Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Our Woman in Brussels

When was the last time you heard some really good news coming form the EU?
It seems, despite the EU being very good at extolling its own virtues, some media outlets and indeed the man or woman on the street love to focus on the European Project's mistakes.
But I'm not here to convince you one way or another on Europe and thankfully all that Lisbon business is now behind us.

Number of the Week: £20 million

The amount spent by the British NHS on refurbishing the Royal London Homeopathic Hospital despite the complete lack of scientific evidence to suggest that it works any better than a placebo. A commitee of British MPs have urged that homeopathic medicine no longer be funded by the taxpayer. In a dig at the Prince of Wales (whos Foundation for Integrated Health funds homeopathy) Edzard Ernst, a long standing critic of homeopathic medicicine told New Scientist this week: "Either we are governed by evidence and science, or by Prince Charles."

Monday, February 22, 2010

Communicate Science nominated for an Irish Blog Award

I'm delighted to announce that Communicate Science has been nominated for an Irish Blog Award
In fact, it's been nominated for not one, but two as we appear in both the 'Best Newcomer' and 'Best Specialist Blog' categories.
Judging is due to start this week and the awards will be announced at a ceremony in Galway on March 27th.

A special thank you to all the readers of this blog and to those who have taken the time to comment and provide feedback over the past six months. Couldn't have done it without you!

Also a mention to the lots of other nominees. Not too many science blogs it seems but a whole host of other blogs to peruse on the awards website. Some of my favourites from  the other nominees include:

Friday, February 19, 2010

World First for UCC as Students raise Green Flag

University College Cork (UCC) today (February 19th 2010) became the first 3rd level educational institution in the world to be accredited with the prestigious international ‘Green Flag’ award. 
The award, presented by Minister John Gormley, on behalf of An Taisce, to UCC President Dr Michael Murphy, is a direct result of the Green-Campus programme, a student-led initiative undertaken by UCC students and staff over the last 3 years.
The Green-Campus programme, operated in Ireland by An Taisce, has seen the University save €300,000 in waste management costs, reduce waste to landfill by nearly 400 tonnes and improve recycling from 21% to 60%.  Furthermore, UCC has conserved almost enough water this year to fill the equivalent of the Lough of Cork.

"our first action was to put on overalls and dive into the skips"The first step was for the students to establish a Green-Campus Committee, in conjunction with the Buildings & Estates Department and academic staff. An environmental review followed.  “There were absolutely no recycling facilities for students walking on the campus”, recalls Maria Kirrane, a student representative on the committee. “In fact, our very first action was to put on overalls and literally dive into the skips to see exactly what types of waste were being disposed of!”

In addition to staff recycling systems that previously existed, new recycling facilities for students are now available in front of the lecture halls, and in the canteens, where the staff is trained in minimising waste.  Students in lecture theatres and laboratories are alerted to turn off lights and electrical equipment. College maintenance vehicles are now running on biodiesel. Carpooling has been introduced to facilitate lifts to and from campus. Enhanced Park & Ride and bike parking areas are designed to encourage more sustainable travel.  Each year the Students Union holds a Green Awareness Week on campus, where real actions are supplemented by academic talks on environmental sustainability.

 “It is quite a leap, transforming the Green-Schools programme, geared for the typical school of a few hundred students, to a complex campus of 130 acres, 16,000 students and almost 3,000 staff,” explained Dr Michael John O’Mahony of An Taisce. “In population terms UCC is bigger than your average Irish town, so bringing together all the necessary parties and practices to develop it into a sustainable Green-Campus was a real challenge.”

UCC President, Dr Michael Murphy said it is a source of great pride to the university, its staff and its students, that UCC has become the first third level institution in the world to be awarded the designation. “It is a wonderful achievement to have innovative thinkers among the staff and students in UCC all working towards the same objective. 

“It was these students, who had been part of the Green Flag programme at secondary school level, who believed from the outset that the concept could be transferred successfully to an institution of UCC’s size and that by raising awareness throughout the university, we could, together, make a real difference.”

Mark Poland, Director of Building and Estates, added: “This initiative has provided a great forum for environmentally-conscious members of staff and students to assist in how we tackle our environmental responsibilities as a university community.”

An Taisce, on behalf of the Foundation for Environmental Education (FEE), granted the international accreditation after a rigorous assessment by an expert panel. UCC is now looking to build on the award. “We’d like to make it easier for students to cycle to college, possibly through a bike purchase scheme”, says Maria Kirrane. “Also, while UCC is a beautiful campus, many of the plants here are non-native.  We’re looking to address biodiversity on campus.”  In addition a programme to convert the college food waste into compost has commenced.

“There is a wide of range of environmental management programmes that a third level college could undertake. However, the Green Campus programme is unique because it is student-led and they are the key decision makers,” says Jan Eriksen, President of FEE. A number of other 3rd level institutions in Ireland will be applying for a Green-Flag shortly.

"it is critical that the chain not be broken"“This is about more than making a campus green”, continues Michael John.  “Over the past 14 years, hundreds of thousands of students in Ireland have been brought up with Green-Schools, sometimes starting at pre-school, through primary schools and then second level.  It is critical that the chain not be broken once they complete the Leaving Cert.  It needs to continue into 3rd level, and from there into their professional as well as their personal lives so that they become life-long educators and ambassadors of sustainable living.”

This story was originally published on the University College Cork website.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Irish Education needs to go High Tech

Well, he came, he talked and talked and now he's left us to ponder his message. 

Craig Barrett, former Chairman of Intel was in Ireland recently to talk to the Royal Irish Academy and various other media outlets about Ireland's economy and how he sees education as one of the key solutions to other current woes.

Speaking to a crowd of around 600 people in Dublin's Mansion House, Barrett proclaimed that for Ireland, the era of foreign direct investment is over and that our economic recovery will come from indigenous growth and a real investment in new ideas at home. Barrett singled out our universities for particular mention saying that they need to act a launchpads for high-tech start up businesses.

Encouraging Irish universities to look to the Berkley, Stanford and MIT models for business start ups, Barrett pondered, "Ireland needs to ask itself how hard is it to start a company? How entrepreneurial is your economy?"

Since retiring from Intel in 2009, the former Stanford engineering professor has been championing the cause of education as a course out of current global economic strife. Barrett is also head of the Irish Technology Leadership Group, a Silicon Valley-based Ireland support organisation made up of Irish and Irish-American business executives. The organisation's aim is to assist Ireland's technology sector expand into he US.
Speaking to Forbes magazine in 2008 Barrett summarised his feelings on education and in particular his views on the role played by technology in education.
"I'm convinced that the expansion of information and communication technology (ICT) can transform education. ICT has the power to trigger a shift from knowledge acquisition, which limits learning to rote memorization and parroting back facts, to knowledge creation, which involves 'learning how to learn'. The latter cultivates skills that are vital for today's knowledge economy, including critical thinking, collaboration, analysis, problem solving, communication and innovation".
In the same article Barrett mused, "By promoting technology innovation--whether through science competitions, higher education research labs or public-private partnerships that meet local needs--we can have a far-reaching and sustainable impact on the future while addressing the thirst for knowledge that fuels innovation around the globe".

Craig Barrett's contribution comes at an interesting time for an Irish education system bedeviled with problems due to funding cutbacks, the moratorium on employment in the public service and the not unrelated prospect of increased industrial action. 

Inevitably when we talk about science education in Ireland, the topic of maths at second level rears its ugly head. This is probably due to the high levels of students who take maths at Leaving Cert level (51,905 students in 2009). 

Una Halligan, Chairperson of the government's Expert Group on Future Skills Needs is right when she says that there is no one solution to decreasing failure rates and increasing take up of honours maths at Leaving Cert level. Speaking at a recent conference on maths education at Trinity College, Dublin she emphasised the need for  improved professional development for teachers; the development of more interactive, imaginative approaches to teaching maths and the use of  incentives for higher level maths, with bonus points at CAO time.

Although Una Halligan was responding to difficulties in the education of maths, the same problems are seen across the sciences and similar solutions are required. For example, the teaching of biology by teachers who have degrees in physics or chemistry can lead to poor results.

In his speech to the Royal Irish Academy (reported by Digital21), Craig Barrett outlined a ten-point plan for economic revival, a few of which have implications for science education and our universities in particular:

Basic education - “You need to state your goal to be the No 1 in the PISA rankings for maths.” 

Teachers – “Every education system is only as good as its teachers. (Some) 35pc of Irish teachers don’t have maths competency. Teaching is one of the last professions to pay on the basis of performance. You need to look at paying teachers on the basis of their performance.” 

21st-century teaching skills – “You teach by rote and don’t take advantage of interdisciplinary skills, like critical thinking. Also, many countries are now in a position to adopt one-to-one computer-based training.”

More maths and science majors at third level – “The CAO is flawed. Your future relies on a critical mass of maths and science skills. Fix it.”

Universities – “They need to become wealth generators, make them look like Stanford.”

Infrastructure – “In terms of broadband and technology in schools, Ireland is only average. You need to be excellent.”

Hopefully everyone involved in Irish education will consider these points because whatever your opinion on Craig Barrett, I think we can all agree that a good education system is the way out of this economic mess we're in.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Number of the Week

The age of Egyptian king Tutankhamun when he died. A team of Egyptian scientists have this week shown that the 'boy-king' probably suffered from a rare genetic disorder called Kohler disease II. The disease would have weakened his bones leaving him too weak to fight off malaria which may have eventually caused his death. The debate is not over yet though. Some scientists still believe that the broken ribs of the mummy may indicate that he may have died after a fall from his chariot.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Cork's Lough - Biodiversity Made Local

There's no doubt that the recent humpback whale activity off the southeast coast has been a real treat for nature lovers. The spectacular still images captured by Patrick Whooley and others serve to whet our appetites for the high definition video footage promised for later in the Spring.

However, when such grand natural displays are visible so close to us, there is a tendency to overlook what is right under our nose when it comes to the natural world.

That's why a new publication on the biodiversity of Cork City is so timely. Nature in the City was produced by Cork City Council as a product of the Cork City Biodiversity Plan 2009-2014 and makes for interesting reading.

It's also a timely publication, coming as it does, at the start of 2010: the International Year of Biodiversity. The UN have designated it a "celebration of life on earth and of the value of biodiversity for our lives".

Biological diversity (or biodiversity for short) is basically the variety of organisms within a given space or ecosystem. So we can talk of biodiversity at the global level or at the local level (e.g Cork City).
As well as the obvious measures of biodiversity such as the numbers and varieties of plants and animals in an ecosystem, biodiversity also includes the wealth of genetic differences within those species.

The UN estimates that about 1.75 million species of living things have been identified. However, it's reckoned that there are about 13 million species in total on the planet and less conservative estimates put that figure closer to 100 million.
This means that every habitat destroyed and every river polluted could mean that we are loosing species that we don't even know about yet.

Biodiversity also encompasses the variety of ecosystems such as those that we find in deserts or woodlands, mountains or rivers. By protecting these ecosystems, we protect the variety of species that make their homes there.

Not just that though, protecting biodiversity also brings real benefits for humans; often economic benefits. For example, the Great Barrier Reef in Australia is estimated to contribute 6 billion Australian Dollars to that country's economy based on tourism, recreational activities and commercial fishing.

Closer to home, in the UK, a 2003 report estimated that forests contributed £1 billion to the economy. That includes the economic benefit derived from recreation (£393 m), biodiversity (£386 m), landscape (£150 m) and the forests ability to sequester or tie-up carbon (£94 m). The UK forestry study didn't even include the benefits of supplying fresh, clean drinking water, the cleansing of pollutants from the air and the reduction of soil erosion.

In Nature in the City, our attention is drawn to some of the important sites of biodiversity importance within the Cork City. For instance, the Lough is a familiar site to all Corkonians and its biodiversity (although we may not call it that) is a source of great pride and affection for many of us.

This shallow, spring-fed lake has at its centre a densely wooded island which acts as a refuge, roosting and breeding site for a variety of resident bird species including Mute Swan, Shoveler Ducks, Tufted Duck, Pochard and Mallard.
Large numbers of Gulls, Starlings, Little Egrets (and even the odd Cattle Egret), Jackdaws and Magpies also utilise this important site.

The publication notes that up until the 1950's a range of aquatic plant species covered 90% of the Lough's surface until the introduction of Carp in 1954 for fishing purposes led to the disappearance of most of this vegetation within 10 years.
The Carp are voracious herbivores which thrive on the amount of vegetation that remains. In fact, the Irish record of 29 lb 14 oz was caught at the Lough in 1988.

Unfortunately, as the approximately 2,000 Carp flourish, the health of the Lough itself and the rest of its inhabitants hasn't been maintained. In recent years, water quality at the Lough has declined significantly. This has lead to the growth of toxic microorganisms such as
Clostridium botulinum which has been the cause of a number of catastrophic poisonings resulting in the death of large numbers of swans and ducks. The most recent, in July of 2009, resulted in the loss of 50 swans.

The cause seems to be two-fold. The lack of aquatic vegetation caused by the high Carp numbers leads to low levels of oxygen in the water body. Add to that the high levels of bird droppings from birds attracted by the large amount of free food delivered by well-meaning locals and the abundance of waste bread means that algae and bacteria flourish thus further reducing water quality.

At the moment, augmented by the harsh winter, the Lough seems a shadow of its former self. Swan numbers are dramatically down and while there is no doubt that the Lough was over-populated, it is hard to see such a defining symbol of Cork at such a love ebb. If ever an example were needed of the importance of biodiversity at a local level, Cork's low-affair with the Lough and it's determination to save it is surely such an example.

Nature in the City a guide to Biodiversity in Cork City is published by Cork City Council with the support of the Heritage Council. The publication is available free of charge but in limited numbers from Cork City Council's Heritage Officer at heritage@corkcity.ie or
Tel 021 4924757

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Number of the Week
4 seconds

The amount of time a new ultra-precise optical clock would be out by if it were to measure the 13.7-billion year age of the universe. The clock uses the oscillation of a trapped aluminium-27 atom to measure time and was developed by scientists at the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Colorado.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Cork Scientists Make Progress in Battle Against Prostate Cancer

Scientists based at the Cork Cancer Research Centre (CCRC) at UCC have announced details of a vaccine that they are working on that allows a person's own immune system fight off prostate cancer cells.

Prostate cancer causes 700 deaths each year and arises when cells of the prostate gland (part of the male reproductive system) change and disrupt the proper functioning of the gland. It is known that the risk of getting prostate cancer increases with age, family history of prostate cancer, your ethnicity, a diet heavy in red meat and fat and light on green vegetables.

For example, according to the Irish Cancer Society, most men diagnosed with prostate cancer are over 50. African-American and African-Caribbean men are also more at risk than other groups.

The genetic component of prostate cancer is interesting. A study of identical twins in Sweden, Denmark and Finland in 2000 have shown that 40 % of prostate cancer risk can be explained by inherited factors.

The study looked at historical data on a total of about 45,000 pairs of twins and determined how many were affected by a variety of cancers, including prostate cancer and whether or not their twin was also affected. Such twin studies are very important for understanding what role our genetics plays in disease development as well as the distribution of various traits and characteristics.

As identical twins are genetically identical, they are a very important source of knowledge for researchers.

Now, the researchers at the CCRC have developed a prostate cancer vaccine using DNA to stimulate the individuals immune system and prime it for future attack by cancerous cells. In simple terms, it gives the body a 'heads-up' as to what a prostate cancer cell might look like and ensures that the person's immune system is ready to fight it.

Dr. Mark Tangney and his team have published the research in the peer-reviewed journal Genetic Vaccines and Therapy under the title, Optimised electroporation mediated DNA vaccination for treatment of prostate cancer.

The vaccine treatment was shown to significantly delay the appearance of further tumours after the main prostate tumour had been removed by surgery and led to prolonged survival mice when the vaccine was tested on them. The team have also established that a four-dose application of the vaccine provides the highest protection from tumour protection.

The vaccine is yet to be tested in pre-clinical trials and it may be another 7 or 8 years before it is available to patients.

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