Is crowd-funding a realistic funding option for scientific research?


Scientific research is typically funded in one of two major pathways. The first of these is via government grants, a process which relies on MPs and scientific advisors to assess your scientific research and decide if it is worthy of funding from their select pot of money. The large focus on deciding where government money gets spent on research is how it will be beneficial to the economy of the country.

The very nature of scientific research should be done purely out of scientific curiosity, not for the purpose of driving academic gain, though this can often be an unexpected side effect of quality research. In the past this has typically led to huge discoveries which only decades later had practical applications. Two such examples of this are: Einstein’s theory of relativity which underpins satellite technology and the field of quantum mechanics which has gone on to allow the creation of many electronic devices, the most fundamental of which being the common transistor.

Another typical route for scientific funding is to provide funding proposals to private investors such as large corporations etc. The major flaw again in this method is that you are relying on a small group of (potentially unqualified) people to judge the worthiness and scientific quality of the science. A process which often results in economic gain being put above the value of scientific knowledge.

An alternative funding option for smaller research groups, and those not wanting to be confined by the shackles modern funding places on their research is to seek funding online via crowd-funding tools such as and This, in my opinion, has one major benefit over the traditional sourcing routes, in that it relies on a larger group of individuals to decide if your research is to be funded or not. This has a beneficial factor that each individual need only pledge smaller amounts of cash in order to reach the overall research grant amount required. Like many crowd-funded projects, incentives could be used to encourage larger investment amounts. This could vary anything from thank you letters etc to acknowledgements to the investor on subsequent papers, akin to similar rewards on crowd-funded projects.

However, despite the advantages of having a larger group of individuals validating research, crowdfunding research could lead to a potential pitfall. That is, the more glamorous “sexier” sciences could receive larger funding amounts, leaving some less glamorous to the layman but equally worthy projects short on opportunities.

Both traditional science funding, and crowd funded science has it’s merits as well as its fair share of down falls. Despite this, with a dedicated academic oriented crowd funding website with proper regulation, and combined with the “traditional” funding methods currently employed by scientists, science could reach a sustainable future that sees research groups currently struggling for funding being able to pursue their desired area of research.

Is crowd-funding a realistic funding option for scientific research?

Most primary school teachers in the UK don’t do science


In 2010 the Royal Society highlighted what they believed to be the “key issues in 5–11 education” in the United Kingdom. This was picked up by the Teaching Times and more mainstream news outlets like the BBC at the time. In this report, as well as criticising assessment at the primary level, the RS highlighted the lack of teachers who are science or maths specialists.

A primary teachers must have a grade C in maths and English GCSE and a degree. However, the School Workforce Census performed each year by the Department for Education does not measure the number of UK primary teachers whose degrees are in science or maths subjects. The RS report says that data from the General Teaching Council for England (GTCE) show a small minority of primary teachers can be classed as maths or science “specialists” as seen below.


This should be an area of concern. The RS points out that “a negative or poor educational experience may easily change [pupils’] perceptions and potentially switch them off any subject, possibly for life.”

Worrying then, it has also been documented that a large proportion of primary teachers have a lack of self-confidence in their scientific abilities. One particular long-term study into understanding of scientific concepts in schools agreed that teachers have low levels of understanding in key scientific areas. This is probably unsurprising given that the majority have had no formal science tuition since A-levels or earlier.

Primary education methods have undergone plenty of change recently, but modern trends have seen an increasing emphasis on pupils learning through hands-on activities and learning through play – the “Foundation Phase” and Forest Schools initiatives being two examples. In worldwide studies on teaching primary-level science, it has been shown that teaching in this manner benefits academic attainment. This also opens an opportunity to bring (some) science education out of classroom-based learning, and instead to focus on students finding things out and asking questions themselves. Sadly, the lack of teachers’ confidence has forestalled this in science lessons, leading to a measurable difference in pupils’ enjoyment of science. The less creative and collaborative science is perceived to be, the fewer pupils enjoy the subject.

A Turkish study has predictably seen that science-related views of teachers strongly affect those of their students, however unintentionally. Hence, those who eventually become primary teachers themselves will likely maintain this status quo, as it has been seen that teaching patterns are heavily influenced by their own past experiences as pupils. Primary education needs an injection of scientific expertise to inspire greater participation and enthusiasm for STEM subjects, whether it be in the form of encouraging scientists into teaching, or by enacting a final recommendation from an above study:

What [teachers] need are the big ideas, the broad understanding that will enable them to guide children’s learning. The aim cannot be to enable teachers to know the answers to all the questions children may ask. This would not only be impossible, given the creative curiosity of young children, but often inadvisable when children would not understand the answer. What teachers need to have at their fingertips are strategies for handling children’s questions and turning them to the advantage of investigative learning.

Most primary school teachers in the UK don’t do science

Is Richard Dawkins Closed-Minded?


I personally believe that yes, Richard Dawkins a respected evolutionary biologist and writer can be close minded, particularly when he discusses religion. In my opinion, many of Dawkins statements on religion and religious adherents exemplify typical “us vs. them” rhetoric. For example:

“Religion is capable of driving people to such dangerous folly that faith seems to me to qualify as a kind of mental illness.”1

This to my mind perfectly illustrates his tactic of belittling his ideological opponents to cultivate an air of authority. This allows him to use said rhetoric as a tool claim the “intellectual high ground” in his and his supporter’s minds and so launch his ideological crusade from a position of perceived superiority. If you paint your opponents as mentally ill why should you consider what they have to say? Why should you engage in fair debate?  Close minded “us vs. them” attacks like this have been used throughout history to drive walls between people and promote tribalism. It is disappointing that any eminent intellectual chooses to “debate” in this way.

One of Dawkins hallmarks is a focus on rationality and logic. While rationality and logic are excellent tools; they are just that, tools. I’d argue that outside of the scientific disciplines and especially when dealing with particularly emotional issues, sensitivity is more important than being “correct”. In fact letting differences in opinion slide is probably necessary to form any semblance of a functioning society. It is obvious to me that he argues in this manner because he feels only he can be correct in this particular debate. However, it seems that he does not want to actually deliberate with his opponents but use the debate as a platform to preach from.

One of the most jarring examples of his disconnect with wider society is his comments on physical abuse when compared to teaching children about hell. The full quote can be seen below:

“But I think it can be plausibly argued that such a deeply held belief [in hell] might cause a child more long-lasting mental trauma than the temporary embarrassment of mild physical abuse.”2

I personally find this comment and the full article extraordinarily disturbing and distasteful. Never mind describing child physical abuse as a “temporary embarrassment”. However, the point I wish to discuss is that instead of reflecting on and refuting any of his critics’ points; in the full article he merely expands upon and reiterates his position. He didn’t entertain the discussion or criticism so acted in a closed minded manner.

Ultimately while I believe Dawkins is close minded, aggressive and unhelpful he is a formidable intellect and we do need to have discussions about many of the issues he raises. But, I believe that these discussions need to open, frank and held with much less confrontational rhetoric.

1Dawkins, R. (1989). The Selfish Gene (2nd ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press


Is Richard Dawkins Closed-Minded?

Should UCL have asked Tim Hunt to resign?


Earlier this year, Tim Hunt was thrust into the public eye after speaking at a World Conference in Science Journalism and making the comment: “Let me tell you about my trouble with girls … three things happen when they are in the lab … You fall in love with them, they fall in love with you and when you criticise them, they cry.”1 Hunt’s words were first released to the public via a post on Twitter, written by Connie St Louis, a lecturer in science journalism who witnessed the events. The sexism displayed in these words sparks an outrage that, if social media were my outlet, would be channelled through a series of violent stabs of the keyboard. However, stepping back from the rage and trying to gain a better picture of the person behind the quote, I find myself with a little pity for a man whose expertise lies in science rather than PR, and whose attempt at a “joke”2 had such disastrous consequences. I doubt anyone can claim to have never misspoken, or inadvertently offended someone, but the majority of us had a relatively small audience, with little danger of our words being immortalised and circulated through social media, culminating in a messy end to an illustrious career.

Searching for Tim Hunt’s name through Google reveals just how overpowering these recent events have been, with news articles about his comments dwarfing any news of his past achievements, which include a 2001 Nobel Prize for work in cell biology.

I can understand the uproar, given that the country is suffering from a damaging deficiency of women workers in STEM subjects. A mere 14.4% of jobs in STEM are occupied by women3, which appears to be partly due to sexism in the workplace and a perception that women don’t belong in these careers. An article in the Guardian4 reveals some appalling stories from women working in science, and the everyday sexism they have experienced. This type of behaviour desperately needs to be addressed and would certainly deserve the harsh punishment that descended upon Hunt. However, comments from those who work with Hunt reveal that he does not fall into this category5: Dame Athene Donald, professor of experimental physics at Cambridge, explained that “he has worked tirelessly in support of young scientists of both genders”6.

Reports reveal that UCL requested Hunt’s resignation so soon after the comments were tweeted that he hadn’t even returned home from the conference before hearing the news2. This left no time for Hunt to put his words into context and, more crucially, no time for an investigation into his everyday behaviour in the workplace, and his treatment of female colleagues.

My defence of Hunt is not so polarised as to categorically place him as a victim of social media and rushed judgements. His insensitively and poorly chosen joke does deserve to be reprimanded, but I think it grossly disproportionate that his whole life’s work should be been reduced to a few unwise words. Instead, he should have been given the opportunity to put the situation right, and become a part of addressing the gender imbalance in STEM.






Should UCL have asked Tim Hunt to resign?

The potential of social media in communicating science


Everyone is using social media, and on it constantly. From a prospective science teacher, what kind of an impact, if any, can it have from the viewpoint of science? More importantly, how is each social platform best used?

Facebook is the obvious start. It has 1.49 billion monthly active users [1], giving a massive audience to advertise science to. There are pages, such as “I f***ing love science”, which have a large amount of followers and which post regularly. The problem is, the science is going to be very media friendly: fewer words, more pictures; sensationalist science which has a broad appeal and can gather a viral snowball of likes and reposts. Even though the science isn’t too in-depth, one still has to take into account that over 22 million followers [2] get regular science updates.

A more instant form of social media is Twitter. The advantage of Twitter is that developments can originate straight from the horse’s mouth. Following academics such as Brian Cox, gives people information from reputable sources. This seems the easiest way to give a more detailed side of science. Links to news stories and concentrated updates give users the latest science – fast. A disadvantage is tweets can be overlooked; If you are not on Twitter, you may miss the memo. If Facebook is to inspire the uninspired, Twitter can supply more in depth and mature information about news and current scientific affairs.

For more depth, we can look at YouTube. YouTube gives a way to teach and show off science without reading or leaving your house. It’s the ultimate tool for today’s generation. The broad range of videos available means even niche areas of science can get publicity. Scientists can make videos they want, as opposed to TV where they are constrained by viewing figures and production costs. Channels such as ‘Sixty Symbols’, pulling in about 46.5 million views[3], help to not just supply the video wanted, but an easy way to find new ones. However, videos take time to make and watch. We should use it less for news, and more for supplying background and explanations to the headlines from other sources.

Another useful platform is Reddit. It hosts “Ask Me Anything” forums (AMAs) by prominent scientists which answer questions to a high depth, also showing they’re not whacky but normal people too. This kind of platform is great for informing the 9.5 million subscribers of “/r/science[4] about advanced science, although most have a good knowledge of science as it is. It will help advertise those niche areas that don’t get noticed due to the advanced knowledge needed. The sense of community could also be used for crowdfunding; if they can do it for NASCAR, why not research? Posts are less about reputation and more about the content, arguably how science should be. Like any forum, however, trolling and down voting will always bury posts and dishearten users.

From young school kids to professors, social media is changing how we teach, advertise and explain science. The old medium of New Scientist and other publications are no longer the frontline of science. A new, more 21st century style is leading the charge, and rapidly expanding the appeal of science.  Only time will tell if it works.

[1] Statista,. ‘Facebook: Monthly Active Users 2015 | Statistic’. N.p., 2015. Web. 14 Oct. 2015.

[2],. ‘I Fucking Love Science’. N.p., 2015. Web. 15 Oct. 2015.

[3] YouTube,. ‘Sixty Symbols’. N.p., 2015. Web. 15 Oct. 2015.

[4] Reddit,. ‘Science • /R/Science’. N.p., 2006. Web. 15 Oct. 2015.

The potential of social media in communicating science

Is Richard Dawkins Closed-Minded?


Richard Dawkins, now aged 74, has been a proponent of atheism in the public eye for close to forty years – approximately since the publication of The Selfish Gene in 1976. At some point during this time, for many people, the biologist became the “bad guy” of atheism. Whilst many of Dawkins’ debates with creationists serve to show him in the more intelligent, rational light than his opponent, it is the way in which he conveys these traits which has caused him to come under fire in recent years.  As John Gray writes in The New Statesman, you can find hints of Dawkins’ intolerance towards people whom he considers to be of lower intellect throughout his autobiography, and throughout his life itself. It is this same intolerance for the non-rational through which Dawkins’ sees all religions as the same thing: manipulative, fearmongering institutions which provide almost nothing in helping the human race understand life and the universe itself.

Maybe he is right about some of those attributes – and indeed his ability to rigorously dispense these views is what makes him still one of the most popular atheists on the planet – but many would say that he is not being completely fair. One might initially think that Dawkins’ views about the existence of God come from a non-faith standpoint, in that he seeks to reject ideas that have no empirical evidence. However, when questioned about it in 2013, he explained that even if he was confronted empirically with the existence of a divine being – be it through a “miracle” or however else – this would not be enough to make him a believer. This can be described in no other way than ‘faith in atheism’ because Dawkins would be willing to reject empiricism (the reason for his atheism in the first place) in favour of his own personal views. It is this paradoxical nature of Dawkins that people take issue with – how he on the one hand is apparently opposed to the dogma of religion, but is also highly dogmatic and unforgiving in his atheism.

It is my view that Dawkins has simply gone too far down the rabbit hole of atheism and is now too stubborn to relax the narrowness of his views – agnosticism may not be the answer for him, but for many it is. The ability to say “I’m not completely sure” is what differentiates people like Richard Dawkins from agnostics, and maybe makes them come across as a little bit less closed-minded than he is.


Is Richard Dawkins Closed-Minded?

Objectivity is a fallacy


Science searches for the ‘truths’ in the universe, empirical evidence leads to theories which are assessed by a scientist’s peers and opposition alike. In an academic environment where publishing in certain journals can lead to a permanent post in lectureship is objectivity a fallacy?

True objectivism in science is a major difficulty. Many historical figures have commented on the ways in which a practising scientist can blind themselves to their ‘idols’. A source of this difficulty is the human desire to succeed. In an environment where results speak for themselves, where one paper can lead to a lifelong career in research, it is easy to see why the desire to succeed can corrupt experimentation. This does not mean results lead to a conclusion which is subjectively driven; the results themselves could be checked in a way that leads to a desired result. A 20th century physicist Robert Millikan was awarded a Nobel Prize for a massively controversial experiment. Millikan fiddled the results accepting only 58 drops and discarding 115 drops, his mistake was not in discarding drops, but in saying that none were omitted. Naturally this led to an incorrect result and for many years physicist struggled to understand why an electrons charge seemed too high. Millikan’s blunder serves as a massive how-not-to-guide to scientist today.

A major difficulty of objectivism is the progressive nature of science. When a theory proposed by specialists in the field is accepted the specialists name is what is important and this catalyses the theories acceptance. If these findings are not falsified then they will authenticate results of other scientists. Recently images have been produced that apparently show hydrogen bonds, this result has been cited by other researchers authenticating their findings. The results produced were merely artefacts produced by the tip. Even though peer review is designed to counteract subjectivism, it can however lead false authentication. Discoveries which have shaken the beliefs of mankind and have led to paradigm shifts have been made by those that truly question what they believe, it is not the data that is the problem, it is the way we think about the universe. These people are those that truly ask ‘what is science?’ and wholeheartedly accept their short comings as fickle beings of emotion.

So what can we do? Should scientists strive for a robotic, emotionless assessment of data? The competitive nature of the system lends itself to productivity and cooperation but can also be a cause for misconduct. Importantly we are not robots, and we should embrace this. Scientist’s imagination and passion to find the truths is the true driving force of discovery, but we need to be wary because our emotions and prejudices while they can be strengths, they can also be a great weakness.

Objectivity is a fallacy

The universe is not a Computer


“How do bacteria know when to split without having a brain?”

“How does an electron know it is being measured?”

These questions, and similar, have bothered me for some time now. Not in that I have searched for the answers to no avail. It’s not the actual answers that concern me. It’s the implication that these questions make that inanimate objects and, perhaps worse, physical forces are somehow cognisant.

To seek the answer to what it is that drives the universal forces of the Universe is a completely reasonable goal. The problem as I see it is that we are too quick to use the comfortable frame of reference of a computer program as our explanation. As physicists we learn our science through the language of maths and maths, in this context, is a representation of a model or simulation. For instance, when we use the formula F=ma we are modelling acceleration through maths. In this way we are taught to simulate everything.

We rarely, however, discuss the fact that this isn’t what is really happening. We talk about “the laws governing the universe” but there is no list of these laws anywhere. There is no Matlab workspace, with the variables saved, which is referenced by the universe for calculations. Sometimes, I think, we forget this. Too often have I had to stop to think in order to explain why the real world deviated from my equations.

The wording of the last sentence of that paragraph should show the innate hubris in this approach. To approach science from the direction of mathematics has been the best tool we have had for centuries. Before that, science was the domain of philosophers. With the advent of computers we could build true simulations. Those simulations use maths to give us a fantastic tool to look at the Universe, to model and to explore but they are not actually the Universe and they do not work the way the universe works.

So is this a problem? I believe it could be. While discussing relativity the other day, I decided to play devil’s advocate and argue that it was false. From a layperson’s perspective (or more accurately from a classical perspective) it is true that there are some major hurdles to overcome. The answer that came back was basically this: “the maths works”. Cool! But does this further our scientific understanding? Have we built physics so thoroughly on foundations of maths and computation that “the maths works” is really all that matters?

It is conceivable that there is no unifying theory. No final collection of equations to simulate every force and every interaction. Moreover, as the boundaries of physics become less intuitive we rely more on a mathematical understanding rather than a physical. It seems possible to me that as this continues we could lose sight entirely of the physical phenomena we are trying to explain.  We must be careful then to test our understanding of the underlying phenomenon on a physical level lest we lose ourselves in the maths. To ask questions is important, but we must ask the right ones.


The universe is not a Computer

Are we thinking about PhDs the wrong way?


There isn’t a problem with the number of science PhDs, but with the overwhelming expectation that the sole purpose of a PhD is to lead to professional, long-term academic research.

A chorus of bloggers and journalists have come to the conclusion that science produces far too many PhDs. One even claims that the high number of these scientifically literate, skilled individuals could threaten science itself. While that might be a somewhat bold assertion, it is true that this year the Careers in Research Online Survey (a survey of 9000 PhD candidates) found that 77% of respondents wanted an academic position, while a 2010 Royal Society report found that “only about 3.5% of science PhDs achieve a long-term career in academia.” Does this disparity suggest an excess of PhD graduates?


What comes after a PhD? From The Scientific Century by The Royal Society.

Despite the figures, I would argue that it doesn’t. Since so few of those who want academic positions actually secure them, it is evident that academia is a fiercely competitive arena – prospective PhDs should understand that when they apply. However, they should also be encouraged to consider the many other paths available to someone with such a high level of education: if these were made clearer, society could expect to benefit from a greater number of analytically minded people driving forward technology and business alike. If, however, we continue to view PhDs solely as preparation for the next generation of professors, only 0.45% of doctoral students will fully benefit, and there will continue to be a huge number of disappointed graduates unsure of where to go next.

PhDs who graduate and don’t get into university research are an incredibly highly trained and intelligent demographic: one far too valuable to lose from the workforce just because they are unprepared for life outside of academia. Imperial College London places some emphasis on teaching its PhD students “real-world” skills to remedy this. Other institutions would be wise to follow suit.

Gregory Petsko, professor of neurology and neuroscience at Weill Cornell Medical College says, “I don’t believe you can train too many PhDs in science. We live in a complicated, technologically sophisticated, rapidly changing world, and I can’t think of better preparation for that world than the kind of discipline in analysis, planning, and decision-making that you get from a good PhD program… It’s great preparation for just about any field — politics, policy — you name it.”

Daniel Munro, who earned a PhD in political science from MIT, summarises: “if the purpose of a PhD is to train people for academia, then we produce way too many… By contrast, if you think the purpose of a PhD is to produce advanced researchers [with skills that are relevant outside of research], then, well, maybe we don’t produce too many. Maybe we produce just the right amount.”


Are we thinking about PhDs the wrong way?

Bridging the Gap Between Girls and STEM


STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) is a branch of academia that I know (at least the science aspect of it) reasonably well. It is also an area where my gender means I am a minority. It’s not unusual to find myself sat in a lecture surrounded by guys and in my A-Level physics class I was one of two in a class of 13. Also throughout my undergrad degree, from around 40 lecturers, six of them have been female.

I could go on but the picture is clear, women aren’t prevalent in STEM fields. This, however, is not due to the (incorrect) assumption that boys are simply better in these areas than girls. Performance between girls and boys at GCSE level in STEM subjects sees girls consistently out-perform boys in almost all STEM areas bar maths, and even in that case the numbers are very close.[1]

So why is this still such an issue?

Parental Influence
It’s common knowledge that children are heavily influenced by their parents, and this can be applied directly to possible career choices they may make. A study by BIS showed that only 15% of girls had been encouraged to do engineering by a parent, compared with 35% of boys. Similar low numbers applied to teacher encouragement (18% vs 10%). Also, parents of girls would much rather see them in teaching or nursing careers, whereas for boys engineering and scientific paths were preferred.[2]

The “science girl” trope
Women in STEM in pop culture are rare, and those few who do appear on television are usually portrayed as geeky and a bit odd. The kind of girl who’s useful to spout science, but one who also lives up to a lot of teenagers fears that the brand of “nerd” can never be removed
and leads to a life with excessive amounts of cats. Take The Big Bang Theory’s Amy, who comes across as awkward in social situations and portrays the nerd “girls wear glasses and dress like grandmas” trope.
This stereotype has started to break down in some areas but is still considered the norm and puts a harmful spin on the types of women in STEM fields, deterring rather than encouraging girls to follow in their footsteps.

Role Models?
Even in non-fictional settings, the number of women in the public eye with scientic recognition is again small. Of Nobel prize winners, Marie Curie is probably the only well known woman in the science field to have been awarded one. She is also one of only six women to have been awarded the prize for chemistry and/or physics.[3] Personally, asked to name a
famous scientist the names at the forefront of my mind are all male.

What’s Next?
I believe the solution to this is found in schools. Moving forward with a STEM career can depend largely on choices made as early as 13, with girls not having taken GCSE triple science hindering possible STEM futures.[1] Having role models in schools that girls can learn from and look up to is a big step in helping the next generation realise their potential and
begin to restore balance in the STEM workforce.

[1] Engineering UK. (2015) The state of engineering. London: Engineering UK
[2] BIS (2013) Review of Engineering Skills, November 2013. London: BIS
[3] \Nobel Prize Awarded Women”. Nobel Media AB 2014. Web. 14 Oct 2015.

Bridging the Gap Between Girls and STEM