts as important, true, reliable knowledge. Stephen Hilgartner put it well back in 1990, saying such top down approaches implicitly provide the scientific establishment with the epistemological right to print money.
Something we don't appreciate enough though is that also serves the handmaidens of the deficit model – science communication professionals, less powerful scientists, many science "fans" – offering them some social status by association. Play into a game of hierarchies, and even if you don't get to the top, you get to climb a bit. Pierre Bourdieu, in his classic sociology of the university campus, Homo Academicus, talks about the way students are happy to submit to the idea that they are inferior to senior academics because doing so earns them subsequent admittance to a distinguished club of graduates. I think we can see similar patterns at work in terms of the way academic ideas are shared outside of universities too.
Less cynically, top down models also stick around because scientists do, genuinely, have special ideas and information to share. We pool our resources to allow a few people to cut themselves off and become experts in particular subjects. We do this so that they might feed back their knowledge and we can, collectively, try to make a better world. We should listen to them.
As David Dickson wrote in 2005, factual reporting of science can be socially empowering for audiences. It's worth remembering this. Political systems of scientific advice in government are built partly for this reason too, to make best use of scientific expertise. I don't want to throw the baby out with the bathwater, and lazy critique of science is not just silly, it can be dangerous (if you've never read Merchants of Doubt, do).
But valuing expertise in society doesn't mean you have to unquestionably listen to those labelled as expert.
Earlier this week, George Monbiot neatly pulled out Mark Walport's suggestion that a prime function of his role in government was to ensure science translates to economic growth. Firstly, is that really Walport's job? Really? Secondly, even if it is, what kind of growth are we talking about? To serve which parts of society? To go in what directions? Drawing on what resources? These are very serious questions with multiple possible answers, many of which science will be a necessary, but insufficient part of. We should be invited to access, or at least view, these less than simply scientific decision-making process.
When I was looking into the Big Bang Fair last term, I learned that volunteers were briefed not to get pulled into debating "politics" of arms dealing or the fossil fuel industry, lest it distracted from the science. I've since heard similar briefings have been issued for science events running over the summer. It's also a line I heard all too often when I worked at Imperial College.
It's bullshit. Simple bullshit. Politics doesn't distract from the science. An over-emphasis on decontextualised science is used to distract from the politics.
It is often assumed science is somehow above political issues, but just because disinterestedness is an aspiration doesn't mean it's true in practice. It can be hard to spot ideologies you're part of, so decent public engagement – which is honest about the uncertainties and arguments in science and actively invites questioning – can help science uncover itself more clearly. This is vitally important, because if you don't recognise how routinely political science is, you just get played by those who do.Alice Bell
With the government's spending review looming, the Royal Society of Chemistry is calling for an Olympic effort to persuade politicians to make a long-term commitment to creating growth and jobs through science
When it comes to Olympic sport, the UK is a small nation making a big impact. Last year's games saw us finish third in the medals table, behind only the United States and China and ahead of Russia, despite our comparatively small population.
The UK has a record of punching above its weight in science too. Combining public and private funding, the UK's spending on R&D is only 3% of the global total. Yet we are home to 4% of the world's researchers and we contribute to 6% of published papers.
But we are in danger of sliding down the scientific medals table. For many years now, UK science funding has been falling compared with other nations, and it is now well below key international competitors including the United States, China and Germany.
Why should this matter if you aren't a scientist?
Science is an important driver of economic growth. According to a report published by Nesta, 63% of UK growth between 2000 and 2008 was due to innovation. Government figures show that the chemicals and pharmaceuticals sectors alone made up 1.9% of gross value added to the UK economy in 2011 (reaching £27bn), and the newly flourishing biotech industry is predicted to contribute £4-12bn by 2025.
This growth engine is at risk if the decline in science spending isn't reversed. Already, the UK spends only 1.76% of GDP on R&D, versus a G8 average of 2.1%, with fast-growing countries investing even more – such as 3.74% in South Korea.
Government funding is essential to achieving a turnaround. The public purse will always be limited, and private sector investment must be maximised. But OECD data shows that across the world business R&D investment is strongly linked to input from government. (Change the y-axis on this graph from the OECD to "BERD" to see a correlation between public R&D expenditure and business R&D expenditure, based on these data.)
UK government investment is notably lagging behind our competitors, at below 0.6% of GDP compared with a G8 average of 0.8% and an EU average of 0.7% (this is all very nicely shown over at scienceogram in case you're interested).
There is little hope of a real upswing in government funding soon. The government's 2010 spending review saw a cash freeze for science, but in real terms this meant a cut of more than 10%. The government will announce the science budget for 2015/2016 on 26 June. But with departments being asked to find budget reductions of 10% on top of current plans, it seems unlikely that science will do much better this time around.
So how can we prevent the UK's scientific lead slipping away?
First, we need the government to make a long-term commitment to supporting science. We need to give businesses looking to invest in the UK and researchers planning to work here a sense of security in our research ecosystem. Science is Vital is calling for a goal to meet the G8 average of 0.8% of GDP spent on government science funding. This is a fantastic goal to aim for, but even with a change of course it is at least 10 years away.
A realistic goal to reach by the end of the next parliament, in 2020, might be to raise UK science spending to 0.7% of GDP, the current EU average. This is not an insignificant rise – it would take political conviction – but it is not impossible. It would require a 3% year-on-year increase in spending relative to GDP.
Second, in the short term we need to limit the damage to the UK's research base so that it is poised to grow again when resources return. The Royal Society of Chemistry is urging the government to continue to fund science at 2010 levels in this spending review, including returning the capital budget to this level.
Making science work for the economy isn't all about funding. We need to consolidate the UK's variety of innovation support mechanisms to better convert research into growth. And we need to ensure that people have the skills to take up the jobs created by science and innovation, by supporting STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) education and experience at all levels.
But none of this can happen if we don't unite to demand a well-funded research base to build on. It's true that times are tough, but we all know that cutting funding for research is a false economy. The Royal Society of Chemistry's members are working with their MPs to raise the profile of this issue, and the whole scientific community can get involved: sign Science is Vital's petition, write or talk to your MP; and play your part in making the UK a world champion in science and innovation.
Reconstruction based on skull of the king exhumed from under a car park will then go on a nationwide tour
A facial reconstruction of King Richard III is going on display in Leicester's Guildhall, on the first stop of a nationwide tour.
The model was commissioned by the Richard III Society and made by Professor Caroline Wilkinson and the forensic art team at the University of Dundee after archaeologists discovered the body of King Richard III under a car park in February.
It was made using a 3D printing technique called stereolithography, and details such as the style and colour of his hair were taken from near-contemporary portraits.
Archeologists plan to exhume a 600-year-old lead-lined stone coffin found nearby. University of Leicester Archaeological Services has applied to the Ministry of Justice for an exhumation licence and to Leicester city council to extend their dig to discover more about the Church of the Grey Friars, where King Richard III was buried.
In February, teams revealed that remains found under the city car park were "beyond reasonable doubt" those of the last Plantagenet king. Archaeologists want to examine the second discovery found near the site and said the stone coffin might contain the remains of a medieval knight, Sir William Moton. He is believed to have been buried at Grey Friars Church in 1362, more than a century before Richard III.
Overt public manipulation is disavowed in the west, unlike in North Korea, but citizens are still 'nudged' – increasingly by social media
Strolling into the British Library, I was brought up short by a gigantic white-bearded man, pointing sternly in my direction. The iconic image of Uncle Sam, taken from a 1917 US army recruitment poster, was advertising its exhibition Propaganda: Power and Persuasion. In one corner, the picture fragmented into pixels: the exhibition will include not only retro memorabilia such as posters, stamps and flags, but also Facebook and Twitter. How rare, I thought, for any aspect of western culture to be identified as propaganda, let alone social media, that beacon of transparency and individual empowerment. I resolved immediately to attend. The image had done its work.
It's easy to ogle North Korea and claim that its weirdly uniform society is nothing like our own. But last year, as millions of westerners found themselves transfixed by South Korean pop video Gangnam Style, a film entitled Propaganda was uploaded to YouTube. Purporting to have been made by North Korean apparatchiks, but subsequently revealed to be a New Zealand-produced mockumentary, it makes the compelling case that in the west today there is no distinction between propaganda, advertising and mass consumerism. A political system that protects elites and provides a mere illusion of democratic choice relies on a population enthralled by the latest iPhone.
The assumption that we are free and self-determining makes our advertising culture seem less blatant and ubiquitous than it really is. Children throw it into relief. Catching sight of a huge Big Mac billboard ad, my three-year-old son remarked with straightforward appreciation, "That's a nice sandwich."
But does it really wash to assert that we are just like North Korea? The problem with propaganda is that it's not at all clear what the word actually means. To some, it's pejorative disinformation. But to the wartime ministry of information, the Catholic church, and Edward Bernays, nephew of Sigmund Freud and author of the 1928 public relations bible Propaganda, it is necessary and even beneficial persuasion.
Propaganda is obvious, crude and naive, but it's also subliminal, underhand and insidious. Its paradoxical definition is more than just a semantic curiosity. It represents our inability to get to grips with how we are influenced, and by whom.
We disown overt propaganda by associating it with other places and other times, by thinking not of those proliferating outdoor advertising screens but of five-year plans and Your Country Needs You!. And we dismiss covert propaganda by proclaiming that we are sophisticated consumer-citizens, immune to manipulation and mind-games. This latter blind spot is enabling the rise of two new forms of hidden persuasion: behaviour change and social media.
Now that ideology is disavowed as passé and "divisive", governments are adopting subliminal forms of policy and persuasion. Behaviour change – the "new science of irrationality", "neuro-economics" or "nudge" – claims that since people often fail to act rationally and in their best interests, their decisions and behaviour should be guided subconsciously by (rational) experts. David Cameron's "nudge unit" is run by David Halpern, a former social psychology lecturer, whose cabinet office paper Mindspace: influencing behaviour through public policy advocates an approach that relies on citizens "not fully" realising "that their behaviour is being changed".
It may be good for us to eat more cabbage and prioritise our pensions. But this modish wonkery is all about eroding vital distinctions between government, psychology and marketing. The government's public health responsibility deal works jointly with the nudge unit and fast food giants. The nudge unit is itself to become a profit-making business. According to Rory Sutherland of Ogilvy Change, a "behavioural sciences practice" that builds "connections, in all directions, between the social sciences, business and policy making", this enterprise is "bigger than the internet".
We are no longer appealed to as thinking citizens. We are simply flawed units to be prompted into spending more and costing the state less. The propaganda lies not only in the political-corporate manipulation of the public but also – most insidiously – in the way this is cloaked in the language of ideology-free empiricism and the semblance of autonomy: the idea that people are being nudged "to make better decisions for themselves".
Let's take the second revolution – in social media. To read the trade literature of the PR and online advertising industries is to be hit by a tidal wave of guff about authenticity, engagement and two-way conversations. In the "era of participatory public relations", the story goes, "the people have defeated the corporation". The objective now is to "make your customers a partner in the selling process". This is pseudo-egalitarian code for the voluntary circulation of Facebook ads. The notion that propaganda is always a state-run, top-down affair provides a cloak for our complicity. Social media's veneer of openness and people-power exemplifies western propaganda's habit of masquerading as its opposite.
The apparently spontaneous Harlem Shake meme, a carnivalesque subversion of conformist work culture, was in fact orchestrated by new media companies that monetise virals. The "Mr Cake" resignation viral, while apparently genuine, was gleefully converted by the media into great PR for no-jobs-for-life entrepreneurialism and the pernicious myth of easy internet-driven success. Our most palatable propaganda appears to be homemade.
How Neville Chamberlain's heart would sink were he alive to enter a Whitstable homewares boutique. Originally the subject of a morale-boosting poster produced on the eve of the second world war, the slogan Keep Calm and Carry On has been co-opted by a brand of capitalism that disguises itself as humane, ironic and artisanal, and it serves austerity Britain by lending it an aesthetic of jolly stoicism. Post-Thatcher propaganda operates in the places it's least expected: not, as everyone complained, in the eulogies, but in the admissions that the woman was "flawed".Eliane Glaser
What do watch hands, quackery and cancer share in common?
This week's element is radium, which has the atomic symbol Ra and the number 88.
Radium is a dense silvery-white alkali earth metal that rapidly oxidises to black when exposed to air. Radium is rare; only four isotopes of radium occur in the wild, and these are found in uranium ores. All isotopes are highly radioactive and the isotope with the longest half-life is radium-226 (a decay product of uranium-238), which has a half-life of 1601 years.
Radium is not very interesting to biologists because it is not necessary for life. It is, in fact, quite harmful to life due to its radioactivity and chemical reactivity. However, this did not stop a 30-year radium craze in the United States, where quacks and manufacturers claimed radium to be a "wonder drug" and added it to all sorts of items, from toothpastes and suppositories to foods and even to drinking water, claiming it prevented or cured all sorts of ailments, ranging from arthritis and cancer to mental illness.
Yet at the same time that radium's health effects were being touted, it was also being added to pesticides and insecticides.
Radium is luminescent, glowing a lovely pale blue colour. This quality led to it being incorporated into a paint for watch and clock hands and dials in the United States, causing the deaths of many dial painters (all young women) who used their lips to give their paint brushes a fine point. These women, dubbed "Radium Girls", ended up suffering from a number of health problems such as anemia and cancer. Some Radium Girls ingested so much radium that their hair, hands, faces and arms glowed a luminous pale blue in the dark.
But it wasn't as though people didn't have adequate warning of radium's dangers; its discoverer, Nobel-laureate Marie Skłodowska-Curie, noted that a vial containing radium that she carried in her pocket caused an ulcer to appear on her skin. She later died of aplastic anemia, most likely due to her years of exposure to radiation.
In this video, our favourite professor tells us a little about radium's chemistry and how it was sometimes used to treat cancer:
Actually, Marie Curie's husband, Pierre, died after he was run over by a horse-drawn vehicle, which crushed his skull.
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Video journalist Brady Haran is the man with the camera and the University of Nottingham is the place with the chemists. You can follow Brady on twitter @periodicvideos and the University of Nottingham on twitter @UniofNottingham
You've already met these elements:
Francium: Fr, atomic number 87
Radon: Rn, atomic number 86
Astatine: As, atomic number 85
Polonium: Po, atomic number 84
Bismuth: Bi, atomic number 83
Lead: Pb, atomic number 82
Thallium: Tl, atomic number 81
Mercury: Hg, atomic number 80
Gold: Au, atomic number 79
Platinum: Pt, atomic number 78
Iridium: Ir, atomic number 77
Osmium: Os, atomic number 76
Rhenium: Re, atomic number 75
Tungsten: W, atomic number 74
Tantalum: Ta, atomic number 73
Hafnium: Hf, atomic number 72
Lutetium: Lu, atomic number 71
Ytterbium: Yb, atomic number 70
Thulium: Tm, atomic number 69
Erbium: Er, atomic number 68
Holmium: Ho, atomic number 67
Dysprosium: Dy, atomic number 66
Terbium: Tb, atomic number 65
Gadolinium: Gd, atomic number 64
Europium: Eu, atomic number 63
Samarium: Sm, atomic number 62
Promethium: Pm, atomic number 61
Neodymium: Nd, atomic number 60
Praseodymium: Pr, atomic number 59
Cerium: Ce, atomic number 58
Lanthanum: La, atomic number 57
Barium: Ba, atomic number 56
Cæsium: Cs, atomic number 55
Xenon: Xe, atomic number 54
Iodine: I, atomic number 53
Tellurium: Te, atomic number 52
Antimony: Sb, atomic number 51
Tin: Sn, atomic number 50
Indium: In, atomic number 49
Cadmium: Cd, atomic number 48
Silver: Ag, atomic number 47
Palladium: Pd, atomic number 46
Rhodium: Rh, atomic number 45
Ruthenium: Ru, atomic number 44
Technetium: Tc, atomic number 43
Molybdenum: Mo, atomic number 42
Niobium: Ni, atomic number 41
Zirconium: Zr, atomic number 40
Yttrium: Y, atomic number 39
Strontium: Sr, atomic number 38
Rubidium: Rr, atomic number 37
Krypton: Kr, atomic number 36
Bromine: Br, atomic number 35
Selenium: Se, atomic number 34
Arsenic: As, atomic number 33
Germanium: Ge, atomic number 32
Gallium: Ga, atomic number 31
Zinc: Zn, atomic number 30
Copper: Cu, atomic number 29
Nickel: Ni, atomic number 28
Cobalt: Co, atomic number 27
Iron: Fe, atomic number 26
Manganese: Mn, atomic number 25
Chromium: Cr, atomic number 24
Vanadium: V, atomic number 23
Titanium: Ti, atomic number 22
Scandium: Sc, atomic number 21
Calcium: Ca, atomic number 20
Potassium: K, atomic number 19
Argon: Ar, atomic number 18
Chlorine: Cl, atomic number 17
Sulfur: S, atomic number 16
Phosphorus: P, atomic number 15
Silicon: Si, atomic number 14
Aluminium: Al, atomic number 13
Magnesium: Mg, atomic number 12
Sodium: Na, atomic number 11
Neon: Ne, atomic number 10
Fluorine: F, atomic number 9
Oxygen: O, atomic number 8
Nitrogen: N, atomic number 7
Carbon: C, atomic number 6
Boron: B, atomic number 5
Beryllium: Be, atomic number 4
Lithium: Li, atomic number 3
Helium: He, atomic number 2
Hydrogen: H, atomic number 1
Here's the Royal Society of Chemistry's interactive Periodic Table of the Elements that is just really really fun to play with!
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GrrlScientist is an evolutionary biologist, ornithologist and freelance science writer who writes about the interface between evolution, ethology and ecology, especially in birds. She seriously considered pursuing her doctorate in chemistry, and has shared her fondness for this topic by teaching a number of university chemistry and biochemistry courses. You can follow Grrlscientist's work on her other blog, Maniraptora, and also on facebook, Google +, LinkedIn, Pinterest and of course, twitter: @GrrlScientistGrrlScientist
Scientists, funders and journal editors have thrown their weight behind the San Francisco Declaration on Research Assessment
Campaigners against the use of journal impact factors as a proxy for research excellence received a shot in the arm last night with the launch of the San Francisco Declaration on Research Assessment (DORA). With an impressive line-up of founding signatories, including individual scientists, research funders and journal editors, DORA states in no uncertain terms that journal impact factors (which rank journals by the average number of citations their articles receive over a given period) should not be used "as a surrogate measure of the quality of individual research articles, to assess an individual scientist's contribution, or in hiring, promotion or funding decisions."
In an accompanying editorial in Science, Bruce Alberts, its editor-in-chief, condemns the misuse of journal impact factors as "highly destructive". He argues that they encourage gaming that can bias journals against publishing certain types of papers; waste time by overloading some journals with inappropriate submissions; and encourage "me-too" science in favour of more risky, potentially groundbreaking work.
This is by no means the first time that these arguments have been made. A number of UK-based scientists, including Stephen Curry, Dorothy Bishop and Athene Donald, have been prominent among those calling for an end to the crude application of impact factors. Similar arguments have long been made by scientometricians (who generate the metrics) and science policy researchers.
And yet, the rise of the impact factor has continued, propelled by a seemingly unstoppable managerial logic. Across UK universities, anyone involved in preparations for the forthcoming Research Excellence Framework (REF) cannot fail to be concerned by the fierce pressures that researchers now face to publish in particular disciplinary journals, and the way impact factors are being applied uncritically to determine who will and won't be submitted to the exercise (which in turn carries paramount weight in recruitment and promotion decisions). Claims by ministers and others that this isn't the case just don't stack up against the reality of what those of us in universities are now experiencing. DORA has come too late to halt the REF juggernaut for 2014. But it should prompt policymakers and the funding councils to pause and take stock before the next assessment cycle gets underway.
More broadly, the practice of journal-based evaluation has become deeply institutionalised, and it remains to be seen whether a declaration like this will be enough to change behaviour. Reflecting on his blog yesterday, Stephen Curry expressed the hope that DORA becomes a "landmark document". We share this hope, but like any well-meaning statement of intent, it's unclear how institutions, funders or individuals that continue to use metrics in assessment will be corrected or disciplined. Reputation is a crucial reward system in science and fraud is severely castigated: will it now become shameful to boast of the impact factors of one's publications? How will the organisations that supply metrics respond to the declaration, as they are torn between clients' demands for journal-based assessment and the rigorous handling of scientometric data?
DORA argues that articles and researchers should be judged on "their own merits" and emphasises that the "value of all research outputs should be considered", not just publications. One way to achieve this may be through greater use of altmetrics, which offer new insights into the impact of research. But even here we need to be conscious of the dangers of gaming and the difficulties of capturing some channels of impact.
For science to thrive and respond to societal challenges, diversity is key. Current practices based on journal-based metrics are a serious threat to this. One example of this loss of diversity, which alarms us as science policy researchers, is the suppression of interdisciplinarity. But there are many others, such as a lack of consideration being paid to certain research topics. This is why DORA is important and why it deserves widespread support. You can add your name to the declaration here.
Ismael Rafols is a fellow at Ingenio (CSIC-UPV), Universitat Politècnica de València and SPRU, University of Sussex. James Wilsdon is professor of science and democracy at the University of Sussex (@jameswilsdon)James Wilsdon
Transcranial magnetic stimulation alters the activity of the brain without the need for an invasive physical procedure. But for such a ground-breaking and potentially alarming technique, it is not very well known
If you were to tell people that the technology exists to manipulate the workings of people's brains, they may not believe you. That sort of thing is the stuff of cheap sci-fi B movies. If someone in the real world were to try to develop it, that's exactly the sort of scenario where they'd send James Bond in to stop them before it got too far.
But the fact is that this technology genuinely exists and is widely used in neuroscientific research. It is known as Transcranial magnetic stimulation, or TMS, and as the name suggests it stimulates the brain through the cranium using magnetism.
Magnets and the brain work together a lot. Neuroscience is an increasingly media-friendly area of science, and this is due in part to the increasing use of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), an invaluable but complex technique that uses intense magnetic fields and radio waves to produce eye-catching images of a working body and brain.
TMS takes this brain-magnet relationship a step further. Rather than just passively looking and observing as the brain goes about its business, these advanced electromagnets actually alter the activity of targeted brain regions by inducing a localised varying magnetic field that causes a weak electrical current. This might sound like a bad idea (like licking a battery, but with your temporal lobe rather than your tongue) but it's perfectly logical. The brain does what it does via electrical currents conducted by neurons, and these currents are what keep our numerous organs and anatomical areas working as one cohesive whole, which is important for things like playing sports and staying alive for more than three seconds. TMS simply causes these electrical currents, which the body generates all the time, to occur at higher levels in certain targeted areas of the brain.
The technique relies on placing a coil (of varying design and composition, depending on what you want to do) on the scalp of your conscious subject, above the area you hope to stimulate, and turning it on. The biophysics behind what occurs is fascinating, albeit complex, but that's essentially the procedure, which is deceptively simple seeming.
What's the point of doing this? Well, inducing currents in a part of the brain causes that part to become more or less active (depending on whether you get neuronal depolarisation or hyperpolarisation). Inducing this activity in selected areas gives us a much better understanding of what these areas do, how certain types of activity influence a person's behaviour or perception, or any number of things like that.
It's not a perfect tool, of course. The direct stimulation is currently limited to the more surface-level areas of the brain, given the precision required and limitations of the technique. This still offers ample scope for areas of interest though, and it is still possible to influence deeper areas of the brain, albeit indirectly, via the myriad connections.
Admittedly, when someone manually induces a current in your verbal processing areas or motor cortex, it can seem a little unnerving. And it certainly looks disconcerting. But all the evidence suggests that, used appropriately, it is a safe procedure.
The neural activation caused by TMS can tell us a lot about how the human brain controls different behaviours, ranging from basic functions like the ability to see, hear and touch, to our ability to speak and make motor movements. We can even use TMS to explore how the most advanced part of the brain – the prefrontal cortex – regulates high-level abilities like consciousness, impulse control and working memory. The great advantage of TMS over other neuroscience methods is that we're interfering with the brain rather than simply measuring its activity. Because of the causal nature of this intervention, this can tell us which parts of the brain are necessary for particular functions. There is also some evidence that TMS may assist in the treatment of conditions such as depression and tinnitus, and there is growing evidence that it can help the brain reorganise following a stroke.
I can reassure people as to the safety of TMS, in that I've experienced it several times myself by volunteering for studies at the Cardiff University Brain Research Imaging Centre. I only ever had one experience that alarmed me. During one study, I was having my motor cortex activated, which caused my arm to flail involuntarily (it sounds worrying, but it's essentially a hi-tech version of a doctor testing your reflexes in your knee with a mallet). This experience didn't hurt, and as a neuroscience enthusiast I found the experience cool rather than worrying.
However, the physical set-up of the study and the flailing of my arm meant that I repeatedly came perilously close to slapping the (female) experimenter on the posterior. I am not the sort of man who thinks this move is a good idea, and I can't imagine a scenario where I could more effectively argue that it wasn't done on purpose. But still, I'm glad it never happened.
This technique is still relatively new, but is becoming more widespread, and also has clinical applications, such as the treatment of depression. The media has recently acknowledged it, and we could possibly see this happen more often in the near future.
Of course, as with anything of this nature, people will worry about it. I recently explained TMS to an acquaintance. He asked, if it's possible to non-invasively alter the activity in the brain of a conscious person, what's to stop someone building a magnet that has a greater range, allowing them to shut down important brain regions, perhaps critical ones like the medulla oblongata, in unsuspecting people from a distance.
In other words, couldn't TMS be the perfect assassin's weapon? Fatally disrupting the brain activity of individuals from a distance, leaving no residue or evidence behind?
A valid concern? Not really, no. At present, TMS coils are about 15-20cm across and can directly stimulate the brain to a depth of maybe 2-3cm. And because the field strength declines non-linearly with distance, coupled with the Biot-Savart Law, you'd probably need a coil at least the size of a respectable building to get any decent range from one. This would require an incredible amount of power to run, assuming you could build a coil that size that wouldn't break up under the pressure of using it. If you somehow managed all this, the magnetic field generated wouldn't be nearly focused enough (ie you might be able to target it on a crowd of rioters, but not a small area of a human's brain). Even if this lack of focus wasn't an issue, you'd need the "target" to remain completely still while you aim the coil to line up with their important brain regions.
Suffice to say, if someone starts pointing a multi-storey coil attached to a massive generator at you, you should probably keep moving.
But if TMS worries you, the best way to overcome your concerns is to experience it yourself. There may well be a neuroscience/psychology centre looking for volunteers near you. For those near me in or around Cardiff, you can sign up for the TMS studies at the Cardiff University Psychology School.
For more info, contact Jemma Sedgmond at email@example.com.
It's cool, I promise (not that my idea of "cool" is universally applicable).
You can follow Dean Burnett on Twitter, @garwboy, to see if he starts behaving oddly after TMS.Dean Burnett
Medicines used for Alzheimer's disease and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder taken by 1% of 14 to 18-year-olds
Some young people in Britain have used drugs for dementia and other conditions to boost their mental performance, a major survey suggests.
Medicines normally prescribed for Alzheimer's disease and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) were taken by 1% of 14 to 18-year-olds to improve their focus, concentration or memory, the report found. The independent survey carried out by Ipsos Mori for the Wellcome Trust, Britain's largest biomedical research charity, drew on responses from more than 1,000 adults and 460 young people chosen as representative of the UK general public.
In the survey, nine young people claimed to have taken drugs for conditions like ADHD or dementia, but of these, only two could name specific drugs, such as Ritalin, Donepezil, Provigil or Aderall.
If the 1% figure is accurate and representative of the UK population, then around 38,000 young people have tried off-label drugs to boost their cognitive performance. Two per cent of adults queried in the survey said they used the drugs.
The figures, compiled for the Wellcome Trust Monitor, give the first accurate picture of how widespread the use of cognitive enhancing drugs is among the general public in Britain. Previous surveys, by Nature magazine and New Scientist, have surveyed readers online, and found much higher drug use. The Nature survey found one in five had used drugs like ritalin and provigil to sharpen their minds, while 38% admitted to using the drugs in the New Scientist survey.Ian Sample
Nottingham doctors say method could raise live birthrate by 50% by helping them choose best embryos to implant
Fertility specialists have developed a radical technique that can boost the chances of IVF couples having a healthy baby.
Doctors in Nottingham who devised the procedure say it could raise live birthrates at their clinic to 78%, around three times the national average for IVF treatment in the UK. Simon Fishel, director of the Care Fertility Group in Nottingham, said the £750 procedure was "probably the most exciting breakthrough we've had in 30 years".
The procedure is not available on the NHS, but Fishel said that could change once other clinics adopted the technology and showed that it could reduce the cost of fertility treatment.
Other specialists said the approach was promising, but cautioned that its effectiveness was uncertain without a full trial comparing it with other technologies.
The system monitors the health of embryos by taking thousands of digital pictures from the moment of creation to the day they are implanted in the womb. The sequence of images can help doctors spot embryos that are developing well, and are most likely to result in live births.
Fertility clinics around the world have begun to use incubators fitted with time-lapse imaging technology, but the Nottingham group is believed to be the first to show how it can improve birthrates. The embryos grow in the incubators for five days, during which 5,000 pictures are taken, revealing the various stages of their development.
A healthy human embryo should contain 23 pairs of chromosomes, but more than half have too many or too few. Most either fail to implant in the womb or miscarry later in the pregnancy, but others lead to children being born with Down's syndrome and other genetic disorders.
The Nottingham team found embryos with abnormal chromosomes reach two milestones in their development about six hours later than healthy embryos. The first milestone comes when the embryo starts to change from a dense bundle of cells into a tiny sac. The second comes when this sac becomes filled with fluid.
Based on their findings, the doctors developed a computer program that ranked embryos as low, medium or high risk for abnormal chromosomes.
To test the system, the doctors ran the program on time-lapse images of 88 embryos that had been recorded previously for 69 couples at the clinic. Some 61% of the embryos ranked as low risk for abnormal chromosomes led to live births, compared with none of those ranked as high risk. The study appears in the journal Reproductive BioMedicine Online.
If other fertility clinics find the technique works as well, the NHS may adopt it as standard, Fishel said. "I suspect this will be the only way we culture embryos in the future."
Martin Johnson, an editor of the journal, said: "This is a significant advance, but it is one which still needs more work."
Allan Pacey, lecturer in andrology at Sheffield University and chair of the British Fertility Society, said: "This paper is interesting because we really do need to make advances in selecting the best embryos created during IVF. The idea of monitoring embryo development more closely is being used increasingly in clinics around the world."
Clinics can check embryos for abnormal chromosomes by removing and screening one or two cells. Known as pre-implantation genetic screening, the technique costs about £2,500 at British clinics.
"This may well be the technique we have been waiting for to improve embryo selection and thus success in fertility treatment," said Sheena Lewis, professor of reproductive medicine at Queen's University Belfast. "It is certainly timely to develop new ways of looking at embryo health since we have been basing embryo choice on just cell number and shape since IVF began. Time-lapse imaging provides the opportunity to give continuous, detailed information on how the embryo is growing."
Stuart Lavery, director of IVF at Hammersmith hospital, said: "Time-lapse imaging of the early development of human embryos offers the exciting potential of a novel and non-invasive way of selecting the embryo with the greatest chance of implantation." But he added that a full trial comparing the technique with standard embryo selection techniques was needed. "Several IVF units around the country have already adopted time-lapse photography into their clinical service, this research adds to the evolving evidence base supporting its use," he said.
In Britain, one in seven couples trying for a baby experience difficulties in conceiving. On average only about 24% of IVF embryos implanted into women in the UK lead to live births and the outcome varies depending on the type of fertility problem involved and the age of the woman. Younger women tend to have healthier eggs, making the chances of conceiving higher. Almost a third (32.2%) of women under 35 who have IVF have babies as a result. But only 1.9% for women aged over 44 on IVF do so.Ian Sample
In their letter (15 May), condemning Professor Hawking for not going to a conference in Israel, professors Michael Yudkin and Denis Noble state that the international code that governs the conduct of all scientists requires them to refrain from discrimination "based on such factors as ethnic origin, religion, citizenship, language, political or other opinion, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, disability, or age" (statute 5 of the International Council for Science). I think that they are being a little ingenuous. I have been attending scientific meetings and congresses in all parts of the world for over 50 years, and have even organised a few; I have never heard of ICSU, nor have I ever heard that as a scientist I am bound by their code of conduct. A quick straw poll of colleagues came up with the same degree of ignorance.
What Yudkin and Noble should realise is that actions against the state of Israel are personal ones. I have never visited Israel or gone to a scientific meeting there. For many years I have refused to referee scientific papers coming from institutes in Israel, refused to referee grant applications emanating either from Israel or from American bodies collaborating with Israel, and I have also on one occasion refused to referee in an academic promotion exercise of an Israeli scientist. These are all personal choices; they are not part of "my job description", and I have every right to make them.
I have not restricted myself to Israel. I had visited Libya and examined there, but following the murder of WPC Yvonne Fletcher outside the Libyan embassy in London and the Libyans' refusal to bring anyone to justice, I severed all links with that country and its students.
Emeritus professor Anthony Milton
Scientists are exploring ways to keep the ailing planet-hunting Kepler telescope operational
The Kepler space telescope, Nasa's iconic mission to find a new Earth outside our solar system, has a problem. A crucial component used to help it orient in space has stopped working and, with little chance of getting it fixed, it looks as though the satellite will have to retire from active duty.
However, on Thursday Nasa tried to remain upbeat. "I wouldn't call Kepler down-and-out just yet," said Nasa associate administrator for space science John Grunsfeld, who as a former astronaut undertook several spacewalks to repair and upgrade the Hubble Space Telescope. Similar in-flight repairs are not an option for the $600m Kepler observatory, since it is in an orbit 40 million miles (60 million kilometres) from Earth.
In a recent regular communication with the telescope, Nasa scientists found that Kepler had put itself into "safe mode" – meaning one of its systems was not working properly. An investigation by Kepler scientists discovered that one of the observatory's stabilising wheels had malfunctioned. Kepler needs three of these wheels to orient itself in space and point in the precise directions to find candidate planets.
The spacecraft launched in 2009 with four wheels but one of the original three stabilising wheels broke in July 2012. With the latest malfunction, Kepler only has two stabilising wheels left and therefore cannot operate properly.
Kepler's mission was to work out what portion of the stars in our galaxy might have Earth-like planets orbiting them, using the "transit method" to detect them. This involves watching a star for several years and looking for tell-tale dips in the amount of light it seems to emit as a planet passes in front of it.
In more than three years surveying 150,000 stars in the constellations of Cygnus and Lyra, Kepler has located 132 planets and more than 2,700 further candidate planets, which will need independent corroboration from other telescopes before they are confirmed hits.
The observatory was designed to find Earth-like worlds in "habitable" orbits around stars, where planets are at a distance that means they could have liquid water on their surface and, possibly, the environmental conditions to support life.
In April, Nasa announced the latest results from Kepler, the smallest planets found so far that are in the habitable zone of their parent star. The Kepler-62 system has five planets, three of which are super-Earth-sized. At the time of that announcement, Grunsfeld called Kepler "a rock star of science" and said it was only "a matter of time before we know if the galaxy is home to a multitude of planets like Earth, or if we are a rarity".
Kepler was designed to operate for four years from its launch, but Nasa recently approved a three-year extension to 2016, to allow the mission to collect more data. For the next few months, scientists will explore different ways of trying to keep Kepler running but, if it cannot be fixed and stops taking data, it will be the end for discoveries from the observatory.
There are at least two years' worth of observations that still need to be pored over and these will contain plenty of new planetary candidates and, perhaps, even a faraway Earth.
The search for more habitable planets will not die with Kepler. The European Space Agency announced last year that it would launch the Characterising Exoplanets Satellite (Cheops) in 2017 to study bright stars with known planets orbiting them. Nasa's successor to Kepler will be the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (Tess), which will conduct a survey of planets around more than two million stars over the course of two years.Alok Jha
Psychologists find students do puzzles 27% faster after non-invasive procedure than those who had no treatment
People who struggle with maths problems might fare better after a course of gentle electric shocks to the brain, scientists have claimed.
Psychologists at Oxford University found that students scored higher on mental arithmetic tasks after a five-day course of brain stimulation.
If future studies prove that it works – and is safe – the cheap and non-invasive procedure might be used routinely to boost the cognitive power of those who fall behind in maths, the scientists said. Researchers led by Roi Cohen Kadosh zapped students' brains with a technique called transcranial random noise stimulation (TRNS) while they performed simple calculations, or tried to remember mathematical facts by rote learning.
In the study published in Current Biology, 25 students had electrical pulses fired across their brains, while 26 others had a sham treatment, in which they thought they had brain stimulation, but the equipment was turned off.
In tests afterwards, the students who had their brains stimulated solved maths puzzles 27% faster than the control group, suggesting that their brains were working more efficiently.
"Our aim is to help those with poor numeracy, which is approximately 20% of the population," Cohen Kadosh told the Guardian. "But we need to extend the results to the general population, and use more ecological settings, such as classrooms. There is of course more work to be done, but it is a promising direction."
Cohen Kadosh said the improvement lasted for six months after the course of stimulation, but other scientists were dubious about the claim. The result was based on six students who received stimulation, and six controls, who returned to the lab six months later.
"The work is technically impressive and an elegant illustration of how brain stimulation can have immediate benefits for learning that are linked to changes in brain physiology," said Chris Chambers, a psychologist at Cardiff University.
"At the same time, I'm sceptical about the conclusion that TRNS boosted maths ability even six months after it was applied. The claim is based on a very small sample and a one-tailed statistical analysis that would have been non-significant using a standard test.
"My worry is that the six-month effect, as intriguing as it appears, could be a false discovery. I would love to see this effect replicated in a sample that is larger and well-powered, because if true it could have important implications for basic neuroscience and the treatment of various clinical conditions. But until such data appears, the six-month claim remains weak in my view."
Jon Simons, a neuroscientist at Cambridge University, had similar concerns, adding that only six students who had TRNS were assessed six months later. "The findings here seem weaker to me," he said.
Amanda Ellison, who studies brain stimulation for rehabilitating patients at Durham University, said the procedure still looked promising.
"The next issue will be understanding the mechanism of this effect so that the technique can be applied to more functions. However, the impact for neuro-rehabilitation for example is hopeful," she said.Ian Sample