16/11 Great British Bioscience Festival

In which Lego meets the joy of discovery

Another week with scant lab work. On the Wednesday, we loaded up an unmarked white van and drove it to a park beside the Children’s Museum in Bethnel Green, London, where a billowing, white tent had been hoisted to house the BBSRC-sponsored Great British Bioscience Festival. It was me driving the van to and through London, filled with valuable and breakable cargo, an adventure that certainly enriched my store of cultural experiences. Happily, nothing was added having to do with British tow trucks.

In last week’s post, I criticized mechanisms in grant funding like the NSF’s broader impacts for forcing scientists to leave their benches; therefore, readers might be surprised that I would plump for a few days of outreach. The key verb here is plump, which in colorful English fashion means choose. I volunteered. No research cash on the line.

Why? Because the goal of communicating science is important. And equally because CPIB has a professional in charge: the formidable Suzie Lydon, who for years has been leading the efforts to explain to people outside of academe what goes on at CPIB. Taking part in a well thought-out effort gives me half a chance of successfully reaching someone. This is worlds better than anything I could have thought up, pushed out alone onto the hustings by the NSF.

For their Festival, the BBSRC selected about 20 teams to showcase their sponsored research. Each team got a few square meters of space under the tent. Medical research was well represented with, among others, stands on fighting flu with chickens, a giant pinball machine bouncing down the canalization of stem cells, and a walk-through colon. But happily, there was plant science aplenty, with, among others, stands on bioenergy sprouting reproductions of perennial grasses made by the props shop for Dr Who and on sugars featuring colored molecular balls. All of the stands seemed professionally made and full of lavish pulls designed to attract the young and curious.

The CPIB stand, entitled Rooting in the Underworld, featured a scale model of the Houndsfield facility, made of Lego, designed by Michael Wilson. The facility is devoted to obtaining and analyzing CT scans of roots within soil and comprises a small greenhouse, a main lab, and support rooms ranging from conference room, kitchen, head house, and a head. The Lego model reproduces this faithfully, having been designed from the actual building plans. It is about a meter square and has plants in pots in the greenhouse, the robot used to carry one to the big scanner, the scanners, and all the ancillary rooms, even down to cups of coffee, notebooks, and the loo. A small taste of the model is shown here.

The utility of the model became apparent at once on the Thursday night, the first period of engagement, in this case devoted to VIPs. Neither her Majesty the Queen of England nor Richard Dawkins attended, but science journalists were there, as were the BBSRC executive. As people came by and asked what CPIB was all about, we used the model as a prop, helping us tell the story of hidden roots now revealed.

The genius of the model became apparent the next day, Friday, which was schools day. A murmuration of elementary and secondary school children had booked in, numbering 700. To the BBSRC’s credit, they devised an elaborate dance to keep the flock from bunching up. Children pressed round the Lego model, utterly rapt. This was more than a useful prop to illustrate a point; this was allowing the joy of discovery. Many kids had had a CT scan and they got the idea of roots being impossible to study without pulling up the plant. All to the good. But what they also discovered around the Lego table was what a science laboratory is like. They asked: “Why is there a kitchen?” “Why is there a candy bar on the desk?” Not just by boffins with test tubes and lab coats, science is done by people like them who eat and have a kip at their desk. Kids were getting facts all over the Festival but few of them had ever been inside a laboratory. They were riveted as they imagined being a scientist. They will remember this discovery.

The joy of discovery is familiar to anyone who figures out who done it ahead of the detective, who solves a math puzzle, or even who climbs up to the top of a tall hill. The joy of discovery motivates scientists to persevere hour after hour after hour in the lab and motivates non-scientists to read books by Stephen Hawking or, indeed, to attend the Great British Bioscience Festival, as thousands did on the Saturday on Sunday, the public days.

Sadly, the joy of discovery was cited by none of the BBSRC leadership in their speeches opening the Festival Thursday night. They touted the many accomplishments of their funded projects in terms of the numbers of pounds pumped into the economy. One exception was Alison Wollard, a developmental biologist from the University of Oxford, asked to speak perhaps because she gave a vivid set of Christmas Lectures last year (the Life Fantastic). She extolled wonder. How can we inspire reverence for our planet if all our work is to be driven by economics? Some of the high tech biomedical discoveries on offer could well become treatments too expensive for the NHS and wind up further enriching the 1% through pharmaceutical conglomerates. Knowledge about the world might be a luxury, but it is a luxury, like art and music, that makes us human. We revere Beethoven’s Ode to Joy not because of how much money the LSO made off it last year but because it makes our spirit soar. Looking at a CT scan of a root in soil, seeing this hidden collaboration for the first time, launches us heavenward all the same.

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