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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.

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

new report from the Lancet Climate Health Commission

A new report from the Lancet Climate Health Commission has declared climate change a ‘medical emergency’. Its authors state that the threat to human health posed by climate change is so great that it could undermine the last fifty years of gains in development and global health. It also presents new evidence suggesting that the health benefits of mitigation/adaptation – from reducing air pollution to improving diet – represent one of the greatest opportunities to improve global health this century. read more

pre – ESHRE preview press briefing followed by news conference for first study

This briefing gave journalists the chance to hear a preview of the main studies to be presented at ESHRE (European Society of Human Reproduction and Embryology) in Lisbon, Portugal. Also at the briefing was an announcement of which is a nationwide analysis of more than 14,000 subjects in Scotland analysing rates of miscarriage and ectopic pregnancy in women with a history of endometriosis. read more

non-invasive prenatal testing

Non-invasive prenatal testing for disorders such as Down’s syndrome has considerable advantages over invasive methods, not least in that it reduces the risk of miscarriage. But how effective is it? Is it feasible economically? Do parents trust it? How far can it be applied? Can it diagnose disease in the mother as well as the foetus? To whom should it be offered? read more

predicting death – who is at risk of dying in the next five years?

Is it possible to predict who will die within the next five years? Scientists have used UK Biobank data to carry out a systematic comparison of predictors of death in middle-aged to elderly people, and have published their results in the Lancet. They investigated whether measures that can be obtained by simple questionnaires without any need for physical examination could reliably predict risk of death within five years in people aged 40 to 70 years. read more

treating dyslexia – have we been getting it wrong?

Dyslexia affects around 375,000 children in the UK and can have a lifelong impact on learning. Patients and parents naturally want the best treatments possible and many turn to coloured cards and lenses which are thought to reduce visual stress. Many practitioners offer specialist eye treatments and therapies. However, there is growing evidence that this entire industry is founded on unsupported research. Experts have now used comprehensive eye tests with thousands of children to test the role of vision in dyslexia. Based on these results and those of previous work, the researchers want charities, practitioners and support groups to reflect the latest evidence. read more

paracetamol use in pregnancy and testosterone levels in unborn boys

Paracetamol is the most common pain and fever relief medicine used by pregnant women, but previous observational studies have suggested a possible link between prolonged use during pregnancy and reproductive issues in young boys. Researchers from the University of Edinburgh have investigated the effects of paracetamol use on levels of testosterone in foetuses in a series of experiments using mice with human tissue grafts. read more

the El Niño Southern Oscillation

El Niño takes place in the Pacific Ocean and has the power to affect weather patterns around the world; an especially intense El Niño event is thought to be partly responsible for the famously high surface temperatures of 1998. Scientists are in broad agreement that an El Niño this year is underway, but its effects are notoriously hard to predict. read more

the long-term impacts of childhood bullying

Traditionally childhood bullying has been seen by many as a common and almost inevitable part of growing up, with lasting consequences fortunately happening rarely. However, there has been growing evidence of long-term impacts that can last far into adulthood. Now researchers have assessed whether there are not only psychological impacts, but also physical ones – specifically in relation to obesity and inflammation. read more

clinical research with children: ethical issues

Without well-conducted medical research with children, our understanding of childhood disorders and evidence base for treatments will remain limited. The benefits of research can be seen in areas such as childhood leukemia, but overall, health research with children lags behind that with adults. In everyday practice, doctors still need to prescribe medicines that are often only tested in adults. Despite this, researchers and parents are worried about asking children to take part in research because of ethical and practical concerns. Following a two year inquiry, which has heard from hundreds of children and parents, the Nuffield Council on Bioethics is publishing its report, ‘Children and clinical research: ethical issues’. read more

gene editing of human embryos

As some in science circles have been predicting, gene-editing techniques which are already widely used in plants and animals have now been applied to human embryos. In what is thought to be a world first, Chinese scientists used CRISPR/Cas9 to modify the DNA of human embryos, thereby attracting global headlines about science fiction becoming science fact, as well as warnings about slippery slopes and designer babies. read more

climate scientists’ statement for Earth Day

The Earth League, a group of world-leading research institutions, launched their Earth Statement on Earth Day, April 22 2015. The statement summarises recent climate science, particularly regarding risk and tipping points and outlines the key features of a climate agreement in Paris in December this year to meet the 2 degree target agreed by nations. It calls on the UN negotiators to step up their ambition to ensure an equitable and science-based global climate agreement in Paris, and will describe eight essential elements of a global climate deal from the scientists’ perspective. read more

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