Just Take A Breath

By Molly Campbell, University of Leeds, @mollyrcampbell

Take deep breaths. Try to relax. Stay calm. In stressful situations, this is the advice we often receive. More often than not, this tends to work.

What you might not be aware of is that this advice is thousands of years old, and is also supported by extensive scientific research. You’ve heard of the Buddha, right? At the core of the Buddhist teachings of mindfulness, meaning focusing on the present moment, is placing attention and focus on the breath. This has beneficial effects on our nervous system and subsequently our health.

yogi

Picture this. You are revising a particularly hard topic, perhaps a subject that you desperately need to ace to secure your college or university place. A train of thoughts frantically rushes through your brain and you panic. I’m not going to get the grade I want! I’m not going to get my college place and this will ruin everything for me! Sound familiar?

In these situations, our ‘fight or flight response’ (the sympathetic nervous system) can go into overdrive. Our heart rate increases, as does our blood pressure. This stress response actually limits the function of some of our vital organs – most notably the digestive system. It also limits our cognitive abilities, making it difficult to focus on the task at hand. So where does breathing come into the equation?

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The breath is interesting because we can control it despite it being a function of the autonomic (or subconscious) nervous system. Pranayama, or ‘yogic breathing’ involves manipulating and deepening the breath; by doing so we cultivate awareness and consciousness that actually allows us to take the reins and stimulate our ‘rest and digest’ response (the parasympathetic nervous system), inducing relaxation.

How does this work? The vagus nerve, coined the ‘mind-body’ connection, is the longest nerve in the body. To avoid delving too deep into its anatomical route, let’s just say it innervates many organs and regulates many important functions. In the early 1900s, the German physiologist Otto Loewi found that simulating the vagus nerve reduces heart rate by releasing a substance that he called ‘Vagusstoff’. We now know that ‘Vagusstoff’ is actually the chemical acetylcholine that affects brain activity.

When we breathe deeply using our diaphragm, we create pressure in our abdomen that stimulates the vagus nerve to secrete acetylcholine. Acetylcholine slows down the heart and increases the activity of the digestive system.

Stimulating our ‘rest and digest’ response also inhibits our ‘fight or flight response’. One effect of this is decreasing the release of adrenaline from the adrenal medulla. This then reduces the action of adrenaline in the brain. This is another mechanism behind the physiological workings of breathing for relaxation.

In March of this year, scientists in Italy measured the physiological and psychological responses of students who performed deep breathing (Perciavalle et al., 2017). Considering that the 38 volunteers were university students, the findings are particularly relevant to exam stress. Half of the 38 volunteers did deep breathing exercises once a week for 10 weeks.

The exercises included paying attention to how one breath differs from another, and contracting and releasing the muscles. After 10 weeks, students had lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol, and lower heart rates.

In focusing on deepening the breath, we calm the nervous system and prevent our body going into ‘fight or flight’ overdrive. This sense of calm and clarity can help bring our attention to the present moment. Our anxiety about exams is regarding the future (What will happen if I fail?) or based on a mistake we made in the past. Using the breath to be present and aware allows us to focus on the now, on the task at hand. So, in times of stress – just take a breath!

References:

Nezlek, J., Holas, P., Rusanowska, M., Krejtz, I. 2016. Being present in the moment: Event-level relationships between mindfulness and stress, positivity, and importance. Personality and individual differences. 93(2016), pp. 1-5.

Bordoni, B and Zanier, E. 2013. Anatomic connections of the diaphragm: influence of respiration on the body system. Journal of Multidisciplinary Healthcare. 6(281-289)

McCoy, A. and Tan, Y. 2014. Otto Loewi  (1873-1961): Dreamer and Nobel Laureate. Singapore Medicine Journal. 55(1), pp. 3-4.

Perciavalle, V., Blandini, M., Fecarotta, P., Buscemi, A., Di Corrado, D., Bertolo, L., Fichera, F. and Coco, M. 2017. The role of deep breathing on stress. Neurological Sciences. 38(3), pp.451-458.

Breath of the Sith: a case study on respiratory failure in a galaxy far, far away

Excerpt from a Physiology News feature by Ronan Berg, Department of Clinical Physiology & Nuclear Medicine, Frederiksberg and Bispebjerg Hospitals & Ronni Plovsing, Department of Intensive Care 4131, University Hospital Rigshospitalet, both in Copenhagen, Denmark.

While the latest instalments in the Star Wars saga have thrilled physiologists and non-physiologists alike, it may be worthwhile to take a look back at what we as respiratory physiologists have learned from the venerated space opera so far. It remains indisputable – at least between the authors of this paper – that the first six episodes’ protagonist-turned-villain-turned-saviour Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader is the most fascinating case study on respiratory failure in the history of cinema. […]

Health hazards of volcanic fumes

Figure 1. An advanced bi-level positive airway pressure system integrated in a whole-body armoured suit for the treatment of acute and chronic respiratory failure in a Sith Lord. © LucasArts

In the Star Wars saga, the highly talented Jedi knight, Anakin Skywalker, choses to abandon the monastic Jedi Order and instead join his father figure Sheev Palpatine in the more exclusive and politically involved Sith Order. As he does this, he assumes a new identity as Darth Vader, and earns the title Dark Lord of the Sith. For a number of reasons, this change of careers does not impress a former Jedi Master of his, and the two soon clash in a light sabre duel on the volcanic planet Mustafar. The confrontation results in a near-fatal outcome for Darth Vader who loses several limbs in the fight, and while he is incapacitated on the volcanic shore, he furthermore suffers inhalational injury and third degree burns. However, before he passes away, Palpatine comes to the rescue, and organises timely medical intervention. […] After the incident, Darth Vader is unable to breathe freely at all; outside his personal meditation  chamber, which also appears to function as some kind of a fancy hyperbaric oxygen facility, he continually relies on a mobile life-support system, which is integrated in a whole-body armoured suit, in order to survive (Figure 1).

Darth Vader’s acute respiratory failure appears to be the consequence of a number of factors, including direct thermal injury to the airways, chemical damage to the lung parenchyma caused by inhalation of smoke and volcanic dust particles, carbon monoxide poisoning, as well as secondary effects to his severe third degree burns, which seems to cover ~100 % of his total body surface area. […]

Due to his quite severe facial burns, it is difficult to determine whether Darth Vader exhibits ‘cherry-red cheeks’ at this stage, a typical clinical finding associated with carbon monoxide poisoning.

Inhalation-induced acute respiratory distress syndrome in a Sith Lord

Darth Vader’s immediate respiratory distress on the volcanic shore is probably caused by volcanic gaseous irritants with high water solubility in the volcanic fumes, which cause immediate symptoms of tracheobronchitis, and impair pulmonary gas exchange (Nemery 2006; Mlcak et al., 2007). Since Darth Vader may concurrently be exposed to high levels of carbon monoxide, which both impairs the red blood cell uptake of oxygen in the lungs due to its higher affinity for haemoglobin than oxygen, and furthermore shifts the oxygenhaemoglobin saturation curve to the left, so that the release of oxygen from the red blood cells to tissue mitochondria (and perhaps also the conceivably similar midi-chlorians) in various organs is impaired; severe tissue hypoxia therefore ensues. Due to his quite severe facial burns, it is difficult to determine whether Darth Vader exhibits ‘cherry-red cheeks’ at this stage, a typical clinical finding associated with carbon monoxide poisoning, but his rather agitated emotional state is characteristic of the cerebral dysfunction often encountered in this clinical condition.

We deem it irrefutable that Darth Vader fulfils the diagnostic criteria for acute respiratory distress syndrome within a few hours after the incident on Mustafar.

Within a few hours, that is, after Darth Vader has been evacuated by Palpatine, the effects of direct thermal injury on the central parts of the lungs, as well as the effects of the volcanic water soluble gaseous irritants and aerosols set in. These give rise to acute chemical pneumonitis with non-cardiogenic pulmonary oedema and induce a reduction in ventilatory capacity with increased pulmonary ventilation-perfusion inequality, thus severely impairing pulmonary gas exchange (Nemery 2006). At this stage, the systemic inflammatory response to the severe skin burns may furthermore disseminate from the blood stream to the alveolar compartment, and thus exaggerate the pulmonary inflammatory response. Although appropriate diagnostic imaging would be required to establish the diagnosis here on Earth, we deem it irrefutable that Darth Vader fulfils the diagnostic criteria for acute respiratory distress syndrome within a few hours after the incident on Mustafar, which is a common complication both after inhalation injury and severe skin burns (Mlcak et al., 2007).

Figure 2. Respiratory rate according to activity level in a Sith Lord (n =1). Data are obtained from Plovsing & Berg (2014) and presented as mean (± standard deviation). ‘Rest’ includes recreational activities in a meditation chamber; ‘Normal everyday activities’ include various friendly encounters as well as torture of enemies, colleagues, and employees; ‘Stressful situations’ includes increased alertness and arousal; ‘Exercise’ includes running, combat and light sabre duels.

Following extensive robotic surgery, the medical droids choose to treat Darth Vader’s respiratory condition by means of the iconic whole-body armoured suit. The suit contains a mobile life-support system, and from a careful analysis of Episodes IV-VI, we have concluded that it functions as an advanced bi-level positive airway pressure (BPAP) system that supports Darth Vader’s intrinsic breathing both during in- and expiration, while preventing airway collapse, and continually supplying him with oxygen (Plovsing & Berg 2014). Accordingly, his respiratory rate varies with his activity level (Figure 2), and pressure equalisation with the surroundings can clearly be heard when his helmet is detached. Other scientists have noted that Darth Vader’s whole-body armoured suit may furthermore function as a means of preventing infections, which is notably relevant in the immediate aftermath of the events on Mustafar, due to Darth Vader’s extensive skin burns (Perrella et al., 2015).

Read the full article in Physiology News.

References:

Mlcak RP, Suman OE, Herndon DN (2007). Respiratory management of inhalation injury. Burns 33, 2-13

Nemery B (2006). Chemical-induced lung injury and its long-term sequelae. In: Imaging of Occupational and Environmental Disorders of the Chest. Springer Berlin Heidelberg, pp. 67-75.

Perrella A, Russo C, Giuliani A, Esposito C, Saturnino P (2015). Infection control in a far, far away Galaxy: new and alternative learning tool from popular culture to improve the antimicrobial stewardship. North Am J Med Sci 7, 236-7

Plovsing RR, Berg RMG (2014). Pulmonary pathophysiology in another galaxy. Anesthesiology 120, 230-2

Mindfulness matters to physiologists

Excerpt from a Physiology News feature by Lee de-Wit, @leedewitInstitute of Continuing Education, University of Cambridge, UK & Psychology and Language Sciences, University College London, UK

Our minds are often busy planning the future or thinking about the past. Mindfulness involves becoming more aware of what is happening right now. That might involve becoming more aware of feelings in your body. It might involve becoming aware of the sensations of your breath. It might simply involve becoming more conscious of the fact one’s mind is thinking about the future or the past.

This practise of mindfulness has proved effective in treating certain clinical conditions, and can influence behaviour on a range of tasks. In parallel to this, there is also a large body of evidence showing that mindfulness has a range of measurable outcomes on both neural activity and even neural structures. Research on mindfulness not only helps us to understand this practise per se, but has also increased our understanding of plasticity and localization of functions within the adult human brain. […]

Secular mindfulness without Buddhism

Mindfulness is a relatively recent approach that extracts some of the core teachings from Buddhism and reformulates them as a secular practise to help patients recovering from chronic pain or to deal with stress. This approach was first pioneered by Jon Kabat-Zinn at the Massachusetts University Hospital. […] Jon Kabat-Zinn developed a secular program of mindfulness training that focused on developing some of the key skills involved in Buddhist meditation and awareness training. He formalised this approach as an 8-week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) course. This model was then further developed by Mark Williams and colleagues at Oxford, who developed the 8-week Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) course. This 8-week MBCT course was developed over 10 years ago, as a treatment to prevent the relapse of patients who have suffered multiple episodes of depression. Two recent meta-analyses have provided evidence that MBCT offers an effective treatment in preventing relapse for patients who have had depression (Kuyken et al., 2016), and in the treatment of mood and anxiety problems in clinical populations (Hofmann et al., 2010).

At its most simple, mindfulness is about becoming more aware of one’s experience of feelings, emotions, thoughts and mental and bodily state in the present moment. […] When you first start, you’ll realise just how much the mind wanders off when you try and focus on a simple aspect of your present moment experience. Critically however, mindfulness doesn’t mean one starts judging oneself for having a mind that wanders off, rather one seeks to acknowledge one’s wandering mind and patiently learn the skill of bringing it back to the present moment.

To really develop this practise, it can be useful to have extended periods of meditation where you focus on areas of your body, or the sensation of your breathing in a formal meditation posture. Mindfulness isn’t just something you do sitting on a mat on the floor however. You can mindfully eat your dinner, mindfully draw a picture, mindfully read an article about mindfulness.

How meditation can change your brain

I sometimes think that one of the most important and under-communicated (to the general public) findings of the last 50 years is just how remarkably similar our brains are. More recently however, there has been an increasing recognition that our brains sometimes differ in ways that have interesting functional and theoretical consequences. […]

In 2004, meditation joined the list of factors that were associated with changes in the brain’s structure. Building on work from the previous year, showing that the brains of experienced meditators had higher levels of coherent activity (Lutz et al., 2004), researchers at Harvard, Yale, MIT and Massachusetts General Hospital found that there were also large-scale differences in the structure of certain areas of the brains of experienced meditators (Lazar et al., 2005). These changes were not random, they were found in areas of the brain that could be logically interpreted given the skills practised in meditation. In particular, one of the areas that was larger in experienced meditators was the insula. This is an area of the brain that we know is important in interoception, the perception (visceral, not visual) of our own body. Given that mindfulness often involves the development of a greater awareness of one’s present moment bodily experience, it seems logical that the area of the brain that seems to be involved in that would be one of the areas to be influenced by long-term mindfulness practise.

Read the full article in Physiology News.

References:

Hofmann SG, Sawyer AT, Witt AA, Oh D (2010). The effect of mindfulness-based therapy on anxiety and depression: a meta-analytic review. J Consult Clin Psychol 78, 169-183 doi:10.1037/a0018555

Kuyken W, et al. (2016). Efficacy of mindfulness-based cognitive therapy in prevention of depressive relapse: an individual patient data meta-analysis from randomized trials. JAMA Psychiatry 73, 565–574 doi:10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2016.0076

Lazar SW, et al. (2005). Meditation experience is associated with increased cortical thickness. Neuroreport 16, 1893–1897.

Lutz A, Greischar LL, Rawlings NB, Ricard M, Davidson RJ (2004). Long-term meditators self-induce high-amplitude gamma synchrony during mental practice. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 101, 16369–16373 doi:10.1073/pnas.0407401101

 

Perceptions of Stress

By Andy Powell, @DrAndyDPowell, Birmingham City University

Sleepless nights, sweaty palms, lack of appetite – the physiologist in me recognised the classic symptoms of the stress response. So why was I stressed? I have a loving family, a crazy border terrier who thinks he is still a puppy, and a job as university lecturer that I love.

First, a disclaimer. I recognise that the circumstances that left me displaying symptoms of stress were short term and had a definite resolution, but those circumstances and more importantly my reaction to them was an eye opener to what simple things can trigger a period of stress.

I was up at night tossing and turning thinking about “Fun and Brains,” a public outreach event I helped organise at British Neuroscience Association’s 2017 “Festival of Neuroscience”. The activities brought together art and neuroscience.  A performance artist explored the role of memories, participants built neurons, and speakers presented about how the brain works at all ages.

“Perception Playground” was the title of my activity. Participants of all ages explored how simple tasks can be affected by altering perception. They coloured in neurons and played table tennis with vision-altering prism glasses on. They saw first-hand why drunk-driving is a big no-no (drunk goggles + remote control car = absolute carnage).

My personal favourite was the headphones that create a small delay between the person’s speaking and hearing. It really affects your ability to speak! People were generally only able to get a few words into a sentence before ripping off their headphones. A common coping strategy was to shout, presumably to be heard through the headphones. I considered the activity a success when I had a bunch of kids shouting about how the brain works.

We did have one participant who was totally unaffected, which we put down to the fact that she was a regular user of Skype to call home. The regular breaks Skype introduces somehow conditioned her brain (I am sure there is a great research project in there somewhere).

I thought this would be right up my street. I am a STEM ambassador and I absolutely love sharing my passion for science. I mean, who in their right mind would go to the Big Bang Fair and stands for 6 hours, with their hands in gunge, explaining to school students who have fished an organ out of a simulated surgical patient, what those organs do (that would be me). What I love most is answering those completely out-of-left-field questions that only a child knows how to ask.

So why was this the most stressful thing I have ever done (even worse than my PhD viva)? I think the big difference here was that I was flying solo on the organisation of perception playground.  Remember my crazy border terrier? It’s like that moment as a puppy when he embarrasses you in the middle of a crowded town centre by peeing in an inappropriate place.

Perception playground was mine, but part of a larger whole – and nobody wants to let others down. So right from the beginning that internal pressure was different from previous experiences.  I would lie awake at night thinking: Have I booked the volunteers? Have I organised the activities correctly? What if the weather is bad (it was held outside)?

All the while the physiologist in me would be screaming – control your breathing, slow your mind – often to no avail.  Set-backs along the way didn’t help – the funding I applied for didn’t materialise.  Normally this is a not a problem. I have a thick skin from years of rejected grant applications and papers, but on top of the internal pressures it quickly became a screaming matter. Even the thought of writing my first blog post was a source of major stress. Who’d have thought that it would almost write itself?

So how did it go?

It went wonderfully. I would do it again in a heartbeat. It would however be remiss of me not to thank all of the volunteers who gave up their precious time and offered their valuable knowledge. Without them it would not have been possible.

Participants appeared to enjoy themselves and take away some nuggets of knowledge; a comment from one participant sums up why I do outreach – “Thank you for teaching me about my brain, I never considered what it does before”.  Hopefully that girl is now inspired to study neuroscience, and will present her PhD work at the 2029 “Festival of Neuroscience”.

What has it taught me?

I hope that I haven’t come across as trivialising the effects of stress. Yes, this was a stressful situation with a defined end.  However, I always thought that I was invulnerable to it and I never suspected that something that I love doing would be the trigger.  I now have a better understanding of just how crippling it can be, and how even small or much loved things can be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.

 

 

 

 

 

Researcher Spotlight: James Betts

PastedGraphic-1‘The timing of daily meals is important for our metabolism. It’s easy to change how frequently we eat.’

James Betts is a Reader (Associate Professor) in Nutrition, Metabolism and Statistics in the Department for Health at the University of Bath. He is interested in energy metabolism, and how components of energy balance interact to regulate human health and physiological function.

 

What is your research about?

I am interested in the effect of nutrition on human physiology. In particular, I have always been interested in energy metabolism and therefore the amount, type and timing of macronutrient ingestion. Recently my work has become most focused on the interactions between time and energy balance, for example considering the frequency or regularity of eating relative to other daily events such as exercise, sleep and other eating occasions.

How did you end up working in this field?

I remember already being fascinated by nutrition during my school days. I’ve also always played sports, so I was keen to study the scientific basis of exercise at University. Loughborough was a natural progression for me and it was there that I participated in countless experiments as an undergraduate. In my final year, I started conducting research, and haven’t looked back since. I studied the effects of taking vitamin C and E for six weeks on oxidative stress and muscle damage after exercise. (More recently, I submitted and published this work). That experience galvanised my passion for scientific research. During my PhD, supervised by Clyde Williams, I continued studying metabolism after exercise, but looked at carbohydrate and protein ingestion instead. I have maintained this interest in how exercise interacts with eating but now with greater focus on how the timing of nutrients affects metabolic regulation and health.

Why is your work important?

All studies of nutrition can be broadly categorised under the headings of how much (i.e. dose) of what (i.e. type) we eat when (i.e. timing). Mainstream media and primary research focus on the first two. However, the timing of daily meals is important for our metabolism. It’s easy to change how frequently we eat, and research is increasingly showing that we can optimise this to be healthier. Changing how frequently we eat might also help counter obesity and associated chronic diseases. These conditions are undoubtedly a great public health challenge in our generation and represent an incredible burden to many individuals, the economy and society.

What does your typical day, in and out of the lab/classroom involve?

I enjoy that my job is so varied and I get to meet many people by working on human metabolism. While well-controlled experiments are repetitive, I am always learning. My typical day starts taking adipose and muscle samples from our volunteers who fasted overnight. When not in the laboratory, I am either writing scientific papers and grant applications, or advising my students.

 

Challenges and importance of studying depression in rodent models

By Anjanette Harris, University of Edinburgh, @anjiefitch

Sufferers of Major Depressive Disorder (MDD) are more than just a little ‘down in the dumps’. Persistent low mood and low self-esteem are classic symptoms, but sufferers also experience learned helplessness, increased anxiety, feelings of guilt and worthlessness, and enjoy the pleasures of life less (also called anhedonia).

To investigate potential therapies and the cause of this debilitating disease, it is sometimes necessary turn to animal models, such as rats and mice. Rats and mice offer a powerful tool to investigate the causes and consequences of mood disorders, because unlike in humans, we can control stressors, genetics, and environmental factors more easily in rats and mice. We can give certain drugs, implement exercise regimens, and modify diets to see what happens.shutterstock_106507433

While a rat or mouse cannot communicate its feelings, we can measure some aspects of depressive behaviour. Rodents normally love sugary water, but when they are anhedonic they have a weaker preference for it. A forced swim test involves placing a rodent in a container of water in which they can swim but not escape. Choosing to float rather than tread water during this test is used as a sign of depression.

Measuring preference for sugar and floating behaviour in rodents is similar to a questionnaire in a human study.  While a questionnaire identifies depressed subjects, it reveals very little about the cause of depression. To successfully treat or prevent MDD, we need to understand what goes wrong in the brain.

In humans, a specific type of brain scan called functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) helps bridge the gap between identifying and unpicking what is faulty in a depressed brain. This scan measures oxygen levels in the brain’s blood circulation. Since active brain cells use more oxygen, the fMRI signal indicates the parts of the brain that are working hard.Capture

We can use these scans to look at differences between the brain activity of depressed and healthy people. For example, in response to negative stimuli such as pictures of sad faces, the outer layer of the brain (the cortex) exerts weaker control over the emotional centre (the limbic system) in depressed patients. In addition, networks in the brain that respond to reward are increasingly less active as anhedonia becomes more severe. These findings may help explain why those who are vulnerable to MDD are both unable to supress negative mood when it arises and no longer enjoy previously pleasurable experiences.

While manipulating rodent genomes and administering drugs or stressors is straightforward, neuroimaging is more challenging. We have specially built small scanners, but a key to successful imaging is a still and calm subject. One solution is to anaesthetise the rats or mice.  However, since anaesthesia is rarely used in human imaging and a sleeping rodent cannot participate in cognitive tasks, this limits our ability to look at cognitive processing in rats and mice in the same way that we do in humans.

In recent years, researchers have developed ways to gradually acclimate rats or mice to being held still in an fMRI scanner. To study cognitive processes, scientists can use tasks that can be completed in the MRI scanner. For example, they train rats to associate visual or olfactory stimuli –such as a flashing light or a vanilla scent-  with a foot shock. They then image their brains while presenting the flashing light or scent.

This technique is an improvement on the classical test for fear in rodents, ‘freezing behaviour’. When a mouse or rat is afraid, it freezes like a statue. Using brain scans translates better to humans than studying freezing behaviour. For example, researchers used the visual task set-up to show that rats that experienced early life stress, have enhanced activity in brain networks that process fear. Early life stress is a known risk factor for anxiety and depression in humans.

Reward, emotional regulation, extinction learning (learning to forget an unpleasant memory), and cognitive bias (whether we perceive ambiguous situations to be positive or negative) are aspects of depression that we can currently assess in humans. The next big challenge is to devise behavioural tasks that enable us to examine these in awake rodents while their brains are being scanned.

This way we can validate rodent models of depression, elucidate what’s happening in the brain during negative affective state, and guide the development of successful treatments for Major Depressive Disorder.

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.