Category Archives: Policy

Examining physiology as a global discipline

by Henry Lovett, Policy and Public Affairs Officer

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, is currently playing host to the 38th Congress of the International Union of Physiological Sciences (IUPS), which is a global network of physiological societies. Released at this event is the report Physiology – Current Trends and Future Challenges. This is a collaboration between the IUPS and The Physiological Society looking at the discipline of physiology and the state it is found in around the world. Physiologists and students of the subject have different experiences and face different challenges depending on their local environment in terms of funding, regulation, job opportunities, public attitude, and any number of other variables.

IUPS sought input from its member organisations, receiving 27 contributions, the content of which make up the data underpinning the report. These responses covered all six inhabited continents, and physiological societies large and small. Most were proud to describe the accomplishments in their country, but many set these against a background of declining government funding for research and greater difficulty in training for in vivo skills and conducting animal-based experimentation. One of the few exceptions is the UK, where the government has pledged to increase research funding over the coming years, although there are concerns around the impact of Brexit on international collaboration.

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Responses about the teaching of physiology varied widely; in some countries the discipline is not taught as an individual undergraduate subject, but others have a number of routes into physiology. It is covered in medical, veterinary, dental and nursing courses, and a number of countries are beginning to highlight the clinical relevance of physiological knowledge.

The general public in some countries can feel very far-removed from scientific research, which affects the perception when governments spend money on science. It is crucial to cement the link in people’s minds between research and health, prosperity, and being able to go about daily life. Many people are aware of pressing problems such as climate change, pollution, and ageing unhealthy populations, but do not necessarily support basic research when they cannot be told a direct application. It is hoped that societies will be able to share knowledge on how best to shore up support for basic research.

The survey also considered the career prospects of new graduates. Globally, physiologists have good opportunities in academic positions as post-doctoral fellows, research associates in research laboratories, and as faculty members. However, the academic sector does not produce enough opportunities to have a position for each graduate. Other professional opportunities are being sought by new PhDs as the struggle to obtain research funding support is very onerous. Career opportunities for physiologists in non-academic institutions appear to be good in several countries, be they related to science or more general graduate careers such as finance.

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The report compiled responses from 27 countries

An exercise such as this survey is not merely to take stock of the state physiology is found in, but to offer a route towards improving it. The report offers recommendations for member societies to work with IUPS and create programmes in their own countries. Due to differing situations it is not envisaged that these will be universally and identically implemented, but the IUPS is creating new Regional Representatives to work closely with individual societies to drive effective development.

While no organisation is yet in the optimum state for driving forward international physiology, there is hope in the future. This report is the first step in a unifying and momentum-raising process to bolster physiology worldwide and achieve its universal recognition as a vital and robust discipline.

Download the report here.

The dangers of careless press releases

by Simon Cork, Imperial College London, @simon_c_c

This article originally appeared in Physiology News

Simon Cork

You open the morning paper and are excited to find an article about a newly published study in your area of interest. You start reading it and quickly realise that the journalist has completely taken the press release out of context. What was originally some preliminary cell culture work has turned into a front page splash solving an age-old problem or heralding a new cure. Sound familiar?

We live in a world of 24-hour rolling news coverage. The necessity to write punchy news headlines and be the first to break stories has never been greater. Because of this, it’s very easy for journalists to take press releases out of their original scientific context, and ‘sex’ them up in a way that sells. This is particularly the case for my own area of research, obesity.

The world is suffering from an obesity epidemic especially (but not exclusively) in the Western world. Reports suggest around two-thirds of people are dieting at any one time, and most of these diets don’t work. This is why stories about miracle weight loss cures and therapies are cat nip to journalists and readers alike.

Frustrated by the misrepresentation of obesity in the press, I decided to sign up to the Science Media Centre (SMC), not knowing it would lead to my television debut.

The remit of the SMC is to provide journalists with expert quotes on scientific studies that are likely to garner media attention. In the world of obesity and diabetes, this usually involves studies showing that eating too much of X will lead to diabetes, or that cutting Y out of your diet reduces body weight.

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I recently commented on a new study, which had followed approximately 20,000 children over a 10-year period, some born via caesarean and some born naturally, and found that those who were born via caesarean were more likely to be obese in later life. I was asked to comment whether or not the conclusions of the study were sound, and offer a possible explanation for the findings. In fact, this study adds to other literature supporting this relationship, and the most likely cause is exposure to different microbes when born naturally versus via caesarean, although the link hasn’t fully been proven.

Since the study used a large cohort, the results were more statistically significant. However, since it was an observational study there isn’t a causative link.

My comments were picked up by a number of news agencies, including The Guardian, Daily Mail and the BBC News website. Nerve-rackingly, I even got a call from the producer of BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme, who was interested in picking this piece up and wondered if I would pop into the studio the next morning. This was swiftly followed by Sky News, Jeremy Vine and BBC News.

Now all of this was a far cry from the ELISA that I was planning on carrying out that day, but was an interesting insight into the angle journalists take on scientific stories. Having received the call asking if I’d like to go on the Today programme at 11 pm the previous evening, I spent a number of hours doing a comprehensive PubMed search of all the most recent meta-analysis studies investigating caesarean births and obesity risk. Turns out all they’re really interested in is why. If the Brexit debate has taught us anything, it’s that the public switch-off at the sight of a percentage symbol or talk of numbers. What people want to know is why and how it affects them. So my interviews mostly revolved around why caesarean births seem to increase the risk of obesity and whether there is anything we can do to mitigate the risk. That and trying to politely convince a caller to the Jeremy Vine Show that her child’s obesity was probably more the result of her confessed feeding of copious amounts of chocolate to him, rather than his method of birth.

If, like me, you find yourself at odds with journalistic reporting of science stories, I would urge you to join the database at the Science Media Centre. You’re not guaranteed to get TV time, but you might get your name in the paper. Just make sure that you at least know enough about whatever it is you’re commenting on to make it through a 30-minute conversation with Jeremy Vine and John Humphrys!

Parliamentary Links Day 2017: Connecting science and politicians

By Charles Laing, @spacecharlieuk

The largest science event in the annual parliamentary calendar was held last week, with scientists and engineers from all over the UK meeting Members of both Houses of Parliament. Parliamentary Links Day provides an opportunity for learned societies to have their views heard and represented in Parliament, and with Brexit looming this year was particularly important.

It was great to be invited along, after recently joining the Policy & Communications Committee of the Physiological Society, so I could listen to the discussion of some of the major issues facing UK science today.

 

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The title for this year’s event was ‘UK Science and Global Opportunities?’ and included talks from the Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow; the Minister for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation, Jo Johnson; and Chair Designate of UK Research and Innovation, Sir John Kingman. Interesting sessions included a panel hosted by BBC science journalist Pallab Ghosh, with several opportunities for the audience to engage and ask questions.

A key theme for all involved that emerged from the discussions was the real need to ensure that the level of UK science funding continues post-Brexit. Sir John Kingman noted that all major UK political parties had solid manifesto commitments indicating the importance of science to the UK and its wider economy – a hopeful sign as we exit the European Union.

Other matters of concern among the room full of scientists, policymakers, politicians, and leaders in the science sector included the issue of international collaborations and how this would be dealt with in the future. Consensus was that in order for the UK to access the full range of global opportunities moving forward, access to intellectual talent overseas should not be a barrier to fruitful collaborations.

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Following discussions, lunch was hosted out on the House of Lords’ terrace. A great way to finish off a packed day full of debates. The Physiological Society table was joined by Baroness Margaret Prosser and Lord Ronald Oxburgh – both members of the House of Lords – as well as Dr Sarah Main, Director of the Campaign for Science and Engineering. The guest speaker after lunch was Professor Alex Halliday, Vice-President of the Royal Society, who spoke about the importance of the people in the room flying the flag for UK science.

The next generation of scientists grill policymakers

By Peter Aldiss, BHF-funded PhD student at the University of Nottingham, @Peter_Aldiss

Voice of the Future, an annual event organised by the Royal Society of Biology, gives young researchers like me the opportunity to ask the upper echelons of science policy the questions that matter most to us. Quizzing MPs on the future of British science in Westminster is not something I imagined having the opportunity to do. Despite the sceptic in me supposing it to be no more than a ‘tick-box exercise’, I kept an open mind.

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Chi Onwurah, Labour MP for Newcastle upon Tyne Central and Shadow Minister for Industrial Strategy, Science and Innovation was first up. She spoke passionately about the North-South divide, the numerous inequalities in STEM, the importance of globalisation, and how investment in technology can drive growth.  She explained how things would differ under Labour, though with the party in its current state it will be a long time before they can realise their ambitions to transform anything, let alone STEM. In what turned out to be an afternoon of carefully scripted answers, Onwurah deserves a huge amount of credit for going off script on multiple occasions.

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A quick changeover and I was sat at the horseshoe ready to grill Sir Mark Walport, Government Chief Scientific Advisor.  The first question was about forensic science, which Sir Mark explained is hugely important to many areas and will continue to receive funding and support. In response to a question about how the research community can encourage publication of negative results, he clarified that there are two types of negative results: those that are negative due to poor study design and those that are negative when a study is methodologically sound. Did this really answer the question? I’m not convinced it did. As head of the new merger of Research Councils, I hope Sir Mark will address this issue in the future.

Hugely impressive throughout was Sir Mark’s ability to glance at his notes briefly then discuss every topic – genetic manipulation, space research, environment, inequalities in STEM – in vast detail. It’s no surprise that he is the Chief Scientific Advisor.

Jo Johnson, Minister of State for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation was up to bat next. The first question was about the effect of Brexit and whether we will continue to be attractive to international students. He assured us that we should continue to collaborate and communicate with our colleagues in the EU, and that there are no plans to cap international student numbers. He said there are no plans to merge research and teaching funding, as ‘blue sky’ research is fundamental and will continue to be supported. I’m not entirely convinced it is supported currently. Apparently, the Conservative Party allocate more to STEM than they originally intended and Mr. Johnson said this shows how highly they value the area.

Questions on how the UK can improve commercialisation of research, increase patent numbers, support biotech spin-outs and address air pollution followed. It struck me that Mr. Johnson didn’t feel there were any real issues and spoke like someone who is not worried about the future. Everything is bright, Brexit is not a problem and the UK will always be strong and a leader in STEM. I’m not convinced, but of course he has to toe the party line.

Science and Technology Panel

The closing act was the House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee, a cross-party group whose job it is to ensure government policy is based on solid evidence. They spoke about the importance of the Committee and the weight cross-party agreement can carry. They also discussed the policy positions behind artificial intelligence and space travel, specifically concern around the former and excitement around the latter.

The ‘post-truth’ world was brought up; despite an apparent disdain for experts scientists, they are apparently hugely respected and trusted by the public, much more so than politicians. On improving the number of women in STEM, the SNP’s Carol Monaghan made it clear no baby girl should ever be forced into pink or made to play with dolls, but should play with fun toys like Lego. Someone asked the members of the committee why they became MPs. One answer stuck with me: that Westminster is where you can effect change. “Order, order” was the cue to finish a very interesting afternoon.

All in all I enjoyed the experience tremendously. I certainly didn’t feel it was a ‘tick-box’ exercise, but did come away feeling it had been a recruitment drive. Speakers made numerous references to needing MPs with backgrounds in STEM, and encouraged us to consider a career in politics. I would like to think, as I’m sure all others in STEM would, that we can create change and influence government policy without becoming MPs. Hats-off to the Royal Society of Biology for a top event and to all who attended for making the event a success.

Brexit is a major concern for physiologists

By Henry Lovett, Policy and Public Affairs Officer, The Physiological Society

It is dominating the news. It is dominating conversations over lunch, and over after-work pints. It is dominating Twitter. It is Brexit, and it is a big deal. No matter your personal feelings on leaving the European Union, every sector will have to adjust to the impending arrival of this new situation. Scientific research, and specifically physiology, is no different. Therefore we carried out a survey of our members into their views, their fears and their priorities concerning Brexit and physiology. We were pleased to receive 350 responses and case studies, and have collated them in an infographic to show the discipline’s views.

Here we shall dive into some of the conclusions in a bit more detail. The most fundamental issue to understand is the opinion on the big question – did physiologists want to ‘Leave’ or ‘Remain’? Well, of those respondents eligible to vote, 85% wanted to remain. A significant number of people also said that they were not UK nationals, but would have voted remain if given the chance. So that is not in much doubt. However, of those who voted to leave, only two said they would now change their mind, so that view is definitely still entrenched for most leavers.

Opinions about the key issue in the campaign period ahead of the referendum were split widely. The most important issue for respondents was the international movement of people, cited by 34% of those who took part in the survey. As for the most important goal to achieve in Brexit negotiations, free movement for scientists and continued access to EU research funding tied with 33% of the vote each, but free movement for students also received 9% of votes, showing that free movement overall is the most critical issue for the discipline. Large proportions of respondents had already lost funding or collaborators since the referendum result was announced, or seen colleagues and students leave positions in this country. It is plain that, despite our not having left the EU yet, the effects of Brexit are already making themselves known.
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Our survey reveals that scientists are concerned about the impacts Brexit will have on science. When asked to rate how they had felt on referendum results day about the prospects for science after Brexit (with 0 being very negative, 5 being no change, and 10 being very positive), respondents’ average score was 2. With over six months having passed since then (when the survey was taken), giving time for the result to sink in, the average current score was… 2. In fact, of those people whose view had changed, 78% said the prospects for science had got worse. This was countered by a few who had greatly increased their score, leading to no appreciable overall change. Comments expressed a lack of faith in the promises given by government to shore up the research sector, or that they had not heard any government comments about science at all.SGD_Infographic_Brexit_SocialMedia

What of the sector’s actions to address the concerns of our members and other scientists? It would seem all of science needs to be more vocal in attempts to stave off the possible damage of Brexit to research. 52% of people said the sector was not active enough in response to Brexit, with only 47% saying enough is being done.

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We are using the results of this survey to highlight the views of science to politicians during the Brexit process. Our infographic has been sent to all MPs, who we hope will find our results helpful and keep science uppermost in their minds as the Brexit deal is negotiated and ratified.

For more information on this survey, or the rest of our policy work, please contact policy@physoc.org.

Download our infographic here.

Bringing STEM into Parliament

By Simon Cork, Imperial College London, @simon_c_c

Two weeks ago, I, along with around 150 other scientists, engineers, and mathematicians descended onto Westminster for this year’s STEM for Britain event. This annual event is organised by the Science and Technology Select Committee and has been happening since 1997 (barring a small break following the death of the original organiser, Dr Eric Wharton, in 2007).

The event brings together some of the UK’s top researchers to present ground-breaking research to members of both the House of Commons and Lords, thereby raising the profile of both UK STEM research and early career researchers. Policy and lawmaker attendees get a glimpse into the breadth of research being undertaken at UK institutions. Early career researchers step outside of their bubbles, albeit for a few hours.

Every year, the event receives around 500 applicants, of which around 35% are invited to present. Perhaps most enticing to many early career researchers, are the three prizes awarded to presenters in each category (Engineering, Mathematics, Biological and Biomedical Sciences, Physics and Chemistry), to the sum of £1000, £2000 and £3000 for third, second, and first prize respectively. The first prize winners for each category are then put forward for the prestigious Westminster Prize (this year I’m happy to say won by the winner of the Biological and Biomedical sciences category, but alas not me…).

The event brings together some of the UK’s top researchers to present ground-breaking research to members of both the House of Commons and Lords

The most striking point that will come as little surprise to many of you is the sheer number of non-UK nationals represented at this event. This is of particular pertinence this year as the UK looks to invoke stronger border controls following its departure from the EU in 2019. The many non-UK nationals invited to attend this event show the strong contribution made by foreign nationals to the UK’s research output.

Presenting my research: using vagal nerve activity to better control appetite

I presented my research on a new technological approach to treating obesity. According to Public Health England, almost 63% of the UK population were overweight or obese in 2015. The annual cost to the NHS of treating obesity and its associated co-morbidities was £27bn. Bariatric surgery is currently the only effective treatment to sustain long-term weight loss, so the need for novel treatments is clear.

A therapy called vagal nerve stimulation (VNS) is gaining popularity. It involves electrically stimulating the vagus nerve to “trick” the brain into feeling full and therefore limiting food intake. The issue with current VNS therapies is their lack of physiological feedback. This means that since the nerve is continuously stimulated, its ability to control appetite reduces with time.

Bariatric surgery is currently the only effective treatment to sustain long-term weight loss, so the need for novel treatments is clear.

We developed a device that regulates nerve stimulation in response to food intake. After we eat, our gut normally releases hormones that say, “I am full.” This message is relayed to the vagal nerve and changes its electrical output. Our device measures this change in nerve activity and only signals when it hears the vagal nerve giving the ‘full’ signal.

The UK government is beginning to introduce policy, such as the sugar tax announced last year, to tackle the growing obesity problem in the UK. Most policy announcements encourage physical activity. Unfortunately, this doesn’t go far enough. Increasing evidence suggests that once a person becomes obese, changes in their physiology mean that the chances of maintaining a reduced body weight after dieting are slim (no pun intended). We need more policies aimed at preventing obesity in the first place, likely by targeting children.

It is important to remember that the majority of politicians are not scientists. Events such as STEM for Britain are important for bridging the gap between basic science and government policy. Long may it continue.

Stress in modern Britain: An update to the seminal 50 year old survey

StressInModernBritain

By Henry Lovett, Policy & Public Affairs Officer, The Physiological Society

In the 21st century, stress is all-pervasive. The Physiological Society has conducted a national survey in the vein of the seminal work of Holmes and Rahe in 1967[1] to ascertain how different stressful events, both positive and negative, affect people. In partnership with polling firm YouGov,[2] we surveyed over 2000 British adults and asked them to rate how stressful they find (or imagine they would find) 18 different life events. The results suggest some enlightening conclusions.

The overall ordering of the stressor events is given here, along with an average score (out of ten points) assigned to each one.

Rank Event Stress /10
1 Death of spouse/relative/friend 9.43
2 Imprisonment 9.15
3 Flood/fire damaging your home 8.89
4 Being seriously ill 8.52
5 Being fired 8.47
6 Separation/divorce 8.47
7 Identity theft 8.16
8 Unexpected money problems 7.39
9 Starting a new job 6.54
10 Planning a wedding 6.51
11 Arrival of first child 6.06
12 Commute delays 5.94
13 Terrorist threats 5.84
14 Losing smartphone 5.79
15 Moving to bigger house 5.77
16 Brexit 4.23
17 Going on holiday 3.99
18 Promotion/success at work 3.78

Perhaps most interestingly, for every single event, the reported stress experienced by men was lower than that by women. The average difference was 0.56 points. The biggest difference was in the stress caused by the threat of terrorism, which was 1.25 points higher for women. The smallest difference was for the arrival of a first child – a life-changing event for either sex! Of course, we cannot tell from these figures if the women responding do experience greater stress, or are simply more willing to report it; an age-old problem of this type of research.

Overall regional differences were small, with the average stress level across Great Britain varying only by 0.28 points. The most stressed area was Scotland, while the least stressed was the South East of England. The East of England was notably upset by delays in their commutes, while Londoners were most sanguine about going on holiday.

The results for some events point towards stress levels increasing with age, most strongly for long-term problems such as illness or imprisonment. Exceptions to this trend were the loss of a smartphone, which fits with the added difficulties this would cause to highly-connected younger generations, and the arrival of a first child. This was rated highest by those 25-34, who are likely to be the group experiencing this most recently.

One interesting stressor was Brexit (with the given definition of “the process of leaving the European Union”). Though ranking low among all the stressors, Brexit had the greatest variety of responses given, shown by the highest standard deviation. Respondents aged 18-24 scored Brexit stress a point higher on average than those 55+. Those living in London and Scotland also scored Brexit a point higher on average than Wales and much of the rest of England. Most markedly, those respondents educated to higher degree level reported stress two points higher than people with only GCSEs or A-Levels, while undergraduate degree-holders were also more stressed, though more than a point lower than those with higher degrees. These trends correlate with the constituencies of the electorate most likely to vote Remain in the referendum, suggesting they are finding the Brexit process stressful while leavers are happier to let things play out.

Participants were also asked to fill in any other particularly stressful events which they felt the survey had missed out. The most common responses concerned driving: car breakdowns, suffering traffic, road rage, or being the passenger of a careless driver all featured. Another set of common response described caring responsibilities for aged, ill or disabled people.

Finally, to the person who responded: “Trying to enter an amateur radio contest when the ionospheric conditions are poor due to a coronal mass ejection, coupled with a neighbour’s plasma TV causing major interference on the 1.8 to 7 MHz bands.” All we can say is, we feel your pain.

[1] T Holmes and R Rahe, Journal of Psychosomatic Research. Vol. 11, pp. 213 to 218. Pergamon Press. 1967

[2] All figures, unless otherwise stated, are from YouGov Plc. Total sample size was 2078 adults. Fieldwork was undertaken between 22nd – 28th December 2016.  The survey was carried out online. The figures have been weighted and are representative of all GB adults (aged 18+).