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Fiona fox's blog


The Science Media Centre is not restricted to reacting to the headlines, and has helped scientists to more proactively set the agenda by bringing new science or evidence to journalists. This comes from our regular briefings, which take a variety of forms and cover a wide range of topics. Many are background briefings introducing journalists to the best experts and science on controversial issues like nuclear waste, nanotechnology, emerging diseases, or animal research, for example. They may also be news briefings where the SMC works with scientists to give the national media a new story on developments within science, whether it’s a report on climate change, a paper on stem cells being published in a leading journal, or science funding cuts in the latest budget. In addition, the SMC encourages leading experts to ‘speak out’ to the media about developments they believe may pose a threat to scientific research – not something science has been renowned for.

very sick children: treatment at any cost?

Doctors dealing with end of life care for children and young people will be issued with new guidance by the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH), setting out when it can be considered no longer in the best interests of the child to prolong life at all costs. In the 10 years since the last version of the guidance was published, babies born at 22-25 weeks have better chances of survival and palliative care for children has become more widely available. But for some newborns, or children who have suffered serious infectious disease or catastrophic injury, very difficult decisions need to be taken by medics about how to act in that child’s best interests. read more

launch of East London community genome sequencing project

Bangladeshi and Pakistani people in East London have some of the highest rates of poor health in the UK and are disproportionately affected by diabetes, heart disease and other conditions. Experts from Queen Mary University of London are launching a large-scale medical research study – called East London Genes & Health – which aims to improve the health of these local communities by gathering information, for the first time, about their genetic makeup. read more

the latest evidence on HRT and cardiovascular health

Hormone replacement therapy has long been a controversial subject, with different studies demonstrating complex benefits and risks associated with women taking HRT. The latest review into the evidence has been published in the Cochrane Library. The new evidence on HRT now suggests different benefits and risks according to the age of women, or how long since their menopause that they started treatment. This review adds a few more pieces to a complicated jigsaw of evidence relating to the use of HRT to treat symptoms of the menopause helping to inform women about their HRT choices. read more

crowdfunding for LSD

Illegal drugs are gaining increased attention in the research community. A combination of complex regulations, differing requirements for clinical versus scientific research and limited funding opportunities have provided many obstacles for the research community, but some still feel it is worth attempting. Prof. David Nutt, former Chair of the ACMD, has been one of the most vocal proponents of research with psychedelic drugs. He and his team are now resorting to crowdfunding to get sufficient money to finish their basic research into the impact of LSD. read more

expert encounter: Prof Mike Stephenson, Director of Science and Technology at the British Geological Survey

A new book by Prof. Mike Stephenson, Shale Gas and Fracking: The Science Behind the Controversy, will be published in early March. It attempts to cut through the misinformation on both sides of this emotionally charged debate and clearly present the unbiased scientific evidence to help policy makers and the public decide for themselves about shale gas and fracking. Prof. Stephenson came to the SMC to talk to journalists ahead of publication. read more

depression and violence

There has been a lot of focus on how suffering from depression can lead to self-harm and suicide. In contrast, there has been little investigation of any link between depression and violent behaviour. Experts have heard anecdotal reports, but there has been no rigorous study until now. Researchers have investigated whether there is a link between suffering from depression and perpetrating violent crime. They have used data from Sweden, comparing patients with depression to members of the general population and, further, assessed risk of violent crime in twin studies. read more

is NICE approval of new drugs doing more harm than good?

Research at the University of York has estimated the effects of changes in NHS expenditure on the health of all NHS patients.* The researchers have asked whether the threshold NICE uses to judge whether the health benefits of a new drug are sufficient to justify the costs are correct. The findings, published in the Health Technology Assessment Journal, suggest that the NHS is currently paying too much for new drugs. The authors also revealed their estimates of the true costs of the Cancer Drugs Fund on other areas of health spending. read more

evidence on standardised packing of tobacco products

The English government intends to put regulations on standardised packaging of tobacco products to a vote before the general election in May 2015. If the vote is passed, England will be the second country in the world to mandate standardised packaging, following Australia’s example. The evidence base for standardised packaging is growing, and the scientific journal Addiction has played a key role in that growth. In the lead-up to the vote, Addiction is publishing a collection of peer-reviewed research papers and commentaries from 2008 to 2015 that bring together key parts of the evidence base for standardised packaging. read more

National Academies’ pre-election statement on research and innovation

While research and innovation may not be central to the political parties’ election campaigns, it will help answer the issues they will be asked about on the doorstep – such as improving health, creating jobs and producing more sustainable energy. UK researchers address major national and global challenges – from economic recovery to climate change, from security to ageing. To that end, the Academy of Medical Sciences, the British Academy, the Royal Academy of Engineering and the Royal Society, have published a statement outlining what the new government will need to do to secure the UK’s position as a world-leader in research. read more

expert encounter: in conversation with Professor Anne Glover CBE FRSE FASM

Professor Anne Glover has become something of a cause célèbre since a campaign by NGOs to oust her as CSA to the President of the European Commission hit the headlines and was followed just months later by the apparent abolition of the post. But Prof. Glover has many supporters, with 100s of leading scientists from around Europe wading in to champion her record and argue the need for the continuation of the role. Throughout this time Anne has remained silent about the row and not spoken to the media. Now however as she packs her bags to leave Brussels, Anne agreed to come to the SMC to talk to science journalists and reflect on her achievements, disappointments and hopes for the future of scientific advice in Europe. read more

the ethics of ‘big data’ – Nuffield Council on Bioethics report launch

We are generating more data about people’s health and biology, from more sources, than ever before, including from GP records (e.g., hospital notes, laboratory tests, clinical trials, monitoring devices and health apps. Advances in information technology and data science mean that it is becoming easier, cheaper and more valuable to gather, transfer, link, store and analyse these data. read more

public perceptions of climate change after the 2014 flooding

The UK winter flooding events provided a unique scientific opportunity to test several hypotheses about the links between extreme weather experiences and climate beliefs. A new report to be launched on 29th January at the Royal Society describes the findings of a nationally representative Ipsos-Mori survey of public perceptions of climate change in Britain, particularly how they are influenced by extreme weather. read more

expert encounter with Professor Edzard Ernst

Next month will see Professor Edzard Ernst, the UK’s first and only Professor of Alternative Medicine, publish his new book. ‘A Scientist in Wonderland’ is a memoir of this scientist’s often turbulent times as a researcher into alternative medicine in Munich, Vienna and Exeter. read more

CFS/ME: The next step in the controversy

CFS/ME (Chronic Fatigue Syndrome/myalgic encephalomyelitis) is a disease primarily characterised by extreme exhaustion that leaves many patients unable to perform even basic activities or look after themselves. Whilst there is currently no cure and the disease is poorly understood, cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT) and graded exercise therapy (GET) have proved to be the most effective treatments for managing symptoms and improving physical function. read more

fossil fuels – how much can we afford to extract?

Burning fossil fuels produces CO2. It has long been argued that if we are to limit the effects of climate change, some fossil fuel reserves must stay in the ground. But how much of each fuel; and which locations must remain untapped? read more

the 100,000 Genomes Project – how will it work?

The 100,000 Genomes Project, coordinated by Genomics England, will begin soon, with the first full samples being taken in early 2015. Recruitment to the project will be handled by NHS England. What are the aims of the project, and who will benefit from it? read more

what’s the real truth behind e-cigarettes?

The first Cochrane Review on this subject will be published next week in the Cochrane Library. This new emerging evidence gives some early insights into how effective e-cigarettes are as an aid to stopping smoking. This is an active area of research and this review draws on the first randomised trials that have been done. read more

MBRRACE-UK: Report into maternal deaths

Whilst rates of maternal deaths in the UK have been declining over the last ten years, there are still around 80 deaths during or after childbirth each year and in the majority of cases these women had pre-existing medical or mental health conditions. Ensuring pregnant women receive flu jabs and closer monitoring for sepsis after birth could reduce the number of deaths. This will be the 60th consecutive year in which maternal deaths are reviewed through the MBRRACE-UK programme read more

are Britain’s nuclear plants fit for purpose?

Most of Britain’s operating nuclear reactors are of a type that nobody else in the world has. Over recent months we have seen media reports about cracks in the reactor cores, problems with the boiler units and claims that the regulators are “moving the goalposts” to allow them to operate for longer than they should. Are the current nuclear plants fit for purpose, will they keep the lights on this winter, and for how long can we rely on them to soldier on? read more

geoengineering: can it help combat climate change?

The first UK funded research projects on geoengineering are about to finish. The principal investigators from each project came to the SMC to discuss the conclusions of their work and whether they see a place for geoengineering in a warming world. read more

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