Tag Archives: British Science Association

SuperLab: Future Chips

Yesterday I travelled up to the University of Bradford for the British Science Festival, one of Europe’s largest science festivals. Each year the Festival travels to a different UK location, with over 250 events, activities, exhibitions and trips taking place over a week to showcase the latest in science, technology and engineering. The theme for the 2011 Festival is “Exploring new worlds“. The British Science Festival is also the culmination of my British Science Association Media Fellowship, after working with BBC Wales (predominantly BBC Radio Wales) for the past six weeks. I will be reporting from the Festival’s press centre throughout the week.

However, I am also here for SuperLab, a joint initiative between the National Higher Education STEM Programme and the British Science Association. The National HE STEM Programme supports higher education institutions in the exploration of new approaches to recruiting students and delivering programmes of study within the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) disciplines; I have previously worked with the Welsh HE STEM “spoke” based at Swansea University.

SuperLab consists of a poster-based campaign focusing on the wide range of in-store STEM applications in a modern supermarket, for example, the physics behind barcode scanners. It was originally planned to coincide with National Science and Engineering Week 2012 (every March, NSEW showcases how the sciences and engineering relate to our everyday lives and helps to inspire the next generation of scientists), but was reorganised to be part of this year’s Festival, as part of the Science in Action exhibition.

The topic for my research poster was the microprocessor, entitled “Future Chips“, somewhat subverting the original SuperLab theme. Nevertheless, I would assert that the invention of the microprocessor has had the greatest overall impact on our lives and development — I wanted to try and highlight to a wide audience how reliant we are on the all-pervasive microprocessor (especially its multitude of applications), as well as the ubiquitous nature of technology. In doing this, I wanted to get four main themes across:

  • Swimming in a Sea of Silicon: highlighting our reliance on microprocessors;
  • Limitations of Moore’s Law: how we are hitting the limits of existing architectural models and fabrication technologies;
  • The Future is Multi-Core: the move away from a single high-speed processor to a multi-core methodology — a single computing component with numerous independent processors;
  • The Challenge: Power Efficiency: in our increasingly connected digital world, improving the energy efficiency and power consumption of the billions of devices is paramount.

SuperLab wordle

So, with thanks to the superb work from the professional designers (especially considering some of my inane scribblings), here it is:

SuperLab: Future Chips

For further reading…

If you are interested, here are the references to the research that is (briefly) mentioned in my SuperLab poster (or contact me):

I’m also involved in HiPEAC, the European Network of Excellence on High Performance and Embedded Architecture and Compilation, funded under the European Commission Seventh Framework Programme (FP7). The aim of HiPEAC is to steer and increase European research in the area of high performance and embedded computing systems and stimulate cooperation between academia and industry; for more information about HiPEAC, check out its research and activities.

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A week at the Science Café

As part of my 2011 British Science Association Media Fellowship at BBC Wales (see other posts). I spent a week in Wrexham working on Science Café (@BBCScienceCafe), BBC Radio Wales’ flagship weekly science and technology programme presented by Adam Walton. It aims to explore the science and technology stories making the headlines and reveal the latest Welsh scientific research; in this way it differentiates from BBC Click by focusing more on science and scientists rather than consumer technology.

Science Café is based at the new BBC North East Wales site at the Centre for the Creative Industries, Glyndŵr University. I spent a week working with Jeremy Grange and Alan Daulby, two excellent BBC producers, discussing ideas for future Science Café programmes.

BBC in Wrexham

I had initially planned on pitching programme ideas to raise the perception of computer science research, as well as the importance of computing education and the wider societal impact of technology. However, an idea quickly developed around a “Desert Island Discs for scientists”, to understand what inspired researchers in Wales to become scientists. This very quickly evolved into a programme that was recorded on Thursday 18th August and broadcast on Tuesday 23rd August; I was joined on the programme by two other scientists based in Wales:

  • An astronomer, Dr Edward Gomez, who is Education Director for Las Cumbras Observatory Global Telescope Network in Cardiff University.
  • Dr Anna Croft, a bio-chemist at Bangor University looking at biological interactions and reaction mechanisms.

The 30 minute programme was based around a panel discussion, with each of us describing our main influences and inspiration as scientists, especially what first hooked us as children. My childhood influences possibly adhered to the geek stereotype (although, geek chic is now rather fashionable): the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (passim on this blog), Star Trek (predominantly TNG), Doctor Who, the BBC Micro and Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time, as well as a couple of inspiring science and maths teachers at my secondary school in Oxford (particularly Steve Drywood, who sadly passed away a few years ago). The scientists who I felt had inspired or influenced me over my formative years were Richard Feynman, Alan Turing and Stephen Hawking (although due to the editing, I only mentioned Professor Steve Furber, who is best known for his work at Acorn, where he was one of the designers of the BBC Micro). We finished with some future gazing, describing our own research and its possible wider impact on society. I did notice some of my idiosyncrasies, particularly a penchant for saying “kind of” when I start to ramble on. However, it was very well edited by Alan, squeezing the best bits of the c.45 minute discussion into the programme.

Overall, a big thanks to Jeremy and Alan for making me feel welcome in Wrexham (especially in the quiet week after the 2011 National Eisteddfod of Wales!) and I look forward to working with Science Café in the future. Keep an eye out for future programmes on logic and computing education…

The “Inspiration” Science Café programme is now available on iPlayer!
(UPDATE: unfortunately the programme is only available on iPlayer for seven days after being broadcast…but I do have my own personal copy if you are desperate to listen to it.)

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2011 British Science Association Media Fellowship

This week I am starting my 2011 British Science Association Media Fellowship with BBC Wales. The Media Fellowships aim to create a greater awareness and understanding of the workings of the media amongst practising scientists, social scientists, clinicians and engineers. The Media Fellows spend 3 to 8 weeks working within the national press, broadcast or internet media to better understand how scientists can interact with the media (increasingly relevant for academics), as well as learning how to produce accurate and relevant pieces about developments in science. The scheme has been running since 1987 and reflects the British Science Association’s wider commitment to working with the media to build greater understanding between science and society. The Media Fellows will also attend the British Science Festival 2011, to be held in Bradford in September, reporting for their hosts.

My six week placement with BBC Wales will be predominantly with BBC Radio Wales in Cardiff, working on Good Morning Wales and Good Evening Wales. I will also be spending a week in Wrexham with Science Cafe, BBC Radio Wales’ weekly science and technology programme, as well as some time on TV with BBC Wales Today (the BBC’s national news programme for Wales) and online with BBC News Wales. BBC Wales do not currently have a dedicated science correspondent, so I hope to try and increase and broaden their science output by highlighting relevant research and policy developments in Wales.

I have already been working on Good Evening Wales for two days last week, taking a news story from inception to broadcast: with the publication of the Bateson report [PDF] on primate research last Wednesday, this raised wider discussions about the effectiveness and importance of animal research in the UK. This was in light of a recent YouGov poll, in which 69% of the British public support the Government taking action to replace and reduce experimentation on animals (albeit with a slightly leading question IMHO). I arranged an interview with the communications and public engagement manager from Understanding Animal Research (with thanks to the Science Media Centre!), which went out live at 5:40pm. It was interesting to see how a story develops from the morning production meeting to going out on air in the evening, as well as how news is prioritised (especially during a busy news week).

I will be blogging throughout my time with BBC Wales, so keep an eye on the Media Fellowship tag. You can also contact me on my swanky BBC email address: dr.tom.crick@bbc.co.uk (N.B. I did not request this! But I appear to be in rather illustrious company).

The ten 2011 Media Fellows are:

  • Ms Leila Battison (Department of Earth Sciences, University of Oxford), with BBC Radio and BBC News Online.
  • Ms Amy Chesterton (Department of Chemical Engineering, University of Cambridge), with the Naked Scientists.
  • Dr Tom Crick (Senior Lecturer in Computer Science, UWIC), with BBC Wales.
  • Dr Nathan Green (Northwest Institute for BioHealth Informatics, University of Manchester), with the Guardian.
  • Dr Elena Hoika (Lecturer in Developmental Psychology, University of Stirling), with the Scotsman in Edinburgh.
  • Dr Hamish Pritchard (British Antarctic Survey), with BBC Radio and BBC News Online.
  • Dr Amy Strange (Wellcome Trust Centre for Human Genetics, University of Oxford) with the Irish Times in Dublin.
  • Dr Lee Sweetlove (Reader in Plant Biochemistry, University of Oxford), with Nature.
  • Mr Richard Walters (Department of Earth Sciences, University of Oxford), with the Times.
  • Dr Andrew Wright (Reader in Building Engineering Physics, De Montfort University), with the Times Higher Education.
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Libel Reform and Science

In May 2011, I attended my first Science Communication Conference, organised by the British Science Association. This annual two-day conference addresses the key issues facing science communicators in the UK and brings together people involved in public engagement.


This year’s theme was online engagement: exploring innovative uses of online media to engage the public with science, including discussions about social media, podcasting, gaming, virtual worlds and citizen science, including a public engagement activity close to my heart (I’m a Scientist, Get me out of here!). The speakers included Simon Singh discussing libel reform, Tim Radford on his career and experience as former science editor of the Guardian, as well as a panel session with Robert Winston and Kathy Sykes discussing their perspectives on the future of public engagement.

I was lucky enough to receive a bursary from the British Science Association to attend the conference; in return I was asked to write a report of the first day’s Libel Reform and Science session (I’ve added extra links and fixed some of my sloppy typos from the published report):

A Libel Reform and Science session at the 2011 Science Communication Conference? How do the English libel laws affect scientists across the world? Just ask Dr Simon Singh, who’s two-year battle with the British Chiropractic Association (BCA) cost him upwards of £500,000 when they sued for libel regarding an article he wrote in the Guardian in April 2008. Increasingly, individuals and companies are using England’s outdated libel laws to suppress legitimate scientific debate and discovery.

Simon Singh hosted this session with Sile Lane, who coordinates the Keep Libel Laws out of Science campaign led by Sense About Science (a charitable trust that equips people to make sense of scientific and medical claims in public discussion). Simon first presented an overview of libel and the key issues: defamation, protecting reputations, privacy, free speech (including “reckless” free speech, as well as the impact of the Human Rights Act 1988), plus the distinction between slander and libel: it is also possible to get sued for spoken material that is recorded live, such as a radio interview or conference talk. This is obviously an important issue for scientists and researchers. The law as it stands is very much in favour of the claimant: you do not currently need to show proof of damage; in essence there is a reverse burden of proof, you are guilty until you can prove you are correct (innocent!). Furthermore, it is horrendously expensive to defend yourself; in the majority of cases, people tend to settle early because of the prohibitive cost of going to trial. This has created the “chilling effect” of libel: many people are now scared of invoking a libel threat, providing an undesirable form of editorial control.

Simon also clarified that a company or organisation has the right to reputation and can sue to protect it (a primary example being his case with the BCA), which pits the significant resources of organisations against individuals. Legal Aid is theoretically possible for libel cases, but in practice appears hard to access. He cited the now-famous “McLibel” case, a lawsuit filed by the McDonald’s Corporation against two environmental activists over a pamphlet critical of the company. The case lasted ten years, making it the longest-running libel case in English history, and was only a partial libel victory for the “The McLibel Two” (although they later won damages against the UK government in the European Court of Human Rights).

Sile Lane then introduced the Keep Libel Laws out of Science campaign (as part of the wider Libel Reform campaign), which is working with English PEN and Index on Censorship to push libel reform in the UK. More than 60 societies and organisations are members, including scientific bodies, professional institutions, journals and lobby groups. Libel reform became an election issue at the 2010 UK general elections, with all major parties making manifesto pledges. She highlighted some key libel cases: Dr Ben Goldacre‘s three articles [1,2,3] in the Guardian regarding Matthias Rath‘s promotion of vitamin pills for the treatment of AIDS (nearly two years, overall cost £175,000); Professor David Colquhoun, a pharmacologist at UCL who was threatened by herbal and Chinese medicine practitioners due to a blog post; Dr Peter Wilmshurst, a consultant cardiologist who is in the fifth year of being sued by a medical devices company over remarks he made on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme (even though the company have since gone into administration); to the absurd: the parenting community website Mumsnet has had to pull down discussion posts about a certain childcare company due to threats of libel. At this stage, an interesting point of order was raised by a barrister in the audience: you need to be careful with using the terms innocent and guilty, as it is not a criminal case. They continued by agreeing that libel reform is important, but some of the problems discussed are wider problems with the entire English legal system.

Simon then gave an abbreviated history of his case with the BCA (more detailed history), highlighting some of the key issues. The case hinged on the following phrase in his article: “The BCA happily promote bogus therapies…“; did bogus mean deliberately fake? Did happily mean willingly? To Simon, it meant incompetent and dishonest: he cited claims by chiropractors of treating colic, asthma and other chronic illnesses with no scientific evidence to back up these claims. During the preliminary hearing, it appeared that an opinion ruling was easier to defend that a justification of fact or scientific evidence; when Simon’s statement was ruled to be a statement of fact and required Simon to prove dishonesty by the BCA, he seriously considered giving up the case. When the case finally went to appeal (at the third attempt, two years after the article was originally published), they finally agreed with Simon’s defence — it was the opinion of the three judges that if you are criticising a conclusion in a science article, it should be assumed it is a matter of opinion. Unfortunately, this decision was not binding and has yet to be tested, as the existing case law is still fuzzy. While this was a victory for Simon, he lost over a year of his life and financially it was a disaster.

So why is this relevant to all of us? Essentially we have now all become publishers, with this being especially worrying for bloggers. What do you do if you receive a threatening letter? Sense About Science provide an advice guide, but you should always obtain legal advice in the first instance. Due to the prohibitive cost of libel actions (anywhere from £200,000 to £1m) and the difficulty of obtaining Legal Aid, it is sad state of affairs that withdrawing the article from the public domain may be the easiest thing to do.

Simon finished the session by summarising the latest libel reform work with the draft Defamation Bill that was published in March 2011. We need new libel laws, but the balance has to be fair, serving both journalists and the general public. We must ask why the cost of defending a libel case in England is 140 times the European average and why 90% of cases are won by the claimant. The draft Bill is a good start, but needs to go further; there needs to be a stronger public interest defence (especially beyond investigative journalism, to cover blogging, etc), as well as a notion of “substantial and serious” — if you write something that is in the public interest and you are careful but make a genuine mistake, you should not have to receive the ultimate punishment. Libel tourism is an increasingly problem, with individuals and organisations with little apparent ties to the UK using this jurisdiction to silence their critics. The changing mode of publication in the digital age also needs to be considered: as it stands, every single download or viewing of a web article refreshes the one year defamation window. Furthermore, from a scientist’s perspective, it is important that peer reviewed research should come under qualified privilege. We should all be concerned about the libel laws and Simon and Sile finished the session by urging us to feedback during the Bill’s scrutiny period, as well as supporting the Libel Reform campaign and signing the national petition.

Libel reform

The full conference report for the 2011 Science Communication Conference is now available online, as well as a number of the presentations and supplementary resources, including relevant background reading. I attended the following sessions over the two days:

Day 1

Day 2

There were a number of active online discussions on the #SCC2011 hashtag over the two days, as well as the conference Twitter account (@SciCommConf): see the Storify for Day 1 and Day 2, as well as this tag cloud (with thanks to @clivebgs):


A big thank you to the British Science Association for providing me with a bursary; I look forward to next year’s event (get involved Allan Pacey!).

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British Science Association General Committee Elections 2011/2012

BSA logo

Election of representatives to the British Science Association General Committee 2011/2012 is now open.

The General Committee is the principal strategic advisory body of the British Science Association and consists of members of Council, as well as elected members from the three Constituencies: Sections, Members and Branches. Members of the General Committee normally serve a three year term, and can stand for re-election once.

There are ten candidates for the four (available) elected places on the General Committee for 2011/2012, with myself being one of them! I have been nominated by the South Wales Branch and this is my candidate statement:

Dr Tom Crick is a Lecturer in Computer Science at UWIC in Cardiff, having previously completed his PhD and post-doctoral research at the University of Bath. He is the leader in Wales of Computing at School (CAS), a membership association supported by BCS, The Chartered Institute for IT, to promote and support the teaching of computer science and other computing disciplines in UK schools. He sits on the National Assembly for Wales Cross-Party Group on Science and Technology and has been involved with the British Science Association (through the South Wales Branch) and wider science communication and public engagement activities for a number of years. He is one of the ten 2011 British Science Association Media Fellows, working with BBC Wales.

I feel that my experience of a wide range of science communication and public engagement activities, from national events to local school initiatives, gives me a strong foundation in which to support the aims and objectives of the British Science Association. Furthermore, I have experience of sitting on national committees: I currently sit on BCS Council, the strategic advisory body of BCS, The Chartered Institute for IT, as well as the Education Committee of the BCS Academy of Computing, the learned society dedicated to advancing computing as an academic discipline. I am confident that these current roles would support any General Committee role. I am passionate about promoting science communication and engagement on computing and technology themes, so I am hopeful that the Association could further support these aims; perhaps by creating a dedicated Computing Sciences (or similarly named) Section to better engage with the area and interested parties.

If you are a member of the British Science Association, please vote for me online (or by post)! All votes must be received no later than Friday 24th June 2011.


2011 Science Communication Conference

I was very pleased to hear last week that I had been offered a bursary to attend the 2011 Science Communication Conference, an annual two-day event organised by the British Science Association.

The Science Communication Conference is the largest in the UK, addressing the key issues facing science communicators and bringing together people involved in public engagement. This tends to be a diverse group of people from a wide range of backgrounds, including science centres, charities, universities, press offices and policy-makers.

This year’s theme is online engagement: exploring innovative uses of online media to engage the public with science, including discussions about podcasting, gaming, virtual worlds and citizen science, as well as an interactive social media workshop. Some of the speakers include Simon Singh discussing libel reform, Tim Radform on his career and experience as former science editor of The Guardian, as well as a panel session with Robert Winston and Kathy Sykes discussing their perspectives on the future of public engagement.

I am looking forward to meeting (in real life!) a number of science communicators who I regularly interact with on Twitter, as well as blogging throughout the conference. As an academic, I’ve found social media an immensely valuable resource for my research, though especially in supporting my science communication and public engagement activities. The relevance of this year’s theme is clear, highlighting how pervasive and powerful online media can be; I’m also very keen to hear Simon Singh discuss the latest proposed reforms to the libel laws in the UK.

The 2011 Science Communication Conference will be held on 25th-26th May at King’s Place, King’s Cross, London and you can register online.