Diversity and the Evidence Base

dataIf there’s one thing I’ve learnt in my role as Policy Officer at the Biochemical Society, it’s the importance of a solid evidence base. The question ‘where’s the evidence for that?’ is a bit of a mantra to those in the science policy community.

This passion for evidence-based approaches makes it confusing when an issue presents itself where there isn’t a solid evidence base, and what’s more, it’s arguable that there shouldn’t need to be one. I’m talking about issues of diversity in science, set to be a focus for the Biochemical Society in the next 5 years.

Most people inherently believe that diversity is a good thing. Initiatives to make science open to all and to remove barriers so that the science community can reflect the make-up of UK society would seem like no-brainers. Do we need evidence to show that this should be the case? This evidence would likely be based on economic considerations: would a more diverse scientific workforce be more productive? Would it foster better science and lead to increased return on investment?

This leads me to a further, and more fundamental, question; when it comes to issues of diversity, should moral arguments take precedent over scientific arguments? Do moral and ethical considerations trump the scientific and economic argument here; is inclusivity more important than scientific productivity? Thus should we even be seeking to evidence statements surrounding diversity in science? I’m aware that’s a lot of questions and I certainly don’t have all the answers.

The Royal Society recently published a report entitled ‘Diversity in STEMM: establishing a business case’. In this the authors attempted to outline the evidence for why diversity in science is good from a non-emotive perspective, setting moral and ethical considerations aside. In the process of doing this they received a great deal of criticism from commentators who found it inappropriate that anyone should seek to do more than accept the moral position that equality should be a given. Many firmly stated that they felt that diversity should not be argued on economic grounds and appeared to find it offensive that the Royal Society would even consider doing so. They believed that this amounted to a trivialisation of the moral case.

However I think the point of the Royal Society’s report was lost; it was seeking evidence to demonstrate that there is a business as well as a moral case to support a diverse workforce. It’s the ‘as well as’ here that’s key; clearly, and unfortunately, the moral and ethical considerations have only got us so far. We need to use all the tools on our armory to argue and fight to increase diversity in science.

So, in an attempt to answer a few of my own questions, I think that the moral imperative for diversity does stand-alone without the need for it to be ‘backed-up’ by economic figures. However, I think any additional ammunition we can garner is vital in order to address and tackle the problem, especially when facing those for whom numbers can matter more than ethics.    

As the Biochemical Society develops its 5 year equality and diversity strategy, commissioning research into diversity topics and issues will be considered. Applications for the Society’s diversity in science grants which  seek to kick-off research proposals would be very welcome; applications for catalytic funding will be considered as long as evidence of future funding to ensure project sustainability is provided.

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Glyoxalase Centennial meeting spurs new European research group

Last year a group of researchers came together at a Biochemical Society-sponsored Focused Meeting to celebrate 100 years since the discovery of glyoxalase. What emerged was not just an exciting opportunity to discuss the latest in research findings, but a brand new collaborative research group to take the study of glyoxalase forward.

Meeting organizer Dr Naila Rabbani (University of Warwick, UK) reports on the meeting and following success. If you want to propose your own subject for a Biochemical Society conference, you can apply today.

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It has been 100 years since the discovery of the glyoxalase system, a metabolic pathway common to all – or nearly all – life forms. The history of the glyoxalase system has taken many turns and, 100 years on, continues to do so. Initially and incorrectly thought to be part of mainstream glucose metabolism in the 1930s, the glyoxalase system has re-emerged in the last 20 years or so as the system countering an otherwise unavoidable damaging aspect of glucose metabolism.  

It has been an area I have spent the last 15 years studying and together with Professor Paul Thornalley, who has been working on glyoxalase for about 30 years, we have organised three Biochemical Society-sponsored meetings on the subject.

The latest, in November 2013, celebrated a particularly special event – the Glyoxalase Centennial Focused Meeting at the University of Warwick; it being a 100 years since the discovery of glyoxalase.

The centennial meeting was a memorable occasion attended by 100 delegates from the UK, Europe, India, Far East and North & South America – a truly international gathering. The delegates were mostly from academia – life and biomedical sciences – with some delegates also from pharmaceutical, food and scientific instrument manufacturing companies.

Their work has linked glyoxalase to longevity, protection from heart disease, diabetes and renal failure, and multidrug resistant tumours. Yet the impact of glyoxalase is far wider – as evident in the diverse range of topics in the conference programme.

After a very successful meeting, every speaker submitted their papers for publication to Biochemical Society Transactions and a collaborative research group was formed to take glyoxalase research forward. An application to Horizon2020 is now in progress that includes eight European partners.

A proposal to form a new study group of the European Association to Study Diabetes (EASD) on the role of reactive metabolites in diabetes – reactive dicarbonyls and reactive oxygen species – was submitted to the EASD President. This was provisionally accepted and start-up mini-symposium of the EASD Reactive Metabolite Study Group will be held at the forthcoming 50th EASD annual meeting in Vienna, 14 September this year.

The aims of the study group are to define the contribution of reactive metabolites to health impairment, share best practice of analytical measurements, discuss mechanistic involvement in the development of diabetes and related complications, and facilitate the development of related therapeutic and diagnostic approaches.  

This Focused Meeting, as before, was sponsored by the Biochemical Society. Their continued support is greatly appreciated and has facilitated dissemination of findings to other fields and many further investigators to the filed. As evident, the meeting has spurned new-found collaborations and a chance to push glyoxalase research even further forward.

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Want to propose your own conference? The Biochemical Society can provide financial support, full secretariat services and publish proceedings of events in Biochemical Society Transactions, giving your meeting and speakers’ research worldwide exposure. Visit our website for more information.

Want to know more about the Glyoxalase Centennial Focused Meeting. View videos from it on our YouTube Channel.

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Diversity in Science? It’s not just about women

Hands-upLet’s admit it, how many of us in the science community have spoken about or held events to discuss diversity in science issues then ended up focusing largely on gender equality? Asking for an imaginary show of hands would result in a lot of arms waving in the air right now I reckon.

There seems to have been an increased awareness of equality and diversity issues in the science community of late. However, while this is great news, for the most part these appear to have focused on gender equality. This is clearly an issue of huge importance, but it’s also crucial to remember that diversity should relate to the inclusion of other disadvantaged groups too.

(This is not to say that all diversity initiatives just focus on women; I’m well-aware that they don’t. It’s just that, from my perspective, gender equality often tends to be a focus.

Phew, disclaimer done; let’s move on.)

It’s a well-known fact that the scientific workforce in the UK doesn’t reflect the make-up of British Society. Women are certainly one of the groups who are under-represented, but those with disabilities, those from ethnic minorities, the LGBT community and individuals from socially-disadvantaged groups are also consistently underrepresented.

The Biochemical Society believes that a diverse workforce provides equal opportunities for the best minds regardless of gender, race, disability, sexuality, beliefs or means. Furthermore it supports the view that diversity is not limited to gender, and barriers still remain in all aspects of underrepresented groups. Diversity has been identified as an area of strategic focus for the Biochemical Society in the next five years. Read our updated position statement to find out more.

As part of our work in this area, the Society recently launched a series of new Diversity in Science grants. This scheme will provide three grants of up to £500 to individuals, groups, charities or businesses to support and address issues relating to diversity in science. Initiatives such as research proposals, conferences, events and roadshows will all be considered as well as other projects; the grants are not designed to support members on an individual basis. The deadline for applications is 30 September 2014 and successful applicants will be informed by 31 October 2014.

Let’s hope that, alongside continuing to work towards a gender-balanced scientific workforce at all levels of the career ladder, we can also make progress towards breaking down the barriers faced by other disadvantaged groups.

PS – My (imaginary) hand was also in the air…

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Let’s all stand up for science

Guest blog: Latha Ramakrishnan, of Imperial College London, reports on a recent media workshop for young scientists.

A photo of young scientists at Sense about Science's media workshop

Sense about Science’s media workshop

What does it mean to “Stand up for Science”?

As a postdoctoral scientist, my hours are filled designing and performing experiments, reading literature, applying for grants and parental duties. So it’s hard to spare time to seriously consider the scientific issues that often haunt my mind

Consider the claims we see on products every day, such as the various cosmetic products labelled with complex biological components like pro-vitamin B5 (healthy hair/skin) or Coenzyme-Q10 (anti-aging). Being a biologist I have a tough time in the lab trying to keep my samples “bioactive”. It often means they have to come and go from a -20oC freezer or be housed in a -80oC ultra freezer, with liquid nitrogen (-196oC) or dry ice (frozen CO2).

So how are these advertised biologicals so stable in commercial products? In what concentration are they present (units are important in science, you see)?  How do they survive our harsh handling in our lay life? Do we even have the receptors/transport proteins to absorb such externally applied stuff? That’s a long list of questions…

Should we bother with these questions? The answer is a resounding yes, as I found out recently after attending an eye-opening media workshop organised by Sense About Science and supported by the Biochemical Society. The workshop is part of Sense about Science’s Voice of Young Science network.

I used to assume that it was not my responsibility to question such apparent scientific discrepancies as I am at a very junior level of my career to do so. But, to my pleasant surprise, most of the delegates and the panellists who attended the workshop weren’t grey-haired either.

Many claims we come across during our everyday life are made with vague scientific foundations. Due to the commercial and political interests linked with such claims, it is vital that the public and the scientific community in particular stand up for science.

Sense About Science’s Ask for Evidence is an ongoing campaign, where we can dig deep into such claims. We can make the person/company making such claims more accountable and ask them to clarify if their conclusion(s) were drawn after rigorous peer-review. The public can help by asking more questions on issues they are worried about. The scientific community can help by answering some of these questions and sharing their expertise in a particular subject “for or against” a particular claim.

Sense about Science’s media workshop provided some great tips on how we can achieve this. The workshop highlighted the pressures journalists are under.  Journalists want stories that will interest their target audience. They have limited time to write them, let alone any time to undertake proper research. They must rely on experts and often the scientific quotes get partially or totally distorted by the time it is broadcast.

Such being the case, instead of blaming it all on the media, the workshop provided tips on how scientists could maximise the impact of a brief media encounter. Crucial take-home messages were to rehearse three simple but key points, in-perspective for lay audience and speak about it even if the reporter asked something else. That way one can make sure that the public gets to hear new scientific findings interpreted in context and not a sensational story spiced-up from a nervous interview.

I would encourage all early career researchers to join the Voice of Young Science network and if possible, attend one of their media workshops.

And for all scientists, early career or otherwise, the next time you read something in a newspaper or hear something on TV that makes you utter “hang on a minute, that doesn’t sound right”, please, without further hesitation:  Stand up for science and ask for the evidence!

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One person’s leaky pipeline is another person’s irrigation system

irrigationI have a confession; I am a ‘leaker’.

By this I mean that I ‘leaked’ from the scientific pipeline; the stream of graduates from PhD to postdoc to fellowship to PI to Professor.

I can’t say I’m a fan of the term ‘leaker’. It is often used to describe those who pursue scientific careers in areas outside of academic research; however the associated negative connotations and implications of being ‘lost’ just don’t fit.

Let’s backtrack. After my PhD, I realised that scientific research wasn’t for me; while still passionate about my area of research, I knew that I wasn’t suited to a life at the lab bench. A series of failed experiments and a frustration with narrow focus of my research led me to explore career options where a lab coat and safety glasses were not required.

Science policy was an obvious choice; still at the forefront of scientific developments but with a much broader focus, particularly on areas where scientific research informs policy-making and has implications for wider society. Cue a steep learning curve involving antimicrobial resistance, the drug discovery landscape in the UK, equality and diversity issues, the open access agenda, the economic arguments for scientific funding and more. I genuinely feel as though I make more of a scientific difference, and have more of an impact, now than I ever did while sat at my fumehood.

What’s more, the academic community need people like me; without us ‘leakers’, the pipeline wouldn’t work. It’s arguably broken as it is. The now-infamous arrow diagram from the 2010 Royal Society report The Scientific Century: securing our future prosperity,  shows that the number of postdocs flowing towards PI and Professorial positions is far higher that the number of roles actually available. There is a significant narrowing of the pipeline. And we all know what happens when a large volume of liquid is forced through a narrow pipe. It bursts.

RS diagramThis diagram illustrates the transition points in typical academic scientific careers following a PhD and shows the flow of scientifically-trained people in to other sectors.

So how can we prevent this happening? How can we ensure that a generation of postdocs don’t end up disillusioned and career-less after trying (and failing) to gain permanent academic positions?

Well perhaps the solution is to encourage ‘leaking’ or, to think about things differently, create a system of scientific ‘irrigation’ across the careers landscape. Instead of viewing those who leave the academic system as ‘lost’ we should appreciate the value of having trained research scientists in other roles; in education, in policy, in government, in publishing, in scientific communication and public engagement and more. This way, the workforce is enriched with scientific knowledge and an appreciation of the value and importance of science.

The skills gained from training in scientific research go far beyond purely academic expertise. The so-called transferable skills mastered along the way include time management, team working, communication skills, critical thinking and problem solving alongside many others. The science community is finally beginning to recognise this and PhD education is no longer viewed solely as a foundation for an academic career. Doctoral training funders are increasingly appreciating that a science PhD is a basis for a variety of careers and are increasingly treating it as such.

The Research Councils, led by the BBSRC, are moving towards funding doctoral education via Doctoral Training Partnership (DTP) and Centre for Doctoral Training (CDT) models. These aim to provide a breadth of professional development training opportunities to enhance students’ capability and develop the world-class, highly skilled workforce the UK needs for its future. The BBSRC have gone one step further and introduced mandatory 3-month Professional Internships for PhD Students (PIPS) placements. These non-lab based placements must be completed in an area outside of the student’s research specialism and aim to provide a platform to develop key transferable skills.

So, far from being ‘leakers’, those who use their scientific training in careers other than academic research form a vital part of the scientific community. We are ‘irrigators’ and, rather than being lost, we enrich the landscape surrounding the academic pipeline and serve to make sure it gets to where it needs to go.

Have I taken this analogy a bit too far? Probably.

 

Footnote: Much as I’d like to claim credit for the irrigation analogy, thanks are due to Dr Laura Bellingan, Director of Science Policy at the Society of Biology, for coming up with this idea (or reading about it somewhere – let me know if you’ve heard this before!).

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Developments in the battle against antibiotic resistance

The battle against antibiotic resistance is heating up.

From minimizing our reliance on antibiotics, making effective use of the drugs we have, and developing new drugs – action is being taking on all fronts to fight what could be a defining health issue of this era.

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Antibiotic resistance occurs when bacteria survive exposure to drugs. They develop a resistance to that form of treatment, requiring new drugs to be able to kill off the disease. But no new classes of antibiotics have been discovered in 25 years and resistance to the drugs we have is growing.

The threat is real – the World Health Organisation says antibiotic resistance is “happening right now in every region of the world and has the potential to affect anyone, of any age, in any country”.

In the past few weeks though we have seen some significant actions announced.

The Longitude Prize – a £10 million prize to solve one of the world’s major scientific challenges – selected antibiotic resistance as their challenge. Specifically, the challenge is to develop a cost-effective, accurate, rapid, and easy-to-use test for bacterial infections that will allow health professionals worldwide to administer the right antibiotics at the right time.

Point-of-care test kits will allow more targeted use of antibiotics, and an overall reduction in misdiagnosis and prescription, allowing for a more effective use of the antibiotics we already have.

Today, UK Prime Minister David Cameron announced an independent review, led by Jim O’Neill, the former chief economist at Goldman Sachs, to explore the economic issues surrounding antimicrobial resistance, including the regulatory environment, investment incentives and international cooperation.

The Biochemical Society, in our recently released Antimicrobial Resistance position statement, says that the regulatory processes for drug approval and incentives for private research must be addressed and reviewed to facilitate the development of new therapies.

Partnerships between industry and academia, and public-private partnerships, will be vital to promote research into new antimicrobials and alternatives, we say. Antimicrobials is a wider term for drugs that fight microorganisms, including bacteria, viruses and fungi.

Hear more about antibiotic resistance at our free public lecture in Edinburgh

ImageJoin us for “Living in a post-antibiotic era: the challenge of disease resistance”, as Dr Paul Hoskisson (University of Strathclyde, UK) leads a discussion on the impending ‘post-antibiotic’ world that could soon become a reality.

The event, which takes place in Edinburgh on 15 July, will feature a panel of experts outlining the challenges that the global community faces as the drugs of today become obsolete.

Find out what it means for you and your family’s health care, and how scientists and policy makers are working together to develop innovative solutions. Ask your questions or listen to the thought-provoking discussion.

Find out more and register for free on our website.

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“Using technology to engage students” a Biochemical Society Workshop

Guest post by Mark Roberts (Queen Mary University of London) who attended the workshop.

The Biochemical Society held a one day workshop at Charles Darwin House on using technology to engage students. It was aimed to demonstrate how different technologies can be used to enhance teaching. I was interested in attending given the wide range of ways you can use technologies to hear from others how they are using technologies in their teaching and learn from their experiences.

The day opened with Professor Rob Beynon from Liverpool giving an interesting demonstration of livecode for writing small applications for both teaching and research. One nice thing of this demonstration was the ease of writing such small programs. Discussions of their use over lunch covered such as programs as a happy/ok/unhappy feedback clicker for lecture feedback or a bespoke data entry system to support a practical.

Dr Emma Taylor from Exeter spoke about how she is integrating mind maps to improve the problem based learning process (PBL) and help overcome some of the problems of the traditional PBL approach, in particular dealing with student anxiety of differences in learning objectives between groups. The approach employed at Exeter made use of technology to enhance a large group feedback session using interactive surface tables upon which students can display and discuss the research they have done on the PBL learning objectives.

Professor Neil Morris from Leeds lead a fascinating afternoon session covering a wide range of uses of technology that he has applied in his own teaching at Leeds and how he is now involved in the production of MOOCs. This resulted in a very interesting discussion about ensuring ‘digital equality’, that is not disadvantaging students because of the technology.  Neil discussed his experiences of using technology in his own teaching, in particular using tablets for discrete teaching sessions and for longer periods. He presented the findings from evaluations of those projects and provided an interesting insight of how such technologies could be deployed within a university setting and how they enhance teaching. One clear message from these projects was about app curation, guiding students to suitable apps as you would guide them to papers and text books on a reading list.

In the final session we looked at using tables both as a method for generating small pieces of teaching content and for delivering small teaching sessions using a range of apps. As highlighted in the previous session, there is a wide range of apps available, however, as with the plethora of text books covering an area which apps you choose may also be down to personal taste as well as function.

The workshop highlighted the range of different ways we can use technology to enhance learning. It provoked a lot of questions around access, ownership of equipment and openness of resources and certainly gave me a lot to think about in terms of different methods and opportunities to use technology to enhance my teaching. I look forward to future events like this including the joint biochemical society FEBS conference on bioscience education next spring.

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