Photo: Alex Indigo/Flickr

Scientists in live public discussion today about what ‘natural’ really means

We’ve all seen it. Whether it’s on labels in supermarkets or in adverts on our TVs, the word ‘natural’ is often used to sell products.

Foods may be ‘naturallly’ farmed or contain only ‘natural’ colours and flavours. Or you may have used a ‘natural’ remedy to help you recover from an illness.

But why do products sold in this way appeal to us as consumers? Why are we so keen for our food to be grown ‘naturally’ while we strive for technological advances in other aspects of our lives? And does ‘natural’ in this context really mean what we think it does – if anything at all? Continue reading

Peas in pods

150 years of Mendelian genetics

Last Sunday, the world celebrated its musicians and film stars in flashy ceremonies. But another celebration was due at the same time.

8 February 2015 marked 150 years since the first of Mendel’s lectures where he presented his results on pea breeding for the first time. These lectures, based on his paper Versuche über Pflanzen-Hybriden (Experiments on Plant Hybridisation), presented the world with a vision of genetics never seen before – and led to him gaining the title ‘The Father of Modern Genetics’.

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A global approach to achieving food security

Last month, 13 developing countries received recognition from the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) for their progress towards eradicating hunger and improving food security. At the ceremony, the FAO’s director general, José Graziano da Silva, congratulated them for turning political commitment into actions and demonstrating the will to achieve and surpass the millennium development goals.

Achieving food security – that is, guaranteeing that all people have access to sufficient and nutritious food to lead an active and healthy life – is the ultimate goal of the FAO’s work. The organisation’s activities range from creating indexes of agricultural productivity to supporting collaborations between public and private parties. It is also a neutral forum for international discussions and agreements so that global productivity may be increased through sustainable agriculture.

Improving crop productivity around the world requires actions on a number of fronts: political, social, economic and scientific. Small farmers in developing countries must be supported and their contribution to food security acknowledged. We need to enhance the capacities of breeders, scientists and workers in the seed industry. High-yielding and resistant crop varieties need to be bred. And key traits underlying adaptation to changing environments need to be identified – as is being done here at the John Innes Centre!

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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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Voice of the Future 2014

This month I was selected to represent the Society of General Microbiology at an event called Voice of the Future (VOF). This is an annual event (in its third year) which gives young scientists the chance to directly engage with the policy makers making decisions today. It is organised by the Society of Biology along with several other learned societies who invite their members to get involved. I have been particularly interested in science policy since I began my PhD a year and a half ago, so this was a great chance to get involved and do something more than just reading articles, ranting to my friends and tweeting. It was also a nice chance to meet other students with interests in science policy – like Scott Nicholson who was my fellow representative for the SGM.

Voice of the Future is an event that takes itself seriously, and so as a participant you feel like you get taken seriously too. The event takes place at Portcullis House, a part of the Houses of Parliament, in the Boothroyd room where Select Committees actually meet. We had an introduction from the Speaker of the House of Commons (John Bercow MP), and there were Clerks present to inform us of all the rules that would be upheld in a normal Select Committee meeting. It was commented more than once that VOF is probably the only event of its kind in the world – the only event where the roles are completely reversed and the would-be witnesses get a chance to switch places with the committee members.

And the policy makers that we were questioning weren’t minor players in the policy world either; they all play a major role in Science Policy and Parliament. The event was split into four sessions, each with prominent policy makers for us to fire questions at. The first session featured Sir Mark Walport, the Government Chief Scientific Officer. Next, we had a panel of MPs who all sit on the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee. Having this panel was brilliant, because it meant that there was some discord and debate in answering the questions, rather than a single answer. It also allowed us a representation from all three major political parties. Our next two sessions aimed questions at David Willetts MP, the UK Minister for Science and Universities and his Shadow equivalent, Liam Byrne MP. It was an incredible honour to be able to have these people here – especially considering that the 2014 Budget was being revealed that afternoon – so for them to take time out of their busy schedule was fantastic.

Each student submitted a question as part of the application for the event. These questions were then moderated and rewritten in a form that was suitable for the Select Committee setting. These questions were then re-distributed at the event. Unfortunately, time limitations meant that not everyone was able to ask a question, and some didn’t get to ask the question that they had submitted. I was one of the lucky ones who were able to ask their own question – something I was very happy about. If time, the Chair also allowed questions sent in via twitter, to allow people a chance to get involved who couldn’t attend the event.

The questions asked at the event covered a multitude of aspects of science policy – ranging from science funding to controversial topics such as nuclear power. Some stand-out questions for me included asking whether we should be extending tuition fees to cover Masters degrees, and the impact that Scottish independence could have on their research funding. A common theme was also the importance of ensuring that young people are motivated to pursue careers in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects. It was interesting to listen to the speakers try and weigh up the arguments within their answers and give a fair answer.

I asked the following question:

“Genetically modified crops have massive potential for agriculture and improving the quality of food we eat. Considering these genetically modified crops undergo far more stringent safety testing than conventionally bred crops, why is this technology still being held back by regulations?”

GM is a topic that is particularly close to my heart – I have spoken about it many times at science fairs and events, and the John Innes Centre where I work is at the forefront of GM research and technologies. My question came up in session two, which had a panel of MPs from the Science and Technology Select Committee. This was great, because the committee was able to give me a spectrum of answers from different political viewpoints and backgrounds (including a past Minister for Agriculture). One of the recurring themes of their answer was the upcoming report that the committee is compiling about GM – it is one of the current hot topics in the science world. They are gathering evidence, and wanted to emphasise that anyone can submit this evidence – even members of the public or a PhD student like me. The MPs tended towards being in favour of GM technology and the potential that it has for UK agriculture. They hope that gathering evidence for this will provide incentive for the government to start thinking about changes in our current regulation. This does require a change in public perception though. One MP, David Heath, referenced the “Frankenstein Foods hangover”, something that some newspapers still like to bring up to scaremonger people about GM. However, much of our restriction is due to EU legislation. Some EU states like Spain are similar to the UK in hoping that GM may be grown one day in their country. Other states, like Germany, are completely unmoving in their stance on GM. GM is a good example of a policy situation where an asymmetric approach may be the way forward for EU decision makers.

I could go on for pages and pages about all the fantastic and interesting questions asked by the students, as well as the responses from the politicians which always provided a great insight into that area of policy. The entire event was fascinating from start to end, and it was an amazing experience to be a part of it. Perhaps in the future other events might be run with other Select Committees, or other countries in the world might even catch on to the idea. If the event was this good in the third year of it being run, I can only imagine how far this event might go in years to come. I certainly will be investigating attending again next year – and coming up with another question to fire at the politicians. I would recommend any other students with an interest in science policy, or anyone who’d like to know more about it to come along and do the same.

I’d also just like to give a big thanks to the Society of General Microbiology for inviting me along and giving me the chance to get involved, as well as all the other hardworking people from Parliament and the learned societies who made the event possible. Particular recognition has to go to Stephen Benn, the Director of Parliamentary Affairs at the Society of Biology – who is the person who really made this event possible.

If you are more interested in this event, you can find more information and a live stream from these links: (spot me at 1:13:58 and hear my question and its answer)

By Izzy Webb, a second year PhD student in the lab of Prof Phil Poole

Featured Scientist (IV): Greg Foot, Daredevil Science Presenter


_DSC6091This week’s featured scientist is the Daredevil Science Presenter, Greg Foot. Greg has been working in science communication for the past 10 years on TV, Radio and in live shows. You may have seen him on the BBC3 series Secrets of Everything, Channel 4’s Sunday Brunch, BBC Worldwide, Youtube’s Head Squeeze channel or in his live Daredevil Science Shows, but he also does a lot of work behind the scenes, researching, writing and developing shows.

Greg came to talk to us about Science Communication Careers and here are the answers to some of the questions we asked him:

What persuaded you to go into Science Communication?

A friend suggested at university that I become a Blue Peter presenter and it started out as a bit of a joke – but then I realised that it was something that I would enjoy doing so I started to get involved in things like radio, YouTube videos and science communication events at uni. By the time I finished my undergrad I was completely caught by science communication and went to Imperial College London to do a Masters in Science Communication. Funnily enough, it is only now after 10 years of working in science communication that I finally get to appear on Blue Peter!

Did you have a big break in your career, or did you simply work your way up the ladder?

I spent a lot of time exploring the opportunities available and contacting as many people as I could. Every so often one of the feelers I put out was successful. Looking back each of these successes can be seen as a lucky break, which all add up to where I am now. But the TV world especially is a ladder which it takes time and dedication to climb.

How do you talk about science and your work without making it boring to a non-scientific audience?

You need to catch the attention of your audience and peak their interest. Make the science mean something to them and relate it to their daily life. The key is to “find your hook” for your research to draw them in. Take a few steps back and look at how your work applies in the broader scheme of things. You also need to be aware that you are the expert, and they don’t know as much as you about the subject. Start slowly and build up your story step by step – the listener needs to be able to “see” the last step to not feel lost.

As a Freelance Science Communicator how do you manage your time and what do you spend your time doing?

If you don’t have many projects running, you spend your time finding the work, by researching and contacting people. Once you have several projects on the go, you have to be able to juggle them all and manage your time in a similar way to a PhD student does. I need to look at what the final product will be, such as a live show, and then plan backwards from there, writing, discussions over email, and researching and finding props and experiments to show. I also try to have time to catch up with friends in there somewhere!

How do you decide what subjects to present in your live shows?

The best thing to do is talk about something you are passionate about, and then think about how you can interest the audience and enthuse them. For example, I am keen on extreme sports, so I started with a surfboard- I thought that it would be fun to get a volunteer to get up on stage and try out surfing. From that I used surfing to introduce a lot of scientific concepts, like how far the wave will have travelled until it gets to you and the physics behind balancing. Since then I have hosted outdoor live shows about extreme sports with DJs, BMX riders and free running. I also try to make sure that I have something that explodes too!

Greg’s Top Tips:

  1. Contacts, contacts, contacts– contact everyone and anyone in the area you are interested, get your name out there, it’s even better if you can meet up with people face-to-face.
  2. Online– use online media- YouTube, Podcast, Blogs, Twitter- get you name out there, let people know what you can do!
  3. Brand– make yourself stand out and recognisable by uniforming your twitter, YouTube, blog, etc.
  4. Skills– Build them up and take advantage of what you have available – make videos (even just on your phone with a friend and post them online), do radio slots, write and give talks at schools. The more skills you can show that you have the better.
  5. Motivate– one of the most rewarding things is encouraging people to have an interest in science, so go into schools to give talks, make science interesting. Did you know that most 10-12 year olds have an interest in science but the number of students interested in science drops massively by the time they are 18? If you can show them what science can do or where it can take you fewer students would lose interest.
  6. Find what you love– try out all the different areas, ask for work placements and then follow the area you enjoy- not everyone who works in TV has to end up on screen!

Find out more about what Greg Foot does here:


By Izzy Webb – a second year PhD student in the lab of Phil Poole, and Annis Richardson – a third year PhD student in the lab of Enrico Coen

All photos courtesy of Andrew Davis (JIC)