Photo: Skånska Matupplevelser/Flickr.

EU’s rules on genetically improved crops a ‘threat’ to developments in agriculture, say MPs

A report out today is calling for the equivalent of Nice – the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence – for developments in crop technologies. The House of Commons Science and Technology Committee also says the government should encourage more public debate around developments in crop technologies

It recommends forming a ‘citizens council’ for considering the social and ethical impacts of new crops. Nice has a similar role producing advice on new medicines, which is used by the NHS to make funding decisions.

In its report, the committee criticises the model used for regulating genetically modified organisms in the European Union. The system “threatens to prevent such products from reaching the market both in the UK, in Europe and, as a result of trade issues, potentially in the developing world,” according to the committee of MPs. Continue reading

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Eight great technologies

The UK is an important player in academic research worldwide. This includes being one of the world leaders in many emerging scientific fields. The UK government has recognised eight fields as Eight Great Technologies – technologies that, with support, can lead to UK strengths and business capabilities.

In the 2012 autumn statement, £600m was put into these fields, and this week’s Science and Technology Strategy announced continuing support for them, including funding for new research centres.

But what are these eight technologies? Despite working at an institute with clear links to several of the technologies, I admit to only having heard about them recently – and not in my role as a researcher, but through my interest in science policy. So I’ve summarised the eight in this post.

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My science policy internship

I’m a plant microbiologist. For the past three months, however, I haven’t touched a pipette, a petri dish or a plant pot. Instead, I’ve been doing an internship in science policy.

New PhD studentships from the BBSRC involve a three-month internship, allowing students to take a break from the laboratory and try out something new. It was set up to try and give postgraduates a chance to experience life in the real world.

Several people from the John Innes Centre have found internship placements around Norwich. But I applied to the BBSRC’s policy internship scheme, and found myself a place at the Centre for Science and Policy, based at the University of Cambridge.

This meant packing up and moving somewhere else for three months. Of course, Cambridge may not be the real world the BBSRC had in mind – it’s a place commonly described as a bubble by its students – but the work was certainly a change from my day-to-day in the lab.

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European Commission scraps Chief Scientific Adviser role

This week has been an exciting one for European science, with the European Space Agency’s Philae lander making what appears to have been a successful landing on Comet 67P. But the president of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker chose this moment of celebration to make a disappointing announcement. The role of the Chief Scientific Adviser to the European Commission is to be abolished.

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Plant science: a growing field

Traditionally, a UK PhD student spends 3-4 years in the lab, researching their project. However, a recent drive to produce ‘well-rounded’ students has led to the development of internship schemes. This means that I’ve left my PhD mid-research for 3 months, and I’m currently six weeks into a placement working in the Centre for Science and Policy, at the University of Cambridge. This centre works in science and policy issues across all areas, from medicine, to physics, to social sciences. I always knew that plant sciences was an important field, and one that’s been booming recently. However, in the past six weeks I’ve been looking from a policy viewpoint and I’ve realised exactly how important it is, and how valuable plant science research will be for our future.

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Two replacements for ‘Two Brains’ Willetts in reshuffle

Michael Gove’s surprise departure from the Department for Education has dominated this week’s headlines following David Cameron’s reshuffle on Tuesday. But another surprise this week was that the Minister of State for Universities and Science, David Willetts, has resigned.

While the reaction to Gove’s demotion was polarised, the scientific community’s response to the news of Willetts’ departure was in overwhelming unison. The man whose intellectual approach to politics earned him the nickname Two Brains drew tributes from several public figures in science.

Imran Khan, head of the British Science Association, championed the passion Willetts
showed for science, despite not having a scientific background. He said: “You’d be hardpressed to find many in our sector who have a bad word to say about him.”

The president of the Royal Society, Sir Paul Nurse, called Willetts an “outstanding science
minister, respected not only in the UK but throughout the world … His commitment, energy
and pure enthusiasm for science will be sorely missed.” Another tribute came from Jackie
Hunter, chief executive of the BBSRC, the research council that funds much of the John
Innes Centre’s research. She said: “As science minister, David Willetts has helped to place research and innovation at the centre of rebalancing and rebuilding our economy.”

Science in government: former Universities and Science minister David Willetts; his replacement, the Minister of State for Universities, Science and Cities, Greg Clark; and George Freeman, the newly-appointed Minister for Life Sciences. Photograph credits (from left): Alessia Pierdomenico/Reuters; The CBI/Flickr; Ian Burt/Dereham Times.

Science in government: former Universities and Science minister David Willetts; his replacement, the Minister of State for Universities, Science and Cities, Greg Clark; and George Freeman, the newly-appointed Minister for Life Sciences. Photograph credits (from left): Alessia Pierdomenico/Reuters; The CBI/Flickr; Ian Burt/Dereham Times.

In the greater academic community, outside science, however, some felt that Willetts was
leaving behind a more sour legacy. His impact on universities was criticised by many
responders to Times Higher Education’s call for #WillettsLegacy tweets.

Others felt that Willetts had managed to defend higher education against the worst of the
austerity seen by other government departments.

On Tuesday morning, David Cameron announced that Willetts would be replaced by Greg
Clark.

Soon after his appointment was announced, Clark’s views on homeopathy came under scrutiny. Clark had lent his signature to a 2007 motion in support of the provision of homeopathy on the NHS.
But in an interview
with the BBC’s Jonathan Amos, Clark denied that he supports homeopathy, saying that
he signed out of protest against cuts to the NHS’s local services budget.

Clark will take on his new responsibility for science and universities in addition to his current role as Minister of State for Cities and Construction in the Cabinet Office.

This announcement was met with concern that the role was seen by David Cameron as half a job – one that could be done by a minister splitting his time across two separate
departments in Whitehall.

However, Number 10 also announced that there would be a new Minister for Life Sciences, George Freeman. Freeman, the MP for mid Norfolk, was formerly an advisor on the life sciences to Willetts, but will now take on the role in a ministerial capacity. His appointment was welcomed by many, including Imran Khan and the writer and science campaigner Ben Goldacre.

Only time will tell what legacies Clark and Freeman leave behind them. But with only 10
months until the general election, it is unlikely that they will be able to see their ideas through from legislation to implementation before another reshuffle – or a change of government.

By Mabon Elis, a first year PhD student in the lab of Rico Coen