30 June 2009

WCSJ2009: Day Two

Wow, things really heated up at the World Conference of Science Journalists today, and I'm not just talking about the temperature in London...

It all started when former science journalist, Jeff Nesbit, addressed us delegates about his work with the US National Science Foundation. Essentially, he has been creating a mini science media empire, which includes hiring sacked CNN science producers to make science films, which then get distributed to media outlets around the world. Some people were aghast at his idea that government-funded bodies like his could fill the gap that real newspapers and TV channels are leaving behind. Politicians may love the idea, but is it still journalism? Can you still be critical and impartial? Many members of the audience didn't think so.

Things went from bad to worse when super-cool Ben Hammersley from Wired UK magazine told us that the current journalism crisis would root out all the chaff from the profession, leaving only the high-quality, truth-telling, intelligent wheat. Sounds fair. Then he added that this would mean half of us in the audience would be gone. Naturally, this didn't go down well. Especially since a lot of good science journalists have found themselves jobless through no fault of their own, because of budget cutbacks or their employers have folded.

In the next session, the fabulous reporter, Nick Davies, warned that real journalism may not survive at all, because as newsrooms get taken over by corporations, the time and space that reporters need to do their work is slowly being squeezed out. The average national newspaper reporter is filling 3 times as much space as they did in 1980, he warned, with the result that as much as 80% of the content in national quality newspapers is at least partly derived from press releases.

What's the answer? Nick Davies admitted he doesn't have the solution to the journalism crisis. If you do, let us all know. Please.

The danger online

If you have time to tune in, I have a piece on the BBC World Service radio show, Digital Planet, this week about cyberbullying. As well as some harrowing clips from victims, I interview Microsoft about some new research they've completed into rates of online bullying across Europe.

Unbelievably, a third of teenagers across the EU say they have been bullied online, with levels highest in the Nordic countries and lowest in Spain and Italy. With every new technology, a new form of bullying seems to emerge: Happy slapping using mobile phones, vicious emails, and these days, fake profiles on social networking sites.

It's easy enough to say that children just shouldn't use these sites or devices, but not to would mean opting out of a culture that's integral to their lives... And this means online bullying can be as hurtful as any other kind. Case in point, is the fact that teenagers commit suicide as a result.

29 June 2009

WCSJ2009: Day One

The World Conference of Science Journalists starts for real tomorrow, but today was a chance for the extra keen among us to go to some early sessions at the beautiful Royal Geographical Society in South Kensington. I went to the one on food security, sponsored by the UK's Department for International Development.

I'd like to say that the future will be one of plenty, but sadly it's bleak: The global population is set to rise to 9.5 billion by 2050. By 2030, we'll need 50% more food than we need now, and the FAO estimates that the number of hungry people will soon rise beyond 1 billion. The problem is that crop productivity seems to be levelling out. Even worse, post-harvest losses (including that due to pests) across the globe now stand at a whopping 40%, which means a big proportion of what could be grown doesn't even reach our plates.

Fortunately, science may have some solutions. Researchers are working on protecting crops from pests and weeds, like Julie Scholes from the University of Sheffield who is defeating pernicious witchweed in Africa; and others are trying to make the crops we have more productive, like John Foulkes from Nottingham University, who is cross-breeding big Mexican wheat with little UK varieties. GM crops were also mentioned in hushed tones, with Michael Bevan from the BBSRC, admitting, "As scientists we know we can make big advances with transgenics, but we need to bring society along with that."

25 June 2009

World Conference of Science Journalists

I love a good conference! The WCSJ is a meeting of more than 800 science communicators from around the world and it lands in London next week. Lucky me, the European Union of Science Journalists' Associations has given me funding so I can go, but for those of you who can't, I'll be blogging on all the events I attend right here on Nothing Shocks Me.

High on the agenda, of course, is the state of science journalism, and to mark the start of the debate, Nature has published a series of free-to-view articles on the subject. One of the problems with science journalism these days is that so many people rely on press releases, dished out by slick PR teams from universities, journals, and sometimes private companies. I only rarely use press releases myself, but I do get most of them through my email inbox, so I can attest that a lot of what you read in the papers or online is regurgitated PR.

That said, I have sympathy for overworked staff journalists who are expected to deliver an unholy quantity of stories every week. It's near impossible to do that and still be original. Nature suggests that scientists themselves have a big part to play in improving science journalism - by helping us to be accurate and informed, and reaching out to the world with their stories.

Picture above is an article in the 1938 issue of Popular Science magazine. See, even 70 years ago journalists liked a bit of sensationalism.

24 June 2009

Which sex is science?

Ever since I found myself the only girl in my chemistry class at school, I have asked: Why are there so few women in science compared to men? I refuse to accept, as some have suggested, that women are less capable than men. What is more likely is that, culturally, men have been encouraged into science and engineering careers more than women.

And new data published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences seems to bear this out. Across the world, the researchers found that 70% of people associate men with science more than women. According to lead investigator Brian Nosek, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Virginia:
"Culture is a powerful force for shaping the beliefs and behavior of its members... We believe that implicit stereotypes and sex gaps in science achievement are mutually reinforcing mechanisms."
If women do make it into a science career, some people have suggested they may also suffer disproportionately more than men from 'imposter syndrome'. This is a lack of confidence or a feeling of inadequacy that leads someone to believe that they are not good enough for the job they're in, however talented they may be.

22 June 2009

Interning, or working for free?

In tough economic times, graduates need to work harder than ever to find employment. But one thing that has always bothered me is how many firms cross the line when offering "work experience." I'm writing this post because my younger sister, a politics graduate, is about to begin her masters degree in September so, like everyone else, she's been going to interviews for summer internships.

One lobbying firm offered her a three-month, full-time position unpaid. And from the sounds of it, she would be doing vital paperwork and admin, with no right to annual leave. Sad thing is, I have heard dozens of shocking stories in my time about graduates (especially young journalists at newspapers and TV channels) slogging for months, sometimes even years (yes, this is true, but I'm not naming names), without seeing a penny... And I wonder, how do employers get away it?

Last year, the NUJ passed a resolution to prevent young journalists from being exploited. But I'm not sure any such protection exists in other industries, such as in politics, think tanks, or NGOs. And sadly, young graduates may often be afraid to speak up because they need the experience or contacts.

If you have a scare story about working for free, especially if you are a journalist, please post it here or send it to me anonymously and I'll collate them for another blog post.

19 June 2009

Making your own gadgets

The United States, one step ahead of us as it usually is, has had lots of vibrant hack spaces for years, where gadget lovers get together to hack and tinker with bits of electronics and old toys, to build new ones. But the idea has now reached Britain's shores! To find out more, read my piece for the BBC News website. John Galliver, who produces videos for the BBC website, had also made a great accompanying film.

We went to the most recent meeting of London Hack Space, which was in a hot and crowded pub basement in Islington. The group only launched in January but is already attracting hundreds of people, and is now looking for a permanent base. To be honest, a lot of hacking is about software, and creating applications for things like the iPhone. But there were some hardware geeks at the event, including one who has made a crazy-looking clock out of flashing LEDs (that's what is in the picture above).

I used to do a bit of electronics as part of my degree at university, and have only just got back into it recently. In March, with some help, I soldered my own little flashing light circuit from a kit. It was actually pretty simple, and I've become a big supporter of the idea of building or fixing our technology rather than constantly replacing it with new models. If you're tempted to try it, just get down to your nearest hackspace.

18 June 2009

Am I on Twitter?

I was at a London Hack Space event last night, and while there, I was asked, "Are you on Twitter?". I get asked this a lot, because people assume as a science journalist I must be making the most of all possible online opportunities to network. But the answer is no, and not because I don't like it (I actually do, I sometimes read other people's Tweets), but because I work from home...

I worked in offices for many years after I left university, so when I went freelance last year what I feared most was the dreaded creep of procrastination... letting work slide in favour of watching TV/playing on the Xbox/emailing friends etc. And since every year seems to bring some new social networking tool, I'm now stuck in the awful dilemma of having to choose what to join and what not to join. Too many, and I could find myself sucked into an endless string of online commitments, leaving no time for real work.

So this is the reason I'm not on Twitter (where does Stephen Fry get the time and energy?), Facebook or MySpace. Deciding whether to join things or not is also the reason I'm a pathetically late adopter: I joined LinkedIn only recently, and started blogging last year.

But I'm not alone in my predicament: There's a good piece on the PocketMac Brothers' Blog about how to stay focused in the day, in the face of technological distractions.

13 June 2009

What's your favourite?

One of the places in London I love to visit regularly is the Science Museum (in fact, my boyfriend gave me toys from the Science Museum's shop for my last birthday). This year marks the museum's centenary, and to celebrate, they've picked out ten iconic scientific objects from the last 100 years and are subjecting them to a public vote. So which one do you think is the most important out of:
They're all amazing breakthroughs in their own fields or industries, but I've voted for the Pilot Model ACE computer, which was the first computer in the world able to do more than one thing, based on the principles devised by Alan Turing. It was a tough choice, but I couldn't think of anything else that's changed my life, in my lifetime, more than the PC.

9 June 2009

Imperial's first engineering blog

I spent this morning at the beautiful campus of Imperial College London, giving a seminar to some of the college's illustrious chemical engineers. The subject wasn't engineering (I have nothing to teach them on this front), but blogging. More precisely, to launch them on a blog of their very own.

There are only a handful of engineering blogs out there, and even fewer written by university academics so it was great to see a group of engineers so enthusiastic about reaching out their research to the wider world. So please read and support their new site. It went live a few hours ago and it's called (wait for it) Imperial's Chemical Engineers. It's hosted on Blogger at http://imperialchemeng.blogspot.com/.

4 June 2009

We're better connected

'Crowd' seem to be the buzzword of the year. We're all much more powerful when we combine our skills, intelligence, time... And now research seems to confirm that the big leaps that happened in human history, in culture, technology etc, have been because of groups reached a critical point of interaction, not because we got more brainy as individuals.

Research by a team at University College London, published in Science, shows that "increasing population density, rather than boosts in human brain power, appears to have catalysed the emergence of modern human behaviour," according to the press release.

Dr Mark Thomas from UCL's Genetics, Evolution and Environment Department, said: "In reality, there is no evidence of a big change in our biological makeup when we started behaving in an intelligent way. Our model can explain this even if our mental capacities are the same today as they were when we first originated as a species some 200,000 years ago."

3 June 2009

Mummy, I want one!

Remember those chemistry kits from when you were a kid? A few plastic test tubes and a beaker to slosh around baking soda with vinegar? Well, let me tell you, times have changed my friend. Home science kits have got so impressive that they would put a university laboratory to shame.

While innocently surfing the web, I stumbled upon a Genetics and DNA kit for children, retailing for less than $35, which allows you to "breed bacteria to experiment with genetic engineering." Then, on the London Science Museum shop's website, I discovered a build-your-own robot with a "360 degree adjustable solar panel so you can harness the sun's energy, plus a wind-up generator to control your Enviro-bot on cloudy days."

Elsewhere, I found a $150 chemistry set that lets you construct your very own hydrogen fuel cell. Personally, I feel that children no longer have an excuse to not pass their science GCSEs.

2 June 2009

Who can blame North Korea?

I have never been to North Korea, but from what I hear, it's not a happy place to live. I interviewed a scientist from Seoul once who claimed that North Koreans were shorter than people in the South, possibly because of decades of malnutrition. Stories like this worry the rest of the world even more when we find out that North Korea may eventually have both nuclear weapons and the means to launch them... setting in stone the possibility that the number of nuclear-equipped nations will go up to nine.

But the strange thing about international politics is that it looks very different depending on which nation you're in. Imagine being North Korea. The rest of the world is not too keen on you, which makes you wonder whether someday they might try to attack you in the same way as the US attacked Iraq. So you think to yourself, how can I protect myself? What's the toughest weapon I can build to make sure nobody overthrows me? What do the US and UK have? Can we really blame North Korea for wanting an atomic bomb?

There's a lot of hypocrisy when it comes to nuclear weapons. When the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty was signed in 1968, the 5 countries that already had nuclear arsenals promised to destroy them if everyone else swore not develop them too. Sadly, they all broke their end of the bargain, leaving distrust where there was previously a real chance at nuclear peace. Decades down the line, nuclear technology is so much easier to acquire that it's beginning to dawn on everyone that nuclear weapons states may never feel secure enough to disarm.