Brexit- how might UK science be affected?

Toby Lauder.

On 24th June 2016, the British public voted to leave the EU in a long-awaited referendum on the continuation of the country’s membership. Even though the result of the vote was announced several months ago, there is still a huge amount of uncertainty surrounding the decision and what it may entail for the UK. The UK is a world leader in research and has many world class universities, so it is important that Brexit does not impede their success.

One of the most often discussed topics during the build up to the referendum was the control of migration into the UK which many saw as lacking due to the EU’s policy of freedom of movement. This has led to an unfortunate situation where many foreign- born citizens living in the UK no longer feel welcome or wish to leave, and many who intended to enter the UK are now seeking different options. This could potentially be an issue for many UK universities and research institutes who depend upon large numbers of international students and researchers, leading to a possible ‘brain drain’ as high quality researchers no longer wish to work in the UK1.

Many leaders who advocated the exit of the UK from the EU however, still want to encourage migrants who will be beneficial to the UK to consider life here2 with a system which will allow highly qualified migrants into the country3. Many campaigners for the Vote Leave group had suggested a points- based system similar to that employed by Australian authorities, but the Prime Minister has announced she intends to introduce a system that allows greater control over who enters the country4. Optimistically, this could lead to a system that prioritises highly skilled migrants and helps ensure there is still a ready supply of highly educated people entering the UK eager to contribute to research and students wishing to study at British universities, although it remains to be seen if and how this may be implemented.

Currently, UK research groups and projects are heavily involved in many collaborative EU initiatives including the Horizon 2020 fund – a program put in place to fund research and development projects across the EU with €80 Billion available for projects over 7 years from 2014 until 20205. Although overall, the UK is a net contributor to the EU budget, British research projects receive more than the country supplies to European research initiatives – the Office of National Statistics has estimated that between 2007 and 2013, the UK contributed €5.4 billion to EU research funds whilst British projects received an estimated €8.8 billion6. It is clear then that membership of the EU, and thereby access to these sources of funding, contributes a great deal to UK research and Brexit could have a large negative impact upon current and future research opportunities.

On the morning of 21st November, the Prime Minister unveiled her plans for an annual £2 billion fund and tax incentives for research and development projects across the UK7; a promising sign for the future of research. This not only surpasses the €8.8 billion obtained by groups from the EU over 6 years, it is also an indication that the government has the intention of helping British research survive in a post- Brexit world and may be convinced to ensure scientific interests in Europe are secured.

Another benefit of being part of European collaborative efforts is access to a greater number of researchers across many institutes who are likely to be able to offer a wider variety of data and different insights. There are also several collaborative research facilities which European researchers have access to, either as part of internal EU initiatives or international collaborations, for example the ITER project in Southern France which aims to aid in the development of nuclear fusion8. Without the benefit of EU membership, the UK would no longer be a participant of these collaborations and would either need to re-join as an independent partner, where it would likely have less input on policy, or develop its own research agreements with partners which would take time to put in place. Not only this, but by not being a member state of the EU, the UK would be ineligible to host facilities for many collaborative European efforts, leading to a possible reduction in the quality of future British facilities and a loss of current facilities. Indeed, the headquarters of the European Medicines Agency, which is currently based in London, is expected to be relocated to another European city in the wake of Brexit9.

A useful strategy could involve the UK becoming more independent in terms of research and increasing its capacity for domestic projects. Although entirely domesticated research projects have a smaller impact, there could be many opportunities to expand the UK’s current research impact outside of the EU. For instance, the EU’s regulations regarding clinical trials have often been criticised for being too bureaucratic and holding back viable trials, and were recently overhauled in 2014, meaning many pharmaceutical businesses may still be apprehensive over the new guidelines10 and so could welcome the prospect of a post- Brexit Britain with less restrictive laws. The UK already has an excellent track record of advancements made in biomedical and pharmaceutical fields and so this is likely to be an important area of development in the future.

On 6th November, the British high court ruled that the government cannot trigger Article 50, the clause a government must invoke in order to exit the EU, without a vote in Parliament to the dismay of many pioneers of Brexit. Since the ruling, the Prime Minister has expressed her intent to contest the decision by appealing to the Supreme Court. These proceedings are likely to take a long time to carry out and increase the uncertainty surrounding Brexit and its terms, meaning many research opportunities may be missed as potential partners look to other, more grounded countries.

It has also been announced that the devolved Scottish and Welsh governments may also intervene in the Brexit court case and the Scottish First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, has made plans to ensure Brexit can be slowed or even reversed once negotiations have been initiated11. Again, this will likely increase the feeling of unease many feel towards the proceedings but could also lead to a better deal for many sectors of the UK- including research establishments. Given the additional time and political power this could introduce, it may be possible to convince the government to make ensuring the UK still has an important role in European research a priority in its Brexit negotiations to minimise any negative impacts.

The next few years will undoubtedly be filled with uncertainty as the UK traverses the difficult waters of leaving the EU and it is unclear how this may affect the UK’s long term research capabilities. Although there are many drawbacks of Brexit from the perspective of research, there may also be many opportunities which could arise from the independence of the UK. With today’s announcement that the government is interested in funding scientific research, perhaps the UK’s future outside of the EU may not be as bleak as it may appear. Only time can tell.

References

  1. http://www.independent.co.uk/news/science/brain-drain-brexit-universities-science-academics-referendum-eu-a7100266.html
  2. https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2016/oct/25/philip-hammond-highly-skilled-eu-workers-brexit-immigration-controls
  3. https://www.bloomberg.com/view/articles/2016-09-12/immigration-policy-for-a-post-brexit-britain
  4. https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2016/sep/05/no-10-theresa-may-rules-out-points-based-immigration-system-for-britain-brexit
  5. https://ec.europa.eu/programmes/horizon2020/en/what-horizon-2020
  6. https://royalsociety.org/~/media/policy/projects/eu-uk-funding/uk-membership-of-eu.pdf
  7. https://www.theguardian.com/science/2016/nov/21/theresa-may-to-promise-2bn-a-year-for-scientific-research?CMP=oth_b-aplnews_d-2
  8. https://www.iter.org/proj/inafewlines
  9. https://www.theguardian.com/business/2016/aug/01/ireland-calls-eu-drug-medicines-agency-moved-london-dublin
  10. http://www.nature.com/news/overhaul-complete-for-eu-clinical-trials-1.15339
  11. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2016/11/18/nicola-sturgeon-could-halt-brexit-through-ruling-in-european-cou/

 

Brexit- how might UK science be affected?

Who’s Afraid of a Big Bad Reactor?

Thomas Robinson.

In May 2016 for the first time in over a century, the UK was 0% reliant on coal for electricity generation. Whilst only one small step in reducing carbon emissions, it is also an important one which indicates the UK is indeed moving away from dependency on fossil fuels. Fortunately, modern technology has developed many alternatives to coal, oil and gas; and like it or loathe it, nuclear power is one of them. Worldwide opinion of nuclear power is at an all-time low, as demonstrated by a recent survey in Italy which found that 94% of the population were anti-nuclear power. Nuclear power certainly has its drawbacks, putting aside disaster for the moment, industry problems are well documented. Issues manifest both as worldwide problems1e such as waste management, but also at national levels with a notable lack of new workers arriving into the sector. Even the word “Nuclear” stirs unpleasant thoughts involving war and fallout. In fact, any negative headline in the media surrounding the word nuclear is met with severe backlash from the public. However, I believe that we are in dire need of a cultural shift in attitude toward nuclear power if we are to ever truly combat climate change.

Necessarily Cautious

Admittedly, caution around nuclear power is more than reasonable. In March 2011 the most powerful earthquake on record struck japan, killing over 15,000 people and causing billions in damages. Tsunamis, up to 40m high devastated local sea-front infrastructure, including the Fukushima Daiichi Reactor, and provoked the world’s second largest nuclear disaster. Whilst no nuclear material was directly affected, damaged cooling systems led to overheating, three nuclear meltdowns and several small chemical explosions. In response to an estimated 500,000TBq of radioactive material being released, Japanese government officials created a 20Km exclusion zone. Understandably, question marks were raised over the safety of Fukushima, and later studies found that the plant was indeed unsafe and protocols were not adhered to. Following this, the entire industry came under increased scrutiny, and two years later heightened anxiety around nuclear power led to the closure of all reactors in Japan, with all but a few remaining offline to this day. Caution and suspicion around nuclear power from the Japanese people is more than justifiable, and for such a nuclear dependant country (near a third of Japan’s electricity came from nuclear stations pre-earthquake) to take such drastic actions, demonstrates the severity of that caution.

The Japanese public were not the only ones to question the nuclear industry. Concern spread across Europe, where within weeks of the disaster German Chancellor, Angela Merkel closed all eight of the country’s pre-1981 plants. Furthermore, and following a protest of a 250,000 people, Merkel announced plans to close all nuclear plants by 2022. Elsewhere, Spain and Switzerland both banned the construction of new plants; while France, overwhelmingly the most nuclear dependant nation on Earth, also announced they would attempt to scale back nuclear dependence by a third.
It would be idiotic to not be cautious around such a potentially dangerous field as that of nuclear power, however clearly there was more than just caution around nuclear power from European nations. Decisions made by governments go deeper than caution and, I feel, border on reactional fear.

A Different Approach

Negative views of nuclear power seemingly didn’t reach British parliament. Following the Fukushima disaster, the British government stood firm in their stance to increase nuclear power dependence. Instead of closures, a commitment to making nuclear power more safe and sustainable was made. Compare this view to that of the worldwide reaction to Fukushima. In contrast to a solution to the ultimate problem, other European nations made rash decisions, with no apparent foresight into the long term consequences. Rather, the actions taken were more for short term political gain, ignoring environmental effects. Take Germany and Japan, both governing bodies quickly steered energy consumption away from nuclear power in light of Fukushima due to increasing public pressure to do so. Both countries have become reliant on either importing energy, or increasing power output from their own non-nuclear stations. In both cases this energy comes from fossil fuel sources. In Germany increased demand is met by its own, or Polish coal stations, and Japan has now become a world leading importer of gas
For me, regressing to fossil fuels is short sighted and costly for all of humanity, particularly when one considers that only 40 minor injuries, and no fatalities, were attributed to the Fukushima disaster. Managed correctly, hundreds of reactors run safely every day and are even proven to emit three times less radiation than a typical coal power station. Surely a more sustainable solution to a disastrous event is to determine cause, and prevent its recurrence, rather than move away from it due to unease and political pressure.

The Problem with Renewables

In the UK, nuclear power represents approximately 20% of total electricity generation. Since 2008 however, UK government have sought to increase this dependency. The new nuclear era has begun with the site approval of Hinkley Point C (HPC), which is set to become the UK’s largest nuclear power station. With an estimated output of 1600MW from a next generation reactor, HPC doesn’t just represent the future of British nuclear power, it potentially represents the future of UK energy generation. Nuclear power is humanity’s greatest, continuous, non-fossil fuel electricity production method to date.
I believe the large cost of building the plants, compared to other renewable sources, are outweighed by the large, sustained and long term electricity supply they bring, despite the hazards associated with them. Renewable energy methods such as solar panels and large scale windfarms, like the London Array, have been making enormous advances in the last few decades, but nevertheless have their own drawbacks. None greater than the fact that in a country like Britain, they cannot be solely used to provide 100% of the electricity demands. Power stations, regardless of type, are all essentially large boilers which power enormous turbines. British electricity works because all turbines are geared to run at exactly the same frequency, if one turbine slows down, they all do. But supply must always equal demand, and since current technology is incapable of storing large amounts of energy, the only way to account for events like one station coming offline is with the large mass of spinning material, known as the “System Inertia”, that large power stations generate.  Short term discrepancies (< 60 seconds) in electricity supply may be counteracted by sucking energy out of the system inertia until longer term solutions are found. Unfortunately, relevant British renewable sources, such as wind or solar power, provide no system inertia at all. If the entire UK grid ran on just wind and solar power, a drop in wind speeds or rise in electricity demands would cripple the system almost instantly. Britain has some excellent natural resources to tap into, particularly wind, and by no means should we ignore them, in fact they should indeed be used to take most of the energy generation strain. But the fact remains that a large scale energy generator will always be required to provide enough system inertia to cover the gaps. The most environmentally friendly method of doing this to date, is nuclear power.

Regardless of whether nuclear power is genuinely the long term solution for British, and indeed worldwide electricity needs, the underlying fear and paranoia surrounding nuclear power has always annoyed me. Putting aside my own beliefs about the capabilities of nuclear power, if people were to understand the reality of disasters in the context of actual recorded casualties, perhaps people would be less fearful.  Nuclear power certainly has the capability of being devastating, if you doubt that, ask the people of Chernobyl. The fact remains however, that constructed and managed properly, nuclear power can be completely safe, even in its worst hour, the risk to any one individual is exceptionally low. Fearmongering statements like “three nuclear meltdowns” are nothing short of regressive, and it scares me that political figures are swayed by the public outcry which they induce. But what terrifies me far more than HPC potentially going into meltdown, is the way humanity continues to overlook the bigger picture of our changing climate. Nuclear power stations aren’t the real monsters here, rising CO2 levels are.

 

Who’s Afraid of a Big Bad Reactor?

Gender Bias and the Effect on Women in Science

Tania LaGambina.

“That’s not very girly” is something I have heard far too many times when telling people I study physics at university. It begins to get grating.

For some reason, science and scientists have long been presented as masculine. This is problematic for women in the field, and is, unsurprisingly, seen to discourage women from pursuing a career in science altogether. This leads to women being grossly underrepresented in the field and science then suffers due to a lack of diversity.

Despite biological differences between men and women, there is very little contrast in scientific or mathematical ability – certainly not enough to explain the under-representation of women in the scientific field1. So where did this gender biasing come from?

I will explore this question, focusing on why science is seen as inherently masculine. Note I will consider the whole scientific world, but these effects are highlighted to the greatest extent in disciplines such as physics and engineering, which are deemed the most masculine. Saraga and Griffiths suggested this was because these disciplines are more closely tied to things such as improving economic production and developing weapons; tasks that a male dominated society have deemed as valuable2.

So why is science seen as inherently masculine?

In her papers, ‘Reflections on Gender’, Keller argues that there is a deeply rooted mythology that casts objectivity, reason and mind as male, whilst subjectivity, feeling and nature are cast as female3. Objectivity and reason are also seen as fundamental pillars in the scientific world. Therefore connections to this supposed meaning of masculinity could be made. Considering this, women may be seen as contrary to science and they may be deemed unfit by those in the scientific world4.

The relation of science to masculinity can also be drawn back to one of the founding fathers of modern science, Francis Bacon.  As an English Renaissance thinker who drove a scientific revolution, he introduced the scientific method, involving an empirical and inductive approach. This created the foundation for modern scientific theory which is still used today5. However, he can be seen as problematic in the history of science.

His scientific method aimed to ‘bind Nature to man’s service and make her his slave’. Some interpret this as the masculine and scientific dominating over nature and women6. His testing of hypotheses also contained clearly sexist metaphors6.  This is not that surprising however. Science is argued to be a social construct, so this is simply a reflection of the social and cultural context of a much more misogynistic time.

What is worrying is that these attitudes, where women appear secondary in science, still appear to be alive today in a modern, more liberal, society.

At the World Conference of Science Journalists in 2015, Tim Hunt, a biochemist and molecular physiologist Nobel prize winner, infamously reduced female scientists to ‘teary love interests’7. Although this callous remark caused a public outcry, Hunt still insisted it was a lighthearted joke. Richard Dawkins even notoriously backed him up. Hunt also said he was in favour of single-sex labs whilst paradoxically claiming he ‘doesn’t want to stand in the way of women’. This revealed misogynistic views towards women, especially in the scientific world, are still alive.

The scientific world was exposed as alarmingly backwards.

How does this affect women in science?

The underlying gender discrimination associated with science may act as a deterrent to females in the scientific field.

Currently in undergraduate physics degrees only around 20% are female and only 14% of faculty are female4. As well as highlighting an alarming minority, these figures illustrate the gradual decrease and underrepresentation of females throughout careers in STEM subjects. This is referred to as the ‘leaky pipeline’ and can blamed on the many adversities women face throughout their scientific careers.

Critics have discussed many reasons for the disparity of women in STEM, such as lack of female role models and childcare. For example, a recent House of Commons report suggested that scientific research careers are dominated by short term contracts with poor job security at the time of life women may want to have children8. Women should not have to choose between a career and a family, but in some situations they have had no choice.

However the stereotype threat; the gender bias associated with science, is arguably the most prominent problem and cause for underrepresentation in science9.

This is likely to start in a classroom setting. In co-ed schools, science and mathematics class teachers are seen more likely to be men, and in A-level classes the majority of students are likely to be boys. A study by Warrington and Younger found that in some cases girls encountered science teachers with sexist attitudes and low expectations for their achievement. Teachers were found to have the sentiment that ‘boys frequently present more original work, whereas girls copy sentences from textbooks’10. Being consistently put down in this way would understandably discourage girls from studying STEM subjects at a higher level.

The effect of this is obvious when we consider single sex schools in parallel. Girls who attend single sex schools are almost two and a half times more likely to go on to do an A-level in physics than those in co-ed schools, arguably due to the lack of gender stereotype pressure9.

Within careers in STEM subjects, women also face a burden to not appear ‘girly’ to fit the role of a ‘scientist’11. This supports the troubling gender biasing that femininity has no place in science. It means that for women to participate in science they must have an awareness of how they present themselves as ‘women’ and this must include characteristics of a ‘scientist’. Of course, men must also present them selves as ‘scientists’, but women are assumed to innately lack these qualities whereas men are assumed to innately hold them4. This puts women in a disadvantaged position before they have a chance to prove themselves as good scientists.

Why is this important?

It could be argued that due to the widespread current success in technical fields, nothing is wrong with the way things currently are. The underrepresentation of women in these fields is obviously not negatively affecting scientific advancement.

However, through the lack of representation of women in this field, half of the intelligent scientific minds are not being heard and diversity of ideas is significantly reduced. Women should also have the right to pursue a career in whatever they want, and not have to worry about femininity being an issue.

Through reducing the gender bias in science, I believe the scientific world would thrive.

A solution

A solution would be to move forward towards a gender free scientific world. After all, the masculinity-biased view of science is extremely dated. Whilst the industry is still gender biased, women may continue to be deterred from pursuing a career in this field. Science will not progress to the extent it is capable of and women in the industry will face adversities they shouldn’t.

Feminist movements and schemes set up to encourage girls to pursue scientific subjects are a step in the right direction, but a lot more work needs to be done before gender bias stops being an issue in the scientific world.

As a final note, science is a largely male dominated field compared to other disciplines. However science is also a human endeavor and is therefore affected by the social and cultural context is placed in. Society in general may need to change before we achieve a neutral ground. The misogyny faced in science could simply be a reflection of the underlying misogyny of our society.

 References

1 – Clark Blickenstaff*, J. (2005) ‘Women and science careers: Leaky pipeline or gender filter?’, Gender and Education, 17(4), pp. 369–386. doi: 10.1080/09540250500145072.

2 – Saraga, E. and Griffiths, D. 1981. “Biological inevitabilities or political choices? The future for girls in science”. In The missing half: girls and science education, Edited by: Kelly, A. 85–97. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

3 – Keller, E.F. (1987) ‘Reflections on gender and science’, American Journal of Physics, 55(3), p. 284. doi: 10.1119/1.15186.

4 – Barthelemy, R.S., McCormick, M. and Henderson, C. (2016b) ‘Gender discrimination in physics and astronomy: Graduate student experiences of sexism and gender microaggressions’, Physical Review Physics Education Research, 12(2). doi: 10.1103/physrevphyseducres.12.020119.

5 – Available at: http://www.biography.com/people/francis-bacon-9194632

6 – Smith, M.J. (ed.) (1999) Thinking through the environment: A reader: Classic and contemporary readings. London: Taylor & Francis.

7 – Sympathy for the devil? (2015) 14 June. Available at: http://www.michaeleisen.org/blog/?p=1728

8 – Gristock, J. (2016) Why aren’t there more women in science? The industry structure is sexist. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/may/31/women-science-industry-structure-sexist-courses-careers

9 – Muffitt, E. (2014) The ‘leaky pipeline’ of women in science Available at: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/education/educationopinion/10637941/The-leaky-pipeline-of-women-in-science.html

10 – Warrington, M. and Younger, M. 2000. The other side of the gender gap. Gender and Education, (40)(3): 493–508.

11 – Gonsalves, A.J. (2012) ‘“Physics and the girly girl—there is a contradiction somewhere”: Doctoral students’ positioning around discourses of gender and competence in physics’, Cultural Studies of Science Education, 9(2), pp. 503–521. doi: 10.1007/s11422-012-9447-6.

 

 

Gender Bias and the Effect on Women in Science

The benefits of using social media in science

Stephen Molyneux.

In this day and age it’s almost impossible to get away from social media. With developments in smartphone technology and the market for social media platforms on the rise it’s now easier than ever to stay connected on the web. Almost everyone is using social media of some form, whether it’s Twitter, Facebook, YouTube or Instagram, there’s no hiding from it. This brings up the question of how useful social media can be in terms of enhancing and encouraging interest in science. In this article I want to examine some of the motivation behind using social media and also introduce some ideas as to how it can be used for public outreach in science.

Many scientists already use social media on a personal level but it is rarer to see it being used in a scientific way or to engage with the public. Reasons for this can be that taking the time out of research, lecturing and general admin to actively use social media is sometimes difficult. However, should we make time to actively engage in social media and is it worth it?

Social media clearly has huge potential to improve engagement with the public about science. Social media is used in huge numbers every day with the average time spent using social media being around 1.5 hours per day by those who use it in the UK (research from We Are Social study of digital and social media use around the world). With this level of usage, it makes sense that we should strive for more scientific content being shared via social media. A quick survey I ran showed that roughly 72% of people (26 out of a sample of 36) would indeed be open to learning more about science through social media. This is obviously a small sample and a larger survey would be needed to solidify the claims. Another point to come out of the survey was that those people who hadn’t studied science beyond A-levels were exposed to science on social media far less than those who had studied beyond A-Levels. This shows that we can do more to extend the reach of science on social media to those who don’t study the subject. Using social media also reaches out to a much younger audience with the most social media users being in the age range 20-29 and the next most popular age range being those under 20. Some of the younger generation will go on to become the scientists of the future and so what better way to improve their opinions on science than something that they use every day.

Although it may not feel like social media, YouTube has firmly established itself as a social media platform with the ability for any user to upload content, comment on posts, like and share others content and also send private messages. In my opinion YouTube is currently the best way forward to engage with the public and there are some hugely popular YouTube channels which are designed to do exactly that. Some examples include Vsauce, Veritasium, AsapSCIENCE and MinutePhysics which all have millions of subscribers, the most being Vsauce with 11.1 million subscribers. This shows the vast size of audience that can be reached purely from a single social media site. An example of a YouTube channel on a smaller scale is that of Sixty Symbols, a physics based channel from the University of Nottingham. With 600,000 subscribers it doesn’t reach out to as many viewers, however it still packs a punch and influences many prospective students. I personally know of students who specifically chose to attend the University of Nottingham to study physics because of the videos made by some of the physics lecturers for Sixty Symbols.

Videos are a very useful tool to engage with the public about science and there is an argument to say that it should be exploited more often and in different ways. Video tours of labs at universities and other research institutes would give members of the public an insight into the working environment of some scientists. Furthermore, a popular video from YouTube stars is “A Day in the Life” whereby they vlog (document via video) a particular day to share what their daily life consists of. If scientists were to do this then it would give the public a view into the world of science that they probably won’t have seen before.

Along with YouTube, Facebook is the most popular social media site and can be used in a various different ways. Your own personal account should be just that, personal. Being able to communicate with your family and friends in a private way is essential. However, Facebook pages can be created which have less of a private feel and could be used to improve outreach and to share scientific knowledge with all those that like the page. On Facebook posts can be up to 63,206 characters long which is more than long enough for almost any message you wish to get across. This could include updates on current research, updates on a particular university module or even just interesting articles about science. Facebook also enables users to live stream videos onto their Facebook page from their devices. This feature could have many uses such as live streaming conferences, guest lectures, scientific announcements (such as the announcement about gravitational waves earlier this year) and also interviews with scientists about their research. NASA already live stream rocket launches and views from the International Space Station but there’s definitely more that can be done.

Twitter is another social media site but it limits posts to 140 characters meaning it is only useful for short conversations, sharing simple facts and opinions about science or sharing links to articles elsewhere. Twitter is already being used productively by astronauts on the International Space Station who regularly share updates on their current experiments and also share photos of the spectacular views that they have. Another useful tool in Twitter is that of hashtags. Hashtags allows users to search the site for a particular topic of conversation, for example #InsertConferenceNameHere would allow people to see any tweets about that particular conference, enabling them to keep up with the event even without being there.

Another social media site that can be used is Instagram whose sole purpose is to share images and short video clips (<60 seconds).  As they say, “a picture paints a thousand words” and this can definitely be the case in some scientific areas. They can be a very effective way of portraying a simple message and can help to excite people about science. Astronomical images such as nebulae, galaxies and other objects in the night sky can often be very beautiful and for me personally these types of images always send my mind racing about some of the wonders of the universe.

There are however some downsides to social media. Given that the whole idea of social media is that anyone can see the content that is shared, it is inevitable that criticism and misuse from any member of the particular site can occur. However, this is the case for all areas of life, not just on the web, whether it’s sport, politics or entertainment and we shouldn’t hide away from sharing science with the public because of just a few individuals. Furthermore, care should be taken over what exactly is posted and shared. Especially with the likes of twitter where only 140 characters is allowed, it can sometimes be difficult to get the message across that you were intending. There is also the length of time it takes to establish yourself on any social media site. It doesn’t happen overnight and to reach the levels of audiences that, for example, Vsauce has, takes many years.

Nevertheless, these challenges shouldn’t discourage the use of social media. There is a view that scientists can sometimes be poor communicators and are antisocial. While these negative stereotypes are decreasing, they still exist and social media is a chance to change them. With social media being so versatile there are many more ways in which it can be used to help engage with the public other than those I have suggested and it should be looked at in a very serious way to improve outreach. There are no other methods that can reach out to such vast audiences on such short timescales. Given that social media is so popular these days, surely it’s time that science took advantage of this resource to engage with the public even more than ever before.

 

 

Stephen Molyneux

The benefits of using social media in science

The Future is Feminist

Shivani Dave.

ShivaniFig1

Mae Carol Jemison. Marie Curie. Ada Lovelace. Mary Leakey. Ida Noddack. Rita Levi-Montalcini. Dorothy Hodgkin. Lise Meitner. Rosalind Franklin.

Just a few names of female scientists. It is only when these extraordinaires are referred to as scientists without the emphasis on their gender that science becomes truly feminist. These examples are inspirational and daunting for the young, aspiring female-scientist. In an industry publicly regarded as male dominated, where to be recognised as having achieved a life’s ambition, a woman must not only perform on par with male counterparts but exceed their ability or their achievements or consigned to footnotes, save for in the estimation of special interest groups. In some situations, even if a woman has out done herself and her colleagues, she doesn’t get the credit she deserves. [1]

ShivaniFig2.png

Young women are being bombarded by campaigns attempting to attract them to science, technology, engineering and/or mathematics (STEM) subjects, but this targeted recruitment does not correspond to a heightened interest, proportionally. Perhaps it’s because women in STEM are consigned to patriarchal categories: unfairly compared to the iconic women which opened this article, or trivialising their contributions. Marketers also have a responsibility to target their messages appropriately to their target audience. For example the European Union’s 2012 campaign called ‘Science: It’s a Girl Thing’[2] is a clear example of how the marketing can be so wrong, condescendingly glamorising science with stereotypical infatuations such as lipstick and make up, causing incredible public outrage and potentially having an adverse effect than that which was intended. In the current media savvy society it is difficult to believe that that campaign was approved. Whilst this campaign, well-meaning as it was, might be an extreme example, it shows the definite and prejudicial perception of what it means to be a female scientist, defining femininity with pink frills. Anyone with basic scientific training will testify that the study of science is the same, irrespective of gender: a lot of confusion followed by a little less confusion and finally, in a few lucky cases, understanding… Maybe.

Despite much effort from the scientific community and public figures, the impression of women in science has not changed dramatically. This resistance to adapt to modern views has resulted in extremes. Nobel Prize winner Sir Tim Hunt’s comments, taken out of context and perpetuated by special interest groups, a headline hungry press and unedited propagation of sensationalist extracts resulted in his forced resignation. In an attempt to shine a light on how women are still marginalised when working in laboratories he stated: the “trouble with girls [is that] 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.”[3] This excerpt of an extended interview was taken out of context and no amount of recounting on the part of Sir Hunt got the airtime or prominence deserved. If anything the ferocity of the attack against as Sir Hunt claims, for comments which he claims are “light hearted ironic remarks”[4], has, I fear, further entrenched the public perception of women in science. Worse still, it risks making the subject a taboo one, stifling open and honest debate on the matter. This being the case or not it is a representation of how women are looked at in the scientific community.

Speaking at the National Bureau of Economic Research Conference on Diversifying the Science & Engineering Workforce[5] in 2005, Lawrence Summers, former president of Harvard University and former United States Secretary of the Treasury under the Clinton administration highlighted three[6] reasons why women aren’t represented in science. He first made a comment about the large time commitment, claiming this is something “fewer women than men are prepared to make”. His second was that women have a “different availability of aptitude at the high end” and his final reason was because of “socialization and patterns of discrimination in a search”, which means women are actively encouraged against pursuing careers in science and engineering. Without addressing the overwhelmingly offensive stereotypes, Summers is a clear example of what is wrong with the perception of women in science within society, even at levels where advocates of such thinking would be considered intelligent, liberal people with intellect. We know where the problems are, but attempts to debunk these fallacies fail when they are perpetuated by influential people.

More attention has been given to drive women into STEM by enforcing recruitment quotas, but by enforcing these and increasing pressure for universities to accept girls into STEM courses the overall opinion of the student’s capability as a scientist declines, the focus shifts from their academic achievements to their genetics. While opening the doors for women into STEM will by default mean more women work in the industry, there is a real fear that people will not believe women got these jobs based on their abilities. The women who get into STEM continue through their careers, unsure of their validity as a scientist, a stigma that if their colleagues maintain would damage the credibility of women not only in STEM but all women generally… Women don’t want to be handed diplomas based on what’s essentially a genetic twist of fate, but rather on what they have achieved academically.

Dr Sue Black, founder and CEO of Techmums and honorary Professor at UCL said to IT Pro “When I was younger I thought quotas were a bad idea, but the older I get the more I just think we need something like quotas so that we can make a change. We need a period where we use quotas to get more women in or more diversity happening. Then, when we’ve got more diverse boards, we won’t need the quotas anymore because everyone will have realised its better if you have more diversity on the board.”[7]  Propagating the culture that women in science exist only to fill quotas is where I fundamentally disagree with Black’s ideas. When I was applying to university a teacher told me I didn’t need to worry about being accepted onto my first choice course, because I’m female. “You’re a girl doing physics” she told me, “everywhere will take you”. For a female scientist to say that to her student amplified how deeply rooted the gender imbalance is in science, especially in physics.

Quotas hurt male students too. If a female candidate is prioritized because of her gender, a potentially more suitable male candidate could miss out on opportunities. Quotas aren’t feminist, they don’t give women opportunities because they are equally talented, and they perpetuate the notion that women are held to a lower standard and damage the reputation of the women who work hard to reach the top. Rather than having quotas that emphasise the disparity between the sexes the scientific community needs to shake the reputation that science is a boys club by representing and promoting strong female scientists. Condescending campaigns aimed at young women should be eliminated in favour of efforts directed toward erasing the stigma from a primary and secondary school age, so when girls come to consider further education they don’t have preconceived notions holding them back.

 

[1] Contributions. Chainsawsuit by Kris Straub. http://chainsawsuit.com/comic/2012/02/23/contributions/ Retrieved 21 November 2016.

[2] “Science: It’s a Girl Thing!” YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GMOqpxlW66E Retrieved 21 November 2016.

[3] “Nobel scientist Tim Hunt: female scientists cause trouble for men in labs”. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2015/jun/10/nobel-scientist-tim-hunt-female-scientists-cause-trouble-for-men-in-labs. 10 June 2015. Retrieved 21 November 2016.

[4] “Sir Tim Hunt ‘sorry’ over ‘trouble with girls’ comments”. BBC News. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-33077107. 10 June 2015. Retrieved 21 November 2016.

[5] “Sexist Statements Regarding Women in Science”. Geek feminism Wiki. http://geekfeminism.wikia.com/wiki/Lawrence_Summers. Retrieved 21 November 2016.

[6] “Why women are poor at science, by Harvard President”. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/science/2005/jan/18/educationsgendergap.genderissues. 18 January 2005. Retrieved 21 November 2016.

[7] “International Women’s Day: Do diversity quotas help or hinder woman in tech?” ITPRO. http://www.itpro.co.uk/strategy/26185/international-womens-day-do-diversity-quotas-help-or-hinder-woman-in-tech. 8 March 2016. Retrieved 21 November 2016.

The Future is Feminist

Do social media have a role to play in the scientific process?

Ryan Hill.

Like it or not, social media is here to stay- and science needs to take advantage of this.

Social media is a core method of communication within modern society. Breaking news is made instantly available to everyone connected all around the globe. You are no longer confined to your own town, city or workplace to meet like-minded people. The world is now one huge social interaction in which people from all backgrounds can interact. There are still many criticisms of the lack of physical interaction between people and the ability of the keyboard warrior to make someone’s life a misery in complete anonymity, but surely these criticisms are small compared to the overall advantage of a fully connected world?

Perhaps the greatest advantage of social media is its accessibility. People of all backgrounds have equal access to content, as well as the ability to create content of their own. Musicians and artists have long exploited this fact to showcase their work to the world, discover the work of others, and form collaborations. Why should scientists not also do this? Small research groups can publicise their work for free, showing the world what they have achieved. Another small research group from the other side of the world can then see what progress has been made by people they would not necessarily meet within their own professional circles. The two groups may even share a similar goal to which they can collaborate increasing the size of each other’s workforce without the need for further recruitment.

Social media has a large youth demographic with 36% of Facebook users in the USA as of January 2016 being between the ages 13-29[1]. These are the ages in which key choices are made for an academic career. Options are chosen for GCSEs and A-Levels, University courses decided and career paths embarked on. Many of these choices are influenced by what excites and interests. A strong social media presence that showcases the advances in the scientific world will serve to excite the new generation into STEM fields. It will show the career prospects and current events in science and the excitement that surrounds them.

There is a great deal of interest in science being stirred by the increasing amount of television shows such as Horizon, Planet Earth, and Wonder of the Universe. However, another medium that has grown to great popularity over the years is YouTube. It’s the source of 819,417,600 hours of content ranging from music videos to How To demonstrations.  It has become a key source for educational purposes with many tutorials and demonstrations being available, something I (and many other people) have taken advantage of throughout my academic career. It offers a medium to give clear discussions of a topic with well worked out examples and useful visualisations or derivations without the constraints placed on television shows, like budgets, number of viewers, or time limits. The material is the creator’s discretion. Many scientific institutions such as IBM have already taken great advantage of this platform for publicising their work and their institution as a whole. But many educational channels have become extremely popular amongst the community with channels such as Sixty Symbols, Veritasium, and Smarter Every Day offering interviews, demonstrations, experiments and discussions about many aspects of science.

The range of educational backgrounds for social media users means not everyone has the scientific “training” to read through and assess scientific papers. Someone with great interest in science may not have had the opportunities to pursue academic science, or opted instead for work or apprenticeships, so they do not have any exposure to scientific literature. Undergraduate scientists on the other hand are constantly required to read around their subjects and research topics. Over time analytical skills are developed which help notice key points in articles, assess the style of writing, and form opinions on its credibility. The journalistic style of social media articles allows the public to remain up to date on new science as easy as sport. The language is often more familiar and takes the time to explain key aspects unlike published papers which usually require prior knowledge.

By having articles available on social media, the stories can be shared by one person to the rest of their online network. This can then be shared further and further, sometimes reaching a status known as “viral” when many people are all discussing this at once. Not only does this expose articles to greater audiences than a scientific journal, but it also sparks debates and discussions among the public. A recent example of this is the male contraceptive[2]. A promising new contraceptive for men was halted by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) due to several side effects including acne, depression and fertility issues. Huge controversy followed as these side effects are also reported for female contraceptives yet they are still readily available. This is an issue which would warrant a discussion in itself but the important point for this article is what followed. Social media erupted with articles discussing the event, blogs that discussed these articles and the comment sections were rife with lively debate. And while these debates were mostly opinion based, false facts were soon highlighted by other users. This allowed a greater understanding of the topic to be attained by the general public without the need for in depth research. Obviously in an ideal world, everyone would fully research a topic before forming an opinion but that is not likely to happen anytime soon. But at least people are aware of an issue which would probably have passed blindly by without the social media reaction.

However, a major issue is that while leading research can be shown to the world, so can questionable and non-peer reviewed works. While public knowledge and awareness are being increased in many cases, they can also be easily distorted. Many false and damaging claims can be made which the average person may be unable to distinguish, leading to an inaccurate representation of where science is. Oftentimes it is not the article which causes this confusion, but the title being designed to entice readers (clickbait). An example of this is an article written at the end of 2015 by a prominent Facebook science page, IFLS, titled “Germany Just Successfully Fired up a Nuclear Fusion Reactor”. This title seems to suggest that nuclear fusion has been cracked, the energy crisis solved- wonderful times ahead! However, in reality, as the article explains, they had only (I use the term “only” comparatively here) suspended plasma for the first time. While this is an important step in the research, it is by no means a working nuclear fusion reactor. Providing the reader had actually read the article this would be made clear, but the use of a clickbait title may have caused some people to take it on faith that that is what was achieved. Despite the ease with which the article could be read, it is not a guarantee that it will be read.

Perhaps the most damaging aspect of social media is the keyboard warrior. The anonymity that is provided online allows people to comment and post, in some cases particularly hateful things, without consequence. This can often lead to discussions being reduced to nothing more than an argument, a series of insults, or the creator can simply feel unappreciated and quit the endeavour entirely. This serves nothing more than to halt and damage the understanding of science in the public. But this is an issue which persists in all online resources, not just scientific. It is a fundamental flaw with society that one can only hope will be corrected in the years to come, so that the online world can become a place for real discussion.

But social media is a good thing, both for science and the general public. While there are people that serve only to insult, there are many more who seek to educate, inspire and entertain. We no longer rely solely on news outlets to provide us with information that may be biased; we can instead have open discussions and learn viewpoints from each other. We can communicate with people on the other side of the world to make new and exciting advances and collaborations. The next generation of scientists have access to cutting edge research, as well as material to educate them on said research no matter their educational background. Current issues become a public debate rather than opinion pieces in a tabloid. Providing people take full advantage of the articles presented to them and use the resources responsibly, science can only benefit from this global interaction.

[1] Distribution of Facebook users in the United States as of January 2016, a. (2016). Facebook: U.S. user age demographics 2016 | Statista. Statista. Retrieved 21 November 2016, from https://www.statista.com/statistics/187041/us-user-age-distribution-on-facebook/

[2] Association, N. (2016). Male contraceptive injection works – but side effects halt trial. New Scientist. Retrieved 21 November 2016, from https://www.newscientist.com/article/2110729-male-contraceptive-injection-works-but-side-effects-halt-trial/

[3] Germany Just Successfully Fired Up A Nuclear Fusion Reactor. (2015). IFLScience. Retrieved 21 November 2016, from http://www.iflscience.com/technology/germany-just-successfully-fired-their-nuclear-fusion-reactor/

 

 

Do social media have a role to play in the scientific process?

Is physics a creative subject?

Luke Holder.

Creativity is being able to use original or imaginative ideas to create or do something. Physics as taught in schools does not involve creativity. Doing a short experiment, committing definitions to memory and solving written problems. These are three of the biggest things students at lower levels of education experience in physics classes. No creativity is required to jump through these hoops. This paints a drab, boring picture for students who do not go further than this. Physics is about solving problems and a lot of creativity is required to do so. Inventiveness and creativity go hand in hand in physics and a lot of major breakthroughs have happened because of this. This article will go over education of physics and creative thinkers in science with specific examples.

Creativity is generally associated with the arts. An assessment for an art based subject in school is very different to that of a science based subject. One examination board’s GCSE physics syllabus consists of two exams at the end of years 10 and 11 [1]. The descriptions of the questions are as follows ‘Multiple choice, structured, closed short answer and open response’. This translates to an exam which tests merely the ability of the candidate to remember facts and use them. Although other exam boards may have a differing syllabus, the fact that no experiments are even part of this syllabus is shocking. The arts and sciences are very different subjects and the methods of examination must be different, but taking the creativity out of physics and hiding it behind an exam shaped wall is worrying.

Creative thinking is an important part of being a physicist. A common question in the lab is if a piece of apparatus doesn’t work correctly, how can it be fixed? A personal example is when testing fluorescence spectroscopy on a thin film sample. For some reason the sample holder was causing a peak in the spectra. A simple solution was to cover up the reflective surface with something less reflective, like black tape. Doing so reduced the size of the peak considerably and allowed the experiment to go on. The point is that we do not get to exercise creativity as much in an environment where regurgitating knowledge is the ideal. The problems associated with current examinations in physics not being the most accurate depiction of physics are unfortunately something that is unlikely to change soon.

Showing creativity in physics does not have to involve complexity and be hard for regular people to understand. Rutherford’s experiment to determine the structure of the atom, which at the time was being done to test the ‘plum pudding’ model, led to a great discovery about atomic structure by doing something so simple. Putting the detector on the same side as the emitter. Something as simple as that yet so far out of the box is an excellent example of creativity. It shows that creativity is not only limited to cutting edge research. Creativity is something that pushes the boundaries set by the normal way of thinking. Before wave-particle duality theory it was unheard of to consider particles as having wave-like properties and vice versa. Light had always been thought of as a wave. Einstein finding evidence for light having a particle like nature resulted in a great debate amongst the greatest scientists in the world over the nature of light, with evidence proving and disproving both sides. Only by throwing conventional thinking aside and coming up with something so brilliantly ridiculous could the problem be solved. This idea could then be used to even greater effect. The invention of the electron microscope led on from this theory by considering the reverse. What if particles have wave like properties? This simple thought led to many different types of imaging techniques which could show even smaller length scales than the conventional microscope. Nanoscale imaging and being able to get resolution at which we can see individual atoms is incredibly inventive. To then take this and go further as to manipulate individual atoms [2] is a great example of a creative leap in physics. Creative thinking like this isn’t something that can be taught easily and inspiring others to go into this line of study requires a strong influence.

Although the examples we’ve seen are inspirational, they are not in the public eye. People who show physics as being something wonderful and amazing, as we know it is, to a wider audience are key in getting a more diverse range of people to take up physics at an undergraduate level. Brian Cox and his series ‘Wonders of the Universe’ has seen a rise in undergraduates applying to physics courses [3]. Many people who would not have chosen to study physics have been inspired by his show. From this they can then experience the side of physics where they can utilize their creativity: at an undergraduate level. These people can then go on to inspire others, either through teaching or by being a part of an exciting breakthrough.

Is changing the syllabus at a lower level a viable option? Unfortunately, the current methods of teaching and examining students are so ingrained into the education system that a change is not viable. The best thing for bringing in creative minded people to physics is by popular mainstream media. People like Brian Cox, regardless of how you feel about him, are bringing in more applicants and hence more creative thinkers are turning towards physics. Promoting physics in an interesting way is also a good way of removing the stereotype of physicists as being people who just sit in the lab all day. The first steps to inspiring creativity in a subject is to get creatively minded people to be interested in the subject and there are a lot of inspiring physicists out there. People are more likely to find out about them because of mainstream media. This can then show them that physics is in fact a creative subject.

[1] – http://www.aqa.org.uk/subjects/science/gcse/physics-8463/specification-at-a-glance

[2] – Atomic and Molecular Manipulation with the Scanning Tunneling Microscope

Stroscio, Joseph A; Eigler, D M. Science254.5036 (Nov 29, 1991): 1319.

[3] – http://www.telegraph.co.uk/education/universityeducation/9793822/Brian-Cox-effect-leads-to-surge-in-demand-for-physics.html

 

Is physics a creative subject?

Testing Understanding in Education

Louise Wells.

Assessment plays a key role in shaping the time we spend in education in the UK.  It begins at the age of two or three, where we are assessed by a health visitor or early years practitioner [1].  It then continues throughout primary and secondary school, where progress is often measured by regular homework as well as in other ways over a longer time scale [2].  If we chose to continue to higher education, assessment remains one of the main focuses.

There are two main types of assessment: formative and summative.  Formative assessment is designed to monitor a student’s progress and give them guidance on how to improve their work.  This may take the form of an essay plan or a problem sheet.  Summative assessment is used to evaluate student learning at the end of a unit by comparison to some form of bench mark.  This often takes the form of an exam or paper for which a final grade is given.  Summative assessment is often high stakes, meaning that the results of the assessment may shape a student’s future [3].

From the age of 16 onwards, assessment in the UK is generally summative, high stake and in the form of written exam papers.  At 16, students sit their GCSE exams and the outcome of these dictates whether they can take their chosen A-level subjects.  Two years later, students take their A-levels.  The predicted outcome of these exams forms part of the basis on which universities make offers, and the actual results will decide if and where a student will attend university.  Once at university, students taking STEM subjects usually sit biannual exams which have an impact on their overall degree classification and ultimately what they will do after graduation.

With so much depending on how well a student is able to perform in exams, it is important to consider if they are truly the best method of assessing and classifying a student’s ability.  In order to do this, one must consider the motivation behind the assessment and what exactly it is measuring [4].  Is the exam looking to find out how much students remember or how well they can apply what they have been taught to different situations?  What is best way of testing how well a student has understood a topic?  In addition, the reliability (or objectivity) and the transparency of the assessment must also be taken into account.

Assessing Physics Undergraduates

For Physics undergraduates, the majority of their overall degree result is based on how they do in exams sat in the second year and onwards.  Aside from experimental and computing work, everything is assessed via an exam at the end of the module.  For students doing a BSc in Physics at the University of Nottingham, this means that at least two thirds of their final grade comes from performance in exams.  This fraction will be higher for students taking Theoretical Physics or students who have not chosen to take computing based modules [5].  Heavy reliance on exams means degree classification is based on students answering the same questions under the same conditions as their peers.  This ensures that no single student has an advantage because they had more help from older students or academics.  It also removes any chance of marking being subjective, as exams are graded based on a careful and thorough mark scheme.  However, a heavy reliance on exams to assess how much a student has learned over the three years leaves little to fall back on if students struggle with this form of assessment.

At the University of Nottingham, the School of Physics exams are all structured in the same way.  Students sit one paper per module in the examination period which falls at the end of the module teaching period.  They choose three questions out of five to answer and have of the order of 30 minutes to answer each question.  Each question is worth 25 marks.  Of those 25 marks, around 15 marks come from bookwork and previously seen examples.  Taking this to be the average across Physics exams, this means that 40% of the marks for a BSc in Physics from the University of Nottingham come from questions examining previously seen work. This favours students who have successfully memorise definitions, derivations and worked examples.  Learning parts of the lecture notes by rote means that earlier parts of questions can be completed more quickly, allowing for more time to be spent on unseen problems.  This then increases the likelihood of a student being able to successfully tackle the later parts of the question, which are typically more challenging.  The large proportion of bookwork also means that it is possible for students to get a good mark without fully processing what they have learned or actually understanding it.  I would argue that this is not a good way of assessing students.  It seems unfair that equally gifted students could get a lower mark simply due to forgetting something due to exam pressure.

Another Way?

There are many alternatives to exams that may be used to assess students in a summative manner.  Options include presentations, miniature projects, essays, articles or vivas.  As with exams, these all have both positive and negative connotations which must be considered.

One of the main advantages of alternative assessment methods is that they can be done continuously throughout the academic year.  Although this means that the students have frequent deadlines and are under more pressure earlier in the term, it also means that they have more incentive to work continuously rather than cramming for exams at the last minute.  Additionally, students are less likely to turn in a piece of work that is not representative of their ability as having a bad day due to illness or personal circumstances will have less of an impact on their work.  Unlike exams, these assessment methods also enable testing of students’ understanding at a deeper level.  Since students have access to books, papers and the internet whilst working on their assessment, it is possible to ask more challenging questions which require more thought and a deeper level of understanding.  In addition, structuring summative assessment in these ways means that students are experiencing a more “real world” approach.  This means they are learning transferrable skills, such as writing and presenting, which will help them when they leave the university bubble.

However, there are also some serious drawbacks with using summative assessments other than exams.  Since alternatives are often either written or aural, this makes the marking more subjective.  Although these styles of assessment are normally graded by more than one person and the marks then moderated, these is still room for bias and the background of the markers to impact results.  Written and aural work also puts pressure on students in a different way to exams.  Since many of them will not be used to presenting their work in these ways, they could lose marks due to nerves or poor writing skills even though they are confident with the material they are covering.  In addition, the questions are often more open to interpretation.  This means that, unless formative assessment is used in the build-up to the submission of the summative assessment, it is more possible for a student to misinterpret the brief than it would be in an exam.  As there is no “right answer” as there is with an exam, it is also harder for students to gain extremely high marks.

To conclude, there is no perfect way of testing understanding of Physics at university.  Heavily weighting overall grades toward performance in exams means that there is a tendency to assess students on how well they can exactly regurgitate information covered in lectures.  On the other hand, assessing students using other methods is more complicated and more subjective.  Assessment methods such as essays, presentations and miniature projects can lead to students not achieving their potential due to needing a wider range of skills and having to produce work of a higher calibre to attain the highest marks.  Overall, I think that basing so much of a student’s degree on exams in their current format is wrong.  I do, however, understand that moving completely away from this tradition method of assessment would pose many problems as it would be harder to assess students individually and would not be what prospective students or employers expect.  Therefore, I think that exams should stay in place, but with a lower weighting than they have currently. This would allow for the introduction of a variety of styles of assessment for each individual module.  This would give students more ways of demonstrating their capabilities, reduce the pressure on each individual assessment and give a more rounded view of each individual’s ability in their subject.

References

[1] Gov.uk. (2016). Early years foundation stage – GOV.UK. [online] Available at: https://www.gov.uk/early-years-foundation-stage [Accessed 16 Nov. 2016].

[2] Gov.uk. (2016). The national curriculum – GOV.UK. [online] Available at: https://www.gov.uk/national-curriculum/overview [Accessed 14 Nov. 2016].

[3] University, C. (2016). Formative vs Summative Assessment-Teaching Excellence & Educational Innovation – Carnegie Mellon University. [online] Cmu.edu. Available at: https://www.cmu.edu/teaching/assessment/basics/formative-summative.html [Accessed 15 Nov. 2016].

[4] Race, P. (2009). Designing assessment to improve physical sciences learning. 1st ed. Hull: Higher Education Academy.

[5] University of Nottingham, (2016). Physics and Astronomy Courses. [online] Available at: https://www.nottingham.ac.uk/UGstudy/Courses/PhysicsandAstronomy/Physics-and-Astronomy.aspx [Accessed 16 Nov. 2016].

 

 

 

Testing Understanding in Education

Acting for the Planet

Louis Mazurkiewicz.

With the issue of climate change becoming more and more alarming, Louis Mazurkiewicz warns that if no concrete actions are rapidly undertaken this could be a make or break time for the future of our children and grandchildren.

2016 is on course for being the hottest year on Earth since measurements were taken[1], with this century alone providing 10 of these hottest years[2]. In addition, we are faced with alarming situations such as polar ice sheets shrinking with alarming speed[3] and the number of extreme events increasing heavily around the world[4]. Habitats, species and our close environment are being ravaged and decimated due to the actions of Man on this earth. The beautiful scenes that we witness in documentaries, such as on David Attenborough’s Planet Earth II, may one day only become history archives. Considering all this, it seems that we are arriving to a critical point where we can no longer turn a blind eye on making environment protection a priority.

Each year, £3 billions of pounds directly funded by the government are invested by the research councils in the UK[5]. These research councils cover a wide spectrum of different academic disciplines from medicine to physics, economics and arts and humanities. However, is there enough incentive from the government and universities to promote environmental research?

The issue of climate change and insuring a healthy planet for our children and grandchildren is one of the major challenges of our generation and should be given more emphasis in university teaching and research. It is disquieting to see that, due to the lack of concern and general knowledge about this issue, currently less than 4 per cent of grants made by charitable trusts in the UK are directed towards environmental and conservation work[6]. This is an alarmingly low figure given the impact of environmental problems on nature, health and economic prosperity.

It seems that more should be done at university level to alert students about this problem and make them want to be part of the solution. In my personal student experience, I have yet to be given the possibility to study in further detail the possible applications of the physics that I had learned with the issue of climate change. Added to that, more access to the issue of climate change be given to the general public. It is apparent that, although most of us living in developed countries are aware of the fact that our food and energy consumptions are endangering the planet, we are not reminded enough that this issue needs to be acted upon now before it is too late. Instead of this, we are experiencing times when politicians prefer talking how a certain religion or country is better than another and recent voting, such as the Brexit referendum and the US elections, favour divisions between people.

A consensus must be found, at national and international level, between governments, businesses and universities in order to tackle the issues regarding climate change whilst ensuring economic growth and societal well-being for today and tomorrow. We can think of this by making an analogy with Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. The environment would be the top level priority as us humans would essentially not all survive in an unhealthy planet. Human rights, peace and economic prosperity would then successively construct the initial sublevels of the pyramid.

Visionary policies must be implemented where green minded economic growth is prioritised over immediate economic gain. This can be done by boosting the funding in environmental research and accentuating partnerships between universities, NGOs and green inclined businesses. Increasing taxes on energy companies and nature endangering industries, which completely disregard their environmental impact on the planet, should also be reinforced. The income provided by this could then be invested in favour of research and information. Furthermore, advantages should be given to universities, businesses and users who would implement green-minded policies. This would ultimately lead to a paradigm shift where immediate money would no longer be the ultimate priority but the environment would be instead.

Many will argue that finding solutions at an international level for this major issue sounds utopic. Most developed countries face tough economic times which disables them to focus on environmentally friendly policies because of growing social inequalities, lack of concern of a majority of the population and rise of climate scepticism. Similarly, rapidly developing countries face the vigorous task of giving access to energy to their whole population without being able to afford a considerable investment in green energy. As an example, 30 per cent of the Indian population do not have access to energy and need to resort to primary methods in order to have heat and lighting[7]. Subsequently how could developed countries impose restrictions on cheap energy for developing countries when they have taken advantage of it for over a century?

However, as citizens of the world, we need to rise up nationally in order to make a difference on the international stage. We need to build on the dynamic of the COP21 or risk losing the frail agreements that have been agreed upon. The future leaders and academicians of our generation need to step up to increase visionary collaborations between developed and developing countries. This can be done by increasing the relationships and partnerships between foreign universities and students. Ultimately, the more we share our knowledge and work hand in hand, the more we have a chance of making a difference. The future of our planet, children and grandchildren hangs in the balance.

 

[1] World Meteorological Organisation: “Global Climate Breaks New Records, January to June 2016”.

[2] Nasa Global Climate Change – Evidence: “State of the Climate in 2008”, T.C. Peterson et.al.

[3] Nasa Global Climate Change – Evidence: “NASA’s Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment”.

[4] “Increase of Extreme Events in a Warming World”, S. Rahmstorf & D. Comou.

[5] Research Councils UK.

[6] Environmental Funders Network.

[7]“Before the Flood”, National Geographic.

Acting for the Planet

The problems and solutions of entertainment physics

Lewis Johnson.

Physics, and science as a general, has been a product in the mass media for some time now. Arguably since Carl Sagan’s ‘Cosmos’ or Richard Feynman making science easily explained and approachable, the idea of science being more than just for scientists. Presenting science in an interesting way can capture people’s interest in a variety of ways, and it’s important to know how to use it to further science and people’s understanding.

In the media, I posit that there are three motivations for creating scientific programming, either on television, radio, YouTube or even in pop-cultural books. First, and perhaps the most noble, is to ‘catch up’ the public on what scientists are doing, and to give a glimpse into the progress that their tax money is providing. Secondly, is to ‘hook’ people into science, particularly young people, and to show that it is an interesting subject with good prospects as a potential career. Finally, pure entertainment value with science as the product with no real intention towards teaching or impressing, but to use science to fill TV time with no further interest.

I realise that this may looks like a sliding scale of cynicism, but for the most part science seems to be preached to inspire awe in people, paying no heed to how the day-to-day of science functions. You will often find scientific programming tackling ‘big questions’ with shows titled ‘Wonders of the universe[1] but none talking about theoretical concepts or basics such as the scientific method. We have to wonder if it’s even possible to catch people up on modern physics- explaining how an apple falls from a tree is easy, but we utterly fail at concisely describing quantum physics, leading to people completely missing the point (see quantum woo[2]).

It’s a question as to whether or not we even can catch people up in a reasonable timeframe anymore, let alone can we explain it well. Brian Cox inadvertently hit the nail on the head with this issue in the first episode of ‘Wonders of Life[3] when he attempts to define energy. He states his definition as ‘The length of the spacetime four vector in the time direction’ but dismisses this as a somewhat impenetrable definition to most [4]. This is indicative of a communication problem when explaining to the public- we’re attempting to explain complex concepts which for ease of understanding require complex answers. Instead, we attempt to explain the same concepts using simple language which is an utterly fruitless exercise and will only ever cause confusion if we do not give the full picture.

I propose the solution to this initial problem is rather than explaining everything poorly we should explain what we can completely. Get an actual lecturer with enough on screen presence to be appealing to the public, or a presenter with enough physics knowledge to deliver it convincingly to an audience. Explain concepts as we would to each other, but take advantage of the scripted nature of media to deliver a slower and sleeker lecturing style. The key is not to insult people’s intelligence, and to point them in the right direction if they are people who want to learn more. Rather than covering all bases poorly, I say we need to explain the bases we can, as best we can.

This brings us to the secondary, related, point of using scientific entertainment to attract people into scientific careers. In particular, this means that the programming is aimed at younger people to entice them into the field and get them involved, but ultimately we are being utterly disingenuous to what day-to-day science is. Most presentations use music, swish CGI equations and helicopter shots of grand landscapes asking ‘the big questions’ rather than talking about the scientific process, experimental methods and some theoretical underpinnings of the universe. During 2010, the BBC ran a ‘Year of science’ and these programmes had a lasting impact, increasing the number of children taking GCSE science exams by 36.1%[5]. I worry that if these people go on to do a science subject in university they will quickly discover that they may have been lied about what science is and isn’t.

The solution to this is that we need to be genuine with kids, and much like the case of catching up the public, assume that those who are interested will go on to study the subject further. Seminars, debates and indeed blog posts are filled with interesting information about the scientific scene and can be found all over the shop if people are put in their direction. As opposed to perpetuating a lie of wonder that we teach them at a young age, use entertainment to hook people into physics by being genuine and getting scientists who are passionate about their subject to be honest and explain lecturing; seminars; scientific method; grants; research groups; the Nobel prize and experiments both grand and small.

Such a program would involve explicit attention being paid to an audience under 18, after which there is a much lower uptake of people wanting to actively being involved in science. It could be either TV or more likely an online YouTube series for ease of providing links, access of information at any time and internet being the easiest way to access an under 18’s audience. Various presenters/lecturers would go through scientific institutions and piece by piece through the scientific process from grant applications, to ideas, to collaborations and eventually to publishing and sharing ideas. The whole process is woven with basic physics processes including basic mathematical framework with an emphasis on moving people onto websites and other programmes/books if they are interested further.

We finally come to a great underlying issue throughout all of this in that science is a marketable product in many ways because it inspires curiosity in people. This is far from a bad thing, the ability to engender curiosity in people is what makes science an attractive prospect to many people as a career and why so many people invest in it. Though there is potential for misinformation in the name of entertainment, people tend to be quick in correcting incorrect information. This is shown again by the ubiquitous Brian Cox on Night of the Stars when talking about the Pauli Exclusion Principle and sparking an entire debate as to the validity of what he said7]. Sufficed to say that whenever misinformation is spread, scientists are quick to strike it down, so to combat misinformation in the media we need only keep up the work.

In summary, science in the media has great potential to be used to inform, inspire and entertain people but has its inherent pitfalls in its potential to spread misinformation, both in catching up the public view, inspiring new scientists and presenting science to capture’s people curiosity. Overall, being honest, understanding the limitations of people’s understanding and not patronizing our intended audiences will allow us to make science in the media a more potent presence than ever before.

References

[1] – http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01117nd Wonders of the Universe by Brian Cox

[2] – http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-2503370/Quantum-physics-proves-IS-afterlife-claims-scientist.html- Quantum Woo article

[3] – http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01rgjt0 – Wonders of life by Brian Cox

[4] – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ovNgkQzj3xA  Defining energy in Wonders of life

[5] – https://www.theguardian.com/science/2013/may/05/brian-cox-science-tv-inspires BBC 2010 Year of Science

[5] – http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-35399658 Internet and TV usage amongst young people

[7] – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ASZWediSfTU – Is Brian Cox wrong? Sixty symbols

 

 

 

The problems and solutions of entertainment physics