Archive for the Science Politics Category

Ireland and CERN

Posted in Maynooth, Politics, Science Politics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , on December 30, 2022 by telescoper

Not long ago I posted an item about Ireland’s potential membership of CERN. There seems to have been some progress at political levels in this direction. In Mid-December, the Seanad called for a detailed proposal for CERN membership to be drawn up. More recently still, Minister Simon Harris has indicated that he will bring such a proposal to Cabinet on the matter.

There’s an article in yesterday’s Irish Times by Cormac O’Raifeartaigh reviewing the situation.

As I understand things, if the Irish Government were to decide to take Ireland into CERN then it would first have to become an Associate Member, which would cost around €1.5 million per year. That’s a modest contribution, and the financial returns to Irish industry and universities are likely to far exceed that. This Associate member stage would last up to 5 years, and then to acquire full membership a joining fee of around €16.8 million would have to be paid, though that could be spread out over ten years, along with an annual contribution of around €13.5m.

While I support the idea of Ireland joining CERN I feel obliged to stress my concerns. The most important of these is that there seems to me to be a real danger that the Government would simply appropriate funding for CERN membership from within existing programmes leaving even less for other forms of scientific research. In order to reap the scientific reward of CERN membership the Government will have to invest the additional resources needed to exploit the access to facilities membership would provide. Without a related increase in research grant funding for basic science, the opportunity to raise the level of scientific activity in Ireland would be lost and science overall may end up worse off.

Ireland recently joined the European Southern Observatory (ESO), a decision which gave Irish astronomers access to some amazing telescopes. However, there is no sign at all of Irish funding agencies responding to this opportunity by increasing funding for academic time, postdocs and graduate students needed to do the actual science. In one respect ESO is very like CERN: the facilities do not themselves do the science. We need people to do that. CERN membership could turn out to be like a very expensive Christmas gift that looks very exciting until you open the box and find that the batteries are not included.

P.S. At least Cormac’s employers in Waterford have been quick off the mark in exploiting the potential of CERN by renaming their entire institution after it…

Is Ireland about to join CERN?

Posted in Politics, Science Politics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , on November 16, 2022 by telescoper

Way back in 2019 I posted a piece about the case for Ireland to join CERN and revived the discussion about six months ago after talking about it to particle physicist John Ellis.

Well it seems there has been progress and, according to the Irish Times, a proposal to join CERN is going to be tabled by the Minister Simon Harris. This follows a long hiatus after a move reported in the news here in Ireland several years ago of a report from a Committee of the Houses of the Oireachtas making the case for Ireland to join CERN. You can download the report here (PDF) and you’ll find this rather striking graphic therein:

You will see that there are only three European countries other than Ireland that don’t have any form of membership or other agreement with CERN: Latvia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Moldova. The fact that almost everyone else is in is not in itself necessarily a good argument for Ireland to join, but it does make one wonder why so many other countries have found it important to join or have an agreement with CERN while Ireland has not.

As the document explains, if the Irish government  were to decide to take Ireland into CERN then  it would first have to become an Associate Member, which would cost around €1.2 million per year. That’s small potatoes really, and  the financial returns to Irish industry and universities are likely to far exceed that, so the report strongly recommends this step be taken. This Associate member stage would last up to 5 years, and then to acquire full membership a joining fee of around €15.6 million would have to be paid, which is obviously a much greater commitment but in my view still worthwhile.

There were some positive noises when the document came out, but that was near the end of 2019. Not far into 2020 the pandemic struck and the idea sank without trace. Now it looks like the idea is alive again. It’s not exactly a done deal but at least there’s some movement.

While I strongly support the idea of Ireland joining CERN I do have a couple of concerns about the case as presented in the Oireachtas report.

One is that I’m very sad that the actual science done at CERN is downplayed in that report. Most of it is about the cash return to industry, training opportunities, etc. These are important, of course, but it must not be forgotten that big science projects like those carried out at CERN are above all else science projects. The quest for knowledge does have collateral benefits, but it a worthy activity in its own right and we shouldn’t lose sight of that.

My other (related) concern is that joining CERN is one thing, but in order to reap the scientific reward the government has to invest in the resources needed to exploit the access to facilities membership would provide. Without a related increase in research grant funding for basic science the opportunity to raise the level of scientific activity in Ireland would be lost.

Ireland recently joined the European Southern Observatory (ESO), a decision which gave Irish astronomers access to some amazing telescopes. However, there is no sign at all of Irish funding agencies responding to this opportunity by increasing funding for academic time, postdocs and graduate students needed to do the actual science. In one respect ESO is very like CERN: the facilities do not themselves do the science; we need people to do that. The jam for research is already spread very thinly in Ireland so having an extra thing to spread it on will not necessarily be a good thing for science in general.

Simons Observatory News

Posted in Cardiff, Science Politics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , on October 18, 2022 by telescoper

It seems a lot longer than four years ago that I drew the attention of readers of this blog to the science case for the Simons Observatory, the next big thing in ground-based studies of the cosmic microwave background.

The Simons Observatory Site in Chile, as it appeared four years ago

Obviously a couple of years of pandemic have intervened, amongst other things, but I was delighted to read yesterday that the UK has invested £18M in the Simons Observatory, which will enable further development of the facility at Cerro Toco, high above the Atacama Desert in Chile.

Simons Observatory in May 2022

The project was already a large international collaboration led from the USA, but the new funds from UKRI mean that six UK institutions will now join. These are (in alphabetical order): Cambridge; Cardiff; Imperial College London; Manchester; Oxford; and Sussex. Although I’m not involved in this project myself I know many people at these institutions (two of which I have worked at) and elsewhere who will be absolutely thrilled to be able to participate in this exciting project. Congratulations to them!

It would have been great if Ireland had been able to get involved in the Simons Observatory, but sadly fundamental science of this type is not a priority for the powers that be in Irish science funding. This is unfortunate because I think membership of international consortia like this would enable a small country to punch above its weight in science. Still, at least the UK PI, Prof. Michael Brown (Manchester), is an Irishman…

How well-intentioned white male physicists maintain ignorance of inequity and justify inaction

Posted in Science Politics with tags , , , , , on October 10, 2022 by telescoper

I just noticed a paper on arXiv by Melissa Dancy and Apriel Hodari, which will probably annoy many people who deserve to be annoyed. Here is the abstract:

Background: We present an analysis of interviews with 27 self-identified progressive white-male physics faculty and graduate students discussing race and gender in physics. White men dominate most STEM fields and are particularly overrepresented in positions of status and influence (i.e. full professors, chairs, deans, etc.), positioning them as a potentially powerful demographic for enacting systemic reform. Despite their proclaimed outrage at and interest in addressing inequity, they frequently engage in patterns of belief, speech and (in)action that ultimately support the status quo of white male privilege in opposition to their intentions.


Results: The white male physicists we interviewed used numerous discourses which support racist and sexist norms and position them as powerless to disrupt their own privilege. We present and discuss three overarching themes, seen in our data, demonstrating how highly intelligent, well-intentioned people of privilege maintain their power and privilege despite their own intentions: 1) Denying inequity is physically near them, 2) Locating causes of inequity in large societal systems over which they have little influence and 3) Justifying inaction.


Conclusions: Despite being progressively minded, well-meaning, and highly intelligent, these men are frequently complicit in racism and sexism in physics. We end with recommendations for helping these men to engage the power they hold to better work with women and people of color in disrupting inequity in physics.

(I added the spacing and underlining.)

The paper does not mention the additional issue that not all white male professors are even well-intentioned…

On the Exploitation of PhD Students

Posted in Maynooth, Science Politics on July 5, 2022 by telescoper

Last week the Government of Ireland announced a new scheme intended to recruit “high-level researchers” to PhD programme in Ireland. The scheme, which is a public-private partnership of around  €100 million, will fund around 400 PhD studentships with an annual stipend around €28K, which is substantially higher than the current rate for, e.g., ICR-funded students which is €18.5K.

The call for applications has not yet been issued, so I don’t know how the new scheme will operate. I will, however, comment on the implications for postgraduate landscape in general.

With inflation rampant at the moment, even the IRC level of stipend is difficult for a student to live on (especially in the Greater Dublin area) yet many receive even less than that. Maynooth University, for example, funds many of its PhD students at the paltry level of €10K per annum which is impossible to live on and which forces recipients to undertake large amounts of tutoring or other work in order to get by financially. In my opinion stipends paid at this level are simply exploitative. They exist in order to force PhD students to undertake extensive and poorly paid teaching duties because there aren’t enough teaching faculty to cover what is required. That situation is a direct result of the chronic underfunding of higher education in Ireland. Universities will argue that they don’t have any choice, but that doesn’t make the situation is acceptable.

It is of course good for a research student to get some teaching experience during their PhD but this should be on a voluntary basis. A PhD student who chooses to teach will probably do a better job than one who is forced to do it in order to pay the rent. My basic point, though, is that a full-time research student should be funded to do research full time, and it is grossly unfair to pay them too little for this to be possible.

Apparently the level of the new €28K stipends is “in line with financial supports offered under similar global scholarships”. I take this as a statement that the Irish Government has acknowledged that the proper rate of pay for a PhD student is at this level, which seems to me to be about right. It is howeer about 50% higher than what existing PhD students actually receive. Now it has been explicitly accepted that €28K is the right amount, it seems to me to be logical that all PhD stipends should be increased to this level.

In order to get a place on a PhD course, any student needs to have an excellent undergraduate track-record, so all graduate students are “high-level” researchers however they are funded. This new scheme will create a new tier of higher remuneration for some students, many of whom will be in the same departments and laboratories as others doing exactly the same level of work but at a much lower income with heavy teaching duties to do on top of their research, and who will justifiably feel like second-class citizens. This is unfair and will prove extremely divisive and bad for morale.

I have nothing against the new scheme, but it needs to be accompanied by a drastic “levelling up” (to coin a phrase) across the entire postgraduate system.

P.S. I note that the new scheme costs €100M and will fund 400 PhD students. Maynooth University ran up a surplus of €13.2M during the first year of the pandemic. This is enough to fund about 50 PhD studentships with a 28K stipend. Just saying.

P.P.S. Another difficulty in Ireland not addressed at all by this scheme is at Masters level, where there are currently even fewer funding opportunities than at Doctoral level. Students who want to do a Masters in Ireland usually have to fund themselves whereas they can do one for free – or even get paid! – at other European universities. There is therefore a strong incentive to leave to do a Masters programme.

Euclid Launch Delay

Posted in Science Politics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , on June 17, 2022 by telescoper

Until relatively recently we al thought the European Space Agency’s  Euclid mission would take place later this year (2022). For various reasons that date subsequently slipped to the first quarter of 2023.

Then Russia invaded Ukraine which, because Euclid was intended to be launched on a Russian Soyuz vehicle a further delay seemed likely (see here). The subsequent decision by the Russians to remove all their personnel from the launch site at Kourou (see here) made these even more likely as an alternative launch vehicle would have to be used.

There was an update about the situation at the recent Euclid Consortium meeting in Oslo which I could not attend but which I referred to here. The basic problem is that Plan B involves launching Euclid on an Ariane 6 rocket (which comes in two varieties, Ariane62 and Ariane64, with two and four boosters respectively). The problems are (a) that Ariane 6 is that it hasn’t yet had its first flight and (b) Euclid isn’t the only spacecraft now having to find an alternative launcher. The competition from commercial and military satellites may mean a lengthy delay to the Euclid Launch unless lobbying succeeds at a political level.

It has now emerged that earliest feasible date for launch on an Ariane 6 rocket is the 3rd quarter of 2024 and it may well be later than that, the uncertainty exacerbating the effects of the delay itself.

This is all very unfortunate. Euclid is now fully built and ready so a lengthy delay would be very damaging to morale. More concretely, many researchers employed to work on Euclid are on fixed-term contracts which will now expire before they can complete their work. This will have a very serious effect on younger researchers. To keep everything going while the spacecraft waits for a launch will be extremely expensive: the Euclid Consortium Board estimates a cost of about €50M for every year of delay and it is by no means clear where those funds would come from.

It seems to me that the best hope for a resolution of this problem would be for ESA to permit the launch of Euclid using something other than Ariane 6, which means using a vehicle supplied by an independent commercial operator. I sincerely hope ESA is able to come up with an imaginative solution to this very serious problem.

P.S. With this update, the odds on me retiring before Euclid is launched have just shortened considerably…

Revisiting the Case for Irish Membership of CERN

Posted in Politics, Science Politics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , on May 31, 2022 by telescoper

At last week’s Irish Theoretical Physics meeting I had the opportunity to have lunch with particle physicist Professor John Ellis (of King’s College London). Among other things we discussed whether or not it was likely that Ireland might join CERN. Currently Ireland has no official relationship with CERN, not even associate membership, which makes it anomalous among European countries. In November 2019 I blogged about the issue here.

There was a move reported in the news here in Ireland of a report from a Committee of the Houses of the Oireachtas making the case for Ireland to join CERN. You can download the report here (PDF) and you’ll find this rather striking graphic therein:

You will see that there are only three European countries other than Ireland that don’t have any form of membership or other agreement with CERN: Latvia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Moldova. The fact that almost everyone else is in is not in itself necessarily a good argument for Ireland to join, but it does make one wonder why so many other countries have found it to join or have an agreement with CERN while Ireland has not.

As the document explains, if the Irish government  were to decide to take Ireland into CERN then  it would first have to become an Associate Member, which would cost around €1.2 million per year. That’s small potatoes really, and  the financial returns to Irish industry and universities are likely to far exceed that, so the report strongly recommends this step be taken. This Associate member stage would last up to 5 years, and then to acquire full membership a joining fee of around €15.6 million would have to be paid, which is obviously a much greater commitment but in my view still worthwhile.

There were some positive noises when the document came out, but that was near the end of 2019. Not far into 2020 the pandemic struck and the idea sank without trace. Perhaps now is a good time to raise the issue again?

While I strongly support the idea of Ireland joining CERN I do have a couple of concerns about the case as presented in the Oireachtas report.

One is that I’m very sad that the actual science done at CERN is downplayed in the  report. Most of it is about the cash return to industry, training opportunities, etc. These are important, of course, but it must not be forgotten that big science projects like those carried out at CERN are above all else science projects. The quest for knowledge does have collateral benefits, but it a worthy activity in its own right and we shouldn’t lose sight of that.

My other (related) concern is that joining CERN is one thing, but in order to reap the scientific reward the government has to invest in the resources needed to exploit the access to facilities membership would provide. Without a related increase in research grant funding for basic science the opportunity to raise the level of scientific activity in Ireland would be lost.

Ireland recently joined the European Southern Observatory (ESO), a decision which gave Irish astronomers access to some amazing telescopes. However, there is no sign at all of Irish funding agencies responding to this opportunity by increasing funding for academic time, postdocs and graduate students needed to do the actual science. In one respect ESO is very like CERN: the facilities do not themselves do the science; we need people to do that. The jam is already spread very thinly in Ireland so having an extra thing to spread it on will not necessarily be a good thing for science in general.

Science vs Marketing

Posted in Astrohype, Education, Science Politics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , on May 20, 2022 by telescoper

I saw a paper some months ago by former Sussex colleague Xavier Calmet and collaborators that attracted quite a lot of press coverage largely based on a press release from the University of Sussex that claimed:

Stephen Hawking’s famous black hole paradox solved after hair-raising discovery

(If you want to learn more about the black hole information paradox you could start here.)

The press release is pure unadulterated hype. The paper in Physical Review Letters is actually rather good in my opinion but it says next to nothing about the black hole information paradox. Unfortunately the Sussex press release was picked up by the BBC’s science editor Pallab Ghosh who turned it into a very garbled article. Unfortunately Ghosh has quite a lot of form when it comes to producing nonsensical takes on science results. See, for example, this piece claiming that recent results from the Dark Energy Survey cast doubt on Einstein’s general theory of relativity when they do nothing of the sort.

Fortunately in the case of the black hole paper David Whitehouse has done a good job at demolishing the “BBC’s black hole baloney” here so I don’t need to repeat the arguments.

What I will mention however is that there is an increasing tendency for university press offices to see themselves entirely as marketing agencies instead of informing and/or educating the public. Press releases about scientific research nowadays rarely make any attempt at accuracy – they are just designed to get the institution concerned into the headlines. In other words, research is just a marketing tool.

This isn’t the only aspect of the marketisation of universities. If an academic tries to organize a public engagement event or do some schools outreach activity, the chances are their institution will hijack it and turn it into a marketing exercise, aimed exclusively at student recruitment. Universities are increasingly unconcerned with education and research and obsessed with income.

Forget the phony controversies about woke politics and free speech manufactured by right-wing press. The real culture war in modern universities is between those who believe in the intrinsic value of higher education and those who see it simply as a means of generating profit by whatever means possible. As in any war, truth is the first casualty.

The Researchfish Saga continues

Posted in Science Politics with tags , , , on May 19, 2022 by telescoper

You may recall that I blogged here and here about a software platform called Researchfish and the heavy-handed reaction response to criticism by the provider of this “service”, a company called Interfolio, and the Government organization UK Research and Innovation that harvests the data thereby collected. In its response to Interfolio’s apparent misuse of data and bullying of academics who dared to express negative opinions about Researchfish – which I would say, based on my own experiences (admittedly several years ago), is a very poorly designed system – UKRI made a sort of non-apology that managed to make matters worse.

A couple of days ago, in response to a Freedom of Information request, UKRI released correspondence between itself and Infosys that shows not only that UKRI knew about the bullying by Infosys but actively encouraged it. The story is covered in full by Research Professional so I shall comment on briefly here.

Here’s an example from UKRI which talks about taking “disciplinary” action against someone for criticizing Researchfish on Twitter (even though they subsequently apologized and deleted the tweet) and goes on to list their grant awards, presumably in order to facilitate sanctions against the individual:

Here’s another that claims that bullying by Researchfish “set the right tone”:

Unbelievable. I bet the redacted bits are even worse!

It’s a shocking indictment of the culture at UKRI that they are prepared to behave in such a way, conniving in threats against the community it is supposed to be supporting. Moreover, Interfolio seems to be keener to police comments about Researchfish than it is to make improvements to its service. It can’t be healthy for researchers in the UK to have their freedom of speech stifled to protect a software company’s reputation.

The brevity and informality of the emails between UKRI and Infotech suggests they have a very cosy relationship. Does anyone know anything about the tendering process by which Interfolio acquired its contract with UKRI?

A Major Merger in Irish Research

Posted in Science Politics with tags , , , , on May 18, 2022 by telescoper

Taking a short break from examination matters I just read a news item announcing a big shake-up in Irish research funding. As part of a new Research and Innovation Strategy, called Impact 2030, it seems the Irish Research Council (RC) and Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) are to merge to produce a single entity, perhaps as early as next year.

Changes are much needed, especially for science. Science in Ireland is in a dire state of under-investment, especially in basic (i.e. fundamental) research. For many years SFI has only funded applied science, though recently seems to have shifted its emphasis a little bit in its latest strategic plan. Currently Ireland spends just 1.1% of its GDP on scientific research and development and SFI’s current exclusive focus on research aligned with industry that can be exploited for short-term commercial gain) is making life very difficult for those in working in “blue skies” areas which are largely those that dras young people into science, and has consequently driven many researchers in such areas abroad, to the great detriment of Ireland’s standing in the international scientific community.

Here is an excerpt from an old post explaining what I think about the current approach:

For what it’s worth I’ll repeat my own view that “commercially useful” research should not be funded by the taxpayer through research grants. If it’s going to pay off in the short term it should be funded by private investors, venture capitalists of some sort, or perhaps through some form of National Investment Bank. When the public purse is so heavily constrained, it should only be asked to fund those things that can’t in practice be funded any other way. That means long-term, speculative, curiosity driven research.

SFI recently announced a new strategy, to cover the period up to 2025, with plans for 15% annual rises that will boost the agency’s grant spending — the greater part of the SFI budget — from €200 million in 2020 to €376 million by 2025. Much of this is focused in top-down manner on specific programmes and research centres but there is at least an acknowledgement of the need to support basic research, including an allocation of €11 million in 2021 for early career researchers. The overall aim is to increase the overall R&D spend from 1.1% of gross domestic product, well below the European average of 2.2%, to 2.5% by 2025. I hope these commitments will be carried forward into the new organization.

The Irish Research Council funds research in all areas, not exclusively applied science, so what little jam it has is spread very thinly. Applying for IRC funding is a lottery, with very few winners and the vast majority rejected without even cursory feedback.

There are two main worries about the fate of IRC in the merger merger. One is that research in arts & humanities will suffer as a result of being lumped in with science, and the other is that the culture of short-termism will be adopted so the small amount of basic research that the IRC currently funds will be sacrificed on the altar of quick commercial gain.

There is a welcome emphasis in the Impact 2030 document on early career researchers, especially at doctoral level where it is currently difficult to find funding for excellent graduate students. It has to be said though that there are problems in this area which are much wider than the shortage of appropriate schemes. The cost of living in Ireland is such that PhD stipends are inadequate to provide an adequate quality of life, especially in the Dublin area. The same goes for postdoctoral salaries which make it difficult to recruit postdocs from elsewhere in Europe.

Another crucial difficulty is the complete lack of funding for Master’s degrees, for many an essential bridge from undergraduate to research degrees. Many of our best graduates leave for European countries where a Master’s degree is free (and may even attract a stipend) and it is then difficult to entice them back.

There’s no question that the current lack of opportunity, low salaries, high living costs and the availability of far better opportunities elsewhere is leading to a net exodus of young research talent from Ireland. Whether any of this will change with Impact 2030 remains to be seen, but at least it doesn’t propose an Irish version of the dreaded Research Excellence Framework!