A diary of science indulgence - day four

Follow Sarah Wild or the ?#ESOF2014 tag on Twitter for updates from the forum. (Maryn Cotton, SKA SA)

Follow Sarah Wild or the ?#ESOF2014 tag on Twitter for updates from the forum. (Maryn Cotton, SKA SA)

Sarah Wild is attending the Euroscience Open Forum 2014 in Copenhagen as a guest of the department of science and technology.

Day 4, June 26, fighting the fat
The morning is not a time for shocks or surprises. It is a time for a long cup of coffee and easing yourself into your day. But there are some things no amount of coffee will prepare you for: like seeing a photo of a two-year-old baby who weighs 29kgs (the same as a fully grown dalmatian) in the first session. And another one, this time a five-year-old who weighs 50kgs.

I should have been better prepared – the session was “Fighting Fat: the Obesity Epidemic” – but nothing really prepares you for seeing such a sick child.  Sadaf Farooqi, a professor of metabiolism and medicine at the University of Cambridge, says many people tell her: “‘Why do people need to study it? It’s simple: people eat too much, and don’t get enough exercise.’ It’s actually a complex problem and needs scientific study.”

It is also an increasingly serious problem. The latest statistics show that 1.3-billion people in the world are obese, and it is only expected to get worse.

“In a given environment, some people are much more likely to gain weight than others. They have differences in their genes,” Farooqi said, saying that scientists have identified 10 genes that, if not working, will cause severe obesity.

Kirsty Lee Spalding, from the Karolinska Institute in Sweden, looks at the composition of fat, how it is stored, how it is burned and how long it’s there for. She compared the number and volume of fat cell in obese and lean people, as well as obese people who lost a lot of weight. “If you lose 30% of your body weight, the fat cell volumes decrease, but the number of fat cells stays the same,” she says.

There are also difference in adipose (fat) tissue composition in obese and lean people [no scientist refers to “fat” and “thin” people, only “obese” and “lean”]. “In obese people, the fat [cells] are older, they burn [off] slower and there is an increased capacity to store the fat,” Spalding says. But they don’t really understand why. So, “we are making a map of how fat turns over in the body”.

This sort of biological evidence show that it isn’t about a lack of will-power to resist that cookie. The science of obesity is developing, and quickly, and yet there are still many questions.

But at ESOF2014 in Copenhagen, there’s no time for more questions. The South African contingent is packing its bags and getting ready to head home. And I think it’s probably time. These sorts of intense science sessions make me feel as though I’m sweating brain cells, a couple of thousand per session (sometimes more – there were one or two sessions in which I thought my brain would explode) and I need to keep some of them.


Day 3, June 25, you can’t expect too much from Africa
The day was filled with great science and difficult questions: robot wars, addiction and its neural pathways, how to use science diplomacy to bridge international divides, and many other topics. And I spent most of the day, wondering which bits I should tell you about. But then we had the South African-European Union (EU) dinner, and I sat next to an EU scientist.

I would dismiss the incident as poor translation, but I’ve heard it before. He sits back in his chair, and waves a hand as he talks: “You know what other scientists say? ‘It’s good enough for Africa’. That’s what they [scientists from developed countries] think. That it’s just Africa, so you can’t expect too much.”

There was a number of South Africans and a Square Kilometre Array (SKA) representative, so the scientist hastened to add that this was what other people – definitely not him – thought. Obviously our scientists spend their time banging rocks together to make soup*.

In South Africa, we talk about Afro-pessimism in an abstract way, mainly in terms of a negativity within the country. But it is something very real that isolates our scientists from the broader scientific community. Science is no longer done by a scientist in a silo, cut off from the rest of the world. It is all about collaboration and partnerships.

As science journalists, we write about the SKA and how it has put South Africa on the map as a scientific destination. Now that the country is hosting the giant radio telescope with Australia, it is seen as a fait accompli, but many people do not recognise the barriers that our scientists and diplomats had to break down to make that happen.

Science and Technology Minister Naledi Pandor was part of a panel discussion on Tuesday, called “Resolving our greatest public health challenges via science diplomacy”. And I will say this: The woman has chutzpah. Addressing a group of largely male, American and European panellists, she told them what pharmaceutical companies (and developed countries) tell her: “‘Why are you supporting innovation, and centres of excellence in drug discovery? We’ll take care of that. You build houses’, they say. [But] we have to begin to shape the agenda as Africa, and not have it shaped for us ... We think the donor-recipient partnership no longer works for us,” she said, adding that South Africa and the EU are full partners – “equal partner, equal investment” – in a number of initiatives, including clinical trials.

To develop, African states must be included as partners – not slaves to wealthy masters, always subservient.

“But poor countries should be building houses, providing electricity, sanitation,” they say. There is a wonderful line, in one of the greatest pieces of legislation in the new South Africa, the white paper on science and technology of 1996: “We must focus on the basic sciences ... because otherwise we chain ourselves to the treadmill of feeding and clothing ourselves.”

How will African countries meet their challenges of poverty, inequality and unemployment without science and technology? 

What your average European scientist evidently does not know that South Africa does some pretty great science, and that the EU actually partners with us. It shows that the work of diplomats, scientists and science journalists is never done. We must tell the stories of African science, not only to people on the continent, but to those outside too to gain partnerships that will help us develop.

PS. There really was some phenomenal science, and you can read some of the highlights on Friday.

* This is a repurposing of a comment by an Irish comedian, Dylan Moran. 

Day 2: June 24, a retrospective
Sometimes science conferences are like having to choose a favourite child. How do you pick between “Neuroenhancements: a true unfolding of man” or “How our planet becomes habitable”? I hate to admit it, but I’ve started flipping coins (sometimes kroner, sometimes euros, sometimes rands – such is the international nature of science).

Habitable planets won, which is rather fortunate because I have a particular fascination with what makes earth just right for us. You can read about some of it here and here.

So what makes earth so special?

Bernard Marty, a geophysicist from the Centre for Petrographic and Geochemical Research, argues that it is the magnetic field.

“Mars had a magnetic field in the past, it vanished quite early. And atmospheric gases are escaping … Venus’s water was also broken down by photodissociation [and it does not have a magnetic field].” 

Photodissociation is when chemicals are broken down by light particles, called photons. Earth’s magnetic field, caused by its molten iron core, protects it from most of the sun’s radiation. But what did that ancient atmosphere look like? More than three-billion years ago, Earth supported life – not the impressive multicellular complex life that it does today, but life nonetheless. So what does an early life-supporting atmosphere look like? 

“We are trying to explore the composition of the ancient atmosphere,” Marty explained. “We know the composition now, but not [what it was] in the past.” 

So to understand the past atmosphere, his team is looking for isotopes (a different form of the same element_ in ancient, billion-year-old rocks.

Emmanuelle Javaux, from the University of Liege, is also also looking at rocks, mainly in Australia and South Africa. “Rocks are great: they preserve both the history of the earth and life.” 

Her team is looking for traces of life – biosignatures – in the rocks. This approach is not without its problems, though. “Their traces can tell us about biological pathways … [but] there are only a small number of pieces, and we try reconstruct the entire history from these pieces.”

These “windows of preservation on early earth … help up to decide what to look for on other planets, where to land rovers, what instruments to send, what samples to bring back”.

But there are also immediate science problems that need to be dealt with, such as healthcare. 

A decade ago, South Africans watched in horror as our then minister of health advocated beetroot and garlic for HIV and Aids. Today, head of the Medical Research Council Glenda Gray told a session called “How health diplomacy drives business and innovation” that the country has the world’s largest antiretroviral roll-out programme in the world. The session was sprawling – from the fact that the health sector is worth $6.5-trillion, to the provision of drugs to those who need them. 

One of the most relevant issues for South Africa is the science of implementation, which the private sector is much better at than the public sector. 

“We need to learn from the private sector,” said Michel Kazatchine, the United Nations special envoy for HIV and Aids in Eastern Europe and Central Asia. “They have a strong focus on details of delivery and execution,” he said, noting that experts have gone to Coca-Cola for advice. The softdrinks company can deliver drinks to places that governments sometimes cannot get medicine.

“We have spent a lot of money in generating new medicines, but not the science of delivery. How can we make sure that those technological goods get to new patients? It is a science based on collecting facts and data [which are then fed] into practice.” 

Gray points out that “getting a drug to market is one thing, and getting it to the person who needs it is another ... We have not properly understood health systems, [their] processes and logistics. In [South Africa’s National Health Insurance], we’ll have to pay attention to the science of implementing a health system.”

Day 1: June 23
There’s a crisp bite in the sea air, and although it’s summer here, it is as cold as a Johannesburg winter. Welcome to Copenhagen.

For the next four days, it will be a smorgasbord of scientific delights. We’re here for the Euroscience Open Forum 2014 (ESOF2014), which opened with a bang – or more accurately, an accordion, a banjo and a fiddle – on Sunday night. In a packed Tap 1 in the original Carlsberg Brewery, the queen of Denmark officially opened the forum.

Surprisingly, the speeches that followed were more than monotonous recitals with words such as “synergies” and “out of the box”, and, although the event focuses on science in Europe, there are many lessons for South Africa. President of the European Commission José Manuel Barroso said that, despite fiscal restraints, countries had to invest in research and innovation for their future. The budget of Europe’s Horizon 2020 research programme is 30% larger than its predecessor, at €80-billion over seven years.

As a South African, I feel a bit as though I’m drooling outside the window of a sweetshop, as our percentage of spending on R&D has decreased again.

There was also That Awkward Moment when the director general of CERN, Rolf Heuer, told the assembled crowd that the organisation – which is responsible for the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) – targeted Europe, Asia and America. He followed that with profuse apologies to South African Science and Technology Minister Naledi Pandor, who was sitting in the front row. I could not see the look she gave him, but I know that I would not like to be a recipient. South Africa has been collaborating on the LHC for a number of years.

Europe is also one of South Africa’s major collaborators, so we have a few researchers at ESOF2014 talking about what we’re doing (I’ll tell you about it, don’t worry).

But here’s a taste of what’s on the agenda from the “this is really relevant to South Africa” side: a debate on what science says about fiscal austerity and growth.

And from the “ooooh, that’s cool!” side: how our planet became habitable, and mining the moon.

For updates, sarcasm and some stream of consciousness, you can follow me at @sarahemilywild or the #ESOF2014 tag. Otherwise, I’ll tell you all about it tomorrow morning.

PS: My reference to the accordion, fiddle and banjo may appear derisive. It isn’t. Folk has never been so sexy. See Dreamerscircus.com

Sarah Wild

Sarah Wild

Sarah Wild is a multiaward-winning science journalist. She studied physics, electronics and English literature at Rhodes University in an effort to make herself unemployable. It didn't work and she now writes about particle physics, cosmology and everything in between.In 2012, she published her first full-length non-fiction book Searching African Skies: The Square Kilometre Array and South Africa's Quest to Hear the Songs of the Stars, and in 2013 she was named the best science journalist in Africa by Siemens in their 2013 Pan-African Profiles Awards. Read more from Sarah Wild

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