The dreadful events in Japan, as seen from afar, necessarily raise the question of how scientists communicate risk both in general terms, and especially during emergencies. Astonishingly, “Communicating risk and scientific advice during emergencies: don’t panic?” was the long-arranged title of a TalkScience discussion held last week at the British Library and led by Mark Henderson of the Times and Professor Sir John Beddington, the Government Chief Scientific Adviser – who arrived hotfoot from spending much of the day doing just such activities and assessments. There are no easy answers here, as even a top-class statistical analysis of what facts are known can give quite different answers depending on whether one takes a more ‘frequentist’ or a Bayesian probabilistic point of view (I incline to the latter). Risk analysis is an exceptionally interesting area, that deserves a lot more space in these blogs, as judgements lie at the heart of the scientific agenda.
Expertise, judgement, discernment and the ability to deliver quality advice are qualities that lie at the heart of the requirements for members of our various Boards, Committees and Panels. I attended a very useful meeting of our Appointments Board, that is charged with optimising our selections of members from those who apply to join them.
Judgement and discernment are certainly improved by knowledge of the available facts, and in particular the untrammelled availability of the scientific literature. The latter lies at the heart of the debate about Open Access. I attended a very useful round table called (and chaired) by Minister of Universities and Science David Willetts to discuss the issues. Publication in conventional journals constrains the protection of Intellectual Property, so Open Access publication does not change this. Thus, and from my perspective, the discussion centred around the non-availability of much of the scientific literature to SMEs who could not afford (and did not therefore use) the subscription model, the relative merits of green versus gold access (though it is not an either-or), and the value that could be added to the literature from its availability under Open Access terms. Readers will know that I am especially engaged with the latter (see e.g. this paper and references therein).
A significant element of our role and purposes as specified in our Royal Charter (pdf) is the requirement to disseminate the knowledge, outputs and outcomes generated by our activities, and we held a very useful dissemination event that highlighted the activities of our Institute for Animal Health and its stakeholders. This well-attended event consisted of sessions that provided a scientific summary of our relevant activities, with various Q&A sessions, plus an evening session that provided additional opportunities for networking and discussing the key issues that we need, collectively, to be addressing.
Another part of the Royal Charter specifies the importance of our activities to the UK economy, and we seek to promote this in many ways, including via engagement with the pertinent trade associations. We have long had excellent interactions with the BioIndustry Association, but have had comparatively few interactions with the ostensibly equivalent Chemical Industries Association (CIA). Consequently, I was pleased to have a very useful meeting with CEO Steve Elliott and colleagues at the CIA where we were able to exchange existing knowledge and views about the future directions that might pertain (in particular) in the Bioenergy, feedstocks and Industrial Biotechnology areas.
Bioenergy and biofuels continue to move up the intellectual and experimental scientific agenda, and I shall herewith take the opportunity to flag the upcoming (April 6th) Foundation for Science and Technology discussion on “Is there a viable future for biofuels in the UK?”, at which I shall be speaking.
We also had a very useful meeting of the Board of the UK Collaborative for Development Sciences, where discussions on agricultural development continue to increase in importance.
I was also pleased to have a very helpful and consensual meeting with the present and incoming Presidents of the British Neuroscience Association, on which we shall both report shortly.
Finally, the social networking Universe continues to expand, and I note that my Twitter account now has more than 500 followers.
- Attwood, T. K., Kell, D. B., McDermott, P., Marsh, J., Pettifer, S. & Thorne, D. (2010). Utopia Documents: linking scholarly literature with research data. Bioinformatics 26, i568-74. Full free text
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