I, SCIENCE THE SCIENCE MAGAZINE OF IMPERIAL COLLEGE
SMASHING THE GLASS CEILING
FOURTH ROCK FROM THE SUN The solution to our existential threats
A celebration of great women in STEM
THE PURSUIT OF HAPPINESS
The interplay of academic success and mental health
BIOHACKING YOUR WAY TO SUCCESS Quick and slow fixes to a better you? PLUS: PRETTY FLY FOR AN AI / THE FIGHT OF RIGHT AND WRONG / DR MIDGLEY AND THALIDOMIDE
Editors-in-Chief Poppy-Jayne Morgan Christopher Richardson Magazine Editor Claudia Cannon Pictures Editor Taryn Kalish Web Editor Pedro Ferreira Business Manager Luke Cridland Marketing and social Media Rachael Smith Radio Editor Shivani Dave News Editor Henry Bennie Online Features Editor Stefan Rollnick Events Manager Josh Sucher TV Editor Lina Kabbadj Art department Nicolas Baird Leong Jin Ean Sub-Editors Hilary Guite Rachel Kahn Bridie Kennerley Sarah Leach Jonathan Neasham Mariam Shafei-Sabet Cover Illustrator Leong Jin Ean
Hello and welcome to our first print issue this academic year! We hope that you are now reacclimatised to academic life and, as always, we are here to offer you some respite. Over the summer we assembled a new team and we are very excited to be bringing you fresh content, in our magazine and online articles, as well as our radio and tv shows. To kick things off we have decided to focus on Success, as an antidote to the strange vibe that has pervaded humanity as of late. If you’re reading this, then it is likely that you are what would be considered successful. Holding this magazine in your hands, you are already in a more privileged position than much of humanity, and with that comes unbounded opportunity. Of course, the realities of success are somewhat muddied. How do we define success? Are past successes just exploitation in disguise? How can we be successful as a species and planet moving forward? Can we - and should we - manipulate ourselves to be more successful? If somebody appears successful, but is in fact wildly unhappy,
are they actually successful? These are just some of the topics that the articles in this issue tackle head on. Turning our gaze to science and technology, we can see countless examples of success. The advancement of knowledge and subsequent applications are why many of us turn to STEM. And yet there is a sense that these victories often come at a cost, with people and the planet being exploited in the process. Are we willing to allow injustice in the name of progress? We have a fantastic set of thoughtprovoking articles for you in this issue, and hope that you enjoy reading them as much as we did. Chris and Poppy-Jayne Editors-in-Chief
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I, Science is a publication of the Science Communication Unit, Centre for Languages, Culture and Communication, Imperial College London. However, it is a student publication, and as such the views expressed in I, Science do not reflect the views of the Unit, Centre or College.
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Success is a sperm’s game //Doing the dirty to win
Rising from the ashes // Immense adversity cannot halt scientific innovation When cracks begin to show // An engineering oversight ends in tragedy Fourth rock from the sun // The solution to our existential threats Cleaning up our act // The global move to renewable energy Waste not want not // Leading the way in waste reduction Why are we the only human? // Exploring sapiens’ success as a species The pursuit of happiness // The interplay of academic success and mental health Smashing the glass ceiling // A celebration of great women in STEM Fuel for thought // The UK’s relationship with fossil fuels Back from the brink // The roaring success of the Golden Lion Tamarin
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The fight of right and wrong // Making messages meaningful with strategic framing Bad practice // Human costs in medical success Silver is the new gold // Why second place is better than first Pretty fly for an AI // Cataloguing the rise of the machines Biohacking your way to success // Quick and slow fixes to a better you? Advanced treatments // How HIV is no longer a death sentence The curious cases of Dr Midgley and Thalidomide
Success is a sperm’s game Author: Poppy Lambert Image: Hannah Reslan @Spacepug_Design What is the measure of success in nature? Staying alive is not enough. ‘Having lots of sex’ is closer to the answer. We are familiar with this idea from numerous wildlife documentaries: think of the regal giraffes, wielding their necks as sledgehammers in the fight to be top male, or the species collectively known as Birds of Paradise, who have a rainbow of colours, choreographies or optical illusions meant to persuade. These displays of might and beauty are all for the purpose of winning ‘copulatory access’ to the female – in other words, the opportunity of sex with the choosiest of the sexes. ‘Copulatory access’ is not some ill-judged pun on behalf of scientists. Although more widely used, ‘reproductive access’ is, in many cases, untrue. We must uncouple the ideas of sex and reproduction. In the modern age of contraception this idea is not alien if we consider our own species, but we often still hold these two events as one and the same if considering the animal kingdom. We must see that the act of copulation is not the end prize; the real prize – the beginning of success – is the finality of sweet, sweet fertilisation! Success is certainly a sperm’s game. And so, a whole further realm of lost opportunity opens up to the males of a vast multitude of species, from butterflies to crabs to lemurs. Having sex with a female, and all the myriad efforts that went into securing this event, is, and are, not enough in and of themselves. Being the male by her side day-in, day-out doesn’t tend to be enough either. The reason is this: in nature, it is highly unlikely that there is one sole donor to the multiple ejaculates found within the female’s reproductive tract. The opportunity for a female to sneak in an ‘extra-pair copulation’, as scientists call it, is easy to come by. The sperm of overlapping ejaculates find themselves in competition, just like their bodily donors did before deliverance. In the end, the definition of success is the success of the sperm: is his going to be the one victorious? Consider the end goal: to pass on genes to the next generation. If equating sex with reproduction, one would expect a male to increase the likelihood of offspring by increasing the number of females he inseminates. In many cases, this is a good strategy, but not in all. Attracting females requires and even creating each 4 energy, I, Science
sperm, no matter how small they are, requires energy. This is energy that is not available to make the horns stronger or the feathers brighter, and vice versa. When we realise that delivering an ejaculate is, in fact, only the beginning of the end of the competition for many, we can be sympathetic towards the males of species that direct this energy towards increasing the size of their testes instead. In fact, for any species in which sperm competition is particularly prominent, testes are comparatively larger: bigger testes produce more sperm, and a greater number of sperm in an ejaculate awards the male greater chances of paternity if there’s another individual’s sperm also in the mix. But a female may prefer one male over another, and she can continue to execute her preferences after sex. This ‘cryptic female choice’, although hidden from sight, is powerful. For example, in several insects the females have multiple storage structures for sperm. This allows them to choose the male whose sperm they release into their reproductive tract. Within the reproductive tract itself, many females can chemically thwart a sperm’s chances by altering the composition of her ovarian fluid. The female can thereby give favoured sperm a helpful boost whilst the sperm with uncomplimentary chemical signals are left lagging behind. So to introduce some ejaculate economics (a virile area of research): if one male is favoured over the others under female cryptic choice, then the males are entering into a ‘loaded raffle’ where some tickets have a greater chance of being called. The simple rule that more tickets beget greater chances doesn’t necessarily hold. In the end males are caught in a tough balance. A male’s investment in a large ejaculate could be wasteful, but can they afford to take the risk of not supplying enough? Sometimes males are lucky enough to know whether or not their sperm will be the first choice. The very polite groundsquirrel is one such example: they have a queuing convention, where first in line is also the most-favoured. By knowing their ranking, they can make some clever decisions to maximise their investment of energy across the board of ejaculates and courtship. The best choice for male numero uno is to invest fewer sperm in the ejaculate and copulation in question, because each of his sperms’ chances of success are greater than those of males
lower down the ranking. This means he can save energy for other endeavours. Meanwhile, the disfavoured male’s best hope is an ejaculate with sperm a-plenty: he needs decent odds, and his deposit is already promised. In this vein, one can predict the relative ejaculate size of two male types, called guards and sneaks, which are found in species ranging from fish to dung beetles. The guard is the much larger of the two, and secures copulatory access by fighting competitors or by virtue of the protection he is able to offer the female. The sneak chances his luck by being sneaky, of course. Good looks are irrelevant: in fact, a small, underwhelming appearance only increases the likelihood of a stealth mating (survival of the ‘fittest’ here takes on some subtler meaning). An interesting dynamic develops: the ever-present guard might hope his sperm will not be competing with a sneak’s, but a sneak knows with near certainty that his sperm will be competing with the guard’s. It is no surprise, therefore, that the ejaculates of sneaks contain more sperm than that of their larger guard rivals. Does the modulation of ejaculate size occur in humans, I hear you ask? The answer is yes. Humans do tend to be socially monogamous, which is reflected in the size of their testes as compared to the well-endowed and multiple-mating chimpanzees, but studies have found that in Homo sapiens, a male’s response in the face of predicted sperm competition is just the same as that of a male of any other species: they invest a larger ejaculate. Perhaps counter to expectation, it is reported that male-male-female porn has greater sales than that of a male-femalefemale composition, and one paper has suggested that this, in fact, reveals an adaptation to sperm competition. The authors explain that it pays for a male to be aroused by the thought of a woman harbouring another man’s sperm, because it makes it more likely that the male in question will work to get his sperm into the race, too. As we’ve seen, success in nature is won at the last hurdle: the fertilisation of the ovum. Only one sperm can fulfil this task, but the strength of the male’s luck comes in their numbers. Thus, echoing the immortal words of Monty Python, each and every sperm really is sacred.
Masharawi and Abdelatif got to work, producing a prototype and at first failing to get it up to scratch. They were laughed at, told to go to the kitchen, but they persisted. Experimenting with different formulas and refining their technique, they finally produced the ‘Green Cake’, an eco-friendly, cheap and lightweight alternative to traditional bricks. With no facilities in Gaza to test the durability and fire resistance of Green Cake, they managed to send the product to Japan for testing, after finishing in joint first place in the ‘Japan Gaza Innovation Challenge’. It was a success. Alongside infrastructure, agriculture has suffered at the hands of export bans, immense water restrictions, a lack of electricity deeming irrigation systems defunct, not to mention farmers being targets of shooting practice.
Rising from the ashes:
immense adversity cannot halt scientific innovation in Gaza Author: Elisabeth Mahase Image: Chris Richardson We are marking 100 years since the Balfour Declaration was signed. This lead to more than 700,000 Palestinians being expelled from their homes and fleeing for their lives. We also mark the 11th year that Gaza has been held under siege. Despite the resulting hardships and restrictions imposed upon them, the citizens have nonetheless found ways to succeed. The densely populated Gaza strip has high unemployment, a lack of clean water and limited electricity. It is also systematically attacked by the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) mounting operations every few years from Operation Summer Rains to Operation Protective Edge. With each military campaign, the situation becomes more severe. During the 20082009 war alone, most of the industrial, power, water, waste treatment, and agricultural facilities were completely wiped out.
What happens to science and innovation in times like this? While political turmoil seeps into every aspect of their lives, disrupting the simplest of tasks and rendering them impossible, the Palestinians are succeeding in small but powerful ways. Like a phoenix, Majd Masharawi dreamed of Gaza rising from its ashes, quite literally. The recent civil engineering graduate, only 22 years of age, with her friend Rawan Abdelatif, created a lighter and cheaper brick than the usual material, optimising an abundant resource in Gaza: ash. With an additional 400 million tonnes of ash ending up in landfills across the USA and China every year, Masharawi saw her opportunity to produce something that could not only help her community but revolutionise the rest of the world,
Abu Nasser, a carpenter, decided this would not stop him. Seeking out educational material on the requirements of plants, he started his own hydroponic micro-farm, a method of growing plants without soil, using water and the appropriate minerals. Using his knowledge and experimentation with a variety of different elements, he grew a host of crops to feed his family. Without the luxury of the normal pesticides, chemicals and fertilisers, he found a way to mix natural ingredients to provide enough nutrients such as calcium, potassium and phosphorus for the plants. Likewise, photographer Fayez al-Hindi created his own system for purifying undrinkable tap water using solar energy, overcoming the issue of power outages. Through his use of a 3-metrelong basin, he provides clean water for his family all year round by harnessing the power of evaporation. All these stories are important. They show that success under extreme adversity often means being able to do what many would consider their right. Success means feeding your family, drinking clean water, and receiving an education. However, it’s not limited to that, as the Gazans are showing every day. Despite the restrictions, many have found ways to succeed that the rest of the scientific community and the world should learn from. The resourceful nature of their innovations, and their ability to produce environmentally friendly alternatives, deserves support and recognition from the international community.
When cracks begin to show Author: Tom Stephens Image: from the Window series by Nicolas Baird / www.nicolasbaird.com
On July 19th, 1989, a sleepy summer afternoon in Sioux City, Iowa was torn apart by an engineering failure that turned into a wide-scale disaster. United Airlines flight 232, a DC-10 aircraft on its way from Denver, Colorado to Chicago, Illinois, was passing calmly over the suburbs of Aurelia, IA, having almost reached its destination. Suddenly the fan disk of its rear engine explosively disintegrated. The plane’s autopilot disengaged and its throttle became jammed. Once the crew realised the nature of the engine’s malfunction, they knew they had to act fast. The failure of individual engine fan blades is usually containable, but the failure of an entire fan disk almost always results in catastrophe. In the intense few hours that followed, the limits of the crew members were tested dramatically. They elected to attempt to land at Sioux Gateway Airport, where they had been given emergency clearance to land on any runway, fearing that the 26-year-old airframe of the DC10 aircraft was on the verge of falling apart. They emptied the fuel tanks to reserve levels, executed several practice turns as the plane descended toward the airport, and did everything they could to maintain control over the craft but, it wasn’t enough. The engine ignited upon landing, causing a massive explosion in the tail that sent the plane crashing and rolling down the runway before breaking into 12 different parts. The damage that occurred from that crash, resulted in the death of 111 of the flight’s 279 passengers. Virginia Jane Murray, who worked as an attendant on the flight and survived the crash, said almost 20 years later the memories of the passengers she met on that day who didn’t make it off the plane come back to her “all the time”. And yet despite the horror that came of such a disastrous mechanical failure, the Sioux City Accident is still pointed to all these years later as a shining example of the success of an aircraft crew in making the best out of a terrible situation.
The crew included Captain Alfred Haynes, First Officer William Records, and Training Check Airman Captain Dennis Fitch. The three of them had accrued 74 years of flight experience and logged over 10,000 hours of flight time on DC-10 aircrafts between them. The three of them dealt with the system failures resultant from the malfunction with remarkable serenity; Haynes later commented that they were “too busy” to be scared, and that “you must maintain your composure, or you will die”. In a simulation of the scenario conducted afterwards with highly-trained and experienced DC-10 pilots, trainers and test pilots, it was found that a miniscule proportion of those tested crews (about 1 in 100) managed to make any kind of safe landing. Haynes and the rest of crew displayed a measure of incredible skill and aplomb, and it was concluded that it was a miracle that so many of the passengers survived. The real culprit of the accident, it was found, were the engineers who first produced the fan disk. A defect that appeared during its processing caused a crack to appear in the disk which drastically shortened its lifetime; if this defect had not been created, the disk would have been well within its prescribed lifetime (disks are retired within a quarter of their calculated lifetime to failure). Conversation recorded between Haynes and Fitch during the emergency shows that they not only kept their composure throughout, but their sense of humour as well. After they had been given clearance for landing at Sioux Gate Airport, Fitch remarked to Haynes “I’ll tell you what, we’ll have a beer when this is all done”, to which Haynes replied “well I don’t drink, but I’ll sure as sh*t have one”. Their display of bravery and skill in the face of a disastrous engineering malfunction remains an inspiring reminder that success in some form can still be pulled from the jaws of a catastrophic failure.
“The most important issues to address are the truly existential threats we face: climate change and nuclear war,” said Noam Chomsky, when interviewed by the New York Times. It is difficult to disagree. According to a recent United Nations report, temperature rises of 3°C are expected by the end of the 21st century, far exceeding the 2°C target imposed in the Paris Agreement, a treaty which is a small but significant step towards meaningful action. The most powerful government on the planet, the United States, is withdrawing from that agreement at the whim of Donald Trump and his climate change-denying associates, abandoning even the goal of limiting warming to 2°C. As if this weren’t bad enough, the Doomsday Clock, a measure of the imminence of global catastrophe conducted by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, was set to two-and-a-half minutes to midnight in 2017. Midnight represents game over, and this is as near to that end as it has been since 1960. Again, Trump’s administration is equally committed to testing the fragile and shaky geopolitical choreography that is the nuclear power balance. A war of words with Kim Jong-un of North Korea, or as Trump calls him, “rocket man” has escalated the tension, for example, when Trump tweeted: “They will be met with fire, fury and frankly power the
likes of which this world has never seen before.” Trump’s threat to shred the Iranian nuclear deal is another element destabilising our nuclear weapons situations worldwide. These crises, in tandem with the creation in many countries of the most comprehensive military and surveillance operations that humanity has ever known, look to be the defining issues of the century. It is not at all surprising that, faced with such a dire forecast, a varied group of scientists, technocrats, and billionaires are increasingly looking upwards, towards the heavens, in hope of salvation. The technology world is abuzz with SpaceX, a private firm founded by Elon Musk (a different kind of Rocket Man altogether), and its ambition to send a manned mission to Mars in 2024. Blue Origin, fronted by Jeff Bezos of Amazon fame, whose personal rivalry with Musk may partly fuel both of their otherworldly ambitions, is another major player in the race to conquer space. This new corporate space race is born partly of disappointment with recent progress in space exploration (or lack thereof), as the early promises of the Moon landing and the International Space Station were followed by a lack of ambition and public funding. But the economic incentive is an important driver here too. For example, the firm
fourth rock from the sun “The most important issues to address are the truly existential threats we face: climate change and nuclear war.” Noam Chomsky
Author: Jordan Hindson Image: Yerida by Chris Richardson Planetary Resources has devoted itself to the pursuit of asteroid mining. The global economic model feeds on seeking out new markets, and it is no surprise that corporations are keen to absorb the final frontier into their profit margins. The Outer Space Treaty and other treaties have attempted to patrol and police the geopolitical power balance of space, but are in urgent need of updating to account for the non-state actors — such as SpaceX and Blue Origin — that are active in this emerging market. This drive to expand our sphere of influence from planet Earth (Carl Sagan’s “pale blue dot”) to our solar system and beyond begs the age-old question: are we alone? There is no direct evidence to suggest that we are not, and much discussion around the question of extraterrestrial life is limited to vague statistics and thought experiments. One such conversational launch pad is Enrico Fermi’s famous paradox, an equation that aimed to help us estimate the likelihood that there is life somewhere else in the universe. Our brains whimper at the scale of the numbers involved, so suffice it to say that the Universe is impossibly large. Confronted with this scale, and therefore the overwhelming mathematical likelihood that life is not restricted to our own tiny corner of space, poses the question that has been named Fermi’s Paradox: If it’s
statically likely there’s other life out there in the universe, Where is everyone else? Why haven’t we contacted another civilisation already? This simple question has prompted endless speculation. “The Great Filter” theory, held by philosopher Nick Bostrum of the Future of Humanity Institute at the University of Oxford, posits that evolutionary history contains several steps that are so unlikely that the chance of intelligent life arising is minimal. Not everyone agrees though. Physicist Lawrence Krauss has asked, “do all routes of evolution lead to intelligence?” It is not necessarily the case that complex life must tend towards what we know as intelligence. This is all little more than speculation, comprised of one data point: our planet. Because of this, science fiction can act as a useful reservoir of ideas on the matter, but it still often depicts non-Earth life as vaguely humanoid; the Narcissus that is humanity cannot help but see its own reflection in the black mirror of space. The human imagination is terrestrial and local, and space is a mental frontier as much as a physical one. As with so many other scientific advances, from artificial intelligence to genome editing techniques, these space projects contain the seeds of both liberation and repression.
Politics goes where humans go, and it is politics that will dictate the future of space exploration and exploitation. As president, Trump has appointed a climate change sceptic as the head of NASA, and there is no reason to believe that this scientific illiteracy is limited to climate change. These retrograde ideas stalk the halls of power, and the space race is as beholden to political influence as any other aspect of life. Environmental and nuclear disasters are only going to encourage those who want to flee. Privilege and power will not remain tethered to terra, and we can be sure that those with the means – in other words, those most responsible for the crises – will attempt to eject themselves first. In Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, the eponymous character unveils a plan to preserve the political leaders in underground bunkers. Climate change, however, has changed the game, and a modern Machiavellian may turn their attention skyward in search of an escape route. Alternatively, one could imagine a referendum on the question, with its very own Leave and Remain campaigns. Such questions are to become more pressing and less abstract as the century progresses. Our future success as a species depends upon the answers we choose.
CLEANING UP OUR ACT Author: Hannah Fisher Image: Emils Gedrovics @emils.g
Imagine a world where everything was powered by wind. Believe it or not, this could be the future. Currently we use fuels which are of a finite source. Termed ‘fossil fuels’, these include coal, oil and natural gas. These fuels exist in limited quantities and also harm our environment through the release of carbon dioxide, or CO2 which reached an all-time high in 2016, and other toxic greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Our use of these dirty fuel sources has caused a rise in average global temperature, known as global warming or climate change to you and I. The race to find clean energy sources is on. Thanks to development and investment in technology, dirty fuel sources such as coal, oil and natural gas, are slowly being replaced with ‘clean’energy sources, such as wind, hydro and solar power. These renewable energies are becoming increasingly popular because their costs have been falling. In fact, in 2015 there were more renewable energy plants installed worldwide than of fossil fuel plants. This marks an important turning point. Our shift in our attitude to clean energy, combined with the 2015 Paris Climate
Accord, is a symbol of hope for the transition to renewable energy. 2016 in Scotland, wind turbines generated more energy than required for four days in a row, with 153% of Scotland’s energy needs generated on Christmas Day and this extra energy was sold on to other UK customers. In 2016, Denmark was powered by only 45% renewable energies but as of 22 February 2017 it ran on 100% wind energy for the first time, and generated enough energy to power 10 million European homes. Despite the high wind speeds on that particular day, there is no denying the scale of this event. Experts are now heralding this as the ‘new boom’ for renewable energy. However, success certainly requires a global effort. China has been investing in renewable energies more than ever, with an average of 1 wind turbine being installed every 2 hours. This drive towards renewable energies is not purely for environmental reasons, but also the concern for public health. Burning coal is the leading cause of smog, acid rain and toxic air pollution, associated with conditions detrimental to our health.
WASTE NOT WANT NOT Author: Izzy Sturt
Morocco is another country where remarkable momentum in renewable energy installation has taken place. In 2007, less than 10% of its energy was renewably sourced. By 2015, this was over 30%. But Morocco has an advantage thanks to its intense year-round sunlight which makes the concentrated solar plants highly efficient. By combining these solar resources with wind energy, Morocco aim to have over 50% if their energy from renewable sources by 2050.
Whilst statistics about plastic pollution in oceans and images of animals trapped in beer can holders are hard-hitting, they rarely invoke a sense of enthusiasm and usually resume the momentarilyforgotten existential dread about the fate of our planet. The same guilt can be reignited by recycling bins, lined up and looming over you in a supermarket car park or strategically placed every few metres down a high street, seemingly judging you as you throw your plastic sushi box in the regular rubbish bin.
The country that the worldwide community should be taking heed from is Costa Rica. In 2015, 99% of all energy needs were sourced solely from renewable energy sources. From 16 June 2016, they used no fossil fuels to make electricity for 76 days. While they have the advantage of being a small country, this the result of the government’s effort to end the use of fossil fuels and to transition to renewables, using multiple sources including 80% hydroelectric power, geothermal plants, wind turbines and solar panels. It must not be presumed there are no obstacles; cars are still petrol-fuelled and weather patterns can provide inconsistencies in generation of renewable energies. However, this remarkable feat is the result of a country tackling climate change head on with its renewable energy policies.
Becoming desensitised to the damage we cause on a daily basis is a common problem in developed countries, with occasional half-hearted attempts at change from governments punctuating widespread ambivalence. Individuals, businesses, organisations and even whole countries, who are desperately in need of change, have stopped looking towards giants of industry and politics to give us the solution and are creating their own recycling revolution.
With constant improvements to battery lives and the business opportunities available within the energy storage market, it is only a matter of time before places like Denmark or Scotland will be powered entirely on wind energy, and we won’t think twice. While the successes in renewable energy development are numerous, there is no denying the sense of urgency required to ensure that we don’t exacerbate the problem of climate change even further. Clearly, the true success with renewables is not the lowering costs, or increased installations, or even acceptance from the public, it is actually the traction and momentum gained from success stories www.isciencemag.co.uk that inspire further progress to be made.
Countries that have based their energy production system on waste incineration, successfully rebranded as ‘waste-toenergy’, such as Sweden and Denmark, may have managed to clean out their landfill sites but failed to address the problem at its source. What is needed is fundamental change to the relationship that western society has with packaging, consumables and throw-away lifestyles. Overreliance on ‘waste-to-energy’ gives no incentive to innovate or develop truly sustainable solutions and this is where the real sustainable success stories come in. Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia, has been named Europe’s Green Capital 2016 for its efforts to become the first zero-waste city in Europe. It aims to reduce its 150kg of residual waste per person per year to 60kg by 2025. In comparison the UK produces 225kg and Greece produces 412kg. Ljubljana’s rejection of incineration as a recycling
solution has pushed it to innovate and make huge leaps beyond its wealthier, larger neighbours despite only joining the European Union in 2004. Other seemingly less developed countries that are taking matters into their own hands include Bangladesh, which banned plastic bags in 2002 after research showed that plastic waste had blocked drains and contributed to catastrophic floods. This was a decade before legislation for a levy on plastic bags was introduced Scotland in 2014 and England in 2015. In 2008, Rwanda, still recovering from genocide, banned all plastic bags in 2008 and took an additional sustainable step. The government offered tax breaks to firms to stop manufacturing and start recycling plastic bags which opened up a whole new industry of environmentally friendly alternatives. They are now one of the cleanest and most innovating African nations and others are taking note. Kenya has just imposed the strictest anti-plastic bag law in existence, with a jail sentence of four years or a $40,000 fine for those found using or selling plastic bags. This has also sparked a new industry creating and selling alternatives. In western countries, the zero-waste movement is gaining momentum from the bottom up. Small, locally run zerowaste supermarkets are springing up in America, Australia and the UK zerowaste bloggers are becoming waste management consultants. Bea Johnson of ‘Zero Waste Home’, one of the original internet waste-free superstars, is currently on a world-wide speaking tour and has a best-selling book with many others joining the online grassroots community. Without the luxury of an information based economy, countries that rely on fishing, farming and agriculture are seeing their livelihoods destroyed by plastic pollution, climate change and inadequate waste management and they are now the ones making great leaps forward. They are changing their relationship with waste and consumable products in a way that most of the developed world is still failing to do. It is individuals, independent businesses and small countries that are taking matters into their own hands and their success is sending a clear message to wealthy nations: The economy is no excuse, the environment cannot wait, and we must act now!
Author: Naomi Clements-Brod Image: Emils Gedrovics @emils.g As recently as about 500,000 years ago there were several species of humans walking the planet at the same time. Why are we, Homo sapiens, the only ones still around today? Modern humans evolved in Africa 200,000 years ago. An important part of our development as a species was our increasingly complex use of tools. Simple unifacial tools first appeared in the archaeological record about 2.5 million years ago, long before Homo sapiens existed. However, H. sapiens did not let much time pass before innovating. About a million years later, hominins began using slightly more complex bifacial tools. After another million years (around 250,000 years ago) a more diverse, efficient, and delicate form of tools appear in the archaeological record. By this time, several human species had spread across the globe: Denisovans in Asia, Neanderthals in Europe and the Middle East, our likely direct ancestor, Homo heidelbergensis in Africa, and possibly even ‘hobbits’ on Flores Island in Indonesia. About 100,000 years after modern humans first appear, more intricate stone tools also show up in the archaeological record. Although 100,000 years seems like a long time, compared to the 1 million-year intervals between previous innovations, this is quick! Neanderthals overlapped territory with humans for around 10, 000 years and were one of the last other species of human left on the planet. Unlike their classic depiction as grunting, dimwitted ‘cave people’, evidence suggests
Why are we the only
Neanderthals were advanced - capable of intelligent, symbolic thought, and survival in harsh environments. On average, their brains were larger than ours, and, if Neanderthals walked amongst us today, we probably wouldn’t be able to tell they were members of a separate species. Neanderthals lived in Europe and the Middle East from about 400,000– 30,000 years ago, through turbulent climate changes, including many glacial phases. By the time H. sapiens arrived in Europe, Neanderthals had already been living there for 200,000 years. Despite the Neanderthals’ superior physical adaptations to the environment and length of existence in the area, they are now gone and we are still here. There are several hypotheses about why H. sapiens were the only humans left on the planet after just 10,000 years of overlap with Neanderthals. It is likely there wasn’t just one single reason, but that it happened due to a combination
of biological, environmental, migratory, and cultural reasons, along with luck and our species’ restless, creative nature, as shown by our relentless pace of innovation, compared with previous hominins. A mere 60,000 years after H. sapiens appear in the fossil record for the first time and around the same that H sapiens arrived in Europe, we find an explosion of artistic material in the archaeological record: cave paintings, jewellery, and hand-carved statues. About 30,000 years after this artistic explosion, our species began to domesticate plants and animals, which eventually led to widespread farming, writing, and “civilizations”. Today, our technology allows us to live on every continent on Earth and even survive in outer space. Could Neanderthals have accomplished that? On the surface, we are the successful ones: we are alive. We are the ones writing and reading this story. They have
been reduced to fossils and artefacts. However, it is worth noting that as a species, we’ve only lived about half as long on this planet as Neanderthals did. Our species would have to survive another 200,000 years to outlive the Neanderthals. And yet today, we’re faced with drastically changing environmental conditions, due mainly to our rapid technological expansion and innovation, the pace of which now outstrips our ability to understand its implications. Our artistic and symbolic culture and our complex language systems, which at one time probably helped us live cooperatively together, have now created seemingly insurmountable divides between people. Have the natural inclinations that once helped us survive now led us down a dead end? Our success as a species is yet to be determined and will be based on whether and how we overcome these now self-imposed barriers.
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attached to mental illness? National statistics show that only 6.2% of staff disclosed mental health disorders to their university despite academics being one of the professions with the highest levels of mental health conditions, estimated at around 37%. Even with the prevalence of mental health illness, there is still a lack of understanding, awareness and support offered to sufferers. One academic said: ‘There is an elephant in the room here; specifically, the type of support we, as colleagues, can and do offer one another.’
The pursuit of happiness
The interplay of academic success and mental health Author: Meesha Patel Images: Apotosis by Nicolas Baird / www.nicolasbaird.com We all wish to be successful in whatever form we define success to be. However, not many consider one important component which can contribute to success - happiness. To someone suffering from poor mental health it can feel like happiness is far from their reach and to those in academia, isolation and a lack of support can contribute to increased stress. Academic success has long been anecdotally associated with mental illness, to the extent that we may be suffering from an academic ‘mental health crisis’. A recent report commissioned by the Wellcome Trust and the Royal Society gives us some insight into the relationship between academia and mental health. It begs the question: is there a price for academic success?
a report in June 2017, with the aim to understand more about mental health in the research environment. The report found that many university staff find their job stressful and the level of ‘burnout’ (severe stress causing exhaustion) is higher when compared to the general workforce. Postgraduate students, compared to other work professions, are more at risk of developing mental health problems with over 40% of postgraduate students reporting symptoms of depression and high levels of stress. These statistics are high, but could the scale of the problem be bigger? Is it difficult to know exactly how widespread the problem is due to the stigma
Another concern contributing to poor mental health in academia highlighted the lack of job security in the research sector. ‘In large-scale surveys, UK higher education staff have reported worse well-being than staff in other types of employment in the areas of work demands, change management, support provided by managers and clarity about one’s role,’ the report says. This doesn’t only extend to academics, students on PhD programmes say the main factors associated with their mental health problems are work demands, work-life conflict, lack of control, poor support from supervisors and exclusion from decision making. Nature conducted their own post graduate survey with participants from over 5,700 doctoral students worldwide. Overall, the students were mostly happy with their PhD programmes, but 12% still had sought help for anxiety and depression issues caused by their PhD. Even when students turned to their institution they felt the support provided wasn’t adequate. Of the students suffering with anxiety who had sought help, only 35% said they found the resources at their institution helpful,
Mental health illness is common with over 6 million working age people in the UK suffering from a condition at any given time. When we characterise ‘successful’ people, we never consider that they could be battling with their mental health. Recently there have been calls for a complete overhaul in the way we think about these conditions due to approximately 1 in 4 experiencing a mental health illness in a year according to the charity ‘Mind’. The Wellcome Trust and the Royal Society came together to commission
while 20% said they tried to seek help but didn’t feel supported. Despite students seeking help for anxiety and depression, half were still satisfied or very satisfied with their doctoral programme. Recent estimates suggest that as many as 40% of PhD candidates fail to complete their thesis, showing just how gruelling these programmes can be. Is mental health the cause of academic success or is academic success the driver of poor mental health? We simply do not know. One of the main recommendations of the Wellcome Trust and Royal Society report was to conduct more research into understanding the prevalence of conditions among postdoctoral researchers. So even though there is lots of evidence already to support a link between academia and mental health, lots is still to be done. One blog online by Dr Nadine Muller a Senior Lecturer in English Literature at Liverpool John Moores University says ‘We have a misconception that people with mental health problems, such as depression and anxiety, are incapable of undertaking high-quality work. The truth is, as with other conditions, you are still able to perform many daily tasks.’
is all about knowledge, problem solving, and working together. Put those three things together, and we can help others to manage and overcome mental illness’. She goes on to say: ‘we run the risk of burning out bright minds by kindling the flames of mental health stigma ourselves. By staying silent, or by not acknowledging our issues.’ The level of support provided in academia has been shown to have a big impact on mental health. In the Nature graduate survey, it was revealed that mentorship in PhD programmes improves the overall satisfaction. A good ear to listen really does count. For Imperial students, there are few ways that the university offers supports to improve student wellbeing. Online, Imperial have a dedicated section of informational webpages called ‘Student Space’. Under the section ‘Pause’ you can find related information about stress, anxiety, depression and low mood to name a few. Mindfulness practice is
also held at the chaplaincy centre on Tuesdays and Buddhist meditation on Fridays. Mindfulness can prove helpful for anxiety and depression and is recommended by the National Institute of Health Care and Excellence to prevent depression in people who have had three or more bouts of the condition. To try mindfulness meditation, you can download the free app ‘Headspace’ which gives you ten free instructional sessions. If you think you need to talk to someone, Imperial have a student wellbeing service. You can email or call to set up an initial appointment. After this appointment they can advise on the best plan of action. There are also plenty of ways to de-stress by joining clubs and societies. Imperial yoga society hold yoga sessions almost every day in the week for as little as £2 a session and host free mindful mediations on Tuesday evenings. For more information visit their website here: www.icyogaclub.wixsite.com/website
Dr Muller suffers from panic disorder, anxiety, and depression and tells of how she hopes academia might be able to help those suffering with mental health conditions. ‘I wasn’t working in academia when it all started, and academia did not make it worse, but keeping it locked away didn’t help either. Naturally there are those who will feel fearful of opening up within their institution, worried that it may affect their employment and how peers treat them. There are pathways you can purse in private, without laying the bare details of your mental health to your colleagues or managers. Academia
SMASHING THE PROF MOLLY STEVENS
DR EMILY GROSSMAN
Molly Stevens is currently Professor of Biomedical Materials and Regenerative Medicine and the Research Director for Biomedical Material Sciences in the Institute of Biomedical Engineering here at Imperial. Her team is a large, multidisciplinary team focused on quality fundamental science with human health applications.
Mary Anning was a 19th century palaeontologist and fossil collector living in Dorset, Southwest England. She received a limited formal education before getting involved with the family fossil business, following the death of her father when she was just eleven years old.
Dr Grossman is a UK science communicator, explaining science through radio, TV and presentations to audiences of many academic abilities. She gained her PhD in Cancer Research from Manchester University and campaigns for increased diversity in STEM. Her aim is to encourage young people, especially girls, to choose science careers. According to WISE 2016, women only hold 21% of core STEM occupations. Dr Grossman’s personal experience is one echoed throughout the scientific world for women – changing her undergraduate degree focus from physics to biology due to a lack of confidence in a maledominated course and a lack of female role models. Even this year’s A-Levels show only 22% of physics entrants were girls.
Stevens’ rapid rise through the ranks has led to several well-deserved awards. In 2010 she was recognised by The Times as one of the top ten scientists under the age of 40, and more recently by the TR100, a compilation of top innovators who are transforming technology – and the world – with their work. Her popular TED talk “A new way to grow bone” explores the possibility of producing vast quantities of bone tissue painlessly through the application of stem cells, in contrast to existing methods that often lead to chronic pain. The talk has over one million hits and has helped to portray complex research methodologies in a simple and engaging way. In Stevens’ own words: “I am delighted to have the privilege to lead the Stevens Group... Together we are designing and delivering state of the art materials to heal the body and detect disease earlier.” We look forward to seeing more big things from the Group.
At the time her hometown was a booming seaside resort, and Anning scanned the surrounding cliffs for fossils to sell to tourists. In the process she uncovered the remains of several new species, ultimately helping to formalise her field into a science, whilst frequently putting her life on the line to continue her search for fossils through harsh winters. Although Anning was more knowledgeable than many of the wealthy individuals to whom she sold, she rarely received any credit for her work, and she was excluded from joining the Geological Society of London at the time. Despite her efforts and contributions, she struggled financially throughout her life. Anning’s discoveries have taught us much about ancient life and extinction. The Royal Society recently included Anning in a list of British women who have most influenced the history of science, and several of her specimens – now named in her honour – are on display as “star specimens” at the Natural History Museum.
In 2013, the BBC Expert Women scheme helped boost Dr Grossman’s science communication career and now she works to erase imposter syndrome that the underrepresented feel in science. Emily debated Tim Hunt’s infamous comments on the “trouble with girls” and defends emotions in the lab. She is a proponent that compassion, collaboration and creativity are required in science and in life to be successful. Everyone should be welcomed in being emotional.
GLASS CEILING Authors: Poppy-Jayne Morgan & Chris Richardson Images: Taryn Kalish
DR HANNAH FRY
Rachel Carson began her career as a marine biologist before pivoting into science writing in the 1950s. Having won a U.S. National Book Award, Carson was able to secure herself financially and establish her credibility. Her book Silent Spring is credited with advancing the global environmental movement.
Muriel Howarth had no formal scientific training but self-taught the fundamentals of nuclear physics at home. She aimed to lead women out of the kitchen and into the Atomic Age. She founded the Ladies Atomic Energy Club in 1948 and wanted to demonstrate the potential of irradiated seeds: irradiating large batches, and creating mutant plants. Some may be odd colours, dwarfed, or may produce fewer fruit, but Muriel believed that the more seeds treated, the higher the chances of finding the golden mutant to end world hunger. Exhibiting her specimens in Wooton’s Wonder Gardens allowed thousands of families to visit them.
Possibly the UK’s best-known mathematician, Dr Fry is an immensely successful scientist and science communicator. She gained her doctorate in fluid dynamics from UCL and she demonstrates broadly how there is barely any aspect of life that comes without a mathematical influence.
The book raised concerns about the use of synthetic pesticides in creating environmental problems. While Carson was not the first to cover the topic, it was her eloquent style of writing that brought the issue to an unprecedented share of the American people, which led to a radical shift in pesticide policy. Carson was frequently the victim of gendered personal attacks, including a scathing letter in the New Yorker which read: “isn’t it just like a woman to be scared to death of a few little bugs!” The popular press often branded her a hysterical Communist sympathiser, yet Carson persisted with her work. The grassroots environmental movement that followed the publication of Silent Spring led to the creation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which has been instrumental in embedding sustainability into government policy. However, the Trump administration’s recent budget cuts to the organisation place Carson’s legacy – and the planet – in jeopardy.
Her atomic society reached out to amateur gardeners, and Muriel used citizen science on a grand scale; posting seeds across the UK and instructing volunteers on how to nurture and record mutants. Muriel believed that there were too few plant geneticists or laboratories, and deduced that “a few thousand assistants would greatly assist the scientists speed up this humanitarian and scientific work”. Atomic gardening is now making a comeback alongside GM crops, as modern rapid genome testing can sift through results. Muriel Howarth successfully opened the scientific method to her gardeners, promoting a nuclear culture with her windowsill and UK back-gardens – what could she have done with access to a lab?
Dr Fry is a radio and TV broadcaster whose TED talks have received millions of views. Not only is she a prominent researcher herself, she has promoted the works of historical female scientists, including a film biography on Ada Lovelace. Mathematics can often receive a reputation it does not deserve; distant, complicated, and with irrelevant equations. Hannah makes the data relatable and interesting, often focusing on urban mathematics, and shows how the data people leave behind provides us with mathematical patterns that illuminate our behaviour – from shopping habits to murderer movements. Her studies on the logistics of aviation have allowed her to discuss the future of the industry, and the need for long-term alternative energy solutions. With her books on the maths of love and Christmas, Hannah is bringing mathematics to a wider audience, and to the forefront of our lives and society. She shows us where the numbers count.
Author: Philip Howard Image: Taryn Kalish
On 21st April this year, for the first time since 1882 when the world’s first coal-fired power station opened in London, the UK did not use any coal to produce electricity for one whole day. Overall, between April and June, for the equivalent of one day a week, electricity in the UK was generated without any coal. This last figure is double that over the same period in the previous year. Running parallel to this switch to a lower carbon electricity grid was growth in the use of renewable energy sources which generated 25% of our electricity in those spring months. This has not happened by chance. Improved technologies, innovative business models and legislative frameworks have all contributed, as has a much wider access to real time data. Websites now allow anyone, not just those in the electricity generating companies, to check on what is happening with the “mix” of power production for the UK and around the world. One website, www. electricinsights.co.uk, from which the figures above are taken, is run by a group at Imperial College London. It shows the hourly mix of fuel being used in the UK to produce electricity, the amount of CO2 per unit of electricity and even the wholesale price. As Dr. Iain Staffell, lecturer in Sustainable Energy Systems at Imperial College, and leader of the Electric Insights project says “These data are really making a difference.
They show the government and industry that policies such as carbon pricing, and the operating decisions they promote, are working. And they show the public that there is some good news for the environment, and real progress is being made in our journey to a sustainable energy platform in the UK”. The second website, www. electricitymap.org, gives a global overview of what is happening. It paints a fascinating picture of how various countries are making progress, and doing it in different ways. Their varying geographies, natural resources, technology infrastructure and political decisions, combined with the physical size and population of the country, determine the extent of the challenge. Norway with a small population and abundant hydropower, and France with its large nuclear investments have very low carbon-based electricity. But countries like Poland and Turkey, with large populations, still rely on coal and gas. The UK is well placed with our mix of wind, solar, nuclear and gas. By using data, industry, governments and research groups can focus on improving technologies, putting in place new standards and making the right long-term investments. And all based on the “art of the possible”, learning from and teaching others. For example, offshore wind is approaching “grid
parity”, whereby the cost of producing this alternative energy source is lower than the cost of buying it from the electricity grid. Costs have fallen due to lower installation and maintenance charges, economies of scale and the experience curve of any industrial process, easily recognisable to the undergraduate chemical engineer. But this is only the end of the beginning. There is still much to do. Electricity currently provides about 15% of the UK energy demand. The remainder is still mostly provided by gas and oil for transport, heating, industrial processes and chemicals. Electricity demand will undoubtedly increase further as we displace fossil fuels through electric cars, smart grids and home heating. But electricity as an energy source may have some limits. We need to think about how we move to lower carbon fuels in trucks, ships, aeroplanes, big industrial processes such as cement, iron and steel, polymers and industrial heating. In these, fossil fuel displacements are more problematic. Meeting these challenges will require collaboration between engineers and scientists, economists, marketers, designers, business people and legislators. Are you the Brunel, Einstein, Keynes, Jobs, Dyson, Musk or, even perhaps, the politician of the future?
The reintroduction of the Golden Lion Tamarin to the rainforests of Brazil has seen astounding success, increasing the population from a low of 100 to over 3000, but threats remain. Will the success be sustained?
Back from the brink The roaring success of the Golden Lion Tamarin
Author: Chloe Slevin Image: Golden lion tamarin by Hannah Reslan @Spacepug_Design The striking, brightly coloured marmoset is native to the Atlantic Coastal Rainforest in Brazil. The forest used to stretch over 1 million kilometres but due to deforestation of 920,000 kilometres, a mere 8% remains. These primates keep mostly to the trees where, climbing and jumping like squirrels, they use vines to get around. They are omnivores, eating plants and small animals, and using their long claws to forage for food like flowers, snails, fruits and insects. They sleep in tree hollows for warmth and protection. The tamarins live in social groups consisting of up to eight individuals and tend to survive 15 years in the wild. They defend their habitat through vocalizations and by rubbing their chest and rump on trees to scent-mark their territory. From 1960-1965 it was reported that 200-300 individuals were being taken from the rainforest every month for the pet trade. Poaching, alongside substantial habitat loss, resulted in a severe population decline. In 1970, the population was down to approximately 100 individuals in the wild and 80 in zoos worldwide. The species was declared as critically endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). In response, the Golden Lion Tamarin Association, with the support of 140 zoos and numerous conservation organisations, established a comprehensive breeding programme
where animals were bred in zoos with the aim of releasing captive-born animals into the wild and establishing a population. Biological reserves were established as sites for the reintroductions. In 1984 the first of multiple reintroductions went underway. It failed. It was known as a hard reintroduction where the captive-bred animals are immediately placed in the wild. The tamarins didnâ€™t survive. They were not well equipped at finding enough of the right food and had not been exposed to every day hazards such as branches blowing in the wind, so they fell off thin branches. From 1984-1991, 91 tamarins were reintroduced. With each introduction came more success and by 1991, there were 71 established individuals in the biological reserve. However, there remained problems such as some captive-bred tamarins dying from eating toxic fruit, and being particularly vulnerable to predators such as birds of prey, snakes and cats. A lack of genetic diversity and inbreeding presented a problem to the populationâ€™s sustainability and long-term survival, so by 2013 only 220 individuals were established. Problems with reintroduction into the wild were overcome one by one. Relocations, where the animals are moved to other sites tackled the problem of predators, and translocations, where a small number of the population is
moved to a new area, helped to improve genetic diversity. With each wild-born generation, there is hope for the species. Now that populations have been established, there is intensive posttraining as the captive animals adjust to their new surroundings, frequent monitoring of the population and many individuals are radio collared. The success has been aided by food supplementation, sleeping boxes and veterinary care when necessary. Today, the Golden Lion Tamarin population is stable. Now classified as endangered, there are over 3000 individuals in the wild and over 490 in 150 zoos worldwide. Conservation of these species is still underway to establish a larger habitat range, more genetic diversity and a viable population in zoos. There are still many threats facing this species and multiple other primates. For this reason, the Golden Lion Tamarin is an important Flagship Species acting as an ambassador for hundreds of species in the Brazilian rainforest affected by the same problems. Their conservation so far has been a success, but with continuing habitat loss, the fate of the Golden Lion Tamarin is not secure.
The fight of right and wrong Making messages meaningful with strategic framing The climate is changing due to human activity, but people around the world don’t believe this is true, let alone want to take action on it. What should you do? How do you try to get through to them? Changing minds is an ancient art. Everyone from Aristotle to Machiavelli have put forward their own strategies to do this, based on personal experience and instinct. More recently, though, science research has caught up with this debate, and for the first time is putting techniques to the test. Social scientists have been building a repertoire of evidence-based techniques, combined to create successful arguments for your cause. First, let’s discuss the basic but crucial shift we need to make in how we think about changing minds to be successful. The science is clear: Telling someone they’re wrong doesn’t work. In fact, it’s worse than doesn’t work. It’s well documented that presenting someone with evidence saying they’re wrong can make the person even firmer in that wrong belief. It’s called the ‘Backfire Effect’, and was discovered by Brendan
Nyhan and Jason Reifler. They presented people with sham news stories that either confirmed or disproved basic facts which provided a basis for their political beliefs. Counterintuitively, information that disproved someone’s beliefs resulted in them being even more certain those beliefs were true. One suggestion of what’s happening explains that a person’s beliefs are, in fact, an important part of his or her identity. Things that threaten those beliefs can be perceived as dangerous (subconsciously, of course). The mind’s response is to protect and strengthen the threatened belief. Whether or not this theory of what’s going on behind the scenes is correct, the outcome is certain. Confronting people with the fact they might be wrong will make them more convinced they’re correct. This lesson can be hard, especially for those of us from a scientific background. We want information to be able to change minds. We want to make a reasoned scientific argument to convince people. But, if we really want to change opinions, we need to convince rather than argue.
So, if science has told us that debating doesn’t work, has it also told us what does? It’s starting to. Social scientists have discovered that the details of how an idea is presented, from the way the facts are explained to the personal values invoked within that explanation, have a significant effect on how likely a listener is to act on an issue. Much of this discipline can be described as strategic framing: constructing your case in a research-based strategy that uses various tools to craft something convincing. At the forefront of this research is the Frameworks Institute from the United States. They’ve standardised strategic framing into a set of elements allowing us to build a successful message, and focus on ways in which we can use this framework to advocate in favour of social issues, ranging from taxes to elder abuse. The process they use to create a fully framed message is long. It involves their team of anthropologists, linguists, political scientists, and sociologists interviewing experts in a field to understand the issue in question deeply, followed by interviewing the
Once a solid and easily understood explanation of the science is reached, it’s important to convince listeners that this issue matters. After all, why should they care that corals and oysters are weakened by ocean acidification? Researchers have assembled lists of universal values most people in any culture agree upon. The idea of stewardship of the planet, for people alive today and future generations, is particularly effective when discussing the future of our oceans.
Author: Sarah Leach Images: Turban snail / Abalone from www.vischange.org
public to try and find the faulty models and errors at the base of widespread misunderstandings of an issue. Once that initial research is complete, they test different ways to explain the issue, trialling specific metaphors to see which are most effective at getting the subject across. After they have settled on the most useful examples of each topic they construct messages from the constituent parts, and finally test those to see if they are effective as a whole. As an example of this framework, let’s look at a particularly controversial scientific topic: Ocean acidification. The heart of a message like this is the causal chain, a succinct but accurate explanation of how ocean acidification happens. Care must be taken to make sure that all the essential elements of the issue are explained, but that the listener isn’t overwhelmed by technical language or unnecessary information. This is crucial, because research shows listeners are more likely to accept that a scientific phenomenon is real if they understand the how it works, instead of simply being told that it exists.
In the case of ocean acidification it was found that it’s crucial for people to understand how our actions on land can affect the ocean. A good causal chain explanation would therefore explain that carbon dioxide created by burning fossil fuels is absorbed by the ocean and changes the water to be more acidic. This leads to less calcium carbonate, the stuff that shells and hard corals are made from, in the water for animals to use, leading them to have weaker shells. The story above is complete enough scientifically, but can be hard to understand. To make it more accessible, strategic frames often include explanatory metaphors to explain abstract scientific concepts. For example, it’s been found that describing the ocean as being ‘like a kitchen sponge’, absorbing things around it, makes the causal chain more effective. Likewise, instead of just saying that less calcium carbonate leads to weaker shells, it helps to ask the audience to imagine trying to make a house out of cardboard instead of wood. This house would be less strong and wouldn’t protect you as well as one made with the right materials.
One last valuable element is to add a ‘community frame’. These encourage people to think about solutions to a problem that take reach beyond individual action. Instead of just telling someone to drive their car less, a speaker can encourage them to support public transport in their communities and encourage their neighbours to join them in having ‘carless days’. This also ensures that convinced listeners will have a bigger impact than they would alone. You might have noticed something a little odd about this message: climate change isn’t mentioned at all. Although climate change and ocean acidification share a root cause, by not mentioning the better-known and more emotionally fraught issue, a speaker increases their chances of convincing someone hostile to climate change to take action about ocean acidification. Putting these elements can create messages that actually make a difference. Although it takes some training, strategic framing like this becomes easier with time, and vastly increases the success of a message. As more and more issues in society and politics revolve around political issues it has become more important for both politicians and scientists to be able to change the minds of the public. Social science is taking us along a path to best do this. Instead of telling people they’re wrong, tell them what’s true in a careful way, playing on our shared values and hopes for the future. If you do it just right, you might just change the world.
When buying human subjects who could not protest was no longer an option, doctors turned to experimenting on prisoners. With incentives such as money for commissary items and letters of recommendation for parole hearings, scientists were not short of voluntary participants. They would often be infected with a disease, then treated with untested drugs. One such experiment, the 1944 Stateville Penitentiary malaria trial, was used as a defence by Nazi doctors in the Nuremberg Doctors’ Trial for its similarity to their experiments.
The human costs in medical success Author: Rachael Ditchfield Image: Taryn Kalish Although clinical human trials are crucial for the successful development of safe and effective drugs, they have a dark past. The price for this success has been paid by those deemed an ‘acceptable sacrifice’ for the advancement of science. After the Second World War, the Nuremburg Doctors’ Trial revealed the horrors of Nazi human experimentation, and many vowed that such events would never take place in the name of science again. As a result, the Nuremburg Code was established in 1947 outlining a set of principles for research ethics. Unfortunately, several doctors and scientists, particularly in America, opposed being told how to conduct ethical research and most ignored the code entirely. In 2010, it was shockingly revealed that during the 1940s, the US government funded an experiment in Guatemala, in which more than 5000 people were infected with venereal diseases without consent. The study, designed to test the effectiveness of penicillin, broke many of the principles outlined in the Nuremburg Code and left almost 100 dead and many still suffering to this day.
This was not the first case of experimentation on vulnerable people without consent by governmentsanctioned US doctors. In 1932, the Tuskegee syphilis study allowed syphilis to go untreated in 600 impoverished African American males without informing them of their diagnosis. The disease spread to 40 of the wives of these men, and 19 children were born with congenital syphilis. This study came to light in 1972, well after the Nuremburg Code and when penicillin was an effective, readily-available treatment for syphilis. The major intention of these studies was to treat venereal diseases in white US soldiers. Science has a long history of using black people for research to benefit white people. Before the abolition of slavery, white doctors bought black slaves as scientific specimens. They were used to test new treatments and for demonstrations in medical classes attended exclusively by white students. As both doctor and slave owner, the scientist could use a slave’s body however they wanted without consequence.
Those tested on weren’t just prisoners, but other members of society deemed ‘undesirable’, with limited control over their own situation. Test subjects often used were patients in mental hospitals, many of whom had limited capacity to consent. In the 1950s William Sargant began his Sleep Room trials at St Thomas’ Hospital, inducing comas with narcotics to deliver electroshock convulsive therapy to patients who initially refused it. Following two landmark cases in which patients at a Jewish chronic disease hospital were injected with cancer cells, and children with ‘mental retardation’ were given hepatitis to test a cure, written informed consent became legally required. Then, in the 1970s, laws changed to prevent pharmaceutical companies conducting experiments in prisons and mental hospitals. Unfortunately, this meant that pharmaceutical companies shifted focus to developing countries where potentially dangerous or ineffective experimental treatments can be offered as the only affordable option to those who are desperate. Once the safety of these drugs is established and the effectiveness refined, they can then be sold in western countries with better access to healthcare. Nowadays, most institutions and funding bodies require ethical approval from an appropriate research council. However, the ongoing manipulation of the voiceless and the vulnerable, for the production of cheaper drugs is a hard pill to swallow. Requiring greater transparency and accountability from pharmaceuticals may provide the cure.
Silver is the new gold Why second place is better than first by Rachel Kahn Society tells us to strive for first place, focus on being the best we can, and to always try and better our last performance. But is perfection a measure of success? Should we really strive for first place, and should we be rewarding the individuals who achieve this? Science, it seems, has the answer. Dr Chengwei Liu, an associate Professor of Strategy and Behavioural Science at the University of Warwick, says that coming first tends to be a matter a luck, and rather we should be focusing on, and rewarding those who come second. Dr Liu, whose work is based on a mathematic algorithm, explains that being at the top of one’s game is often the result of ‘rich-get-richer dynamics’. That is, if someone is already rich in terms of money or upbringing, this is an ideal basis for them to get even richer. Take Bill Gates for example. The co-founder of Microsoft, Gates is certainly one of the most successful businessmen of our time, worth a mere $89.2 billion US dollars *gasps*. There is no denying that Gates is skilled, hard-working and driven, but, when
looking at his background, we see that he had an upper-class upbringing. This meant he had the opportunity to learn programming skills, at a time when less than 0.01% of his generation had access to a computer. He was born rich, and he clearly got even richer. Gates is an example of someone who has clearly made his success from being at the top of his game, but Dr Liu argues that those who perform extremely well in one situation aren’t likely to be able to maintain it. We should not regard an isolated, one-off result as a ‘success’, because the chances are this was simply down to luck. In science, if you have a graph with ten points that show a linear trend and an eleventh outlier in the top right-hand corner, we wouldn’t see this anomaly and make the assumption that it is more credible and reliable than the other ten points which show a trend. Logically then, should we not be doing that when we reward human success too? It makes sense; if someone has improved their grade from 50% to 75%, surely this is more impressive than the person who has maintains an average of 90%. Clear
effort and hard-work has been put into the former result, and this is what we should be focusing on. But, Liu says, as a society we do not like viewing success as mere ‘luck’. This means that those who are the most successful will continue to get the media coverage, even if they only achieve success through these described ‘rich-get-richer’ dynamics. We do not like putting things down to luck, so the top performers will continue to be rewarded. The more extreme the circumstance, the more likely that the result can be regarded as luck rather than skill, says Dr Liu, and we cannot expect these results to be maintained. So, there we go: yes, success should be rewarded, but perhaps we need to qualify what we mean by success. Rather than taking the definition of success to mean the person at the top, or the winner, perhaps we should focus on second best, or even just personal success. After all, a leap from 50-75% is arguably more of a celebration than averaging 90%. As Abba famously said, ‘the winner takes it all’ but, according to Dr Liu, that doesn’t mean they should.
In 1950, Alan Turing, already a prominent figure in mathematics and computing due to his code-breaking achievements in WWII, devised a test that went on to revolutionise the way we perceive robotics and intelligence. It was a simple idea and it still holds true today when defining artificial intelligence (AI). The test was as follows—a computer could be said to ‘think’ if, through conversation, a human cannot tell it apart from another human being. 70 years on, and this is still the platform that the world of AI has spring boarded from in recent years. A look at AI’s past, present and future will help us know if we should be concerned about this powerful tool. AI hasn’t always had an exponential rise like today. Counterintuitively, the imaginative scope of populist works from the 1950s and 1960s, such as 2001: A Space Odyssey and I, Robot, indirectly damaged progress. They promoted the ‘top down’ approach, preprogram an AI with all the faculties of human behaviour, and then teach it to learn. It was too much, too soon. The US government had hoped that AI would give them traction in the Cold War, but millions in investment had led to little gain and as a result funding dried up, culminating in the ‘AI winter’ of the 1970s. However, in the 1980s and 1990s, things turned around for AI, and this came about through small, specific business ventures. Businesses were starting to use the previously ignored ‘bottomup’ approach, creating AI to learn and perform very niche tasks to increase efficiency amongst the workforce.
PRETTY FLY FOR AN AI
Despite this progress, it wasn’t until the 21st century that AI’s true potential started to be realised. This came about through a pincer strike of innovation — the development of computerised neural networks and the increase in computational power. Neural nets are the basis of deep learning and this is AI in its truest essence in modern
computing. It takes the blueprint of the human brain and tries to map a computer’s learning process in the same way. Take facial recognition for example. When information first comes through, it will enter at the lowest levels where the learning is at its most specific. An eyelash would be one of the neural net’s base layers. After this, the AI will then take one step further by zooming out to more general features, such as eyes and ears. This is the middle layering. The final, correct output will be the face itself, but there will be many interactions between these layers before reaching this point, AKA, learning. This approach has been around for a while, but it is only in the past few years that the hardware of graphics processing units (GPUs) have been able to carry the hefty data load required for such complicated processing on a meaningful scale. It is this powerful combination that has taken AI to where it is today, but where is that exactly? We are now taking leaps and bounds in language, visualisation, transportation and big data analytics, to the point that healthcare and industrialisation may change drastically very soon. However, there is an argument being made that the introduction of AI will be detrimental to future economies, taking away 9-5 jobs, leaving that surplus wealth made from not paying AI with an oligarchical, technocratic elite. Addressing this issue is something governments now should be trying to address. Universal Basic Income (UBI) is one potential avenue being explored. It is the idea of governments giving citizens a regular, unconditional sum of money, regardless of income. UBI may or may not be the answer, but the heart of it is not allowing large tech companies to hold all the cards. The vast possibilities for AI are endless, with even those at its forefront not knowing its limitations, but for its success to be universal, collaboration and openness will be the key.
“Neural nets are the basis of deep learning” Author: Luke Cridland Image: Leong Jin Ean
Author: Hilary Guite Image: Taryn Kalish
BIOHACKING YOUR WAY TO SUCCESS
Do you want more energy, sharper thinking and greater creativity? These are among the promised outcomes from the pills and skills listed on the 845,000 pages of Google searches for biohacking. But how to decide which to try, if any at all? Biohacks are fixes, tips and tricks that promise to unlock the full potential of both mind and body. Interesting, crazy or sheer leaps of faith, micro-dosing with psychedelics, polyphasic sleep, cryosaunas and other biohacks belong to worlds where it seems anything goes as evidence. Some hacks are illegal, while others are easily available online. There is little research in this field of cosmetic neuropharmacology and cosmetic physiology. As an epidemiologist, searching for placebo effects, confirmation and selection biases is essential before assessing the probability that something might or might not work and their side effects. But how do we make sense of this in a world where personal beliefs trump logical and systematic evaluation? To understand more I go to the bar and talk to some clever science graduates (whose names have been anonymised). I ask. “Why would anyone micro-dose on LSD when you have no idea how it was made, what dose to take, what it’s
“Why would anyone microdose on LSD when you have no idea how it was made...?”
made of, the long-term effects or even if you’ve just paid for a placebo effect? Erme replied, “Because it’s a drug you take not because you have to, it’s not functional, it’s for fun”; Florence added “Or to try something new. You talk to your friend and get it from a dealer that someone has used before and trusts. Then make sure you take it in a safe place”. Clearly, I’ve been asking the wrong questions. People’s decision to biohack is not primarily based on ‘Does it work?’ or ‘Is it safe?’ It’s more a case of ‘Is it fun?’, ‘What do people I know say about it?’ and then lower down in priority “what can I learn to make it safe and does it work?” The top trending biohacks in 2016 and 2017 are an eclectic mix of quick and slow fixes. I compared eight, relating to either the mind or the body. All have some biological plausibility, are well established with a minimum of 100,000 pages each of online information and are a mixture of quick (tablets and machines) and slow (skills and behaviours) fixes. The four candidate mind biohacksare: psychedelic microdosing; polyphasic sleep; modafinil, and mindfulness and for the body ketogenic diet; HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training); cryosaunas and walking. Fun, focus, energy, adrenaline and danger are all associated with whitewater kayaking so I have used this as a comparison for the candidate biohacks. Can the other biohacks match up? Having researched each biohack I arrived at a place I least expected. I can now confidently say which ones I would just not bother with and which are a balance of pros and cons.
Not worth the bother Polyphasic sleeping where sleep is collapsed into six sets of 30 minute naps in 24 hours or a milder version of 3.5 hours sleep with 3 naps of 20 minutes in 24 hours. Not fun, most people get exhausted, and catch a cold. In the long term you could impair your memory from build-up of beta amyloid which is cleared during light sleep (the part of sleep that is reduced in polyphasic sleeping). Modafinil: a stimulant that is less addictive then Adderall or Ritalin. Overhyped as only modest effects found in non-sleep deprived people; has a
higher impact on people with low IQ; one in three people get headaches. Seems to be for sleep deprived losers. Ketogenic diet: derives energy from ketones by eating 70% fat; 20% protein; 10% carbohydrates. Not for the long term. Short term weight loss is good as people feel less hunger, but long term there is no difference from other diets. Concern exists about changes in the gut microbiom from protein metabolite and reduced protective bacteria. Cryosaunas: spending two to four minutes in a pod cooled to around -2000C. Air is not a good conductor, so a smart person would buy an icepack or take a cold shower.
A balance of pros & cons Psychedelic microdosing: One twentieth of full dose LSD (around 10 µgm every 4th day) or psilocybin 0.2-0.5 mg dried magic mushrooms (one sixth of the full dose). Pros: People report being more creative, optimistic, easier going, sensitive to the environment and less anxious. Does it work? Testing whether a psychedelic drug has an impact is complex since expectation that taking a drug will have an effect plays such a strong role. Surprisingly, full dose psychedelics may have better impact on mood and cognitive function than low doses, at least for people with high anxiety levels and depression. This comes from two studies that used LSD and psilocybin as active controls compared to full doses. 40% of the low dose LSD group reported high anxiety levels and a third recorded emotional distress with no positive effects, whereas the low dose psilocybin group had few negative or positive side effects. The main mechanism of change in psychological status from psychedelics, as CarhartHarris from Imperial describes, is that they are, “mind revealing”. To achieve this requires a full dose.. Expectation, placebo or accidental higher dose leading to tripping could explain the reported positive effects of microdosing. However, microdosing could be the homeopathy of psychedelics.
Cons: Illegal to possess and supply outside clinical trials. Can build a tolerance (though not addiction) tempting users to increase the dose and therefore increasing the risk of side effects. Concerns remain about psychedelic induced schizophrenia in predisposed individuals. Mindfulness meditation. The Headspace app. scores the highest usability rating. 10 to 20 minutes a day.
Given these options, why did I ever throw myself down raging grade 4 rivers in a kayak? It just does not measure up on effectiveness, safety, legality (sadly there is no right to run all rivers in this country), but it was great fun and utterly exhilarating. Maybe the real message is that these biohacks should be for fun not to push ourselves relentlessly to be better than we are. Just accept who we are, take some calculated risks and have fun.
Pros: Feel calm, clearer thoughts, more focus, better sleep (try the sleep module)
Check out the full article on I, Science: www.isciencemag.co.uk
Does it work? Yes, it seems to have a modest effect on stress reduction and can help tackle ‘mind wandering’, (which apparently we do half our waking lives!). Cons: The most effective app. costs $99 but you get a free 6-week trial. There are rare reports of dissociation (a feeling of unreality) in susceptible individuals. HIIT High Intensity Interval Training —High intensity interval training with various regimes of 30 seconds to one minute aerobic exercise as fast as possible, as if being chased by a rabid dog, followed by one to two minutes resting, then repeat 8 times. Three times a week. Pros: Exercise done in 12-20 minutes. Great endorphin hit. Does it work? Yes. After 12 weeks overweight and obese people have significant increase in fitness (VO2 max); fall in waist circumference and other cardiovascular risk markers. Non-obese people increase theirVO2 max.
“40% of the low dose LSD group reported high anxiety levels and a third recorded emotional distress with no positive effects”
Cons: None. Don’t be tempted to do more than 8 repetitions as it can break down too much muscle. Walking: 30-40 minutes brisk walking daily (or most days) Pros: Calming, helps you solve problems and live longer. Does it work? Yes Cons: Not particularly cool but that didn’t bother philosophers Kant and Nietsche and scientists Darwin, and Einstein who all used long walks to solve problems.
In 1981, reports of a strange new disease causing a severe immune deficiency began appearing. A year later, the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) termed ‘acquired immunodeficiency syndrome’ as AIDS and published a definition of the disease. By 1984, the AIDS-causing human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) was discovered but had, by this time, killed over 3,000 people in the USA. HIV infects the immune cells that allow us to fight off infections. This makes it incredibly hard for our body to attack, as not only is the virus hidden from our usual defence mechanism, but it also kills off our fighter cells, making the body susceptible to other infections.
from HIV, but it also allows patients to safely pursue relationships, reducing feelings of alienation from society.
Fast forward to 2017, where HIV is no longer the death sentence it might have been in 1984. With new treatment options in the pipeline, the future is looking brighter still. Here, we highlight the successes of medical research in treating HIV.
Immunotherapy is the current ‘new kid on the block’ for cancer treatment, where it is showing great promise. Immunotherapy, in short, activates your body’s own immune system to fight off a disease, giving it a ‘boost’ and teaching your body to become immune to that disease. Immunotherapy was beneficial for HIV treatment after Timothy Brown underwent bone marrow transplants to cure acute myeloid leukaemia. Timothy Brown was previously keeping his HIV under control with ARTs, which he no longer takes - since the second transplant he has lived without cancer or HIV. Unfortunately, stem cell transplants (within bone marrow) are not viable for all HIV patients, due to cost, risk, and the difficulties of finding a transplant match. However, researchers are exploring using genetically modified stem cells as an option for people who suffer from both cancer and HIV.
Antiretrovirals (ART) are the current recommended treatment for HIV. Multiple types are combined to slow the spread of infection. They work by inhibiting various stages of the virus life cycle. For example, some drugs provide a barrier on the outside of immune cells, stopping the HIV virus entering. They also reduce the risk of virus transmission, and there have been cases of children born infected showing no detectable HIV after undergoing early ART treatment. ART therapy does have drawbacks, particularly as HIV can commonly occurs alongside other conditions. For example, opioid dependence is found in the HIV
Pro-140 is a new treatment currently being trialled that could make HIVtreating pills redundant. Currently, HIV patients may need to take up to 30 pills daily, hindering quality of life and affecting adherence to treatment. Pro140 could replace multiple daily drugs with weekly injections, substantially reducing the intrusion into someone’s life. Pro-140 attaches to proteins on the outside surface of our immune cells, blocking HIV from attaching and entering. This treatment tends to only work in the early stages of HIV infection.
Author: Rachael Smith Image: Claudia Cannon
Advancing treatments How HIV is no longer a death sentence community, and the drugs used to treat this can have negative side effects when combined with ARTs. PreP (pre-exposure prophylaxis) is a type of ART taken daily by those with a high risk of contracting HIV, such as a partner of someone with the virus. These can reduce the risk of contracting HIV from sexual intercourse by more than 90% (more effective in men), and by more than 70% among people injecting drugs due to substance dependence. Not only is this a step forward in protecting people
As amazing as these breakthroughs are, there is still a stigma surrounding HIV which needs to be addressed. Safe and frequent testing is necessary to help control HIV and those affected need to know that they have support and understanding to seek help. If you or a loved one are affected by HIV and need support, please contact a company such as www.nat.org.uk (National AIDs trust)
THE CURIOUS CASES OF DR MIDGLEY AND THALIDOMIDE
Author: Georgia Green Image: Edie Bartley @ediebartley Scientists fail all the time. Sometimes the faults in their inventions are immediately apparent, but sometimes it takes decades for these faults to come to light. In 1921 Thomas Midgely discovered his holy grail: something to add to gasoline to make the internal combustion engines in cars and airplanes run more smoothly. These engines had a problem with something called engine knock, which could destroy the engine completely. It was already known that ethanol fulfilled this purpose; yet ethanol could not be patented to make a profit for Midgley’s company. His team had spent many years trialling various different additives, none of which solved the problem. Eventually they tested lead, and found it was the solution they’d been seeking. Adding a form of lead (tetra-ethyl lead, to be specific), changed the ignition temperature of the gasoline, ending the ‘engine knock’ that had vexed them for years. This made it possible to have more efficient engines without the risk of catastrophic failure. There was just one problem - lead is extremely bad for human health. It can cause everything from developmental disabilities to seizures, and from irritability to miscarriage. Burning it inside of cars and
leaving it as a liquid in petrol stations was dangerous. Unfortunately, this was not well known at the time. Lead poisoning typically builds up from frequent doses of small amounts, and it can take years, or decades, to cause clear and obvious harm. So, for decades, we burned lead in petrol, as well as placing it in paint, pesticides, food containers, and toys. People around the world were harmed by lead, especially children. But Midgley’s damage was far from over. His next task was to find a replacement coolant for refrigerators and the current flammable and toxic alternatives. On paper, alkyl halides, or chlorofluorocarbons, are the ideal chemicals for coolants. They are inert, inflammable and volatile. The properties that suit them so well for this purpose also make them some of the most environmentally dangerous chemicals ever produced. No natural environmental process breaks them down. They are free to rise up into the stratosphere where they react with ozone to generate chlorine radicals. This reaction quickly spirals out of control, and one single chlorine radical can break apart up to 10,000 ozone molecules. With the danger of chlorofluorocarbons yet
unknown, they became a commonplace product in aerosols, with every spray released contributing to the breakdown of the Earth’s protective ozone layer. This is a cautionary tale in the way inventions that seem miraculous can really be harmful. It cannot be denied that Thomas Midgley was a talented and successful chemist, yet his career was stained with the legacy of his innovations. He would never realise the true extent of the damage he caused. In fact, he was killed by another one of his inventions - a pulley and string system that helped him move after being disabled by polio strangled him. His career highlights the danger of the conflict of interest between industry and science. Immediate success can be a false beginning to failure.
“Inventions that seem miraculous can actually cause great harm”
The thalidomide crisis was a catastrophic failure for the pharmaceutical industry, yet today thalidomide has been repurposed as a treatment for the blood cancer myeloma. Should we be looking at failed drugs for the successful treatments of the future?
effect of causing erections in men. This led to it becoming one of the most widely prescribed drugs of all time, used to combat erectile dysfunction. Azidothymine was a failed chemotherapy drug before it was redeveloped as an HIV treatment.
Originally marketed as a treatment for morning sickness, it also interferes in angiogenesis, the formation of new blood vessels. When taken in the crucial 5-9 weeks window of a pregnancy it disrupts limb formation, leading to deformed and stunted growth. Over 10,000 children are estimated to have been affected by it before it was banned, and the legacy of thalidomideâ€™s effects is still present in survivors today, over 50 years later.
In the era of big data analysis, we can pick up on more trends in healthcare. This can range from analysing the results of â€˜off the label useâ€™ - when drugs are prescribed for conditions other than those which they have been approved for - to studying cancer patients who are taking medications for other conditions besides as their treatment. However, the most common source for molecules to repurpose is from those that have successfully completed the first stage of a clinical trial. The molecules are initially tested on healthy volunteers to ensure that there are no harmful side effects. A high percentage of molecules fail at the next stage of clinical trials, where they are tested on small groups of patients with the condition. If the molecules do not have the desired effects, they are discarded. We know already these rejected drugs are safe in humans and that they are biologically active, so why are we not investigating other uses for them?
But, as well as being important in embryo formation, angiogenesis is an essential biological pathway in the growth of tumours from myeloma, a type of blood cancer. Thalidomide successfully blocks this mechanism and can be used to treat this cancer, showing that even one effect of a drug can be harmful in some circumstances, but useful in others. Thalidomide is far from the only repurposed drug. Viagra, originally developed as a cure for angina, was found to have the unexpected side
The main advantage of using repurposed molecules is that the initial stages of clinical trials can be skipped. Instead, the molecule can immediately be tested on patients for its new purpose. Typically, the drug discovery to market timeline for a single drug takes 12 years and costs $2.6 billion, so it is a huge advantage to be able to move straight to the most critical stages of the clinical trials. Unfortunately, when a molecule has already been patented the pharmaceutical industry lacks a financial incentive to repurpose it. Therefore, this area of drug discovery is falling to nonprofits and academia. An increasing number of start-ups are pioneering this area of research and experts estimate that soon 30% of the drugs coming to market will be from repurposed molecules. This has the potential to cause a major shift in the pharmaceutical industry in the future. Despite the profit limitations of repurposed drugs, the industry is starting to see the potential of failed molecules for successful new treatments, which will no doubt make life-changing differences to those that need it most. An original failure does not mean success cannot be found.
Image: Tamarin by Leong Jin Ean