Archive for the Science Politics Category

Tell Them Science Is Vital

Posted in Politics, Science Politics with tags on March 15, 2015 by telescoper

telescoper:

To follow up on my previous post, here’s a a lot more about the Tell Them Science Is Vital initiative…

Originally posted on Purely a figment of your imagination:

There’s another election coming up and, whatever the outcome, we’ll all (hopefully) still be doing our jobs and waiting for the situation to improve.

Something the government could do to lay foundations for education, industries and economic growth in the UK is to fund science. Over the last 2 decades, they’ve really let this slide. Enter #TellThemSiV, the new campaign from Science is Vital, to do just that…

Tell Them Science is Vital

In just a few weeks, Britain goes to the polls to vote in a new government. This is obviously a crucial time for science funding and policy.

That is why Science Is Vital needs you to contact your MP or parliamentary candidate.

Since 2010, the science budget, despite having been protected from the worst of the austerity measures by the ring-fence we fought for, will nevertheless have shrunk in real terms by up to 20%.

In…

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Science Is Vital, So Don’t Let It Be Strangled.

Posted in Politics, Science Politics with tags , , on March 15, 2015 by telescoper

The General Election looming on the horizon could prove to be a watershed for scientific research in the United Kingdom. In the period immediately following the 2010 Election there was a great deal of nervousness about the possibility of huge cuts to spending on research. One of the most effective campaigns to persuade the new government against slashing funding for science on the grounds that scientific research was likely to be the principal fuel for any economic recovery was led by Science is Vital. I have written a few posts about this organisation.

The scientific community breathed a collective sigh of relief in autumn 2010 when the UK Government announced that research funding would be “ring-fenced” and maintained in cash terms for the duration of the Parliament. Things could have been far worse, as they have been in other parts of the public sector, but over the years the effect of inflation has been that this “flat cash” settlement involves a slow strangulation as opposed to a quick fall of the axe.

A recent piece in the Guardian includes this picture, which speaks for itself:

Science_spendingThe United Kingdom now spends less than 0.5% of its GDP on research, and this fraction is falling rapidly. We are now ranked last in the G8 by this criterion, way behind the USA and Germany. Why are we in this country so unbelievably miserly abou funding research? Other countries seem to recognize its important, so why can’t our politicians see it? We should be increasing our investment in science, not letting it wither away like this.

It seems to me that much more of this squeeze and we’ll be needing to close down major facilities and start withdrawing from important international collaborations. The Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) is particularly vulnerable, as such a large fraction of its budget is committed to long-term projects. It’s already trimmed funding for other activities to the bone, with research grants under particularly intense pressure. Will the ongoing Nurse Review of the Research Councils spell doom for STFC, as many of my colleagues think? Will be research funding  be transferred rom universities into research institutes?

Anyway, it seems an appropriate time to advertise the latest campaign from Science is Vital, which involves writing to candidates (including incumbent MPs) in your constituency to Tell Them That Science Is Vital. You might consider including some of the following, or others suggested by the website. If you’re a scientist, describe why your research is important. Here are some suggestions. If there is a local research institute in your constituency, explain how important it is to your local economy (how many people it employs, for example). If you’re a patient, or someone who cares for a patient, say how important you think research into that disease. Ask your candidate or MP to endorse the Science is Vital campaign to increase public funding of science to 0.8% of GDP. And if you do write, remember that the economic argument for investing research isn’t the only one…

SKA Matters

Posted in Science Politics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , on March 13, 2015 by telescoper

There’s been quite a lot going on recently to do with the Square Kilometre Array (SKA), some of it scientific and some of it political, some of it good and some of it bad. At least those seem to me to be the appropriate descriptions.

First the scientific good news is the the SKA Board has decided which of the planned components of SKA should be constructed during the first phase, which has a budget of around €650M. Details can be found here but, in a nutshell, it seems that the SKA Survey Telescope, which was to be built around the existing pathfinder project ASKAP located in Australia is not going to be built in the first phase. This implies the low-frequency bit of SKA will be in Australia while the higher-frequency activities will be concentrated in South Africa. That seems a pragmatic decision to me based on the budgetary constraints and should lead to a lot of good science being done. At the very least it’s a clear decision.

This positive news has however been overshadowed by an unseemly spat over the choice of headquarters over the location of the SKA Headquarters which has culminated in a rather unhelpful story in Nature. SKA HQ has been temporarily housed at Jodrell Bank Observatory (in the Midlands) since 2012 and there are clearly some who would like it to be located there permanently. There is however a rival bid, from the historic Italian city of Padova, at whose university Galileo Galilei once lectured, and which remains one of the top universities in Italy.

I should put my cards on the table and say that I’ve enjoyed many visits to Padova in my career, starting when I was a PhD student back in the 1980s and have many fond memories of the place. The late co-author of my cosmology textbook, Francesco Lucchin was Director of the Department of Astronomy in Padova at that time. For many years Padova has been home to a large concentration of astronomers and is undoubtedly a centre of excellence. Moreover it is a city that is very well served by transport links, just a short distance from Venice so easily reachable by air, and also on a major railway line offering fast national and international services. It’s also a considerably better place to dine out than Jodrell Bank!

Specola

Padova’s astronomers are housed in the Castello Carrese which adjoins the Specola (above), a tower which was once a working astronomical observatory but, being right in the city centre, has not been useful for such purposes for many moons. When I first started going to Padova the Department of Astronomy was located in the tower and in some nearby buildings but the rest of the Castello Carrese was used as a prison. Now it’s been renovated and all the astronomers have been located there. I remember the frequent walks across the little bridge over the canal to a coffee bar where we often did some of our best research!

Given its strategically important location, Padova was bombed by Allied planes on a number of occasions in 1944 and 1945. My Italian colleagues would regularly draw my attention to the plaque near the entrance to the Specola pointing out that it was hit and badly damaged by Allied bombs during one raid.

Anyway I can certainly see the merits of locating SKA HQ in Padova but it’s not my decision to make. Those responsible have not yet made a final decision, but what’s sad is that a number of stories have been flying around in the media that imply that the UK is trying to exert undue political interference to stop SKA HQ being moved to Italy. Whether this is true or not I don’t know. As far as I’m concerned the powers that be are following proper process and that process has not yet been brought to a conclusion. Whatever the outcome, though, there’s no question that the language being used in the press coverage is very damaging. Let’s hope it can all be resolved amicably.

Now for a spot of lunch and then up to the Royal Astronomical Society where the topic of the Discussion Meeting is, somewhat ironically, Building an Open UK SKA-Science Consortium…

Uncertainty, Risk and Probability

Posted in Bad Statistics, Science Politics with tags , , , , , , , , on March 2, 2015 by telescoper

Last week I attended a very interesting event on the Sussex University campus, the Annual Marie Jahoda Lecture which was given this year by Prof. Helga Nowotny a distinguished social scientist. The title of the talk was A social scientist in the land of scientific promise and the abstract was as follows:

Promises are a means of bringing the future into the present. Nowhere is this insight by Hannah Arendt more applicable than in science. Research is a long and inherently uncertain process. The question is open which of the multiple possible, probable or preferred futures will be actualized. Yet, scientific promises, vague as they may be, constitute a crucial link in the relationship between science and society. They form the core of the metaphorical ‘contract’ in which support for science is stipulated in exchange for the benefits that science will bring to the well-being and wealth of society. At present, the trend is to formalize scientific promises through impact assessment and measurement. Against this background, I will present three case studies from the life sciences: assisted reproductive technologies, stem cell research and the pending promise of personalized medicine. I will explore the uncertainty of promises as well as the cunning of uncertainty at work.

It was a fascinating and wide-ranging lecture that touched on many themes. I won’t try to comment on all of them, but just pick up on a couple that struck me from my own perspective as a physicist. One was the increasing aversion to risk demonstrated by research funding agencies, such as the European Research Council which she helped set up but described in the lecture as “a clash between a culture of trust and a culture of control”. This will ring true to any scientist applying for grants even in “blue skies” disciplines such as astronomy: we tend to trust our peers, who have some control over funding decisions, but the machinery of control from above gets stronger every day. Milestones and deliverables are everything. Sometimes I think in order to get funding you have to be so confident of the outcomes of your research to that you have to have already done it, in which case funding isn’t even necessary. The importance of extremely speculative research is rarely recognized, although that is where there is the greatest potential for truly revolutionary breakthroughs.

Another theme that struck me was the role of uncertainty and risk. This grabbed my attention because I’ve actually written a book about uncertainty in the physical sciences. In her lecture, Prof. Nowotny referred to the definition (which was quite new to me) of these two terms by Frank Hyneman Knight in a book on economics called Risk, Uncertainty and Profit. The distinction made there is that “risk” is “randomness” with “knowable probabilities”, whereas “uncertainty” involves “randomness” with “unknowable probabilities”. I don’t like these definitions at all. For one thing they both involve a reference to “randomness”, a word which I don’t know how to define anyway; I’d be much happier to use “unpredictability”. Even more importantly, perhaps, I find the distinction between “knowable” and “unknowable” probabilities very problematic. One always knows something about a probability distribution, even if that something means that the distribution has to be very broad. And in any case these definitions imply that the probabilities concerned are “out there”, rather being statements about a state of knowledge (or lack thereof). Sometimes we know what we know and sometimes we don’t, but there are more than two possibilities. As the great American philosopher and social scientist Donald Rumsfeld (Shurely Shome Mishtake? Ed) put it:

“…as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don’t know we don’t know.”

There may be a proper Bayesian formulation of the distinction between “risk” and “uncertainty” that involves a transition between prior-dominated (uncertain) and posterior-dominated (risky), but basically I don’t see any qualititative difference between the two from such a perspective.

Anyway, it was a very interesting lecture that differed from many talks I’ve attended about the sociology of science in that the speaker clearly understood a lot about how science actually works. The Director of the Science Policy Research Unit invited the Heads of the Science Schools (including myself) to dinner with the speaker afterwards, and that led to the generation of many interesting ideas about how we (I mean scientists and social scientists) might work better together in the future, something we really need to do.

Yes, science produces too many PhDs

Posted in Science Politics with tags , , , , , on February 19, 2015 by telescoper

I came across a blog post this morning entitled Does Science Produce Too Many PhDs? I think the answer is an obvious “yes” but I’ll use the question as an excuse to rehash an argument I have presented before, which is that most analyses of the problems facing yearly career researchers in science are looking at the issue from the wrong end. I think the crisis is essentially caused by the overproduction of PhDs in this field. To understand the magnitude of the problem, consider the following.

Assume that the number of permanent academic positions in a given field (e.g. astronomy) remains constant over time. If that is the case, each retirement (or other form of departure) from a permanent position will be replaced by one, presumably junior, scientist.

This means that over an academic career, on average, each academic will produce just one PhD who will get a permanent job in academia. This of course doesn’t count students coming in from abroad, or those getting faculty positions abroad, but in the case of the UK these are probably relatively small corrections.

Under the present supply of PhD studentships an academic can expect to get a PhD student at least once every three years or so. At a minimum, therefore, over a 30 year career one can expect to have ten PhD students. A great many supervisors have more PhD students than this, but this just makes the odds worse. The expectation is that only one of these will get a permanent job in the UK. The others (nine out of ten, according to my conservative estimate) above must either leave the field or the country to find permanent employment.

The arithmetic of this situation is a simple fact of life, but I’m not sure how many prospective PhD students are aware of it. There is still a reasonable chance of getting a first postdoctoral position, but thereafter the odds are stacked against them.

The upshot of this is we have a field of understandably disgruntled young people with PhDs but no realistic prospect of ever earning a settled living working in the field they have prepared for. This problem has worsened considerably in recent  years as the number of postdoctoral positions has almost halved since 2006. New PhDs have to battle it out with existing postdoctoral researchers for the meagre supply of suitable jobs. It’s a terrible situation.

Now the powers that be – in this case the Science and Technology Facilities Council – have consistently argued that the excess PhDs go out into the wider world and contribute to the economy with the skills they have learned. That may be true in a few cases. However, my argument is that the PhD is not the right way to do this because it is ridiculously inefficient.

What we should have is a system wherein we produce more and better trained Masters level students  and fewer PhDs. This is the system that exists throughout most of Europe, in fact, and the UK is actually committed to adopt it through the Bologna process.  Not that this commitment seems to mean anything, as precisely nothing has been done to harmonize UK higher education with the 3+2+3 Bachelors+Masters+Doctorate system Bologna advocates.

The training provided in a proper two-year Masters programme will improve the skills pool for the world outside academia, and also better prepare the minority of students who go on to take a PhD. The quality of the  PhD will also improve, as only the very best and most highly motivated researchers will take that path. This used to be what happened, of course, but I don’t think it is any longer the case.

The main problem with this suggestion is that it requires big changes to the way both research and teaching are funded. The research councils turned away from funding Masters training many years ago, so I doubt if they can be persuaded to to a U-turn now. Moreover, the Research Excellence Framework provides a strong incentive for departments to produce as many PhDs as they possibly can, as these are included in an algorithmic way as part of the score for “Research Environment”. The more PhDs a department produces, the higher it will climb in the league tables. One of my targets in my current position is to double the number of PhDs produced by my School over the period 2013-18. What happens to the people concerned seems not to be a matter worthy of consideration. They’re only “outputs”…

The Impact of Impact

Posted in Science Politics with tags , on February 18, 2015 by telescoper

telescoper:

Interesting analysis of the 2014 REF results by my colleague Seb Oliver. Among other things, it shows that Physics was the subject in which “Impact had the greatest impact”..

Originally posted on Seb Boyd:

 The Impact of Impact

I wrote the following article to explore how Impact in the Research Excellence Framework 2014 (REF2014) affected the average scores of departments (and hence rankings). This produced a “league table” of how strongly impact affected different subjects. Some of the information in this article was used in a THE article by Paul Jump due to come out 00:00 on 19th Feb 2015.  I’ve now also produced ranking tables for each UoA using the standardised weighting I advocate below (see Standardised Rankings).

UoA Unit of Assessment Effective Weight of GPA

ranking in each sub-profile as %

Outputs Impact Envir.
9 Physics 37.9 38.6 23.5
23 Sociology 34.1 38.6 27.3
10 Mathematical Sciences 37.6 37.5 24.9
24 Anthropology and Development Studies 40.2 35.0 24.8
6 Agriculture, Veterinary and Food Science 42.0 33.0 25.0
31 Classics 43.3 32.6 24.0
16 Architecture, Built Environment and Planning 48.6 31.1 20.3

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The real decline of UK research funding..

Posted in Science Politics with tags , , on February 12, 2015 by telescoper

I saw a news item the other day about a report produced by the Royal Society, the British Academy, the Royal Academy of Engineering and the Academy of Sciences calling for a big uplift in research spending. Specifically,

A target for investment in R&D and innovation of 3% of GDP for the UK as a whole – 1% from the government and 2% from industry and charities – in line with the top 10 OECD research investors. The government currently invests 0.5% of GDP; with 1.23% from the private sector.

For reference here is the UK’s overall R&D spending as a fraction of GDP since from 2000 to 2012 as a fraction of GDP:

 

PublicFunding2000_2012

Some people felt that scientific research funding has done relatively well over the past few years in an environment of deep cuts in government funding in other areas. Iit has been protected against a steep decline in funding by a “ring fence” which has kept spending level in cash terms. Although inflation as measured by the RPI has been relatively low in recent years, the real costs of scientific research have been much faster than these measures. Here is a figure that shows the effective level of funding since the last general election that shows the danger to the UK’s research base:

flatcash

As a nation we already spend far less than we should on research and development, and this figure makes it plain that we are heading in the wrong direction. It’s not just a question of government funding either. UK businesses invest far too little in developing products and services based on innovations in science and technology. Because of this historic underfunding, UK based research has evolved into a lean and efficient machine but even such a machine needs fuel to make it work and the fuel is clearly running out…

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