I spoke at the Science March Manchester on Earth Day - 22 April 2017 - and here is the text of my talk.
It's amazing to see you all here. But why am I here? Protesting is new to me. I wasn't a protestor at college. I wrote a few letters. I signed a few petitions. I got on with the rest of my life. But then things changed. I learned about echo chambers, and people's views on the elite, and on experts. And I started to cling tightly to science, because I understood that when I didn't understand the changing world. But I heard that we were now in post-truth world. I learned about 'alternative facts.
And so I started to feel that I should do something. I crocheted a pussy hat for the women's march in Washington. I moderated a TweetChat for #WomenInScience and met, virtually, some amazing women and scientists.
And in February, I joined a line of protesters for the first time in my life, at the LassWar protest at the Northern Powerhouse conference here in Manchester, protesting about the lack of women speakers at the conference.
So, back to the March for Science. I'm sure you all have different reasons for being here, but mine is simple. I love science, and I always have.
I feel like I have been a scientist as long as I have been alive – I've always loved finding out how things work, growing things and understanding things, taking things apart and putting them back together (sometimes even successfully!). I was really lucky – my mum was a nurse and my dad was an engineer, and they always encouraged me to learn, to find out, and to be curious. And that led me to studying biochemistry and pharmacology, and finally to becoming a science journalist.
I have written on subjects from the science of making cheese to women CEOs in biotech, and from the physics of bubbles to the danger of antimicrobial resistance and the possibility of a post-antibiotic world. I have travelled as far south as Hawaii and as far north as the Arctic Circle to hear scientists talk about the topics they love and how they are going to change the world for the better.
What I love about science is that it gives me a window on the world, from the incredibly tiny to the impossibly huge and the incredibly distant. It gives me a glimpse into my own instruction manual. And it means that I can learn something new every single day. This week I learned that mole rats can survive for over 15 minutes without oxygen, and cope by burning fructose like a plant; that physicists have created a liquid with negative mass; and that a shipworm is a five foot long bivalve. And that was just in one week…
I asked a friend of mine why she liked science and she said: "I think science really allows you to understand so much about everyday things, such as why food goes off, or doesn't; why a lorry needs a longer stopping distance than a small car; how to get curry stains out of clothes; why custard powder behaves in that weird way; what makes fireworks different colours; and how an MRI scanner works, among many other things."
One of the great things about science is that it is all about finding out. Science is about both facts and ideas. It can be about immutable truths, but it can also be about admitting that we just don't know, but that we are working hard to find out.
People might ask you "What has science ever done for us?" Healthcare is science. My mum survived multiple heart attacks and lived until she was 90 because of science. My dad had cancer, and his pain was controlled through science. I can see you all clearly because of science.
Forensic analysis is science. Genetics is science. Climate change is science. Computer programming is science. But so is farming, and cooking, and cleaning, and gardening, and hairdressing, and bird watching and car maintenance. Science is a part of everything.
And science isn't just about science. Science can be art, and it can be philosophy. It can be poetry and fiction and music. Science also teaches us how to think logically, analyse problems, find solutions and argue intelligently. And that's not just in science, but in other areas too, like politics, economics and business, and believe me, those are pretty important at the moment. It unites people around the world and allows them to work together through the common language of science.
We are here because we already know this. But we need to spread the word, and encourage everyone to take an interest, to find out and to learn. We need to influence politicians and policy makers, not from a political perspective but from a scientific perspective. We need to make sure that investment continues in science, and that it's across all sciences, not just the ones with outcomes that are perceived as practical. We need to encourage both boys and girls to study science and to stay in science, even if they don't want to have a career in science, because it will influence their outlook on the world for the better.
We need to tell people that anyone can get interested in science, however young or old, and whether they have formally studied science or not. All it takes is the curiosity to ask why and the desire to learn more about the world. There is some amazing writing and documentary on science out there. But we do also need to remind them that not everything on the internet is true.
We need to communicate that truth matters. That there are no such things as alternative facts. That the world is round, climate change is real and homeopathy isn't. That antibiotics don't work against colds, and microwave ovens don't give you cancer. Lemmings don't commit mass suicide (or explode). Red hair isn't becoming extinct. And vaccines really, really, really don't cause autism.
And finally don't let people tell you that you don't need experts. Experts keep your heart beating, your food safe, and your car's brakes working. Brian Cox is worth listening to. Stephen Hawking is worth listening to. But always remember – you are here because you are a scientist or a supporter of science, and you are worth listening to as well. In this world of fake news and alternative facts, we all need to make ourselves heard.
I went to my first ever protest today. I wasn't a protesting type as a student. I wrote a few letters, I signed a few petitions, but I mostly studied. Since then I have been involved – I have campaigned and fundraised, but never protested. But 2016 happened, along with Donald Trump and Brexit. I learned about echo chambers, and the elite, and experts, and post-truth. I heard about 'alternative facts'. I saw hatred for people because they were Eastern European, or brown, or female, or educated, or simply had different views. And it seemed like everything that I thought I knew about the civilised and intelligent world just wasn't true.
And all of this made me sad. It hurt, like I had lost something I cared about, or someone had pared my outer skin away. I clung onto science, because I understood that. And I grieved, as every news story showed me that the world was getting worse, not better.
But then… a friend of mine suggested I make a pussy hat for the women's march in Washington. Our hats went in the post to unknown women and I felt like I had made a tiny bit of a difference. And then someone asked me to moderate a #WomenInScience tweet chat, and I met, virtually, some amazing women.
And today, I joined a line of protestors for the first time in my life for #lasswar. We dressed in jackets, shirts and ties, wore hard hats and hi-viz jackets, and challenged the organisers and delegates of the Northern Powerhouse about the lack of women speaking at the conference and sitting on panels – of 98 speakers, only 13 were women, and all 15 speakers highlighted in the press release were men.
And we seem to have made a difference. We made it into The Guardian. The organisers opened the meeting with an apology, and some of the delegates joined the lunchtime protest. Women speakers opened their sessions with a mention of the imbalance. And the conference has promised to do better next time.
Next. The satellite #ScienceMarch in Manchester on 22 April, to support the worldwide movement of celebration of the passion for science and a call to support and safeguard the scientific community. My sister is knitting me a brain hat. Anyone coming?
This year, BIOPROSP opens on 8 March 2017, which is International Women's Day, and so we are celebrating some of the amazing women speakers and scientists who will be at the conference.
Anne Husbekk: The university city of Tromsø
The ocean holds many secrets. At UiT The Arctic University of Norway, the hunt for the secrets of biologically active and usable molecules has been underway ever since the university was founded. The focus on bioprospecting in the Arctic Ocean has the potential to lead to new therapeutics that are beneficial to patients.
Anne Husbekk is rector and professor of clinical immunology at UiT The Arctic University of Norway, and plays an international role in transfusion medicine and research policy.
Jeanette Hammer Andersen: Success stories involving marine bioactive compounds
Between 1981 and 2014, 63% of the new chemical entities introduced into the clinic originated from, or were inspired by, natural products, and ocean could be the next great source of novel chemistry. The hurdles traditionally related to natural product drug discovery can be overcome by combining state of the art technology with innovative thinking.
Jeanette Hammer Andersen is a professor in marine bioprospecting at UiT The Arctic University of Norway and head of the natural products analytical platform Marbio. Andersen’s research focus is the discovery of novel bioactive compounds from the marine environment.
Dagmar Stengel: Application of algal biomass
Algae are a potential source of valuable compounds with applications in agriculture, food, healthcare, pharma, and cosmetics industries. Before the full potential of algal bioactives can be realized, more needs to be done to understand the natural chemical complexity, variability, and plasticity of algal compounds.
Dagmar Stengel is a senior lecturer at NUI Galway, where she is head of Botany and Plant Science. Her research interests include sustainable use of seaweed resources and optimised cultivation of macro- and microalgal biomass for the production of high value compounds.
Gabrielle Potocki-Veronese: High-throughput functional metagenomics for the discovery of glycan metabolic pathways
Bacteria and fungi produce a range of enzymes to break down the hugely diverse carbohydrates that make up their main carbon sources. Combining biochemical, structural, meta-omic and omic data reveals the mechanisms of glycan metabolization. These fascinating proteins provide new targets to study interactions between prokaryotes and eukaryotes, as well as novel tools for biotechnology.
Gabrielle Potocki-Veronese is a research director at the French National Institute for Agricultural Research (INRA), with a focus on enzyme discovery through functional metagenomics and in combinatorial protein engineering.
Deniz Tasdemir: New approaches for addressing oceans' dark matters: Cultivability, structure elucidation and imaging
Marine macro- and micro-organisms can be outstanding sources for potent and chemically diverse molecules. However, only about 1% is cultivable, and many biosynthetic gene clusters remain dormant in standard laboratory conditions, meaning that their potential remains hidden. Innovative techniques will help to identify 'new chemistry' from both marine macro-organisms and microbes.
Deniz Tasdemir is a professor at GEOMAR Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research Kiel in Germany. She heads up the Marine Natural Products Chemistry research unit and the GEOMAR Centre for Marine Biotechnology. Her research interests include marine natural product discovery from marine invertebrates, algae and microbes.
Theresa Comiskey Olsen: What makes an agreement good?
A good agreement needs a balance in the underlying trust between the parties and the negotiation, as well as an agreement document that covers the rights intended with the level of risk assumed.
Theresa Comiskey Olsen is a US-born lawyer who is a partner at Oslo-based Langseth Advokatfirma DA. She has many year of experience in pharma and biotech, including negotiating and drafting of international agreements, and was General Counsel and Company Secretary for Norwegian pharma company Nycomed.
So, starting on 8 March, which is #IWD2017, #BeBoldForChange and hear some amazing #WomenInScience at BIOPROSP_17.
Tromsø is known worldwide as an arctic city with glorious views of the Northern Lights – what's perhaps less widely known outside parts of the research community is that it is a hotspot of activity for (cold) marine biotechnology.
The most northern city in North Norway, Tromsø is 350 kilometres north of the Arctic Circle, and its location near the deep, dark and cold waters of the Barents Sea and Arctic Ocean gives it access to plant, animal, bacterial and fungal species that have adapted to living in these extreme conditions. Through understanding the biology of these organisms, scientists are discovering biomolecules found nowhere else in the world and learning about their potential in industrial, medical and environmental biotechnology.
Marine and biotech research in Tromsø
The world's most northern university, UiT: The Arctic University of Norway, is based in Tromsø. The university includes the Institute of Arctic and Marine Biology, which has an aim to become the world's leading arctic ecology research group. This includes a focus on marine food webs in Northern Norwegian and ice-covered arctic waters.
Nofima, one of Europe's largest institutes for applied research in fisheries, aquaculture and food research, is headquartered in Tromsø, and carries out research in Alta, Bergen, Stavanger, Sunndalsøra, Tromsø and Ås. It has been involved in 591 research projects from sea urchin feed to combating salmon lice. Nofima's involvement in the Peptech strategic research initiative will support the region's marine bioeconomy.
Tromsø is home to innovation cluster Biotech North, which focuses on research and commercialization of marine bioactive compounds from the Arctic. It includes Barents Biocentre Lab, which is located at Siva Innovation Centre (formerly Tromsø Science Park).
Examples of biotech companies in Tromsø:
Tromsø is the host for BIOPROSP_17, which in March this year will bring science and business together in its focus on opportunities to unlock the commercial potential of biomolecules from marine environments.
Want to know more? Browse through the full programme, see what's happening at the workshops, and read some of the pieces written about previous conferences:
The marine environment is a vast and fascinating one. It covers 71% of the world's surface – 335.3 million square kilometres – and has 377,412 km of coastline. It stretches from the icy poles to the tropical equator, and according to the first World Register of Marine Life (WoRMS), is home to 242,729 species, as of 19 January 2017. Depending on its their location, marine life has adapted to harsh environments, including extremely high and low temperature, lack of light and very high pressure.
All of this incredible diversity makes the ocean and its residents a valuable resource for white (industrial), green (agricultural), grey (environmental), blue (marine) and red (medical) biotechnology, but to date only a small fraction of it has actually been explored. BIOPROSP_17 is a conference held every two years in Tromsø, in Northern Norway. It began with a focus on bioprospecting, and has expanded and grown to cover many different aspects of biotechnology.
This year, it is being held at the UiT – Arctic University of Tromsø, and will look at opportunities to unlock the commercial potential of biomolecules from marine environments.
The speakers for 2017 will include:
Want to know more? Browse through the full programme, see what's happening at the workshops, and read some of the pieces written about previous conferences:
You've got a brilliant idea. The science is exciting, the results are great, the technology is going to save lives and the start-up has lab space. The next step is to tell the press. But this isn't always as easy as it sounds – not all science reporting is created equal, and not all articles tell the true story. This presentation will look at the good, the bad and the indifferent in science reporting in the popular press, and show you how best to communicate with the press and get your message out to the public.
I will be speaking on this at the Pre-Conference Workshop 1 - Biotech as business: Strategies for success at BIOPROSP_17. This will be held in the beautiful Norwegian city of Tromsø, on Wednesday March 8 2017. The conference focuses on unlocking the commercial potential of biomolecules from marine environments and is a great opportunity to network with new and established businesses, learn about the opportunities of bioprospecting, and see science north of the Arctic Circle .
March 8-10 2016, Tromsø, Northern Norway - brilliant science, Northern lights, dog sledding and networking!