Archive for the Science Politics Category

March for Science – Cardiff

Posted in Politics, Science Politics, Uncategorized with tags , , , on April 21, 2017 by telescoper

Just a quick note to say that tomorrow I’ll be attending the Cardiff March for Science, which is one of a series of events happening around the world. I quote:

The March for Science is a celebration of science.  It’s not only about scientists and politicians; it is about the very real role that science plays in each of our lives and the need to respect and encourage research that gives us insight into the world.

The Cardiff March starts with a rally at 10am on the steps of the Senedd in Cardiff Bay and is followed by a march around the bay to Techniquest for a science event there to which families with children are particularly welcome. It should be a fun occasion  There’s a science-themed fancy dress competition. I’ll be going as a middle-aged man with a beard.

For further details see here or follow the Twitter feed:



Budget: 1000 New PhD STEM Studentships

Posted in Politics, Science Politics with tags , , , on March 9, 2017 by telescoper

I was out of the office all day yesterday at a very interesting meeting at the Institute of Physics, so I wasn’t able to listen to the 2017 Budget speech by the Chancellor of the Exchequer. On the way home by train, however, I caught up with some of the content and reaction via Twitter and various news outlets.

One thing of particular relevance to those of us who work in STEM subjects was the following announcement (from the BBC website):

  • £300m to support 1,000 new PhD places and fellowships in STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) subjects

There’s a bit more detail about this here:

He also confirmed that the Industrial Strategy Fund will be managed by Innovate UK in its first year of existence, and will be administered by UK Research and Innovation from 2018-19.

The Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund is part of the National Productivity Investment Fund. As trailed earlier in the week, a further £90m from the NPIF will be spent on an additional 1,000 PhD places in areas aligned with the government’s industrial strategy. Around 85 per cent of these places will be in science, technology, engineering and mathematics subjects, and 40 per cent will focus on strengthening industry-academia collaboration.

Also under the NPIF, a total of £160m will be spent on new fellowships for early and mid-career researchers in areas aligned with the industrial strategy.

The NPIF will also include spending of £50m over the next four years on fellowship programmes to attract researchers from overseas.

So these studentships will be funded from the “extra money” for science and research announced in the Autumn Statement last year and it looks like they will be focussed on industrial applications rather than “pure” science.

The number 1000 seems a lot, but it has to be seen in perspective. Each year the Science and Technology Facilities Council funds about 100 PhD studentships in Astronomy, and a similar number in Particle Physics. Far more Physics PhDs are funded through the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, which looks after the rest of physics as well as engineering and the rest of the physical sciences. Then there are the life sciences, medical research and all the other disciplines which are larger still. In 2014 the total number of students starting a PhD in STEM disciplines in England alone was about 6600. Not all these were funded by the UK research councils, of course, but that gives you some idea of the scale. The extra places this year are a significant boost, but don’t represent a huge increase across the board. They may have a real impact in specific areas, of course, depending on where they are targetted. Note also that the recent large growth in PhD places in the UK has largely been driven by access to EU funding programmes, which we are determined to throw away.

I don’t know how these studentships will be allocated, though I suspect they will be administered through the existing Research Council channels. However, if they are to be filled from October 2017 this will have to be decided quickly, as this year’s recruitment cycle is well under way.

On the other hand, rumours of extra money for PhD students in STEM subjects have been circulating for some time so I think this has been known about behind the scenes long enough to make preparations. I suspect it has all been under wraps until yesterday for political reasons, i.e. to allow the Chancellor to include it in his speech. I imagine things will now move pretty quickly and we’ll know quite soon where the studentships will be allocated.

It’s also worth noting that the money for studentships will be spread over 4 years, which means that this increase is effectively just for one cohort of students (a PhD typically taking 3-4 years to complete). We don’t know whether this level will be maintained in future to compensate for loss of EU funds.

Extra investment in STEM subjects is to be welcomed, but I do wonder about the wisdom of increasing PhD student numbers still further. As I have stated before, I think we already produce far too many PhDs. I think this money might be better spent increasing the number of Masters graduates or improving funding for STEM undergraduate programmes.


Ten Years of the European Research Council

Posted in Politics, Science Politics with tags , , , , on February 9, 2017 by telescoper

This little video reminded me that we’re coming up to the tenth anniversary of the founding of the European Research Council (ERC).


In my opinion the ERC has been an outstanding success that has revitalized science across the continent and here in the United Kingdom. Sadly the UK government has decided that the United Kingdom will play no further part in ERC-funded schemes or any other programme funded by the EU.  The participation of UK scientists has already started to diminish and when it dries up completely there will be a significant loss of research income, especially for fundamental science. I’m grateful to Paul Crowther for pointing out that over the past decade there have been no fewer than 176 ERC awards to UK physics departments, meaning over  1/3 of a billion Euros in research funding.

I estimate that most physics & astronomy departments in the UK will lose 20-30% of their research income as a result of leaving the EU. Most also have a similar fraction of staff who are EU nationals, many of whom will leave because of the UK government’s shocking refusal to guarantee their right to remain. I find it sad beyond words that we as a nation are not only about to throw away our leading role in so many excellent research projects but also destroy our own credibility as a civilized nation by the mean-spirited way we are behaving.

But the ERC will at least offer British scientists two ways to continue their involvement with EU programmes. The first is that existing grants are portable, so principal investigators who decided to relocate to an EU country can take their funding with them. The second is that future ERC grants are open to applicants from any country in the world who wish to carry out their research within the EU.

As Niels Bohr famously remarked “prediction is very difficult, especially about the future”. I don’t know whether there will be a significant brain drain to the EU from the UK as a result of BrExit, but I do know many colleagues are talking about it right now. As for myself, if someone were to offer me a job in Europe I’d definitely take it.

(My CV is available on request).



Splitting from Euratom

Posted in Politics, Science Politics with tags , , , , on January 27, 2017 by telescoper

This week the government published a short bill in response to the Supreme Court’s decision, announced on Tuesday morning, that Parliament should be involved in the process of notifying the European Union if and when the United Kingdom decides to leave. The Supreme Court (by a majority of 8-3) upheld the earlier decision of the High Court that  the Executive could not take a decision of such magnitude (effectively using the Royal Prerogative) without explicit Parliamentary approval.

The Article 50 Bill is very short. In fact this is it in full:


The government plans to force this  through both the House of Lords and the House of Commons in five days, although will undoubtedly be attempts to amend it.  It has subsequently emerged that a White Paper concerning the process of negotiating the withdrawal will be published, but not until after the Article 50 Bill is enacted. It’s readily apparent that the government is merely playing grudging lip-service to the sovereignty of Parliament. Let’s hope Parliament shows some guts for once and stands up for the interests of the United Kingdom by refusing the give the Executive Carte Blanche and insisting on full Parliamentary scrutiny of the process, including giving MPs the chance to call off the whole fiasco when it becomes obvious that we’re better off not leaving the EU after all.

As another example of the contempt for open government, news broke today that in the explanatory notes for the Article 50 bill, the UK government indicates that it intends for the UK to leave the European Atomic Energy Community (Euratom). This organization has a number of regulatory roles concerning nuclear energy supply and distribution, but also has a major research focus on the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER), a project aimed at constructing a fusion reactor, which currently involves a significant number of UK scientists. This project is truly international: involving the EU, Russia, the USA, Japan, Korea and India.

Unlike, e.g. CERN and ESA, the organization of Euratom is legally linked to the European Union, so one can argue that withdrawal from the EU necessarily means leaving Euratom, but to announce this in the explanatory notes without any attempt to discuss it either in Parliament or with the organizations involved seems to me yet another manifestation of the UK government’s desire to avoid any consultation at all, wherever this is possible. The Supreme Court prevented them from excluding Parliament, but it is clear that they will continue to avoid due process whenever they think they can get away with it. This announcement now puts a big question mark over the futures of many scientists involved in nuclear research. You can find a blog post on this by a nuclear physicist, Paul Stevenson of the University of Surrey, here.

The decision to withdraw from Euratom poses very serious questions about our nuclear industry as well as nuclear physics and engineering research so it should be discussed and evaluated. Whatever you think about BrExit, trying to force through such important decisions without consultation is not the proper way for a government to carry on.

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.