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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.

wildlife populations in the Chernobyl exclusion zone

The first large scale study of mammal populations in the 4,200 square kilometre human exclusion zone around Chernobyl has been completed by scientists. The zone was exposed to chronic radiation following the 1986 accident; nearly 30 years later, researchers have accurate data on the dual impacts on mammal populations of a radioactive environment and the exclusion of humans. read more

the future of UK renewable electricity

New onshore wind farms will be excluded from a subsidy scheme from April 2016; together with planning and other changes, some say this could halt onshore wind in its tracks despite it being the cheapest source of clean electricity in the UK. Early closure of the renewable obligation subsidy and a review of feed-in tariffs will affect the future of solar. The ‘climate change levy’ now also applies to renewable energy sources, despite the fact they emit no net carbon. Scientists and engineers agree that the electricity sector needs to be decarbonised to meet UK climate targets. So where does this leave the technologies; and what future for renewable electricity in the UK? How will these policy shifts affect the UK energy mix, emissions and climate targets? And what messages does it send to investors and to climate negotiators in Paris? read more

the Spending Review – science makes the case

In the run up to the 2015 election, David Cameron stated: “You can be assured that a Conservative government will be committed to investing in science and engineering because we want to see our strong and worldwide reputation in this hugely important area continue to go from strength to strength.” With further cuts in overall government spending heralded in the Spending Review and departments such as Business, Innovation and Skills being asked to model 25% and 40% cuts, what might this mean for UK science and engineering and, ultimately, the Government’s long-term economic plan to deliver sustainable growth, create more jobs and help secure a better future? read more

what is a biosimilar?

Biological medicines have revolutionised patient treatment by offering new and effective medicines for acute and chronic conditions including a wide range of inflammatory and autoimmune diseases, neutropenia, cancers, and enzyme or hormone deficiencies. A biosimilar medicine is a biological medicine which is highly similar to another biological medicine already licensed for use and, as originator biological medicines come off patent, more biosimilar medicines will become available. read more

six steps to tackle mental health

The financial, social and long-term health impacts of poor mental health are only just being recognised with the latest research suggesting that in the UK mental and behavioural disorders cause at least 12% of all disability. However, despite now being on the political agenda progress is slow. Over 1,000 scientists have looked at the latest evidence, investigated the impact of the most recent technological advances and come up with six steps that will have the biggest effect on tackling mental health. The report, part of the ROAMER programme (roadmap for mental health research in Europe), is being published in The Lancet Psychiatry, leads for politicians and policy makers to commit to targeted research, sharing of data and matching of funds. read more

the impacts of neonicotinoids on bees

Since December 2013, the use of three neonicotinoid pesticides as seed coating in crops attractive to bees has been restricted across the European Union. Calls for a large scale field-based experiment to determine the real-world impacts of these pesticides on foraging honeybees and wild bees in agricultural landscapes have been growing. A team of scientists from the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology is undertaking an independent pan-European, large-scale field trial to quantify the impact on honeybees (and wild bees) of two commercial neonicotinoids seed treatments in commercially grown crops of oilseed rape (‘Clothianidin’ Bayer CropScience and ‘Thiamethoxam’ Syngenta). read more

SSRI antidepressants and violent crime

Using data from Sweden researchers have been assessing the impact of antidepressants on violent behaviour by people with depression. Using data from over 800,000 people, the scientists compared rates of violent crime while individuals were prescribed with SSRIs versus when they were not. read more

Met Office Report: Big changes underway in the climate system?

Changing phenomena such as the Pacific Decadal Oscillation and El Nino can temporarily compete with and mask the effects of global climate change. This can make for a complex and confusing picture. A new report from the Met Office examines the latest behaviour of some of these key climate patterns against the backdrop of global warming. How are current patterns affecting the climate? What’s happening with the global warming slowdown? What can we expect in the near future? And does any of this change our understanding of the longer-term trends? read more

cancer immunotherapy

Immunotherapy has been hailed as an exciting and emerging branch of cancer medicine. Over the last six months we’ve heard about promising results from trials of ipilimumab and nivolumab for melanoma, and nivolumab for lung cancer – but what might be the future of cancer immunotherapy, and might we see it being widely added to the armoury of chemotherapy, radiotherapy and surgery for some cancers? read more

screen time, sedentary behaviour and GCSEs results

Screen time (watching TV, playing computer games or browsing the internet) and sedentary behaviour have both been at the centre of recent controversy, causing particular concern amongst parents worried that their children are being harmed through long periods sitting and looking at a screen. Researchers have now conducted a study to determine if looking at screens, compared to reading or doing homework, or being sedentary appears to have any impact on GCSE results. read more

expert encounter: end of life care, Cicely Saunders Institute, King’s College London

NICE recently published their draft guideline on end of life care which will replace the Liverpool Care Pathway. The draft guideline is open for public consultation until Wednesday 9 September and the final guideline is expected to be published by the end of 2015. Before the consultation closes, two palliative care experts came to the SMC to give their opinions on the draft NICE guideline. read more

teenage goths, self-harm and depression

Depression and self-harm are common among teenagers, with up to one in five 15 year olds in England saying they self-harm. Some evidence has suggested that some subcultures are more strongly associated with depression and self-harm than others, but it is always difficult to work out whether these results are simply the result of study limitations and confounding variables. Researchers publishing in The Lancet Psychiatry have used longitudinal data to assess whether a teenager’s social group at 15 predicts their depression and self-harm when aged 18. read more

geological disposal of radioactive waste – meet the experts

Every society generating electricity through nuclear power shares the same issue of how to safely manage and permanently dispose of those wastes which remain highly radioactive over a long period of time. Over the past 30 years there has been significant research and analysis across the world on how best to approach and resolve this issue. A common consensus has emerged in science that geological disposal is the safest known way to manage these wastes but the issue remains controversial and recent local government decisions suggest that the public remain unconvinced by reassurances about safety. In the UK, an independent committee of experts, the Committee on Radioactive Waste Management (CoRWM), reviewed the evidence and options and recommended in 2006 that the UK adopt geological disposal. Successive Governments of all Parties have re-affirmed the policy, and a new White Paper was published last summer setting out a revised process for selecting a site for a geological disposal facility (GDF) based on the continuing principle of ‘volunteerism’ – ie a GDF cannot be imposed on a community, but that the community hosting a GDF must be a willing partner. read more

food shocks: expert task force reports on threats to food stocks from extreme weather

An independent expert taskforce from the UK and USA have outlined key recommendations to safeguard against threats to food supplies in a new report for the Global Food Security programme today. The report highlights an increasing risk of global food supply disruptions and price spikes that could result from extreme weather events – such as heatwaves, droughts and floods – and offers new recommendations for mitigation. Although further work is needed to reduce uncertainty and better understand the way extreme weather may change, there is good evidence that extreme weather events, from intense storms to droughts and heatwaves, are increasing in frequency and severity. The report shows that severe ‘production shocks’ caused by extreme weather– whereby global food production is seriously disrupted – of a scale likely to occur once in a century under past conditions, may occur as frequently as once every 30 years as the world’s climate and global food supply systems change in the coming decades. read more

radiotherapy – present and future

Polls show that the public do not recognise radiotherapy as a modern form of cancer therapy, and many would describe it as ‘frightening’. Yet radiotherapy is one of the most effective cancer treatments available, and a staggering array of new developments should allow radiotherapy to become increasingly personalised to individual cancer patients. Major advances, such as Intensity Modulated Radiotherapy (IMRT), proton therapy, Cyberknife technology and research combining radiotherapy with MRI imaging, viral therapy, and chemotherapy, promise to revolutionise radiotherapy in the future. read more

tobacco and schizophrenia

People with schizophrenia are more likely to be cigarette smokers. The hotly-debated question is why this might be. Suggested explanations include self-medication, counteracting symptoms, and reducing boredom or distress. Until recently, little attention has been paid towards the possibility that cigarettes themselves may increase the risk of psychosis. Researchers have used a meta-analysis to assess whether daily tobacco use, or starting smoking at an earlier age, is associated with an increased risk of psychotic illnesses. read more

cystic fibrosis gene therapy trial results

Cystic fibrosis (CF) is the most common lethal inherited disease in the UK, affecting around 10,000 people nationally and over 90,000 worldwide. Patients’ lungs become filled with thick sticky mucus and they are vulnerable to recurrent chest infections, which eventually destroy the lungs. The cause of CF, mutations in a gene located on chromosome 7, was identified in 1989, opening the door to introducing a normal copy of this gene using gene therapy. The UK Cystic Fibrosis Gene Therapy Consortium, a group of scientists and clinical teams from Imperial College London, the Universities of Oxford and Edinburgh, Royal Brompton & Harefield NHS Foundation Trust and NHS Lothian, have been working together to develop a gene therapy since 2001. read more

the Oxford Martin Safe Carbon Investment Initiative

The G7 recently committed to decarbonise the economy by 2100. Now, a group of leading climate scientists and economists has been formed to examine investments in fossil fuel industries. The Oxford Martin Safe Carbon Investment Initiative aims to provide a robust, evidence-based approach to the divestment question. Work will begin soon to ask what, if any, are the realistic alternatives to divestment? What would a safe fossil fuel investment look like in a world in transition to net zero carbon emissions? What does a company that remains engaged in fossil fuel extraction need to do to reassure its investors and customers that it is acting responsibly, and to ensure that its activities are not committing future taxpayers or shareholders to expensive climate adaptation, mitigation or remediation measures? read more

cochrane review of evidence on stress urinary incontinence surgery / vaginal mesh – effectiveness and side effects

Vaginal mesh surgery for stress urinary incontinence has been in the news over the last couple of years, with questions being asked about its safety, effectiveness and potential side effects. The procedure involves implanting a sling made of artificial mesh under the urethra to support the muscles of the bladder. There have been a number of reports of women suffering pain and injury after surgery, and some suggestion that side-effects may be due to the sling which is made of non-absorbable plastic. This has led to court cases worldwide, with some already under way in the UK, the USA and Canada. In Scotland, the health minister called for hospitals to consider the suspension of mesh operations until more evidence is available. An independent review set up in Scotland in 2014 to review the safety of these operations will publish its findings later this year. read more

publication of the results of the 5 year project to develop for the first time wheat that is genetically engineered to repel aphids

The full results of the controversial GM wheat field trial held by Rothamsted Research in 2012-2013 are published in the scientific journal Scientific Reports. The first year of the trial, labelled by journalists as ‘the whiffy wheat’ trial, caused significant public attention when Take the Flour Back was formed to campaign against the field trial and held a protest at the site. The campaign became a something of a cause célèbre when the Rothamsted Researchers fought back with a YouTube video and petition appealing to activists not to destroy the trial site. In the event the campaigners did not disrupt the research and had no bearing on the performance of the trial or the gathering of results. read more

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