Sheep, robots and communicating science

A few years ago, when I was President of Dublin City University, we sought planning permission to construct a building for DCU’s National Institute for Cellular Biotechnology. The Institute was (and is) working on some really significant health and life sciences issues, including treatment for cancer and diabetes. The building we were planning (which you can see here) was a pleasing design, and was to be placed well within the campus perimeter. It could not possibly have inconvenienced anyone. And yet we found a determined group of locals resisting the planning application. It took us a while to discover what was bothering them: for some bizarre reason they believed we were going to do research there on cloning humans. This was not too long after the Roslin Institute in Edinburgh cloned Dolly the sheep, and the good citizens in DCU’s neighbourhood had decided to believe that we were about to take all this a step further. And they weren’t going to let us.

Of course the Institute had no intention whatsoever of cloning anyone, but it took us a while to convince the residents of this – but when we did we were able to proceed with the building, at which point I took a direct role in getting the construction under way. Well, I didn’t actually drive the digger. But I digress.

Recently I heard a talk at which it was explained to me that some scientists and engineers believe they may not be too far off being able to build a robot that will be operated not with the help of en electronic motherboard, but with specially grown biological brain tissue. If this works, it may not be too long before such robots could become self-aware autonomous units. Does this bother you?

And what about the concerns expressed recently by a working group of the Academy of Medical Sciences about the potential impact of putting human brain cells into primates (monkeys), and the potential ‘humanising’ effects of such experiments? And of course the use of embryonic stem cells still causes heated debates.

But actually the list if potential ethical issues could stretch for miles, depending on whom you ask and what it is that keeps them awake at night. Equally, you may find people who simply cannot believe that we agonise over the ethics of research that could help millions, save lives and generate supplies of food.

Research ethics committees are now all over the higher education system, and their work is vitally important. But that’s not what I am addressing here. It’s not just about assessing ethical dilemmas, it is about communicating what these issues are really all about. Why would a group of concerned citizens in North Dublin get hot and bothered about human cloning? Surely it’s a sign that we are not explaining the role, potential and impact of science well enough. As scientific research gets closer to some really important solutions to health issues, we need to ensure that what the scientists are doing is understood by the wider population, because if that does not happen, what we’ll face is not considered judgement but populist knee-jerk reactions. And that will help nobody. In Britain there is an annual Science Communication Conference, and there are other initiatives to bring science to the people. The academic community needs to encourage and develop such initiatives.

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13 Comments on “Sheep, robots and communicating science”

  1. Vincent Says:

    Would you graft the brain of a mass murderer to that of an innocent babe. That’s the worry about putting ‘human’ brain cells in a simian.

  2. Ricky Connolly Says:

    Science always wins.
    We will drag you – kicking and screaming if necessary – into the future.
    Until we reach the furthest stars and grasp the innermost workings of the human mind, the march of human civilisation will never cease.
    [unless they cut our grant money, then we’re boned 😦 ]

    • finnegag Says:

      Your last point is the important one Ricky: if the gulf between the lab and the people that fund them continues to widen, there will be consequences.

      The people who objected to the DCU institute pay researchers’ salaries either privately, by buying their products, or through taxation.

      Indeed, funding for adult stem cell research has already been hit. People who can object to biotech research due to (in this case) a misplaced fear can also lobby their TDs – then you’re relying on the wisdom of the teachers and lawyers we put in the Dail to fund the best science rather than err on the side of avoiding controversy.

      Engage or be damned!

  3. Perry Share Says:

    How do we know which FvP is writing this? It could be one of the ‘other ones’!

  4. Perry Share Says:

    Though, seriously, I know that you had an MSc in Science Communication in DCU (one of whose graduates teaches here in Sligo) which seems like an excellent type of programme. Science students in general should be encouraged to communicate science to others as much as possible, and not just to their peers, but to ‘non-science’ people as well. This needs to be structured into the teaching and learning process as a key outcome of a science education.

    • Padraig Murphy Says:

      The MSc in Science Communication here at DCU is still going strong, Perry. And actually, the controversy that Ferdinand refers to back in the early days of planning for an NICB building on the DCU campus in small way led to the development of an interdisciplinary research team looking at science communication and science-and-society interactions. What we are finding is, rather than focus on how scientists can overcome the perceived forces of irrationality – astrology, homeopathy, etc are often the ‘bad guys’ here – it is best to focus on developing the tools for scientists to compete across media and other forums where scientific rationality isn’t always the main concern.

  5. kevin denny Says:

    Ferdinand, perhaps they saw you as some sort of Monty Burns figure with his experimental monkeys? No offence.

    Somewhat more seriously, public appreciation of science should never be over-estimated: consider how many people believe in astrology, homeopathy, intelligent design and any other number of pseudo-sciences.

  6. conorcaffrey Says:

    Interesting blog. To many Irish non-scientists science often appears to be akin to mythology. Unfortunately to demystify science requires money and the will to do it. Neither seems to be around at the moment. So I am off to do a TEFL course.

  7. Marcela Says:

    The Irish Science Communication community has been growing & developing for many years now, mostly with the support of the Discover Science & Engineering Programme.

    There is an Irish Science Communication Conference, run by STEPS to Engineering: (5th Annual Communicating STEM Conference: although it is more aimed at ‘those who communicate science’, rather than ‘scientists as communicators’.

    And yes, major initiatives require money, but the Science Cafe model, for eg. requires none – just a cafe with a bit of vision and a connection to a local pool of researchers eager to inform.

    We’ve got some of the highest level work in the world going on in Ireland, and good presentation skills are increasingly seen as crucial so working scientists can demystify sci & tech accurately for the non-sci public, thereby increasing support for their work. ‘Support’ meaning financial & political sometimes, but public acceptance and appreciation too, like when you need planning permission!

  8. jfryar Says:

    Interesting piece. I personally think this requires multiple approaches, some of which people have been campaigning for for years. I’ve long argued that ‘public service’ broadcasters like RTE have a duty to report on scientific matters and, in essence, to inform the public of where their taxes are being spent in terms of research activities. At the moment, William Reville’s Science Today articles in the Irish Times are about the only stable source in Irish media for science-related stories. RTE is notoriously bad at science programming – either we have kidsy ‘let’s make science fun’ programmes or wildlife programmes. There were attempts in the past to address this (I think the show was called Zero or Zero One or something like that) but it lasted about six episodes.

    Even the BBC has lost that ‘public service’ aspect. Brian Cox’s programmes are extremely popular but most people don’t feel ‘ethically challenged’ about studies of blackholes in deep space. The ‘Horizon’ series has dumbed-down to the extent you’d think the producers thought the public collectively suffered from Attention Deficit Disorder.

    Now, in terms of scientists communicating science, I would partially disagree with some of the comments here. All you need do is go to any department website and you can have a look at the sorts of research going on. We have outreach programmes, public lectures, open days for research institutes, etc which, by and large, are poorly attended by the general public. So part of me is quite bullish about the matter – a lot the information is out there if people were just bothered to look. Where’s the ‘personally responsibility’ to keep oneself informed about areas of science that you may find ethically or morally questionable.

    The issue with Dolly is a case in point. Scientists had been moving towards that for decades. Only when Dolly was announced was there suddenly the outpouring of concern. Anyone could have been reading New Scientist and followed the advances, so at what point do you say ‘Hey, listen. We did all we can. If you guys weren’t interested and didn’t bother following the advances, don’t come running to us in ten years time when we take you down some avenue you feel is ethically and morally unsound’. That’s why, I believe the media has a direct responsibility, irrespective of viewing or circulation figures, to report science to the public. It isn’t simply a question of scientists doing more to inform the public.

  9. finnegag Says:

    People who take the time to keep themselves informed about science and who visit the websites of university chemistry departments are not the problem; they are not the ones who lodge spurious objections to new labs.

    Alas, you can’t rely on the public to keep themselves informed. They are not sitting at home wondering how they will fill their science comprehension deficit. They are concert pianists and plasterers and parents – they have other areas of expertise and other stuff to do.

    They won’t come to you – you have to go to them. And you can’t mandate 5 hours of scientific programming and expect it to work by itself. (c.f. Irish language requirements on radio)

    You have to go where people are. That might be Facebook and Twitter; it might be drivetime radio between the sports bulletin and an interview with an economist; it might be the Irish Times; it might be The Star.

    We need scientists who’ll go on and engage with a probing host or a couple of other interested parties on an issue that matters to people who listen to drivetime radio (even if it’s not initially obvious that the issue should matter to them).

    If there’s one thing that’s for certain it’s that all disciplines/professions think their pet subject is (a) very important and (b) misunderstood, and that this should be rectified by increasing its presence in the media and on school curricula.

    Many of us might take it upon ourselves to stay informed on science. And maybe, because it affects us, we might tune in to the economy or politics. But I don’t make the same effort to remain au fait with other fields if they seem irrelevant.

  10. Ray Simpson Says:

    Yet another instance of ridiculous bureaucracy infringing upon science.
    It reminds me of this brilliant video in which Sydney Brenner explains why lion DNA had to be cloned at a higher danger category than pussycat DNA in America, all because it was technically a more dangerous animal!

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