Urban Wildlife Watching


It’s Friday evening in North London, there’s a nip in the air and I’ve joined physicist Martin Zaltz-Austwick as he sneaks out of a birthday party to listen to bats.

The hum of Caledonian Road is off in the distance. We spot some after-work revellers out on the town, but can’t really hear them because we’re away from the street, at the mouth of the canal tunnel. The sun’s setting and darkness is creeping in. There’s the sound of a few birds, amongst the traffic, trains and planes, but our ears are focused to a pair of bat detectors.

The kit we’re using is simple, less than a tenner in larger toyshops. Serious bat enthusiasts shell out over £60, sometimes well over £100, for more specialised equipment. But ours do the job well enough. The devices transform the noises of the bats – which we think are in the trees, perched ready to come out to feed on insects on the canal – into a sounds that the human ear can detect. We had to wait a while, twisting the dials to different volumes and frequencies, just as you might an FM radio. Zaltz-Austwick got into bat watching – or batting as he refers to it – walking home through Crystal Palace park. He noticed loads of bats around the lake just after dusk. He’d see swifts overhead, and then the bats. They flap around the old, Victorian dinosaur models displayed there, floating in and out of the trees as they feast on insects on the water.

The detectors extend the reach of our meagre human perception, alerting us when the bats are close, so we know to look up, and offering us a chance to perceive even those bats that are out of sight. I’m surprised by how much it adds to the experience. Zaltz-Austwick’s wired two of these toy detectors together to make a stereo version. Total cost: £15 and a bit of soldering. “I really like that batting is quite an immersive experience, because they fly all around me” he says. “I thought it’d be nice to hear them in the same way, to get the acoustic soundscape in stereo.”

Zaltz-Austwick’s not the only person using tech to add something to the routine of everyday nature watching. Not by a long way, and nor is such activity new. Binoculars, compasses, cameras, particular types of clothing; wildlife enthusiasts have relied on kit of sorts for as long as it has been a pastime. But social media and cheaper domestic versions of more specialised tech are offering new ways to mediate and extend our exploration of nature. As well as buying equipment – hacked or otherwise – we can watch webcams, download apps or join collaborative mapping exercises. There’s a lot more to animals online than pet cats.

Finn Arne Jørgensen, an academic at Umeå University in Sweden who specialises in the history of technology and environment sees a clash between such a cyborg approach and traditions which prioritise a raw, bodily experience of the outdoors. This reflects a point made by science writer Sujata Gupta. In a recent New Yorker piece on drones in Yosemite, Gupta discusses her experience of working as a park ranger at the point iPhones arrived, and concerns that shareable mobile photography somehow spoiled the “spirit” of the parks. She ponders: “Could a park simultaneously let one connect and disconnect?” Jørgensen sees this tension strongly at work in Europe, but argues that increasingly people want more than just their own, human perceptions. Sensors and webcams etc, Jørgensen argues “offer more than you can be with just your body.”

As part of this process of being more than just our individual selves, nature watchers increasingly use social media tap into a ‘hivemind’ of other people’s expertise too. It’s not just technological kit extending our perception, but other humans too. A powerful example of this is iSpot, a citizen science project developed by the Open Air Laboratories, which connects beginner nature-watchers with experts and other enthusiasts. Share a picture of something you’ve seen, and the iSpot community will help you learn more.

Della Thomas, a biomedical scientist based in London, first came across iSpot last May whilst trying to identify a type of mouse in her mum’s back garden. “I took a couple of photos and thought I’d search images on the internet to compare. I realised that I’m terrible at pinpointing the fine details that make or break an identification because I couldn’t tell the difference between a house, wood or field mouse. I needed some extra help.” A friend suggested iSpot, and it wasn’t long before she had an ID. “I just love putting names to things” she says. She likes that there is a sense of trust and expertise built into the system, as uses can build their reputation, and identifiers can mark how confident they are in the ID, which can in turn be backed or usurped by other identifiers. “I also love the idea that there are probably hundreds of identifiers just waiting for the next batch of photos to be uploaded. By sharing my photos and asking for help, I’m feeding their passion, too.”

Jørgensen compares this sort of new nature watching experiences to the tradition of documentary film. Natural history television shows, he argues, are equally technological, and the BBC in particular really likes to show this off. “But it is clearly structured, a particular narrative mindset which is supposed to be spectacular” he adds, “and I’m interested in the slow, unedited mediation that happens on the webcams. It’s still very carefully framed, the web camera is put in a particular place with a particular purpose, but often nothing happens. They can be quite boring.”

“This boring I find very interesting”, he adds, comparing it to the Norwegian Slow TV movement. “With Attenborough shows, it’s a very packaged product, made with specific artistic, scientific and technological purposes in mind, but the things people do with sensors and cameras is much more messy. This mess is interesting.”

Could this mess be democratising the mediation of nature? Jørgensen agrees it might, but warns democracy is a messy process too, referring back to drones in Yellowstone. Thomas’s experience of iSpot offers another side to this. She’s unsure about its default setting, which publishes the exact location of each spot. Nature-watching can be a very personal thing, situated in domestic spaces, and as people share these experience online they can end up sharing more than they expected. “You can always edit afterwards” Thomas notes, “but I do think it shouldn’t default this way.”

But back to those bats by the canal. We waited a while, but heard little more than the buzz of the traffic (and Zaltz-Austwick playing with the noise the detector made if he scratched his beard next to it). We were starting to think we wouldn’t find anything. Then a boat went under the tunnel, and it maybe disturbed something because the detectors went crazy

“Wow, that’s an insect-biting call!” Zaltz-Austwick exclaimed, and started to explain how different calls apply sonar for greater accuracy as they corner in on their prey. We forgot the party we were missing, engrossed in the mediated noises of the bats – and still not spotting any with our eyes, but able to perceive a previously-hidden world around us.

Bat photo by Wil, used under a Creative Commons license

Who Owns Dinosaur 13?

dino 13

Who owns a dinosaur? It’s a tricksy question, reflecting a tangle of intellectual property, land rights, culture, economics, science and nature. It’s also the topic at the centre of new film, Dinosaur 13, which tells the story of the discovery and eventual auctioning of one of the United States’ most famous dinosaurs: Sue the T-Rex.

I might have specified Chicago’s Field Museum’s Sue the T-Rex. And maybe I shouldn’t have referred to it as the United States’ most famous dinosaur. I might equally have called it FMNH PR 2081 (the museum’s catalogue number) rather than Sue, a nickname picked up in honour of Sue Hendrickson, the palaeontologist who discovered the fossil in 1990. Or I might have dubbed it Disney and McDonald’s’ most complete T-Rex skeleton. It was, after all, these companies who were at the cornerstone of the consortium who stumped up a record breaking $8,362,500 (£4.9 million) for its purchase back in 1997. We have no way of knowing how the beast itself would have described itself.

Dinosaur 13 offers us something of this story with a very engaging bit of cinema. It starts with an old photo of Sue Hendrickson surrounded by friends in the field, smiling and hot from a day digging in Dakota. The camera pulls back and to reveal what they are all sitting next to: the long sweep of a very, very large fossilised jaw. The way the camera slowly brings you the bigger picture foreshadows a theme and great strength of the film: the sheer excitement and delight felt in scientific work.

The film then takes us through the gradual extraction of the fossil, how they soon realised how complete and large it was and quite what a find they had on their hands. We also learn a bit more about the paleontological team. Not Sue, who in many ways is a minor character, but Peter Larson and his brother Neal. They’d been fascinated by fossils since childhood, we’re told, starting up a museum in their garden shed before returning from college to set up a grown up version in the shape of the Black Hills Institute of Geological Research Inc, a private organisation specialising in the excavation, preparation and sale of fossils, with a non-profit museum attached.

We see the the Larsons pay $5000 to the owner of the land where Sue was found, Maurice Williams, and take the bones back to the Black Hills Institute where they start to painstakingly prepare it for display. They do this in a relatively open way, with the local people coming into watch. There’s a fair bit of excitement in the town. Such a massive dinosaur would attract tourists and be a boom for the economy. It’s also just plain interesting, and the people feel a sense of local pride. The area is sometimes known as T-Rex country, and this is their special T-Rex.

Then the FBI turn up. The land Sue was found on was Native American, and this leads to a complex legal battle. The agents don’t really know what they are doing as their seize the fossil, so Peter Larson – heartbroken – has to help. Local schoolchildren run after the vans shouting to bring Sue back. The press roll up, including journalist Kristin Donnan, who Peter Larson later marries (the couple wrote the book Rex Appeal, upon which Dinosaur 13 is based).

Strongly implied in the narrative that unfolds is a sense that academic palaeontologists snobbishly don’t trust the Larsons and feel Sue should be in a “proper” museum. It’s also suggested that Maurice Williams was an unscrupulous person to be doing business with. But Williams was eventually awarded ownership of the fossil, and Sue goes to auction. Peter Larson, meanwhile, is sentenced to two years in prison for problems with his paperwork.

He is eventually released, but Sue is still trapped in auction rooms in New York. There is some excitement when a local businessman offers to pay up to a million dollars to buy Sue back for the town, but then auction day comes and we speedy realise that she’s going to be sold for much, much more. Chicago nabs it with a bid heavily supported by McDonalds and Disney. When Sue was unveiled for public display in 2000, Peter Larson didn’t even get an invite.

It’s an exciting and often very moving story. Played as a tale of the underdog, it’s an appealing narrative, but there are large bits of this particular excavation of a dinosaur left unearthed.

Palaeontology writer Brian Switek, in his review of the film, takes issue with Larson’s portrayal of incompetent academics as not an image that fits his own experience of working in the field, and a snub to the labour of scores of volunteers who support such work. Switek further suggests that “conspicuously absent” from Dinosaur 13 and the debate around its release is the story that Larson has recently been involved in bringing a pair of controversial dinosaur skeletons (the “Duelling Dinosaurs”) to a $9 million public auction.

I was also left uneasy about the image of Maurice Williams as a simple villain. Maybe he was, but the character is left so one dimensional it is hard to tell. According to Native American news site Indian Country Daily, Williams’ widow is sure the $5,000 made to him was a payment for having disturbed the land, not for the dinosaur. The Indian Country Daily report also notes that the tribe is working towards its own museum. Much of the moral drive of Dinosaur 13 is rooted in the image of funded academics in Chicago taking the dinosaur from a small town that could have built so much around it, but other people could have built around it too.

There’s a point in the film where we learn that because Sue is fossilised, she is treated legally as real estate, compared to archaeological finds of human artefacts. There’s a sort of narrative expectation that you are meant to flinch at this point; the very idea of a dinosaur being counted as land. But there is a way in which the T-Rex is land, and considering the history of land rights in the US, this an important part of the story. At the very least Dinosaur 13 should have taken time to explore the ethics here, and possibly offer their audiences something about the history of Native American relationships with dinosaurs, including contemporary paleontological work.

I also wanted to hear more about Sue after she was sold; the way she became a piece of consumer culture. Part of what makes Sue so iconic isn’t just her size, or age, or the scientific work that unearthed and prepared her for display, but the branding, and the knowledge of quite how much was paid for her. Today, you can follow her on Twitter and buy Sue t-shirts and lip balm in the shop. That is as much part of Sue the T-Rex as anything else, just as the dinosaur themed McDonald’s in the basement of the Field Museum plays its part, and Dinosaur 13 undoubtedly will now too. It’s all human activity inscribing itself on an ancient object that is so fascinating to us because of how beyond-human it is.

Dr Alice Bell writes for Popular Science UK every month on science in the media. To read her latest column, on the ‘discovery’ of John Franklin’s arctic expedition, download the app – new subscribers get the latest issue, plus the next, free.

Photo: Peter Larson with part of the dinosaur, courtesy Dogwoof Films.

Unlocking Lovelock at the Science Museum, London

A new exhibition on James Lovelock has just opened at the Science Museum, offering a glance into the museum’s ongoing analysis of his archive.

Lovelock, born in 1919, is an interesting if controversial character who enrages and delights both the scientific establishment and the environmental movement. He is open in his criticism of both groups too. In an interview he gave the Guardian as part of the exhibition launch he argued environmentalism has become a religion and “religions don’t worry too much about facts.” As part of the PR for the exhibition he also spoke to Nature, offering several dismissals of the scientific establishment and a slightly bitchy line regarding “the tendency of some geologists to keep their heads in the sediments.”

Lovelock is best known for the Gaia hypothesis, a vision of the Earth as a holistic self-regulating system co-developed by the microbiologist Lynn Margulis in the 1970s. But he has worked in many fields, refusing to be bound by disciplinary boundaries and contributing to medicine, environmental science, atmospheric chemistry and the exploration of space. He is also an inventor and instrument maker as well as prolific writer.

Lovelock is interesting not just in terms of his scientific outputs, but how he goes about doing science. Eschewing the institutionalisation and large-scale team work of modern so-called ‘Big’ science, he is resolutely independent. He also deviates from standard forms of scientific dissemination, often communicating directly to the public via science books. His refusal to play by the rules of modern science shows up the existence of such rules which are, often, a bit ridiculous. This has won him many fans, but it has also made him the odd enemy too.

Reading the various accolades of Lovelock surrounding the opening of this exhibition, he’s often depicted as a wise old man, a ‘character’ and true independent thinker who took on the establishment. But there is also something slightly anti-social about him too. The exhibition explains that one of the reasons Lovelock made his own instruments was so he had greater confidence in their accuracy. This is perhaps fair enough. But seems to reflect a lack of trust in other people. He is also famously pessimistic of our ability to politically deal with climate change. Lovelock told Nature that “as far as I’m concerned, I don’t have any peer review.” I’m not entirely sure what he means by this, but it seems to imply he doesn’t really have “peers” that might try to fairly review him. Perhaps this is true. As Philip Moriarty recently argued, the specialised nature of modern science mean that often researchers are asked to review work which they don’t really have much detailed knowledge of. Still, there is something arrogant about the way he puts it.

In telling this story of Lovelock, the Science Museum offers us some clever curating. You can enter the exhibition from one of two sides; either tucked behind the games of the Energy Futures gallery, or via the front stairwell and glass lifts. This might prove a challenge for a biographical narrative, but the museum tops and tails the display with items of Lovelock’s youth, with well placed double-faced signage throughout meaning that – although occasionally it feels like cleverly constructed pop-up book – there is a sense of coherent story through his training, work on Gaia and various adventures elsewhere.

Museums can be bad spaces for the exploration of science. Science is about ideas, but how do you put a theory in a glass case? Science is also constructed from gradual interactions between scientists and the natural world. It is slow, full of calculations and correspondence. It’s not always exactly eye-catching. And science changes and is continually provisional. It can feel too slippery for something as physically solid as an exhibition. But the Lovelock display captures something of the dynamic texture of doing science. It even manages to display peer review (no mean feat, especially considering Lovelock seems to think he’s beyond such things). Or at least it shows Nature’s rejection letter to Lynn Margulis, complete with a very mid-1980s typeset, and notes from a couple of respected earth scientists who were sent chapters of Lovelock’s second Gaia book in the late 1980s.

There are references to the role of science in diplomacy and scientific advice in politics, with an invitation and seating plan for a dinner held at 10 Downing Street in 1989 in honour of the President and First Lady of Bangladesh. We are told that, after talking with him at dinner, Thatcher invited Lovelock to participate in a seminar on climate change. We are also shown letters dated from 1997 and 2000 from the former Prime Minister, respectively offering congratulations on an award and thanking him for a copy of his new book. It’s not clear if Thatcher and Lovelock bonded scientifically or politically – or a mix of the two – but there seems to be some sense of mutual respect between them anyway.

The Science Museum exhibition also captures some of the cultural offshoots of Lovelock’s work, with the score of an oratorio based on extracts of his books. There was no Captain Planet though, which disappointed me probably more than I should admit to, and perhaps reflects the problem of an exhibition led by a scientist’s own collection and view of their work, rather than exploring the more accidental ways it might have been taken by society at large. There’s also no mention of Lovelock’s relationship with Shell, a company he has a long history of working with and supporting. As he wrote in Homage to Gaia: “My experiences with Shell left me firmly with the impression that they are neither stupid nor villains. On the contrary I know of no other human agency that plans as far ahead or considers the environment more closely.” Perhaps the curators thought it wasn’t relevant. But seeing as Shell is a “Premium Sponsor” of the exhibition it is hard not to wonder.

As enjoyable as much of the exhibition is, however, I worry that in studying a single man, and especially this single man, the museum is in danger of celebrating the cult of the individual somewhat. That Lovelock pushes back against the tendency towards big, networked science is part of what makes him interesting, but it is also unusual. Allied to this I’d have liked to see a lot more critique of Lovelock. In places the exhibition – and certainly the PR for it – borders on hagiography. There is a strong sense of individualism – not just independent thought – which seems to drive Lovelock. This is not necessarily a bad thing, or good one, but could at least be contextualised, in terms of cultural and scientific history of the time.

There is something hollow and depressing in this vision of science as a lone enterprise, just as there is something slightly hollow and depressing about Lovelock’s approach to environmentalism. I don’t think I like it, and I worry that the Science Museum seems so keen to blithely celebrate it.

Dr Alice Bell writes for Popular Science UK every month on science in the media. To read her latest column, download the app – new subscribers get the latest issue, plus the next, free.

The Longitude Prize: Science’s Hunger Games


What sort of dystopian austerity logic asks the public to vote on whether they want to fund research on water or food security?

The new Longitude Prize, that’s what, brought to you by NESTA, the BBC and the UK’s Technology Strategy Board. Based on the Longitude Prize of 1714, this 21st century version was announced by David Cameron last summer as part of Britain’s leadership of the G8. It’s in the news again because the British public are being asked via a special 50th anniversary edition of Horizon, which of a set of so-called ‘grand challenges’ they think the prize should address.

Whereas the original Longitude Prize wanted to determine a ship’s longitude at sea, we have a new set of challenges facing us today. As Cameron put it last year: “There are so many problems in our world that need that amazing solution, whether it is a cure for dementia, solving the problem of diabetes, having a flight from Britain to New York that’s carbon free.”

And whereas the original prize had a Board of Longitude to administer the scheme, the 2014 event wants to add a bit of 21st century openness to the equation. A new board was established – chaired by Astronomer Royal Martin Rees – and they’ve produced a new shortlist of challenges to be put to the public. Despite the board’s wide and world renowned set of expertise, they don’t seem to have travelled much beyond the Prime Minister’s initial suggestions. Diabetes has gone (not sure if the sugar lobby will be delighted or annoyed at that) but dementia and environmentally friendly flight are there, along with both food and water security, the risk of antibiotics resistance and the question of how can we might restore movement to someone with paralysis.

Again, to quote Mr Cameron last year: “I’m thinking of something – Britain’s Got Talent, you know, you switch on the TV and you watch the dog jumping over the pole, or whatever it is. Let’s actually get the nation engaged on what the biggest problems are in science and in our lives that we need to crack, with a multi-million pound prize to then help us do that.” And in many ways this is a laudable aim. People have been attempting to engage the public with the slippery and often esoteric issue of research funding for years. But is a TV-show vote really the way to do it?

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Science writer Philip Ball for one has laughed at the idea that we should treat science policy with the same mindset as ‘the dog jumping over the pole’. In response, Dame Profressor Athene Donald, who is on the prize committee, argued that the social challenges science sets its mind to should be chosen by more voices than just science alone. She’s right, and a lot more has gone into this than just the TV vote; there’s a much more developed Sciencewise project informing the work too.

Still, the public role has been quite controlled throughout – it’s the pre-scripted non-involvement of a pantomime engagement where you might get to shout “HE’S BEHIND YOU” but the romance, jokes and plot twists were all rehearsed weeks back. The schools pack makes the promise to be “no longer spectators” on building the future, but is acting as a “champion” for one of such a limited set of pre-decided topics really offering much involvement? Because they are really limited too.

In many ways, this isn’t a sciencey Britain’s Got Talent, it’s a sciencey Hunger Games. Shall we research water security or food security? YOU DECIDE. What sort of choice is that exactly? Of all the many choices which go into reviewing research ideas – good, useful processes of rejection and encouragement which decide where to put our resources – something as monumentally crass as ‘which challenge we care about most of all’ seems like a very poor point for public engagement.

Moreover, look further afield and this prize comes in a science and technology policy context where our choices over what to research are becoming ever-more curtailed and controlled. Questions are being asked in parliament over the Natural Environment Research Council’s oil and gas innovation strategy. There are mounting concerns about the possible privatisation of the Food and Environment Research Agency; government labs which study bees, GMO safety, tree health and more. On an international level, there’s the 200+ people arrested in Brussels for protesting about the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership – this is just a handful of examples, but they are all science policy stories which could do with much greater public debate and discussion. And yet instead Horizon are asking us to engage in a TV vote over abstracted grand challenges, as if none of this messy, unruly and sometimes questionable politics of science and technology exists.

And let’s not forget that innovation prizes are so popular with policy-makers and industry because they put the burden of risk on the researcher, not the funder. The idea of a lone genius solving the world’s food crisis from his shed in Oldham is a lovely idea, but it is largely wishful thinking. As Jack Stilgoe argued in terms of the idea of Big Society Science, science is an expensive, equipment-heavy team sport, it comes from large scale work which, above all, requires large scale investment. Really clever science takes time, money and infrastructure – time, money and infrastructure the UK government is wilfully cutting – and the TV prize show format all too readily glosses over this.

There’s also the not insignificant point that several of these challenges could be dealt with via changes to social systems, not a new technical innovation. It’s a cliche to point out that engineering innovation is no panacea for the lack of social infrastructure, but there is a reason why this point is so often repeated. When it comes to dementia, in particular, maybe we could look to heath and social welfare systems before we started flashing a trophy around to find a possible ‘cure’. As bioethicist Richard Ashcroft wrote last year during Cameron’s ‘dementia summit’, we already effective treatment for managing the disease, the problem is delivery and cost. Applying the rhetoric of a war on cancer for dementia sounds strong but “it won’t help the fragmented and incoherent health services deal with dementia better. Indeed, it may fragment efforts further.”

The Longitude Prize 2014 talks a language of inclusion and cash to meet global challenges but is really very limited in its scope, and all around it science and innovation is being cut and enclosed even further. The big flashy show of the event could be an invite for the public to be interested in how we use science and engineering to build our futures. It could, in turn, also be a chance for those who currently hold such purse strings to realise that public engagement really isn’t that scary and try something more adventurous instead. I hope both possibilities turn out to be true. But it looks a lot like bread and circus to distract us from cuts. I find this patronising, and possibly a bit suspect.

If you look at your voter’s choices in the Longitude Prize and feel a bit limited, ignore that particular ballot and, as we approach a general election, ask the political parties vying for your support to commit to increasing public funding of science, and increasing transparency and public engagement with science policy too. Because the rhetorics surrounding this prize are right about one thing, we should have a much richer public debate about how we use science and engineering to build our future.

Dr Alice Bell writes for Popular Science UK every month on science in the media. To read more, download the app – new subscribers get the latest issue, plus the next, free.

Photo: John Harrison’s H4, of the original Longitude Prize, at the 2014 launch. 

On ‘Blue Skies’ Science


Last month, the Nuclear Information Service and health NGO Medact published a report on the relationships between UK universities and the Atomic Weapons Establishment. The report is important in itself, though not especially shocking. According to documents released under the Freedom of Information Act, they learnt around £8m research funding a year is given to more than 50 universities. This isn’t much in the scheme of research funding, but still significant, especially if, like the authors of the report, you have low tolerance for any nuclear weapons research.

But what really caught my eye was the reply from Imperial College, who told the Guardian that the work was “strongly blue skies in nature.” Even putting aside the qualifier of “strongly”, the term “blue skies” covers a multitude of sins. So let’s pull it apart. The term “blue skies science” refers to research where the applications are not immediately apparent. So the government might, for example, fund a doctoral training centre in offshore renewable energy, because it knows that it wants as much knowledge on that as possible. They know that simply giving scientists money won’t lead to shiny perfect tech at the end of it, but putting as much resources as possible, strategically, in particular areas can be helpful. Or they might, similarly, via the MoD and the AWE, put it into nuclear weapons work. But we should also fund research free from those sorts of foci too, because sometimes you don’t know what you are looking for, and learning about the world we live in as best we can can be a reward in itself.

Scientists have talked about differences between “pure” and “applied” for well over a century, with the former occasionally being referred to as “basic.” But it was post-war, in the light of mass mobilisation of scientists to work on the bomb (and many feeling uncomfortable about the applications this particular work had), where the idea of a need to make a concerted effort to protect some areas of science from application took hold. Vannevar Bush, who orchestrated the Manhattan Project and was highly influential in science policy in the US and beyond, helped enshrine this principle with his 1945 report Science, The Endless Frontier. As with arguments surrounding the so-called ‘Haldane Principle’ this often went alongside the idea that basic research could be maintained by a reasonable amount of autonomy for scientists (arguably naively assuming political influence on scientists comes merely from formalised structures of public policy).

A lot about the phrase “blue skies” is very noble, but it is also very easily applied to hide politics at play. So when it’s used, it is worth asking a few questions: (a) isn’t science more than its research (b) which bit of sky are you looking at, and (c) is it really?

Firstly, science is more than research; it’s a huge structure of social interactions which offer a lot more. CERN is a good example here, its most famous ‘spin off’ – the world-wide-web – being more a consequence of its social structures than any particular bit of science discovered there. It’s also worth considering the amount of training it offers for junior researchers who won’t stay in the particular area of science they are initially working in; it increases capacity in particular fields. The scientific ideas might not go into the financial sector, or defence, but people do. As the report notes, one of the goals of the collaboration between IC and the AWE is to attract physicists to AWE.

Secondly, which bit of sky? This is maybe where the ‘strongly’ qualifier point in Imperial’s rhetoric comes in. They aren’t making bombs, but they know their work is likely to help towards the knowledge required for bomb building, hence why AWE funds it. The oil industry funds a lot of what might be described as basic science too,projects that might be seen as worthwhile on many dollars, but which they feel are likely to help them. Again, CERN makes for a good example. Wonderful and inspiring as it is, we should remember to ask why it’s allowed, and why we don’t have more like it. It’d be nice to see a grand project akin to CERN looking at, for example, the oceans (and, indeed, there is a history of large international projects in the environmental sciences, for a range of political reasons). But maybe the people who hold the purse strings don’t find the idea of looking in that direction so attractive, or are worried what they might find.

Finally, is it really? Too often, the term “blue skies research” is applied as a form of misdirection and its worth being sceptical. If scientists are going to work with industry – especially controversial industries such as the AWE, or the Natural Environment Research Council’s (NERC’s) recent memorandum of understanding with Shell – then they need to be as open as possible about it and avoid loose platitudes like “strong blue skies” so the public can hold such work accountable. Medact and NIS shouldn’t have had to use a Freedom of Information request to get these details about AWE funding; UK science should be talking about it anyway in as open and accountable ways as possible, even consulting the public about whether they think it is a good idea. Similarly, it shouldn’t take Greenpeace bugging NERC for them to release notes on their relationship with Shell (and at time of writing, I still haven’t seen the text of that memorandum). Why such secrecy?

None of this is to argue against research that is done for reasons other than a direct and obvious application. We should be interested in ourselves, our planet, its other inhabitants, the wider universe and what makes them all up. We should invest in work that simply aims to look and track our world and hope that, as well as enriching our view on life, this offers us new solutions to problems and warn us of spaces for concern too (e.g. that great spin-off to polar research, the hole in the ozone layer). When it is applied, we should ensure it is designed to meet a wide range of interests, not just those of a few choice companies with good links to politicians.

The most important point to remember is probably that the various spin-offs of research aren’t simple. To that point, it’s fair to quote Imperial as telling the Guardian that AWE-funded research leads to understanding and applications that contribute to the public good, such as a better understanding of earthquakes, extreme weather events or the damage caused by explosions. It’s also worth noting, from the report itself, that Imperial’s Centre for Inertial Fusion Studies aims to help transfer AWE work on plasma physics into the civil sector to support research into fusion energy.

It’s important we find ways to do work like that. A simple “no tolerance” policy on AWE research could miss such opportunities. But it has to be managed well and we have to keep asking who exactly these links serve. Moreover, when it comes to the offshoots like knowledge of earthquakes, couldn’t we get all this and more from looking at another bit of sky, too?

Alice Bell writes a column on science in the news every month for Popular Science UK. This article appeared in the March 2014 issue. The April 2014 issue is available now, including columns on the Big Bang Fair’s links with arms companies, and the problem of studies looking for “hard wired” differences between the sexes –  see a preview here, or read both in our app.

Photo: the one-legged Torii at the Sanno Jinja, Nagasaki, with obligatory blue sky overhead.

Bottles, Bag Bans and Moby Duck

The plastic drink bottle is an odd object of human creation. An item designed primarily for its disposability, it can stick around for a long time. A moment on the lips, over a lifetime in the landfill.

Plastic waste can travel far, too; both around the world and through bodies of food chains. This point was observed with some comic drama by journalist Donovan Hohn back in 2011, with his book Moby Duck. Decades before, in 1992, a cargo ship travelling from Hong Kong accidentally dropped a crate of 28,000 plastic bath toys (some yellow ducks, but also frogs, beavers and turtles) into the Pacific. They’ve been travelling around the oceans ever since and have been spotted, it seems, off the coast of Scotland and Hawaii – and even embedded in Arctic ice. As researchers used the toys to track currents, they concluded some must have circumnavigated the globe several times.

Wildlife can get caught in plastic debris, or ingest it. Research on marine plastic pollution published last November found each square kilometre of Australian sea surface water is contaminated by around 4,000 pieces of ‘micro-plastics’ (5mm or smaller). Australia uses 1.5m tonnes of plastic a year, with only 20% of it recycled. In the UK, according to the British Plastics Federation, we use over 5 million tonnes a year, with 24% recovered or recycled. When plastics do break down, that’s not necessarily a good thing either, because it is all about what they break down to and how they can can pollute in the process.

As Julia Reisser, lead author on the Australian marine research, told the Guardian, the problem isn’t just that the plastics contain pollutants in themselves, but also the way they can act absorb other pollutants, such as fertilisers. These various toxins then work their way through food chains as one fish eats another, before being gobbled by a mammal, and so on. Last summer, researchers in Massachusetts discovered new a rich and dynamic new ecosystem living on plastic marine debris.

Welcome to the plastisphere.

And it’s not just the oceans. In October, researchers reported being surprised by how much plastic pollution was present in the ecosystem of Lake Garda, Italy. And that’s just the effect on the more watery parts of the planet. We tend to keep our waste centres away from anywhere we’ll see, but it’s worth taking the chance to come face to face with your accumulated waste. I lived in Brighton during the refuse workers strikes last year, and the quantity of the city’s rubbish that piled up on the streets was amazing. A less smelly version might be just to keep and weigh your plastic refuge for a week or so, as an experiment to see how much it comes to.

According to a useful 2009 Royal Society paper on plastic recycling, roughly 50% of plastics are a matter of single-use disposables. These aren’t all for domestic consumption; there are agriculture and medical uses too, so it’s important we don’t judge all disposable plastics as drinks bottles. The resulting 50% has longer-term applications; infrastructure such as pipes or plastics to be used again and again in the home, such as furniture.

As the paper highlights, we’ve been recycling plastics since the 1970s. We’ve got better both in terms of the technologies applied to do so, but also required infrastructures; building recycling plants, for a start, but also systems for collecting materials for recycling and social changes required to get us to do it. Still, we could recycle more. And we need to consider the other key environmental impact of plastics, too, such as the energy used in their production – and indeed the energy used in recycling them.

Another possible direction is to make plastics from something other than oil, and make them so they degrade more cleanly too. It’s not as if plastics are outright evil. In many ways, they remain the wonder material of their early inception, freeing us from the confines of more traditional materials. Maybe we just need better ones. Mushrooms are, according to design entrepreneur Eban Bayer, the new great way forward (watch his TED talk for the full pitch). Similar to expanded polystyrene, mushroom-based packaging is biodegradable and made from mycelium (the thready bit of mushrooms) fed with agricultural waste. Further promises of the bright future of bioplastics celebrate materials made from crabs or potatoes, the latter with extra-green credentials of using a by-product of bioethanol (green as long as the context of that particular biofuel is). A lot of these are just promises though and, at least, need scaling up. We still need strategies for cutting plastic consumption.

The poster-boy for cutting plastics is the plastic bag. Several countries have brought in outright bans, with a few more working towards charging for them. Eight years on from the trail-blazing ban in Rwanda, however, plastic bags seem to be creeping back in. In the UK, plastic bag bans are developing a bit of a bad name as exemplar of a rather atomised approach to sustainability which focuses on the action of individuals. As Adam Corner observes, piecemeal behavioural changes such as re-using a plastic bag are not a proportionate response to climate change. For all the worth of cutting plastic bag consumption, it is but a drop in the ocean (or maybe a rubber duck in one). Further, as Corner’s colleagues at the University of Cardiff noted of the carrier bag charge in Wales, although people did, indeed, use fewer plastic bags, the rates of other low-carbon behaviour remained largely unaffected.

Which isn’t to say that individual action can’t have an impact; it’s cumulative and individuals can influence each other. But even if you go all out as a “plasticarian” – eschewing plastics entirely, not just bags – you are talking about rather atomised actions as opposed to the larger social and structural changes required. What about, for example, the 20-25% of plastics we use which are part of infrastructure such as pipes around us? Or the plastics used in agriculture before consumables even reach us? We need to engage with the plastics we share as a society and the more systemic economic and social questions which make the production and use of plastic so easy.

Which brings us back, in a way, to the rubber duck. We don’t know how often containers like that one of plastic toys Donovan Hohn traced are lost at sea. The shipping industry isn’t so easily auditable. There is a lot nobody knows about how plastics impact the planet, as well as a long way to go in the development of new materials, and in social innovations to make it easier to use less and recycle more. But there is also a lack of industrial openness and public engagement with all the materials we use that hinders action. As well as taking individual responsibility for our plastic consumption, we need to talk collectively about the materials we use; the chemistry of their impacts and possible replacements and the social infrastructures which hinder change.

Alice Bell writes a column on science in the news every month for Popular Science UK. This article appeared in the February 2014 issue. If you’re interested in plastics and recycling, our March 2014 issue examines how much plastic waste is currently dumped abroad, and how a factory in Worksop is leading the way in separating mixed plastics for re-use. Read it in our app, here. Image by Ben Salter, used under a Creative Commons License.