Sunday, 18 July 2010

The burqa and the brain

The burqa debate has sparked some interesting blogs, but there is an element to these discussions that I have not yet encountered, and that concerns the physiology of facial expression interpretation. I thought it worthwhile to scribble a few lines about why it may or may not matter that we see the full face of another individual.

The human brain has evolved the ability to interpret a wide range of emotions, the most important of which are happy, fear, surprise, disgust, anger and sadness. When we meet someone we look first at the eyes and then at the rest of the face, and within a fifth of a second we (well, most people) make a judgement as to their emotional state. In evolutionary terms this ability has been crucial to the success of homo sapiens as a social animal, as it primes elemental responses such as empathy and distrust.

As a species we simply do not have the neuronal machinery to accurately evaluate the mood of a fellow human being without being able to see the full face. But does this matter? Perhaps in societies where faces have been partly hidden for generations, individuals become more adept at making those evaluations solely on the subtle nuances of the eyes. The problem arises where burqa-wearer meets non burqa-wearer or, in this debate, where East meets West. The former is privy to a depth of emotional analysis denied the latter, who may thus feel at a disadvantage (real or imagined). This subtle discomfort is what many of us will have experienced in receiving a delivery at our front door from a helmeted motor-cyclist.

The liberal side of me believes that providing it is worn willingly and without duress, anyone should be able to wear the burqa or niqab (except perhaps when driving). However, we must also recognize that for sound evolutionary reasons face-covering impairs communication between individuals and that this is not good for social cohesion.

Wednesday, 7 July 2010

The Cell Cyclist

This is principally a blog for cyclists, but may equally appeal to anyone interested in the course of human suffering, in this case my own. I'm a cell biologist who briefly turned cell cyclist earlier this week, but I discovered on Monday that I’m a bit naïve when it comes to the requirements for tootling more than just a few miles around London. My good friend and colleague John Greenwood is cycling with two friends, Lloyd Hutchinson and Alex Monroe, from Land’s End to John O’Groats. This is a charity ride to raise money for research into blindness, details of which, including route and how to donate, can be found here. Their 1000 mile slog will take 14 days, and on Monday (July 5th, day 5) along with a few colleagues I joined the Three Amigos (as they’ve become known) for one of those days, the winding northerly route along the English-Welsh border through Herefordshire and Shropshire.

We arrived at our rendezvous a few miles south of Ross-on-Wye on Sunday evening, half an hour or so before John’s group who had that day cycled the 75 miles from somewhere near Glastonbury. The three had been joined on day 4 by BBC middle-east correspondent Jeremy Bowen, who arrived intact but with a ghastly looking knee following a tumble. Clearly, visiting Gaza every few weeks simply isn’t dangerous enough. Despite their exertions, the four were in excellent spirits and a most convivial evening ensued, as we unrestrainedly sampled the local beer and cider, and stoked ourselves with calories for the exertions that lay ahead.

But it was as the evening became dusk, and dusk became crepuscule, and through the jokes and merriment, that a few mild anxieties first began to flutter in my stomach. Looking around the gathered company, not only did the others all appear to be unreasonably fit, but they also had all the gear – the funny little gloves with no fingers, the lycra shorts, the weird handlebar extensions, clips that stick your feet to the pedals etc., all of which I’d idly dismissed as mere frippery, the unnecessary trappings of the ardent amateur. Ruminating on whether my preparation for this bike ride might have been just a little too relaxed, I made my way to bed and a rather restless night.

Up early the next morning to birdsong, sunshine and the roar of a septic tank lorry outside my window. After a light breakfast (scrambled egg on toast, tea) we checked out, threw bags in the 'support car' and prepared for departure. As we assembled for a group photo my anxieties might easily have been piqued by John, who pointed out that I appeared to have come dressed for a barbeque rather than a bike ride. No matter I thought to myself with inexplicable confidence, I’m feeling good, and whilst I may have lacked the glistening and tightly stretched apparel of the others, I felt comfortable and relaxed as we snaked away from the hotel and headed north.

The first few miles were a breeze, nay a delight, as we cycled up the Wye valley through the bucolic charms of sunlit woods and fields, and although I had to get off and push a couple of times (which none of the others did) I was feeling in reasonably good shape. I suppose it was after about 25 miles that I started to be aware of just how unaccommodating my bicycle seat had become. Standing on the pedals from time to time helped, but there was no denying the nagging discomfort that grew with every mile. Add to that, a brisk northerly wind had pepped up, apparently referred to by serious cyclists, and with good reason, as the ‘invisible hill’.

In fact, the combination of real and invisible hills was starting to take its toll, and progress wasn’t helped by a couple of wrong turnings that resulted in us cycling twice through the village of Bartestree. The hills did eventually give way to something flatter, but by the time we reached Leominster (32 miles), and our lunch stop, my wrists were now giving me as much gyp as my derriere. Sad to report, it was but a few miles further that I realized that to continue might very well mean never being able to sit down again, and when I’m not powering home from work up the Holloway Road, I’m a man who’s fond of the comfy chair.

So it came to pass that after some 36 miles the magnificent seven became the stupendous six, as I sat out the remaining miles in the ‘support car’, my view of the countryside enriched by half a dozen bobbing backsides all the way to our destination at Clun. Scientists never tire of learning, and the lesson for me that day was that the right equipment is actually quite important, not least the padded shorts, and that training beforehand is also to be highly recommended. But even with all the correct preparation there can be no doubt that what the Three Amigos are doing is awesomely impressive and they have my unreserved admiration. The beers we downed in Clun were, for me, a well-earned conclusion to an arduous but wonderful day, and for John, Lloyd and Alex, a mere refueling and pit-stop for the 65 miles that lay ahead on Tuesday.

Saturday, 26 June 2010

Jenks: from tectum to rectum

Friends, and I have many, often ask me, 'my dear fellow, how on earth do you rally those vitriolic thoughts of yours into the cogent masterpieces of anti-science invective we know and love?' They really do. And invariably, I will tug ruminatively on my pipe, and respond with the answer that vituperation, wit and coruscation are three happy neighbours in one of the many higher centres of my brain, and it would be folly for me to try and impede their joyous communion in the written word.

With equal regularity, friends, for I am blessed with many, will urge me to explain in greater detail the birthing route that delivers what I think of as my 'conscience' to the printed page. If you're not 'pro'science then of course you must be 'con'science! Sometimes my own brilliance leaves me short of breath, I stand with eyes akimbo, and drink deep from the well of scientific ignorance.

Where was I? Oh yes, responding to the pleadings of my friends, what absolute dears, I recently had a consultation with a neurosurgeon - an attempt to fathom the mysterious origins of my glittering erudition. I was told that whilst scientists do not fully understand the processing of abstract thought into written or spoken word, it was clear in my own case that when I see something, a region of my brain called the tectum makes the first translation into reasoned response. From there, gravity (if you believe in such invisible forces!) pulls the developing notion to exit my body from something called the rectum.

I still haven't the faintest idea what he was talking about, but my friends, and what on earth would I do without them, seemed absolutely delighted with the diagnosis.

Friday, 15 January 2010

The doctor will see you at an indeterminate time

Towards the end of last year, shortly after discovering the joys of Twitter, I posted a couple of blogs on the subject of my impending heart valve surgery. I wish I could say that my subsequent silence on this topic could be explained by an uneventful period of convalescence, but alas this is not the case.

The first date I was given for the operation was erased well in advance, the second date was changed to a third because the surgeon decided I could be treated using keyhole surgery (which necessitates the assembly of a separate specialist team), but this too was cancelled.

The fourth date took me right up to the day of admission. After several phone calls with the hospital, and with their profound apologies, I was told there were no beds available. My condition is not urgent, and people keep having heart attacks so of course they take priority. By now it was almost Christmas, and I agreed with the surgeon that a fifth date should be deferred until early January. Unfortunately, I developed a nagging chest infection over the holiday, which meant a further postponement.

Today I go to see the surgeon with high hopes that we'll set a sixth date. During this time we've become quite friendly, and despite the frustration of the repeated delays I am acutely aware that it would make little sense to antagonise the man who's going to be reassembling my mitral valve.

My condition is not physically problematic, the most annoying consequence of the repeated delays is my diminished ability to concentrate on work. I am able to deal with short-term tasks, such as refereeing papers or grants and keeping up with the administrative demands of HR, but it's a real struggle to focus on larger mind-tasks such as writing grant applications and papers.

In the mean time, at least I continue to learn. Evidence here that I've managed (with much help from my 14 year old daughter) to improve my Photoshop skills.

Wednesday, 23 December 2009

Science funding: the year in review

A 'review of the year' has a seasonal ring to it, but there is little festive in the news for Britain's scientists, researchers and teachers in Higher Education. The major economic powers (let's stick to the G8 countries, of which the UK is one) have had to deal with unusually severe economic conditions, and all G8 countries are making budget cuts and decisions about where best to spend their tax revenues. It is interesting therefore to consider how the UK's leading competitors have dealt with HE and research, with regard to the choices of 'cut', 'do nothing' or 'invest'. For brevity I will focus only on the USA, France and Germany, and summarise how these countries have responded to the financial squeeze in terms of HE/science funding. Blocks of text in gray are taken more or less verbatim from the original news articles.

Direct comparisons are inevitably tricky due to national differences in ministerial portfolios, definitions and emphasis, but read on and be in no doubt as to the picture that emerges. With the US HE system being largely privately funded one must necessarily focus on the publicly funded research budget. Early in the year President Obama announced his 'stimulus package', an extra $10bn for the NIH to spend over two years. Notwithstanding the point made by many US researchers that the short time-frame of the fund was not ideal, the clear message was that the US view is that research should be stimulated at a time of financial hardship.

Next up was Germany. In June the German chancellor announced an award of some €2.7bn in research funding to German universities and research institutions. The funding will form part of an overall €18bn (new money over the next 10 years) investment in science and education, the largest such single amount in Germany's post-war history. (See and So Germany too appears to take the view that investment in HE and research is a critical card to play in a recession-busting budget.

Then a few weeks ago, step up France. Valérie Pécresse, the HE and research minister revealed that her portfolio was "the top priority for the 3rd year running". Earmarked spending for HE and research is up, including inflation, 5.3%, to €29.2bn from this year's €27.7bn. As for research itself, it will receive a boost of €804 million. Moreover, another €731 million were injected into Pécresse's budget this year, including €286 million for research, as part of the government's economic recovery plan. (see So even France, cash-strapped with it's huge public spending commitments, sees HE and research as of the highest priority when it comes to digging itself out of recession.

Finally, in December, it was the turn of UK chancellor Alistair Darling to announce er, a cut of £600 million in spending for HE/research by 2012. Given that successive UK governments have historically always spent less than their G8 competitors (in terms of %GDP) on HE/research, to impose a cut on an already severely stretched budget defies comprehension. Today's announcement from meddling Mandelson of an immediate cut of more than £500 million for universities (which may or may not be part of the £600 million), confirms the view of the UK government that HE/research is not a high priority, that it is perhaps something of an extravagance, and certainly not the route out of recession.

Why is the UK so strikingly out of line with the other major economic powers? It doesn't seem to be a simple question of political ideologies, since the US, France and Germany represent a reasonable spread of political thought. Moreover, the Tory Shadow Science Minister, Adam Afriyie, recently posted a blog in the New Scientist ( that eulogised about British science in tones similar to those we hear from the current administration, but with little substance and much about encouraging 'public debate', and presenting 'clear arguments' to the public as to why science is important. If this is Tory science policy it is uncontaminated by substance, conveniently inexpensive, and conceals not a jot of a commitment to increasing science funding.

I noticed a recent Tweet that exhorted scientists and HE teachers to march on Whitehall. Let's do it (the French would). And let's make Mandelson and his cronies explain why they think the UK has got it right, and France, Germany and the US have got it wrong.

Thursday, 3 December 2009

The Impact of Impact

Of all the topics discussed at #sciblue, 'impact' has surfaced as the most provocative post-debate. @SmallCasserole has written an excellent blog on the confusion that was evident at the debate with regard to impact analysis as part of the REF, and impact analysis as a crystal ball-gazing exercise in grant applications

Although the anti-impact (REF) movement has attracted much support, including that of 6 nobel laureates, it is not clear from the message boards whether the antipathy is directed solely towards the use of impact to gate the distribution of the HEFCE budget, or impact analysis as a tool for public engagement and accountability. I suspect the former, but either way, there are clearly some scientists who appear to be comfortable with impact being used in the context of the REF.

As for assessing the impact of research ideas expressed in new grant applications, this is plain barmy. To devise an 'impact management plan' for a blue skies project, which is what we are now required to do, is to produce a couple of pages of pure fiction. Yet there are projects for which one can assess likely impact, before the work has been done. My own research ranges from blue skies to clinically applied, and for the latter it would be possible to explain the impact the work will have - relevant text already forms part of the 'Case for Support' in such proposals and so to cut and paste into the 'impact' box would not entail much extra work.

The solution might therefore be for the RCUK to offer applicants a simple choice. Is your proposal basic/fundamental/blue skies, or applied/translational? If the former, skip the following section (impact), if the latter, fill it in. For proposals that appear to fall between these two broad categories, for example, where blue skies science might have 'impact' through the generation of new intellectual property, there are already places in the application forms where this can be addressed.

My view is that grant application forms have become cluttered with all manner of irrelevant questions, and that there is not a jot of hard evidence that any of this extra box ticking and bureaucracy has had any beneficial impact on the quality and quantity of scientific output in the UK. Science would work better without impact analysis, but if it is to be forced upon us, it should at least be in a way that makes sense.

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

Blue Skies Ahead

Last night I attended the ‘Blue Skies Ahead’ debate (#sciblue on Twitter) imagining that the focus of the meeting would be discussion of blue skies research, and the place of such fundamental/basic research in the thinking and future plans of government. Some nice blogs that explain the purpose of and background to the meeting have already appeared, my aim here will be to try and avoid unnecessary repetition.

Lord Drayson (science minister) took centre stage and he fielded a wide range of questions with a combination of honesty, integrity, and (worryingly) at times confusion. Nevertheless, in 25 years in medical research, I found it refreshing and unusual to have a science minister willing to talk directly to scientists – and scientists at all levels. So, top marks to Lord Drayson, the THE, and the physicists and astronomers who organised the event.

Although the debate attempted to cover too wide a range of topics, and ‘blue skies’ research barely featured, there was at least some impassioned discussion of the Govt’s ‘impact agenda’. On this issue it appeared that Lord Drayson was not aware of the important difference between the need to provide a retrospective analysis of the impact of research for the purposes of RAE/REF/HEFCE, and the new demands of the RCUK to provide a ‘predictive’ assessment of the impact of proposed research, as part of future grant applications. The obvious problem is that blue skies research, by definition, is research where the outcomes cannot be predicted, hence any attempt to assess possible impact might as well resort to astrology or the inspection of goat’s entrails. See also for a good illustration of how impact analysis doesn’t work.

Lord Drayson emphasised the need for scientists to impress government with the importance of their work in order to justify/safeguard future funding. Few would disagree with this, but there is the potential for internecine division lurking beneath the surface, that could too easily lead to in-fighting between scientists competing for shares of a shrinking pot of funding. It is important that scientists do not end up squabbling over the meagre resources available, and that instead we challenge the government to invest at similar levels to our major competitors (such as France and Germany). The arguments for increasing science funding should be utterly compelling since UUK, through teaching and research, will be central to wealth generation in the years ahead.

The topic that concluded the debate, namely the teaching of science (and particularly physics) at high school level, was of obvious importance but discordant with the theme of the evening.

I hope Lord Drayson will continue to talk to scientists, and that a much needed debate of blue skies research may yet take place.