Archive for the Science Politics Category

Hard BrExit Reality Bites UK Science

Posted in Politics, Science Politics with tags , , , , , , on January 17, 2017 by telescoper

Before lunch today I listened to the Prime Minister’s much-heralded speech (full text here) at Lancaster House giving a bit more detail about the UK government’s approach to forthcoming negotiations to leave the European Union. As I had expected the speech was mainly concerned with stating the obvious – especially about the UK leaving the so-called Single Market – though there was an interesting, if rather muddled, discussion of some kind of associate membership of the Customs Union.

As I said when I blogged about the EU Referendum result back in June last year

For example, there will be no access to the single market post-BrExit without free movement of people.

The EU has made it perfectly clear all along that it will not compromise on the “four freedoms” that represent the principles on which the Single Market (correct name; “Internal Market”) is based. The UK government has also made it clear that it is running scared of the anti-immigration lobby in the Conservative Party and UKIP, despite the mountain of evidence (e.g. here) that immigration actually benefits the UK economy rather than harming it. A so-called “hard BrExit” approach has therefore been inevitable from the outset.

In any case, it always seemed to me that leaving the EU (and therefore giving up democratic representation on the bodies that govern the single market) but remaining in the Single Market would be completely illogical to anyone motivated by the issue of “sovereignty” (whatever that means).  So I think it always was – and still is – a choice between a hard BrExit and no BrExit at all. There’s no question in my mind – and Theresa May’s speech has hardened my views considerably – that remaining in the EU is by far the best option for the UK. That outcome is looking unlikely now, but there is still a long way to go and many questions have still to be answered, including whether the Article 50 notification can be revoked and whether the devolved assemblies in Scotland and Northern Ireland have to give separate consent. Interestingly, the Conservative Party manifesto for the 2015 General Election included a commitment to work within the Single Market, so it would be within the constitutional limits on the House of Lords to vote down any attempt to leave it.

Overall, I felt the speech was worthwhile insofar as it gave a bit of clarity on some issues, but it was also full of contradictions on others. For example, early on the PM stated:

Parliamentary sovereignty is the basis of our constitution.

Correct, but in that case why did the UK government appeal the High Court’s decision that this was the case (i.e. that Parliamentary consent was needed to invoke Article 50)? Moreover, why if she thinks Parliament is so important did she not give today’s speech in the House of Commons?

This brings me to what the speech might imply for British science in a post-BrExit era. Here’s what I said in June 2016:

It’s all very uncertain, of course, but it seems to me that as things stand, any deal that involves free movement within Europe would be unacceptable to the powerful  UK anti-immigration lobby. This rules out a “Norway” type deal, among others, and almost certainly means there will be no access to any science EU funding schemes post 2020. Free movement is essential to the way most of these schemes operate anyway.

I’m by no means always right, but I think I was right about that. It is now clear that UK scientists will not be eligible for EU funding under the Horizon 2020 programme.  Switzerland (which is in the Single Market) wasn’t allowed to remain in Horizon 2020 without freedom of movement, and neither will the UK. If the PM does indeed trigger Article 50 by the end of March 2017 then we will leave the EU by April 2019. That means that existing EU projects and funding will probably be stopped at that point, although the UK government has pledged to provide short-term replacement funding for grants already awarded. From now on it seems likely that EU teams will seek to exclude UK scientists.

This exclusion is not an unexpected outcome, but still disappointing. The PM’s speech states:

One of our great strengths as a nation is the breadth and depth of our academic and scientific communities, backed up by some of the world’s best universities. And we have a proud history of leading and supporting cutting-edge research and innovation.

So we will also welcome agreement to continue to collaborate with our European partners on major science, research, and technology initiatives.

From space exploration to clean energy to medical technologies, Britain will remain at the forefront of collective endeavours to better understand, and make better, the world in which we live.

Warm words, but it’s hard to reconcile them with reality.  We used to be “leading” EU collaborative teams. In a few years we’ll  be left standing on the touchlines. The future looks very challenging for science, and especially for fundamental science, in the UK.

But the politics around EU science programmes pales into insignificance compared the toxic atmosphere of xenophobia that has engulfed much of the UK. The overt policy of the government to treat EU citizens in the UK as bargaining chips will cause untold stress, as will the Home Office’s heavy-handed approach to those who seek to confirm the permanent residence they will otherwise lose when the UK leaves the EU. Why should anyone – scientist or otherwise – stay in this country to be treated in such a way? 

All of this makes me think those scientists I know who have already left the UK for EU institutions probably made the right decision. The question is how many more will follow?

Lord Rees on the Threat to UK Science

Posted in Politics, Science Politics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , on October 6, 2016 by telescoper

In case you missed the comments by Lord Rees on Newsnight in the wake of the announcement of this year’s Nobel Prizes for Physics, here is a video.

Martin is always impeccably polite but I sense he must have been outraged by the statements made by Home Secretary Amber Rudd at the Conservative Party Conference this week, some of which seem to have been taking directly from Mein Kampf. Prior to this interview, the most extreme word I’ve ever hard Martin use was “reprehensible” – and that on an occasion when he was clearly angry. His use of the word “deplorable” here is very significant.

Quite apart the threat to science, I have to admit I’m extremely worried about the direction this country is taking. Perhaps someone should tell Prime Minister Theresa May that the referendum wasn’t about leaving the League of Nations and that this isn’t 1933. The parallels with Germany are striking. In that case it didn’t end with the identification and deportation of foreign workers. Yesterday Theresa May stated that anyone who describes themselves as a “Citizen of the World” is really a “Citizen of Nowhere”. I’ve never felt less at home in my own country than I do now.

A few days before the referendum a wrote a post that included this:

Of course I’m not saying that all those who want the UK to Leave the EU are fascists. Far from it. Many – indeed the majority – are reasonable, civilised people. But like it or not, if you vote Leave you’re voting the way the far right want you to vote. I for one will not take a single step in that direction. Fascism only needs a foot in the door. I fear that the domestic political consequences of BrExit will give it far more than that. Once they get hold of it, we’ll never get our country back.

My fear is even more real now than it was then.


The 2016 Nobel Prize for Physics goes to David Thouless, Duncan Haldane and Michael Kosterlitz

Posted in Science Politics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , , on October 4, 2016 by telescoper

Well, as I suspected, the Nobel Prize Committee for Physics played with a very straight bat and did not award this years Prize to gravitational waves. I thought there was a reasonable chance they might bend the rules, and the polling was very even , so clearly some people thought so too. Anyway, I don’t think any bookmakers will be taking bets on next year!

Anyway, none of this should detract at all from the winner. Half this year’s prize was awarded to David J. Thouless (University of Washington, Seattle, WA, USA)  and the other half to F. Duncan M. Haldane (Princeton University, NJ, USA) and J. Michael Kosterlitz
(Brown University, Providence, RI, USA)

”for theoretical discoveries of topological phase transitions and topological phases of matter”

Although they now live and work in the USA, all three of the winners were born in the United Kingdom (two of them, Kosterlitz and Thouless, in Scotland); Haldane retains British nationality, Kosterlitz is now an American citizen and Thouless has joint US/UK nationality.

And here’s the text of the citation:

This year’s Laureates opened the door on an unknown world where matter can assume strange states. They have used advanced mathematical methods to study unusual phases, or states, of matter, such as superconductors, superfluids or thin magnetic films. Thanks to their pioneering work, the hunt is now on for new and exotic phases of matter. Many people are hopeful of future applications in both materials science and electronics.

The three Laureates’ use of topological concepts in physics was decisive for their discoveries. Topology is a branch of mathematics that describes properties that only change step-wise. Using topology as a tool, they were able to astound the experts. In the early 1970s, Michael Kosterlitz and David Thouless overturned the then current theory that superconductivity or suprafluidity could not occur in thin layers. They demonstrated that superconductivity could occur at low temperatures and also explained the mechanism, phase transition, that makes superconductivity disappear at higher temperatures.

In the 1980s, Thouless was able to explain a previous experiment with very thin electrically conducting layers in which conductance was precisely measured as integer steps. He showed that these integers were topological in their nature. At around the same time, Duncan Haldane discovered how topological concepts can be used to understand the properties of chains of small magnets found in some materials.

We now know of many topological phases, not only in thin layers and threads, but also in ordinary three-dimensional materials. Over the last decade, this area has boosted frontline research in condensed matter physics, not least because of the hope that topological materials could be used in new generations of electronics and superconductors, or in future quantum computers. Current research is revealing the secrets of matter in the exotic worlds discovered by this year’s Nobel Laureates.

It’s not my field, but I send my heartiest congratulations to Professors Thouless, Haldane and Kosterlitz. Enjoy your trip to Stockholm – it’s lovely in December!

Note that the Thomson-Reuters Nobel Prize “predictor”“, which is not often right, was wrong again!


The 2016 Nobel Prize for Physics

Posted in Science Politics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , on October 3, 2016 by telescoper

Just time for a quick post to point out that tomorrow, Tuesday 4th October 2016, will see the announcement of the 2016 Nobel Prize for Physics. See here if you want to follow the announcement live.

You might think that this year is a foregone conclusion. The big science result of the year is undoubtedly the discovery of gravitational waves by Advanced LIGO. The three leaders iof the team, i.e.

Ronald W.P. Drever Professor of Physics Emeritus, California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, CA USA
Kip S. Thorne Feynman Professor of Theoretical Physics Emeritus, California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, CA USA
Rainer Weiss Professor of Physics Emeritus, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, MA USA

These three scientists have already won this year’s Gruber and Kavli prizes and they are among the favourites on this Nobel Prize prediction site.

I would be very happy indeed to see the Nobel Prize for Physics go to this group, but I don’t think it’s the foregone conclusion many think it is.

To see why, look at the timetable of how the Nobel Prize Committee works. In particular, note:

SeptemberNomination forms are sent out. The Nobel Committee sends out confidential forms to around 3,000 people – selected professors at universities around the world, Nobel Laureates in Physics and Chemistry, and members of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, among others.

February – Deadline for submission.The completed nomination forms must reach the Nobel Committee no later than 31 January of the following year. The Committee screens the nominations and selects the preliminary candidates. About 250–350 names are nominated as several nominators often submit the same name.

The official announcement of the detection of gravitational waves was not made until 11th February, i.e. after the above deadline. Now of course many people had inside knowledge about the discovery before then so they may well have made a nomination on time, but it’s not obvious how the Nobel Prize Committee would have treated a submission based essentially on hearsay. They have a reputation for being sticklers for procedure so it’s hard to be sure. If it did make the shortlist then this nomination will surely win, but it may not have. We’ll just have to wait and see. Or am I being too cautious? Let me know what you think will happen through the  poll below:


Oh, and if you think it will be for “Something Else” please feel free to expand via the Comments Box.



Stern Response

Posted in Science Politics with tags , , on July 28, 2016 by telescoper

The results of the Stern Review of the process for assessing university research and allocating public funding has been published today. This is intended to inform the way the next Research Excellence Framework (REF) will be run, probably in 2020, so it’s important for all researchers in UK universities.

Here are the main recommendations, together with brief comments from me (in italics):

  1. All research active staff should be returned in the REF. Good in principle, but what is to stop institutions moving large numbers of staff onto teaching-only contracts (which is what happened in New Zealand when such a move was made)?
  2. Outputs should be submitted at Unit of Assessment level with a set average number per FTE but with flexibility for some faculty members to submit more and others less than the average.Outputs are countable and therefore “fewer” rather than “less”. Other than that, having some flexibility seems fair to me as long as it’s not easy to game the system. Looking it more detail at the report it suggests that some could submit up to six and others potentially none, with an average of perhaps two across the UoA. I’m not sure precise  numbers make sense, but the idea seems reasonable.
  3. Outputs should not be portable. Presumably this doesn’t mean that only huge books can be submitted, but that outputs do not transfer when staff transfer. I don’t think this is workable, but that what should happen is that credit for research should be shared between institutions when a researcher moves from one to another.
  4. Panels should continue to assess on the basis of peer review. However, metrics should be provided to support panel members in their assessment, and panels should be transparent about their use. Good. Metrics only tell part of the story.
  5. Institutions should be given more flexibility to showcase their interdisciplinary and collaborative impacts by submitting ‘institutional’ level impact case studies, part of a new institutional level assessment. It’s a good idea to promote interdisciplinarity, but it’s not easy to make it happen…
  6. Impact should be based on research of demonstrable quality. However, case studies could be linked to a research activity and a body of work as well as to a broad range of research outputs. This would be a good move. The existing rules for Impact seem unnecessarily muddled.
  7. Guidance on the REF should make it clear that impact case studies should not be narrowly interpreted, need not solely focus on socio-economic impacts but should also include impact on government policy, on public engagement and understanding, on cultural life, on academic impacts outside the field, and impacts on teaching. Also good.
  8. A new, institutional level Environment assessment should include an account of the institution’s future research environment strategy, a statement of how it supports high quality research and research-related activities, including its support for interdisciplinary and cross-institutional initiatives and impact. It should form part of the institutional assessment and should be assessed by a specialist, cross-disciplinary panel. Seems like a reasonable idea, but a “specialisr cross-disciplinary” panel might be hard to assemble…
  9. That individual Unit of Assessment environment statements are condensed, made complementary to the institutional level environment statement and include those key metrics on research intensity specific to the Unit of Assessment. Seems like a reasonable idea.
  10. Where possible, REF data and metrics should be open, standardised and combinable with other research funders’ data collection processes in order to streamline data collection requirements and reduce the cost of compiling and submitting information. Reasonable, but a bit vague.
  11. That Government, and UKRI, could make more strategic and imaginative use of REF, to better understand the health of the UK research base, our research resources and areas of high potential for future development, and to build the case for strong investment in research in the UK. This sounds like it means more political interference in the allocation of research funding…
  12. Government should ensure that there is no increased administrative burden to Higher Education Institutions from interactions between the TEF and REF, and that they together strengthen the vital relationship between teaching and research in HEIs. I believe that when I see it.

Any further responses (stern or otherwise) are welcome through the comments box!


The BrExit Threat to British Science

Posted in Politics, Science Politics with tags , , on June 29, 2016 by telescoper

After a couple of days away dealing with some personal business I’ve now time to make a few comments about the ongoing repercussions following last week’s referendum vote to Leave the European Union.

First of all on the general situation. Legally speaking the referendum decision by itself changes nothing at all. Referendums have no constitutional status in the United Kingdom and are not legally binding. The Prime Minister David Cameron has declined to activate (the now famous) Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty which would initiate a two-year negotiated withdrawal, preferring to leave this to whomever succeeds him following his resignation. None of the likely contenders for the unenviable position of next Prime Minister seems keen to pull the trigger very quickly either. The United Kingdom therefore remains a member of the European Union and there is no clear picture of when that might change.

The rest of the European Union obviously wants the UK to leave as soon as possible, not just because we’ve indicated that we want to, but because  we have always been never been very committed or reliable partners. In the words of Jean-Claude Juncker: ‘It is not an amicable divorce, but it was not an intimate love affair anyway.’

I don’t blame the 27 remaining members for wanting us to get on with getting out, because uncertainty is bad for business. Two years is more than enough time for big European businesses to write British producers out of their supply chains and for international companies now based in the United Kingdom to relocate to continental Europe. The current gridlock at Westminster merely defers this inevitable exodus. In the meantime inward investment is falling as companies defer decisions on future plans, casting a planningblight over the UK economy.

My own view, however, is that the longer the UK waits before invoking Article 50 the greater the probability that it will never be invoked at all.  This is because the next PM – probably Boris Johnson – surely knows that he will simply not be able to deliver on any of the promises he has made.

For example, there will be no access to the single market post-BrExit without free movement of people. There won’t be £350 million per week extra for the NHS either, because our GDP is falling and we never sent £350 million anyway.  All the possible deals will be so obviously far worse than the status quo that I don’t think Parliament will ever pass legislation to accept a situation is so clearly against the national interest. I may be wrong, of course, but I think the likeliest scenario is that the referendum decision is kicked into the long grass for at least the duration of the current Parliament.

That doesn’t solve the issue of BrExit blight, however. Which brings me to British science in a possible post-BrExit era. It’s all very uncertain, of course, but it seems to me that as things stand, any deal that involves free movement within Europe would be unacceptable to the powerful  UK anti-immigration lobby. This rules out a “Norway” type deal, among others, and almost certainly means there will be no access to any science EU funding schemes post 2020. Free movement is essential to the way most of these schemes operate anyway.

It has been guaranteed that funding commitments will be honoured until the end of Horizon 2020, but that assumes that holders of such grants don’t leave the UK taking the grants with them. I know of four cases of this happening already. They won’t come back even if we’re still in the European Union then.

Another probable outcomes are that:

  1. the shrinking economy will cause the UK government to abandon its ring-fence on science funding, which will  lead to cuts in domestic provision also;
  2. a steep decline in EU students (and associated income) will halt the expansion of UK science departments, and may cause some to shrink or even close;
  3. non-UK EU scientists working in the UK decide to leave anyway because the atmosphere of this country has already been poisoned by xenophobic rhetoric.

British science may “endure” after BrExit but it definitely won’t prosper. What is the least bad solution, if we cannot remain?

Answers through the comments box please!