The green skills gap in the UK must surely be made a thing of the past
First came the news that scientists in Cambridge had developed a new kind of wheat that could increase productivity by as much as 30%. Then came the next item.
A survey of 200 horticultural businesses conducted by the Royal Horticultural Society found that 70% cannot fill skilled vacancies, 20% are forced to recruit overseas and almost 70% claim that entrants are inadequately prepared for work.
Put the two together and you have a depressingly familiar story: whereas Britain is capable of conducting cutting-edge research with huge implications for the wheat crop, its education system, banking system and entrepreneurs are unmoved.
Gardening is for people who don't quite make it elsewhere. It is not a career in itself, or so most teenagers believe.
This green skills gap must surely be made a thing of the past. Whether it is in plant pathology or conducting research into plant breeding, this is a business that just has to grow.
The conference to which Stephen Hawking was invited, along with Tony Blair, Bill Clinton, Mikhail Gorbachev and hundreds of others, is not an academic meeting and his decision to decline the invitation does not constitute an academic boycott of Israel (Chomsky told Hawking to boycott conference in Israel, activists reveal, 11 May). A scientist of Hawking's eminence will certainly know 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). This professional code forbids academic boycotts on grounds of nationality.
• I suggest that a boycott by UK academics of an official meeting in Israel be avoided. It would only worsen the isolation of the Israeli government, which already borders on insanity. Instead, a meeting should be arranged in Israel of UK academics opposed to Israel's policies, inviting similarly thinking Israeli and Arab academics. A resolution could then be drawn up and published, suggesting alternative policies.
Dr Robert Dourmashkin
• You comment (Business analysis, 8 May) that the drop in G4S profit level to 6.5% is "the worst outcome since 2006 and has arrived out of the blue". Might not part of the explanation be, as the Financial Times recently noted, that G4S is the subject of increasing levels of protest, divestment activity and "reputational damage" across Europe and the Middle East as a result of its continuing involvement in the security apparatus of Israel's illegal settlements in the Palestinian West Bank?
Actor's decision to tell her story of preventive breast cancer surgery is welcomed by medical experts worldwide
It was an extraordinarily public declaration of an incredibly private experience. But when Angelina Jolie took to the comment pages of the New York Times to declare that she had undergone a double mastectomy, she spearheaded a new awareness of gene testing as a guard against the possibility of breast cancer.
Doctors and medical experts specialising in the disease welcomed her announcement as a way of raising the profile of the test, but warned that for most women it would not be relevant as the gene mutation she has inherited is so rare.
In her account, published on Wednesday, Jolie appealed for greater access for gene testing and lifesaving preventive treatment and encourages women to explore their options.
The actor has a defective gene, BRCA1, which doctors told her increased her risk of developing breast cancer to 87%; it also increased her risk of ovarian cancer.
The surgery, which began in February, had reduced Jolie's risk of breast cancer to less than 5%. "I can tell my children that they don't need to fear they will lose me to breast cancer," she wrote. "It is reassuring that they see nothing that makes them uncomfortable. They can see my small scars and that's it. Everything else is just Mommy, the same as she always was. And they know that I love them and will do anything to be with them as long as I can.
"On a personal note, I do not feel any less of a woman. I feel empowered that I made a strong choice that in no way diminishes my femininity."
Jolie wrote of losing her own mother to cancer, at the age of 56, after a decade-long fight: "She held out long enough to meet the first of her grandchildren and to hold them in her arms. But my other children will never have the chance to know her and experience how loving and gracious she was."
The 37-year-old, who has six children – three adopted and three with Brad Pitt, who was by her side for "every minute of the surgeries" – finished three months of medical procedures on 27 April. She said she first had "nipple delay" to maximise the chances of saving her nipples, before breast tissue removal and, nine weeks later, reconstruction.
Jolie wrote: "I choose not to keep my story private because there are many women who do not know that they might be living under the shadow of cancer. Life comes with many challenges. The ones that should not scare us are the ones we can take on and take control of."
Wendy Watson, who founded the UK's National Hereditary Breast Cancer Helpline, welcomed Jolie's decision to write publicly about her operation. "It is excellent, because it is the highest profile you can get for it," she said. "It raises the profile for other women to look to if they have a family history and would benefit from being screened more frequently, or having surgery or having a genetic test."
The UK foreign secretary, William Hague, who visited refugee camps in the Democratic Republic of the Congo with Jolie in March, said she would be "an inspiration to many". Hague said: "She gave no sign that she was undergoing such treatment and I think she's a very brave lady, not only to carry on with her work so well during such treatment, but also to write about it now and talk about it."
But Dr Marisa Weiss, who runs an online advice and information service on breast cancer based in Ardmore, Pennsylvania, pointed out that only 29% of cancers in women start in the breast and within that group only 5% to 10% of women are carriers of high-risk single genes such as the one for which Jolie tested positive, BRCA1.
Weiss said that for most women, the biggest factors are not hereditary but relate to how they lead their lives: weight, alcohol consumption, smoking, physical activity.
She anticipated that the interest level in genetic testing would soar after Jolie's intervention, but in many cases it would be inappropriate. "Whenever a celebrity steps forward that everybody knows like Angelina Jolie people are going to relate to her and think they have the same problem even though their situation is totally unconnected. For a time people are going to say 'I want the test that Angelina had'," Weiss said.
That could have financial implications. In the US it costs $3,000 or more to have the genetic test for BRCA1 or the related BRCA2. Where there is a strong family history of breast or ovarian cancer, health insurance firms are likely to pay for the procedure, but where none exists the individual will be expected to pay.
Dr Richard Francis, head of research at Breakthrough Breast Cancer, said that faults in the BRCA1 gene, which on average put women at a 65% risk of developing breast cancer, were rare and in most cases were linked to family history.
He cautioned that a mastectomy would not necessarily be the appropriate treatment for everyone with the gene. "For women like Angelina it's important that they are made fully aware of all the options that are available, including risk-reducing surgery and extra breast screening," he said.
"Though Angelina decided that a preventative mastectomy was the right choice for her, this may not be the case for another woman in a similar situation. We urge anyone who is worried about their risk of breast cancer to talk it through with their doctor.The genetic short straw
Angelina Jolie's decision to have a prospective double mastectomy will resonate with many other women who have discovered they have drawn a genetic short straw.
Caroline Presho, 39, inherited the BRCA2 gene through her father. His mother had died of breast cancer in her 40s and his aunt also had the disease. His sister had ovarian cancer and urged Presho and her sister to have genetic testing. "We thought it was a lot of old nonsense and forgot about it. But a few years later when she was really ill, she told us again, so in 2006 I went to my GP with a letter she sent me. But he said: 'No, I don't think you will have it. Go away.' I took his word as gospel, did nothing about it."
But in 2007, after her father died of lung cancer, Presho, who lives in Potters Bar, Hertfordshire, found he had tested positive for the faulty gene. "At that time, they were not screening until you were 35, and I was 33, but then I got myself a bit stressed and I was Googling like mad. The moment I turned 35, I wanted screening and surgery right away."
When a shadow was found on one of her breasts, she was called in for an ultrasound. "I realised I could not live like this. I was married with three children and had breast-fed all three. I was going to have no more children and felt my family was complete. Now I had this knowledge, was it wrong to have another child when there was a chance of passing [the gene] on?"
She had a double mastectomy and immediate reconstruction in November 2009, and has since had another child. Emma, from Bristol, found she had the BRCA2 mutation in 2008, after her mother was diagnosed with advanced breast cancer at 59. "She was tested first and when we found out that she had the mutation there was no doubt in my mind that I would have the blood test to determine whether or not I had inherited it from her. I finally took the plunge in December 2012 at the age of 36. I had immediate reconstruction with implants and I was lucky to be able to keep my nipples. My amazing surgeons did a fantastic job."
Emma said her mastectomy turned out not to be strictly preventative as They The medics found a small amount of DCIS (early stage breast cancer, or pre-cancer) in the tissue they had removed. "Fortunately no further treatment was needed" says Emma.
Although she has had necrosis and delayed healing in the nipple on one breast meaning more treatment and surgery, she said: "I have no regrets. I'm no longer living in the shadow of breast cancer and I feel so lucky and grateful to have been able to take preventative action, a luxury that my mum, who died in 2010, did not have."
Charlotte Pittuck, 30, from Great Dunmow, Essex, who is preparing for a double mastectomy, was 26 and pregnant when her father's sister in Australia was diagnosed with breast cancers, and there was a family history. Tests on her aunt, brother, sister and herself showed they all had the BRCA2 gene. "My sister and I had resigned ourselves to the fact we would have it. We both knew if we had the gene, we would opt for the operation. We felt 85% was such a high chance of getting breast cancer at some stage, we didn't want to risk it.
"I decided I would like to have a second child in quick succession, have the operation and recover and be able to have another child. In fact, child number two was twins and I had three children in 18 months. I breast-fed all three I have had all my appointments … I will be glad when the operation is done." James Meikle and Sarah RidleyHaroon SiddiqueEd Pilkington
We should seek neither to dismiss nor to deify the Victorians; rather we should try to understand them, and our view of them
New research in the journal Intelligence suggests the Victorians were naturally cleverer than we are, and draws the startling conclusion that "the Victorian era was marked by an explosion of innovation and genius, per capita rates of which appear to have declined subsequently". Psychologists have studied reaction times – apparently an indicator of intelligence – from the 1880s to the present, and discovered that they are slowing. Other factors such as health and diet mean overall intelligence is increasing, but the researchers insist our genetic IQ is in decline, a trend they attribute to clever people having fewer children than – how can this be put diplomatically? – less clever people.
Leaving aside methodological questions and the dangerously eugenicist avenues down which such findings might lead, the report will give a boost to those who seek to deify the Victorians. AA Gill recognised this tendency in a recent column in the Sunday Times. "The three greatest about-face rehabilitations in my lifetime have been Germany, Bruce Forsyth and the Victorians," he wrote. "I was brought up by a generation that roundly and implacably loathed the Victorians. To call someone a Victorian was the most dismissive insult: it made them irrelevant … Yet now they're everywhere, like top-hatted zombies risen from the opprobrium: Victorian food, Victorian design, Victorian engineering and masses of reimagined Victorian values."
AN Wilson started the fightback with his well-received 2002 book The Victorians; Jeremy Paxman took it further in 2009 with a book that had an admirable stab at the apparently impossible task of resurrecting Victorian painting; and now education secretary Michael Gove is insisting we read Middlemarch rather than the Twilight novels. "Stephenie Meyer cannot hold a flaming pitch torch to George Eliot," he said last week. "There is a great tradition of English literature – a canon of transcendent works – and Breaking Dawn is not part of it."
The renaissance came after a century in which the Victorians had been largely derided. Following the publication in 1918 of Lytton Strachey's book Eminent Victorians, which set out to demythologise 19th-century heroes such as General Gordon and Florence Nightingale, Victoriana became synonymous with hypocrisy, aesthetic dullness and a philosophy of might is right. In Strachey's view, the origins of the first world war could be traced back to the Victorians' power hunger.
Now the pendulum has swung to the other extreme. Just as the researchers on Intelligence celebrate the Victorians' unique capacity for innovation, so in the Olympic opening ceremony Danny Boyle gave the touchstone opening speech from The Tempest – "Be not afeard, the isle is full of noises" – to Kenneth Branagh, playing the top-hatted Isambard Kingdom Brunel. Caliban's dream sat oddly with the nightmare vision summoned up in the Pandemonium section of the ceremony, but Boyle insisted the disjunction was deliberate. The industrial revolution was hellish, but it unleashed forces that in the long run were beneficial – political democracy, educational opportunity, greater social mobility, better healthcare.
We have come to revere the Victorians because they were on the cusp of that change. They had to contend with the social breakdown induced by the industrial revolution – in the 1840s Marx and Engels were convinced Britain was on the verge of a corresponding political revolution, so appalling were the conditions in which the working class lived – and managed within a generation to produce a society that not just functioned but became the powerhouse of the world.
Whereas Strachey despised the commercial and political might the industrial revolution made possible, current observers look at our own sclerotic polity and contrast it with the Victorians' towering ambitions. When they write about the Victorians, what Strachey and the present-day panegyrists are really writing about is their own society. Strachey wanted a new postwar world founded on the values of Bloomsbury; Gove and his fellow Tories – Margaret Thatcher was always keen on espousing "Victorian values" – venerate Victoriana because they seek to denigrate the way we live now.
The banal truth is that, as with every age, the Victorian period was a mix of greatness and littleness. Empire was an epic adventure but also, at its heart, wretched and racist. Society was transformed, the economy boomed, cities grew rapidly, but at the same time women were oppressed, poverty was widespread, education rudimentary. Great novels mapped these changes and iniquities, but drama was moribund and, with the exception of Tennyson, poetry saw a sorry falling off after the glories of the 18th century. We should seek neither to dismiss nor to deify the Victorians; rather we should engage in the more difficult task of trying to understand them, and to understand, too, why our view of them has shifted so dramatically in the past decade. If we are clever enough, of course.
• This article was amended on 15 May 2013. An editing error led to Stephenie Meyer's first name being misspelled as Stephanie on publication. This has now been corrected.Stephen Moss
Her decision to speak out about a double mastectomy has rightly won her plaudits, but there's a danger of something being lost
It's no fun having everyone discussing your breasts, especially in relation to cancer. So Angelina Jolie's decision to speak out about her double mastectomy has understandably won her much praise and many new fans. But in among the plaudits for a film star willing to risk such a personal revelation, there's a danger that something might be lost. Because the truth about breast cancer, as with so many other diseases, is that genes are not everything.
While one in eight British women will get breast cancer in their lives, only a small percentage of these diagnoses will be linked to known genetic mutations. About 40% of all cancers are thought to be related to lifestyle factors, but in the majority of cases the causes are complex and no one knows why cells go rogue.
My mother, like Jolie's, died of cancer in her 50s. When several other relatives were diagnosed with the disease within the next 10 years, I decided to have a genetic test. Fortunately I live in the UK, where the NHS offers free genetic screening, so I didn't have to make any difficult financial decisions. But after filling in several forms and having a long conversation with a very sympathetic genetic consultant, I was told my risk of getting breast cancer was no higher than average as the other cancers in my family had no relation to breast or ovarian.
This was a massive relief. Since my mother's death I'd been convinced that I would be next and had been very conscientious about checking my breasts regularly. I think the relief made me a bit complacent.
Two years ago, at 45, I discovered a lump in my breast which turned out to be malignant. By the time I found it the cancer had spread to my lymph nodes, which meant I needed more extensive surgery and more aggressive chemotherapy than if it had been discovered earlier. It also means that the risk of it returning is significantly higher, and my prognosis poorer.
I have subsequently had a genetic test after deciding that I would have a preventative mastectomy on the other breast if I had a faulty gene. But it turned out to be negative – so there's no suggestion that if I had been tested in the first place my cancer could have been avoided. In fact, it may well have made me even more careless about checking regularly.
At the time, the consultant made it clear that there's a lot that medical science doesn't know about the genetic causes of disease. "If your DNA is like Great Expectations," she said, "we're talking about a spelling mistake somewhere. Unfortunately we don't know where and we don't have an accurate spellchecker."
As scientific research continues, more genetic markers for all diseases will be found and tests will become better predictors. But I'm prepared to bet that there will never be a simple one-to-one relationship between genes and illness. Just like we'll never fully solve the nature v nurture debate.
So while Jolie's decision to go public is fantastic for raising awareness about breast cancer, there are potential pitfalls. The tests are extremely expensive, and an increase in demand for screening could add to the strain on NHS finances – although of course preventing cancer is much cheaper than treating it, even with the costly reconstructive surgery that Jolie had. More dangerous, perhaps, is the complacency or fatalism that a reliance on genes can foster. Experts still say that regular personal checks are the best way to catch breast cancer in its early stages. That's not something to lose sight of.Judith Soal
Belize pyramid dating back at least 2,300 years is destroyed by firm to extract crushed rock for road-building project
A construction company has essentially destroyed one of Belize's largest Mayan pyramids with diggers and bulldozers to extract crushed rock for a road-building project, authorities have announced.
The head of the Belize Institute of Archaeology, Jaime Awe, said on Tuesday that the destruction at the Nohmul complex in northern Belize was detected late last week. The ceremonial centre dates back at least 2,300 years and is the most important site in northern Belize, near the border with Mexico.
"It's a feeling of incredible disbelief because of the ignorance and the insensitivity … they were using this for road fill," Awe said. "It's like being punched in the stomach, it's just so horrendous."
Nohmul was in the middle of a privately owned sugar cane field, and lacked the even stone sides frequently seen in reconstructed or better-preserved pyramids. But Awe said the builders could not possibly have mistaken the pyramid mound, which is about 30 metres (100ft) tall, for a natural hill because the ruins were well known and the landscape there was naturally flat.
"These guys knew that this was an ancient structure. It's just bloody laziness," Awe said.
Photos from the scene showed diggers clawing away at the pyramid's sloping sides, leaving an isolated core of limestone cobbles at the centre, with what appears to be a narrow Mayan chamber dangling above one clawed-out section.
"Just to realise that the ancient Maya acquired all this building material to erect these buildings, using nothing more than stone tools and quarried the stone, and carried this material on their heads, using tump lines," Awe said. "To think that today we have modern equipment, that you can go and excavate in a quarry anywhere, but that this company would completely disregard that and completely destroyed this building. Why can't these people just go and quarry somewhere that has no cultural significance? It's mind-boggling."
Belizean police said they were conducting an investigation and criminal charges were possible. The Nohmul complex sits on private land, but Belizean law says that any pre-Hispanic ruins are under government protection.
The Belize community action group Citizens Organised for Liberty Through Action called the destruction of the archaeological site "an obscene example of disrespect for the environment and history".
It is not the first time this has happened in Belize, a country dotted with hundreds of Mayan ruins, though few as large as Nohmul.
Norman Hammond, an emeritus professor of archaeology at Boston University who worked on Belizean research projects in the 1980s, wrote in an email that "bulldozing Maya mounds for road fill is an endemic problem in Belize (the whole of the San Estevan centre has gone, both of the major pyramids at Louisville, other structures at Nohmul, many smaller sites), but this sounds like the biggest yet".
Arlen Chase, chairman of the department of anthropology at the University of Central Florida, said: "Archaeologists are disturbed when such things occur, but there is only a very limited infrastructure in Belize that can be applied to cultural heritage management.
"Unfortunately, they [destruction of sites] are all too common, but not usually in the centre of a large Maya site."
Chase said there had probably still been much to learn from the site. "A great deal of archaeology was undertaken at Nohmul in the 70s and 80s, but this only sampled a small part of this large centre."
Belize isn't the only place where the handiwork of the prolific Maya builders is being destroyed. The ancient Mayas spread across south-eastern Mexico and through Guatemala, Honduras and Belize.
"I don't think I am exaggerating if I say that every day a Maya mound is being destroyed for construction in one of the countries where the Maya lived," wrote Francisco Estrada-Belli, a professor at Tulane University's anthropology department.
"Unfortunately, this destruction of our heritage is irreversible but many don't take it seriously," he added. "The only way to stop it is by showing that it is a major crime and people can and will go to jail for it."
Robert Rosenswig, an archaeologist at the State University of New York at Albany, described the difficult and heartbreaking work of trying to salvage information at the nearby site of San Estevan following similar destruction around 2005.
"Bulldozing damage at San Estevan is extensive and the site is littered with Classic period potsherds," he wrote in an academic paper describing the scene. "We spent a number of days at the beginning of the 2005 season trying to figure out the extent of the damage … after scratching our heads for many days, a bulldozer showed up and we realised that what appear to be mounds, when overgrown with chest-high vegetation, are actually recently bulldozed garbage piles."
However small the compensation, bulldozing pyramids is one very brutal way of revealing the inner cores of the structures, which were often built up in periodic stages of construction.
"The one advantage of this massive destruction, to the core site, is that the remains of early domestic activity are now visible on the surface," Rosenswig wrote.
French schooner returns to north as scientists research effects on organisms that form basis of marine ecosystem
Tara will soon set sail for the Arctic again. The famous schooner will cast off from Lorient in Brittany on Sunday 19 May for a seven-month expedition via the Northeast Passage along Russia's Arctic coast, returning through the Northwest Passage.
The goal of the 25,000km Tara Oceans Polar Circle Expedition, with some 15 scientist on board, is to search for planktonic organisms, including viruses, bacteria, protists and metazoans, all vital resources that need to be studied in their own environment while there is still time.
"This is a vital and urgent task," said Chris Bowler, a biologist at the École Normale Supérieure graduate school and research centre, and head of research at France's National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS). "The Arctic is one of the most productive planktonic regions on the planet, so we have to get there before humans start interfering."
The ship is returning to the area where it let itself be trapped by pack ice in September 2006, when it drifted for 500 days to cover the distance between Siberia and Greenland. That was half the time taken by a previous Norwegian expedition, which took between 1,894 and 1,896 days, because the shrinking ice floes have since opened up new sea routes – and with them the potential for exploiting oil and gas resources, fishing and tourism.
The ship's oceanographers and biologists will be examining the impact of these changes in microscopic detail. A litre of seawater contains between 10bn and 100bn living organisms and they want to learn more about this biomass. Because plankton forms the basis of the food chain it is vital to the marine ecosystem, and its organic biodiversity plays a determining role in the major biogeochemical cycles of nitrogen, carbon and oxygen. Half the oxygen we consume on earth comes from the oceans, and the sea is the planet's leading carbon sink.
"Phytoplankton feeds the zooplankton, which is rich in lipids and eaten by cod and whales alike. That is the Arctic's first gift to man," said Lars Stemmann, a researcher in the Laboratory of Oceanography at Villefranche-sur-Mer (CNRS, Paris-VI University). "Then the detritus and excrement feeds the deep-sea population and forms a carbon sink on the sea bed."
The question they will try to answer is how will plankton react to the consequences of climate change. In the summer of 2012, the ice floes had melted to an extent scientists had never seen before. The ice not only covers less of a surface area but is far less thick, so it melts even faster in the spring.
According to the oceanographer and physicist Jean-Claude Gascard, emeritus head of research at the CNRS, the ice floes have lost three-quarters of their volume in just a couple of decades. Plankton thrives around the edges of the floes, under the shelter of the ice with good exposure to light. That is the precise frontier zone on which the Tara team will focus its research.
This article appeared in Guardian Weekly, which incorporates material from Le MondeMartine Valo
The US State Department has sadly joined the push to distribute GM crops around the world, whether people want them or not
If you have a feeling that genetically modified (GM) foods are being forced upon the population by a handful of business interests and vociferously defended by the scientists that work in the agriculture industry or at the research institutions it funds, you might be onto something.
The zeal with which GM proponents evangelize transgenic seeds (and now, transgenic food animals) is so extreme that they are even pouring vast sums of money to defeat popular efforts to simply label GE foods – like the nearly $50m spent to defeat the popular 2012 ballot measure to label GE foods in California, Proposition 37. What's more, it's not just happening in the United States. I am the head of Food & Water Watch, and we have spent months looking at the extent to which the US State Department is working on behalf of the GM seed industry to make sure that biotech crops are served up abroad whether the world wants them or not.
Our report analyzes over 900 State Department diplomatic cables from 2005 to 2009 and reveals how far the US government will go to help serve the seed industry's agenda abroad, knowing that resistance to GMOs worldwide is high.
Here are some of the tidbits gleaned from our comprehensive look at the cables:
• Between 2007 and 2009, annual cables were distributed to "encourage the use of agricultural biotechnology", directing US embassies to "pursue an active biotech agenda".
• There was a comprehensive communications campaign aimed to "promote understanding and acceptance of the technology" and "develop support for US government trade and development policy positions on biotech" in light of the worldwide backlash against GM crops.
• Where backlash was high, some embassies downplayed efforts. In Uruguay, the embassy has been "extremely cautious to keep [its] fingerprints off conferences" promoting biotechnology. In Peru and Romania, the US government helped create new pro-biotech nongovernmental organizations.
• The State Department urged embassies to generate positive media coverage about GE crops. Diplomatic posts also bypassed the media and took the message directly to the public; for example, the Hong Kong consulate sent DVDs of a pro-biotech presentation to every high school.
• The State Department worked to diminish trade barriers to the benefit of seed companies, and encouraged the embassies to "publicize the benefits of agbiotech as a development tool".
Monsanto was a great beneficiary of the State Department's taxpayer-funded diplomacy, helping pave the way for the cultivation of its seeds abroad: the company appeared in 6.1% of the biotech cables analyzed between 2005 and 2009 from 21 countries. The embassy in South Africa even informed Monsanto and Pioneer about two recently vacated positions in the agency that provided biotech oversight, suggesting that the companies advance "qualified applicants" to fill the position. Some embassies even attempted to facilitate favorable outcomes for intellectual property law and patent issues that would benefit the company.
The cables also show extensive lobbying against in-country efforts to require labeling of GM foods. In 2008, the Hong Kong consulate "played a key role" in convincing regulators to abandon a proposed mandatory labeling requirement. One in eight cables from 42 nations between 2005 and 2009 addressed biotech-labeling requirements.
What's more, the US government is now quietly negotiating major trade deals with Europe and the countries of the Pacific Rim that would force countries to accept biotech imports, commercialize biotech crops and prevent the labeling of GM foods.
The vast influence that Monsanto and the biotech seed industry have on our foreign affairs is just one tentacle of a beast comprised by a handful of huge corporations who wield enormous power over most food policy in the United States.
It's no accident that we're here: a farm policy of "get big or get out" that has been going on for decades has only benefited big companies that are becoming more and more consolidated. They wield unprecedented power over the market, at times putting small and midsized farmers out of business and favoring factory farms and the cultivation of GM commodities that fuel them – GM corn and soy, which are also the cornerstone of junk foods produced and sold worldwide.
Thanks, Monsanto. And thanks, State Department. Not only are you selling seeds, you're selling out democracy.
Alice Bell recalls an interview with Joe Farman, who helped discover the hole in the ozone layer and died this weekend
As one of the scientists who helped find the "hole" in the ozone layer, Farman was part of what was arguably one of the most important scientific discoveries of the 20th century, even if it took a slightly different hue from earlier discoveries, a little less triumphant perhaps, being more a matter of humans incrementally learning what we had done to the Earth rather than simply digging deeper around themselves. More "er, um, I think, possibly, oh" than "eureka".
For the last few years the British Library has been undertaking an Oral History of British Science. The interview with Farman is lovely. There seems to be a fault on the sound file half way through, but the library has a link to the full transcript that makes for a very absorbing read. This interview is full of warmth, gossip and humour, with detail about the science told alongside a sense of some of the politics of science.
It takes you from his childhood memories improvising radio equipment with the Scouts and reading the popular science of the 1920s, to putting that 1985 ozone paper in the post to Nature on Christmas Eve. You get a sense of the technological and cultural changes in science over the century, as well as its immense increase in size and complexity. It's also a neatly context-filled insight into the development of an area of scientific measurement in the late 20th century; it reminds you how much of science is really a matter of working out new and more intricate ways to measure. And it's a great story of the gradual and sometimes tricky mingling of mathematics, meteorology and chemistry in the history of climate science.
You want page 251 for references to how much he enjoyed pulling James Lovelock's leg. Or page 237 where he tries not to be too scathing about how much science the Americans were doing at the McMurdo Antarctic Station, but notes they had brought a nuclear generator down there which ended up under the sea ice (they got it back a few years later apparently, in case you were wondering).
There's a touching bit in which he remembers getting angry when he discovered the wastefulness of CFCs used in the fast food industry (page 297), and I was interested to read that the idea of a "hole" in the ozone layer came from the pages of the Washington Post, probably after a Nasa press release, though no one owned up to being the first to use the word (page 294).
The juiciest bit, perhaps, is when he recalls telling his colleagues about the hole in the ozone layer and "there were several people there who we shall not name I should think who ought to have reacted but didn't … ". He goes on to say he later learned that the head of his division had tried to suppress that paper, writing to the Met Office to say it shouldn't be published "cause it'd be very embarrassing if my inferences were wrong" (page 281).
I highly recommend letting yourself be pulled into reading the whole thing. Not just as a tribute to a man who did some world-changing research, but also to get a sense of how complex, slow and just plain silly the progress of science can be.
Here's one of my favourite snippets as a taster, when he was asked to remember the early 1980s, when they were just beginning to receive low results for ozone levels in the spring (pages 277-8 of transcript):
"Their job was to keep an eye on things as they came in. And so actually I heard about this a little bit late and my first reaction, as anyone should be in essence, is if your observations of ozone start to change you should be – the first question you should ask is has something gone wrong with the instrument. And so you have to go through all the procedure of the calibrations and comparisons and so on and so forth, and convince yourself that it's not instrument or the people operating it but is actually something real.
By the time this was sorted out the sudden [inaud] observations we looked at just had got considerably lower, hmmm, and it was then fairly obvious that you had to believe it or not and if you believed it you had to publish it pretty quickly because it was fairly clearly important.
One of the odd things about the whole of the ozone story I suppose is it demonstrates, you know, how shall we put it [laughs], in a rather worrying way how compartmentalised science can get. Sherry Rowland and Mario Molina had given this warning that chlorine could be important, etc, etc. Hmmm … they clearly, by the time we talked to them, had no idea what incredibly low temperatures are reached in the Antarctic stratosphere. I mean when I started to do a very crude modelling of what might be expected, if you look in the recommended reaction rates for – air rates for some appropriate reactions you discover to your horror they had never been measured at the sort of temperatures you can get in the Antarctic winter [laughs].
And so it goes on. It shows very clearly, almost the same in the Met Office, that there was this huge gulf between people who wrote papers and the poor people who made observations, there was very little feedback, you know, by the people who regarded the data as important to the people who were making it. So you get this terrible situation where you get young men, even in the Met, old men, being paid to do something of which they've got really no idea why they're doing it and they don't really understand how important it is to take every effort to stop doing silly things, impossible to completely eliminate [laughs] and so on.
But, you know, it's much the same with the theoretical chemists. They really have no idea what the real Antarctic atmosphere was like and so I suppose it's not surprising that no one really sort of thought Antarctica was a place where you ought to be looking for this, but when you look back with hindsight it is perfectly obvious. And I suppose I'm as guilty as anyone, I knew perfectly well about stratospheric clouds – in the winter pole the stratospheric clouds. They even got good pictures of them and so on and so forth but since the chemists had sort of issued their blanket statement that there can't ever be enough particles in the atmosphere for chemical reactions on them to be important you [laughs] – until you're sort of pressed and are struggling to find something to latch onto – you know, it's difficult when people tell you don't think about this to suddenly say, 'Oh damn it, you have to, look.' [laughs]
Dr Alice Bell is research fellow in the Science Policy Research Unit, University of Sussex. A recovering historian of science, she has never really got over the delight of stumbling across archives of scientists gossiping about each otherAlice Bell
The increasing use of expert bioethicists has profound anti-democratic implications
In a secular age it might seem that the time for moral authorities has passed. However, research in the life sciences and biomedicine has produced a range of moral concerns and prompted the emergence of bioethics; an area of study that specialises in the ethical analysis of these issues. The result has been the emergence of what we might call expert bioethicists, a cadre of professionals who, while logical and friendly, have, nevertheless, been ordained as secular priests.
This suggestion – that there are expert bioethicists – might appear to have profoundly anti-democratic implications. Indeed handling expertise, including scientific expertise, is a central difficulty for democratic societies and its extension into the realm of moral values seems, on the face of it, to compound the problem. Nevertheless the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) has constantly made use of expert bioethicists and two members of the recently convened Emerging Science and Bioethics Advisory Committee (ESBAC) are listed as "bioethics specialists".
If we are to govern the biosciences and medical practice effectively there seems to be increasing need for expert bioethicists. Nevertheless, there is a different dynamic to the politics of bioethical expertise precisely because the opinions of bioethical experts cannot be used to obviate those of other moral agents.
This might seem like an odd claim. If there are expert bioethicists surely we should prefer their opinions to those of non-experts? However this is to assume bioethical expertise is modelled on scientific expertise. The idea of the scientist as expert is so strong we often forget that there are other forms of expertise.
If we reflect on what we might call aesthetic expertise, the assumption that the expert is singularly authoritative comes under pressure. We might think that an interpretation of King Lear offered by Carol Chillington Rutter is an expert opinion on the matter, but it does not negate the opinions of generations of teenagers who discuss the Lear in classrooms every year. Neither do amateur productions negate the expertise of those who stage professional performances. In the light of such cases we might think aesthetic expertise to be a matter of being embedded in a particular culture and discourse and not simply a matter of knowing "the" correct answer.
Recognising the diversity of expertise can be helpful in thinking about bioethical expertise. While we might point to academic debate and consider the participants to be experts this does not negate the range of opinions and moral responses we might find across society. Furthermore our own moral authority cannot be circumvented and, in negotiating our everyday lives, we must rely upon it. We might suggest that members of any given population have a kind of ubiquitous expertise in morality. In this view, the idea of morality is broader than that of an ethical code and questions of right and wrong. It is more closely linked to ideas of character or ethos, terms that can be applied to societies and institutions as well as individuals.
This ubiquitous moral expertise is the ground on which bioethical expertise stands. Bioethicists often recognise the importance of remaining connected to our "common morality", and what they mean by this is not that bioethics should be consistent with generally accepted moral norms but that it should be comprehensible and responsive to "lay" moral agents. Here it is instructive to consider the role of bioethics in relation to medical practice. If bioethics is to contribute to the moral dimension of medicine it must do so in a manner that is comprehensible to doctors as moral agents.
Such agency is rooted in the cultural ethos of medicine and the character of the medical professional. The bioethicist who hopes to make a concrete contribution to medical ethics must grasp the moral culture of medical practice. They must develop what Collins and Evans have called interactive expertise. Such expertise enables individuals to "talk the talk" of a particular discipline even if they cannot "walk the walk".
In developing an interactive expertise with medical professionals, bioethicists develop a sense of the moral ethos of medicine and so can better understand the issues and communicate their views. In this view, expert bioethicists and medical professionals collaborate to develop appropriate ethical guidelines that shape clinical practices. Expert bioethics does not eliminate the moral authority of individuals or the profession as a whole, but it does seek to augment it.
However, whether or not expert bioethics might be an illegitimate form of moral authority needs to be reconsidered in the context of the biosciences. Like medical professionals, scientists work within a moral ethos, a normative structure we might call the scientific ethos. Their work does not, however, require the ongoing exercise of moral agency, as is required in healthcare. Thus bioethical governance often seeks to determine rather than shape, answer rather than construct, the moral questions raised by the biosciences. Consider, for example, the Warnock Report and the subsequent work of the HFEA. The HFEA brings together bioscientists, healthcare professionals, patients, laypersons and bioethicists to address ethical questions that are not simply a matter of individual moral agency but are societal level concerns.
In the case of medical ethics, bioethical experts work with healthcare professions to respond to the moral and ethical questions raised by medical practice. In the case of the moral and ethical questions raised by bioscientific research, expert bioethics must find ways to work within the contemporary moral ethos. The HFEA is widely seen as an exemplar body. Nevertheless, both here and elsewhere, more could be done to bring bioethical issues into the public domain. Bioethics must not only work with other experts, policy-makers and interest groups, but also work democratically.
Expert bioethicists cannot allow themselves to become a priestly caste. They must engage with the public and, in doing so, become more fully engaged by and with their concerns. Bioethics must become part of the drive to make science public and part of the politics of scientific expertise.
Nathan Emmerich is a visiting research fellow in the School of Politics, International Studies and Philosophy at Queen's University Belfast where he is researching the idea of bioethical expertise. His book on medical ethics education is forthcoming, and he can be found tweeting at @BioethicsUKNathan Emmerich
Medical researchers in China unveil a sheep fitted with a new type of artificial heart developed using aerospace technology
For Cambodia which offers no treatment for cervical cancer apart from palliative care, see-and-treat programmes could radically cut deaths and reduce the burden of disease
Every year worldwide there are an estimated 530,000 new cases of cervical cancer. The disease kills 250,000 women a year, 85% of whom live in low- and middle-income countries, like Cambodia, where it is the country's most common cancer and killing more women than breast cancer or maternal mortality.
Cambodia has no screening programme for cervical cancer to identify the approximately 1,500 women newly infected each year, and no treatment apart from palliative care for the 900 women or more who die after a long and painful illness from a largely preventable disease, often robbing families of both a mother and economic provider.
As the country begins to grapple with its growing burden of non-communicable diseases, cervical cancer is now on the public health agenda, and has been described by the government as the most urgent priority for cancer screening.
Non-communicable diseases were one of the country's top four health priorities in the health strategic plan for 2008 to 2012 (pdf), and a new draft national strategic plan for the prevention and control of non-communicable diseases recognises that cervical cancer screening using visual inspection with acetic acid (VIA) and treatment with cryotherapy is one of the 'best buys' for low- and middle-income countries, costing less than $1 per person per year. Cambodia's plan targets at least 60% of women aged 35 to 49 being screened for the disease by 2020.
With the support of several international agencies, in August this year pilot programmes will get underway to test VIA and cryotherapy with a view to finding which approach will work best for the country as a whole. The project will be able to take lessons learned from earlier pilot studies run in Africa, as well as learning from on-going programmes in neighbouring Vietnam, and in time will itself add to the body of knowledge on using this relatively simple intervention in low-income settings elsewhere in the world.
"Many low-income countries are moving towards marked revisions in their national programmes based on single visit or screen-and-treat approaches using VIA and cryotherapy," says Dr Khim Sam Ath, technical officer for non-communicable diseases at the World Health Organisation's representative office in Cambodia. "This approach has been successfully used in Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam and the Philippines."
A single visit see-and-treat approach eliminates the risk of loss to follow-up, a particular problem in countries like Cambodia where there is no referral system. The Cambodian ministry of health introduced cervical cancer screening using VIA two years ago, there was no systematic follow-up afterwards. However, the government-run pilot study will continue to screen and refer, as it has the advantage of being able to spread screening services, conducted by midwives, across a larger number of health care centres, referring cases for treatment to hospital.
At the same time, the programme run by Marie Stopes International (MSI) will be operated via one of its existing clinics and an outreach clinic on a see-and-treat basis. "In our pilot area we are working with midwives linked with doctors on-site, for immediate treatment, says Dr Antoinette Pirie, health adviser at Marie Stopes International Cambodia.
"At the moment Marie Stopes International is the main social provider of reproductive health services in Cambodia and this programme fits well with that. If you're providing family planning, it's very easy to add this on and you're missing an opportunity by not doing it. MSI in Vietnam is already doing this through 600 clinics, so we will have a study tour there to learn from them too," says Pirie.
A third pilot is also expected to get underway this year, run by a consortium led by Epos Health Management using a vouchers system under the second phase of an existing programme.
"At this moment, only and incidentally opportunistic screening is done in the project's core provinces and on a very limited scale," says Dr Marcel Reyners, Vouchers for Reproductive Health Services project team leader for KfW, the German government-owned development bank involved in the project. "The population-based approach tailored to the needs and possibilities of Cambodia can eliminate invasive cancers and save lives of many women at low cost."
Further down the line, Cambodia may introduce human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccination to prevent cervical cancer, but the vaccine is currently unavailable via the public health system and is prohibitively expensive for most women and girls there. Although Cambodia is eligible for new vaccines co-funding from the Gavi Alliance, HPV vaccination projects will only be supported if the government can prove it has already successfully rolled out a pilot study. There are no plans to do this until 2016 at the earliest and a vaccination will take two decades to show results.
In the meantime, see-and-treat programmes can start saving lives as early as this August. The pilot programme also has linkages with overall health systems strengthening because all enrolled sites will be able to set up a follow-up registry for women who have positive VIA test results by feeding data into a broader e-health initiative, said Dr Jerker Liljestrand, programme leader at URC Better Health Services Cambodia. "URC is helping Cambodia's ministry of health develop its health management system using an internet-based solution, so we can just add this as another component."