Archive for the Science Politics Category

An Open Letter from Irish Scientists

Posted in Politics, Science Politics on May 25, 2020 by telescoper

Just a quick post to pass on the news of an Open Letter from Irish Scientists (and other academics) that is doing the rounds. The letter begins:

Five years ago over 1,000 Irish scientists wrote to government urging a rebalancing of funding toward basic research. Basic discovery research is exactly the type that produces the scientists, skills and serendipitous solutions we need when faced with an unexpected challenge like COVID-19. Half a decade on from that letter little has changed for the better. The crisis in Irish research has deepened and risks becoming fatal if not addressed. To avoid another decade of drift that the nation cannot afford we the undersigned believe Ireland needs to establish a dedicated cabinet-level Department for Higher Education & Research. We fear the country will pay the price in future crises and miss opportunities for innovation if government doesn’t recommit to proper investment and attention for higher education and research urgently.

You can read the rest of it here where, if you are so minded, you can also sign it (as I have done; I’m Number 307).

The Brexit Visa

Posted in Politics, Science Politics with tags , , , , , , on January 28, 2020 by telescoper

I noticed yesterday a news item about a new fast-track ‘global talent visa’ to be launched days after Brexit. The Tory press have been jumping up and down touting this as a way to attract the best scientific talent from around the world to the United Kingdom. Global Britain and all that.

Given the very short timescale involved, it seems very likely to me that this new visa is likely to be just a slight re-branding of the existing `Exceptional Talent’ Tier 1 visa. There is at present a cap of 2000 on the number of such visas that the Home Office will issue per year but this has never been reached. The proposal to remove the cap would be of no practical consequence were it not for the fact that when the United Kingdom leaves the European Union, freedom of movement of EU and EEA citizens will be brought to an end so such citizens will also have to apply.

Currently, for most applicants the total cost of a visa application under the Exceptional Talent scheme is £608 per person (and dependent thereof). It seems likely to me that extra staff will be needed to process the larger number of applications expected under the new scheme, so I infer that additional charges will be imposed to pay for them. Remember that, currently, a scientist (or anyone else) from the EU does not need a visa to work in the UK.

In addition, EU citizens will almost certainly have to pay the so-called Healthcare Surcharge of £400 per person per year from which they are currently exempt. I’ve always felt this charge was grossly unfair to all immigrants. The National Health Service is paid for out of income tax and national insurance. If an immigrant pays tax and national insurance anyway, what possible justification can there be for a health surcharge? If you ask me it’s just another manifestation of the Tory Government’s intrinsic hostility to anyone foreign. This visceral xenophobia is now perceived across the world to be the defining characteristic of Brexit Britain. You don’t need to be a budding Einstein to see what is going on. Everyone knows the language routinely used by the Government and Tory press to demean and humiliate immigrants.

Given this hostile environment, and the fact that scientists who are EU citizens still have freedom of movement within the EU (along with everyone else), why would such a person come to the UK instead of a country with a more civilized attitude?

It is true that the science base of the United Kingdom is generally pretty strong, but that is at least in part due to the influx of EU scientists thanks to freedom of movement. I’m not saying that all the wonderful Italian, Danish, French, German and other scientists currently in the UK are going to leave immediately because many have deep roots in the United Kingdom. In the long run, however, Britain’s self-imposed loss will be Europe’s gain, and no amount of cosmetic tinkering with the visa system will change that.

Nobel Prize Time Approaches

Posted in Science Politics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , on October 6, 2019 by telescoper

Just a quick reminder that this year’s crop of Nobel Prizes will be announced next week, with the one of most personal interest to me – the Physics Prize – being due on Tuesday 8th October. Before going on here is a picture of my own Nobel Prize Medal:


It’s actually chocolate inside, though it is 13 years old and by now probably inedible if not toxic. You can read about how I got it here.

Anyway, as usual there has been quite a lot of speculation about these awards. Despite not having a great track-record of success some persist in trying to use citation metrics as a predictor; see here for example. Others have a less formulaic approach; see e.g. here.

I don’t really have any idea who is going to get it this year, but here are three possibilities:

  • Extrasolar Planets. This has to be a strong contender, but to whom should the prize be awarded?  Possible winners include Didier Queloz, Aleksander Wolszczan, Dale Frail, and Michel Mayor, but the maximum number allowed to win is three….
  • Geometric Phase. Although if they were going to win they probably would have done so by now, I still think there’s an outside change for Michael Berry and Yakir Aharonov.
  • Quantum Information. This isn’t my area but is very hot these days. It’s also very broad so I’m not sure what specific area and which individuals would prompt an award – quantum cryptography is a possibility, but who?

Anyway, I’d welcome other suggestions through the comments box.




Open Letter to the EU: Reinstate the Commissioner for Science and Research

Posted in Science Politics with tags , , , , on September 19, 2019 by telescoper

It may have escaped your attention (as it did mine) that, when the candidates for members of the European Union Commission were presented last week, the role of Commissioner for Research, Science and Innovation has apparently been phased out, and its remit subsumed by that of the Commissioner for “Innovation and Youth”.

Downgrading the role of Science and Research in this way is a retrograde step, as is the introduction of a Commissioner for `Protecting the European Way of Life’, which is a racist dog-whistle if ever I heard one.

Anyway, back on the subject of Research and Science, there is a letter going around protesting the loss of a specific role in the Commission covering this portfolio.

Here is the text:

Your Excellencies Presidents Sassoli, Dr. Juncker and Dr. von der Leyen,

The candidates for the new EU commissioners were presented last week. In the new commission the areas of education and research are not explicitly represented anymore and instead are subsumed under the “innovation and youth” title. This emphasizes economic exploitability (i.e. “innovation”) over its foundation, which is education and research, and it reduces “education” to “youth” while being essential to all ages.

We, as members of the scientific community of Europe, wish to address this situation early on and emphasize both to the general public, as well as to relevant politicians on the national and European Union level, that without dedication to education and research there will neither exist a sound basis for innovation in Europe, nor can we fulfill the promise of a high standard of living for the citizens of Europe in a fierce global competition.

President von der Leyen, in her mission letter to commissioner Gabriel, has emphasized that “education, research and innovation will be key to our competitiveness”.

With this open letter we demand that the EU commission revises the title for commissioner Gabriel to “Education, Research, Innovation and Youth” reflecting Europe’s dedication to all of these crucial areas. We also call upon the European Parliament to request this change in name before confirming the nominees for commissioner.

I have signed the letter, and encourage you to do likewise if you are so inclined. You can find a link to the letter, together with instructions how to sign it, here.

Who uses LinkedIn?

Posted in Science Politics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , on September 5, 2019 by telescoper

We had a talk at INAM2019 yesterday about the Astronomical Science Group of Ireland which is about to be re-launched with a new website. One of the main reasons for doing this is that Ireland recently joined the European Southern Observatory and in order to capitalize on its involvement it is important to persuade the Irish government to invest in the resources needed (especially postdocs, etc) to do as much science as possible using ESO facilities. At the moment there isn’t a very well organized lobby for astronomy in Ireland.

One of the suggestions made yesterday was that astronomers in Ireland should join LinkedIn in order to raise their profile individually and collectively.

I am not, and have never been, on LinkedIn and this is the first time I’ve ever even thought of joining it (though I do from time to time receive emails from people I don’t know asking me to). I’ve always thought it was for more businessy types. I don’t know of any astronomers (or scientists generally) who use it either, but that may be just because I’m not on it and wouldn’t know either way.

I just thought therefore, that I might invite any readers of this blog – whether astronomers or not – if they use LinkedIn to please comment on its usefulness or otherwise using the box below. Please also comment on whether you think it would help astronomers in Ireland organize in the manner envisaged.

ERC Starting (and Finishing) Grants

Posted in Politics, Science Politics with tags , , , , on September 3, 2019 by telescoper

Just time for a quick note to announce that the European Research Council has announced the winners of the latest round of `Starting Grants’ (which are intended to further the research plans of early career researchers). Full details are here. Congratulations to all the winners, and especially  Erminia Calabrese in the School of Physics & Astronomy at Cardiff University!

In all, 408 applicants were selected for funding, hosted in 24 different countries. The split by nationality and discipline is as follows:

I’ll make two comments on the numbers.

First, the United Kingdom is host to a total of 64 awards. It is however very unclear what will happen in the case of a `No Deal’ Brexit in which the British Government refuses to honour its existing financial commitments. Hopefully even in this case these grants will go ahead in some form (perhaps funded directly by the UK).

Second, note that there is only one award for Ireland and nothing in either Physical Sciences or Life Sciences. This is very disappointing, but is probably a fair reflection of the Irish governments ongoing failure to invest in basic science.

It’s not that the Irish aren’t good at research. Here is another graphic that shows that 7 Irish researchers were actually awarded grants under this scheme, but none of them chose to hold their awards in Ireland:



That tells you something about the environment for early career researchers in this country.

The imminent departure of the United Kingdom from the European Union makes its future participation in such schemes unlikely. Brexit could be a great opportunity for the research community in Ireland, if only the Irish Government would seize it, but it would first need to recognize the benefits of increasing investment in research. Sadly I don’t think it will.


Walter’s Leaving Do

Posted in Cardiff, Science Politics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , on May 18, 2019 by telescoper

As I had little window of opportunity before the start of exam marking season and other goings-on in Maynooth I decided to make a quick trip back to Wales back in Cardiff for the weekend.

I flew back on Thursday evening. It had been a busy day and I’d only had a sandwich for lunch so I went into the bar in Dublin Airport to get a beer and a burger. Who did I bump into there but Professor Walter Gear…

Walter was Head of the School of Physics and Astronomy at Cardiff University when I joined it in 2007, so and was he persuaded me to leave Nottingham. He was a very good Head of School and, in particular, he helped a lot when I had mental health problems seven years ago.

Anyway after twenty years in Cardiff during which he built up the School and particularly the world-leading Astronomy Instrumentation Group there, Walter has left for a new position as Dean for Science and Engineering at NUI Galway, in Ireland.

He was in Dublin Airport because he was travelling back to his leaving do in Cardiff, which I turned up for on Friday. There were drinks and speeches and presents and it was nice to see some old friends there and in the Flute and Tankard afterwards. It was a good send-off.

I’m sure that Walter (who was born in Ireland) enjoy his new role in the Emerald Isle very much indeed. Galway is quite a distance from Maynooth (almost 200 km) but I hope we will be in regular contact.

Anyway I should mention that there are advertisements out for a Research Associate in Sub-mm Astronomy and and a Lecturer in Astronomy (with an emphasis on the same) in Galway. I’m sure these will prove very attractive to many applicants!

A Hint of Blue Skies for Irish Science?

Posted in Science Politics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , on February 9, 2019 by telescoper

I was quite excited the other day when I got an email notifying me that Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) has announced a new funding programme called Frontiers for the Future. What particularly caught my attention are the so-called Frontiers for the Future Projects, which..

will provide funding for high-risk, high-reward research that facilitates highly innovative and novel approaches to research.

The wording here contrasts with the Frontiers for the Future Awards, which…

will provide larger scale funding for innovative, collaborative and excellent research programmes that have the potential to deliver economic and societal impact.

The Projects can fund up to €480K over 4 years (compared to the Awards, which are up to €1M over 5 years). This second category seems to follow the policy of the past decade of SFI which is only to fund research which is able more-or-less immediately to generate a financial return. I’ve argued previously that I think this is a short-sighted policy, but I won’t repeat that argument here. It is a fact however that SFI’s policy has made it very difficult in Ireland for researchers who want to do basic `blue skies’ research, including us astronomers and astrophysicists.

The new `Projects’ however may just be a step away from this damaging shor-termism.

Further down the page SFI states (my emphasis):

To be eligible for funding through the SFI Frontiers for the Future Programme, all proposals must be aligned to one of the 14 Refreshed Priority Areas for 2018-2023, or to any other research area within SFI’s legal remit (i.e. oriented basic or applied research) where there is convincing evidence that there will be significant potential for economic and/or societal impact in Ireland.

Astronomers in the UK have succeeded in arguing that their big science projects have all kinds of societal impact (in inspiring more students into STEM disciplines, as well as wider public engagement) as well as direct economic impact in terms of developing research methods, and building up a talent pool, especially in areas like data science. Whether SFI will accept such arguments in Ireland, I just don’t know.

If you’re wondering what `oriented basic or applied research’ means, SFI defines it as follows:

Oriented basic research is research that is carried out with the expectation that it will produce a broad base of knowledge that is likely to form the background to the solution of recognised, or expected, current or future problems or possibilities.

To me that means virtually any science!

Anyway, I’ll probably throw the dice to see if I can get some  SFI support for my research in cosmology. It might turn out to be a waste of effort, but if you don’t buy a ticket you don’t win the lottery…



The Future Circular Collider: what’s the MacGuffin?

Posted in Science Politics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , , on February 7, 2019 by telescoper

I’ve been reading a few items here and there about proposals for a Future Circular Collider, even larger than the Large Hadron Collider (and consequently even more expensive). No doubt particle physicists interested in accelerator experiments will be convinced this is the right move, but of course there are other projects competing for funds and it’s by no means certain that the FCC will actually happen.

One of the important things about `Big Science’ when it gets this big is that it has to capture the imagination of people with political influence if it is to be granted funding. Based on past experience that means that there has to be a Big Discovery to be made or a Big Idea to be tested. This Big Thing has to be simple enough for politicians to understand and exciting enough to capture their imagination (and that of the public). In the case of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), for example, this was the Higgs Boson. In the case of the Euclid space mission, the motivation is Dark Energy.

The Big Thing that sells a project to politicians is not necessarily the thing that most scientists are interested in. The LHC has done a lot of things other than discover the Higgs, and Euclid will do many things other than probe Dark Energy, but there has to be one thing to set it all in motion. It seems to me that the Big Question about the FCC is whether there is something specific that can motivate this project in the way the Higgs did for the LHC? If so, what is it?

Answers on a postcard or, better, through the comments box below.


Humphrey Bogart with the eponymous Maltese Falcon

Anyway, these thoughts reminded me of the concept of a  MacGuffin. Unpick the plot of any thriller or suspense movie and the chances are that somewhere within it you will find lurking at least one MacGuffin. This might be a tangible thing, such the eponymous sculpture of a Falcon in the archetypal noir classic The Maltese Falcon or it may be rather nebulous, like the “top secret plans” in Hitchcock’s The Thirty Nine Steps. Its true character may be never fully revealed, such as in the case of the glowing contents of the briefcase in Pulp Fiction , which is a classic example of the “undisclosed object” type of MacGuffin, or it may be scarily obvious, like a doomsday machine or some other “Big Dumb Object” you might find in a science fiction thriller.

Or the MacGuffin may not be a real thing at all. It could be an event or an idea or even something that doesn’t actually exist in any sense, such the fictitious decoy character George Kaplan in North by Northwest. In fact North by North West is an example of a movie with more than one MacGuffin. Its convoluted plot involves espionage and the smuggling of what is only cursorily described as “government secrets”. These are the main MacGuffin; George Kaplan is a sort of sub-MacGuffin. But although this is behind the whole story, it is the emerging romance, accidental betrayal and frantic rescue involving the lead characters played by Cary Grant and Eve Marie Saint that really engages the characters and the audience as the film gathers pace. The MacGuffin is a trigger, but it soon fades into the background as other factors take over.

Whatever it is or is not, the MacGuffin is responsible for kick-starting the plot. It makes the characters embark upon the course of action they take as the tale begins to unfold. This plot device was particularly beloved by Alfred Hitchcock (who was responsible for introducing the word to the film industry). Hitchcock was however always at pains to ensure that the MacGuffin never played as an important a role in the mind of the audience as it did for the protagonists. As the plot twists and turns – as it usually does in such films – and its own momentum carries the story forward, the importance of the MacGuffin tends to fade, and by the end we have usually often forgotten all about it. Hitchcock’s movies rarely bother to explain their MacGuffin(s) in much detail and they often confuse the issue even further by mixing genuine MacGuffins with mere red herrings.

Here is the man himself explaining the concept at the beginning of this clip. (The rest of the interview is also enjoyable, convering such diverse topics as laxatives, ravens and nudity..)

There’s nothing particular new about the idea of a MacGuffin. I suppose the ultimate example is the Holy Grail in the tales of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table in which the Grail itself is basically a peg on which to hang a series of otherwise disconnected stories. It is barely mentioned once each individual story has started and, of course, is never found. That’s often how it goes with MacGuffins -even the Maltese Falcon turned out in the end to be a fake – they’re only really needed to start things off.

So let me rephrase the question I posed earlier on. In the case of the Future Circular Collider, what’s the MacGuffin?

Sustainability and Irish Science

Posted in Politics, Science Politics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , on December 19, 2018 by telescoper

There’s an interesting news item in the Education section of the Irish times about the appointment of Prof Séamus Davis to positions at both the University of Oxford and University College Cork, under a Science Foundation Ireland scheme intended to capitalize on Brexit (and the imminent loss of EU funding it implies) and the unhappy situation for science in the USA. This is the first appointment to one of the new Research Professorships, which allow the holders to be paid up to €250K.

While I support any investment in Irish science, and wish Prof. Davis every success in his new role, my reaction to the SFI scheme is very similar to my view of the Sêr Cymru (“Star Wales”) project which began a few years ago when I was working in Cardiff, with the aim of attracting `research leaders’ to Wales.

I am very skeptical about the likely success of `top-down’ moves like this. What Ireland really needs (and currently does not have) is a sustainable research base, so at very least I’d like to complementary  `bottom-up’ projects nurturing  researchers at PhD and PDRA level, perhaps through a greatly expanded system of national fellowships.  The trouble in Ireland is that there are so few opportunities for early career researchers that many have to go abroad to further their careers. There’s nothing wrong with Irish researchers choosing to work in another country, of course, but in an ideal world they would choose rather than be forced to do so by lack of opportunity and their loss would be offset by a other nationals choosing to come into Ireland. Unless this problem is fixed Ireland might end up with some leaders but nobody around to follow them.

The question I ask myself is, if one had to choose, what would be better in the long run for Irish science, one Professor on a salary of €250,000 or eight new postdoctoral fellowships (at roughly the same cost)?

Of course the idea of bringing in `research leaders’ is that they will manage to bring in funds from elsewhere, especially the European Union. This may indeed happen and indeed some may already have money in the bag when they move in. The problem with the strategy, though,  is that it’s not very easy to persuade such leaders to leave their current institutions, especially in experimental sciences, if they’ve already spend years acquiring the funding needed to equip their laboratories. This is not just a question of moving people, which is relatively easy, but can involve trying to replace lots of expensive and delicate equipment. The financial inducements needed to fund the relocation of a major research group and fight off counter-offers from its present host are likely to be so expensive that the benefit gained from doing this takes years to accrue, even they succeed. And EU grants are exceptionally competitive..

It’s a big shame that Ireland does not take research funding as seriously as it should, especially in fundamental science. Brexit could well turn out to be very damaging for the Irish economy, but science is one area where in which there are enormous opportunities if only there was the political will to seize them.