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Tuesday, 31 March 2009

Advancement of science lives on

The British Association for the Advancement of Science may be a thing of the past, they changed the name to British Science Association, but the advancement word lives on. This is thanks to the Royal Society, which has just set up a new centre for the advancement of science.

The RS has bought Chicheley Hall, a country pile, sorry, "historic stately home," where "scientists from all over the UK and the world will be able to meet to discuss and develop their work". The RS's new pad is two miles east of Newport Pagnell, not far from idyllic Milton Keynes.

Unless the RS decides to get into the business, the place will lose its role in the weddings market, but it will reclaim its status as a place where more important things happen. Wikipedia tells us that during the Second World War the Special Operations Executive used the place as its Special Training School No. 46. (More recently, it also stood in for Bletchley Park in a TV programme.)

The money for the new venture comes from the Kavli Foundation, those nice people who are funding the AAAS's awards for science writers. The foundation will also use Chicheley Hall as its European home.

The place cost £6.5 million, knocked down from an asking price of £9 million in 2007, and will open in 2010, the 350th Anniversary of the Royal Society.

Monday, 30 March 2009

New book by ABSW member Mark Henderson

Mark Henderson's first book is being published on Thursday April 2. It's called 50 Genetics Ideas You Really Need To Know, and is published by Quercus. It's a broad introduction to basic concepts and issues in genetics, written very much with a lay audience in mind. The "50 Ideas" series already includes similar titles on physics, maths etc.

If you're interested, it's available for pre-order from Amazon at -and it should be in the bookshops from Thursday!

Mark is Science Editor of The Times Newspaper

Friday, 27 March 2009

Lessons from cold fusion's 20th birthday

It is surely no coincidence that yet another group of researchers is reporting signs of "cold fusion" 20 years after the first storm in a test tube. The fact that the subject is in the news again adds extra interest to the account of how the journalist who first broke the story came to do so.

In a piece on the FT's science blob, A sad anniversary for cold fusion, Clive Cookson, the paper's science editor, tells how the story landed in his lap.

He was visiting his father who, like Martin Fleischmann, one the duo that "invented" cold fusion, was a chemistry professor at Southampton University. "I happened to answer the phone before dinner," says Clive. Fleischmann was on the other end. "He told me at once that he was in America, and he did not want to talk to my father but to me – in confidence."

Fleischmann then filled Clive in on the story and asked for advice on how to deal with the media. Clive cautioned Fleischmann against a press conference that the University of Utah wanted to hold to tell the world about the breakthrough. "I advised him to resist the university’s pressure to hold a press conference, if he possibly could – while being aware that such sensational news might leak out."

The university ignored this. So Fleischmann offered Clive enough details to write a piece.

At first the idea was for the FT to run something after the press conference. It was only later that it occured to Clive "that there wouldn’t be an FT on Friday. Unlike American papers – or indeed most British papers - we never publish on Good Friday."

He persuaded Fleischmann to let the FT run ahead of the pack on the grounds that "cool, calm coverage in the FT would help to set the tone for the press conference later that day". The rest is history.

Clive offers some interesting lessons from the saga. One might upset scientists greatly.

"Although everyone agrees that it really is best for research not to be released in the mass media before it has appeared in a peer-reviewed journal, the media will have no compunction about reporting sensational findings that have not been peer reviewed, so long as the scientists in question come from reputable institutions and have respectable research backgrounds, as Professors Fleischmann and Pons did."
Journalists will see this as blindingly obvious. It is not our job to peer review science.

Thursday, 26 March 2009

New dawn breaks over Dana

Ted Nield, Chair, ABSW reports on last night’s Committee meeting

Last night your Executive Committee met at the sign of the squashed blueberry – otherwise known as the headquarters of our friends the “British Science Association” (yes, yes, you know who they are) at the Dana Centre. At a previous meeting the Committee decided the Chair should communicate the highlights of its evening conflabs using the new tools of communication now at our demand - and so this is it.

The first piece of news is that I am going. (No, nothing to do with having to write these reports.) With great pleasure, I announced to the Committee that Natasha Loder (of The Economist) had agreed to take on the role of Chair. Moreover, we have agreed on an “orderly handover” during the World Conference of Science Journalists this summer - to which of course you must all come (Click the ad to the right and register NOW!). Natasha will then stand for election along with the rest of the Committee in the usual way at the 2010 AGM.

I am particularly delighted to have been able to find someone so young, able and energetic to take on this role. Natasha and I have served together on the committee before, and she has recently re-joined us as World Conference Liaison Officer. Handing over to her early at the World Conference will not only allow me to avoid remaining in post for an unconstitutionally long period; it will allow her to use the momentum of that great event to give impetus to an agenda for change – change that the Association must adopt if it is to survive in this rapidly shifting world of science communication. Natasha will be consulting widely with your newly reinvigorated Committee about what form those changes should take; but you can take it from me that she does not want for ideas, nor the commitment to see them through.

I was also able to introduce yet another new member of the Committee, Ian Adamson. Ian is a mathematics Masters student from Kings College, and as a staunch supporter of last year’s Briefing sessions, has agreed to take over from me as their organiser for 2009. The Committee welcomed him and decided to begin a consultation with you all about what topics might be covered in the coming year. Committee member Mun-Keat Looi has already initiated this discussion on our lists. Part of what we wish to achieve in the future is greater regionality, so Committee member Chrissie Giles has agreed to take on the role as Regional Groups Coordinator on the Committee.

The Royal College of Surgeons in Lincolns Inn Fields has generously offered to host the briefings next year, replacing an identical sponsorship deal that we enjoyed last year from the Geological Society of London. We are very grateful to them for the free use of their rooms, and to the RCS’s Jane Hughes, whose initiative this was.

Free briefings

The Committee also accepted my proposal that in the coming session Briefings should be free. We introduced charges at a time when the Association’s finances were at a very low ebb indeed, and we couldn’t afford for any of our activities to be on the wrong side of the balance sheet. Now, thanks to you for paying your dues (and for sterling work by Jacob Aron in combing through our membership database and writing to those who had forgotten or paid the wrong amount) the time has come to relax this condition in order to welcome more colleagues to these excellent networking events. As Committee member Wendy Grossman said “The best thing the ABSW can offer its members is each other”.

So for that reason, non-members will still be charged (or asked to join!).

Awards 2009

The Committee accepted a proposal (from Natasha Loder and Committee member Sunny Bains) to offer a measure of membership involvement in one of the two ABSW Awards that will be on offer this year. Members will be aware that we were unable once again to raise sponsorship for our long-standing awards, and it seems increasingly likely that in the future we shall have to run them quite differently from the way we did them in the past. However, to keep the brand alive, this summer at the World Conference we shall be offering two awards only – a Lifetime Achievement Award (which is in the gift of the Committee) and a Best Newcomer Award, which will be open to online nominations. Watch out for further instructions soon from Natasha and Sunny.

Golden shower

We discussed much besides, and many people were thanked for their continuing work; but these are not the minutes! However, for those eagerly awaiting it, I should report that progress on the design and implementation of the Association’s new website (being developed by Committee member Mike Nagle) has now resumed. There was a slight hold-up when Mike’s brand new laptop “went for a swim” (in lager, apparently – and not Mike’s either) and had to be dried out.

One last thing. Since I became Chair, leading your Committee’s efforts to save and raise money and to put the Association’s accounts onto a more professional basis, has been your Treasurer, Martin Ince. Like me, he has also announced his intention to step down this year. (Actually, constitutionally I didn’t have a choice; but treasurers can go on forever, because it’s so difficult to find them.) If you are not frightened by figures and can hold your nerve in a crisis, Martin would like to hear from you.

Ted Nield

Monday, 23 March 2009

$2 million for AAAS Science Journalism Awards

One of the world's oldest awards for science journalism is now worth $2 million. Not that all the cash goes to a single winner, it is an endowment to fund the scheme into the future.

The announcement from the AAAS, made some time ago but just sent out on the association's monthly newsletter, says that the "Kavli Foundation has provided a $2 million endowment that will ensure the future of the prestigious Science Journalism Awards program of the American Association for the Advancement of Science".

The original backer, the engineering company Westinghouse, funded the "Westinghouse Awards" for nearly 50 years. From 2010, the name changes to the AAAS Kavli Science Journalism Award.

In 2000 Fred Kavli, "a prominent California business leader and noted philanthropist" set up the foundation which "is currently actively involved in establishing major research institutes at leading universities and institutions in the United States, Europe and Asia".

The foundation's activities include a series of science journalism bootcamps, "administered by the Knight Science Journalism Fellowship program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology". This year's event, from 15 - 18 June, will be on nanotechnology.

Wednesday, 18 March 2009

Job Advert: Science Writer wanted by Health Research Board of Ireland

FROM: Health Research Board of Ireland
DATE: 16 March 2009
JOB REFERENCE: A Picture of Health 2009


The Health Research Board is seeking the support of a science writer to assist in the production of the 2009 edition of its annual publication ‘A Picture of Health’.

First published in 2003, the publication describes, in non-technical language, the latest developments in health research in Ireland supported by the HRB. Its purpose is to communicate the outcomes of HRB-funded research in lay terms to key stakeholder groups, such as budget holders and policy-makers, in a way that highlights the relevance, value and potential impact of this research on people’s health, the delivery of health services and the formulation of health policy. (Please also note that based on a review of the 2009 edition the HRB may provide the option of extending the contract of the successful writer for the 2010 publication subject to agreement of terms and conditions).



  • Science writing services for an approx 50-page lay publication entitled ‘A Picture of Health 2009’. The material will comprise research summaries arising from the portfolio of HRB-funded research selected by HRB personnel.
  • The format of the 2009 publication is envisaged to comprise approx 20 stories of 400 words in length, and 12 ‘in brief’ summaries of approx 100 words in length.
  • The successful writer will be required to liaise with the research community in order to understand and develop the source material for the publication
  • The successful writer will also be required to write short summaries of a selection of the stories for the purpose of the HRB press release relating to the publication

Key Deliverables:

  • A project initiation meeting with HRB personnel in HRB offices, Dublin to agree the final content plan for the publication
  • Conduct of telephone (or email) interviews with 20 researchers to gain additional insight around context of research and findings
  • Production of 20 research stories of 400 word length, 12 brief communications of 100 words in length, and six short summaries of the most newsworthy stories at 100 words length for the HRB press release by the end of June 2009*
  • Editing and proof-reading of drafts of the publication leading to the final published report

* Please note that the final content plan for the 2009 publication and final deadline for submission of material may be subject to amendment – however quotations should be based on this provisional plan, while the impact on costs of any amendments may be negotiated at contract stage

Proposals should include the following information:

  • The name of the person providing a quotation and details relating to track record, ability and experience (please submit one sample of your work that you would consider to be your best example of relevant writing material)
  • A proposal as to how the requirements and key deliverables will be met
  • An outline of the timescale for delivering on the project
  • An estimate of the costs involved in the project (including editing and proof reading), including VAT

Relevant Information

  • As a general guide, based on previous productions of this publication, the cost of this job is expected to be in the region of €9,000 - €13,000. Please access the 2003-2008 ‘Picture of Health’ publications on the HRB website (to request a hard copy email

Evaluation criteria

  • Quotations for the above project will be evaluated on the following criteria:
  • Demonstrated ability to write about scientific matter in a clear, concise, easy-to-understand style suitable for a non-specialist audience
  • Track record and experience of producing material of a similar nature
  • Quality of the proposal to meet the key requirements and deliverables
  • Ability to meet the deadline for completion
  • Cost and value for money of the proposal

    Deadline for quotation:

Please submit your quotation by email to by 5.00pm on Friday 27 March 2009

Terms and conditions

The HRB is not bound to accept the lowest priced or any proposal. Acceptance by the HRB of a proposal will be subject to the negotiation of a contract. The contract will be awarded based on a fixed price. All travel, subsistence and other expenses related to the project are deemed to be part of the fixed price.

Invoices are to be issued at the satisfactory completion of each stage of the contract as agreed at the outset. Payment will be on foot of appropriate documentation (including an up-to date tax clearance certificate) and invoices, and will be paid in accordance with the terms of the European Communities (Late Payment in Commercial Transactions Regulations), 2002.

The successful applicant/s will report progress on the project at regular intervals to the project manager in the HRB.

All enquiries and correspondence relating to this call for proposals should be addressed to Brendan Curran, Evaluation Manager: e or t +353 (01) 2345 137

HRB Background Information

The Health Research Board (HRB) is the lead agency in Ireland supporting and funding health research. Our aim is to improve people’s health through research. With an annual budget of approximately €50 million from the Department of Health and Children and current commitments worth almost €200 million, we support a broad range of health research in Ireland that we hope will improve the delivery of patient care and the health of the population. Our funding is focused on building people’s research capability, providing relevant equipment and infrastructure and supporting research programmes in a wide variety of areas. Our research programmes range from tackling cancer or heart disease to examining the impact of socio-economic factors on people’s health, from creating an electronic patient record to improve care for people with a chronic disease, to identifying genes that are common among people with a particular disease.

Friday, 13 March 2009

Jenny Gristock – a woman of outstanding achievement

Anyone who does not know what Dr Jenny Gristock, ABSW member and "science policy wonk," looks like can see photos of her plastered around the Wellcome Collection on the Euston Road. Jenny is one of this year's "Women of Outstanding Achievement". This means that she features in the Women of Outstanding Achievement Photographic Exhibition "featuring portraits of the six pioneering females chosen".

The details of the event tell us that Jenny is one of two women honoured for "communication of SET with a contribution to society". SET is, of course, science engineering and technology.

The awards come from the UK Resource Centre for Women in Science, Engineering and Technology. The Women of Outstanding Achievement Photographic Exhibition has been going for four year and is "designed to profile pioneering women in SET as role models in a sector in which females are highly under-represented".

Salaam, Trieste - student interns wanted

Now then, pay attention, all you Sci, Comm, student writers out there. The Abdus Salam International Centre for Theoretical Physics (ICTP) no less, based in Trieste, Italy, is offering a science communications summer internship for students (or recent graduates) enrolled in science writing programmes.

They tell us that they "are looking for a student who can write timely, interesting articles about the science and training activities at the Centre". With the Trieste campus as his or her beat, the intern will take the initiative to interview scientists and students and contribute articles to ICTP's newsletter, website and other United Nations-related publications. By the end of the internship the intern should have an impressive portfolio of clips.

The internship can last up to 2 months, with a small weekly stipend. ICTP will provide housing, daily subsistence allowance and round-trip transportation to and from Trieste, Italy.

Thursday, 12 March 2009

Turkish science editor fired over evolution feature

A tweet from New Scientist takes us to a blog item from Debbie MacKenzie in Brussels which took us on to the Turkish site Hurriyet. Debbie's item, Turkey's battles with Islamic creationists continue, is about the sacking of the editor of Bilim ve Teknik (Science and Technology), "the excellent popular science magazine".

Evolution is the cause of the ruckus. The Turkish national science council, TÜBİTAK, which publishes the magazine, also pulled a cover feature on Darwin's anniversary and put in its place a feature on global warming.

Lest anyone think that all Turks are backward looking fundamentalists of the George Bush variety, Hurriyet reports disquiet at ministerial level. "State Minister Mehmet Aydın expressed discontent at the removal of the Darwin story." The news service also quotes the minister as saying "This is not TÜBİTAK’s mission."

There are then some juicy bits of mud slinging. They quote an unnamed academic as saying that Professor Ömer Cebeci, the axe wielder and vice president of TÜBİTAK, it seems, "is an ignorant manager and is unaware of the scientific research going on abroad and at home. The political decision makers that brought Cebeci to his post are just as ignorant as Cebeci himself."

It isn't actually clear if the editor in question, Çiğdem Atakuman, really has lost her job. According to Hurriyet "Aydın said the chief editor was not removed from her post, basing his comment on a conversation with a TÜBİTAK official". But as New Scientist said in its tweet, "Let's support her".

Recruitment – Nobel Prizes: Online Editors/Event Managers wanted


JOB/COURSE TITLE: Online Editors/Event Managers

SHORT AD DESCRIPTION: Highly motivated and organised individuals needed to join a small team working on an educational outreach programme that takes Nobel Laureate in Physics and Chemistry to universities around the world.

LONG AD DESCRIPTION:, the official website of the Nobel Foundation, with headquarters based in Stockholm, Sweden, is seeking two enthusiastic people to work in its expanding London office in Camden. The successful applicants will join a team working on the Honeywell-Nobel Initiative, an educational outreach programme that takes Nobel Laureates in Physics and Chemistry to universities around the world (for more information see

The chief goals for these new positions will be to help develop the programme and the evolution and expansion of the initiative’s website. Key tasks will include planning and attending Honeywell-Nobel Initiative events, interacting with Nobel Laureates, generating video content for the website, developing new content streams and creating online communities. While these tasks could be divided into two separate roles, one concerned more with the event management side and the other concerned mainly with content creation, these two job descriptions can be tailored to the individual skills of the successful candidates. Both positions may involve fairly frequent travel. Applicants should have a background in science or engineering, be highly organized and good at working in geographically separated teams, and possess a good understanding of event management and online communication and education. offers a competitive benefits package and the opportunity to work in a highly creative and congenial atmosphere, helping to provide truly inspirational content. To apply, please send a covering letter indicating your salary requirements and how your previous experience relates to these positions, together with a full CV, by email to the Editor-in-Chief, who can be contacted for further information at Applications will be reviewed upon receipt with a closing date of Monday 23 March 2009. Early application is encouraged.

  • SALARY: On request
  • CONTRACT TYPE: Permanent
  • HOURS: Full time
  • QUALIFICATION LEVEL: Undergraduate degree (or equivalent)
  • CLOSING DATE: Monday 23 March 2009
  • CONTACT DETAILS: Editor-in-Chief,,
  • HOW TO APPLY: Please send a covering letter indicating your salary requirements and how your previous experience relates to these positions, together with a full CV, by email to the Editor-in-Chief, who can be contacted for further information at

Monday, 2 March 2009

Who let the gene genie out of the box?

When a science journalist sits down to write an article, the last thing they have in mind is that an academic somewhere will use the piece as in a research project. But that is just what Rebecca Carver did in her doctoral work on "Genes in the media" at the Institute for Basic Medical Sciences (IMB) at the University of Oslo.

Not content with writing her PhD and a journal paper, Dr Carver has colluded in the creation of a press release on her work Oslo-scientists have found the media gene. In this we read:

“We chose to analyse the national newspapers Aftenposten, VG and Dagbladet from Norway; The Guardian, The Daily Mail and The Sun from the UK,” Carver explains. “We randomly selected a total of 300 articles, including commentaries, features, news stories and news briefs that referred to the gene concept in various ways.”
There then follows a detailed description of different uses of the "gene" thingy in these media. You will have to read the paper in "the important international journal EMBO Reports, issued for the European Molecular Biology Organization" for the full details.

Carver's key message seems to be that "journalists and editors, striving for a catchy news story, often convert a relativistic message into a deterministic one". Guess what, it all comes down to the "titles and bylines". As Carver pouts it "we have found that the titles and bylines are often deterministic whilst the relativistic and evolutionary frames tend to be present further into the article".

Carver, who has also has a "Master degree in Science Communication from Imperial College London," wants to hear from science reporters. As Carver and Jarle Breivik, her supervisor, put it, “We hope our work will increase awareness of how we communicate the gene concept, and would like to come into contact with both scientists and journalists.”