Evidence Matters EU

Evidence Matters EU

Hello all!

As part of my PhD doctoral training my funding body, BBSRC, expects me to take a bit of a break from my research project to embark on a 3 month internship. My internship was based at Sense about Science EU in Brussels and the main body of work I conducted  was geared towards finding speakers and beginning the organisation of and event called Evidence Matters EU. 

Evidence Matters is a campaign run by both Sense about Science and Sense about Science EU and is all about the citizen. The Evidence Matters campaign is working to mobilise citizens and provide them with a voice to let politicians know why evidence-based policy making is important in their everyday lives. Working on the Evidence Matters event was one of the most rewarding aspects of my internship due to the sheer diversity of the citizens Sense about Science were connecting with. You can therefore imagine my excitement when I was invited to attend the event on 21st June in European Parliament, Brussels. I jumped at the opportunity and I couldn’t be more glad that I did.

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The beautiful Grand Place, Brussels upon my arrival for the Evidence Matters event on 21st June 2017.

The gloriously hot weather upon my arrival in Brussels on 21st June set the tone for the rest of the day! Upon arrival, the citizens were taken for a tour of European Parliament which was followed refreshments (including wine!!) at a near-by establishment. There was a lot of excitement and nerves among the citizens about the 1 minute speeches they were giving. The atmosphere was certainly one of enthusiasm and anticipation. The event was hosted by Julie Girling, Marco Affronte and Jan Huitema and co-hosted by Ricardo Serrão Santos with Eva Kaili, Carlos Moedas, and Mairead McGuinness present as panel members. After an introductory word by Sense about Science EU director, Sofie Vanthournout, it was time!! The 16 citizens took to the floor! Each citizen stood up for a minute and, in their native language, explained why evidence-based policy making is integral to their everyday lives. Having the citizens speak in their mother-tongue was extremely powerful as the emotion when talking could be more clearly observed. The variety of languages also displayed clearly that concern regarding evidence-based policy is a Europe wide discussion. English translations of what each citizen was expressing were provided on the screen, allowing a clear understanding of each individuals concerns ranging from sustainable hunting to evidence-based medical treatments.

 

 

Once the citizens had spoken the MEPs were given an opportunity to respond. The MEPs all seemed to hold an extremely positive opinion of the event. The event finished with an opportunity for the MEPs to connect with citizens and discuss their concerns.

‘This has been one of the best events.’ Mairead McGuinness

Once the event had come to a conclusion the Sense about Science team took the citizens to a bar nearby to taste the famed Belgian beer! The event had such a clear ethos and was a fantastic opportunity that I can’t thank the Sense about Science EU and London offices enough for providing me with the experience. The Evidence Matters EU event was a roaring success and hopefully is just the beginning of many more to come from Sense about Science EU…I can’t wait to see what the future brings!

Sense about Science Evidence Matters Frank Pittoors photographer, fotograaf, portret, fpimagine-events sport dance-0346 | by Sense about Science
Sense about Science EU director chairing the panel after citizens have made their case for why Evidence Matters.

Placement: Week 11

Placement: Week 11

So here it is, my penultimate week at Sense about Science! They say time flies when you’re having fun and I really can’t believe I am writing this during my final week in Brussels. It’s certainly been an interesting journey but I will leave the soppy self-reflection for my final post!

One of my tasks this week has involved promoting a ‘Standing up for Science EU’ workshop organised by Sense about Science EU. Promoting this has made me reflect on the opportunity I had to attend a ‘Standing for Science ’ workshop hosted in Glasgow. This week I thought I would share my experiences with you and explain how the Brussels workshop would differ.

On a beautiful, crisp morning in November 2016, I joined a group of fellow early career researchers at a fascinating workshop exploring the representation of science in the media. Sense about Science had arranged for experienced researchers and journalists to discuss with us the importance of public engagement in the scientific community.

The day started with tea and coffee, over which I explored why other early career researchers had applied for the workshop. I was struck by the overwhelming interest researchers held in ensuring their work is presented correctly to the public. Being surrounded by individuals who felt passionately about science representation in the media excited me as I expended a lot of time and energy in the first year of my PhD exploring the science behind the supposed beneficial effects of tequila (I wish) and many other products as presented by the media.

My enthusiasm was further encouraged during the workshop through a press conference style discussion with academics who shared their experiences with the media. The session focused on the potential dangers of communicating with the media and how researchers can avoid these dangers. Overall it became clear that communication is key! The take home advice we were given at this point was to be clear with our message and stick to our guns!

After a clear message from the academics (and a mid-morning caffeine hit) it was time to take on the panel of journalists! The insights they provided were fascinating and did a lot to improve my perception of science journalists. In the past, I attributed any misrepresentations in the media to extreme pressure placed on journalists to create an interesting story. Although the journalists agreed the pressure was is extremely evident, they made it very clear they don’t want a mistake published as it would tar their name.

To round up the day, we discussed the never-ending and exciting ways we, as early career researchers, can participate in public outreach making it apparent that whether you’re a public speaker or more of a computer whizz, you can find ways to promote the excitement of your research in an approachable, interesting way.

The workshop in Brussels plans to hold a similar layout but with the extra opportunity to meet and greet with policymakers! The additional time to talk with policymakers makes the ‘Standing up for Science EU’ workshop in Brussels an amazing opportunity not to be missed. I can guarantee, it’s a brilliant way to spend your day!

 

Image courtesy of Sense about Science.

Gardens by the Bay

On a recent holiday to Singapore I had the pleasure of visiting the a project called ‘Gardens by the Bay.’ The ‘Gardens by the Bay’ did a lot to revamp my outlook on science communication. Think Eden project, but to a more epic scale! Unfortunately I only had the time to visit 2 of the 3 gardens including the cloud forest garden as well as a section containing plants from many global niches. The flora however was not what drew me in, which is impressive considering how much of a sucker I am for plants!

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After timidly walking around the high, very transparent barriers of the impressive cloud forest (not for those scared of heights) I found myself in a room full of UV lights! Upon closer inspection I saw the writing illuminated by UV was informing the public on deforestation, climate change and global food security. The centre explained how deforestation reduced the diversity of tribal populations within the rainforest as well as animals and plants and elucidated how these may impact our everyday lives. The informative display was extremely successful at engaging people, explaining how our daily behaviour effects plant growth and the impact of these effects. Facts were presented as just that…facts and no sensationalist statements were seen! The simplicity was amazingly effective. The brightness and interactivity of the room meant visitors were actively engaging. The enthusiasm of customers was fantastic, I came out of the cloud rainforest excited to see what else I had in store during my visit!

I entered the plant house, much more suited to me as it’s all flat! The variety of plants was impressive to say the least. Cacti, olive trees and orchids are just some of the groups I can remember seeing as I comfortably wandered around the huge greenhouse. Amongst the assortment of shrubs an evening event was being prepared for. The idea of holding event surrounded by nature shows even further how the gardens by the bay are being incorporated into everyday Singaporean life. Again, I was amazed by the country’s ability to communicate and embrace science and nature! As I left the greenhouse, I passed through yet another dark room, this time set up by spotlights. The surroundings were again informative, however I could see geared towards an older audience! Information here focussed on crop growth and how plants are threatened by human behaviour, developing how our daily lives impact the environment around us. Improving understanding of how our day-to-day routine is intimately linked with the environment helps explain why simple tasks, such as recycling, can make a massive difference.

The ‘Gardens by the Bay’ really improved my perspective on science communication. I believe most countries, if possible cities, should have such informative centres to clearly explain why conservation is important. The ‘Gardens by the Bay’ has potential spark passion in future generations as it has done me! The interactivity of the centre means it certainly is flourishing with energy and life, just as any garden should be!

Rosie Brian

Scientist in Training

The media’s smoke screen for screening!

The media’s smoke screen for screening!

The brilliant charity Sense About Science has provided me with yet another opportunity to promote the amazing work it does. As part of their effort to debunk science myths and misconceptions, Sense about Science, produces ‘Making sense of’ guides which tackle a variety of misunderstood scientific areas. The areas covered range from statistics to genetic modification. Recently, Sense about Science released a new edition of ‘Making Sense of Screening’ on the emotive area of screening. The guide aims to draw out the common misconceptions around screening and discuss both its pros and cons.

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Public expectations of screening are very unrealistic. But who is to blame for this? In part, the portrayal of screening in the media and in public discussion. High profile cases covered in the media, often involving celebrities or emotive case studies, allows the issue to be sensationalised and the debate skewed. This has led to calls for more regular screening, for more of the general population to increase earlier stage detection. But what’s lost from the debate is the discussion of potential harms as well as the benefits.

Many people are shocked to hear that not all of the population will benefit from screening. No screening test is 100% accurate, which means the use of screening to detect tumours, in say breast cancer, will result in some people being overdiagnosed and receiving unnecessary treatment. Similarly if you get screened and celebrate the news of an all clear, it doesn’t mean you won’t develop that disease later in life and rarely, there are false negative results – where the disease marker is not detected.

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Screening is an important tool that can indicate if you are at high risk of developing a disease and tells professionals what might need to be done. It can play essential role within our healthcare system. However public misconceptions have resulted in the demand on screening becoming excessive. Making Sense of Screening aims to bring clarity to the issue and centre the debate around the scientific evidence of harms and benefits. This guide is extremely important and a huge leap in the right direction towards recalibrating public perceptions of healthcare.

 

Rosie Brian

Scientist in training

Suspicious Saltpipe

Hey folks! Today I am going to promote a brilliant charity and pack my media berating hat away. But never fear, I’m still as critical as ever! I first heard about this charity ‘Sense about Science’ while attending a talk as part of my course and I am so glad I did. Sense about Science are trying to debunk poor media representation of science by talking to scientists and journalists alike. As part of this work they have a campaign called ‘Ask for Evidence.’ This campaign is aimed at encouraging everyone to ask for evidence supporting scientific claims companies make. Many celebrities have got behind this campaign which is extremely important to be sure that what we are all being told about science is true.

Sense about Science have recently released a guide called ‘Making Sense of Allergies.’ To couple the release of this guide (although slightly late), I started exploring a product known as the Salt Pipe. To see what a Salt Pipe is and the claimed benefits click here.

I had never heard of a Salt Pipe before, therefore I decided to delve into the ‘Ask For Evidence’ campaign to find out the science behind the benefits of the Salt Pipe. I didn’t really know where to start but as I wandered across the website I saw a ‘How it works’ link however this led to an empty page. I figured something must be wrong here so I continued to look on the website for someone to contact. I found an email address on the website and messaged them to ask for the evidence and how the product worked. Well, in short my emailing left me at a dead end. The initial response led me to further webpages which explain what the salt pipe is and suggest how it works but lack actual evidence. I pushed a little further and asked for the scientific literature, to which I got a response stating the literature was in Russian, Ukrainian and Polish ‘which we cannot read.’ I asked if I could be sent the papers despite the language barrier, to which I received no response…my first ever time asking for evidence wasn’t going well. I felt at a little lost.

I sought out some advice and decided to turn to twitter to try and get some solid evidence. I tweeted @thesaltpipe asking how it works and for evidence and had no response. I retweeted it a few times and still received no response. Now I really was at a dead end. I tried messaging the various groups on facebook selling and promoting salt pipes and also searched instagram…I got very little response. The one reply I got on facebook gave me the names of the treatments e.g. salt therapy and halotherapy but when I pushed a little further I got no response. The lack of answers may be due to many reasons however I feel the silence is very telling. So in a bid to get answers, I am appealing to you guys, the readers, to not only ask for evidence about the saltpipe but for anything. If a product appears to be making bold claims then they may not be 100% honest. Don’t believe the hype, find the truth!

Rosie Brian

Scientist in Training

Do it for the Dolphins!

My recent internet trawling has led me to a heart-wrenching article focussing on an area of biology I am extremely passionate about…conservation. I feel discussion of how to help all endangered animals is the best way to increase public backing behind conservation programmes, however I can’t help but focus on the risks faced by small cetaceans, such as dolphins.Dolphin-kill-animal-rights-527176

Some of you may have seen the horrific Oscar-winning documentary ‘The Cove.’ The cove vividly explores the horrific nature of drive hunting of dolphins observed in Japan. The article found on science daily outlines studies into conservation of dolphins in the Solomon Islands, which are also victim to drive hunting. Although descriptive and potentially upsetting, the article is well-written and provides links to the primary literature  exploring hunting and the effects on dolphin numbers. More importantly the science daily article really delves into the difficulties in finding an economically, environmentally and culturally sustainable solution to the hunting of these dolphins. A similar article is also featured on abc news.

the cove

The tradition and culture associated with drive hunting counts as much as the economic value within the Solomon Islands. The hunting has a long –steeped history within the local’s culture and the teeth of hunted dolphins are integral to some of the islands traditional formalities. The tooth of the dolphin, which holds the greatest economic value, is used within wedding ceremonies in the Solomon Islands showing how it is not just the hunt, but also the product which is deep rooted within local society. Furthermore, locals to the Solomon Islands do have dolphin meat on the menu, showing that not a morsel of the hunted cetacean goes to waste. The traditions associated with hunting makes banning it much harder due heart- felt opposition by the locals. Many successful conservation programmes elsewhere have highlighted the importance of educating the locals of the risk of extinction related to killing endangered animals. The article however states the hunters understand this extinction risk, making it much more difficult to provide a sustainable answer!

It does need to be considered that the hunters may just need the money! The value of the dolphin tooth within the past decade has increased dramatically showing a commercial incentive as well as the cultural. In 2012, the government gave economic compensation to stop hunters from killing. This had a positive impact and hunting was suspended, however the agreement broke down in 2013 at which point hunting began again at such a rate that in 3 months over 1,500 spotted, 159 spinner and 15 bottlenecks dolphins were killed. The breakdown of the agreement shows that providing compensation isn’t a sustainable answer to solve conservation issues. The government of the Solomon Islands has contributed to conservation research efforts, however it isn’t equipped to provide for the scale needed. The two examples of sadly unsuccessful governmental support show conservation efforts need to consider problems more deep-lying than money, making solutions much more difficult to devise.

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To me conservation efforts for dolphins are very difficult in the Solomon Islands as an intricate balance between various factors needs to be achieved. This can be shown by past conservation interventions which have caused dramatic problems. International support and grass root education projects for the hunters could help to reduce the massacres. Although it is said the hunters understand the extinction risk, education for the next generation will have a long term impact. The idea of conservation therefore needs to be tackled in the Solomon Islands with great care and respect to the hunters. To further understand the challenges the dolphins face you can read the primary literature provided. If you wish to support the efforts to save the dolphins visit the Dolphin Project website. Don’t be shellfish, do it for the dolphins!

Rosie Brian

Scientist in training