Tuesday, July 19, 2011

"What we have here is...failure to communicate"

Cool Hand Luke

The issue of nuclear waste disposal is on the mind of every Canadian. The disposal of our nuclear waste poses a difficult and challenging problem and is one that requires huge amounts of study and consultation to address properly. It also seems to raise fear and anger like few other issues in the public eye but the problem remains that we must dispose of our waste safely and for a long time. However, there is a larger problem causing much of the dysfunction that exists in the debate of the storage of nuclear waste.

The problem to which I refer is the gulf that exists between the scientific community and the public. As a scientist who has a large amount of experience observing the public response to nuclear waste (I grew up near Port Hope, Ontario) I feel that I am able to understand both view points and hopefully comment constructively on the division that exists between them.  I will also suggest a few ways in which both sides could unify, as the ultimate goals of both groups are the same: to store nuclear waste safely and responsibly.

In order to address this lack of communication it is important to ask why it exists in the first place, and what factors are perpetuating it despite the best efforts of many scientists and members of the public. The first part of the problem is the overall lack of geoscience education that people are exposed to during their education. In Ontario the last time many people learn about the earth sciences is in Grade 4. Grade 4!! The basic principles of geology are not covered at all later in elementary school or in general high school science classes and many high schools do not offer an earth science course to those interested in pursuing science later in life. Furthermore, most universities do not require those entering science programs to take a geology course. That means that when a geoscientist is attempting to communicate with the public about complex issues, such as waste storage over a one million year time frame, they might as well be talking to a 9 year old; as that is the level understanding the majority of the public and decision makers have. This lack of even the most basic understanding of geologic concepts makes it utterly impossible for geoscientists to communicate effectively. Unfortunately, this lack of communication leads to mistrust, and a communication void, which is eventually filled by the media, who I believe are the primary factor in perpetuating the problem as opposed to solving it.

I realize that the goal of any media story is to inform and educate the public about current events. However, the nature of the media causes it to be driven by sensationalism as opposed to an objective presentation of the facts. The upshot of this is that stories about nuclear waste storage and geology are written not to present information, fact and context, but to cause fear and emotional responses and in doing so, sell the news. This leads to a vicious cycle of fear and sensationalism that not only perpetuates the lack of communication between the science community and the public but also breeds mistrust leading to an ever-widening gulf between the two parties.

I have defined the problem, but how do we overcome the cycle of fear and bad journalism that prevents cooperation and understanding? I have a few suggestions:

1.      As I mentioned above, I believe that the underlying cause of the problem is a basic lack of public education. A long term solution is to introduce a geosciences component into the high school curriculum that focuses on the basic principles of environmental geology that people will encounter in later life such as: hydrogeology or mine waste management. Courses in upper years of high school would also be beneficial, as would a mandatory geology course for science majors entering university. My personal experience is that having an understanding of the geosciences helps me to enjoy and appreciate the complexity of the natural world, thus I do not see this as a horrible imposition upon the education system.  

2.      I believe that the media is one of the major factors in contributing to the poor communication between the scientific community and the public. In fact, by sensationalizing stories, they do their readership a disservice by presenting poorly researched opinion as fact. Most science stories now are not written by science journalists and thus often misrepresent the facts. I feel that an overhaul of science journalism is needed. The media could be a tool for productive communication between scientists and the public, but the focus needs to change to a more objective presentation as opposed to human interest.

3.      Finally, scientists need to improve their skills and outreach in dealing with the public and media. As a scientist it is very easy to become wrapped up in one specific problem and fail to communicate the big picture or long term ramifications of my work. However, when trying to communicate with a lay audience I and others need to remember that we have a responsibility to educate and promote understanding. Opportunities to do this include public lectures and conferences and events. For example, an organization called “Bacon and Eggheads” allows members of parliament to listen to a scientist explain recent advances in science and engineering. More organizations such as this would help to bridge the gap between the public, policy makers, the media and the scientific community.

Well that is all for now. Obviously all of the above is my opinion on these matters, and I encourage readers to add their own opinions in the comments section. How can communication between scientist and the public be improved?

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

GeoMedia: Fossilized Bird Pigments

A recent groundbreaking palaeontological discovery was made by researchers from the University of Manchester that will allow us to find out what extinct organisms actually looked like. Most of our reconstructions of extinct organisms are accurate from an anatomical perspective, but are more or less just guesses when it comes to what colours the animals were. However, this new discovery, which used a 120 million year old fossil bird feather from the extinct bird Confuciusornis sanctus actually detected a fossilized chemical signature of pigments in the feather. This is the first time we have found fossilized pigments and will allow palaeontologists to accurately depict the colouring of extinct animals, which was never before possible.

Confuciusornis sanctus
The research paper, titled, Trace Metals as Biomarkers for Eumelanin Pigment in the Fossil Record was published in the prestigious journal Science last week. The authors used a very interesting technique to find the presence of the eumelanin pigment in the fossilized feather. This technique was synchrotron analysis of the feather. A synchrotron, despite the Star Trekkie sounding name, is a useful piece of analytical equipment that can determine chemistry without destroying the sample. It basically takes an "x-ray" of the sample using electrons that have been accelerated close to the speed of light. This allows researchers to examine the detailed chemistry of sensitive materials that would otherwise be impossible. 
A schematic of a synchrotron (University of Saskatchewan)

The results suggest that Confuciusornis sanctus, a bird that lived 120 million years ago in the Cretaceous had dark areas on its body and tail feathers. This conclusion was determined by using the synchrotron to analyse for organic copper that is commonly found in the pigment eumelanin. Eumelanin is a dark coloured pigment found in feathers, fur and skin. Using the synchrotron the researchers found copper on the bird's body and tail feathers suggesting that these were once coloured by eumelanin. Using other techniques the researchers were able to say that the copper had indeed come from organic molecules proving that it was part of fossilized pigment. 

A blue jay feather, squid, and fossil fish with feather are shown in optical images (top) and X-ray images (bottom)showing the distribution of copper (red). Copper in the dark parts of the feathers, the fish eye, and the squid ink sack indicates the presence of eumelanin pigmentation.
A blue jay feather, squid, and fossil fish with feather are shown in optical images (top) and X-ray images (bottom)showing the distribution of copper (red). Copper in the dark parts of the feathers, the fish eye, and the squid ink sack indicates the presence of eumelanin pigmentation.Phil Manning, Nick Edwards, Holly Bardeon/University of Manchester; SSRL; SLAC (cbc.ca)

This discovery is of great importance not only in reconstruction what extinct animals actually looked like, but also in understanding their behaviour. In the modern world animals use colour for camouflage, hunting, mating displays, etc. We assume that these behavioural characteristics were evolved in the pre-historic world but there was no way to confirm this. Further advances in these techniques and this research may allow us to do just that. 

Here is the CBC story that drew my attention to the article and here is the abstract from Science