Seeing the Bigger Picture


I didn't know whether to laugh or cry at this year's British Association Festival of Science, which took place in Glasgow last week. On the one hand there was a quest by scientists to find the world's funniest joke, and on the other, dire warnings about the dangers of mobile phones, an increase in the incidence of new variant CJD, climate change, and cosmic threats to Earth in the shape of asteroids and gamma ray bursts.

I'm also embarrassed to admit that in my 16 years as a scientist, this is the first time I have attended the BA's annual meeting, and I now realise what I've been missing--a context in which to place scientific research. As scientists we tend to be rather introspectiv, and confine conference going to our own areas of research. But if you want to see the bigger picture, then the BA is a must. It is an incredibly wide-ranging conference, which brings together scientists from many different disciplines and, perhaps more importantly, aims to bring science to the public.

The theme of this year's festival was Science and Society, and it focussed on the impact of new technology and research. In his opening address Sir William Stewart, president of the BA, said, "the general public of this country are not stupid. We as scientists mustn't underestimate them. They want answers to BSE, foot and mouth, GMOs, cloning, mobile phones, and MMR vaccine."

This year's festival certainly succeeded in engaging scientists, the public, and politicians in debate about such burning issues as, "Should we put our trust in scientists?", "the mobile phone controversy," and "the use of animals in science." The former explored how scientists contribute to public policy, why scientific advice carries such authority, and how government and the public can influence how science is applied. There was also a timely forum on whether a devolved Scotland really needs its own approach to science following the recent publication of the Scottish Executive's Science Strategy for Scotland.

But the BA is not just about engaging the public; it is also about highlighting exciting new areas of research and technology. So, if your research is getting you down and you wonder if a science career is really worthwhile, I'd recommend the Festival of Science as the perfect tonic. Many sessions highlighted areas of research which could offer some of the most exciting career opportunities in coming years. Tissue Engineering was one area that received much attention. Helen Grant described how a team at Strathclyde University has developed an artificial liver, which could be a significant breakthrough in the treatment of liver failure. There was a glimmer of hope for the environment in the session on Green Chemistry, which described how chemists in academia and industry are moving toward "cleaner techniques" aimed at minimising waste and environmental damage. Thomas Klapotke and researchers at Munich University are even developing "green explosives" in an attempt to reduce pollution caused by guns and rockets. And a session on Organic Farming explained the role of chemists, molecular biologists, and plant and animal geneticists in this form of agriculture. It may be seen by some as unscientific, but the speakers highlighted the scientific rigour and interdisciplinary teams that underlie research in this fertile field.

Just when it was all becoming a little too serious, light relief was offered by two events that marked the start of Science Year, a government initiative aimed at promoting science among teenagers. The earth failed to move in a mass jump by schoolchildren (most scientists know that experiments never work first time). One million schoolchildren at various venues across the country jumped simultaneously up and down 20 times, but failed to create more than a squiggle on the seismometer. Seismologists did not expect the impact to register more than three on the Richter scale, but it was enough to get the children into the Guinness Book of Records (and hopefully enthused about science). Laugh Lab, an online experiment devised by psychologist Richard Wiseman, will examine the influence of gender, age, and nationality on sense of humour. A group of leading scientists marked the launch by submitting their own favourite jokes, but my advice to the participants would be: Don't give up the day job. Here's a taster from geneticist Steve Jones:

Two cows in field. One says to the other, "Daisy, I'm worried: I'm afraid we've got mad cow disease." Daisy replies, "Oh there's nothing to worry about, we're giraffes."

Next year's Festival of Science will be held at Leicester University from 9 to 13 September. To find out more about the BA, visit

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