Pi Magazine, Issue 713 - Re:Generation

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pi magazine 713 | science & tech

Important issues in research Martina Aghopian, Tom Rivlin, and Janice Yiu highlight important issues in their fields Funding in Science Martina Aghopian


sking anyone for money is always an awkward situation. However, it’s a prospect most of our lecturers regularly face. Professor Jonathan Butterworth, head of the UCL physics and astronomy department, wrote a piece on the woes of funding for The Guardian. One quote in particular stood out: “The balance between hypothesis-led research and data-collection for its own sake needs continual discussion.” What determines whether a project should receive funding and how much a certain project should receive are big questions. The potential socio-economic value that research could generate is often something that is considered when applying for funding. With limited money available, funding agencies like the EPSRC and STFC have to allocate grants carefully. However, it’s surprising to find out that the UK only spends 1.7 per cent of its GDP on scientific research, where Germany spends 2.9 per cent. While it might not seem like a significant difference, we are talking in terms of billions of pounds. The worry is that more and more researchers will start to go abroad for better funding prospects. This would, over time, degrade the level of scientific research in the UK. In 2013, an analysis by BIS showed that the UK has 0.9 per cent of the world’s researchers, and that they have generated 16 per cent of the most highly-cited papers. To top it all off, 90 per cent of our research, funded by the public, is classified as “internationally excellent”. What’s clear from the funding debate is that we need more funding if we want to maintain the UK’s current high-quality level of research.

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The Excess of Success Tom Rivlin

Not just your regular, ‘Ouch’ Janice Yiu



Running a journal isn’t free, and they serve an important role by weeding out bad science. “Journals do add value in the form of peer review,” says Professor Jonathan Tennyson, a UCL physics academic, “But that is not to say certain journals don’t get very rich by charging high fees.”

Professor Wood and his colleagues at UCL focussed on studying individuals born with congenital analgesia, who are unable to feel any pain. Miss C, a woman in the 1960s, reported that she felt no pain despite being subjected to severe electric shock.

cientists publish their research in academic journals, and reading these journals is expensive. Most UK universities spend over $1 million a year paying subscriptions fees to Elsevier, just one company among many. Mars robots and cancer drugs aren’t cheap so surely the money would be better spent elsewhere?

Therefore, is the current situation the most just and effective that it could be? Many people see open access publication as a solution. Under open access, articles are free and journals make their money (usually) by charging researchers fees to get published. A contemporary challenge in science, therefore, is getting more journals to sign up to business models like this. It’s by no means perfect, though. It can cost a few thousand pounds to get published in some journals, with Professor Tennyson saying: “I’m not sure if £3000 is a good use of taxpayers’ money.” Along with journal publishing, physicists upload all papers to ArXiv, an open access repository of physics papers. If universities stopped paying subscription fees, we could still read most papers published. “Universities pay journals out of inertia,” says Tennyson, “I’m not sure the current model… is sustainable.” Academics are beginning to vocally oppose the practices of journals like Elsevier – it seems the battle is only just beginning, and the future of science itself may even be at stake.

ain is a personal experience that is hard to measure, unlike high cholesterol or diabetes - it is influenced by age, gender, stress levels, and cultural learning. The language of pain is different to other biological processes, but scientists at UCL have made monumental leaps in understanding the physiology and psychiatry behind pain signalling mechanisms.

Recently, Wood identified a link between defects in pain signalling and non-functional sodium channels 1.7, which suggests this defect is playing a role in preventing these people from sensing pain. It also appeared that in mice models, as well as a lady without functional sodium channels 1.7, there was an increased amount of opioid peptides in the sensory neurons being produced by their bodies. Opioid peptides are a form of opiate that is widely known for its pain relieving effect. By blocking opioid peptides activity, the lady was able to experience a sharp, intense feeling (pain) for the first time in her life. “This result casts a very different light and highlights the dangers of focusing upon a single molecular target in the complex brain process,” said UCL’s Professor Maria Fitzgerald. This finding has reignited hope for research that we will hopefully soon allow us manipulate all manner of physical pain.