Responsible Science: Episode 1 - The Overview

The phrase ‘Responsible Science’ brings up a whole host of different questions. What is it referring to? Who is responsible for what? Isn’t science already super responsible?

That’s why we decided to take some time – 5 episodes to be exact – to explore the idea of Responsible Science with some of the most influential people and organisations in the world of science.

Over the course of the series, we’ll explore what the scientists themselves believe needs to be done to make science more responsible, we’ll quiz the corporates about their role in the broader science ecosystem, we’ll meet startups keen to use the power of technology to ‘solve’ parts of science, and we’ll explore the wonderful world of sharing science, and the role of those communicating it.

The wonderful team at Cell Signal Technologies have come on board as our series supporter – so a huge thanks to them for adding to the vision, and making this crucial conversation a reality.

For the first episode, we explore the broad idea of Responsible Science – and for this, we interviewed Guardian Longread contributor Stephen Buranyi. Stephen has written extensively about subjects such as science publishing and science fraud, so who better to chat responsibility in the lab.

The first episode is now live so do give it a listen, and a brief summary of our discussion with Stephen is below.

We first unpick the abstract idea of Responsible Science – is it about conforming to the basic ideals of hypothesis and theories, or is it more about taking a look about the way we do science now?

“I think the day to day motivation of scientists are quite good…we run into problems when you think about the structures scientists work in. One of them is publishing and the other is this nebulous idea: how are you rewarded for your results?”

Beyond the incentive issues in science, though, there is much which is being done to ensure the best science possible.

“There are a lot of people and organisations who are doing things in different ways – we’re introducing new checks and balances on science.”

The question is, though, are these new technologies, ideas and organisations enough to combat the huge complex system that is science, and the strong culture which is not easy to change?

“Every couple of months, you’ll see this great new way of sharing or making science more open in terms of getting your results out, mediated by the internet. That’s all very good, but when the internet first became incredible popular, people thought that would kill publishing as it currently existed. That turned out not to be the case, and that was an enormous technological change.”

We touched on private companies and their role in science – discussing both the general scepticism from scientists around their motivations, but also arguing that it was Bayer who sounded the alarm on the reproducibility issues in cancer research. It is not a black and white issue.

On reproducibility, the area most people default to when they meet with the phrase Responsible Science, we discussed the differences between parts of the problem which can be solved with better technology and others that simply cannot.

“When I’m talking about the replication crisis, what I mean is science done in a way that is not replicable because the experiments are not very valid. And they’re not valid because you’ve essentially replicated them poorly yourself. You cherry picked in some way, etc. It’s not that it’s not replicable because you’re not sharing enough about it. One of those things has an easy fix: one is a cultural effect and one is a technological effect.”

Up next: we chat to the startups keen to make science more responsible using the power of the internet, and ask the question: can technology really be the answer?

Episode 54: The Road to Open Science Hardware

In this episode we spoke to Dr Jenny Molloy, a Cambridge Synthetic Biologist who, among many things, is the Director of the Cambridge Biomakespace, and is on the organising committee for the Gathering for Open Science Hardware

We spoke about her work in developing the GOSH manifesto, and the recently released Open Science Hardware Roadmap which advocates for open science hardware as a ubiquitous component of everyday lab life. We also dove into the space that hardware fits into, in the ever active Open Science community. How do the open hardware advocates differ from those keen to shake up academic publishing.

We were also keen to find out more on how open science hardware projects are disseminated, not just to the fellow academics but to the wider public at large. And how this area of 'science disruption' could have a massive impact on the reproducibility of research.

Related episodes:

Episode 26: Silicon Valley Science: with Ryan Bethencourt, the Program Director and Venture Partner at IndieBio, where we chat about biotech investment and some amazing biotech advances

Episode 33: From Lab Bench to Marketplace, with Katie Rae, CEO of The Engine, a deep tech accelerator that provides physical and intellectual resources to the startups through their coupling to all the greta stuff happening in Cambridge Mass.

*SXSW Bonus Episode* Building an Ecosystem for Science Startups

Gemma moderated a panel at SXSW on building an ecosystem for science startups with Ana Florescu of Science Practice, Harry Destecroix of UnitDx, and Dominic Falcao of Deep Science Ventures

Talking points:

  • The challenges and opportunities in bringing science and startups together
  • What makes the science innovation ecosystem different from Silicon Valley and traditional life science/pharma communities?
  • How can we build a science startup ecosystem; what's needed locally and what can be served online?
  • How can we train PhDs to be entrepreneurial?
  • The science funding landscape
  • Why you should be excited by this emerging ecosystem?
 SXSW panel organised by Science Practice on how to develop a Science Startup Ecosytem

SXSW panel organised by Science Practice on how to develop a Science Startup Ecosytem

Episode 53: The Biotech Rebels

This episode we spoke to Elsa Sotiriadis, the Chief Futurist and Program Director of Rebel Bio.

Rebel Bio is the world's first life science accelerator, based initially out of Cork, they have worked with startups tackling synthetic meat, algae derived materials, and drug repurposing using AI. They have recently brought in their first cohort to their 2nd home in London, where they will work out of the new White City Incubator. We were keen to break down the different science startup ecosystems that Cork and London have become, and discuss the amazing things that these companies aim to achieve. We were also intrigued by Elsa's passion for science fiction, specifically the passage of inspiration between science fiction and research and back again.

Related episodes:

Episode 26: Silicon Valley Science: with Ryan Bethencourt, the Program Director and Venture Partner at IndieBio, where we chat about biotech investment and some amazing biotech advances

Episode 33: From Lab Bench to Marketplace, with Katie Rae, CEO of The Engine, a deep tech accelerator that provides physical and intellectual resources to the startups through their coupling to all the greta stuff happening in Cambridge Mass.

Episode 52: Breaking Research out of the Lab

We spoke to Hemai Parthasarathy, the Scientific Director of Breakout Labs, a fund for early stage deep tech startups to get their research out of the lab.

Hemai started out as a neuroscientist at MIT, and moved from academia to the field of publishing as the North American Editor of Nature and went on to be one of the founding editors of PLOS, building PLOS Biology and PLOS One. So as you can imagine we were keen to get Hemai's perspective on a whole host of subjects straddling academia and industry.

Hemai broke down what Breakout Labs looks for in their startups and founders, and the diverse group of startups that they have invested in so far. These include companies working in stem cell derived bone replacement, gecko inspired adhesive materials, and even renewable energy startups harnessing the power of the ocean. 

Image credit: Sandy Huffaker for TEDMED

Episode 51: European Biotech

This episode we speak to Philip Hemme, the founder and CEO of Labiotech, the leading media organisation covering European biotech. We talk about their rapid growth as a startup, the current state of biotech media, their internationally diverse team, and the benefits of 'open science' to biotech startups.

Related episodes:

Episode 32: Truth, Beauty, Science, with Undark Editor in Chief Tom Zeller Jr

Episode 26: Silicon Valley Science, with Ryan Bethencourt, the Program Director and Venture Partner at IndieBio

Episode 50: Cultivating the Future

This episode we chatted to Erin Kim the Communications Director at New Harvest, a non-profit research institute focussed on making cellular agriculture a reality. We talk about the the current state of lab grown meat, the importance of effective science communication in a field prone to hype or hysteria, and the community New Harvest are building through their events.

Related episodes:

Episode 45: Securing the Future of Food, with Thought for Food founder Christine Gould

Episode 26: Silicon Valley Science, with Ryan Bethencourt, the Program Director and Venture Partner at IndieBio

Episode 49: From Cambridge to the Commons

This episode features Julian Huppert, former Liberal Democrat MP for Cambridge, and now Director of the Intellectual Forum at Jesus College Cambridge.

We chat about Julian's journey from academia to the House of Commons where he was recognised as the only scientist, a label that Julian was keen to not define and confine his policy goals. We wanted to get his insight into the general state of scientific understanding in parliament, and how scientists can better engage politicians. There's an unfortunate stereotype that scientists hold politics at arm's length, and while there may not be a need for all scientists to be engaged at the policy making level, even minimal involvement (contacting local MPs, etc) can ensure that the topics that matter to researchers are heard.

We were also eager to dive into his new(ish) role as Director of the Intellectual Forum, an organisation that has critical thinking and open discussion at its core, covering an impressive breadth of topics which can essentially be boiled down to anything 'interesting and worthwhile', including the role of automation in the workplace, and addressing social mobility.

Related Episodes:

Episode 29: Bringing Science to the Senate, where we chat to UC Berkeley Biologist Michael Eisen about his run for senate, and how scientists cannot afford to be apart from politics.

Episode 48: Build. Test. Repeat.

This episode features our pals Ali Afshar and Ignacio Willats founders of Hackscience, a startup focussed on streamlining research by taking time consuming lab tasks out of hands of the scientists through automation. Their principle product currently is the cell feed exchanger, which replenishes the liquid food required for healthy cells in culture. This process can take hours out the day, and often requires the researcher to come in during weekends. Automating research also allows for science that is reproducible, and it seems that the future of biology is machine readable.

HackScience has its origins as a hackathon, with Ali keen to collide scientists and engineers to solve research problems, and Ignacio being well versed in hackathons, and startup development. The interdisciplinary nature of the hackathon nicely represents the constructive, collaborative nature of the ideal research environment, exposing two often isolated groups with the skillsets, and problem sets of the other.

Rapid prototyping is in the DNA of HackScience. This is characteristic of hackathons, but when combined with Co-Founder Ignacio's drive to always stay on top of the demands of researchers and iterate accordingly, has resulted in HackScience losing sight of the core mission which is to actually help researchers. 

One thing that was particularly interesting to hear about was Ali's dual life as a startup founder, and as an active PhD Researcher at Imperial College. We've spoken to researchers that have developed their startups as PhD's in their spare time (Episode 13 - Mark Hahnel), and founders who in order to really make a go of the company felt that leaving academia made the most sense (Episode 46 - Bethan Wolfenden). But Ali is operating under an exceptional set of circumstances. Working three days a week at Imperial developing the science behind printable solar cells and developing HackScience every hour of every other day. The balancing act is impressive, however it seemed Ali would not have it any other way, with the rapidity of startup life as a kind of hectic respite from the slow plod of research.

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* If you liked the episode be sure to subscribe on iTunes (or your podcast site of choice) and leave a rating/comment. It helps a bunch :)

** Other podcasts on similar topics:

Episode 28: Science's Mission Control, with Alok Tayi Founder  of TetraScience

Episode 46: From Side Project to Startup, with Bethan Wolfenden Co-Founder of BentoBio

Episode 47: Building the Impossible

This episode features Winfried Hensinger, Professor of Quantum Technologies at the University of Sussex. Following on from our chat with the brilliant Chad Rigetti, we were keen to get the academic perspective on the burgeoning field of quantum computing. We were immediately struck by Winfried's fire for this field, describing it as making science fiction a reality (he made his way into physics via a love of Star Trek).

We were keen to dive into the core challenges of building the technology, whether there's any fundamental physics left to do to make quantum computing (or whether it's now in the hands of the engineers), and the desperate need for coders willing to learn and develop quantum algorithms. 

Winfried was also very candid about how he feels physics and quantum physics in particular should be taught, through meaning rather than through rote learning of facts, and that nobody should be left behind when it comes to accessing this realm of physics.

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* The audio on Winfried's end does some strange things occasionally, however he was really an amazing person to chat to and so we wanted to get this episode out to you. We'll also be visiting his lab in the near future, so if you have any burning questions for an active quantum researchers, let us know and we'll ask it on the pod

** If you liked the episode be sure to subscribe on iTunes (or your podcast site of choice) and leave a rating/comment. It helps a bunch :)

*** Other podcasts on similar topics:

Episode 40: Quantum Computing in Startup Land, with Chad Rigetti Founder of Rigetti Computing
Episode 33: From Lab Bench to Marketplace, with Katie Rae CEO of MIT's Deep Tech Accelerator - The Engine

Show Notes

Theorists versus experimentalists

  • Harking back to episode with Mark Levinson where we discussed the rivalry between experimental and theoretical physicists 
  • Winfried’s experience is much more harmonious – he believes the two work best when they’re working together
  • The theorists learn the limits of experimentation in practice
  • The experimentalists can learn from the creative thinking and leaps of imagination of the theorists

Why are more people talking about quantum technologies now?

  • There are 2 technologies which have got to the point of not being restricted to fundamental physics research in order to advance
  • Super conducting qubits
  • Charged atoms – ions

Where are we right now in quantum computing?

  • Similar to computing in the 1940s
  • No one had personal computers, they were research projects
  • But they arguably won the war – so despite not being ‘out of the lab’, they still had huge impact
  • There were few applications to begin with, and only a few players had them
  • The software development took a while to advance
  • Lots of people ask why we haven’t yet made it to Mars – it’s a similar question around quantum computing
  • Still need all the engineering details reliably right
  • We need minds, money, infrastructure and time

Advancing physics education for a quantum future

  • Need computer scientists to help program these machines
  • Could count on one hand the number of quantum programmers in the UK
  • We don’t teach the amazing things out there in physics, in the classroom – we are losing brilliant minds to boredom
  • We can build what’s in science fiction – we can make it real…that’s what we should teach
  • At the undergrad level, should be encouraging research experience right at the start so as to get exposure of lab work and understand how to make things happen in the lab
  • Hark back to Chad Rigetti idea of teaching quantum mechanics by introducing first the idea of building a quantum computer – and work up to that
  • Idea of teaching meaning, not a historical timeline – problem-based teaching
  • “I want to know more”, not “Is this going to be in the exam?”

Corporate / Academic / Startup dynamics

  • University research groups are great at developing early prototypes and theory, and asking fundamental questions
  • Recently, Winni and his team published the ‘blueprints’ for a quantum computer
  • But university research groups aren’t the best place to do the building
  • You need reliability, manufacturing, engineers, and traditional formal employment systems
  • So Winni and his team are starting a company to do this – watch this space!

Forming strong networks to advance

  • National Quantum Technology Programme (£270m investment by the UK government to accelerate the translation of quantum tech into the marketplace)
  • 4 hubs of quantum research, and they work with each other and with companies
  • 1st phase of the project has been a huge success – and in order to refine the 2nd phase, focus needs to go on encouraging companies to commit, despite not being able to make a profit for ~10 years while research develops

Superconducting qubits v ion trapping

  • All will contribute to future of the technology – who can remember who ‘won’ in the development of computers in the 1940s?
  • There is simplicity in ion trapping, which Winni believes makes it a much more powerful system
  • No matter who ‘wins’, there will be translation of findings, skills
  • Cannot reduce it to ‘VHS v betamax’ – will be different machines with different strengths (IBM machine, Rigetti machine, Sussex machine!)

Debunking media myths

  • Quantum computers aren’t ‘fast computers’
  • They solve certain problems conventional computers could never solve, no matter how fast they become
  • The nature of the problem is different
  • You won’t own a quantum computer
  • You will operate on the cloud, buying time on them – so you will have to decide which problems to assign to the quantum computers, which are worth it
  • They will be large – about the size of a football field or a whole building

What else in science needs disrupted?

  • We shouldn’t underestimate blue sky research
  • Make education in schools such that more people realise the amazing things they can do with science
  • Cut out the boring stuff people teach simply because of tradition
  • Teach not by historical events, but by meaning
  • Widen participation in science
  • At Sussex they offer a foundation year to bring everyone’s science knowledge to the same level before the degree begins
  • Need more of this to get more people to enter science through alternative routes


Episode 46: From Side Project to Startup

This episode we chatted to Bethan Wolfenden, the co-founder of Bento Bioworks, a biotech startup that has created a 'laptop size laboratory'. This kit allows the user to perform simple DNA analysis and dramatically reduces the cost of the components you'd need to analyse samples, thus lowering the barrier to entry for molecular biology.

This episode is a very candid discussion about founding the company, as we cover the difficult decision to move on from a PhD to develop Bento.Bio and the challenges of crowdfunding the product (of which they had a successful KickStarter campaign). 

We also meander through the burgeoning DIY bio community, how the IGEM competition has informed her attitude towards science done within the confines of academia, and what citizen science can actually achieve (when it's not reduced to data collection) 

Other podcasts on similar topics:

If you liked the episode be sure to subscribe on iTunes (or your podcast site of choice) and leave a rating/comment. It helps a bunch :)

Episode 45: Securing the Future of Food

In this episode we chatted to Christine Gould, founder and CEO of the Thought for Food Foundation. Their annual conference, startup challenge and active community centres around the science and tech working to ensure we have enough food to feed the world. 

With Christine, we talked about how to bring together diverse groups of people - startups, scientists, designers, policy makers, corporates and, in particular, young people, to work towards solutions. She explained how the TFF annual summit is centred around experience design and a strong culture of innovation (openness, collaboration, beginner's mindset, entrepreneurial methods, purpose before paycheck and larger-than-life energy), and that this can be replicated across sectors. 

Christine was particularly passionate about how young people can build and design the future, and how critical their involvement is. 

We were particularly interested in Christine's attitude towards agriculture in 2017 being a place ripe for tech and science innovation, and hence, one of the most exciting sectors to be focusing on right now!

Episode 44: Leading the Automation Revolution

In this episode we chatted to Kristin Ellis, the Scientific Development Lead at OpenTrons, about all things science. OpenTrons is a company that builds affordable open-source lab robots, that remove the need to perform tedious manual pipetting tasks, to free up valuable time for researchers. 

We touched on the importance of good science communication and the unfair stigma that often impacts researchers that are keen to involve and talk to the public, and the true value of encouraging that "...and then it just clicks" moment with people previously disengaged with science. 

We also spoke about the innovative ways tinkerers have adapted their open-source robots, the value of putting automation into the hands of the many, and the attitude shift required in science to promote prototyping and hacking. We were keen to see how OpenTrons has been received by academics looking to streamline their research and were fascinated by their passage through Haxclr8tr (a hardware startup accelerator, now called HAX). Their relationship to Shenzhen is also pretty amazing - described as the silicon valley for hardware, the labyrinthine market in Shenzhen allows hardware hackers to rapidly test out ideas, a concept essentially intractable even with the electronic hardware superstores elsewhere.


Episode 43: Getting to Science 2.0

In this episode Tim O'Reilly (CEO of O'Reilly Media) joins us in a far reaching conversation spanning the whole science ecosystem. From the communication of science, to liberating knowledge generated by research from the confines of the static PDF, to the mutual learning experience of colliding technologists and academics,

Tim has been regarded as a thought leader in Silicon Valley over the past few decades, popularising the terms open source and web 2.0. So we were interested to see how he believes the rapid technological advancement of late could impact science and academic culture.. 

O'Reilly Media also operates an awesome conference called SciFoo. The event is a partnership between O'Reilly, Google, Digital Science, and the Nature Publishing Group which brings together an interdisciplinary cohort of scientists, as well as technologists and policy makers, so it was great to hear how Tim feels collaboration can be done in the 21st century. 

Episode 42: Taxonomy 2.0

This episode we speak to Jose Carranza, a deep learning PhD researcher in Costa Rica who has taken his expertise to an unexpected field, that of the biological classification of plants. 

We've spoken to plenty of former researchers who have moved out of the academy and into new ventures. However Jose's career has taken a different path, going from engineering roles at Intel and HP, back into academia to tackle a PhD. We were intrigued by the tough challenge of bringing AI to the field of botanical conservation, an area of research that is still highly qualitative, and the language barriers that must be overcome to make progress. These difficulties in communication are bi-directional, but with that said so are the opportunities for learning.

We also get into the value of herbarium's and classifying species in general, from the ecological consequences of understanding the biodiversity at a deep level, to raising the public's appreciation of the natural world (of which Jose is particular passionate). And whether there is a role for botanists in the future, given that deep learning has had great success finding new ways to classify plants - in short botanists have nothing to fear....phew!

Episode 41: Taking Action in Science

This episode we speak to Elizabeth Iorns who is the Founder and CEO of Science Exchange. We wanted to get Elizabeth's view on what it really takes change the status quo in science - both from a process perspective in the way we conduct ourselves in a lab with regards to suppliers, but also from an activation standpoint - instead of training people up on reproducibility, actually going out and making change using the resources she had access to. We are all about finding role models for change at Science: Disrupt, and Elizabeth is a perfect example of someone who takes action and builds the future - making scientific revolution seem just that bit more achievable.

Episode 40: Quantum Computing in Startup Land

We speak to Chad Rigetti, CEO of quantum computing startup Rigetti Computing. We dive deep into the challenges that face deep tech startups, the core debates within quantum computing, and what it's like to compete with the likes of Google in this brave new world of the future computer.

We wanted to get an insight into what's actually going on behind the scenes in the burgeoning quantum computing industry. We were also intrigued as to how a startup is able to play competitively in a space that requires so much up front investment and such a focus on experimental and theoretical research. 

Episode 39: Building Trust in the Digital Age

This episode we spoke to Imogen Bunyard, CoFounder of Qadre a startup focussed on building blockchain solutions that tackle trust issues within enterprises. This could include tackling the counterfeit drug market. Imogen has a particular knack for breaking down a complex topic (in this case the blockchain), grounding it reality, and imagining use cases that can really make a difference.

There's a lot of hype and plenty of misinformation around blockchain, it's either the domain of drug smugglers and the dark web; or like AI, it's presumed that it's a silver bullet for every company woe you can imagine. There's also little effort made to make the topic actually understandable, with convoluted analogies galore

We were keen to hear about the paucity of academic research in the field as researchers are drawn away from the academy. There's plenty of articles on the idea of brain drain, as corporates look to build up their intellectual inventory by essentially buying up scientists (sometimes even entire labs). Research skills in data science, computer vision, or AI are incredibly lucrative propositions for organisations, and the big tech companies are hoovering up research departments left and right but at least those fields had time to become established as topics of study within most universities.

Episode 38: Open Minds, Open Hardware

This episode was recorded in the bowels of Sussex University when we met up with Tom Baden a Neuroscientist interested in how the visual system processes information. Our motivation for chatting to Tom was a brilliant project called the FlyPi that he developed, along with Andre Chagas another Neuroscientist who joined us via the magic of Skype.

FlyPi is a great representation of a seemingly growing phenomena of DIY tools within the labs - you can read the paper for the specs, but in short it's a 3D printed lab for imaging experiments - specifically of the fruit fly (as the name FlyPi might suggest). Along with the FoldScope, and a number of other simple, cheap tools (including a fidget spinner centrifuge ...), the ability to probe the natural world in a meaningful way is being made available to a much wider audience.  
We spoke a bunch about Tom's Trend in Africa programme, which trains up researchers in underserved parts of the continent so they're up to scratch with the latest neuroscience tools/knowhow. We also discussed the broad topic of the maker movement in biology, the fear of experimenting with experiments, and the way that DIY hardware in science needs to be shown off in the appropriate venues (and that means not just buried away in the academic literature).

We thoroughly enjoyed chatting to Andre and Tom, and we left feeling energised that the spirit of ingenuity, of tinkering, and playing with science is alive and well.

Episode 37: Science in Seattle

This episode we speak to Zach Mueller, an Amazon Data Scientist and co-Founder of Sound.Bio, Seattle's first DIY Biohackspace. We wanted to hear about how they aim to build a community around biology, the challenges of setting up the lab, and the efforts they go to to educate Seattleites in modern biotech.

Zach comes to biology with little experience, in fact he was drawn to the field after listening to a podcast that spoke about IGEM, the synthetic biology competition for undergraduate teams. This idea of arriving at the lab with a minimal background in the science, is what these biohackspaces are all about. They're a place where you can experiment with experimenting, learn new skills, and join a community that is committed to producing value through biotech.

The space itself is kitted out with the kinds of tools you would expect in order to carry out modern biology experiments. However, the lab is also keen to leverage the skills and resourcefulness of the maker community, to really hammer home the important concept that biology doesn't have to be restricted to the confines of a university. Or perhaps more importantly, that participating in biology is not simply the reserve of institutions with pockets deep enough to purchase the latest tech.