Category Archives: industry

UK science blogger interview: Daniel MacArthur

After completing his PhD in 2008 in Australia, Daniel moved to the UK to take up a position at the Sanger Institute, the largest genomics research institute in the country. His day job revolves around the analysis of DNA sequence data from projects like the 1000 Genomes Project, and figuring out ways of using these torrents of data to help inform studies of human disease. His blog Genetic Future focuses on the personal genomics industry: companies offering to sell you information about your own genome, for purposes ranging from learning about your ancestors to predicting your risk of serious diseases.

First question: Do you have a specific audience (or set of audiences) in mind when you blog?

This is something that has really evolved over time as I started to get to know my readers. Initially I had a very vague idea of potential readers – basically anyone interested in genetics, I suppose – but I found it very hard to write about the things I was interested in without implicitly requiring some kind of background knowledge from the reader. I also started to accumulate a great group of regular commenters with expertise in the field, a combination of self-educated genetic hobbyists and people with more formal training, and that’s the level that I ended up pitching most of my posts.

I’m never sure if I’ve found the right balance, but it’s certainly made it easier for me to write about the scientific and commercial aspects of genomics to not have to build in a huge amount of introductory material for every post.

Is there anything about your composition style, or choice of subject matter which you feel has changed over time? (as you have got to know your readers, or for other reasons).

Yes, absolutely. When I started the blog I initially focused on genetics more broadly, with an emphasis on the scientific issues. As time has gone on I’ve focused more and more on the commercial side of things, spending a lot of time discussing companies involved in direct-to-consumer genetic testing and DNA sequencing. To some extent this shift has been reader-driven, but mostly it’s just a reflection of how my own interests have changed over the last couple of years.

Changing track a bit. You’ve written about some of the difficulties of scientists (live) blogging conferences. Do you feel there is a role for blogging in opening up business as well as science? Equally, do you feel especially constrained ever as a science blogger who focuses on commercial issues?

There’s definitely a role for scientifically-literate bloggers in opening up the commercial world to public scrutiny. One scathing post from a blogger laying out the deficiencies of a company’s genetic test can end up dominating Google search hits for that company’s name, which then means potential consumers doing even the most superficial web research before buying can quickly get access to informed criticism. That’s incredibly important in a field as complex as genetic testing, where most consumers aren’t really in a position to make a fully informed decision – having independent, expert reviews out there on the internet can make it a lot easier for people to make the right choice.

That said, with power comes consequences. It’s easy to forget that what you say as a blogger can have a major impact on the companies you write about: one bad review of a new sequencing technology could sometimes be enough to dissuade a key investor from buying in, for example. When that sort of money is at stake the consequences of mis-reporting are pretty serious, so I’m now always quite careful to make sure what I say about a company is carefully-phrased and well-justified. I don’t always get that right when I’m writing in a hurry or if I’m particularly outraged by a dodgy product, but I try.

Can you imagine more corporate-based science blogging, in similar ways science charities like Cancer Research UK or the Wellcome Trust blog? (esp. the former, as their news blog works to act against google results of “bad” health news messages they would like to combat?)

There are already some quality corporate science blogs out there – a particularly good example in my field is The Spittoon, run by direct-to-consumer genetic testing company 23andMe. However, it’s hard for corporate blogs to stay on-message without either being boring or looking like PR shills for their company. I’d definitely like to see more companies out there blogging, but if they do so they’re going to have to learn to give their bloggers a reasonably long leash and be prepared to deal openly with controversy in the comments section. It’s tough to get the balance right, but companies that do it well can get a lot of respect (and business) as a result; unfortunately, companies that get it wrong (as Pepsico did this week) can find themselves in a world of pain!

Finally, can you tell us your favourite blog? (it doesn’t have to be a science blog)

I’m a nerd, so all of my favourite blogs are science blogs! It’s very tough to pick a single winner, so I’ll name three instead: for general science I’d have to say Ed Yong’s Not Exactly Rocket Science, for my field of research I think John Hawks’ excellent palaeoanthropology blog, and for personal genomics I have only good things to say about the Genomics Law Report.

This is one of a series of four interviews with UK-based science bloggers. You can find links to all the interviews (and more) here.

museum sponsorship, climate change and the Smithonian


This video comes via a Treehugger piece on the Smithsonian’s new human origins gallery. That’s the new David H Koch Hall of Human Origins, as in “coal empire billionaire” David Koch who sponsored the gallery. The complaint made by Treehugger, Joseph Romm (the guy in the video) and some others being, simply, that this gallery’s depiction of human evolution is being used to peddle some rather unscientific ideas about climate change. Specifically, how much the climate has changed since the industrial revolution, and the ways humans have/might adapt to such change. To get an idea of their argument, just watch the video of Dr Romm at the exhibition.

Last week I blogged about Shell’s sponsorship of a climate change gallery at the London Science Museum, so thought it was worth flagging up this controversy from over the pond too. I don’t pretend to know nearly as much about the Smithsonian. Still, whether Treehugger et at are being fair or not, the controversy is interesting in itself. Googling from a desk in South London (e.g. see also write up in USA today, and the review and curator Q&A in the Washington post) it does look scarily as if the Smithsonian have managed to avoid having to even pay lip-service to Intelligent Design, only to have their story of evolution hijacked to relay a rather marginal approach to climate change science. It was also interesting to find this Washington Post story, from 2007, suggesting the Smithsonian had previously toned down an exhibition on climate change, fearing anger from Bush administration.

Whilst on the topic, I think it’s also worth flagging up this report in Nature on the rise in philanthropically-funded climate change work. They refer to a range of activities, including supporting academic research. Whether you prefer your climate science and climate science communication funded by charities or by the tax payer (and so, we might hope, also accountable to the tax payers) is an important question, one that probably reflects your own personal politics. Like many members of the British science community, I’m thankful for the existence of the Wellcome Trust but I’m also very thankful that the Wellcome Trust happens to be quite so awesome (for “awesome” read “run largely by people who happen to agree with me”).

The Nature news piece and Smithsonian controversy might seem very American concerns, but as the bulk of state-sponsored science communication in the UK goes into pre-election purdah, they are matters for us Brits to mull over too. As Christine Ottery has just blogged in terms of investigative science journalism “Heigh-ho: here’s to the future, here’s to new funding models”. If we don’t want people like Shell or Koch or the government bankrolling such work, who do we want to pay for it? Who will we trust, why, and how are we going to make this work?

Thanks to Scott Keir for the tip-off on this story.

Shell, Signs, Sponsorship and the Science Museum

This post is my attempt to say something about last week’s “Science Museum goes climate sceptic, sponsored by SHELL!” fuss. I also hope to provide a bit of a catchup for those who didn’t notice the story/ have forgotten it already. My argument is largely that the Science Museum isn’t a scientific institution, it is a public one. We should expect it to take a broader view. I also think that if they are taking Shell’s money, they should reflect Shell’s views on climate change: as transparent as possible, warts and all. Don’t let Shell hide behind the museum’s claims to “editorial control”. I want the gory details. Moreover, such views should placed next to similar statements from scientists and environmental campaigners. These views, and more, are all ones a national museum of science should be active in collecting and exhibiting.

But first, the catchup. Early last week, the Science Museum issued a press release announcing details of a new gallery about climate change, scheduled to open next November. Cue outrage. There was always going to be a fuss. People love to bitch about the Science Museum, it presses buttons of personal nostalgia, national prestige, controversies of public spending and anxieties about the future all at once. We also, increasingly, seem to love to bitch about climate change. What fulled much of last week’s particular fuss focused on two points, and their possible interaction. Firstly, the museum signaled a desire to debate the controversy rather than preach at their visitors:

“Our objective is to minimise the shrill tone and emotion that bedevils discussion of this subject, satisfying the interests and needs of those who accept that human-induced climate change is real, those who are unsure, and those who do not”.

A point which many seemed to take as a nod to “deniers” of human-caused climate change. Secondly, Shell would be sponsoring the gallery. Although it is also worth noting that Siemens, the Garfield Weston Foundation and Defra are also chipping in, Shell is the primary sponsor, and the idea of an oil company bankrolling a national exhibition about climate change does boarder on the self-satirising (and that’s without getting into Garfield Weston’s links to Primark). Reuters, The Daily Mail and The Times all covered it, but Ben Goldacre sums it up with the simple comment: “Science Museum exhibition “neutral” on climate change: sponsored by Shell, not stylish”.

It’s worth noting a bit of history to these issues. BP sponsored the museum’s Energy gallery, and Shell provided funds for the recent rebuilding of Launch Pad (details of FOI request relating to this). It’s probably also worth noting that Nintendo are secondary sponsors for Launch Pad, a point some might find more controversial in a child-orientated gallery. Dig back even further, and there’s the issue of the old BNFL sponsored nuclear gallery, with its ever-so-easy-to-miss bomb section (neat bit of ’80s sociology of science on this). Sponsorship aside, it’s also worth remembering the museum’s somewhat bungled attempt at public engagement over climate change with their Prove It! exhibition (critique from Guardian art critic).

Yesterday the museum (finally) released some clarification, stressing their content will be evidence led and the museum retains editorial control despite sponsors, but that they worry that too-narrowly a conceived gallery will alienate audiences. The new gallery, they underline, will fulfill what they see as a:

“need for a public space where people who agree, who are unsure, and who disagree that humans are affecting the climate system are able to explore the science and make up their own minds”

Personally, I’d say “fair enough” on this point (see final paragraphs of this post). Goldacre’s point still stands though: Shell sponsorship is “not stylish”. Moreover, I’d argue that in the largely visual medium of a museum, the style issue is crucial. After-all, the Science Museum are well known for their obsession with design.

I was a gallery hand at the museum when the BP-branded Energy gallery opened. We were briefed to explain to visitors that the museum had maintained control throughout the exhibition design. As the gallery-hand briefing went, editorial control was part of the contract, the museum wouldn’t have done it otherwise. Moreover, BP wouldn’t have wanted to connect themselves with the museum if they were seen as easily bought. No one’s brand would benefit from anything other than complete editorial control. For what it is worth, I believe this. However, I also saw the ways in which visitors would react when they found out about BP’s involvement. You cannot deny the semiotics of the simple “sponsorship by” sign. Maybe the museum does maintain editorial control. But the visitor turning up on a rainy bank holiday doesn’t know this. They shouldn’t necessarily be expected to either. They see the logo, this quite reasonably sets off their bullshit detector, which in turn affects their experience of the gallery.

Energy Futures

Panel in Energy Gallery, Science Museum

I have two points where I feel I can defend the Science Museum on, although not without some critique of them and the situation they find themselves working within. Firstly, an aspect in the press release we really should be making more of: the gallery is going to cost £4m. Where do we expect this money to come from? Now, we could argue that’s an unnecessary overspend. I might have some sympathy with that point of view (see note above on obsession with design), but even done reasonably cheaply, if it’s going to look respectable, it’s going to cost. Another useful snippet of information gleaned from Science Museum training: when national museums still charged admission in the 1990s, the government subsidised each £9 ticket by roughly a further £20. This point is worth remembering if museums start charging again: we’re still subsidising them, heavily, but we’ll probably subsidising a smaller and richer set of visitors. Museums are expensive.

Secondly, I do, quite seriously, agree that the museum should be highly attuned to the dangers of alienating people. Mike Hulme made a good point when he talked to our students last year: we should take “climate agnostics” seriously. We can fight over whether or not we like the religious metaphor another time, what I want to emphasise here is the existence of those people who, for whatever reason, aren’t sure about climate change and find Greenpeace, Shell, the deniers and the climate scientists as potentially annoying and distrustful as each other. I also want to stress the need to take their views seriously. Throw your hands up in the air with incredulity at their stupidity if you like: see how far that gets you. As Chris Rapley told the Times:

The climate science community, by and large, has concluded that humans have intervened in the system in a way that will lead to climate change. But that is their story. It’s not our story, so that can’t be our conclusion. If we take sides we will alienate some of the people who want to be part of the discussion.

The Science Museum, unlike the Natural History Museum next-door, isn’t a scientific institution. A fair number of ex-scientists work there, but they exist to talk about science rather than do it. This is as much a benefit as it is a failing of the place. It is the “science” museum; it should reflect what the scientific community say. However, it exists in and serves a broader community, it exists and serves to bring the messages of the scientific community into that broader community, it has to be careful about taking sides.

This reflects a very basic tenet of professionalised/ academic science communication (which many of the museum staff will be well versed in): patronise publics and they’ll only ignore you all the more. It’s more democratic to listen to outside voices, but it’s also basic PR: at the very least pretend you respect the people you want to convince, otherwise why on earth would you think they’ll listen? Conversation is where cultural change will happen. To this end, bring the more extreme ends of the debate. Sample those views, collect and curate them, even use them as a way into to showing off how much stronger the scientific case is. The Science Museum should provide a site for the charting of where and how we disagree on science; where these ideas have all come from and how we might (individually and collectively) move them on.

The Science Museum should maintain its editorial control, but include Shell’s views on climate change too. If Shell are going to have involvement in this gallery, I want to see what they think about climate change, warts and all. Include statements from the other sponsors too, and more: I want to see samples of Greenpeace, Plane Stupid and Christopher Booker for that matter. Also, importantly, a load of less famous people/ groups in between. Please note, I don’t expect Greenpeace et al to have to pay for their involvement. I should also note, this includes Greenpeace having the balls to join in as much as the Science Museum inviting them. Maybe such debate on climate change cannot be done without the symbols and ideas of one point of view pissing another off. Maybe, as George Monbiot wrote recently, we rarely change our mind, especially about climate science. Still, I am keen to see the Science Museum try. I just hope Shell, Defra and Garfield Weston aren’t the only controversial logos present on the gallery floor.