Celebrating 10 years of Athena SWAN Charter advancing women in science

A scientist performs some tests in a beaker for AIDS research. Photo courtesy of World Bank Photo Collection.

A scientist performs some tests in a beaker for AIDS research. Photo courtesy of World Bank Photo Collection.

By Sara Carvalhal

Gender inequality in science has been in the news lately, particularly around the fall-out of Sir Tim Hunt’s biased comments toward female scientists. Sir Hunt’s comments are not held in isolation, but rather indicate the need for greater efforts to promote gender equality and advance women’s roles in the scientific workplace. The Athena SWAN Charter, signed by the UK 10 years ago as of June 2015, is one such effort that merits recognition. The Athena SWAN charter is a policy designed to establish greater opportunities and representation of women in science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine (STEMM) fields. In recognition of this seminal event, I will take a closer look at how Athena SWAN has worked to better accommodate gender equality in STEMM.

Women are underrepresented in STEMM

In 2002 Patricia Hewitt, the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, was concerned that women were not appropriately represented in science, technology, and engineering (SET). By then, Baroness Susan Greenfield CBE was appointed to examine the representation of women in SET and to advise the UK government on best practices to address the trend of women’s underrepresentation in of women on their scientific path, in both private and public sectors. Baroness Greenfield is a scientist, and by then she was director of Royal Institution, an organization devoted to science education and research.

In this report she concludes: “The problem is not just a social and cultural one, although inequity should be addressed in all its forms, but also economic, and as such cannot be ignored. If Britain is to remain a nation with successful and developing businesses of all sizes, it must make the most of its workforce”.

The British Government recognized that STEMM subjects were an important part of the UK economy, and that women were not adequately represented in STEMM, an issue affecting innovation, economic growth, and productivity. In response to the report, and to promote women’s engagement in STEMM subjects, the Government partnered with non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to launch a series of policies to address issues of women in SET and promote Science & Innovation Investment.

A joint effort to help elevate women in STEMM

In 2005 two organizations, Athena Project and the Scientific Women’s Academic Network (SWAN) signed a charter, known as The Athena SWAN Charter. The main goal of this charter was to reverse the consistent loss of women employed in STEMM.

This charter is particularly novel because it recognizes the achievements in recruiting, retaining or promoting women at each stage of STEMM subjects by an official award.

In general, organizations have been relying on enthusiastic programs based on events, websites and/or handbooks to tackle the problems with retaining and recruiting women in STEMM subjects. The Athena SWAN charter awards institutions that incorporate policies that support the career development of women in STEMM. The official recognition, which can be bronze, silver or gold award based on performance, also functions as (indirect) advertising of an institution’s internal policies.

Any British institution from the private or public sector can become an Athena SWAN member. By signing the charter, the institution promises to take actions to address the six principles of the charter. In summary, all Athena SWAN members should address gender inequalities at all levels of the organization by changing cultures and attitudes. Some key institutional policies can be reviewed to include the use of long-term contracts as opposed to short-term employment. Also, institutions can improve pathways from PhD to a sustainable academic career in science.

Each member has the possibility to submit an application based on a self-assessment and a plan for future actions. A peer review panel evaluates the assessment, and determines how many policies exist to support women in STEMM. Even if an institution is awarded by an official recognition, new assessments are made routinely to ensure that friendly policies towards women progress in STEMM are maintained.

The first awards were presented in 2006. Currently, there are 253 award-holding universities and departments from all 129 Athena SWAN members. This figure represents more than half of all higher education institutions in the UK.

University of Dundee — a bronze Athena SWAN Award

I am a PhD Student at the College of Life Sciences at the University of Dundee in Scotland, a recipient of a bronze award from Athena SWAN. Though we are only at the early stages, I have felt inspired by the significant changes in the academic environment since adopting Athena SWAN policies. The university frequently hosts talks from female and male scientists about their career paths, as well as Q&A sessions where we can address more personal issues. I also feel that departments are more open to hiring women since adopting the charter. The Athena SWAN policies had a significant effect on recruitment of qualified women in science; the number of women applying at SET departments increased almost 10% in a years time after the University of Dundee adopted more flexible working patterns and family-friendly policies. During this period, women who were selected for promotions in the SET departments increased by more than 30%, showing that Athena SWAN policies will lead to measured progress in gender equality in the sciences.

Female scientists have been taking to Twitter to poke fun at Sir Tim Hunt’s comments and bring attention to sexism in science under #distractinglysexy.

Athena SWAN Charter: The first step to changing social norms

When the Athena SWAN Charter was first created, statistics showed that the majority of graduate and post-graduate biology students were women, but less than 10% of these women were present at senior levels in higher education. Through the self-assessments, the national scheme found many women lacked career support between post-doc and tenure tracks, and it is during this period that women drop out of SET careers. This also coincides with the time many women elect to start families, which suggests that STEMM institutions are not adequately accommodating families.

Also, many young scientists believe that it is not feasible to be both a scientist and a mother. Athena SWAN members have helped change this notion by promoting and supporting more flexible working patterns to take care of dependents, including spouses, children and even parents. Athena SWAN members also provide funding for family support programs (e.g. the cost of childcare during a conference or other commitments).

Expanding Athena SWAN Charter to other subjects

Recently, Athena SWAN Charter policies were expanded to 10 key principles. Building on the initial six principles, Athena SWAN members recognize that academia cannot reach its full potential unless it benefits from talents of all individuals. New policies at institutions can be established to address the gender pay gap, and discrimination based on gender identity. Women’s lack of representation in senior roles is not limited to STEMM, women are also underrepresented in senior roles in arts, humanities, social sciences, business, and law (AHSSBL). I believe that these academic disciplines would see measured progress toward gender equality if the principles of the Athena SWANN charter were extended to these professional communities.

Some see the scheme as a feminist, or women-centered movement, and attempt to discredit programs designed to level the playing field. But I believe that by promoting greater equality, the principles of the Athena SWAN Charter works to the benefit of all people.

Official Athena-SWAN Charter: http://www.ecu.ac.uk/

WES (Women’s Engineering Society): http://www-womeninengineering.eng.cam.ac.uk/Athenaswan/history

British Department for Business Innovation & Skills: https://www.gov.uk/government/organisations/department-for-business-innovation-skills

Athena SWAN University of Dundee website: http://www.dundee.ac.uk/hr/athenaswan/

Baroness Greenfield. Set Fair. A Report on Women in SET, 2002. [ONLINE]:

Sarah Hawkes. Report on Athena SWAN Charter for Women in Science, 2011. [ONLINE]:

Joe Cullen, Kerstin Junge, Chris Ramsden. Evaluation of the UK Resource Centre for Women in Science, Engineering and Technology, 2008. [ONLINE]:

The Royal Society, Leading the way: Increasing diversity in the scientific workforce. [ONLINE]:

Alison Kingston-Smith. Wisdom, justice and skill in science, engineering and technology: Are the objectives of the Athena Project mythology? Bulletin The Society for Experimental Biology, March 2008. [ONLINE]:

Category: Academia, PLoS, PLoS Blogs, The Student Blog, Women | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Let’s talk cancer: New live imaging shows how cancer communicates with other cells

Extracellular vesicle carry RNA molecules which carry messages among cells. Photo courtesy of National Institutes of Health, Wired.

Extracellular vesicles carry RNA molecules which may ferry messages among cells. Photo courtesy of National Institutes of Health, Wired.

By Aditi Qamra

The ability to track and observe live cells in the body has offered unprecedented opportunities to the scientific community to understand key biological processes. Until now, reporter systems to track cells, especially in diseases like cancer, have largely been non-specific and difficult to implement. A team led by Dr. Jacco van Rheenen at the Hubrecht Institute in Utrecht, Netherlands became the first in the world to capture high-resolution in-vivo images of cancer cells interacting with other cells in the body. What they observed on film was even more interesting. Cancer cells were capable of transferring “malignancy” to pre-cancerous cells making them behave like malignant cells. The study was published in the journal Cell’s May issue.

How do cancer cells communicate?

Cells in our body, including cancer cells, are known to release small membrane bound sacs called Extracellular Vesicles (EVs) that carry proteins and genetic material in the form of DNA and RNA. These EVs released by the cells can be absorbed in surrounding cells in the body. EVs are known to play a vital role in cell-cell communication and signaling by delivering macromolecular messages. In cancer, many studies had observed transfer of these EVs between tumor cells to other recipient cells. But all of these studies were conducted in controlled culture mediums outside of the true biological microenvironment of tumors.

Rheenen and colleagues used a mouse model injected with highly metastatic breast cancer cells to study the transfer of EVs released from the injected breast cancer cells to the surrounding cells in various stages of malignancy. Cells that took up the cancer cell EV turned green using their reporter system, which was then recorded. They observed that less malignant tumor cells engulfed these released EVs. These cells then displayed high cell migration and metastasis, a well established hallmark of cancer, due to expression of EV-derived messenger RNA. This increased both the motility of recipient cells as well as their ability to spread to other organs. Interestingly, this vesicle transfer occurred both within the same tumor and also between distant ones. The findings implied that cancer cells are also capable of long range interaction and transfer of phenotypic traits; which would mean that metastatic cells of such tumors cannot be treated by alternative therapies (e.g. in chemotherapy resistant localized tumor cells).

The authors of the study also showed that uptake of motility-inducing mRNA were not biased towards faster cells, thus establishing the presence of a fair playground for cells to interact and influence behavior. This not only means that tumors increase their complexity by sharing genetic material, but also offers opportunities to exploit this association. Transferred genetic material could serve as biomarkers to study cancer staging and progression.

This study has come in quick succession of the recent landmark study by Berridge & Neuzil who established mitochondrial DNA movement between cells in breast cancer and melanoma mouse models. Cancer cells lacking mitochondrial DNA obtained it from nearby normal cells, something previously assumed to be impossible. Mitochondrial defects, established in cancer as well as in more than 200 diseases, can now be potentially treated with synthetic mitochondrial DNA targeted to inhibit diseased cells.

Rheenen et. al. uncovered a new vantage point of observing cells and also laid down groundwork of EV-driven cancer therapies. Researchers can now envision possibilities of interfering or inhibiting EV transfer to treat cancer. Cell-cell communication is important for a variety of biological processes — decoding this communication from one cell type to another in the context of the living tissue is the key for understanding disease biology.

For the actual videos of cancer cell EV transfer, you can visit the online manuscript and view the beauty of cell-cell communication for yourself.


  1. Zomer, A. et al. In Vivo imaging reveals extracellular vesicle-mediated phenocopying of metastatic behavior. Cell 161, 1046-57 (2015).
  2. O’Brien, K. et al. Exosomes from triple-negative breast cancer cells can transfer phenotypic traits representing their cells of origin to secondary cells. Eur J Cancer 49, 1845-59 (2013).
  3. Hanahan, D. & Weinberg, R.A. The hallmarks of cancer. Cell 100, 57-70 (2000).
  4. Hanahan, D. & Weinberg, R.A. Hallmarks of cancer: the next generation. Cell 144, 646-74 (2011).
  5. Tan, A.S. et al. Mitochondrial genome acquisition restores respiratory function and tumorigenic potential of cancer cells without mitochondrial DNA. Cell Metab 21, 81-94 (2015).
  6. Tuppen, H.A., Blakely, E.L., Turnbull, D.M. & Taylor, R.W. Mitochondrial DNA mutations and human disease. Biochim Biophys Acta 1797, 113-28 (2010).
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Just Skin Deep — Your Immune System at the Surface

The skin is the human body’s largest organ. At 1.8 square meters for the average adult, skin covers about as much area as a large closet, and accounts for 12-15% of total body weight. The incredible variation in skin — oily, moist, or dry, exposed to light and cold, or dark and warm — even on an individual, creates unique habitats for the thousands of bacterial and fungal species (called commensal microbiota) that live on our skin. The skin immune system may control skin microbes, but our skin commensals can also educate our immune system. How our skin orchestrates this dialogue with microorganisms and physical insult is integral to its function, and to our health.

The skin is an immunologic organ. There are an estimated 20 billion T cells in human skin — far greater than the number of T cells in the blood — suggesting that immune defense in the skin is a high priority. The interaction among skin microorganisms and the immune system is likely not adversarial most of the time. Interestingly, the incidence of inflammatory skin conditions like atopic dermatitis in children has about doubled in the last thirty years, in parallel with the decreased exposure to microorganisms in early life.

How we understand the dynamic interactions among microbes and immune cells in human skin will have important implications not only for the treatment of autoimmune disorders, skin allergies, and skin malignancies, but also for the creation of better vaccine adjuvants exploiting skin immunity.

Major Players in the Skin Immune Landscape

Human skin is home to not only T cells and microorganisms, but also to a diverse group of cells with innate or innate-like functions. These include keratinocytes and Langerhans cells in the epidermis, and dermal dendritic cells, macrophages, and innate lymphoid cells in the dermis (Figure 1). While much work up to this point has elucidated the individual roles of these cells, describing how the total interactions among these cells maintain health or dysfunction in disease, will shape the ongoing skin research dialogue.

Keratinocytes are the major cell type that makes up the epidermis, and while not of myeloid or lymphoid origin, play important immune defense roles. Keratinocytes produce some antimicrobial peptides that control resident microorganisms on the skin, and also express some pattern recognition receptors, like toll-like receptors, that allow the activation of this cell type upon pathogen recognition or cell damage. Keratinocytes can produce pro-inflammatory cytokines to activate its neighbor, the Langerhans cell.

Langerhans cells are the first immune cells that any skin-invading pathogen or commensal will come in contact with, and are also activated in response to cell damage and UV light. Langerhans cells are the primary antigen-presenting cell in the epidermis, and are identified by the receptor Langerin, and the lipid-presenting molecule CD1a in humans. CD1a is highly abundant in human skin on Langerhans cells and dermal dendritic cells, and has been shown to bind skin oils and engage reactive T cells. Mice lack this antigen-presentation molecule, however, and the functional significance of CD1a in human skin is continuing to be explored by scientists.

just skin deep

Figure 1. Immune cells in the skin occupy distinct locations and functional roles. Figure created by Rachel Cotton, adapted from Pasparakis M et al, 2014

Dermal dendritic cells. A skin dendritic cell “samples” its surroundings, picking up antigen from a damaged cell, a pathogen, or a commensal microorganism, and then traveling to the skin-draining lymph node. There, the dendritic cell activates and instructs T lymphocytes to come back to the skin and carry out functions like secreting cytokines. There are several distinct dendritic cell subsets in the epidermis and dermis, but the DCs that seem to have the best-defined roles so far, are the CD141+ DCs and CD1c+ DCs. Interestingly, these subsets are relatively functionally equivalent in humans and in mice. The CD141+ DCs in humans, are best at migrating and presenting antigen to T cells in the draining lymph node. These DCs are also good “cross-presenters” meaning that these cells can also process and present exogenous antigen to CD8 T cells, which are abundant in the epidermis. The CD1c+ dendritic cell subset rather is better at “turning on” CD4+ T helper cells in the dermis. The CD1c+ DCs can produce a broad range of cytokines that fine-tune the T cell immune response in the skin. These cells have also been reported to induce T regulatory cells, which would help maintain tolerance to commensal skin microorganisms. Dermal dendritic cells are the key “middle men” between sensing commensal microbes and instructing a T cell response.

Skin-resident T cells.  The skin is home to roughly 20 billion T cells, making it the largest reservoirs of T cells in the body. The hallmark of T lymphocytes is their specificity and memory for a given antigen. While the skin dendritic cell populations are generally functionally equivalent between humans and mice, skin T cell populations differ considerably between mice and man, limiting the conclusions we can draw from mouse studies.

In human skin, T cells are described on several metrics: expression of CD4 (T helper cells) or CD8 (Cytotoxic T lymphocytes), if they stay put in the skin or migrate to and from the skin, what cytokines they produce, their T cell receptor (innate-like, αβ or γδ), and how they behave during health and disease. Greater than 95% percent of T cells in the skin have a “memory” phenotype, meaning that these cells have already experienced their cognate antigen, and are poised to rapidly respond to that antigen again. On the other hand, this site-specific memory means that misdirected T cell responses during autoimmune disease cause skin lesions that, even after treatment, recur in the same place.

CD8+ T cells, also known as cytotoxic T lymphocytes (Tc), live almost exclusively in the human epidermis, presumably to rapidly respond to viral infection or tissue damage. CD4+ T cells, called T helper (Th) cells, reside predominantly in the dermis and carry out a variety of effector functions. Both CD4+ and CD8+ T cells can produce key cytokines that mediate skin health or disease, like IL-17 (produced by Th17 or Tc17 cells), IL-22 (produced by Th22 or Tc22 cells), IFNγ (produced by Th1 cells), and IL-10, among others. The cells that exclusively produce IL-22 (Tc22 and Th22 cells) are unique to humans, and are hugely expanded in psoriasis. This overproduction of IL-22 activates epithelial cells and contributes to the red and flaky skin characteristic of psoriasis. A population of CD4+ cells called T regulatory cells (Tregs) on the other hand, help to limit inflammation in the skin, by the production of IL-10 and TGF-β.

The beauty of T lymphocytes is their specificity and memory for a given antigen. Interestingly, the T cell receptor repertoire of human skin is restricted — meaning that there are fewer unique T cell receptors — relative to blood, despite the large cell number. A major question that remains is the cognate antigens for these cells. Do these cells respond to a protein or lipid from a commensal microorganism? A self antigen? Recently, αβ T cells that recognize the human lipid antigen presenting molecule CD1a and some skin oils were found to home to skin, and are relatively common events in human skin and blood. These cells point to a new mechanism of antigen recognition and skin immunity which is still being explored. Other innate-like T cells that have a defined or restricted TCR and antigen, like Natural Killer T cells, are also found in human skin, but their function and roles in skin homeostasis and inflammation are continuing to be understood.

Innate lymphoid cells (ILCs) are cells of lymphoid origin like T cells, but they lack a T cell receptor and therefore lack the ability to respond to a specific cognate antigen. ILCs are rare, but potent, cells residing in the dermis and subcutaneous fat that orchestrate tissue homeostasis and inflammation. ILCs are divided into three groups based on what cytokines they produce, parallel to how CD4 T helper cells are classified. Group 1 ILCs preferentially produce the pro-inflammatory cytokines TNFa and IFNy, whereas group 2 ILCs produce the type 2 cytokines IL-4, IL-5, and IL-13 and are involved in allergy and immunity to helminths. Group 2 ILCs are the predominant ILCs in the human dermis. Group 3 ILCs produce IL-17 and IL-22 and are enriched in psoriatic skin compared to normal skin, suggesting that they play a role in pathology. It was recently demonstrated in the gut however, that group 3 ILCs are responsible for the negative selection of T lymphocytes that recognize gut commensal microbes. The distinct roles of ILCs in human skin at homeostasis and in skin diseases are active areas of research.

The Skin Microbiome and Immunity

The incredible variation in skin at different sites on the human body creates unique habitats for the over 1000 bacterial and fungal species – called commensal microbiota – that live on our skin. Human skin commensals have been extensively characterized in recent years by 16s rRNA sequencing with the Human Microbiome Project and human skin sites surveys, revealing striking site-specific microbial signatures depending on physical factors like oiliness, dampness, and exposure to sunlight. In other words, skin commensals on the bottom of your foot are a completely different population from the commensals on your forearm, which look completely different from the microbiota populations on your face.

just skin deep

Photo credit: Skin Microbiome Blog

Commensal microbes in general have been proposed to promote skin immunity by inducing a basal level of immune activation, mediated by IL-1, that protects against other infections. Indeed, skin studies in mouse models have demonstrated that skin microbiota can modulate skin-resident T cell populations. For example, Staphylococcus epidermidis (S. epi) colonization of mouse epidermis leads to the accumulation of Tc17 T cells in the epidermis that are protective against fungal infection. However, injection of this S. epi into the dermis results in inflammation and a visible wound, underscoring that for the mammalian skin immune system, location of a microbe matters.

In humans, changes in skin microbiota also track with skin diseases. For example, Staphylococcus aureus has been associated with atopic dermatitis flares in children. It is tempting to speculate that skin pathologies that show a predilection for certain tissue sites, like atopic dermatitis in the creases of the elbows and knees, are in part driven by the unique microbial signature at that site, or a shift in the population at that site.


The skin is packed with immune cells, in constant dialogue with commensal microorganisms that live on us and in us. There is still a lot to be understood about how specific microbes shape the skin immune system, how and why we are “tolerant” to our skin microorganisms in health, and how immune responses to these microorganisms contribute to skin disease.

Understanding how immune cells function diverse skin environments with distinct microbial communities will have implications for the treatment of inflammatory skin diseases, skin cancers, and the creation of vaccine adjuvants that take advantage of the unique qualities of human skin-resident immunity.

For more updates on the interactions among skin bacteria and your immune system from dermatologists, immunologists, and microbiologists, check out the Skin Microbiome Blog at skinmicrobiome.wordpress.com.

Rachel Cotton is a PhD student in the Immunology Program at Harvard, and is interested in global health and science policy. Her past research includes how parasites modulate skin immunity. Follow her on Twitter @RachCotton.

Category: Biology, Blog Pick of the Month, Body, Medicine, PLoS, PLoS Blogs, ResearchBlogging, Student Column, Students, The Student Blog | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Scientists Behaving Badly (On Social Media)

By Brett Buttliere

Operant conditioning is well established and suggests individuals will continue behavior that is rewarded (for instance with favorites, retweets, or replies).  Image courtesy of Psychology Notes Headquarters.

Operant conditioning is well established and suggests individuals will continue behavior that is rewarded (for instance with favorites, retweets, or replies). Image courtesy of Psychology Notes Headquarters.

It is generally undisputed that Twitter and other social information exchange websites are changing the landscape of science and communication. The value that these platforms offer is probably best evidenced by how much time the average user spends on them. For example, the average Twitter user is on the site 14 minutes per day, while the average Facebook user spends more than 55 minutes per day on the site .

While Twitter and Facebook have mostly been touted as a most excellent tool for discovering new literature and collaborations, it is frustrating when scientists are personally attacking one another, rather than actually debating the scientific ideas, on social media.

Though this aspect of these services has been talked about far less, some have begun asking for civility. You can see my own pleas on Facebook and on Twitter.

The goal here is to more officially and explicitly point out that these problems exist and to suggest some ways by which we can solve these problems for the improvement of all involved.

The problem
It is far too often that discussions between scientists break down into petty debate about how an idea is expressed, or where it is expressed, rather than the idea itself. The practice does not seem to be limited to any single field, as I have seen it everywhere (just look in your own newsfeed and you will find examples of this).

The problem is that attacking how, or where, an individual expressed an idea is not a good argument; these are #AcademicAdHominems and one of the fallacies of irrelevance. Attacking the individual expressing the idea is neither constructive nor productive, and I would go so far as to say that they are actually harmful to the scientific social media “environment”. Unfortunately, these tweets are oftentimes the ones getting the most discussion!

Though I know of no strong research on this relationship in academic Twitter thus far (I am working toward it, please email or comment if you know of one or want to help!), there are other examples from the literature that are suggestive of this notion. For instance, it has been shown that the longest discussions in the BBC forums are generally the most negative and that the most active users are also the most negative. It has also been shown that negative reviews of books and movies are longer and contain (subjectively rated) more useful information for readers, with readers even reading more negative reviews. See here and here.

There are arguments to be made that negative information is more useful than positive information, especially in science; but I would say there are there are at least three reasons why this sort of discourse is a problem for science:

  1. It hinders the discussion’s progress, distracting from the real (scientific) issues.
  2. It deters others from joining the discussion, because they are afraid of speaking up.
  3. It sets a bad precedent for others who do join on how to discuss productively.

Science is not politics. It is not the media industry. I believe science has a responsibility, as the greatest endeavor humans have ever taken part in, to do better by being better, more effective, communicators.

Probably the main thing is to remember that we are setting a behavioral example for everyone else, all of the time. It is important that the ‘leaders’ of the community set a good example from the beginning, rather than trying to go back and fix the bad norms later.

We can solve these problems… by using science!

I don’t think it’s useful to just complain about something without putting forward a potential solution to the problem. Here the main thing is that we can apply scientific theory, especially Psychology, to optimally understand the problems in science communication (on social media), and to design the most effective solutions.

Although the application of psychological science to the process of science has been happening in small ways for some time, it is starting to happen to a greater extent and applying more fundamental theories to the process, rather than demonstrating problems.

For instance, one of the basic tenants of Psychological Science is Operant Conditioning; the idea that individuals will repeat and continue a behavior that is rewarded. Humans are intelligent, and people (at least unconsciously) recognize that they are getting favorites, retweets, and replies for being mean or petty. We see this playing out in real time on Twitter. Even a week later Taleb’s prejudgements of Psychology are still being favorites and retweets, and I am still talking about Gilbert’s faux pas, even though it happened over a year ago.

There are many ways to apply science to the situation, but here, I will make three suggestions that are relatively well established in the literature.

  1. Notice this behavior in your own tweets. Nobody is perfect, but we can all work to reduce the number of times we attack the scientist instead of the science. Recognize that people are taking cues as to how to act from you, and if you are not a good example, you are a bad example.
  2. Notice #AcademicAdHominems in other researcher’s tweets, and be intentional with your Twitter behavior.This behavior is often not undertaken without reason, so pay attention to why this individual is engaging in this behavior: Is it because the person finds it easier to disparage the person rather than their viewpoints? Is it due to jealousy (for instance after a PLOS article gets featured or a paper published in Nature)? Could they be trying to impress another by ridiculing a common enemy? There are numerous reasons for this suboptimal behavior and understanding the motivations can help us inform our response.
  3. Be a constructive, positive, example. You are an example for others and others are taking cues on how to behave from you.

This is not always easy, but the research suggests that ridicule is simply not the most effective persuasion. To quote a recently published review of the literature on the subject, the most important antecedents for effective and persuasive online communication are: ‘argument quality, source credibility, source attractiveness, source perception and source style’.

Overall, it seems like the best way to convince another person of your idea or suggestion is to state the idea so simply and clearly that they wonder how they ever thought differently. This may not get the most favorites or retweets right now, but if we all are good examples, it will improve scientific discourse on social media.

The bottom line is that your scientific arguments should be able to speak for themselves, without needing to attack where, how, or who expressed the idea.

Have some thoughts about how science could be applied to improve science? I would very much enjoy hearing about it! Let’s talk below, on Twitter @BrettButtliere, or email me at brettbuttliere@gmail.com. You can read more of my writing on using science to improve science here or more general thoughts here.

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Gilbert, D. [DanTGilbert]. (2014, May 24). Psychology’s replication police prove to be shameless little bullies: http://www.psychol.cam.ac.uk/cece/blog (corrected link). Retrieved from https://twitter.com/dantgilbert/status/470199929626193921

Stanford University, [Psychology Everywhere]. (2012, August, 28). Bandura’s Bobo doll experiment. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dmBqwWlJg8U

Teng, S., Wei Khong, K., Wei Goh, W., & Yee Loong Chong, A. (2014). Examining the antecedents of persuasive eWOM messages in social media. Online Information Review, 38(6), 746-768. http://www.emeraldinsight.com/doi/full/10.1108/OIR-04-2014-0089

Updated 6/2/15; 3:28: title changed; previously “Academic Ad Hominems & other Problems with Science in Social Media (& how to fix them)”

Category: Academia, Inside Knowledge, PLoS, PLoS Blogs, science journalism, Social Media, Social Media, Social networks, The scientific-industrial complex, The Student Blog | Tagged , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

It’s time for universities to rethink what counts as field school

Excavation of Roman villa. Photo courtesy of Capture the Uncapturable on Flickr.

Excavation of Roman villa. Photo courtesy of Capture the Uncapturable on Flickr.

By Liam Zachary

Field school season is approaching for anthropology and earth science undergraduate students, and while some students have already enrolled in an exciting field school program, many are still scrambling to find a spot, and even more students are priced out of the experience altogether.

Field schools in archaeology, geology, palaeontology, and other fields of anthropology and earth science were initially envisioned to complement classroom and lab-based undergraduate science instruction, but today field school is a luxury for students. As the cost of undergraduate education continues to rise, especially in the United States, it has become more difficult for some students to justify attending field school instead of taking a summer job or paid internship. I believe universities need to do more to support student field training, which has tremendous benefits for the professional and academic development of students. Many undergraduate students share my experience of first connecting with a subject of passion while working in the field, which can shape the trajectory for future research careers.

My field school experience

My first experience with archaeological field work was during an internship at the University of California, Santa Cruz (UCSC) campus during my senior year in 2013. We excavated a portion of the Cowell Limeworks on weekends for 10 weeks. The limeworks was in use during the 19th and early 20th century.

Though my field work experience began in essentially UCSC’s own backyard, my field work experiences have taken me around the world. After graduating from UCSC, I attended Zamartze Mortuary Archaeology field school in Navarra, Spain. We excavated burials from a medieval church cemetery for three weeks. In 2014, during my MSc I excavated a medieval hospital cemetery and a Merovingian settlement in the Netherlands. Working at these archaeological sites catalyzed my interest in bioarchaeology, the study of human remains from archaeology sites. Beforehand, I was unsure what I wanted to specialize in within archaeology. Field school reinforced my interest in bioarchaeology, and today, I am pursuing a PhD in the subject.

Why is field school important?

My professors reiterated that field school is the most important experience for an archaeology undergraduate student, but the coursework at universities does not reflect this sentiment. In field schools, students receive practical training in their discipline, and also meet students from other universities who are also passionate about the subject. Field schools enable students to develop practical skills, such as archaeological excavation or geologic survey, which cannot be learned in the classroom. Finally, field schools connect undergraduate students with early career scientists and senior faculty for mentorship. I would suggest students looking for a traditional academic field school experience visit the Institute for Field Research (IFR) ]. IFR also offers two types of field school scholarships, one that is merit based and one that is based on financial need.

Field schools have many benefits, but are also prohibitively expensive. University field schools can cost more than US$3000, which equates to more than a semester of tuition at some state colleges in the United States.

The public university system was designed to make education affordable and accessible to all students. I am troubled that field schools are not integrated in the public higher education system, when so many professionals identify fieldwork training as critical to success. Many students receive significant financial aid to attend university, but Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) will not fund summer field schools. The lack of financial aid means the field school system is only accessible to students who can afford to pay the fees out-of-pocket, limiting the experience to students who can afford the fees. Consequently, students from low-income backgrounds are less likely to pursue an education in science disciplines where field training is crucial. Until universities make field schools part of the curriculum in anthropology and earth sciences, many bright students will be discouraged from pursuing this discipline.

Fortunately, there are affordable alternatives to university-organized field schools, but they are not well publicized to students.

Passport in Time (PIT): An alternative to field school

Passport in Time (PIT) is a volunteer archaeology and historic preservation program of the United States Forest Service. Volunteers work with Forest Service archaeologists and historians on projects in National Forests nationwide. PIT projects are free for volunteers and housing (usually camping) is provided. Today, there are two exciting PIT projects with openings for students, the Hudson-Meng Bison Bone Bed Interpretation Project and a dinosaur fossil project in South Dakota.

There are three overlapping sessions from June to September 2015, with three openings per session, in the Hudson-Meng Project. The Hudson-Meng Education and Research Center (HMEC) is open to the public, and hosts university field schools during the summer months. HMEC is looking for PIT volunteers to work during the summer field season to educate the general public about a variety of topics relating to the site, and volunteers are tasked with designing interactive materials for the general public on these topics. The volunteers will also help to develop education materials about Hudson-Meng for local public K-12 schools. If you are interested you can apply on the project page on the PIT website. The project can sponsor undergraduate or graduate students who would like to earn academic credits by completing an independent internship.

Another PIT project with openings is a dinosaur fossil-hunting project on the Nebraska National Forest in South Dakota. The project is searching for more fossils Mosasaurs and Plesiosaurs in a Late Cretaceous sea bed. PIT volunteers along with the Forest Service will help with surface survey and limited excavation led by a graduate student. Volunteers will also receive training on how to document finds. The project starts the week of July 13, and applications for one of the 15 spots are due by June 8 2015.

Though PIT offers great programs for students, there are not enough projects to shore up the need for additional financial support for students to attend field schools. Therefore, it is imperative that universities make field schools more affordable and accessible by incorporating them into the curriculum.

Student Resources Listed in Post
Institute for Field Research: https://www.ifrglobal.org/
Passport in Time: http://www.passportintime.com/

Larsen, CS 2000. A view on science: physical anthropology at the millennium. Am J Phys Anthropol 111:1–4.

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The Journal: The Instrument that Shapes Science and Academia

Anna Gielas traces the history of the journal, and it's essential role in research and scholarship. Image courtesy of Tom Blackwell, Flickr.

Anna Gielas traces the history of the journal, and it’s essential role in research and scholarship. Image courtesy of Tom Blackwell, Flickr.

By Anna Gielas

No matter whether you study medicine or biology, law or art, neuroscience or history — there is one instrument that we all share: the journal. Learned journals play a pivotal role in science and academia. Publishing in scholarly periodicals disseminates our insights and bolsters scientific communities. It propels careers and fosters knowledge. And if this knowledge can be applied practically, then the academic journal renders a service to society.

But why does all this happen specifically through the journal? Why not through newspapers, newsletters, catalogues, tables, graphs, a collection of abstracts, private correspondence, pamphlets or monographs? When I pose these questions to academics of different disciplines and career stages, I usually receive the same answer: “Probably because the journal has been more efficient than these alternatives.” But who has made it more efficient and how? Who has deemed it more efficient and why? In short: how did the academic journal become such an essential part of our professional lives? The answer is simple: we do not know. At the core of our scientific and scholarly endeavor we find the journal — and we cannot explain why.

The history of the academic journal is tricky. I already need to be careful when using the term “academic journal”: at the time when first learned periodicals appeared, the pursuit of insight and knowledge took place in a fundamentally different framework than it does today. Back then, the periodical had but a few links to universities. If we want to understand the historical development of the journal, we need to understand the development of science and academia — and a myriad of other elements such as the evolution of publishing technology and postal services.

The saintly approach

Historians of science have already disentangled some parts of the journal’s history and established several milestones. We know, for example, that the earliest learned periodicals appeared in the second half of the seventeenth century. They were not celebrated as helpful innovation. Instead they met some skepticism, both within and without scholarly communities. The German journal Acta Eruditorum (1682 – 1782), for example, ended up on the Catholic Church’s Index of Prohibited Books.

To appease ecclesiastical authorities, some of Acta‘s avid proponents argued that scientific editing had commenced with Saint Photios the Great (c. 810 – c. 893). As the leader of the Eastern Orthodox Church and a central thinker of the Byzantine Renaissance, Photios I seemed the common denominator between the men of church and the men of science. But the Germans had little luck with their claim: Acta appeared on the Index for (at least) 72 consecutive years.

Despite clerical disapproval, Acta‘s editors established a fine balance. On the one hand, they selected content that would prompt neither ecclesiastical nor secular powers to forbid the publication for good. On the other hand, they managed to make the contents so worthwhile that men of science throughout Europe would laud the publication.

We could assume that once the learned journal was introduced, its popularity would slowly increase. But for almost 100 years there was not much interest to publish more such periodicals. The interplay of reasons causing this apparent hiatus have not been established yet. There is currently also no explanation for why journals started to burgeon in the 1770s — and have, apart from some minor interruptions, been doing so ever since.

We are currently learning more and more about the peer review, which was formally introduced in the 1830s. It became a required gateway for the Philosophical Transactions, the oldest science journal still in print (f.1665). We cannot rule out the possibility that some editors used peer review at an earlier point. But we can say for sure that this practice did not commence with the first journals in the seventeenth century. Every procedure surrounding the scientific periodical and each of its elements — including the articles, footnotes, reviews, and abstracts — evolved over time.

Into the unknown

The scientific journal has been — like every other invention — a malleable instrument whose development is marked by trial and error. These errors could mean financial ruin and devastation. During 300 years since the first science journals came out, merely a few commercial editors made notable wins instead of losses. Periodicals that, in turn, were edited by learned societies—like the Philosophical Transactions published by the Royal Society — tended to be in the red. Oftentimes these journals were not supposed to bring in profit but prestige. By publishing the most important findings and announcing inventions, a society could assert its central role in the scientific endeavor. Other editors had different incentives. Editing a journal could for example secure the attention of a future patron, someone who would finance the editor’s research. Or, as was the case in eighteenth-century Germany, authorities took notice of learned periodicals and recruited their editors for civil service.

Since then, some reasons for editing academic journals have changed drastically, while some motives have remained unaltered. One of the latter is the wish to contribute to science. Last year, more than 90,000 PLOS volunteers reviewed 33,000 articles. PLOS currently publishes seven journals. To put things in perspective: these are seven out of 30,000 peer-reviewed journals world-wide. I wish to learn how we have created this unique and intricate communication system — and why we have endowed it with so much power.


William Clark: Academic Charisma and the Origins of the Research University. University of Chicago Press, 2007.

Aileen Fyfe: Journals and Periodicals. In:A Companion to the History of Science, edited by Bernard Lightman, Wiley/Blackwell, 2015.

Index Librorum Prohibitorum. Nabu Press, 2010.

David Kronick: History of Scientific and Technical Periodicals: The Origins and Development of the Scientific and Technical Press, 1665-1790, Scarecrow Press, 1962.

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WHO will lead and who will pay? The World Health Organization, Ebola and the future of global health

Dr Margaret Chan, WHO Director-General addresses during the 67th World Health Assembly, Palais des Nations, Geneva. Monday 19 May 2014. Photo by Violaine Martin

Dr. Margaret Chan, WHO Director-General addresses the UN during the 67th World Health Assembly, Palais des Nations, Geneva. Monday 19 May 2014. Photo by Violaine Martin

By Andreas Vilhelmsson
When the Ebola virus disease epidemic hit West Africa in late 2013, nobody could imagine that just a year and a half later it will have caused more than 11,000 deaths and be declared a threat to international peace and security. The outbreak overwhelmed the world. Building on this experience, the World Health Organization (WHO) recently announced that it would create a new programme for health emergencies, uniting outbreak and emergency resources. Dr. Margaret Chan, the Director-General of the WHO,  announced plans to complete these changes by the end of the year in her opening speech at the Sixty-eighth World Health Assembly. Chan is also calling for a new US$100 million contingency fund to finance the health emergency programme.

This announcement was a direct response to the harsh criticism of weak leadership the Organization received in the aftermath of the outbreak. Among other things, the WHO has faced criticism for the slow international response to the epidemic and a weak leadership overall. One of the strongest critical voices belonged to Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) who referred to “a vacuum of leadership” in the WHO, leaving them to deal with the Ebola virus in West Africa almost single-handedly — a virus that WHO should have been fighting.

A fragmented budget
The global scale of the Ebola outbreak, argue Gostin and Friedman in a recent article in the Lancet, is the type of moment for which the WHO was created. But instead, the Ebola crisis revealed fragile national health systems and a fragmented global health response system, with WHO falling short of its leadership responsibilities.

But does this really come as a surprise?

Today, only 25 percent of WHO’s biennial programme budget comes from assessed contributions, while the remainder comes from voluntary funds that are largely restricted for purposes specified by donors. In the wake of the global financial crisis, the Organization has been forced to endure austerity cuts and most of its budget now depends on these voluntary contributions. The truth is that WHO is inadequately funded to deal with threats like Ebola.

And here is the catch with the WHO-proposed contingency fund. The call for US$100 million may sound good, but it will be financed by flexible voluntary contributions. Funding by flexible voluntary contributions raises concerns if it will actually raise the money needed in the end, or if it will falter under the obligatory promises donors make when they are in the spotlight. Competition for donor funds between the WHO Health Emergency Programme and other global commitments is a real possibility. For example, the COP21 climate summit in Paris in December is approaching, and the need for new donor pledges to reach a global climate deal. Despite the new health emergency programme, Ebola still risks becoming “yesterday’s news”.

Public-Private Partnerships
The contingency fund will also be built on partnerships with other organizations, ranging from UN agencies or NGOs like MSF. Today, these different collaborative efforts are often formalized in a large number of public-private partnerships (PPPs). These partnerships may be formed by cooperation between the global health sector (e.g. WHO) and NGOs (e.g. MSF) in dealing with health emergencies like Ebola, but can also involve private organizations in an effort to raise large amounts of financial resources for a particular disease or cause (e.g. Gavi). In some cases, the latter kind of PPP can turn out to be problematic, and is sometimes quite accurately described as a double-edged sword.

Though many PPPs have the advantage of funding and can also be cost-effective, oftentimes, the private sector and public health sector have different priorities and implementation practices. Private sector involvement in international health may skew the global community’s prioritization of issues and interventions, which may be questionable from a public health perspective. An example would be the prioritization of communicable diseases like HIV/AIDS and malaria in the global health space, which lead to non-communicable diseases and the social determinants of health receiving less resources in spite of their heavy burden.

The importance of trust
The global health architecture is far more complex today than it was only 10-15 years ago. The bureaucratic complexity of the WHO may hamper the will of Member States to involve the Organization in global health projects, and many will instead try to bypass it. For example, it was recently announced that the United States and the African Union (AU) signed a Memorandum of Cooperation to support the establishment of an African Center for Disease Control (CDC) Unit with the help and technical expertise of the United States CDC. The Lancet notes that the press releases about this venture fail to mention any WHO involvement, something that could indicate a lack of confidence in WHO policy-making and implementation capacities.

I believe that public health is all about trust, and the WHO need to regain the trust of the international community. Gostin and Friedman see the tragic Ebola epidemic as a window of opportunity to build a robust, universal global health system, once and for all. They propose a new global health framework, with strong national systems at its foundation and an empowered WHO and well-coordinated funding supporting the health of member states. Achieving this system requires a change in the budget allocations concerning voluntary and assessed contributions, and a WHO with more budget control. An empowered WHO ought to have the capacity to be a guardian of global health, but this mission will require sufficient funding.

The bottom line is this. If we want to live in a world capable of dealing with global health emergencies, like SARS and Ebola, we need to pay for it. 2015 is a seminal year for global health, marking 70 years since World War II, and the WHO’s establishment, and new opportunities to achieve health for all under Sustainable Development Goal 3.2 (SDGs). Seven decades have passed, but we must not forgot why the WHO was set up in the first place:

The health of all people is fundamental to the attainment of peace and security and is dependent upon the fullest co-operation of individuals and States.


World Health Organization. Media Centre. Sixty-eight World Health Assembly opens in Geneva. [ONLINE] Available http://www.who.int/mediacentre/news/releases/2015/wha-18-may-2015/en/ [Accessed 18 May 2015]

WHO Director-General’s speech at the Sixty-eighth World Health Assembly
18 May 2015 [ONLINE] Available http://www.who.int/dg/speeches/2015/68th-wha/en/
[Accessed 21 May 2015]

Médecins Sans Frontières. Report. Pushed to the limit and beyond. A year into the largest ever Ebola outbreak 2015. Available http://www.msf.org/article/ebola-pushed-limit-and-beyond [Accessed 23 March 2015]

Gostin LO & Friedman EA (2015) A retrospective and prospective analysis of the west African Ebola virus disease epidemic: robust national health systems at the foundation and an empowered WHO at the apex. Lancet 385:1902-1909.

World Health Organization. Sixty-eight World Health Assembly. Provincial agenda item 16.1. A68/25 [ONLINE] Available http://apps.who.int/gb/ebwha/pdf_files/WHA68/A68_25-en.pdf [Accessed 8 May 2015]

The Lancet (2015) The African CDC and WHO AFRO. Lancet 385:1592.

WHO. WHO Constitution. [ONLINE] Available http://whqlibdoc.who.int/hist/official_records/constitution.pdf [Accessed 18 May 2015]

Category: Global Health, Global Health Systems, Health, MSF, The Student Blog | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Reflections on using Deep Brain Stimulation (DBS) to treat neuropsychiatric disorders

Deep brain stimulation (DBS) has been used to treat diverse neuropsychiatric disorders, ranging from Parkinson's Disease to OCD. Image courtesy of Saad Faruque.

Deep brain stimulation (DBS) has been used to treat diverse neuropsychiatric disorders, ranging from Parkinson’s Disease to OCD. Image courtesy of Saad Faruque.

By Daniel Albaugh

One of my most fascinating experiences as a doctoral student of neuroscience began with an early morning trip to the university hospital. Upon arrival, my laboratory colleagues and I met with one of the clinical neurologists, who introduced us to a patient suffering from advanced Parkinson’s Disease. Medications were no longer working effectively, and the patient’s motor symptoms were severe and debilitating. The day that we arrived, the patient was to have electrodes implanted deep into the brain circuitry that was misbehaving in his disease, the first step in a revolutionary therapeutic approach known as deep brain stimulation (DBS).

What is Deep Brain Stimulation?

DBS is an increasingly well-utilized therapeutic tool for many neurological diseases, predominantly movement disorders. With this therapy, high frequency electrical stimulation is chronically delivered to a target brain region, powered by a battery source implanted near the patient’s clavicle. In Parkinson’s Disease, the effects of DBS can be dramatic and immediate — resting tremors (shakiness at rest) dissolve, rigid muscles loosen, and many more benefits may be immediately observed.  Although the mechanisms of action are poorly understood, DBS therapy works well when targeted to brain regions in which surgical lesions are also effective. This may suggest that DBS acts to provide a “functional lesion” in brain circuitry, with the added benefits of being reversible and modifiable. If the therapy doesn’t work, or side effects are intolerable, clinicians can try to adjust the stimulation parameters, or as a last step, remove the electrodes.

Not Just for Movement Disorders

An early hint that DBS therapy would be useful in treating other types of brain disorders came in a small case report published in 2002 by Mallett and colleagues, describing two patients that received DBS for Parkinson’s Disease. In addition to their Parkinson’s, these patients suffered from a neuropsychiatric disease termed Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD). OCD is characterized by recurring, unwanted obsessions and compulsions (e.g., excessive hand-washing, other ritualistic behaviors), symptoms that can be incredibly debilitating and prevent many sufferers from engaging in everyday tasks. Standard treatments for OCD include medication and psychotherapy, which generally work well together to treat disease symptoms. But in a substantial number of cases, these therapies are ineffective.

Mallet’s patients were unable to alleviate their OCD symptoms through medication and psychotherapy, but after using DBS to treat their Parkinson’s Disease, the stimulation came with an unexpected and much-desired side effect — alleviation of their OCD symptoms. According to one patient, the decrease in OCD symptoms was even more satisfying than the alleviation of Parkinson’s symptoms.

Although psychosurgical approaches have a long and contentious history in neuropsychiatry, reports such as this one rekindled enthusiasm for surgical interventions in otherwise treatment-resistant psychiatric patients. Clinical trials for neuropsychiatric DBS therapy have exploded, with a large number of brain targets and diseases under investigation. In 2009, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the standard clinical use of DBS therapy in treatment-refractory OCD patients, under a Humanitarian Device Exemption Act.

Challenges and Opportunities for Neuropsychiatric DBS Therapy

The challenges associated with DBS therapy are not trivial, particularly for neuropsychiatric diseases. One of the major associated hurdles concerns the identification of optimal therapeutic targets and stimulation parameters (e.g., voltage and frequency). When I shadowed a DBS electrode implantation surgery in a Parkinson’s Disease patient, I noticed that he was kept awake (only lightly sedated) throughout the entire procedure. Although there are no pain receptors in brain, this was surely an uncomfortable experience. However, by being awake, he could provide feedback about how the DBS stimulation tests were working, guiding the final electrode placement deep in the brain. With optimal electrode positioning, the motor symptoms in a Parkinson’s patient may be instantaneously alleviated by DBS. Similarly, stimulation parameters can be readily altered to optimize therapeutic efficacy. This level of clinical feedback cannot be so readily provided in DBS surgery for neuropsychiatric diseases, where symptom alleviation is observed on a timescale of weeks or months, not seconds. Indirect, predictive measures of DBS efficacy have been reported, including smiling and laughter in OCD patients.

The future of neuropsychiatric DBS therapy is bright. At present, most is known about the efficacy of DBS for OCD and treatment-resistant depression, which often target emotional/limbic structures such as the nucleus accumbens. Available data suggests that about half of the patients respond well to this therapy. This is not to say that DBS therapy does not have the potential to work for a greater percentage of patients, or generate larger symptom reductions in responders. New targets and stimulation patterns are actively being tested, and it is exceedingly probable that optimal parameters have not yet been worked out. The ability to implement patient-specific stimulation parameters is a major strength of DBS therapy, and better patient categorization methods (e.g. by subsets of symptoms or biological measurements such as MRI scans), may also help to identify optimal DBS configurations on a more personalized basis.

My visit to the neurology clinic to witness a DBS surgery ended in disappointment. The patient responded suboptimally to the procedure, and the electrodes were not put in place for chronic stimulation on that day. As the neurobiology and clinical insights guiding this therapy become increasingly sophisticated, it is my hope that the number of DBS responders will increase in time. I look forward to the day when no brain disease patient is left without therapeutic options.

1. Grill WM, Snyder AN, Miocinovic S (2004): Deep brain stimulation creates an informational lesion of the stimulated nucleus. Neuroreport. 15:1137-1140.
2. Mallet L, Mesnage V, Houeto J-L, Pelissolo A, Yelnik J, Behar C, et al. (2002): Compulsions, Parkinson’s disease, and stimulation. The Lancet. 360:1302-1304.
3. Haq IU, Foote KD, Goodman WG, Wu SS, Sudhyadhom A, Ricciuti N, et al. (2011): Smile and laughter induction and intraoperative predictors of response to deep brain stimulation for obsessive-compulsive disorder. NeuroImage. 54 Suppl 1:S247-255.
4. de Koning PP, Figee M, van den Munckhof P, Schuurman PR, Denys D (2011): Current status of deep brain stimulation for obsessive-compulsive disorder: a clinical review of different targets. Current psychiatry reports. 13:274-282.
5. Bewernick BH, Hurlemann R, Matusch A, Kayser S, Grubert C, Hadrysiewicz B, et al. (2010): Nucleus accumbens deep brain stimulation decreases ratings of depression and anxiety in treatment-resistant depression. Biological psychiatry. 67:110-116.

Category: Neuroscience, Neuroscience, The Student Blog | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Support Open Access publishing with the click of a button

Support open access publishing by voting for the Open Access Button in the JISC funding competition.

Support open access publishing by voting for the Open Access Button in the JISC funding competition.

The Open Access Button is a web and mobile app that helps students, researchers, patients and the public get access to academic research.

In 2013 two undergraduate students in the United Kingdom, and a team of volunteer developers first led the development Open Access Button project. Now, we’ve grown to a team of over a dozen international students who are committed to helping people gain access to research and advocate for open access, which is the free access and re-use of scholarly research.

People use research articles to learn about the world around them and advance scientific understanding. However, most people are unable to access research because individual articles can cost more than $40. Cost barriers have lead to very real deficits in scientific knowledge, sometimes with extreme consequences. In fact, a New York Times article written by a team leading Liberia’s Ebola recovery plan underscores the importance of open access publishing. The team found a paper published in 1982 that first warned Liberia was at risk for an Ebola epidemic, but because the findings were locked behind a pay wall, national researchers were likely unable to access this potentially life-saving information. Open access can solve problems like making life-saving information publicly available, to helping a student get research for their term paper. The Open Access Button provides users with a quicker connection to open research than if they searched independently.

In November 2013 we launched our Beta and recorded more than 12,000 instances of people without access to research articles. Next, we expanded the Open Access Button by launching a new website, adding new features such as the wish list to provide users with the research they need, and developing a mobile app through funding from the JISC Summer of Student Innovation in 2014. An international team of students running off volunteer time and small grants led the mobile app development. Now we’re seeking to increase the benefits of the Open Access Button by adding a frequently requested feature to automatically email an author when a copy of the research isn’t publicly available. But to achieve this, we need your help.

We’re up for £20,000 (US $31,000) in funding from the JISC Supporting Startup Projects. This funding would be allocated to developing the feature allowing users to generate automatic emails asking an author to make their paper available through an Open Access repository.

Emailing authors directly has long been used as a tactic to request copies of papers behind pay walls. This new feature will allow users to engage with authors in a familiar way, increase compliance while not duplicating university services, and provide simple advice to authors on how to archive their research in existing repositories. If the article was then archived in a repository then the user who requested the paper would be informed. Also, this feature allows us to promote historical archiving of previously published research, which extends past policy changes that only affect newly published articles.

JISC funding will primarily provide development and testing of the new feature, as well as travel and promotional expenses to ensure consultation, feedback and promotion. Additional support during the startup period will assist long term planning to embed within universities and become sustainable. We also hope to attract more users to the Open Access Button with this new feature. The qualitative and quantitative data generated can support efforts by open access advocates to improve the scholarly publishing system in the future.

We call on PLOS readers and researchers to help us expand our open access advocacy and promote access to all research both historical and recent. Visit our JISC Supporting Startup Projects page to support the Open Access Button. Voting ends on Monday, 25 May.

To get your own Open Access Button for free or to find out more please visit www.openaccessbutton.org. Tweet @OA_Button or email hello@openaccessbutton.org if you have any questions or would like to collaborate.

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Battling misinformation: The scientific consensus as a gateway belief for climate change and GMOs

Greenland's glaciers have been breaking off into the Atlantic Ocean at an accelerated pace due to the effects of climate change. Photo courtesy of Tim Norris.

Greenland’s glaciers have been breaking off into the Atlantic Ocean at an accelerated pace due to the effects of climate change. Photo courtesy of Tim Norris.

By Joseph Timpona
Public debate on scientific topics is in no short supply. Though science recognizes the evidence validating evolution, genetically modified organisms (GMOs), or climate change, it does not take long to find articles or people who oppose regarded scientific facts. In many of these cases, unnecessary debate inhibits positive action. Also, confronting these debates effectively is no trivial task. Studies have shown that administering facts to people may only harden their misguided beliefs. Therefore, finding effective ways to inform the public about issues pertaining to science and society is imperative to driving support for evidence-based policies. A recent PLOS ONE article provided causal evidence that people’s initial assumptions about the scientific consensus on climate change — known as a “gateway belief” — may help shape people’s perceptions of climate change and make them more likely to support action.

A major motivator of climate change doubt is public misunderstanding about the scientific consensus on the issue. Agents of doubt have successfully promoted the false message that it is up for debate among scientists whether human action is causing climate change. This sentiment is untrue. Nine out of every 10 scientists believe that human activities are the primary driver of global climate change. However, only one in 10 Americans correctly estimates that the consensus is this high. Moreover, science demonstrates that knowledge of this consensus can influence whether people acknowledge the fact of climate change.

Testing the Gateway Belief Model

Van der Linden and colleagues hypothesized that study participants would be more convinced of the evidence behind global warming if they knew about the high scientific consensus. Thus, knowledge of the scientific consensus would serve as a gateway belief to facilitate other key beliefs about climate change and support for action. The novelty of their approach was that it would provide causal instead of correlative data — something that has remained elusive in these types of studies.

Through mathematical modeling, the scientists found a direct causal relationship between knowledge of the scientific consensus and support for public action. Also, people who learned of the scientific consensus were more likely to worry about climate change, and believe that the phenomena is happening and caused by humans.

However, following the study, the increase in support for action was not nearly as substantial as the increase in the participant’s ability to correctly estimate the scientific consensus. While understanding of the scientific consensus makes some people more likely to support public action, the gateway belief model will not influence everyone. There are likely other factors involved in making someone support action.

Using the Scientific Consensus to Combat Public Misunderstanding

These results provide promise. The findings indicate that the gateway belief model can be used to inform the public and increase the likelihood that support will be generated for action to be taken. Even if the gateway belief model influences only a fraction of the population to support action, even small shifts in public support for an issue can have expansive consequences. The results beg the question, “Can the gateway belief model be extended to other science issues?”

I would argue that climate change is the most pressing issue in science, with huge impacts for society if it is not addressed in a timely manner. But public discourse on other scientific issues is fraught with similar misunderstandings. For example, data from a Pew research poll that compared differences in opinion between the public and scientists indicated that the biggest gap between the two groups was on the issue of GMOs in food. 88% of AAAS scientists think that it is safe to eat genetically modified foods, while only 37% of adults in the United States believe that it is safe — a gap of 51%. For comparison, the public/scientist gap on climate change being mostly due to human activity was 37%.

Using the scientific consensus as a gateway belief to build support for GMOs in food has not been addressed yet, but it would be interesting to examine for two key reasons. First, it is harder to promote discourse on issues such as GMOs in food because they appeal to people’s core values on different levels. Most of the debate around GMOs is not actually debate about the science, but rather is a debate of values. Second, if the gateway belief model were successful in educating, then it would embolden the idea that it is an effective strategy to combat misinformation and could be extended to other issues such as vaccine denial. If it were not effective at garnering change in GMO understanding, then it would indicate differences between these issues that go beyond the misunderstanding of the scientific consensus.

Curbing Doubt with Science

When trying to communicate topics such as climate change to the public, scientists should consider employing the gateway belief model to best understand how to drive change and engender support. Assaulting people with facts is becoming an antiquated technique in science communication. While informing people of the scientific consensus is technically providing a fact, the existence of a consensus is something that cannot really be disputed, and is far enough removed from the core values of individuals. The use of the gateway belief model then allows people to acknowledge these facts on their own, which is important for maintaining them.


The New Yorker. 2014. “I Don’t Want To Be Right”. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.newyorker.com/science/maria-konnikova/i-dont-want-to-be-right. [Accessed 9 May 15].

van der Linden SL, Leiserowitz AA, Feinberg GD, Maibach EW (2015) The Scientific Consensus on Climate Change as a Gateway Belief: Experimental Evidence. PLoS ONE 10(2): e0118489. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0118489

Pew Research Center. 2015. Public and Scientists’ Views on Science and Society. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.pewinternet.org/2015/01/29/public-and-scientists-views-on-science-and-society/. [Accessed 10 May 15].

Leiserowitz A, Maibach E, Roser-Renouf C, Feinberg G, Rosenthal S (2014) Climate Change in the American Mind: American’s Global Warming Beliefs and Attitudes in April 2014. Yale University and George Mason University. New Haven, CT: Yale Project on Climate Change Communication. http://environment.yale.edu/climate-comm​unication/files/Climate-Change-American-​Mind-April-2014.pdf

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