The Newton’s Apple Workshop on Science Policy

Portcullis House (with the chimneys) & the Big Ben

Being invited to London for a workshop on Science Policy was reason enough to excite me but when I came to know that it is going to take place in Portcullis House, a place where the real action behind law making in the UK happens, I could not control my excitement. This relatively modern building is situated opposite the British Houses of Parliament & Big Ben on one side and opposite the London Eye on the other side. As I enter through the revolving doors into a huge foyer with hefty security guards breathing on my neck, I cannot stop wondering about the powerful things that might be happening within the confines of these walls. There is a brief wait and plenty of security checks before I am handed a badge with my picture printed on it (where the hell was the camera??) and the words VISITOR in bold. As you enter the foyer that seemed so far away a little while back, the glass partitioning of the spaces within become obvious. There are four different entrances which are all guarded by more intimidating security men. As I knew which room the workshop was going to be held in and that I had seen a sign on the screen saying where the entrance to that room is, I headed for another revolving door only to be stopped by the all-black (literally) security guard.

“Where?”, said he. “Grimond Room”, said I.

“Why?”, said he. “Workshop”, trying to seem confident said I.

“What workshop?”, remaining firm said he.

“Newton’s apple workshop”, sounding meek said I.

“Spoke to the receptionist?”, in harsher voice said he. “No”, almost whispering said I.

“Wrong entrance.” finishing the conversation and looking away he said finally.

After talking to the receptionist and being directed to the right entrance, I took the flight of stairs to first floor and followed the directions to the Grimond room. Outside the room stood many students in their awkward “Hi I am Dave” stance waiting to enter the room. There were still 15 minutes for the workshop to start, thus not missing the opportunity I exchanged pleasantries and introduced myself to a group standing closer to me.

Inside Portcullis House

After a brief wait, all of us entered the room and Dr. Michael Elves, the host for the evening introduced himself. We were given seats along a semi-circular table (Committee bench) with instructions to leave the top four seats empty. Perpendicular to this formation was a table with five seats (the Witness bench), behind which there were many chairs for the general public. We were the guests for the evening, or so it seemed. I chose a seat that had the view of the Thames, Big Ben and the House of Lords from it.

The speakers for the evening entered the room and took their places. Dr. Elves started with a PowerPoint presentation introducing science policy in the UK. It was an interesting talk which gave us a picture of how things work theoretically and what we scientists can do to participate in this process. What followed after was a MP’s perspective of real life scenarios surrounding science policy. David Curry gave a cynics view of how things really work, telling us how little science actually gets discussed in any of the parliamentary houses. Only very political and controversial topics get the attention of the politicians. Most of the decision making occurs but outside the house under consultation with scientists.

Next was Dr Robert Doubleday, a post-doctoral fellow at Cambridge University who is spending a year as a civil servant who spoke about his experience working in the Department of Business, Innovation & Skills. He said most of what goes on within the department are mundane but important things. Yet, as civil servants there are opportunities to make real difference to the decision making process if one remains enthusiastic.

Finally, it was Dr. Stephen Benn from the Royal Society of Chemistry who spoke about the role of learned societies in process policy making. He spoke of the various initiatives that the RSC has, that can help us get involved in the process. He also countered some of the cynical points made my MP Curry to end the talks on a positive note.

During the question & answers session, students asked very direct and practical questions. It was a great feeling to have the opportunity to talk to an ex-minister of state and get frank opinions. Many questions were pertaining to funding and funding allocations but unfortunately the answers that came gave nothing but a curt explanation: the funding allocation is taken care of by the many research councils that form part of the RCUK and the minister cannot be held responsible for it. As for the overall funding, Dr. Benn said that raising awareness amongst the masses about science will ensure increased funding.

All in all, it was a great experience and we walked out knowing a little more about science policy making in the UK and the possible ways of making an impact. And of course, before leaving the building I made it a point to thank the all-black security guard.

TEDxWarwick 2010

After a long wait, I got to attend my first ever TED event and what an event to start my TED experience. TEDxWarwick 2010 proved to be a great experience and was definitely worth the TED tag. In 2009, TEDxWarwick was the first TEDx conference organised in the whole of Europe and now in it’s second year, although joined by a host of other TEDx, it has remained to be one of the biggest TEDx in Europe. (TEDx stands for an independently organised TED event. You can know more about it here.)

It was a great line up of speakers, the morning session had Angela Hobbs, Kathleen Burk, Brenda King, Steve Martin Simon Berry and Rachel Armstrong, and the afternoon session had Michael Mallows, Andrew Thorp, Herve This, Sir Roger Penros, Alex Wright and Noam Chomsky. I  hope that some of the videos from this event make it to the TED website. They all followed the classic rules of TED, 18 mins to talk and 10 mins for Q & A. Here’s a brief description of each speaker.

Angela Hobbs: Professor of Public Understand of Philosophy spoke about Censorship in Art and argued about whether art should be justified by its benefits to the society.

Kathleen Burk: A historian at UCL, an american living in England spoke about the fall of the Empire and the rise of USA as a super power.

Brenda King: Gave an inspirational story of how black kids in the UK were making the wrong decisions which lead to lower employability. She took up the task of making them aware of this and changed lives. She has been honoured with an MBE for her efforts. She motivated me for more than those reasons. She started watching TED a few years back and is now speaking at one of the TED events.

Steve Martin: Spoke on the science of persuasion and the power of YES. How to make change happen? People don’t change unless circumstances change, he says. His Q & A session was quite impressive.

Simon Berry: Lively speaker. I had heard him speak at Exeter before when he was invited by the Oxford Hub. He put forth the cool idea of ColaLife. It was quite predictable that he would get asked the same questions as those that were asked in Exeter. It indeed happened so, showing that there are very obvious flaws in his plans.

Rachel Armstrong: Spoke on living architecture and development of new materials which will respond to stimuli. She presented her research on protocells and spoke of an oil in water system as though it had life. ‘Life’ because physics could not quite explain the phenomenon of what happened between these protocells.

Micahel Mallows: A presentation that started of very well but lost interest by the end. He said one should be CRAFTY (Curious, Responsive, Focused, Thoughtful and say YES!). Two of his quotes that I loved.

Andrew Thorpe: A man who rose from complete bankruptcy to becoming a successful entrepreneur in 2 years spoke of the different self-help books that influenced him. Authors he mentioned were Malcolm Gladwell (Tipping Point), Tony Robbins (Where’s your focus?), Seth Godin (Purple Cow & Tribe) and Stephen Covey. He said when in trouble surround yourself with the right people to rise out of it.

Herve This: The chemist spoke of his love for cooking and called it Molecular Gastronomy. He showed the use of simple principles of physics could improve cooking so much. For example, if you would like to have the egg yolk right in the middle in a boiled egg then while boiling keep rolling the egg and you will be able to achieve it. He also showed funky NMRs of carrot and it’s individual ingredients. He proceed to make synthetic tasty food by mixing the right ingredients in the right proportion and showed a programmable machine that could do it for future generations. His talk was the funniest (loved his french accent) and the most enthralling.

Sir Roger Penrose: This man went old school and used overhead projectors for his slides and  spoke of the universe as if it was his backyard. He tried to explain the concept of time and give an update on the latest theories about the universe. It was very hard to understand but enjoyable nevertheless to see a man of his stature.

Alex Wright gave a brief history of the information age. His research was marvelous, he spoke through a video conference from New York and the talk had some technical glitches. It was a shame that he had to rush through his talk because of the shortage in time and he actually skipped his part on the modern era of the information age. 😦

Noam Chomsky who spoke through a video recorded earlier gave his views on why America will remain to be the superpower and how much other countries (BRIC) need to catch up with the USA before they can show their might.

As you may have noticed by now, I tried to live tweet this event but due to lack of the right infrastructure (poor internet connectivity) I had to limit myself to only a few tweets. Nevertheless, it was an interesting experience. I am so looking forward to TEDx Warwick 2011. Keep it up guys!