Archive for the Science Politics Category

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!

 

 

 

Open Science in the European Union

Posted in Open Access, Science Politics with tags , on May 29, 2016 by telescoper

A few days ago I noticed a remarkable announcement about a meeting of European Ministers in Brussels relating to Open Access Publishing.This has subsequently been picked up by the Grauniad and has been creating quite a stir.

To summarise the report coming out of the meeting, here is a quotation from the draft communique, which states that they

…welcome open access to scientific publications as the option by default for publishing the results of publicly-funded research..

They also plan to

To remove financial and legal barriers, and to take the necessary steps for successful implementation in all scientific domains.

In a nutshell, the proposal is a move to abandon the traditional journal subscription model and embrace freely-available scientific research by 2020.

This is definitely a very good move. My only worry is that those involved seem not to have been able to make a decision on whether to go for the Green or Gold Open Access Model. The latter route has, in my opinion, been grossly abused by profiteering academic publishers who charge eye-watering “processing fees” for open access. I hope this initiative by the EU is not hijacked by vested interests as was the case with the UK’s Finch Report.

There’s clearly a lot more to be done before this proposal can be implemented, but it’s a very positive development the EU which will benefit science, both in the UK and across the continent, hugely. The European Union’s enthusiastic embrace of the principles of open access to scientific research is just one more to add to the list of reasons to remain.

 

 

 

Wakeham Review of STEM Degree Provision Graduate Employability and

Posted in Politics, Science Politics, Uncategorized with tags , , on May 20, 2016 by telescoper

About to embark on a weekend of examination marking, a desperate search for displacement activities reminded me of this important report by Sir William Wakeham (who happens to be the Chair of SEPNet, the South-East Physics Network, of which the University of Sussex is a member, so I get to call him Bill).

Apparently Bill’s report has been ready for some time but has been stuck on a shelf in Whitehall somewhere waiting to be released. Arcane rules about publishing government reports in the run-up to elections meant that it had to wait until after May 5th for publication.

Anyway, it was published this week (May 16th to be precise) and I encourage you all to read it. You can find the report and various annexes here. It has clearly been a complex task to make sense of some of the datasets used because they are incomplete and/or confusing, so inevitably some important questions remain unanswered. There are nevertheless clearly worrying signs for certain disciplines, as described in the Executive Summary:

Based on the accumulated evidence we have arrived at a list of degree disciplines where the graduate employment outcomes are sufficiently concerning for us to recommend additional targeted work. The STEM disciplines that the review has identified as being of particular concern are:
•Biological Sciences
•Earth, Marine and Environmental Sciences
•Agriculture, Animal Sciences and Food Sciences

I’m a little surprised that Biological Sciences appears in that list, because that is usually perceived as a burgeoning area, but it’s clear that some graduates in that area do find it more difficult to find employment than in other STEM areas. However, if you read the report in more detail you will see that there are many sub-disciplines involved in Biological Sciences and the picture isn’t the same for all of them. It does seem, however, that in some of the Biological Sciences, graduates do not have sufficient training in quantitative methods to suit the demands of potential employers.

There you go. Give it a read. Any comments?

The Supreme Leader of STFC Departs…

Posted in Science Politics with tags , , on May 12, 2016 by telescoper

womersley

In case you haven’t heard yet, news has just broken that Professor John Womersley (above), currently Chief Executive of the Science & Technology Facilities Council (STFC), has been appointed Director-General of the new European Spallation Source (ESS) in Lund, Sweden, and will therefore be stepping down from his post as Chief Executive of STFC in the autumn.

John has been Supreme Leader at STFC for five years now and, in my opinion, has done an excellent job in circumstances that have not always been easy. He will be a hard act to follow. I know he’s an occasional reader of this blog, so let me take this opportunity to wish him well in his new role.

Now, perhaps I should open a book on the likely contenders for the post of next Chief Executive of STFC?

 

Lognormality Revisited (Again)

Posted in Biographical, Science Politics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , , on May 10, 2016 by telescoper

Today provided me with a (sadly rare) opportunity to join in our weekly Cosmology Journal Club at the University of Sussex. I don’t often get to go because of meetings and other commitments. Anyway, one of the papers we looked at (by Clerkin et al.) was entitled Testing the Lognormality of the Galaxy Distribution and weak lensing convergence distributions from Dark Energy Survey maps. This provides yet more examples of the unreasonable effectiveness of the lognormal distribution in cosmology. Here’s one of the diagrams, just to illustrate the point:

Log_galaxy_countsThe points here are from MICE simulations. Not simulations of mice, of course, but simulations of MICE (Marenostrum Institut de Ciencies de l’Espai). Note how well the curves from a simple lognormal model fit the calculations that need a supercomputer to perform them!

The lognormal model used in the paper is basically the same as the one I developed in 1990 with  Bernard Jones in what has turned out to be  my most-cited paper. In fact the whole project was conceived, work done, written up and submitted in the space of a couple of months during a lovely visit to the fine city of Copenhagen. I’ve never been very good at grabbing citations – I’m more likely to fall off bandwagons rather than jump onto them – but this little paper seems to keep getting citations. It hasn’t got that many by the standards of some papers, but it’s carried on being referred to for almost twenty years, which I’m quite proud of; you can see the citations-per-year statistics even seen to be have increased recently. The model we proposed turned out to be extremely useful in a range of situations, which I suppose accounts for the citation longevity:

nph-ref_historyCitations die away for most papers, but this one is actually attracting more interest as time goes on! I don’t think this is my best paper, but it’s definitely the one I had most fun working on. I remember we had the idea of doing something with lognormal distributions over coffee one day,  and just a few weeks later the paper was finished. In some ways it’s the most simple-minded paper I’ve ever written – and that’s up against some pretty stiff competition – but there you go.

Lognormal_abstract

The lognormal seemed an interesting idea to explore because it applies to non-linear processes in much the same way as the normal distribution does to linear ones. What I mean is that if you have a quantity Y which is the sum of n independent effects, Y=X1+X2+…+Xn, then the distribution of Y tends to be normal by virtue of the Central Limit Theorem regardless of what the distribution of the Xi is  If, however, the process is multiplicative so  Y=X1×X2×…×Xn then since log Y = log X1 + log X2 + …+log Xn then the Central Limit Theorem tends to make log Y normal, which is what the lognormal distribution means.

The lognormal is a good distribution for things produced by multiplicative processes, such as hierarchical fragmentation or coagulation processes: the distribution of sizes of the pebbles on Brighton beach  is quite a good example. It also crops up quite often in the theory of turbulence.

I’ll mention one other thing  about this distribution, just because it’s fun. The lognormal distribution is an example of a distribution that’s not completely determined by knowledge of its moments. Most people assume that if you know all the moments of a distribution then that has to specify the distribution uniquely, but it ain’t necessarily so.

If you’re wondering why I mentioned citations, it’s because they’re playing an increasing role in attempts to measure the quality of research done in UK universities. Citations definitely contain some information, but interpreting them isn’t at all straightforward. Different disciplines have hugely different citation rates, for one thing. Should one count self-citations?. Also how do you apportion citations to multi-author papers? Suppose a paper with a thousand citations has 25 authors. Does each of them get the thousand citations, or should each get 1000/25? Or, put it another way, how does a single-author paper with 100 citations compare to a 50 author paper with 101?

Or perhaps a better metric would be the logarithm of the number of citations?

Sir David Attenborough at 90, Boaty McBoatface, and the Song of the Lyre Bird

Posted in Biographical, Science Politics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , , , on May 8, 2016 by telescoper

Today is the 90th birthday of one of my biggest heroes, Sir David Attenborough, so let me start by wishing him many happy returns of the day!
There has been some controversy recently about the new Polar Research ship being called the Sir David Attenborough despite overwhelming support in a public poll for it to be called Boaty McBoatface. The latter name has been retained for one of the remote-controlled submersibles carried by the larger vessel, but I’ve seen a number of complaints that this was inappropriate. Actually, I disagree. For one thing the new vessel is undoubtedly a ship rather than a boat; its prefix ‘RRS’ means ‘Royal Research Ship’ after all. For another, submarines – even the very big ones – are always known as boats. This has been the practice since the earliest days of submersible craft, presumably because the earliest ones were small enough to be carried by other vessels. A submersible Boaty McBoatface is absolutely fine by me!

Anyway I thought I’d use the occasion of Sir David Attenborough’s birthday to post one of my favourite clips from one of his many TV programmes, and the piece I wrote about it a while ago

I wonder what you felt as you watched it?  What went through your mind? Amusement? Fascination?  I’ll tell you how it was for me when I first saw it.  I marvelled.

Seeing the extraordinary behaviour of this marvellous creature filled me with a sense of wonder. But I also began to wonder in another sense too. How did the Lyre Bird evolve its bizarre strategy? How does it learn to be such an accurate mimic? How does it produce such a fascinating variety of sounds? How can there be an evolutionary advantage in luring a potential mate to the sound of foresters and a chainsaw?

The Lyre Bird deploys its resources in such an elaborate and expensive way that you might be inclined to mock it, if all it does is draw females to “look at its plumes”.  I can think of quite a few blokes who adopt not-too-dissimilar strategies, if truth be told. But if you could ask a Lyre Bird it would probably answer that it does this because that’s what it does. The song defines the bird. That’s its nature.

I was moved to post the clip in response to a characteristically snide and ill-informed piece by Simon Jenkins in the  Guardian a while ago. Jenkins indulges in an anti-science rant every now and again. Sometimes he has a point, in fact. But this article was just puerile. Perhaps he had a bad experience of science at school and never got over it.

I suppose I can understand why some people are cynical about scientists stepping into the public eye to proselytise about science. After all, it’s also quite easy to come up with examples of  scientists who have made mistakes. Sadly, there are also cases of outright dishonesty. Science is no good because scientists are fallible. But scientists are people, no better and no worse than the rest. To err is human and all that.  We shouldn’t expect scientists to be superhuman any more than we should believe the occasional megalomaniac who says they are.

To many people fundamental physics is a just a load of incomprehensible gibberish, the Large Hadron Collider a monstrous waste of money, and astronomy of no greater value to the world than astrology. Any scientist trying to communicate science to the public must be trying to hoodwink them, to rob them of the schools and hospitals that their taxes should be building and sacrifice their hard-earned income on the altar of yet another phoney religion.

And now the BBC is participating in this con-trick by actually broadcasting popular programmes about science that have generated huge and appreciative audiences. Simon Jenkins obviously feels threatened by it. He’s probably not alone.

I don’t  have anything like the public profile of the target of Jenkins’ vitriol, Lord Rees, but I try to do my share of science communication. I give public lectures from time to time and write popular articles, whenever I’m asked. I also answer science questions by email from the general public, and some of the pieces I post on here receive a reasonably wide distribution too.

Why do I (and most of my colleagues) do all this sort of stuff? Is it because we’re after your money?  Actually, no it isn’t. Not directly, anyway.

I do all this stuff because, after 25 years as a scientist, I still have a sense of wonder about the universe. I want to share that as much as I can with others. Moreover,  I’ve been lucky enough to find a career that allows me to get paid for indulging my scientific curiosity and I’m fully aware that it’s Joe Public that pays for me to do it. I’m happy they do so, and happier still that people will turn up on a rainy night to hear me talk about cosmology or astrophysics. I do this because I love doing science, and want other people to love it  too.

Scientists are wont to play the utilitarian card when asked about why the public should fund fundamental research. Lord Rees did this in his Reith Lectures, in fact. Physics has given us countless spin-offs – TV sets, digital computers,  the internet, you name it – that have created wealth for UK plc out of all proportion to the modest investment it has received. If you think the British government spends too much on science, then perhaps you could try to find the excessive sum on this picture.

Yes, the LHC is expensive but the cost was shared by a large number of countries and was spread over a long time. The financial burden to the UK now amounts to the cost of a cup of coffee per year for each taxpayer in the country. I’d compare this wonderful exercise in friendly international cooperation with the billions we’re about to waste on the Trident nuclear weapons programme which is being built on the assumption that international relations must involve mutual hatred.

This is the sort of argument that gets politicians interested, but scientists must be wary of it. If particle physics is good because it has spin-offs that can be applied in, e.g. medicine, then why not just give the money to medical research?

I’m not often put in situations where I have to answer questions like why we should spend money on astronomy or particle physics but, when I am, I always feel uncomfortable wheeling out the economic impact argument. Not because I don’t believe it’s true, but because I don’t think it’s the real reason for doing science. I know the following argument won’t cut any ice in the Treasury, but it’s what I really think as a scientist (and a human being).

What makes humans different from other animals? What defines us? I don’t know what the full answer to that is, or even if it has a single answer, but I’d say one of the things that we do is ask questions and try to answer them. Science isn’t the only way we do this. There are many complementary modes of enquiry of which the scientific method is just one. Generally speaking, though, we’re curious creatures.

I think the state should support science but I also think it should support the fine arts, literature, humanities and the rest, for their own sake. Because they’re things we do. They  make us human. Without them we’re just like any other animal that consumes and reproduces.

So the real reason why the government should support science is the song of the Lyre Bird.  No, I don’t mean as an elaborate mating ritual. I don’t think physics will help you pull the birds. What I mean is that even in this materialistic, money-obsessed world we still haven’t lost the  need to wonder, for the joy it brings and for the way it stimulates our minds; science doesn’t inhibit wonder, as Jenkins argues,  it sparks it.

Now, anyone want to see my plumes?