Policy and Bright Club Cambridge

Alas my neglect for this web-site has been wanton and unmerciful, sorry little autapses. I am currently in Cambridge (UK) doing a policy placement at the wonderful Centre for Science and Policy (CSaP). Part of what they do is help civil servants network with academics to provide government departments with direct access to the best available research. Before I joined I did wonder why they couldn’t just use Google Scholar, but I quickly learned this was a fabulously naive point of view. Civil servants are often very busy, inexperienced with research, unable to devote the time to finding the best and most relevant information in the mountains of muck that populate the literature, and as a result of moving between departments have great breadth but not so much depth of knowledge. The direct links to relevant academics that CSaP provides are really important for getting good research knowledge into government.

Anyway, evangelism section is now complete, advertising commences: I will be “doing a bit” at Cambridge Bright Club at the Portland Arms tomorrow (Friday 14th June) evening, I think there are still some tickets left (just checked, yes there are, BUT NOT MANY). Professional funny people will be there to make you laugh, and six researchers will be there to try to make you laugh. At the very least, you may learn something.

More soon…

Newcastle Skeptics in 2012

Newcastle Skeptics in the Pub have just had their final talk of the year (BUT DON’T FORGET THE XMAS PARTY/QUIZ ON 4TH DECEMBER!) so I thought I’d have a quick look back the year’s events.


We started the year with a visit from local MP Chi Onwurah, who spoke to us about innovation and science in Newcastle. SITP is very much not a partisan entity, but I think it’s good to be able to involve local politicians and make them aware of the growing interested in skepticism, science, and evidence-based policy across the UK. Chi has a very interesting background and it’s good to know that there’s a scientifically literate voice to represent the north east in parliament, even if her talk was naturally Labour-biased.


We continued with something a little different – a talk on tattoos and media perceptions of tattooing by Matt Lodder. It was good to get away from our usual science-oriented focus to a really interesting topic that I think most of us didn’t know much, if anything, about. Fascinating pictures of people donating their tattooed skin to art galleries, and an interesting discussion afterwards.


We had two events in March. Firstly, local academic Tom Joyce gave a talk on his research into failing metal hip joints, and the current licensing regulations on medical devices. Medical devices and drugs are regulated quite differently, and Tom gave a detailed account of how the regulations have allowed the current metal hip joint crisis to develop.

Secondly, we had an open-mic night, where several regular and not-so-regular SITP attendees gave short talks on a really diverse array of topics, from genetic algorithms to dodgy breast implants to energy saving buildings. Also I did a song. We’re pretty keen to do another one of these next year as it went down very well, so please get in touch (tweet @SITP_NCL or leave a comment) if you’re interested!


Mark Lynas ventured up north for April’s talk, talking about climate change, ocean acidification, nitrogen use, biodiversity loss, and several other global problems that currently confront us. Mark’s talk discussed potential technological solutions to these various problems, including making compelling cases for the use of technologies traditionally opposed by green campaigners like genetic modification and nuclear power. Plenty of food for thought in this one.


A very personal perspective on gender identity from Edinburgh Skeptics’ own Miss Twist, talking about clothing choices in law and culture, and how she manages to create such an excellent cleavage when wearing a dress. Definitely made me consider how I think of others’ clothing and self-image choices. I’d be very interested in hearing Miss Twist speak again in a few years time, to see how much her experiences/societies reactions change in the future.


Another month with two events. First off, the scandalous Rich Peppiatt, former Daily Star journalist and lover of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, spoke about his experiences as a tabloid journalist, the agendas that drive tabloid news stories, and why he quite his job and leaked that letter to The Guardian. This was particularly interesting in light of the Leveson Inquiry, and I’d highly recommend going to see Rich’s “One Rogue Reporter” show if you get the chance.

Apocalyptic storms hit Newcastle on the very afternoon that Helen Arney was scheduled to entertain us with her unique brand of wonderful geeky songs. Fortunately Helen had arrived in Newcastle before all our transport systems failed; unfortunately, everyone else got stuck as all our transport systems failed, but we battled on and Helen put on a great show for the few of us that made it along. Just the thing to cheer us up on such a miserable evening.


Another non-science talk this month (she’s going to kill me for saying that) as Hannah Little gave us a talk on the evolution of language, a really fascinating topic that I knew very little about. Highlights: Hannah’s description of the Great Vowel Shift, and discovering that there existed an ape by the name of Nim Chimpsky. Hannah recently moved to Brussels to start a PhD in linguistics, good luck Hannah!


Back to science for August (sorry Hannah), with Keith Lindsey of Durham University talking about GM crops. I must admit I missed this one because of other pressing academic engagements in Germany, which is a shame as it’s a topic I find particularly interesting as there is so much emotive discussion about  it, but very little good evidence presented in the media. Hopefully I’ll get to hear Keith talk at a future event.

Yet again we managed to squeeze two speakers into one month (we are generous like that), with Alom Shaha speaking about his experiences growing up in a community of Bangladeshi immigrants, losing his faith in Islam, and how he deals with conflicts between science and religion that can arise in the classroom. Alom gives a great talk and it’s fantastic to hear from someone with a very different background from those in the New Atheist crowd talking about their lack of faith.


After a double-talk month, we unfortunately skipped September entirely as our speaker had to cancel at the last minute. We’re currently aiming to have Keir Liddle join us in 2013 instead, when he will discuss the Burzynski clinic cancer “treatment” affair.


Keith Laws from the University of Hertfordshire visited in October to speak about the use of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy in treating severe mental disorders. I was very pleased to see nurses and clinical psychologists in the audience, who stimulated a very interesting debate following the talk (which even continued on Twitter the next day…). Keith clearly explained the intricacies of meta-analysis and the details of how trials of talking therapies can be biased. Didn’t bring his synths along though, sadly.


Our most recent talk was by Caroline Fiennes, who spoke about how to assess the truth of claims made by charities. Far from being a charity-bashing session, Caroline has been a charity CEO and is obviously very much pro-philanthropy. She spoke about how charities can measure and maximise their impact (e.g. randomised controlled trials), about how good intentions can go wrong, and how to get charities to take this message on board (be more discerning donors!). She also has a very good answer to the perennial question “how much of my money actually gets to the people we want to help?” – read her book to find out.

We’re currently putting together a wizard-wicked programme of speakers for next year – any requests let us know! In December we will be having an Xmas Party Special Awesome Bonanza, including quiz and wonderous prizes. It’s on 4th December at the Old George. Hope to see you there!

Newcastle Bright Club

IT’S TONIGHT, AND I’M SPEAKING! Wed 27th June 2012, 7.30pm at the Black Swan (on Westgate Road near the Academy), the “thinking person’s variety night” returns to bring you a fragrant blend of music, research and comedy.

We had a little rehearsal last night and I can tell you all now that you are in for a right good treat, as the other speakers at least are fabulous. Helen Keen returns to compère – she’s been helping us out with our sets, so to be honest you can blame her if you don’t enjoy it. I have to say, talking to a comedian about your own jokes is a strangely intimidating experience, even though she is both very nice and very helpful.

I’m going to be speaking about network science and the brain. It will be sexed-up to the point that Labour will want to use it to force through policy decisions if they ever manage to weasel back into power. Sod the football, come to Bright Club.

P.S. If you’re interested in either network science or the brain, or both, have a look at our lab’s web-site. These articles are good overviews of using network science to learn more about the brain:

Organization, development and function of complex brain networks

A tutorial in connectome analysis


Hey Simon [Sing(h)]

Back in March we did an open mic night at Newcastle Skeptics in the Pub as part of Newcastle Science Fest 2012. It produced some great talks ranging from cyborgs to exploding breasts, all from local speakers, and I suspect we’ll be holding another one in the future. I did a lovely song in honour of the Simon Singh vs. the British Chiropractic Association libel case. You may recognise the tune.

For more information on UK libel law failings, see the UK Libel Reform Campaign.