Inverting the hierarchy? Blogging and social media in academia

Academic blogging has snowballed over the past few years and huge numbers of researchers from across all disciplines are now writing about their experiences online. The reasons for doing it are many, and the potential benefits overwhelming. Blogging obviously provides a great opportunity to engage in two-way communications about your work with new groups, from your community of peers to the wider public.  On a more personal level, writing online allows you to grow your professional network, hone your communication skills and raise your profile.
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Our Broken Science Career Path: Something Needs to Change

The career path for scientists and engineers in UK academia is broken.  But we knew that already. The recent House of Commons’ Science and Technology Committee’s report on women in STEMM careers (science, technology, engineering, maths and medicine) is just the latest to find issue with the structure of research careers.
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Screwing the Planet

My second article on Medium’s Futures Exchange collection looks at how sustainable our sex lives are. An excerpt is below with the full article here.

But sex isn’t just about making babies; there’s also a fun side. The sexual revolution of the 1960s has given rise to a rapidly expanding sex industry, worth $15 billion globally, which aims to satiate all our carnal needs. From latex to lube, this industry supplies a wide and diverse range of products to help spice things up in the bedroom. Like all chemicals, how these products are manufactured, used and disposed of will have an effect on the environment. As a chemist myself, I’m not suggesting we start to worry about the planet mid-coitus — I certainly don’t (honest!) — but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a growing awareness of some environmental issues associated with our modern sex lives.

Thanks to Frank Swain (@sciencepunk) for his help cleaning up my writing and publishing the article on his collection.

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Blogroll: Turf wars

I was invited to write for Nature Chemistry’s Blogroll column for their December issue. The column is meant as a brief summary of the current chemistry/science blogosphere and features in their printed and online issues, which hopefully creates access to a broader audience. Thanks to Stuart Cantrill and colleagues for the opportunity! Original (including link to PDF) can be found here (£££).

Molecular modellers scoop Nobel and a publishing ‘trash heap’ uncovered.

Nobel season has come and gone, with this year’s chemistry prize awarded to Martin Karplus, Michael Levitt and Arieh Warshel. Once more, Paul Bracher at ChemBark must be thanked for collating the runners and riders on his blog ( That the prize was awarded for computational chemistry delighted Ash Jogalekar at the Curious Wavefunction (, who noted that it recognized both a whole field and the lifetime achievements of the three winners. Realizing that not everyone was happy with the decision, Jogalekar’s delight soon turned to frustration ( at those chemists who snipe at researchers in other fields of chemistry. As Ash put it, these ‘turf wars’ hardly help improve the public image of chemists.

Speaking of turf wars, a recent sting investigation reported in Science on open-access (OA) publishers caused a stir both in the blogosphere and the mainstream press ( John Bohannon, under the superb alias Ocorrafoo Cobange, sent a spoof paper describing the new (non-existent) anticancer properties of a new (equally non-existent) wonder drug to 304 OA journals. It was accepted in 157, occasionally without peer review, despite clear scientific and ethical shortcomings.

“An Open Access Trash Heap” cried Derek Lowe at In The Pipeline (, with his two barrels aimed directly at those journals who rip off authors for “whatever fees they can scam”. Open Access advocates, including PLOS founder Michael Eisen, were quick to defend OA publishing, suggesting similar failings would also occur in subscription-only journals. As Jon Tennant, guest-blogging on Matthew Shipman’s SciLogs page, pointed out, Bohannon’s sting uncovered deeper issues with peer review and editorial processes in general, regardless of publishers’ business models (

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It’s the end of the year, or nearly, and time to start reflecting. It seems a common manifestation of such reflections is to draw up lists. From 50 Most Embarrassing Celebrity Moments! to funniest comedy catchphrases, TV and magazines end up awash with countdowns and collections in December. Even the Telegraph got into the spirit this week with a list of greatest female cartoon characters.

Scientists and policy makers have also been making lists recently. Three to be exact. The first, published in Nature but repeated on the Guardian website, outlined 20 tips to help politicians and policy makers understand science. Then Chris Tyler, Director of the UK’s Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology, responded with 20 things scientists should know about policy making. Finally, Roland Jackson (Sciencewise), produced a trimmed-down list of only twelve points reminding both scientists and policy makers not to forget about the public(s) too.
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A few words on Nelson Mandela

I came home last night to hear the news that Nelson Mandela, former leader of the African National Congress and first black President of South Africa, had passed away at the age of 95.  I am far too young to remember any of the period of Mandela’s incarceration, although I do just about remember his release. Two memories of mine that do stand out vividly from the immediate post-Apartheid era are the seemingly endless queues to vote in the 1994 election and then a year later Mandela cheering like a schoolboy as Francois Pienaar held aloft the Webb Ellis trophy.

Mandela himself said “Let every man be respected as an individual and no man idolized,” but he is a man who is idolised by millions. He was not a perfect man- prone to stubbornness, anger and apparently distant and cold in his private life- failings he could be forgiven after so many years imprisoned.  Yet he was able to rise above, soar even, forgiving those who had oppressed him and in later years breaking with tradition in his criticism of other African leaders and campaigning for HIV/AIDS awareness.  He was truly a man who believed in freedom and equality for all.

Will there be another like Mandela? His death signals the end of that series of great freedom fighters and revolutionaries who dominated the 20th Century. Although we might not be able to replicate what Mandela achieved we can all learn a little from him, a little that can make our lives and the lives of those around us that little bit better.  

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EcoChem Diary

Day 0: Settting up

This week I’m at the EcoChem trade show and conference on green & sustainable chemistry, being held in Basel, Switzerland. The University of Nottingham are sending a team of us out there to showcase our research in this area, which is broader than you might first think.  Our team encompasses researchers from chemistry, engineering and the bio-, pharmaceutical and food sciences, covering technologies such as supercritical fluids, ionic liquids, biofuels, enzymatic catalysis, microwave heating and analytical chemistry.
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Science Policy- the fine line between advice and lobbying

I was fortunate enough to attend a workshop on policy run by the Royal Society of Chemistry and the University of Cambridge’s Centre for Science and Policy (CSaP).  I say fortunate as the workshop was booked out, with sufficient demand to encourage the RSC and CSaP to plan another in the New Year. Clearly, science policy is “in”.
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Should Universities Lead Innovation?

I have been commissioned by University World News to write a piece on the recent review by Sir Andrew Witty (Chief Exec of pharma giant GlaxoSmithKline and Chancellor of the University of Notitngham) on Encouraging a British Invention Revolution.  Witty’s review outlines how he sees the future of innovation in the UK and, critically, places universities at the forefront of wealth creation and economic growth.  I have included a short extract below of the full article which can be found here.

Witty’s report paints the UK as a country that hosts world-leading research expertise within its universities, but which often fails to translate that expertise into economic growth. He is critical of a system he sees as too focused on local growth, leading to duplicated initiatives and a muddled national approach.

Furthermore, he sees universities as being underutilised in developing economic strategies and describes how the opaque research landscape hinders engagement by small and medium-sized enterprises, or SMEs, charities, LEPs and overseas partners.

Not everything is bad – through a number of case studies, Witty highlights existing good practices and his recommendations outline how they can be turned into a national strategy for innovation and economic growth.

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Green Chemistry in the 21st Century

I have contributed to Frank Swain’s (@SciencePunk) Future Exchanges collection on Medium, as part of a collection of essays on the future of environmentalism in the 21st Century. I have included a selection from my post below; the full text can be found here.

“When we think of pharmaceuticals, we probably imagine rows of perfectly formed tablets zipping along production lines, or scientists working in immaculately clean laboratories. We are perhaps less aware of the tonnes of acids and bases, chlorinated solvents and heavy metals that are used to produce our medicines. For every kilogram of drug manufactured, up to a tonne of these chemicals end up as waste; waste that has to be destroyed, stored or disposed of by other means. The fear of litigation is also ever-present, making the industry increasingly wary of using any chemicals that might present a risk to human health. Many pharmaceutical chemists now realise that Green Chemistry not only makes environmental sense, but business sense and 20 years on the industry is seen as a success story.”


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