Archive for the Science Politics Category

Newsflash: Ireland and ESO

Posted in Science Politics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , on September 26, 2018 by telescoper

Some good news was waiting for me when I got back to the office after my lecture just now, namely that Astronomy in Ireland will shortly receive an enormous boost, as the Republic has joined the European Southern Observatory (ESO).

For those of you not in the know, ESO is an intergovernmental astronomy organisation and is the world’s most productive astronomical observatory. Founded in 1962, its headquarters are in Garching (near Munich, Germany), and it currently has 15 member states. On October 1st, Ireland will become the 16th. Its main work is conducted using a variety of large optical and radio telescopes which are all located in the southern hemisphere, notably at Paranal in Chile.

ESO’s VLT telescopes at Paranal (in the Andes Mountains).

The official press release includes the following:

We are delighted to welcome Ireland as the newest member of our organisation” stated ESO’s Director General, Xavier Barcons. “Ireland’s mature and thriving astronomical community will add to the broad variety of expertise in the ESO Member States, strengthening ESO’s position at the forefront of global astronomy. Irish astronomers will gain access to a suite of the world’s most advanced ground-based astronomical telescopes and will have the opportunity to be part of the construction of the next generation of ESO instruments in partnership with other ESO Member States. We are also very much looking forward to working with Irish industrial partners to build and operate ESO’s state-of-the-art telescopes.

It was probably the industrial opportunities afforded by ESO membership that persuaded the Irish government to stump up the subscription fee, but this decision is also extremely positive news for the relatively small but vibrant community in Ireland working on observational astronomy which I’m sure will make the most of the chance to do ever more exciting research using these facilities.

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Citation Analysis of Scientific Categories

Posted in Open Access, Science Politics with tags , on May 18, 2018 by telescoper

I stumbled across an interesting paper the other day with the title Citation Analysis of Scientific Categories. The title isn’t really accurate because not all the 231 categories covered by the analysis are `scientific’: they include many topics in the arts and humanities too. Anyway, the abstract is here:

Databases catalogue the corpus of research literature into scientific categories and report classes of bibliometric data such as the number of citations to articles, the number of authors, journals, funding agencies, institutes, references, etc. The number of articles and citations in a category are gauges of productivity and scientific impact but a quantitative basis to compare researchers between categories is limited. Here, we compile a list of bibliometric indicators for 236 science categories and citation rates of the 500 most cited articles of each category. The number of citations per paper vary by several orders of magnitude and are highest in multidisciplinary sciences, general internal medicine, and biochemistry and lowest in literature, poetry, and dance. A regression model demonstrates that citation rates to the top articles in each category increase with the square root of the number of articles in a category and decrease proportionately with the age of the references: articles in categories that cite recent research are also cited more frequently. The citation rate correlates positively with the number of funding agencies that finance the research. The category h-index correlates with the average number of cites to the top 500 ranked articles of each category (R2 = 0.997). Furthermore, only a few journals publish the top 500 cited articles in each category: four journals publish 60% (σ = ±20%) of these and ten publish 81% (σ = ±15%).

The paper is open access (I think) and you can find the whole thing here.

I had a discussion over lunch today with a couple of colleagues here in Maynooth about using citations. I think we agreed that citation analysis does convey some information about the impact of a person’s research but that information is rather limited. One of the difficulties is that publication rates and citation activity are very discipline-dependent so one can’t easily compare individuals in different areas. The paper here is interesting because it presents an interesting table showing how various statistical citation measures vary across fields and sub-fields;  physics is broken down into a number of distinct areas (e.g. Astronomy & Astrophysics, Particle Physics, Condensed Matter and Nuclear Physics) across which there is considerable variation. How to best to use this information is still not clear..

 

 

Funding Basic Research in Ireland

Posted in Politics, Science Politics with tags , , on May 15, 2018 by telescoper

I received an email the other day about a scheme run by Science Foundation Ireland. Among other things, the Technology Innovation Development Award is intended (among other things)

… enables researchers to demonstrate the technical feasibility of an applied research project directed toward the development of a new or innovative technology, product, process or service that has potential for further commercial development.

The thrust of this scheme is pretty typical of funding calls in Ireland, and it spurred me to go on a mini-rant.

It’s quite clear to me since arriving in Ireland that funding for basic research – especially in the sciences – is extremely poor. This is largely because of a high-level report published in 2012. This identified 14 priority areas of research that are most likely to give demonstrable economic and societal return, and where Ireland should focus the majority of competitive funding. Four criteria were used in selecting the 14 priority areas for future, competitively-awarded investment for economic objectives:

  1. the area is associated with a large global market or markets in which Irish-based enterprises already compete or can realistically compete;
  2.  publicly performed R&D in Ireland is required to exploit the area and will complement private sector research and innovation in Ireland;
  3.  Ireland has built or is building (objectively measured) strengths in research disciplines relevant to the area; and,
  4. the area represents an appropriate approach to a recognised national challenge and/or a global challenge to which Ireland should respond.

The `vast majority’ of SFI’s funding is directed towards the 14 areas so defined, leaving virtually nothing for anything else, an outcome which has dire implications for `blue skies’ research.

I think this is a deeply misguided short-term policy, which will have a strongly negative effect on science in Ireland in the medium to long term, especially because Ireland spends so little of its GDP on research in the first place.  On top of that it will mean that Ireland will miss out on a golden opportunity to capitalise on Brexit by encouraging European scientists disaffected by the hostile environment that has been created in Britain by its government’s xenophobic policies to relocate to Ireland. There’s simply no point in trying to persuade world-leading researchers to come to Ireland if insufficient funds are available to enable them to establish here; the politicians’ welcoming platitudes will never be enough.

As the Irish economy grows, I hope the Irish government can be persuaded to reverse this situation by investing more in basic research and being more pro-active about reaping the Brexit dividend. Perhaps now that I live here I can play some sort of a role in campaigning for that?

EXPLANATORY NOTE: By `Brexit dividen’, I mean the real dividend, i.e. that which will be experienced by EU countries after Britain gives up all the collaborations, trading opportunities and inward investment that it currently enjoys by virtue of its EU membership.

In the meantime I thought I’d fire an opening salvo by re-iterating a line of thought I had some time ago in the hope that it will provoke a bit of debate.

A while ago, in response to a funding crisis in the UK, I wrote  about using taxpayer’s money to fund research in universities:

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 or venture capitalists of some sort. Dragon’s Den, even. 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. You know, science.

A similar thing was said in in the Times Higher, in a piece about the (then) new President of the Royal Astronomical Society:

Notwithstanding the Royal Academy of Engineering’s “very unfortunate” recent submission to the government spending review – which argued that the need to rebalance the UK economy required public spending to be concentrated on applied science – Professor Davies is confident he can make a good case for spending on astrophysics to be protected.

Research with market potential can already access funding from venture capitalists, he argued, while cautioning the government against attempting to predict the economic impact of different subjects.

This is pretty much the opposite of what Irish government thinks. It wants to concentrate public funds in projects that  can demonstrate immediate commercial potential. Taxpayer’s money used in this way ends up in the pockets of entrepreneurs if the research succeeds and, if it doesn’t,  the grant has effectively been wasted.

My proposal, therefore, is to phase out research grants for groups that want to concentrate on commercially motivated research and replace them with research loans. If the claims they make to secure the advance are justified, they should have no problem repaying it  from the profits they make from patent income or other forms of exploitation. If not, then they will have to pay back the loan from their own funds (as well as being exposed as bullshit merchants). In the current economic situation the loans could be made at very low interest rates and still save a huge amount of the current research budget for higher education. Indeed after a few years – suggest the loans should be repayable in 3-5 years, it would be self-financing. I think a large fraction of research in the applied sciences and engineering should be funded in this way.

The money saved by replacing grants  to commercially driven research groups with loans could be re-invested in those areas where public investment is really needed, such as pure science and medicine. Here grants are needed because the motivation for the research is different. Much of it does, in fact, lead to commercial spin-offs, but that is accidental and likely to appear only in the very long term. The real motivation of doing this kind of research is to enrich the knowledge base of the UK and the world in general.

In other words, it’s for the public good.  Remember that?

Most of you probably think that this is a crazy idea, and if you do please feel free to tell me so via the comments box.

 

Planck wins the Gruber Prize (and the Shaw Prize)

Posted in Science Politics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , on May 13, 2018 by telescoper

I forgot to mention last week that the 2018 Gruber Prize for Cosmology has been awarded to the Planck team, and its Principal Investigators Nazzareno Mandolesi and Jean-Loup Puget.

For more information about the award and the citation, see here.

This annual prize is worth $500,00; the two PIs will get $125,000 each and the rest divided among the team. I’m not sure whether this means the Planck Science Team (whose membership is listed here or the entire Planck Collaboration (which numbers several hundred people) but regardless of whoever gets the actual dosh, this award provides a good excuse to send congratulations to everyone who worked on this brilliant and highly successful mission!

 

UPDATE: 14th May 2018. Jean-Loup Puget has also been awarded the Shaw Prize for Astronomy.

Remembering Clover

Posted in Biographical, Science Politics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , , on April 10, 2018 by telescoper

I was tidying up some papers in my desk yesterday and came across a clipping dated April 9th 2009, i.e. exactly nine years ago to the day. Amazed by this coincidence, I resolved to post it on here but was unable to work out how to use the new-fangled scanner in the Data Innovation Institute office so had to wait until I could get expert assistance this morning:

Sorry it’s a bit crumpled, but I guess that demonstrates the authenticity of its provenance.

The full story, as it appeared in the print edition of the Western Mail, can also be found online here. By the way it’s me on the stepladder, pretending to know something about astronomical instrumentation.

I wrote at some length about the background to the cancellation of the Clover experiment here. In a nutshell, however, Clover involved the Universities of Cardiff, Oxford, Cambridge and Manchester and was designed to detect the primordial B-mode signal from its vantage point in Chile. The chance to get involved in a high-profile cosmological experiment was one of the reasons I moved to Cardiff from Nottingham almost a decade ago, and I was looking forward to seeing the data arriving for analysis. Although I’m primarily a theorist, I have some experience in advanced statistical methods that might have been useful in analysing the output. It would have been fun blogging about it too.

Unfortunately, however, none of that happened. Because of its budget crisis, and despite the fact that it had already spent a large amount (£4.5M) on Clover, the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) decided to withdraw the funding needed to complete it (£2.5M) and cancel the experiment. I was very disappointed, but that’s nothing compared to Paolo (shown in the picture) who lost his job as a result of the decision and took his considerable skills and knowledge abroad.

We will never know for sure, but if Clover had gone ahead it might well have detected the same signal found five years later by BICEP2, which was announced in 2014. Working at three different frequencies (95, 150 and 225GHz) Clover would have had a better capability than BICEP2 in distinguishing the primordial signal from contamination from Galactic dust emission (which, as we now know, is the dominant contribution to the BICEP2 result; see thread here), although that still wouldn’t have been easy because of sensitivity issues. As it turned out, the BICEP2 signal turned out to be a false alarm so, looking on the bright side, perhaps at least the members of the Clover team avoided making fools of themselves on TV!

P.S. Note also that I moved to Cardiff in mid-2007, so I had not spent 5 years working on the Clover project by the time it was cancelled as discussed in the newspaper article, but many of my Cardiff colleagues had.

Metrics for `Academic Reputation’

Posted in Bad Statistics, Science Politics with tags , , , on April 9, 2018 by telescoper

This weekend I came across a provocative paper on the arXiv with the title Measuring the academic reputation through citation records via PageRank. Here is the abstract:

The objective assessment of the prestige of an academic institution is a difficult and hotly debated task. In the last few years, different types of University Rankings have been proposed to quantify the excellence of different research institutions in the world. Albeit met with criticism in some cases, the relevance of university rankings is being increasingly acknowledged: indeed, rankings are having a major impact on the design of research policies, both at the institutional and governmental level. Yet, the debate on what rankings are  exactly measuring is enduring. Here, we address the issue by measuring a quantitative and reliable proxy of the academic reputation of a given institution and by evaluating its correlation with different university rankings. Specifically, we study citation patterns among universities in five different Web of Science Subject Categories and use the PageRank algorithm on the five resulting citation networks. The rationale behind our work is that scientific citations are driven by the reputation of the reference so that the PageRank algorithm is expected to yield a rank which reflects the reputation of an academic institution in a specific field. Our results allow to quantifying the prestige of a set of institutions in a certain research field based only on hard bibliometric data. Given the volume of the data analysed, our findings are statistically robust and less prone to bias, at odds with ad hoc surveys often employed by ranking bodies in order to attain similar results. Because our findings are found to correlate extremely well with the ARWU Subject rankings, the approach we propose in our paper may open the door to new, Academic Ranking methodologies that go beyond current methods by reconciling the qualitative evaluation of Academic Prestige with its quantitative measurements via publication impact.

(The link to the description of the PageRank algorithm was added by me; I also corrected a few spelling mistakes in the abstract). You can find the full paper here (PDF).

For what it’s worth, I think the paper contains some interesting ideas (e.g. treating citations as a `tree’ rather than a simple `list’) but the authors make some assumptions that I find deeply questionable (e.g. that being cited among a short reference listed is somehow of higher value than in a long list). The danger is that using such information in a metric could form an incentive to further bad behaviour (such as citation cartels).

I have blogged quite a few times about the uses and abuses of citations (see tag here) , and I won’t rehearse these arguments here. I will say, however, that I do agree with the idea of sharing citations among the authors of the paper rather than giving each and every author credit for the total. Many astronomers disagree with this point of view, but surely it is perverse to argue that the 100th author of a paper with 51 citations deserves more credit than the sole author of paper with 49?

Above all, though, the problem with constructing a metric for `Academic Reputation’ is that the concept is so difficult to define in the first place…

Newsflash: New Chair at STFC

Posted in Science Politics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , on January 22, 2018 by telescoper

As a quick piece of community service I thought I’d pass on the news of the appointment of a new Executive Chair for the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC), namely Professor Mark Thomson of the University of Cambridge. Developments at STFC will cease to be relevant to me after this summer as I’m moving to Ireland but this is potentially very important news for many readers of this blog.

Professor Thomson is an Experimental Particle Physicist whose home page at Cambridge describes his research in thuswise manner:

My main research interests are neutrino physics, the physics of the electroweak interactions, and the design of detectors at a future colliders. I am co-spokesperson of the DUNE collaboration, which consists of over 1000 scientiests and engineers from over 170 institutions in 31 nations across the globe. The Cambridge neutrino group splits its acivities between MicroBooNE and DUNE and is using advanced particle flow calorimetry techniques to interpret the images from large liquid argon TPC neutrino detector.

I’ve added a link to the DUNE collaboration for those of you who don’t know about it – it’s a very large neutrino physics experiment to be based in the USA.

On the announcement, Prof. Thomson stated:

I am passionate about STFC science, which spans the smallest scales of particle physics to the vast scales of astrophysics and cosmology, and it is a great honour be appointed to lead STFC as its new Executive Chair. The formation of UKRI presents exciting opportunities for STFC to further develop the UK’s world-leading science programme and to maximise the impact of the world-class facilities supported by STFC.

This appointment needs to be officially confirmed after a pre-appointment hearing by the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee but, barring a surprise offer of the position to Toby Young, he’s likely to take over the reins at STFC in April this year. He’ll have his work cut out trying to make the case for continued investment in fundamental science in the United Kingdom, in the face of numerous challenges, so I’d like to take this opportunity to wish him the very best of luck in his new role!