Archive for the Science Politics Category

Ten Years of the European Research Council

Posted in Politics, Science Politics with tags , , , , on February 9, 2017 by telescoper

This little video reminded me that we’re coming up to the tenth anniversary of the founding of the European Research Council (ERC).


In my opinion the ERC has been an outstanding success that has revitalized science across the continent and here in the United Kingdom. Sadly the UK government has decided that the United Kingdom will play no further part in ERC-funded schemes or any other programme funded by the EU.  The participation of UK scientists has already started to diminish and when it dries up completely there will be a significant loss of research income, especially for fundamental science. I’m grateful to Paul Crowther for pointing out that over the past decade there have been no fewer than 176 ERC awards to UK physics departments, meaning over  1/3 of a billion Euros in research funding.

I estimate that most physics & astronomy departments in the UK will lose 20-30% of their research income as a result of leaving the EU. Most also have a similar fraction of staff who are EU nationals, many of whom will leave because of the UK government’s shocking refusal to guarantee their right to remain. I find it sad beyond words that we as a nation are not only about to throw away our leading role in so many excellent research projects but also destroy our own credibility as a civilized nation by the mean-spirited way we are behaving.

But the ERC will at least offer British scientists two ways to continue their involvement with EU programmes. The first is that existing grants are portable, so principal investigators who decided to relocate to an EU country can take their funding with them. The second is that future ERC grants are open to applicants from any country in the world who wish to carry out their research within the EU.

As Niels Bohr famously remarked “prediction is very difficult, especially about the future”. I don’t know whether there will be a significant brain drain to the EU from the UK as a result of BrExit, but I do know many colleagues are talking about it right now. As for myself, if someone were to offer me a job in Europe I’d definitely take it.

(My CV is available on request).



Splitting from Euratom

Posted in Politics, Science Politics with tags , , , , on January 27, 2017 by telescoper

This week the government published a short bill in response to the Supreme Court’s decision, announced on Tuesday morning, that Parliament should be involved in the process of notifying the European Union if and when the United Kingdom decides to leave. The Supreme Court (by a majority of 8-3) upheld the earlier decision of the High Court that  the Executive could not take a decision of such magnitude (effectively using the Royal Prerogative) without explicit Parliamentary approval.

The Article 50 Bill is very short. In fact this is it in full:


The government plans to force this  through both the House of Lords and the House of Commons in five days, although will undoubtedly be attempts to amend it.  It has subsequently emerged that a White Paper concerning the process of negotiating the withdrawal will be published, but not until after the Article 50 Bill is enacted. It’s readily apparent that the government is merely playing grudging lip-service to the sovereignty of Parliament. Let’s hope Parliament shows some guts for once and stands up for the interests of the United Kingdom by refusing the give the Executive Carte Blanche and insisting on full Parliamentary scrutiny of the process, including giving MPs the chance to call off the whole fiasco when it becomes obvious that we’re better off not leaving the EU after all.

As another example of the contempt for open government, news broke today that in the explanatory notes for the Article 50 bill, the UK government indicates that it intends for the UK to leave the European Atomic Energy Community (Euratom). This organization has a number of regulatory roles concerning nuclear energy supply and distribution, but also has a major research focus on the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER), a project aimed at constructing a fusion reactor, which currently involves a significant number of UK scientists. This project is truly international: involving the EU, Russia, the USA, Japan, Korea and India.

Unlike, e.g. CERN and ESA, the organization of Euratom is legally linked to the European Union, so one can argue that withdrawal from the EU necessarily means leaving Euratom, but to announce this in the explanatory notes without any attempt to discuss it either in Parliament or with the organizations involved seems to me yet another manifestation of the UK government’s desire to avoid any consultation at all, wherever this is possible. The Supreme Court prevented them from excluding Parliament, but it is clear that they will continue to avoid due process whenever they think they can get away with it. This announcement now puts a big question mark over the futures of many scientists involved in nuclear research. You can find a blog post on this by a nuclear physicist, Paul Stevenson of the University of Surrey, here.

The decision to withdraw from Euratom poses very serious questions about our nuclear industry as well as nuclear physics and engineering research so it should be discussed and evaluated. Whatever you think about BrExit, trying to force through such important decisions without consultation is not the proper way for a government to carry on.

Hard BrExit Reality Bites UK Science

Posted in Politics, Science Politics with tags , , , , , , on January 17, 2017 by telescoper

Before lunch today I listened to the Prime Minister’s much-heralded speech (full text here) at Lancaster House giving a bit more detail about the UK government’s approach to forthcoming negotiations to leave the European Union. As I had expected the speech was mainly concerned with stating the obvious – especially about the UK leaving the so-called Single Market – though there was an interesting, if rather muddled, discussion of some kind of associate membership of the Customs Union.

As I said when I blogged about the EU Referendum result back in June last year

For example, there will be no access to the single market post-BrExit without free movement of people.

The EU has made it perfectly clear all along that it will not compromise on the “four freedoms” that represent the principles on which the Single Market (correct name; “Internal Market”) is based. The UK government has also made it clear that it is running scared of the anti-immigration lobby in the Conservative Party and UKIP, despite the mountain of evidence (e.g. here) that immigration actually benefits the UK economy rather than harming it. A so-called “hard BrExit” approach has therefore been inevitable from the outset.

In any case, it always seemed to me that leaving the EU (and therefore giving up democratic representation on the bodies that govern the single market) but remaining in the Single Market would be completely illogical to anyone motivated by the issue of “sovereignty” (whatever that means).  So I think it always was – and still is – a choice between a hard BrExit and no BrExit at all. There’s no question in my mind – and Theresa May’s speech has hardened my views considerably – that remaining in the EU is by far the best option for the UK. That outcome is looking unlikely now, but there is still a long way to go and many questions have still to be answered, including whether the Article 50 notification can be revoked and whether the devolved assemblies in Scotland and Northern Ireland have to give separate consent. Interestingly, the Conservative Party manifesto for the 2015 General Election included a commitment to work within the Single Market, so it would be within the constitutional limits on the House of Lords to vote down any attempt to leave it.

Overall, I felt the speech was worthwhile insofar as it gave a bit of clarity on some issues, but it was also full of contradictions on others. For example, early on the PM stated:

Parliamentary sovereignty is the basis of our constitution.

Correct, but in that case why did the UK government appeal the High Court’s decision that this was the case (i.e. that Parliamentary consent was needed to invoke Article 50)? Moreover, why if she thinks Parliament is so important did she not give today’s speech in the House of Commons?

This brings me to what the speech might imply for British science in a post-BrExit era. Here’s what I said in June 2016:

It’s all very uncertain, of course, but it seems to me that as things stand, any deal that involves free movement within Europe would be unacceptable to the powerful  UK anti-immigration lobby. This rules out a “Norway” type deal, among others, and almost certainly means there will be no access to any science EU funding schemes post 2020. Free movement is essential to the way most of these schemes operate anyway.

I’m by no means always right, but I think I was right about that. It is now clear that UK scientists will not be eligible for EU funding under the Horizon 2020 programme.  Switzerland (which is in the Single Market) wasn’t allowed to remain in Horizon 2020 without freedom of movement, and neither will the UK. If the PM does indeed trigger Article 50 by the end of March 2017 then we will leave the EU by April 2019. That means that existing EU projects and funding will probably be stopped at that point, although the UK government has pledged to provide short-term replacement funding for grants already awarded. From now on it seems likely that EU teams will seek to exclude UK scientists.

This exclusion is not an unexpected outcome, but still disappointing. The PM’s speech states:

One of our great strengths as a nation is the breadth and depth of our academic and scientific communities, backed up by some of the world’s best universities. And we have a proud history of leading and supporting cutting-edge research and innovation.

So we will also welcome agreement to continue to collaborate with our European partners on major science, research, and technology initiatives.

From space exploration to clean energy to medical technologies, Britain will remain at the forefront of collective endeavours to better understand, and make better, the world in which we live.

Warm words, but it’s hard to reconcile them with reality.  We used to be “leading” EU collaborative teams. In a few years we’ll  be left standing on the touchlines. The future looks very challenging for science, and especially for fundamental science, in the UK.

But the politics around EU science programmes pales into insignificance compared the toxic atmosphere of xenophobia that has engulfed much of the UK. The overt policy of the government to treat EU citizens in the UK as bargaining chips will cause untold stress, as will the Home Office’s heavy-handed approach to those who seek to confirm the permanent residence they will otherwise lose when the UK leaves the EU. Why should anyone – scientist or otherwise – stay in this country to be treated in such a way? 

All of this makes me think those scientists I know who have already left the UK for EU institutions probably made the right decision. The question is how many more will follow?

Lord Rees on the Threat to UK Science

Posted in Politics, Science Politics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , on October 6, 2016 by telescoper

In case you missed the comments by Lord Rees on Newsnight in the wake of the announcement of this year’s Nobel Prizes for Physics, here is a video.

Martin is always impeccably polite but I sense he must have been outraged by the statements made by Home Secretary Amber Rudd at the Conservative Party Conference this week, some of which seem to have been taking directly from Mein Kampf. Prior to this interview, the most extreme word I’ve ever hard Martin use was “reprehensible” – and that on an occasion when he was clearly angry. His use of the word “deplorable” here is very significant.

Quite apart the threat to science, I have to admit I’m extremely worried about the direction this country is taking. Perhaps someone should tell Prime Minister Theresa May that the referendum wasn’t about leaving the League of Nations and that this isn’t 1933. The parallels with Germany are striking. In that case it didn’t end with the identification and deportation of foreign workers. Yesterday Theresa May stated that anyone who describes themselves as a “Citizen of the World” is really a “Citizen of Nowhere”. I’ve never felt less at home in my own country than I do now.

A few days before the referendum a wrote a post that included this:

Of course I’m not saying that all those who want the UK to Leave the EU are fascists. Far from it. Many – indeed the majority – are reasonable, civilised people. But like it or not, if you vote Leave you’re voting the way the far right want you to vote. I for one will not take a single step in that direction. Fascism only needs a foot in the door. I fear that the domestic political consequences of BrExit will give it far more than that. Once they get hold of it, we’ll never get our country back.

My fear is even more real now than it was then.


The 2016 Nobel Prize for Physics goes to David Thouless, Duncan Haldane and Michael Kosterlitz

Posted in Science Politics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , , on October 4, 2016 by telescoper

Well, as I suspected, the Nobel Prize Committee for Physics played with a very straight bat and did not award this years Prize to gravitational waves. I thought there was a reasonable chance they might bend the rules, and the polling was very even , so clearly some people thought so too. Anyway, I don’t think any bookmakers will be taking bets on next year!

Anyway, none of this should detract at all from the winner. Half this year’s prize was awarded to David J. Thouless (University of Washington, Seattle, WA, USA)  and the other half to F. Duncan M. Haldane (Princeton University, NJ, USA) and J. Michael Kosterlitz
(Brown University, Providence, RI, USA)

”for theoretical discoveries of topological phase transitions and topological phases of matter”

Although they now live and work in the USA, all three of the winners were born in the United Kingdom (two of them, Kosterlitz and Thouless, in Scotland); Haldane retains British nationality, Kosterlitz is now an American citizen and Thouless has joint US/UK nationality.

And here’s the text of the citation:

This year’s Laureates opened the door on an unknown world where matter can assume strange states. They have used advanced mathematical methods to study unusual phases, or states, of matter, such as superconductors, superfluids or thin magnetic films. Thanks to their pioneering work, the hunt is now on for new and exotic phases of matter. Many people are hopeful of future applications in both materials science and electronics.

The three Laureates’ use of topological concepts in physics was decisive for their discoveries. Topology is a branch of mathematics that describes properties that only change step-wise. Using topology as a tool, they were able to astound the experts. In the early 1970s, Michael Kosterlitz and David Thouless overturned the then current theory that superconductivity or suprafluidity could not occur in thin layers. They demonstrated that superconductivity could occur at low temperatures and also explained the mechanism, phase transition, that makes superconductivity disappear at higher temperatures.

In the 1980s, Thouless was able to explain a previous experiment with very thin electrically conducting layers in which conductance was precisely measured as integer steps. He showed that these integers were topological in their nature. At around the same time, Duncan Haldane discovered how topological concepts can be used to understand the properties of chains of small magnets found in some materials.

We now know of many topological phases, not only in thin layers and threads, but also in ordinary three-dimensional materials. Over the last decade, this area has boosted frontline research in condensed matter physics, not least because of the hope that topological materials could be used in new generations of electronics and superconductors, or in future quantum computers. Current research is revealing the secrets of matter in the exotic worlds discovered by this year’s Nobel Laureates.

It’s not my field, but I send my heartiest congratulations to Professors Thouless, Haldane and Kosterlitz. Enjoy your trip to Stockholm – it’s lovely in December!

Note that the Thomson-Reuters Nobel Prize “predictor”“, which is not often right, was wrong again!


The 2016 Nobel Prize for Physics

Posted in Science Politics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , on October 3, 2016 by telescoper

Just time for a quick post to point out that tomorrow, Tuesday 4th October 2016, will see the announcement of the 2016 Nobel Prize for Physics. See here if you want to follow the announcement live.

You might think that this year is a foregone conclusion. The big science result of the year is undoubtedly the discovery of gravitational waves by Advanced LIGO. The three leaders iof the team, i.e.

Ronald W.P. Drever Professor of Physics Emeritus, California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, CA USA
Kip S. Thorne Feynman Professor of Theoretical Physics Emeritus, California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, CA USA
Rainer Weiss Professor of Physics Emeritus, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, MA USA

These three scientists have already won this year’s Gruber and Kavli prizes and they are among the favourites on this Nobel Prize prediction site.

I would be very happy indeed to see the Nobel Prize for Physics go to this group, but I don’t think it’s the foregone conclusion many think it is.

To see why, look at the timetable of how the Nobel Prize Committee works. In particular, note:

SeptemberNomination forms are sent out. The Nobel Committee sends out confidential forms to around 3,000 people – selected professors at universities around the world, Nobel Laureates in Physics and Chemistry, and members of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, among others.

February – Deadline for submission.The completed nomination forms must reach the Nobel Committee no later than 31 January of the following year. The Committee screens the nominations and selects the preliminary candidates. About 250–350 names are nominated as several nominators often submit the same name.

The official announcement of the detection of gravitational waves was not made until 11th February, i.e. after the above deadline. Now of course many people had inside knowledge about the discovery before then so they may well have made a nomination on time, but it’s not obvious how the Nobel Prize Committee would have treated a submission based essentially on hearsay. They have a reputation for being sticklers for procedure so it’s hard to be sure. If it did make the shortlist then this nomination will surely win, but it may not have. We’ll just have to wait and see. Or am I being too cautious? Let me know what you think will happen through the  poll below:


Oh, and if you think it will be for “Something Else” please feel free to expand via the Comments Box.