Archive for the Science Politics Category

A Note to the Physics REF Panel

Posted in Education, Finance, Science Politics with tags , , , on April 23, 2014 by telescoper

I’ve just been skimming through an interesting report about the strength of UK physics research. One of the conclusions of said document is that UK physics research is the best in the world in terms of quality.

I couldn’t resist a brief post to point this out to any members of the Physics panel involved in the 2014 Research Excellence Framework. My motivation for doing this is that the Physics panel of the 2008 Research Assessment Exercise evidently came to the conclusion that UK physics research wasn’t very good at all, awarding a very much lower fraction of 4* (world-leading) grades than many other disciplines, including chemistry. I’ve never understood why the Panel arrived at such a low opinion of its own discipline, but there you go..

Physics departments across the country have fought very hard to recover from the financial and reputational damage inflicted by the 2008 RAE panel’s judgement. Let’s just hope there isn’t another unwarranted slap in the face in store when the 2014 results are announced later this year…

Day Trip to Harwell

Posted in Education, Science Politics with tags , , , on April 1, 2014 by telescoper

Only time for a quick post as I’ve just got back from a visit to the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory which is located at Harwell (in the heart of the Midlands).

I was there to find out about the Science and Technology Facilities Council‘s Apprenticeship scheme, as we are planning to introduce a similar scheme at the University of Sussex and needed some advice about how to set it up. I hope to write more about that in due course.

Anyway, it was a very informative and useful visit with the added bonus that we also got an impromptu guided tour of the Diamond Light Source (and its associated workshops where some of the current STFC apprentices are employed). The Diamond Light Source is actually shut down at the moment so various upgrades can be performed, and we were therefore allowed up close to where the beam lines are. That was very interesting indeed, especially when I saw that special devices are apparently deployed to counteract the effects of Cold Dark Matter..

Clover: What Might Have Been

Posted in Science Politics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , on March 23, 2014 by telescoper

Quite a few people have been asking me whether the UK’s cancelled B-mode experiment, Clover, could have detected what BICEP2 may  have found; I’m still not convinced, by the way. It therefore seemed apt to do a quick post in order to direct you to relevant sources of information. If you’re interested in Clover’s capabilities you can find a nice summary on the ArXiv here. The abstract reads:

We describe the objectives, design and predicted performance of Clover, which is a ground-based experiment to measure the faint “B-mode” polarisation pattern in the cosmic microwave background (CMB). To achieve this goal, clover will make polarimetric observations of approximately 1000 deg^2 of the sky in spectral bands centred on 97, 150 and 225 GHz. The observations will be made with a two-mirror compact range antenna fed by profiled corrugated horns. The telescope beam sizes for each band are 7.5, 5.5 and 5.5 arcmin, respectively. The polarisation of the sky will be measured with a rotating half-wave plate and stationary analyser, which will be an orthomode transducer. The sky coverage combined with the angular resolution will allow us to measure the angular power spectra between 20 < l < 1000. Each frequency band will employ 192 single polarisation, photon noise limited TES bolometers cooled to 100 mK. The background-limited sensitivity of these detector arrays will allow us to constrain the tensor-to-scalar ratio to 0.026 at 3sigma, assuming any polarised foreground signals can be subtracted with minimal degradation to the 150 GHz sensitivity. Systematic errors will be mitigated by modulating the polarisation of the sky signals with the rotating half-wave plate, fast azimuth scans and periodic telescope rotations about its boresight. The three spectral bands will be divided into two separate but nearly identical instruments – one for 97 GHz and another for 150 and 225 GHz. The two instruments will be sited on identical three-axis mounts in the Atacama Desert in Chile near Pampa la Bola. Observations are expected to begin in late 2009.

The following points, gleaned from a very quick skimming of the above paper, are worth noting (but please note the important corrections and clarifications in the comments below from the first author of the above paper and also bear in mind that the Clover numbers are estimated rather than based on actual measurements):

  1. The sky coverage of Clover would have been 1000 square degrees, compared with 380 square degrees of BICEP2
  2. Clover measurements would have been made at three frequencies, 97 GHz, 150 GHz and 225 GHz. This would have enabled the possibility of foreground contamination to be rejected with much greater confidence than in BICEP2 (which only operates at 150 GHz)
  3. The sensitivity of Clover at 150 GHz (the frequency at which BICEP2 operates) would have been about 1.4 times better than BICEP2
  4. Had it gone ahead, Clover would have started taking data at around the same time as BICEP2 (perhaps even a bit earlier).
  5. Clover was originally intended to be positioned at the South Pole, where observing conditions are better than in Chile and where BICEP2 is placed, but this was in the middle of STFC’s financial crisis and running costs would have been much higher than the alternative location in Chile. This might have had a negative impact on its sensitivity.

Here’s a plot from the above paper showing a the anticipated measurement if the tensor scalar ratio had been 0.1; BICEP2 detection (if real) corresponds to a signal twice this amplitude:


In other words, we don’t know whether Clover would have hit its target sensitivity and there are many other imponderables, but  it’s a very great shame it never got the chance to try…

Some B-Mode Background

Posted in Astrohype, Science Politics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on March 15, 2014 by telescoper

Well, in case you hadn’t noticed, the cosmology rumour mill has gone into overdrive this weekend primarily concerning the possibility that an experiment known as BICEP (an acronym formed from Background Imaging of Cosmic Extragalactic Polarization). These rumours have been circulating since it was announced last week that the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) will host a press conference  on Monday, March 17th, to announce “a major discovery”. The grapevine is full of possibilities, but it seems fairly clear that the “major discovery” is related to one of the most exciting challenges facing the current generation of cosmologists, namely to locate in the pattern of fluctuations in the cosmic microwave background evidence for the primordial gravitational waves predicted by models of the Universe that involve inflation.

Anyway, I thought I’d add a bit of background on here to help those interested make sense of whatever is announced on Monday evening.

Looking only at the temperature variation across the sky, it is not possible to distinguish between tensor  (gravitational wave) and scalar (density wave) contributions  (both of which are predicted to be excited during the inflationary epoch).  However, scattering of photons off electrons is expected to leave the radiation slightly polarized (at the level of a few percent). This gives us additional information in the form of the  polarization angle at each point on the sky and this extra clue should, in principle, enable us to disentangle the tensor and scalar components.

The polarization signal can be decomposed into two basic types depending on whether the pattern has  odd or even parity, as shown in the nice diagram (from a paper by James Bartlett)

The top row shows the E-mode (which look the same when reflected in a mirror and can be produced by either scalar or tensor modes) and the bottom shows the B-mode (which have a definite handedness that changes when mirror-reflected and which can’t be generated by scalar modes because they can’t have odd parity).

The B-mode is therefore (at least in principle)  a clean diagnostic of the presence of gravitational waves in the early Universe. Unfortunately, however, the B-mode is predicted to be very small, about 100 times smaller than the E-mode, and foreground contamination is likely to be a very serious issue for any experiment trying to detect it. To be convinced that what is being measured is cosmological rather than some sort of contaminant one would have to see the signal repeated across a range of different wavelengths.

Moreover, primordial gravitational waves are not the only way that a cosmological B-mode signal could be generated. Less than a year ago, a paper appeared on the arXiv by Hanson et al. from SPTpol, an experiment which aims to measure the polarization of the cosmic microwave background using the South Pole Telescope. The principal result of this paper was to demonstrate a convincing detection of the so-called “B-mode” of polarization from gravitational lensing of the microwave background photons as they pass through the gravitational field generated by the matter distributed through the Universe. Gravitational lensing can produce the same kind of shearing effect that gravitational waves generate, so it’s important to separate this “line-of-sight” effect from truly primordial signals.

So we wait with bated breath to see exactly what is announced on Monday. In particular, it will be extremely interesting to see whether the new results from BICEP are consistent with the recently published conclusions from Planck. Although Planck has not yet released the analysis of its own polarization data, analysis of the temperature fluctuations yields a (somewhat model-dependent) conclusion that the ratio of tensor to scalar contributions to the CMB pattern is no more than about 11 per cent, usually phrased in the terms, i.e. R<0.11. A quick (and possibly inaccurate) back-of-the-envelope calculation using the published expected sensitivity of BICEP suggests that if they have made a detection it might be above that limit. That would be really interesting because it might indicate that something is going on which is not consistent with the standard framework. The limits on R arising from temperature studies alone assume that both scalar and tensor perturbations are generated by a relatively simple inflationary model belonging to a class in which there is a direct relationship between the relative amplitudes of the two modes (and the shape of the perturbation spectrum). So far everything we have learned from CMB analysis is broadly consistent with this simplifying assumption being correct. Are we about to see evidence that the early Universe was more complex than we thought? We'll just have to wait and see…

Incidentally, once upon a time there was a British experiment called Clover (involving the Universities of  Cardiff, Oxford, Cambridge and Manchester) which was designed to detect the primordial B-mode signal from its vantage point in Chile. I won’t describe it in more detail here, for reasons which will become obvious.

The chance to get involved in a high-profile cosmological experiment was one of the reasons I moved to Cardiff in 2007, and I was looking forward to seeing the data arriving for analysis. Although I’m primarily a theorist, I have some experience in advanced statistical methods that might have been useful in analysing the output.  Unfortunately, however, none of that actually happened. Because of its budget crisis, and despite the fact that it had spent a large amount (£4.5M) on it already,  STFC decided to withdraw the funding needed to complete it (£2.5M)  and cancelled the Clover experiment. Had it gone ahead it would probably have had two years’ data in the bag by now.

It wasn’t clear that Clover would have won the race to detect the B-mode cosmological polarization, but it’s a real shame it was withdrawn as a non-starter. C’est la vie.

It’s Official, it’s PLATO!

Posted in Science Politics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , on February 19, 2014 by telescoper

Just a quick post to pass on the news that the European Space Agency has officially selected the third M-Class mission to form part of its Cosmic Vision Programme (which covers the period 2015-2025). The lucky winner is PLATO (PLAnetary Transits and  Oscillations of stars) and it will detect extra-solar planets by monitoring relatively nearby stars, searching for tiny, regular dips in brightness as planets transit in front of them. It will also study astroseismological activity, enabling a precise characterisation of the host star of each planet discovered, including its mass, radius and age.

plato_satelliteIt is expected that PLATO will find and analyse thousands of  such exoplanetary systems in this way, with an emphasis on discovering and characterizing Earth-sized planets and super-Earths in the habitable zone of their parent star. PLATO will be launched on a Soyuz rocket from Europe’s Spaceport in Kourou by 2024 for an initial six-year mission. It will operate from the Second Lagrange Point, or L2 for short. It’s an intriguing design consisting of 34 small telescopes (left).

PLATO joins Solar Orbiter and Euclid, which were chosen in 2011 as ESA’s first two M-class missions. Solar Orbiter will be launched in 2017 to study the Sun and solar wind from a distance of less than 50 million km, while Euclid, to be launched in 2020, will focus on dark energy, dark matter and the structure of the Universe.

The decision to select PLATO wasn’t exactly a surprise as it was singled out as the leading candidate by an expert panel last month, but there was nevertheless some nervousness among certain senior astronomers at the Royal Astronomical Society on Friday in advance of the formal decision. I suspect they’ll all be out celebrating tonight!

The Royal Observatory Bomb and the Rise of Unreason

Posted in History, Literature, Politics, Science Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , on February 16, 2014 by telescoper

I missed the anniversary by a day but I thought I’d pass on a fascinating but very sad little bit of history. One hundred and twenty years ago yesterday, on February 15th 1894, a 26-year old Frenchman by the name of Martial Bourdin blew himself up near the Royal Observatory in Greenwich. His death seems to have been an accident caused by the bomb he was carrying going off prematurely. It is not really known either whether the bomb was meant for the Royal Observatory or somewhere else. Anarchist attacks involving bombs were not uncommon in the 1890s and the range of targets was very wide.


Bourdin was found alive, though very seriously injured, by people who heard the blast. Though able to speak he did not offer any explanation for what had happened. He died about half an hour later.

This sad and perplexing story inspired Joseph Conrad‘s famous novel The Secret Agent. Conrad added an “Author’s Note” to the manuscript of his book:

The attempt to blow up the Greenwich Observatory: a blood-stained inanity of so fatuous a kind that is is impossible to fathom its origin by any reasonable or even unreasonable process of thought. For perverse unreason has its own logical processes. But that outrage could not be laid hold of mentally in any sort of way, so that one remained faced by the fact of a man blown to pieces for nothing even most remotely resembling an idea, anarchistic or other. As to the outer wall of the Observatory, it did not show as much as the faintest crack.

We’ll never know what Bourdin’s motivations were; perhaps he didn’t really know himself. He is usually described as an “anarchist” although that term describes such a wide spectrum of political beliefs that it doesn’t really explain Bourdin’s actions; not all anarchists embrace violence and aggression, for example, although some – such as the members of Class War – clearly do. At one end of the anarchist spectrum there are the violent thugs who are nothing more than the mirror image of fascism and at the other there are reasonable intelligent people who simply don’t believe in hierarchical structures.

Brighton has its share of anarchists and the thing that’s most noticeable about them to an outsider like me is their conformity; the dress code is apparently very strictly enforced. The obvious irony aside, this suggests to me that much of the attraction of being an anarchist is not really the existence of a compelling political philosophy, but simply to fulfill the need to belong to something.

The main thing that occurred to me yesterday while I was reading about the Greenwich Observatory bomb plot concerns the implications of the location. If the Royal Observatory was the intended target then why was it so? The simple answer is that a core belief for most varieties of anarchist is their opposition to “the State”. A powerful symbol of the British state in 1894 was the Royal Navy; it was Britain’s maritime traditions that led to the founding of the Royal Observatory in the first place and most of the work carried out there involved accurate positional measurements designed to help with navigation. Or maybe it was to do with the role of the Observatory in defining the time? Insofar as acts like this make any sense at all, these seem reasonable interpretations. 

I’m tempted to suggest that the adoption of Greenwich as the Prime Meridian in 1884 may have given a young Frenchman additional grounds for resentment..

A different answer from the suggestion that it was an anti-establishment gesture stems from  the conflict between anarchism and the nature of scientific knowledge. Anarchists usually express their beliefs in terms of the desire to make society more “equal” and “democratic”, so that decisions should be made collectively for the common good. I’m happy with that line of argument, and agree that we should all enjoy equal rights versus the government and other institutions, and in relation to one another. However, having equal rights does not mean having equal knowledge and it doesn’t mean that any person’s opinion about anything is as good as anyone else’s. What I mean is that there are scientific experts, and the knowledge they possess has demonstrable value.

The approach of some to this challenge is simply to deny the value of scientific knowledge, and assert instead that it’s just a social construct like anything else. I am aware of a number of so-called social scientists at the University of Sussex and elsewhere who hold this view; my usual response is to ask them whether they regard witchcraft or crystal healing as equal to orthodox medicine.

CLARIFICATION: Please note I do not mean to imply that all social scientists hold the opinions described above. I’m fully aware that they are fringe views. The phrase “so-called social scientists” does not refer to all social scientists, just the fringe in much the same way I’d use “so-called geographers” to describe the Flat Earth Society.

I’m not trying to suggest that members of the Department of Sociology are plotting to blow up the Astronomy Centre! What I do think that while we should always strive to be as democratic as possible there are always limits, not just because of what is practically possible but also what is socially desirable. Any organization in which everyone votes about every decision that has to be made would struggle to function at all. We have to find ways of working that make best use of the different skills and knowledge we all possess.

A constructive approach is to argue that if we are to build  a more democratic society it is first necessary to greatly increase the level of scientific literacy in the population, so that more people can make informed decisions about the big issues facing the future, such as how we fulfill our energy requirements for the next 30 years and how we cope with global warming. That will not be an easy thing to do given the dearth of scientists in Parliament and in the media, but that’s not an argument for not trying.

Symptomatic of the widespread rejection of science among the politically disaffected is the lamentable state of Green politics in the United Kingdom. In my opinion there is huge potential for a scientifically-informed political movement focussed on environmental issues. Unfortunately the current Green Party is anti-science to the core, which would doom it to perpetual marginalization even without the loss of credibility stemming from the childish antics of the only Green MP, Caroline Lucas. I know that many will argue with me about whether the Green Party should be included in “The Left”, but since both Labour and Conservative parties now belong to the Centre-Right it seems a sensible classification to me.

It hasn’t always been like this. As Alice Rose Bell pointed out in a Guardian piece some time ago, there have been examples of constructive engagement between science and left-wing politics. This seems to me to have largely evaporated. I don’t think that’s so much because scientists have rejected the left. It’s more that the left has rejected science.

More Cuts to University Funding

Posted in Education, Politics, Science Politics with tags , , , , , , on February 11, 2014 by telescoper

Grim news arrived yesterday with the announcement by the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills of further deep cuts in funding for Higher Education in England. This announcement has been delayed due to internal wrangling over the allocation of funds but in the end the grant letter to HEFCE makes little attempt to sugar the pill:

The settlement will mean reductions in HEFCE funding for higher education institutions in 2014-15 and again in 2015-16 beyond those accounted for by the switch to publicly funded tuition fees. The Government has asked HEFCE to deliver the reductions in ways which protect as far as possible high-cost subjects (including STEM), widening participation (which is funded via the HEFCE Student Opportunity allocation), and small and specialist institutions.

The science budget is, of course, “ring-fenced” which means that recurrent funding for that is maintained at £1,573 million, the same cash levels as 2013-14. This has, for example, translated into the expected flat cash settlement for the Science & Technology Facilities Council (STFC), although there has been some rejigging of the way this money is allocated within STFC, and an apparent increase in funds available for international subscriptions. At least this should unblock the numerous programmes in STFC and elsewhere in the Research Councils that have been on hold pending the final budget allocations.

That said, the overall picture looks very bleak for Higher Education. The really important figure for HEFCE is buried in Annex 2 of the latest grant letter, which reveals that, including the ring-fenced funds, HEFCE will have just £4,091 million to allocate in 2014/15. The corresponding figure for the current year, 2013/14, was £5,014 million. That’s a cut in cash terms of an eye-watering 18.4%.

The scale of the cuts makes it even more likely that if they continue there will be very little money available for HEFCE to allocate as a result of the 2014 Research Excellence Framework, in which case the vast expenditure across the sector preparing for that exercise may will have been wasted too.

For the time being, however, it seems that research has been spared the axe. The bulk of the cuts will therefore fall on teaching grants. HEFCE has been instructed to try to protect STEM subjects as it cuts expenditure on teaching, but will it be able to? The extra funds that have previously supplemented tuition fees have been steadily whittled away anyway, so expensive subjects like Physics only get about £1000 per year more than Arts subjects. There is already a strong incentive in the current funding model for universities to expand cheap subjects. That pressure will only increase with this new settlement.

The last paragraph of the grant letter says:

We recognise that our universities are one of our most valuable national assets. Higher education transforms people’s lives through excellent teaching and transforms society through research and the application of knowledge. The Government’s reforms have laid the foundations for a more securely funded, stronger, more confident and more responsive higher education sector. We will continue to work with the Council and the sector to communicate the enduring value of higher education to potential students and the wider world.

I’m sure readers of this blog will forgive me if I suggest that these words are rendered meaningless by the scale of the cuts announced in the grant letter. If the government really regarded our universities as “valuable national assets” it would be increasing investment in them, not cutting it. What worries me most is that these cuts will never be reversed, whatever the complexion of the next government as there seems to be more enthusiasm across the political spectrum for continued cuts than for investment in the future education of our young people. I’m increasingly ashamed of the legacy being left by my own generation.

Boycott Nature and Science!

Posted in Open Access, Science Politics with tags , , , , on December 11, 2013 by telescoper

On Tuesday Randy Schekman, joint winner of the 2013 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine hit out at academic publishers for the way the most “prestigious” journals (specifically Cell, Nature and Science) publish only the “flashiest” research.  I see his announcement as part of a groundswell of opinion that scientists are being increasingly pressured to worry more about the impact factors of the journals they publish in than about the actual science that they do. Cynics have been quick to point out that his statements have emerged only after he received the Nobel Prize, and that it’s difficult for younger researchers who have to build their careers in a world to break free from the metrics that are strangling many disciplines. I feel, as do some of my colleagues (such as Garret Cotter of Oxford University), that it’s time for established researchers to make a stand and turn away from those publishers that we feel are having a negative impact on science and instead go for alternative modes of publication that are in better keeping with the spirit of open science.

In future, therefore, I’ll be boycotting Nature and Science (I don’t publish in Cell anyway) and I call upon my colleagues to do likewise. Here’s a nice logo (courtesy of Garrett Cotter) that you might find useful should you wish to support the boycott.


ps. For the record I should point out that during my career I have published four papers in Nature and one in Science.

Quantum Technology – a Sussex Strength

Posted in Finance, Politics, Science Politics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , on December 9, 2013 by telescoper

Amid all the doom and gloom in the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement delivered last week there’s a ray of sunshine for research in Physics in the form of an injection of around £270 million in Quantum Technology. According to the Financial Times,

The money will support a national network of five research centres, covering quantum computing, secure communications, sensors, measurement and simulation.

Details of the scheme are yet to be released, but it seems the network will consist of “regional centres” although how evenly it will be spread across the regions remains to be seen. How many will be in the Midlands, for example?

We’re very happy here with this announcement here in the School of Physics & Astronomy at the University of Sussex as we have a well-established and expanding major research activity in Quantum Technology and an MSc Course called Frontiers of Quantum Technology. Moreover, as members of the South East Physics Network (SEPNet) we seem to be in a good position to be for funds as a truly regional centre. Assuming, that is, that the scheme hasn’t already been divvied up behind closed doors before it was even announced!

The investment announced by the government mirrors a growing realization of the potential for economic exploitation of, e.g., quantum computing which is bound to lead to a new range of career opportunities for budding physics graduates.

I’d welcome any comments from people who know any more information about the details of the new investment, as I’m too lazy to search for it myself…

Service Complet

Posted in Biographical, Science Politics with tags , on December 3, 2013 by telescoper

Just time for a quick post from the London to Brighton train, having spent the day at my last ever “Plenary” meeting of the Astronomy Grants Panel of the Science and Technology Facilities Council which was held at the Institute of Physics. This meeting marks the end of the annual grants round; in January there’ll be a meeting to kick off next year’s business.

I’ve been on this panel for four years now, so I think I’ve done my bit. Time for some new blood to replace those of us who have been stood down.

Anyway I just want to say a big public thank you to the STFC staff, especially Kim, Diane, and Colin for doing their best to keep the panel members in order, as well as to Theory sub-Panel Chair Tom and overall Chair Andy who are also stepping down.

Better is the end of a thing than the beginning thereof. I refer to the day, not the AGP, because it began with a major wobbly in Victoria station on the way to the IOP but ended with a couple of pints and a nice chinwag in the pub round the corner..


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