Saturday, July 5, 2014

Famine and food

The ongoing debate regarding the efficacy of genetically modified (GM) crops to increase global food security goes on, while a recent study of US consumers indicates that opinions on genetically modifies crops are not swayed by specific arguments about plant disease and famine.

At least one million people died and a further one million were forced to emigrate during the Irish potato famine of 1845-1852. Those figures are so often repeated in undergraduate plant pathology classrooms that they lose their shock value. Those years seem so distantly removed from our lives in the 21st century that we occasionally fail to recall that it happened just a handful of generations ago. The famine had such a profound impact on the social, geographic and economic landscape of Ireland that the country still bears the scars. For instance, the population of the Republic of Ireland, as measured by the 2011 census, stands at 4.6 million compared to a pre-famine population of 6.5 million in 1841. Meanwhile, there are 39.6 million Americans who claim Irish ancestry, due in part to massive emigration to the US during and immediately after the famine.

In a recently published study, American consumers were asked their opinion of GM. Half of the sample group were first asked to read a short vignette describing the causal agent of the potato famine, the fungal-like potato disease late blight. The second half of the sample was asked to read a similar vignette, though not mentioning late blight and the Irish famine specifically.

For example, the late blight-specific vignette included:
"Late blight was a key cause of the Irish Potato Famine of the 1850s that led to the starvation of millions of people in Ireland and forced many Irish to leave the country. Late blight has re-emerged in recent years as a substantial threat to crops across the United States and around the world."

Ultimately, even when the question was contextualised in relation to late blight and famine, there was no significant difference in public views about the perceived risks, benefits or fairness of GM crops. This is an interesting finding; given calls in Europe and elsewhere to increase the cultivation of GM crops, particularly in traditionally GM-sceptical nations such as the UK.
This year, for example, the Council for Science and Technology in the UK, scientific advisors to the government, called for the EU to end its “dysfunctional” regulations on GM crop cultivation saying that if the country didn’t embrace GM “the risk is people going unfed”.

Even in Ireland, where one might expect the memory of the famine to linger long with consumers, limited trials of late blight resistant potato plants in recent years have met with some resistance. These EU-funded trials, conducted by Ireland’s agricultural development agency were described as “economic suicide” by opponents who called GM an “unwanted technology”. The scientists conducting the trials, which began in 2012, were keen to stress the impartial nature of the study and that it was not about “testing the commercial viability of GM potatoes” and was specifically concerned with their environmental impact.

In fact, there is a myriad of reasons why some consumers reject GM technologies in foodstuffs. Not all of them, of course, are supported by any real science, but that doesn’t negate the fact that they are real obstacles to overcome for those who would promote a sustainable food-production system which incorporates all aspects of biotechnology, including genetic modification of crop plants. What is clear now is that simply using the approach of emphasising the crop protection benefits of GM is not enough. Consumers are, rightly or wrongly, also worried about the environmental impact of such crops and no amount of appealing to their memory of past catastrophic crop failures will appease them.

One might argue that the passing of time between the Irish potato famine and the current advances in plant biotechnology can account for the lack of relevance and impact on consumer opinion. Perhaps, informing consumers about more recent plant disease outbreaks would be more beneficial.  One could point to the Bengal famine of 1943, when an estimated 2 million people died when the rice crop was attacked by a fungal pathogen. In truth, the vast bulk of food for human consumption worldwide is provided by just fourteen crop plants. Failure of any one of these could have a significant impact on global food security. However, we are in a very dark place indeed if we must look for a catastrophic crop failure to remind consumers of the value of plant biotechnology in protecting our food supply.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

The collegiality of twitter

Delivering a workshop at Aquatnet (Image: @jbaqua)
Last week, I spent a great two days taking part in the AQUATNET Digital Teaching Skills Workshop, as well as helping to deliver the social media element of the workshop. As the two days came to a close in sunny Malta, it seemed appropriate to draw together some concluding thoughts on the issue of social networking in education.
The workshop kicked off with a very informative talk delivered by Mike Moulton of the Norwegian University of Life Sciences. Mike discussed the realities of teaching and learning in the "age of tweets", emphasising the growing importance of twitter amongst educationalists. Twitter and other social media tools, Moulton encouraged, were means of "creating trustworthy pathways through the internet".
In this respect, I was reminded of occasional responses I have received from non-tweeting academics to my use of twitter. "I don't know how you find the time to do all the tweeting", they might say or "shouldn't you be doing some proper work?".
My response to that is often: "How do you find the time not to tweet?". Social media allows you to establish a trustworthy network of contacts who are willing and able to do some of the leg-work for you. For example, my twitter network is able to
  • highlight the newest research in my area
  • share the latest news in my discipline
  • inform me of funding opportunities, job opportunities, etc.
  • allow for interaction and collaboration with others
  • inform me of upcoming conferences, workshops, etc.
As well as this, I form part of many other peoples' network where I hopefully perform many of the same roles for my followers. At its best, twitter and other forms of social media are about sharing and collegiality. For this to work, it's really essential that you are following the right people: those who share generously, inform, enlighten, challenge and debate. A well-curated twitter network has the capacity to reach much further than you can. Instead of you, as an individual, trying to keep an eye on emerging trends in a discipline, your twitter community can do so and share that information with you. An efficient use of your time, if ever I saw one.

I'm not alone in holding those views. Recently, I posed a question to my own twitter followers:


And got some interesting results, including:





One use of microblogging in education that I tried to highlight in the recent workshop was the idea of 'live-tweeting' the lecture. Corey Ryan Earle has written a really useful blog post on this idea based on his experience teaching a history course to nearly 400 students at Cornell University. Earle found that encouraging the students to tweet during the lecture encouraged active engagement, reduced distractions and provided instant feedback to the lecturer. Live-tweeting is something I'll be introducing in my first-year biology lectures this year. With over 400 students enrolled, it will be interesting to see whether it boosts interaction with the course material. I'll let you know how it goes!

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Social Media in the Lecture Theatre

I'm in search of your thoughts on social media in the classroom.

I've been asked to deliver a workshop this Summer regarding the use of social media in teaching at higher education (and in particular, in the sciences). It's very general and aimed at beginners to social media.

Of course there is lots I could talk about from my own experience and elsewhere. However, I really want to get at the diverse methods people are employing with social media in the classroom, lecture theatre, laboratory and field course.

From twitter to facebook, youtube to blogger. How are you employing social media in your classroom? Have you heard of people doing innovative things with social media for teaching?

I'll use a snapshot of the examples during the workshop and will pull everything together in a blog post later in the Summer.

There are a few ways you can contribute:

  • Tweet me your ideas, links and thoughts at @blogscience using the hashtag #scisocialmedia. If it fits into a tweet- great. Shows the power of microblogging. If not, 
  • Email me here with your thoughts and views.
  • Leave a comment at the end of this post.

The Dose Makes The Poison

In light of recent controversies, including discussions regarding fluoridation of Irish drinking water, this new infographic, by Compound Interest for Sense About Science sums up my views better than a lengthy blog post. It's part of their efforts to make sense of the chemistry-related stories we read about in the media. Their free guide on the subject is a must read for those with views on water fluoridation.



(click on the image for a larger version)

Monday, February 17, 2014

Boole's home to be rebuilt as part of year of celebrations

As part of a year of celebrations to mark 200 years since the birth of George Boole, his derelict former home in Cork City looks set to be refurbished and restored.

The building at number five Grenville Place has been derelict since a structural collapse in 2010. Despite repeated calls for the building to be saved, it has languished forlornly since the initial collapse.

Now, as part of University College Cork's Year of George Boole in 2015, the building could be rebuilt and saved for future generations. 

George Boole was the first Professor of Mathematics at Cork and is regarded as the 'Father of Boolean Algebra' whose research laid the groundwork for modern computing. University College Cork is keen to reaffirm the association between the university and Boole and is planning a series of commemorations including a statue of Boole, various exhibitions and an international conference. More information on the Year of George Boole website.

Although a future use for the refurbished building has not been decided, UCC is believed to be working with Cork City Council and others on plans for the Boole's former home.

Such a large scale and high profile year of events is to be warmly welcomed. The fact that a centrepiece of this year might secure a piece of Ireland's scientific and architectural heritage, should bring to an end this sorry saga.

You can see what the building might look like in this presentation (powerpoint) from YOGB.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

A Temporary Hiatus

Regular readers of this blog will have noticed that the rate of blog posts has decreased over the past twelve months. There have been some nice posts which I'm very happy with but I simply haven't had the time to devote to writing posts at the frequency I have in the past.
Like everyone else, pressures of a regular (and very enjoyable) day job,combined with trying to spend time with family and friends has meant something had to give. I also have one, very important project to complete.
For these reasons, I've decided to take a positive step and put the Communicate Science blog on hiatus for a couple of months. I'm sure this won't make a huge difference in anyone's life but my own - I do enjoy the enforced distraction of writing the blog- but can ensure readers that this will be a temporary ceasefire rather than the end for this corner of the internet.
Like the daffodils, I'm going underground for a few months to get some work done and will return, triumphant, in a blaze of glory in the Spring. If you simply can't wait that long, then I'll still be knocking around twitter @blogscience

Saturday, December 14, 2013

2013 - the year of the Vagrant Emperor

Check out this guy - a Vagrant Emperor (Hemianax ephippiger) dragonfly captured at Castleventry, West Cork earlier this year.

This individual is one of seven reported this year - a surprise since just two had been identified in Ireland since one was first recorded, in Dublin in 1913. The Dragonfly Ireland Facebook group describe the sightings this year as "absolutely inprecedented".

Dragonfly Ireland has also produced a useful map of Vagrant Emperor records in Ireland. (2013 records are indicated by orange circles; two reports were logged in 2011- orange squares; and the original Dublin sighting is indicated by a blue dot).

Dragonfly Ireland have produced this map of Vagrant Emperor sightings in Ireland.

One of the West Cork sightings was by 'friend of the blog' Kieran Lettice who reports that his family cat dragged the creature into the house (unharmed) one night in late September.After extracting it from the jaws of a proud feline, the emperor was photographed and released without any obvious injuries.

While Kieran and yours truly were able to make a preliminary identification, it fell to butterfly and moth expert Ken Bond to make a definitive identification.

The Vagrant Emperor is native to North Africa and is generally described as a rare long-distance visitor to UK and Ireland. Although it has even been found dead or dying as far North as Iceland, and even as far West as South America; its travels are quite remarkable given its size and fragile appearence. An emperor of vagrants, to be sure!

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