Tales from the water cooler: June 2011
‘The Royal Institution is obviously in a muddle at the moment..’ opined Royal Society chief Paul Nurse recently to People & Science (p8 of this issue). No sooner did he say it, but I discovered that the Science Media Centre is moving. Literally. It’s packing up its office in boxes as I write. After more than a decade in fashionable Mayfair, the SMC has ‘de-merged’ from the RI and is moving north - to Euston Road, to be precise, and into the swanky offices of the Wellcome Trust. Muddle, money, or a mixture of both?
The British Science Association’s weekly news roundups, the Science News Digest, have been deemed to be getting a little racy of late, or so some institution’s overzealous profane content and spam blockers would have you believe. The Digest has been rejected on the grounds of including words and phrases ranging from ‘free energy’, ‘casinos’ and ‘overweight and reduce’ appearing in the same sentence. Other words causing inbox uproar have included ‘sperm’ when discussing the breeding practices of nematodes, ‘homo’ in homo sapiens and ‘bang’ in the Big Bang….
It’s not only spam filters. The Association’s use of words doesn’t please some people, either. The current Royal Society chief, Paul Nurse, told People & Science in no uncertain terms recently that he wouldn’t have changed the name of the British Science Association two years ago. ‘I wouldn’t have thrown the BA’s name away, frankly. I think it was daft,’ he said. ‘The whole thing is utterly muddled. I’d have left the brand BA. For scientists and those who are particularly interested in science, they all knew what the BA was. BSA hardly helps. British Science Association might, but British Science Association doesn’t communicate what it does. So I would have BA and something underneath it to say what it is.’
Someone who has, if not shaken, certainly rattled a few cages recently is the Astronomer Royal and former Royal Society chief Martin Rees. Lord Rees, who professed to having ‘no religious beliefs at all’ in an interview with the Guardian’s Ian Sample, won the 2011 Templeton Prize for 'career achievements which affirm life's spiritual dimension.' The Templeton Prize is the largest monetary prize in the world and was set up in 1973 by Wall Street billionaire and Christian, the late John Templeton.
Rees’ acceptance of the prize has sparked controversy amongst certain scientists and contemporaries who do not agree that he should have accepted the prize from a body which promotes religion. My favourite headline generated by the story was the Independent’s Steve Connor who wrote ‘For the love of God… scientists in uproar at £1m religion prize.’
The wrong science
March 2011 saw the 17th National Science & Engineering Week. Much news coverage of NSEW was eclipsed by a surfeit of coverage – all science – following the catastrophic earthquake in Japan. As the disaster evolved, the media was full of science, from seismology to tsunamis to nuclear reactors.
Following the explosion at Fukushima’s nuclear plant murmurings have been heard amongst the UK’s public engagement community about whether nuclear is about to become the next MMR.
Extracurricular to nonexistent?
The Department for Business, Innovation & Skills and the Department of Education are in discussions with several organisations about continuing to fund national schemes that support extracurricular science activities in schools. However, local and regional support has been decimated by the ‘austerity measures’ and several providers of high quality science activities in schools are facing extreme challenges. The curriculum review in England looks likely to result in a slimmed-down curriculum in the sciences, though whether this will free up teachers to do less ‘teaching to the test’ is debatable.
In the last issue, I reported incorrectly that Simon Festing was to become the next CEO of Society of Applied Microbiology. He is actually going to become CEO of the Society for General Microbiology, later this year. Sorry Simon!