Archive for the Science Politics Category

The Dark Energy MacGuffin

Posted in Science Politics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , , , on December 19, 2015 by telescoper

Back from a two-day meeting in Edinburgh about the Euclid Mission, I have to spend a couple of days this weekend in the office before leaving for the holidays. I was a bit surprised at the end of the meeting to be asked if I would be on the panel for the closing discussion, discussing questions raised by the audience. The first of these questions was – and I have to paraphrase becase I don’t remember exactly – whether it would be disappointing if the Euclid mission merely confirmed that observations were consistent with a “simple” cosmological constant rather than any of the more exotic (and perhaps more exciting) alternatives that have been proposed by theorists. I think that’s the likely outcome of Euclid, actually, and I don’t think it would be disappointing if it turned out to be the case. Moreover, testing theories of dark energy is just one of the tasks this mission will undertake and it may well be the case that in years to come Euclid is remembered for something other than dark energy. Anyway, this all triggered a memory of an old post of mine about Alfred Hitchcock so with apologies for repeating something I blogged about 4 years ago, here is a slight reworking of an old piece.

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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. It may even not be a real thing at all. It could be an event or an idea or even something that doesn’t exist in any real sense at all, 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 and, much more recently, the Da Vinci Code. The original 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.

Physicists are fond of describing things as “The Holy Grail” of their subject, such as the Higgs Boson or gravitational waves. This always seemed to me to be an unfortunate description, as the Grail quest consumed a huge amount of resources in a predictably fruitless hunt for something whose significance could be seen to be dubious at the outset.The MacGuffin Effect nevertheless continues to reveal itself in science, although in different forms to those found in Hollywood.

The Large Hadron Collider (LHC), switched on to the accompaniment of great fanfares a few years ago, provides a nice example of how the MacGuffin actually works pretty much backwards in the world of Big Science. To the public, the LHC was built to detect the Higgs Boson, a hypothetical beastie introduced to account for the masses of other particles. If it exists the high-energy collisions engineered by LHC should reveal its presence. The Higgs Boson is thus the LHC’s own MacGuffin. Or at least it would be if it were really the reason why LHC has been built. In fact there are dozens of experiments at CERN and many of them have very different motivations from the quest for the Higgs, such as evidence for supersymmetry.

Particle physicists are not daft, however, and they have realised that the public and, perhaps more importantly, government funding agencies need to have a really big hook to hang such a big bag of money on. Hence the emergence of the Higgs as a sort of master MacGuffin, concocted specifically for public consumption, which is much more effective politically than the plethora of mini-MacGuffins which, to be honest, would be a fairer description of the real state of affairs.

Even this MacGuffin has its problems, though. The Higgs mechanism is notoriously difficult to explain to the public, so some have resorted to a less specific but more misleading version: “The Big Bang”. As I’ve already griped, the LHC will never generate energies anything like the Big Bang did, so I don’t have any time for the language of the “Big Bang Machine”, even as a MacGuffin.

While particle physicists might pretend to be doing cosmology, we astrophysicists have to contend with MacGuffins of our own. One of the most important discoveries we have made about the Universe in the last decade is that its expansion seems to be accelerating. Since gravity usually tugs on things and makes them slow down, the only explanation that we’ve thought of for this perverse situation is that there is something out there in empty space that pushes rather than pulls. This has various possible names, but Dark Energy is probably the most popular, adding an appropriately noirish edge to this particular MacGuffin. It has even taken over in prominence from its much older relative, Dark Matter, although that one is still very much around.

We have very little idea what Dark Energy is, where it comes from, or how it relates to other forms of energy we are more familiar with, so observational astronomers have jumped in with various grandiose strategies to find out more about it. This has spawned a booming industry in surveys of the distant Universe (such as the Dark Energy Survey or the Euclid mission I mentioned in the preamble) all aimed ostensibly at unravelling the mystery of the Dark Energy. It seems that to get any funding at all for cosmology these days you have to sprinkle the phrase “Dark Energy” liberally throughout your grant applications.

The old-fashioned “observational” way of doing astronomy – by looking at things hard enough until something exciting appears (which it does with surprising regularity) – has been replaced by a more “experimental” approach, more like that of the LHC. We can no longer do deep surveys of galaxies to find out what’s out there. We have to do it “to constrain models of Dark Energy”. This is just one example of the not necessarily positive influence that particle physics has had on astronomy in recent times and it has been criticised very forcefully by Simon White.

Whatever the motivation for doing these projects now, they will undoubtedly lead to new discoveries. But my own view is that there will never be a solution of the Dark Energy problem until it is understood much better at a conceptual level, and that will probably mean major revisions of our theories of both gravity and matter. I venture to speculate that in twenty years or so people will look back on the obsession with Dark Energy with some amusement, as our theoretical language will have moved on sufficiently to make it seem irrelevant.

But that’s how it goes with MacGuffins. Even the Maltese Falcon turned out in the end to be a fake.

Lisa Pathfinder – better late than never!

Posted in Science Politics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , , on December 3, 2015 by telescoper

Determined to post about something positive after yesterday’s act of collective idiocy by Parliament I find myself given a golden opportunity by today’s successful launch of the Lisa Pathfinder experiment by the European Space Agency.

As space missions go, LISA Pathfinder seems quite a modest one: it is basically a pair of identical 46 mm gold–platinum cubes separated by 38 cm. The idea is to put these test masses in free fall and measure their relative positions as accurately as possible.

After a false start yesterday, LISA Pathfinder was successfully launched in the early hours of this morning and is now en route to the First Lagrangian Point of the Earth-Sun system, about 1.5 million miles from Earth, at the location marked L1 in the diagram:

Lagrange_saddle

The contours show the “effective potential” of the Earth-Sun system, which takes into account the effect of rotation as well as gravity. The five Lagrangian points are the places at which tis effective potential is locally flat, i.e. where its spatial gradient vanishes. Any physics student will know that when the gradient of the potential is zero there is no force on a test particle. What this means is that an object placed exactly at any of the 5 Lagrangian points stays in the same position relative to the Earth and Sun as the system rotates. Put a spacecraft at one of these points, therefore, and it stays put when viewed in a frame rotating around the Sun  at the same speed as the Earth.

It’s not quite as simple as this because, as you will observe the Lagrangian points are not stable: L1, L2 and L3 are saddle-points; a  stable point would be a local minimum. However, around the first three there are stable orbits so in effect a test mass displaced from L1, say, oscillates around it without doing anything too drastic. L4 and L5 can be stable or unstable, in a general system but are stable for the case of the Solar System, hence the tendency of asteroids (the Trojans) to accumulate at these locations.

You may remember that WMAP, Planck and Herschel were all parked in orbits around L2. A spacecraft positioned exactly at L2 is permanently screened from the Sun by the Earth. That might be very useful if you want to do long-wavelength observations that require very cool detectors, but not if you want to use the Sun as a source of power. In any case, as I explained above, spacecraft are not generally located exactly at L2 but in orbit around it. Planck in fact had solar cells on the base of the satellite that provided power but also formed a shield as they always faced the Sun as the satellite rotated and moved in its orbit to map the sky. The choice of L1 for LISA Pathfinder was made on the basis of spacecraft design considerations as it will operate in a very different manner from Planck.

The reason for doing eLISA is to demonstrate the technological feasibility of a much more ambitious planned gravitational wave detector in space originally called LISA, but now called eLISA. The displacement of test masses caused by gravitational waves is tiny so in order for eLisa it is necessary (a) to screen out every effect other than gravity, e.g. electromagnetic interactions due to residual charges, to great precision and (b) to measure relative positions to great accuracy. That’s why it was decided to fly a cheaper technology demonstrator mission, to prove the idea is feasible.

LISA Pathfinder won’t make any science discoveries but hopefully it will pave the way towards eLISA.

It has to be said that LISA Pathfinder has had a fairly troubled history. I just had a quick look at some papers I have dating back to the time when I was Chair of PPARC Astronomy Advisory. Among them I found the categorical statement that

LISA Pathfinder will be launched in 2009.

Hmm. Not quite. It’s obviously running quite a long way behind schedule and no doubt considerably over its initial budget but it’s good to see it under way at last. There will be a lot of sighs of relief that LISA Pathfinder has finally made it into space! Now let’s see if it can do what it is supposed to do!

 

 

 

Autumn Statement – Summary for Science

Posted in Politics, Science Politics with tags , , , on November 25, 2015 by telescoper

I’ve been in meetings all afternoon so far so I missed the live broadcast of the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement.

Now that I’ve caught up a little it seems that there’s much to be relieved about. Yet again it seems the Government has deployed the tactic of allowing scare stories of dire cuts to spread in order that the actual announcement  appears much better than people feared, even if it is mediocre.

You can find the overall key results of the spending review and autumn statement here, but along with many colleagues who work in research and higher education I went straight to the outcome for the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) which you can find here.

The main results for me – from the narrow perspective of a scientist working in a university –  are:

  1. The overall budget for BIS will be cut by 17% in cash terms between now and 2020.
  2. Most of the above cut will happens from 2018 onwards by, among other things, “asking universities to take more responsibility for student access”.
  3. In more detail (quoted from here) “In this context, the government will reduce the teaching grant by £120 million in cash terms by 2019 to 2020, but allow funding for high cost subjects to be protected in real terms. The government will work with the Director of Fair Access to ensure universities take more responsibility for widening access and social mobility, and ask the Higher Education Funding Council for England to retarget and reduce by up to half the student opportunity fund, focusing funding on institutions with the most effective outcomes. The government will also make savings in other areas of the teaching grant.”
  4. My current employer, the University of Sussex, has done extremely well on widening participation so this is good news locally. Many big universities have achieved nothing in this area so, frankly, deserve this funding to be withdrawn.
  5. It is also to be welcomed that the premium for high cost subjects (i.e. STEM disciplines) is to be protected in real terms, although it still does not affect the actual cost of teaching these subjects.
  6. Contrary to many expectations it seems that HEFCE will not be scrapped immediately. That is significant in itself.
  7. The level of science funding will increase from £4.6 billion to £4.7 billion next year, and will thereafter be protected in real terms over the Parliament.
  8. The real terms protection sounds good but of course we currently have a very low rate of inflation, so this is basically five more years of almost flat cash.
  9. There is supposed to be an additional £500m by 2020 which George Osborne didn’t mention in his speech. I don’t know whether this is extra money or just the cash increase estimated by inflation-proofing the £4.7bn.
  10. The above two points sound like good news….
  11. …but the total budget  will include a £1.5 billion new “Global Challenges Fund” which will build up over this period. This suggests that there may be a significant transfer of funds into this from existing programmes. There could be big losers in this process, as it amounts to a sizeable fraction of the total research expenditure.
  12. In any event the fraction of GDP the UK spends on science is not going to increase, leaving us well behind our main economic competitors.
  13. The Government is committed to implementing the Nurse Review, which will give it more direct leverage to reprioritise science spending.
  14. It isn’t clear to me how  “pure” science research will fare as a result of all this. We will have to wait and see….

The Autumn Statement includes only a very high level summary of allocations so we don’t know anything much about how these decisions will filter down to specific programmes at this stage. The Devil is indeed in the Detail. Having said that, the overall settlement for HE and Research looks much better than many of us had feared so I’d give it a cautious welcome. For now.

If anyone has spotted anything I’ve missed or wishes to comment in any other way please use the box below!

 

Chancellor’s Autumn Statement Poll

Posted in Politics, Science Politics on November 24, 2015 by telescoper

There’s a not inconsiderable amount of anxiety around as tomorrow’s  Autumn Statement approaches. The likelihood is that we will see drastic cuts to everything, including science and education, and huge jobs losses and cuts to public services around the country.

In order to gauge public opinion, ahead of the announcement of the end of British Civil Society I have decided to conduct a poll.

And in case it’s all too depressing to think about, Dorothy has knitted a Soup Dragon to cheer you up.

Soup-Dragon

 

Nervous

Posted in Finance, Science Politics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , on November 22, 2015 by telescoper

The outcome of the 2015 Comprehensive Spending Review is to be announced shortly (on Wednesday 25th November), a fact which suggested this piece of music. It’s a solo piano piece by the late great Mal Waldron. Among many other things, Mal Waldron was Billie Holiday’s regular accompanist from 1957 until her death in 1959 and it was during that time he was booked to appear on a famous all-star TV Jazz broadcast called The Sound of Jazz from which this solo performance is taken. It’s an original composition by the pianist, and it’s called Nervous.

p.s. I did a blog post some time ago about Billie Holliday’s heartbreaking last performance with Lester Young, which also appeared on The Sound of Jazz. You can find it here.

Nurse Review Published

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

I’ve been busy all day so unable to join in the deluge of comment and reaction to the Review of the Research Councils carried out by Sir Paul Nurse, President of the Royal Society, which was published today. I’ve only just had time to skim through it, so I won’t comment in detail, but it does seem to me that the main points are:

  1. The review does not call for a reduction in the current number of seven research councils (STFC, EPSRC, ESRC, AHRC, NERC, BBSRC and MRC); mergers were thought by many to be possible outcomes of this review.
  2. There is a proposal to set up an overarching structure, called Research UK (RUK), which is a beefed-up version of the current RCUK, one of the aims of which would be to provide better coordination between the Research Councils.
  3. It is proposed that RUK should liaise directly with a committee of government ministers who would have significant influence over the way funding was distributed to the Research Councils. It’s not clear to me how this squares with the Haldane Principle.
  4. It is also proposed that RUK might take over the distribution of QR funding (currently done by HEFCE), but that this should be done in such a way as to preserve the idea of “dual funding”.

There are other points of course, but these seemed to me to be the most significant. It remains to see how many of the proposals are implemented and how they will be made to fit into the framework of the Higher Education Green Paper published last week. Of more immediate concern to many researchers will be how much funding there will be to be distributed by any new organization if the Comprehensive Spending Review announced next week results in big cuts to the science budget, as many fear it will.

Comments are welcome through the box!

The Case for Science Spending

Posted in Politics, Science Politics with tags , , on November 9, 2015 by telescoper

Just a quick post with my Community Service hat on to draw your attention to the fact that the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee has issued a report “The Science Budget” (which is available to download as a PDF here). It makes a very strong case for increasing science spending to 3% of GDP, although suggests doing that gradually. I don’t agree with everything in it, actually, butit is good to see (in the 4th paragraph) an explicit acknowledgment of the absurdity of the current situation in which capital is given to build facilities but there is no resource available to run them (“Batteries Not Included”).

This document will hopefully help to persuade government that continued real-terms cuts in science spending make no sense whatsoever.

I’m taking the liberty of quoting the summary in full, but do read the full document. It’s very interesting.

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The United Kingdom is a science superpower. In terms of both quality and productivity, our research base `punches above its weight’, setting a worldwide benchmark for excellence.

Government spending on the science base has been protected since 2010, with a flat-cash- ring-fenced budget for annual ‘resource’ spending distributed by the research councils, the Higher Education Funding Council and others. Annual ‘capital’ budgets have varied. The Government has already announced that capital spending within the science budget will be protected — in real terms — up to the end of 2021. The Government’s Spending Review on 25 November will determine the science — and innovation — budget allocations for the rest of this Parliament.

The UK has fallen behind its competitors in terms of total R&D investment and this will put UK competitiveness, productivity and high-value jobs at risk if it is not reversed. The Government should produce a long term ‘roadmap’ for increasing public and private sector science R&D investment in the UK to 3% of GDP — the EU target. This would send an important signal about the long term stability and sustainability of our science and innovation ecosystem, supercharging private sector R&D investment from industry, charities and overseas investors alike.

A more robust system is needed to integrate capital and resource funding allocations. The Government should urgently review existing capital allocations to ensure sufficient resource is in place to fully ‘sweat our assets’. Sufficient resource funding will only materialise, however, with an upward trajectory in the resource budget.

The Spending Review is being conducted under present accounting protocols, dealing with capital and resource budgets for science separately. ‘ESA-10’ accounting rules will in future count resource expenditure on R&D as capital, reflecting the fact that all expenditure on science research is an investment — an asset — in future economic capacity. The Government in the Spending Review should make it clear that this rules revision will not be used as a means to change the underlying funding settlement.

The ‘dual support’ system has produced a world class and highly efficient system for scientific research. Any significant changes to this system, including the balance of funding between research councils and university funding councils, would require a clear justification, which has yet to emerge. The Government should make clear its continued commitment to the dual support system, and the previous Government’s 2010 iteration of the Haldane Principle in the forthcoming Spending Review. A significant element of research funding should continue to be channelled though both the research councils and the higher education funding authorities. Clear justification will also be needed for any significant change in funding allocations between the research councils, and we caution against a radical reorganisation which could potentially harm the research programme.

Any expansion of the innovation catapult network should not come at the expense of other innovation priorities. The Government should focus on consolidating the existing catapults, to ensure that all will have the necessary operating resource and business strategies to operate at peak capacity. To show a clear commitment to innovation more generally, the Government should ring-fence Innovate UK’s budget.

The Government should also retain the current system of innovation grants — rather than loans — as a key policy tool, alongside R&D tax credits, for de-risking innovation investment.

The Spending Review will have a profound impact on our science base and our future prosperity. We have to get it right. We have a duty to take care that our spending and structural decisions in this area do more than merely maintain the status quo. If we get our spending priorities, our policies, regulatory frameworks or our immigration policy wrong, we will be on the wrong side of history. The Government must ensure that the UK remains a scientific superpower.

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