Archive for the Science Politics Category

National STFC Data-Intensive Science Launch Event

Posted in Science Politics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , on October 27, 2017 by telescoper

It’s been a very busy week here in Cardiff, as we have been hosting a National Event to launch the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC)’s new Centres for Doctoral Training in Data-Intensive Science. There are eight new CDTs involving 19 institutions across the country (including the local one that involved the Universities of Cardiff, Bristol and Swansea). We were delighted to be chosen to host this event, which has had a tremendous buzz about it, as 120 new PhD students met with academics from all the CDTs, STFC staff, and representatives of industry partners, for a mixture of training and networking activities. I took part in a panel discussion this morning about careers, which was very interesting.

Last night we had a dinner at the Mercure Hotel in Cardiff (where the Real Madrid team stayed just before this summer’s UEFA Champions League Final in Cardiff). The dinner was preceded by a welcome from Professor Karen Holford (Deputy Vice-Chancellor of Cardiff University), a talk by Brian Bowsher (Chief Executive of STFC) and Prof. Patrick Sutton of the Gravitional Physics group at Cardiff who gave an outstanding talk about the latest developments in gravitational waves. There was then a `showcase’ event to allow students and staff to talk about their work over a few drinks.

Here are some pictures of yesterday’s activities.

Prof. Karen Holford giving her welcome speech.

Dr Bian Bowsher, STFC Chief Executive

I noticed in Dr Bowsher’s talk that STFC has apparently moved the Boulby Mine from North Yorkshire (near Whitby) to Northumberland:

STFC sites (some of them in the correct geographical location).

Professor Mark Walport was unable to attend the event in person but did at least appear on a slide about the new UK Research and Innovation entity, which formally comes into existence in April 2018!

Professor Sir Mark Walport

Patrick Sutton doing his gravitational waves talk…

The Showcase Event

Showcase Event

And here are some of the members of the team from STFC who did most of the organization for this very successful and enjoyable event.

Some members of the STFC team!

The event finishes this afternoon, after which I think I’ll have a lie down!

Update: there’s a Cardiff University News item about this here.

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Science and Innovation after Brexit

Posted in Politics, Science Politics with tags , , on September 7, 2017 by telescoper

I’ve been busy most of today so I only have a little time for a short post pointing out that the long-awaited `position paper’ about collaboration on science and innovation between the UK and EU after Brexit has now been published. Those of you intending to remain in the United Kingdom if and when it leaves the European Union might be interested in reading it. I say `might be’ rather than `will be’ as it doesn’t really say anything concrete about anything.

Here’s the overall summary:

In preparing to leave the EU, one of the UK’s core objectives is to “seek agreement to continue to collaborate with European partners on major science, research, and technology initiatives”. It is the UK’s ambition to build on its unique relationship with the EU to ensure that together we remain at the forefront of collective endeavours to improve the world in which we live. The UK believes this is in the joint interest of the UK and EU, and would welcome discussion on how best to shape our future partnership in this area.

The answer to the last bit is, of course, easy. The best way to shape our future partnership in this area is unquestionably for the United Kingdom to remain in the European Union. This document says as much itself. As with most of these papers it consists primarily of a long list of the benefits in this area that the United Kingdom has enjoyed as a direct result of our membership of the European together with a desire to keep most of them after our departure. It offers no real ideas as to how to square the many circles that would involve. In particular, many EU schemes, including those funded by the European Research Council, depend on the freedom of movement the European Union guarantees. Given the leaked Home Office document outlining how it intends to deter EU citizens from coming here I don’t see how we can possibly remain an attractive destination for scientists, or anyone else for that matter.

Meanwhile, today, Parliament is debating the European Union Withdrawal Bill which, if passed, would give the Government sweeping powers – the so-called `Henry VIII’ powers – to bypass Parliament and directly repeal or amend any law it doesn’t like the look of without debate. This is exactly the right-wing power grab that many of who voted Remain feared would happen. If this Bill passes without significant amendment then we can say goodbye to our parliamentary democracy. The parallel with the Enabling Act of 1933 that gave absolute power to Adolf Hitler is frightening.

Doubt expressed over accuracy of measurement of the ‘Beard-Second’

Posted in Beards, Science Politics with tags , , , on September 4, 2017 by telescoper

As a practising scientist I too am concerned about the reliability of the definition of the `Beard Second’. In addition to the intrinsic variability from one individual to another (including genetic influences) many external environmental factors affect beard growth, so any definition must include conditions such as temperature, pressure, sunlight levels and whether or not the beard is supplied with nutrients. In any case the term `average’ usually applies to the arithmetic mean, whereas the quoted text seems to imply the median.

My advice to the Beard Liberation Front is to refer this matter to the National Measurement and Regulation Office for review but along with most government offices nowadays it only seems interested in issues that directly affect the ability of businesses to profit rather than safeguarding the accuracy and reproducibility of scientific matters of direct interest to the public, such as the rate of beard growth.

In the longer term, however, I believe the only way to establish a reliable standard for the `beard second’ is through an extensive research programme. A detailed proposal is in preparation to UK Research and Innovation, as it seems an appropriate topic for an interdisciplinary award.

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Beard Liberation Front

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Doubt expressed over accuracy of measurement of the ‘Beard-Second’

The Beard Liberation Front, the informal network of beard wearers, has expressed doubt over the accuracy of the unit of measurement known as the ‘Beard-Second’.

The ‘Beard-Second’ is designed to measure how quickly in time a beard grows.

According to Wiki:

The beard-second is a unit of length inspired by the light-year, but applicable to extremely short distances such as those in integrated circuits. The beard-second is defined as the length an average beard grows in one second. Kemp Bennett Kolb defines the distance as exactly 100 angstroms (10 nanometers). as does Nordling and Österman’s Physics Handbook. However, Google Calculator supports the beard-second for unit conversions using the value 5 nm.

The beard-second establishes a related unit of time, the beard-inch which is 29.4 days (or 58.8 days…

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The Anomaly of Research England

Posted in Politics, Science Politics with tags , , , , on August 16, 2017 by telescoper

The other day I was surprised to see this tweet announcing the impending formation of a new council under the umbrella of the new organisation UK Research & Innovation (UKRI):

These changes are consequences of the Higher Education and Research Act (2017) which was passed at the end of the last Parliament before the Prime Minister decided to reduce the Government’s majority by calling a General Election.

It seems to me that it’s very strange indeed to have a new council called Research England sitting inside an organisation that purports to be a UK-wide outfit without having a corresponding Research Wales, Research Scotland and Research Northern Ireland. The seven existing research councils which will henceforth sit alongside Research England within UKRI are all UK-wide.

This anomaly stems from the fact that Higher Education policy is ostensibly a devolved matter, meaning that England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland each have separate bodies to oversee their universities. Included in the functions of these bodies is the so-called QR funding which is allocated on the basis of the Research Excellence Framework. This used to be administered by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE), but each devolved council distributed its own funds in its own way. The new Higher Education and Research Act however abolishes HEFCE and replaces some of its functions into an organisation called the Office for Students, but not those connected with research. Hence the creation of the new `Research England’. This will not only distribute QR funding among English universities but also administer a number of interdisciplinary research programmes.

The dual support system of government funding consists of block grants of QR funding allocated as above alongside targeted at specific projects by the Research Councils (such as the Science and Technology Facilities Council, which is responsible for astronomy, particle physics and nuclear physics research). There is nervousness in England that the new structure will put both elements of the dual support system inside the same organisation, but my greatest concern is that by exlcuding Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, English universities will be given an unfair advantage when it comes to interdisciplinary research. Surely there should be representation within UKRI for Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland too?

Incidentally, the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) has started the process of recruiting a new Executive Chair. If you’re interested in this position you can find the advertisement here. Ominously, the only thing mentioned under `Skills Required’ is `Change Management’.

LIGO and Open Science

Posted in Open Access, Science Politics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , on August 8, 2017 by telescoper

I’ve just come from another meeting here at the Niels Bohr Institute between some members of the LIGO Scientific Collaboration and the authors of the `Danish Paper‘. As with the other one I attended last week it was both interesting and informative. I’m not going to divulge any of the details of the discussion, but I anticipate further developments that will put some of them into the public domain fairly soon and will comment on them as and when that happens.

I think an important aspect of the way science works is that when a given individual or group publishes a result, it should be possible for others to reproduce it (or not as the case may be). In normal-sized laboratory physics it suffices to explain the experimental set-up in the published paper in sufficient detail for another individual or group to build an equivalent replica experiment if they want to check the results. In `Big Science’, e.g. with LIGO or the Large Hadron Collider, it is not practically possible for other groups to build their own copy, so the best that can be done is to release the data coming from the experiment. A basic problem with reproducibility obviously arises when this does not happen.

In astrophysics and cosmology, results in scientific papers are often based on very complicated analyses of large data sets. This is also the case for gravitational wave experiments. Fortunately in astrophysics these days researchers are generally pretty good at sharing their data, but there are a few exceptions in that field. Particle physicists, by contrast, generally treat all their data as proprietary.

Even allowing open access to data doesn’t always solve the reproducibility problem. Often extensive numerical codes are needed to process the measurements and extract meaningful output. Without access to these pipeline codes it is impossible for a third party to check the path from input to output without writing their own version, assuming that there is sufficient information to do that in the first place. That researchers should publish their software as well as their results is quite a controversial suggestion, but I think it’s the best practice for science. In any case there are often intermediate stages between `raw’ data and scientific results, as well as ancillary data products of various kinds. I think these should all be made public. Doing that could well entail a great deal of effort, but I think in the long run that it is worth it.

I’m not saying that scientific collaborations should not have a proprietary period, just that this period should end when a result is announced, and that any such announcement should be accompanied by a release of the data products and software needed to subject the analysis to independent verification.

Now, if you are interested in trying to reproduce the analysis of data from the first detection of gravitational waves by LIGO, you can go here, where you can not only download the data but also find a helpful tutorial on how to analyse it.

This seems at first sight to be fully in the spirit of open science, but if you visit that page you will find this disclaimer:

 

In other words, one can’t check the LIGO data analysis because not all the data and tools necessary to do that are not publicly available.  I know for a fact that this is the case because of the meetings going on here at NBI!

Given that the detection of gravitational waves is one of the most important breakthroughs ever made in physics, I think this is a matter of considerable regret. I also find it difficult to understand the reasoning that led the LIGO consortium to think it was a good plan only to go part of the way towards open science, by releasing only part of the information needed to reproduce the processing of the LIGO signals and their subsequent statistical analysis. There may be good reasons that I know nothing about, but at the moment it seems to me to me to represent a wasted opportunity.

I know I’m an extremist when it comes to open science, and there are probably many who disagree with me, so I thought I’d do a mini-poll on this issue:

Any other comments welcome through the box below!

The STFC ‘Breadth of Programme’ Exercise

Posted in Science Politics with tags , , , , , on April 26, 2017 by telescoper

I suddenly realized this morning that I there was a bit of community service I meant to do when I got back from vacations, namely to pass on to astronomers and particle physicists a link to the results of the latest Programmatic Review (actually ‘Breadth of Programme’ Exercise) produced by the Science and Technology Facilities Council.

It’s a lengthy document, running to 89 pages, but it’s a must-read if you’re in the UK and work in area of science under the remit of STFC. There was considerable uncertainty about the science funding situation anyway because of BrExit, and that has increased dramatically because of the impending General Election which will probably kick quite a few things into the long grass, quite possibly delaying the planned reorganization of the research councils. Nevertheless, this document is well worth reading as it will almost certainly inform key decisions that will have to be made whatever happens in the broader landscape. With `flat cash’ being the most optimistic scenario, increasing inflation means that some savings will have to be found so belts will inevitable have to be tightened. Moreover, there are strong strategic arguments that some areas should grow, rather than remain static, which means that others will have to shrink to compensate.

There are 29 detailed recommendations and I can’t discuss them all here, but here are a couple of tasters:

The E-ELT is the European Extremely Large Telescope, in case you didn’t know.

Another one that caught my eye is this:

I’ve never really understood why gravitational-wave research came under ‘Particle Astrophysics’ anyway, but given their recent discovery by Advanced LIGO there is a clear case for further investment in future developments, especially because the UK community is currently rather small.

Anyway, do read the document and, should you be minded to do so, please feel free to comment on it below through the comments box.

 

 

March for Science – Cardiff

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

MFS
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: