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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.

historic air pollution exposure and long-term health and mortality risks

Exposure to air pollution has been associated with numerous health conditions including respiratory diseases, cardiovascular disease, and death. However, investigating the precise impact of air pollution exposure on health outcomes is challenging, particularly when taking historic pollution levels into account. Nonetheless the subject of air pollution, especially in the UK’s major cities, is still a cause of great concern for doctors, policy makers, and the wider population. read more

concussion: a blockbuster issue?

Next week the UK will see the launch of Concussion, a Hollywood blockbuster starring Will Smith and Alec Baldwin, which tells the true story of how the sports-related brain trauma CTE was first discovered in former NFL players. This weekend, the Six Nations will kick off almost a year to the day after George North, the Welsh winger, was twice knocked unconscious in his side’s opening match against England but was controversially allowed to continue playing. Unlike America, the UK is only now waking up to the potential long-term consequences of concussion in contact sports. read more

have national smoking bans worked in reducing harms in passive smoking?

Passive smoking has long been known to pose a health risk to non-smokers, and efforts to reduce levels of second-hand smoke have seen bans on indoor smoking in public and work places introduced in a number of countries, states, and regions. A previous Cochrane Review in 2010 examined whether these smoking bans had actually reduced the levels of smoke in public places, and now an updated review has looked at evidence into the effects of the bans on passive smoking. The most robust evidence yet, published in the Cochrane Library, suggests that national smoking legislation does reduce the harms of passive smoking and that populations benefit from reduced exposure to passive smoke. read more

Zika virus – what do we know?

The Zika virus outbreak in Brazil continues, and three UK travellers have been diagnosed with the virus, having travelled to Colombia, Suriname and Guyana. Zika is a mosquito-transmitted virus – the specific vector is the Aedes aegypti mosquito, which is found in tropical and subtropical regions. Although most people that contract Zika have mild symptoms or no symptoms at all, there is the suggestion that the increase in Zika case numbers in Brazil is associated with an increase in cases of babies born there with microcephaly (small head and underdeveloped brain). In the US the CDC has advised pregnant women to avoid travelling to infected countries. It is an emerging situation in Brazil and there is still a lot we don’t know about Zika. There is currently no vaccine and no treatment. read more

Jeremy Farrar, Director of the Wellcome Trust, gives his views on a comprehensive new report into our resilience to pandemics in the wake of Ebola

Thursday 14 January could see the WHO declare Liberia free from Ebola virus transmission – marking the first time all of the three worst-affected West African countries are free from infection since the outbreak began. As the world continues to learn difficult lessons from the crisis and the failures that occurred during the response, a landmark report spells out what must be done to increase our resilience to such outbreaks in future. The report of the Commission on Creating a Global Health Risk Framework for the Future highlights infectious diseases as one of the biggest risks facing humankind and estimates the annual expected cost from potential pandemics at more than £40bn. It says £3bn a year must be spent to make the world safer against potential pandemics, and recommends several key reforms to the WHO and other health systems to help deliver this capability. The Director of the Wellcome Trust, Jeremy Farrar, an infectious diseases expert who was on the International Oversight Group for the Commission, came to the SMC to give his take on the report and its recommendations. read more

first UK scientist to apply for license to use genome editing techniques on human embryos meets the media

It was reported last year that a scientist at the Francis Crick Institute had become the first UK-based researcher to apply for a license to use new genome editing techniques on human embryos. Kathy Niakan’s research seeks to understand aspects of the basic biology of early human embryo development and the role of specific genes, which has significant clinical implications for infertility, miscarriages, developmental disorders and therapeutic application of stem cells. As Kathy explained to the Guardian and Independent last October she applied to the HFEA to extend her existing license when she realised that exciting new genome editing techniques including Crispr/Cas 9 could help in her work. In advance of any decisions on the success of her application the SMC invited Kathy to talk to journalists about her research, explain how genome editing in human embryos could advance that research, and answer questions about the future direction of her work. She was accompanied by her close colleague Robin Lovell-Badge who has taken a lead in the UK and global debates on human genome editing, and was on the organising committees of both the recent Hinxton and Washington global meetings on the science and ethics of this exciting new frontier in science. read more

the science behind the floods

As flood waters start to subside those affected, politicians and the media start to ask how we can prevent such flooding events in future, could more have been done and what are the longer term solutions. Four of the UK’s leading flooding experts from the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology came to the SMC to speak to journalists. read more

Government Chief Scientific Adviser Annual Review

Sir Mark Walport publishes his annual review, Forensic Science and Beyond: Authenticity, Provenance and Assurance on December 17th. The review starts with forensics – the use of analytical science to assist the courts but then moves on to identify where forensic analysis has the power to deliver benefits to society that go far beyond the Criminal Justice System. This report explores the many ways in which we can use analytical scientific tools, combined with the approaches and skills of the forensic scientist, to reap the rewards of these benefits. The report also poses a series of questions to policy makers that point to the key areas where they need to decide whether and how to act. read more

genetically modified insects – what is their potential?

The House of Lords Science and Technology Select Committee publishes its report on GM insects on Thursday 17 December. The Committee has been investigating the use of GM insect technologies to fight infectious disease and to control agricultural pests. It’s estimated that nearly half the world’s population live in areas that put them at risk from malaria and dengue fever, while in the UK and across the globe, insect damage causes billions of pounds of agricultural losses. But the technology now exists to render insects unable to transmit diseases, and to reduce insect populations to minimise their threat to animals and crops. read more

media launch of Foundation for Responsible Robotics

Rapid developments in the automation of our everyday lives has prompted an internationally renowned multidisciplinary group of 25 technology scholars to form the Foundation for Responsible Robotics (FRR). We are on the cusp of a robotics revolution with governments and corporations looking to robotics as a powerful new economic driver. Despite the disruptive impact of the increasing automation in our work places, our streets and our homes, only lip service is being paid to the long list of potential societal hazards including human rights violations and the potential for mass unemployment. read more

perinatal depression and suicide

Whilst the number of direct pregnancy-related deaths has been steadily falling, the same cannot be said for indirect deaths linked to mental health. In fact almost a quarter of women who died due to indirect effects were due to mental health reasons and experts argue that these deaths were often unnecessary. Using data from the Confidential Enquiry into Maternal Deaths (MBRRACE-UK), experts have assessed pregnancy-related deaths from 2009-2013 including reviews of more than 100 women who committed suicide during pregnancy or in the year after giving birth. read more

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

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