Comments and reactions to the posts are welcome! Simply click on the "comment" line below each post to see previous comments or on the pencil icon to add a new one!

X-Mas party

Season's Greetings!

Today (07.02.2015) is INI X-mas Party. If you read this blog post in 
time, you will increase your chances of winning the X-mas Quiz tonight. 
See you there!

CapoCaccia 2014

It has being more than a month since two extraordinary things happened, one of these things that when experienced you know they will stick into your memories forever. The first one took place in the island of Sardinia, Italy, from the 28th of April until the 10th of May and it is being extraordinary since 2007. The second one happened to me on that same period, and I cannot but smile when I recall it. In order to describe the former, one has to understand first the previous, so the curious reader should wait until the final lines of this post for it to be unraveled.

What happened first is the following event: the 2014 CapoCaccia Neuromorphic Engineering Workshop. Sounds like science fiction right? Well, it almost is. Neuromorphic Engineering is a field born in the 80’s focused in developing new computing technologies inspired in how the brain works. The systems developed operate in an analogous mode, in contrast of the digital computers used today, and are able to overcome many of the current challenges of computing, such as pattern recognition, inference or sensory integration, all with very little power consumption. More than a hundred experts in the field got together in a remote hotel, in a cape of the island, to work in collaboration and discuss the challenges of this exciting new discipline.

One of the most impressive aspects of the workshop is its own structure. Instead of having a fixed set of defined talks and workgroups, the program evolves itself according to the interest of the participants. During the morning, experts of all areas of neuroscience, from neuroanatomy to artificial intelligence, give an overview of their field. However, no power point is allowed and they are forced to write everything on a board. This favors both a more didactic-oriented lecture and the interaction of the participants. During the afternoon and evening -always accompanied by an amazing degustation of local Sardinian gastronomy- the workgroups take place. The disco of the hotel gets converted into what it looks like a NASA station: full of cables, computers and all sorts of chips and robots. In there, scientist work closer together to accomplish different projects, sharing their technology, knowledge and vision.

This last point brings me into the second extraordinary fact that I mentioned at the beginning. During one of the workgroups some of the participants were trying to overcome a certain problem with one of the neuromorphic chips. While trying to fix it, they came up with an idea about how they could build that chip in the future in order to solve that problem and other related issues. Later on, in a discussion together with another group they mentioned this again. And here comes the beauty of the story: right after they mentioned this, one of the participants went to talk to them. He had already thought about something similar a few months ago and was trying to implement it with his research group, planning to publish it once it worked. I thought that there would be disappointment, because the nice idea was already being implemented. Instead, the other scientists were happy about it: somebody else was testing it already and they would all have the benefits sooner than expected.

It was right there, while I witnessed this situation, when the extraordinary thing happened. I was flashed back many years in time, when I used to see the world with more innocent eyes. Science entailed for me this romantic concept about people cooperating, sharing ideas and working together towards the goal of solving the unanswered questions of our nature. This romantic view of science got lost somehow during the past years, merely because I saw that the ultimate goal is very frequently prostituted, and the path towards it thus corrupted. The view I had in the past came back to my mind after seeing those scientists interact, and that is why I smiled.

CappoCaccia left into my memories many things, but there is one that dominates my thoughts every time I recall those days: it reminded me how science should be, and more important, why I want to be part of it.

- S. Soldado Magraner

Why Scientific Research Needs A Strong Political Lobby

Earlier this month, Swiss voters caused a small political earthquake by accepting the Swiss People’s Party’s initiative (SVP) “Stop Mass Immigration”. The initiative demands the reintroduction of immigration quotas, thereby threatening the continuation of the bilateral treaties with the European Union and openly calling into question the concept of free movement of people. The long-term consequences of this ballot cannot yet be assessed, but for research and education the immediate outcomes seem already painful enough: The EU stopped negotiations on Erasmus+, a pan-European student exchange programme [1], and temporarily suspended Switzerland’s participation in the 8th European Framework Programme for Research and Innovation, Horizon 2020 [2]. Because of this, Swiss universities are not only at risk of losing access to European research funding, but might also face unnecessary hindrances with regard to country-spanning collaborations.
This should not come as a surprise, however. The EU repeatedly warned Switzerland that imposing restrictions on the free movement of people – one of the Union’s four fundamental freedoms – would not be taken lightly and might put ongoing negotiations in jeopardy. One can be of different opinions whether the EU’s political retaliations in the aftermath of the ballot were prudent, but it certainly cannot be said that Swiss voters were not being informed about the possible consequences of accepting the initiative.
Now, Switzerland in general and Swiss research in particular is caught between a rock and a hard place: On one hand, the voters’ will to curb immigration must be respected – anything else would erode trust in our democratic institutions and could eventually lead to even more extreme initiatives in the future. On the other hand, international exchange and collaboration are essential for science and must not be sacrificed. I do not dare to make any suggestions on how Switzerland might find its way out of this dire situation, but I trust in the skills of our diplomats to come up with suitable solutions that prevent the worst.

Meanwhile, we should think about what we could do ourselves to prevent future political decisions that whittle away at the core elements of scientific success in this country. To this end, a revision of many scientists’ and students’ attitudes towards political engagement might be indicated. In a recent radio report about the termination of Erasmus+, one of the interviewed students literally demanded that “students should not be directly afflicted by political decisions” [3]. And I am pretty sure that not few scientists take quite a similar stance when it comes to their interests. To me, this bears witness of a disturbing negligence towards politics and it is simply wishful thinking to believe that political decisions would stop at universities’ doorsteps. Politics will always have an influence on science and research, whether we like it or not.

So why was there no fierce opposition of universities, research institutions or individual scientists against the SVP’s initiative, even though the danger emanating from it was evident? For me, it is hard to understand that academia did not speak up in the run-up to the ballot – especially since the involvement of academic voices in the political discussion could actually have been enough to tip the scale: The initiative got accepted by a tiny margin of barely 20000 votes. Swaying the opinion of only 10000 voters would have been enough to make a difference. In such a situation, even the fiercest defender of rational choice theory would need to admit that every single vote matters.
Nevertheless, academia remained silent. Neither the State Secretariat for Education, Research and Innovation nor the Swiss Academy of Sciences nor the Swiss National Science Foundation nor the Rectors’ Conference of the Swiss Universities nor any other organisation in the area of science and education appeared to be willing to throw its whole political weight into the balance in order to convince Swiss voters to reject the initiative.

To be fair, they did publish an open letter two weeks before the ballot [4].  But this was hardly more than a feeble attempt to remind people of the general importance of international cooperation and it found very little resonance in the media.
The reluctance to openly engage in the political debate was often explained by emphasising that science should remain apolitical. I agree with that. Science indeed must not be politicised. But there’s a crucial difference between introducing politics into science and taking a stand for the interests of science in politics. By abstaining from any real argument prior to the ballot, those urging science to remain neutral actually achieved the exact opposite of what they wanted: The outcome of the vote sucked Swiss research directly into the maelstrom of domestic politics and Swiss-European diplomacy. For better or worse, the reintroduction of immigration quotas is going to make Swiss universities dependent on the whims of politicians and bureaucrats when it comes to hiring foreign researchers. At the same time, the EU is using Erasmus+ and Horizon2020 as pawns in the unfolding game of foreign politics chess. I can hardly think of any scenario in which science could have been more politicised than now.

Interestingly, research representatives’ polite restraint has vanished all of sudden, now that even the most hardened sceptics have to admit that Switzerland’s decision would not remain unanswered by the EU. Newspapers have been flooded with interviews of university rectors, research pundits and science officials, all of them bemoaning the terrible consequences of the vote’s outcome and demanding a sensible adaptation of the initiative. A perfectly reasonable reaction in my opinion, but why wait until the die is cast? Why not show the same level of activism when it could actually have helped to prevent the whole muddle in the first place?

This ballot was not the first one at which scientific freedoms were at stake; nor will it be the last for that matter. Between 1985 and 1993, Swiss citizens had to decide a total of three times whether they wanted to abolish animal experimenting on Swiss soil (fortunately, they didn’t).  Yet, the protection of the dignity of animals got incorporated into the constitution in 1992, making it harder for researchers to justify animal testing, as this institute had to make the painful experience a few years ago [5].
But it could have turned out much worse: In 1998, an initiative demanding the complete prohibition of the use of transgenic organisms was put to the vote. Its acceptance would have crippled biomedical research in this country beyond repair, leading to a mass exodus of scientific talent. Luckily, the initiative failed clearly – not least thanks to strident political protests from researchers.
However, seven years later a majority of the population was in favour of a GM crop-ban which was primarily targeted at agriculture, but also hindered scientific research considerably. Originally intended to last for only five years, the ban has already been extended twice and will (at least) be in effect until 2017.

There are three things we can learn from these referenda: Firstly, Swiss voters usually decide in the interest of science and research, being aware of the paramount importance of the knowledge industry in this otherwise resource-poor country. Only in very few cases citizens decided to restrict scientific freedom. This is their legitimate right and it is fruitless to complain about the outcome of a democratic decision, however painful it might be for the scientific community. It is much more important – and this is the second point I would like to emphasise – that one’s arguments are heard at the proper time, i.e. before the vote is cast.
Democracy can only work if there is a well-balanced and thorough public discussion prior to any ballot. During the lively debates on GMOs in 2005, the supporters of a ban used hair-raising and sometimes even plainly wrong arguments in the course of their referendum campaign. Scientists bravely tried to refute unjustified fears of biotechnology, but by then it was already too late. They had failed to build up trust in the years before, when biotechnology was still in its infancy and the public’s opinion was not yet influenced by the distorting propaganda of ardent biotech opponents. At least, the outcome of the ballot served as a wake-up call, showing that scientific lobbying must be done consistently and over the course of an extended time-period.
In this way, the engagement of researchers and science pundits in political debates can indeed make a difference, as could be seen from the clear verdict against the initiative demanding the abolition of transgenic research in Switzerland. This is the third and most important lesson that we can draw from this short excursion into Swiss politics: Scientists do have political influence – as long as they are willing to go out on the ground and inform society about their point of view.
Of course, not all researchers in this country are Swiss citizens and are allowed to vote. In fact, the majority of them are not [6]. Nevertheless, their voice matters! Let us not forget that academia generally enjoys tremendous support within the population. Scientists should thus go public more often in order to present their work – and themselves. The more our fellow citizens know about the importance and the relevance of the research being conducted at universities and other institutions, the more accessible they will be for arguments coming from the scientific community.

In the realm of animal experimentation, the Basel Declaration Society formed in 2010 is aiming into this direction. By pointing out the importance of animal testing for scientific and medical progress, they try to raise society’s awareness of this delicate topic [7]. Another organisation – “Forschung für Leben” – also pursues the important goal of providing the public with information about biomedical research [8]. These are great initiatives and together with the efforts of state-run organisations such as the Swiss Academies of Arts and Sciences or the Swiss National Science Foundation they make a considerable contribution to boosting support for science and research.
Nevertheless, an overarching framework to promote the interests of science in politics has not been established yet – a careless omission in my opinion. Science needs a strong, reliable and trustworthy lobby in order to defend its principles; something that is particularly important in a semi-direct democracy like Switzerland. Here, it does not simply suffice to convince politicians and bureaucrats. One needs to be heard by the population as a whole.

Hence, a joint and decisive communication strategy of researchers, politicians and scientific lobbies could have convinced more people to reject the SVP’s populist initiative– and it might even have be sufficient to prevent the unpleasant situation Swiss research is currently stuck in.
The ballot’s outcome is not a complete disaster, but it certainly administered a detrimental blow to Switzerland’s longstanding relations with the European Union. The country is now forced to redefine and rethink its relationship with the EU – something neither political nor economic leaders dared to do in the course of the previous decade. It is going to be a journey into the unknown in which everybody needs to be pulling in the same direction in order to succeed. Thus, it is time for scientists to speak up and make themselves heard as well – among peers, in the political arena and – most importantly – in society. And there is not much time to waste: An even more radical initiative on immigration is waiting right around the corner and already foreshadows fierce political debates. When the time comes, science should not stay absent again. 
- S. Grüninger


Encounter with J. Lisman

Last Tuesday, I had the opportunity to attend a seminar by Prof. John Lisman, one of the most acknowledged experts in long-term synaptic plasticity and certainly one of the most influential neuroscientists of our times. I was fascinated by the content of his talk but his words went deeper then expected, eliciting a broad range of thoughts that I'd like to share.

As a romantic, Italian scientist, I couldn't avoid recognizing in Prof. Lisman one of the most beautiful stories in Academics. Though his appearance resembles the one of a senior researcher, nothing could arise more evidently than his childlike enthusiasm for every bit and piece of his life-long research. It was like watching my son when at his young age of 2 tries to tell me the story that mum bit the moon and now the moon is not rounded, with a contour of unimaginable surprise. So after flying over the myriad of impressive results that he and his collaborators have collected during the last decades, he finally landed on the Atlantis of his research, or the "Holy Grail" of his life, as he himself called it. The Holy Grail is a picture that shows that using CaMKII inhibitors, CN21 and CN19, it is possible to reverse LTP without destroying synapses (Lisman and Yasuda and Raghavachari, Nature, 2012). Because of this evergreen enthusiastic scientist, we are now able to understand some of the most intricate mechanisms of synaptic potentiation that links single proteins to synaptic plasticity and probably, but most certainly, behavior. We are closer-than-ever to the identification of the fundamental building blocks of memory formation through LTP, though such conclusive evidences on the link between CaMKII and memory are yet to be found. For that, Prof. Lisman hopes that the next experiment is going to be the "cherry on top".

I felt positive after his talk because several times I have experienced the same enthusiasm. I remember running home one day, after a long discussion with a colleague of mine, just for the fact that I couldn't contain the emotion deriving  from our conclusions. However, I am aware of the fact that emotion, passion, enthusiasm, these feelings can't make the whole story. They are the fuel of our life but whether the energy will ever be translated into practical outcomes or not, this is only up to us and our engines. Obviously a good amount of hard work is needed, so engines should work for long time at a good pace, but if one wants to win the race you also need good engines, good engineers to put them together, good maintenance, good practice and so on. For my own race, instead, what if some of the pieces above is missing and I can't do anything about it? What if my engines are just not powerful enough? Do I still have a chance to win the race? To me, winning the race means moving forward human knowledge, inspire new generations of researchers, have a real impact on people's life out of the lab. To be clear, John Lisman won his race. So to stay on the safe side, I will assume that some of the pieces are already missing. I probably don't have the best engine or perhaps there hasn't been perfect maintenance throughout the years. However my conclusion is that, fortunately, it doesn't matter and in fact there probably isn't any race to win in the first place. The race model is probably not a good model for a scientific career. Instead, the advance of human knowledge is determined by a coalesced stack of scientific contributions and our role of scientists, irrespective of the engine, is to keep the stack coalesced and bring it forward.

So, here is my model. As scientists, we are given a certain amount of dominoes, you know the ones with a number on one end and an other on the other end. Some of us is given tons of them, some just a few. While some have various ones, covering all different combinations of numbers, some have a just a bunch of equal pieces. Some can even acquire new ones every now and then during the game, and some don't. Some start with marble dominoes, some with wooden ones, some with shiny handcrafted dominoes made of crystal. Some scientists know the rules of the game, i.e., to stack dominoes if they have the same number on one side. Some misbehave at times and don't follow the rule but others can spot the blunder and can cut parts of the chain if the flaws are found. You know where this is going. Human knowledge is the Domino. Connecting more tiles makes the chain longer but this can be realized only if the right combinations of dominoes can be obtained with the available pieces. The chain cannot proceed any longer if the right combinations can't be satisfied. Though some scientists put tons of crystal tiles on the table, sometimes they need single marble or wooden tiles to stitch the parts together or even to just start their branch in the first place. Hence, irrespective of their nature, all dominoes are in fact fundamental pieces of the chain. Though the chain is mostly made of crystal, at a finer resolution we would notice that fewer marble and even fewer wooden tiles keep the chain all together.

I don't know if the above is a good model of science but is one that for the moment is helping me in defining my future career with more clarity. I like the Domino model because it resembles other interesting models of random growth where the mechanisms that rule the connections between particles are stochastic and their probabilities depend on some changing factors. In fact it is common in Physics to find situations where it is not important what the particles are or how they are built. What's more relevant, instead, is how they interact, just as single proteins bind in the synapse and lead to LTP.

F. Stefanini (Published with the kind permission of Prof. John Lisman.)

On the wiring of female and male brains

The data in the study concerned are derived from a technique called 
diffusion tensor imaging (DTI), which estimates how water diffuses along 
white matter tracts in the brain. The big advantage of DTI is that it 
can be used in living humans. Its big disadvantage is that even at best 
it gives only a very low resolution and thus partial picture of possible 
connections in the brain, and DTI is also rather poorly validated 
against 'gold standard' anatomical tracing methods that are routinely 
used in animal experiments. Thus, of the billions of connections made 
via the white matter of the human brain, DTI detects a tiny fraction of 
a percent and the method only indicates hypothetical anatomical 
connections and not any function. As a reality check one should take the 
example of the nematode worm, C elegans, which is the only animal for 
which we have a complete map of every connection in its nervous system. 
It has 302 neurons, compared to 85 billion in the human brain, yet no 
neuroscientist (or journalist) can tell you what is in the mind of this 
worm. Our knowledge of the connections in the human brain is 
poverty-stricken by comparison, yet this has not stopped some 
neuroscientists from linking their hypothetical structures of human 
neural networks, derived from techniques like DTI, directly to complex 
psychological process, as in the paper under discussion. Worse still, 
the media reinterpret and amplify the scientists conjectures to build 
their own confection of irresponsible speculation that bears little 
relation to the original data, as the present case so ably illustrates. 
- K. Martin 

Please believe my results!

»I don’t believe a word of what you say.«
My supervisor shook his head. »This effect is minimal. How do you want to argue it is relevant at all?«
I stared at him in surprise. Couldn’t he see that my data were significant, even if only marginally? Should all my efforts count for nothing? Was he seriously suggesting that there was a flaw in my reasoning? Did I need to reconsider my basic assumptions? Could it really be that my scientific investigations led to a deceptive conclusion?
So I went and pondered over my research. Research – what was I searching for? Knowledge? Wisdom? Truth? Solutions to overcome our human weaknesses and limitations? Fame? Recognition? Self-affirmation? Power? Progress?
Obviously my current results could not satisfy my thirst for knowledge. In the end, it didn’t matter if there were more excitatory than inhibitory neurons, which were the names of the many proteins involved in the presynaptic machinery and what fraction of brain connections could be called long-range rather than local.
Or could these findings point to more important answers? Could they help us understand who we are, why we can rightly assume that we are able to think logically, why we strive to make sense of our lives and the universe we find ourselves in?
After all, science influences our perception. The more we learn about the incredible dimensions of space, the more we fall silent in awe. The Earth – an isle teeming with life – seems so infinitely insignificant. On the other hand, we find similar orders of magnitude when we replace the telescope with the microscope. So physical size may be the wrong indicator of relevance. Studying biological systems at different scales has been a inexhaustible source of inspiration for technical achievements – or should we call them imitations?
Smiling again, I leaned back. Surely my investigations promised to remain interesting; they might even reveal new secrets. At least they would have an impact on me.
And hopefully my next findings would be convincing, so that others didn’t have to believe in my results, but would only believe in the (well-founded) conclusions they drew from them.

- F. Sägesser