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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.

power cuts and electricity blackouts

We’ve become accustomed to a reliable supply of electricity, but short, local power cuts still occur. And every year at this time we hear questions about whether we have enough power station capacity to meet demand – and about the risks of the ‘lights going out’. What causes power cuts and what can we expect in future? What will be the impact on reliability from changes in the electricity system from renewables and new nuclear, as well as the phasing out of coal power stations by 2025? What role will smart systems play, and what measures will be used to balance demand as well as supply? A new briefing document prepared by the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET) explores these questions and addresses the myths and truths about power cuts and blackouts. read more

The Nurse Review

An independent review of the UK Research Councils, led by Sir Paul Nurse, is published on 19th November. The report reviews why and how the UK should undertake research. The report makes recommendations to consider how the Research Councils should evolve to support research in the most effective ways to benefit society and to how to invest public money in the best possible way. The review was announced as part of the government’s science and innovation strategy in December 2014. read more

Prof Guy Poppy, Chief Scientific Adviser to the FSA

From horsemeat to campylobacter, these have been difficult times for trust in our food chain. One of the top academics grappling with issues in the food we eat is Professor Guy Poppy, the new(ish) Chief Scientific Adviser to the FSA. After the publication of his latest scientific report, the SMC has invited Guy in for a chat about his role at the FSA and his thoughts on some topical controversies in food. read more

the state of the climate

On 30th November, negotiators will convene for the 2015 Paris Climate Conference to try to thrash out an international agreement on climate change. We don’t know what the representatives will come up with but we do know a lot about the science behind the talks. What do the latest observations show, is IPCC AR5 looking accurate and has anything changed? What trajectory are we on, and is the policy response in step with the science? What does a +2C world actually look like, and how close are we? read more

gene-edited immune cells used in human patient with leukaemia – a case study

A team at Great Ormond Street Hospital (GOSH) and the UCL Institute of Child Health has used the TALENs gene editing technique to modify immune T-cells, in attempt to treat a patient with relapsed acute lymphoblastic leukaemia. TALENs (Transcription Activator-Like Effector Nucleases) are molecular tools that act like scissors, cutting specific gene sequences. In this case, scientists used TALENs to engineer immune T-cells to target leukaemia cells. This is the first time this technique has been attempted in a person with leukaemia. read more

the Sellafield plutonium problem

Sellafield has amassed around 140 tonnes of plutonium on site – the largest stockpile of civil plutonium in the world. For now it is being stored without a long-term plan, which is costly and insecure. At some point a decision will need to be taken on how it is dealt with. Should we convert it into useable fuel or get rid of it? What are the options? How insecure is it in its current state? How long can this decision be put off, and why does it matter? read more

CFS/ME: PACE trial follow-up study

CFS/ME affects around 250,000 people in the UK and in severe cases results in patients being mostly bedridden and unable to do more than minimal daily tasks. The PACE trial, published in 2011, suggested that Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) and Graded Exercise Therapy (GET) were moderately effective ways of treating people. A subsequent PACE trial follow-up study, published in The Lancet Psychiatry in January 2015, attempted to explain how and why these therapies work and what the implications were. Now, a follow-up study, also published in The Lancet Psychiatry, has assessed the participants’ health in the long-term, and asks whether their current state of health, two and a half years after entering the trial, has been affected by which treatment they received in the trial. read more

what do we know about how neonicotinoids affect bees?

Whether neonicotinoids harm bees and other insect pollinators is one of the most contentious questions that environmental policy makers have to grapple with today. In the last ten years over 400 scientific papers have been published on this topic, some contradicting each other, making it very difficult for non-specialists to access the entire evidence base. 18 months ago the Oxford Martin School at Oxford University brought together a group of experts in pollinator biology, with contrasting backgrounds and views, to review the evidence and to present it as a “restatement”: a concise summary intelligible to the non-specialist. In doing this the scientists aim to act as “honest brokers” – providing an account of the evidence and its imperfections but not directly recommending policies. read more

Christiana Figueres, Executive Secretary of the UNFCCC

The UN’s top climate official, Christiana Figueres, was in London in advance of COP-21. Journalists came to the SMC to hear one of the most important figures in international climate negotiations talk about her hopes and expectations for Paris. read more

drug may delay need for Alzheimer’s patients to enter nursing homes

Treatments that can modify the disease course of Alzheimer’s may sadly be several years away, so researchers are looking for current therapies that may have an impact. Secondary analysis of the DOMINO trial (announced in 2012) suggests an off-patent drug may be able to delay the need for Alzheimer’s patients to enter nursing homes. read more

The Spending Review – Science is Vital campaign

George Osborne wants the UK to be the best place in the world for research. But during his time as Chancellor, UK science has slipped back relative to Britain’s major economic competitors. Among the G8 nations, the UK now invests the smallest fraction of its GDP on research (0.44%). The UK now has an economy that is less research intensive than China. For the past five years the research base has held its own – just. But the flat-cash settlement of 2010 has been eroded by inflation, and cuts to capital and departmental spending have left the UK with a reduced research base. But as the UK is pulling out of recession, there are renewed threats to science funding. Cuts of 25-40% have been mooted, but even another flat-cash settlement would be a backward step. Five more years of decline will see further erosion of the UK’s capacity to face the scientific and technological challenges of the future: climate change, energy and food supplies, emerging diseases and our aging population. read more

new report: a critical time for UK energy policy

The whole UK energy system faces big changes to deliver against all aspects of the energy ‘trilemma’ — cost, security and decarbonisation. Speakers from the Royal Academy of Engineering will argue that so far, despite the challenges, the system is on course to meet the targets set by the UK and the EU, but only just; and that all the easiest actions have already been taken. Government policy drives the development of the UK’s energy system, but it will be up to privatised industry to deliver and invest. What’s in store for the UK’s energy mix? And what will happen to costs and decarbonisation? The Academy considers the possible futures of the UK’s energy system in a new report, A critical time for UK energy policy: what must be done now to deliver the UK’s future energy system. read more

Annual Home Office statistics on animal research

This briefing focused on the publication from the Home Office of its 2014 statistics on animals used in scientific procedures as well as the Animals in Science Regulation Unit (ASRU) annual report for 2014. The latest figures were presented alongside responses from three leading experts who have a broad overview of animal research could give their thoughts on the reasons behind any changes in the statistics or issues raised in the annual report. The ‘Statistics of Scientific Procedures on Living Animals 2014’ is compiled from returns provided by project licence holders. The annual report provides an account of the Home Office’s activities in relation to the regulation of animal testing. read more

questioning the quality of animal research

Animal studies are a vital part of scientific endeavour, particularly for clinical trials, but it is vital that the information gleaned from them is robust and that animals are not being put through unnecessary procedures. Researchers have been doing a systematic review of trials and assessed them for their statistical robustness. read more

why Paris Climate Conference is failing — what to do

The major carbon-emitting countries have now made their pledges for a Paris Climate Protocol. But as Christiana Figueres, Executive Secretary of the UNFCCC, recently pointed out, the driving force behind the pledges is simply “the self-interest of every country” and their pledges are “not because they want to save the planet.” This is why they don’t add up — why we will fall short of the 2 degree target. To explain why this is happening, and what could be done about it, a group of leading climate and cooperation experts take to the pages of Nature to challenge the approaches to climate negotiations, which led to more than 20 years of deadlock in international cooperation. The provocative piece should be essential homework reading for policy makers trying to salvage the Paris negotiations. read more

neuraminidase inhibitors in influenza

Pandemic influenza tops the UK’s National Risk Register due to the social and economic disruption that could result from a particularly virulent strain. Questions have been raised for some years about the efficacy and effectiveness of neuraminidase inhibitors (NAIs)Tamiflu and Relenza, the principal antiviral drugs used in treating flu, and whether this justifies their being part of the UK government’s response to influenza. In response to a request from the UK Department of Health, a small, independent steering group was established by the Academy of Medical Sciences and the Wellcome Trust to review the recent evidence about the use of NAIs, consider the pipeline for new treatments for influenza, and identify research priorities. read more

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

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