Frozen Friday Fab Four #4

By Victoria Metcalf 02/05/2014


After a break with a couple of Friday holidays we’re back.

Four of the Antarctic or anything else headlines/social media bits that have grabbed my attention this week(ish).

 

Access to icebreakers is essential for polar research.
Access to icebreakers is essential for polar research.

1. Woohoo for something heartening happening in science. UK polar science is set to get a huge boost with the ordering of a 200 million pound icebreaker that will be one of the biggest and most capable polar research vessels in the world.

It won’t be ready until 2019  but when it is it will be packed full of features: flash labs, a helipad, cranes, as well as having the ability to deploy a whole range of survey and sampling gear and subs. It will head to both poles for scientific research. Who is funding this? The UK government’s capital investment fund for science, in a move clearly signalling that the future for the UK economy lies in science, including a strong commitment to polar research. For an in depth analysis of the risks of doing Antarctic research see my earlier post here.

 

2. The biology blogging world was swept away with the revelation that a cave insect Neotrogla (otherwise known as barkflies, but more of a lice than a fly) have a new kind of female sex organ- that of all things resembled a penis and inserts into a vagina-like structure in the male. It’s actually called the gynosome, is used for collecting sperm and it’s required for extremely long bouts of copulation. All around the world however, headlines erupted that female cave insects had penises.

Female insect penis or not? Image credit: Yoshizawa et al, 2014.
Female insect penis or not? Image credit: Yoshizawa et al, 2014.

Even the authors referred to it as such in their title. Was this misleading when it perhaps isn’t really a penis? Annalee Newitz at io9 thought so: “This isn’t just painfully wrong — it’s bad for science.”

Newitz outlines this is because despite being a sexual object used for penetration that’s where the similarity with an actual penis ends: ” I’m sorry, but does this sound like a penis to you? When was the last time you found a penis that grew spines, absorbed nutrients, remained erect for 75 hours, or allowed its owner to get pregnant? Pretty much the only thing this organ has in common with a penis is that it’s used to penetrate a partner during sex.”

Such approximate terms can get in the way of really leading to understanding of the different forms that can occur in our universe. When we relate everything to the human state, we risk people thinking that all animals are like us.

Ed Yong, National Geographic online Editor, who wrote one of the pieces Newitz criticised, added a response to Newitz’s critique in his original article where he agreed cheap sex talk doesn’t help science but disagrees that the term penis is incorrect here and goes on to outline ways in which the use of ‘penis’ is justified, including that several animal species males have spines on their penis.

He finishes by saying: “I don’t think that referring to Neotrogla’s female sex organ as a penis whitewashes that diversity (of life). If anything, it forces us to realise that one of the traits we often link to a penis–that it lives on a male–isn’t a necessary truth. The usage expands what we know, rather than erases.”

I for one like it when there’s public debate on something as seemingly inconsequential as an insect’s sex organs because it can potentially (but not always) break down barriers to scientific comprehension in the public space, well beyond ivory towers. This debate though was carried out by editors, not by scientists. How do we also constructively bring scientists to the communal table of contentious science communication? That’s a challenge we’re continually working on.

 

3. In more icy realm news, the Scientific Committee for Antarctic Research (SCAR) recently held a retreat in Arrowtown called the Horizon Scan. Invited participants (“scientists, policy makers, leaders and visionaries”) from around the world were flown into New Zealand for a few days to discuss the future of Antarctic science and develop key research questions for the next two decades. These questions were being whittled down from 100’s of questions people like me submitted from around the world.

I wasn’t there but it sounds like the vibe about the Scanning was that it was successful. Here in New Zealand pressing issues centre around ocean acidification in the Southern Ocean and the impacts of melting sea ice, raising sea levels here. All the flooding in Christchurch is good insight into what the future may hold as sea level rises around coastal regions (i.e. most of New Zealand). New Zealand comparatively put a lot of money into sponsorship of this event.

Will the questions that will eventuate from this event be revolutionary? Unlikely- my estimate is that they’ll be along the lines of major themes we have been looking at for years. Was the cost and the carbon of hosting this event worth it? Well, that remains to be seen over the next twenty years, during which we need to do some pretty dramatically good research to understand and begin to really deal with climate change.

 

4. And if you’re on Twitter and perhaps especially if you’re a scientist there’s a meme that been going off today and it’s hilarious. Check out #sixwordgrantreport. It’s based on what you might write in only six words in a funded grant report. Most grants (of typically three years) require either six-monthly or yearly reports where we have to report against deliverables (milestones).

Scientists around the world are increasingly under pressure. Job dissatisfaction is on the rise but Twitter provides a useful and nearly essential global tea room in which to find solidarity, humour and support.

The tweets might be humorous and witty but that is because most of them are relatable. Beyond the chuckles, when you read them you gain an understanding of the pretty grim reality of scientific research. Do they speak of scientists having fun on a Friday or scientists trying to find humour in a ever more challenging and demoralising career? You decide.

A contribution of my own (nicely enhanced by @samooja):

 

And a couple of my favourites:

 

What’s your favourite #sixwordgrantreport?