Archive for the Science Politics Category

Who needs critics? Or peer review for that matter…

Posted in Art, Literature, Music, Science Politics with tags , , , , , on August 9, 2015 by telescoper

No time for a proper post today so I’m going to rehash an old piece from about six years ago. In particular I direct your attention to the final paragraph in which I predict that peer review for academic publications will soon be made redundant. There has been quite a lot of discussion about that recently; see here for an example.

Critics say the stangest things.

How about this, from James William Davidson, music critic of The Times from 1846:

He has certainly written a few good songs, but what then? Has not every composer that ever composed written a few good songs? And out of the thousand and one with which he deluged the musical world, it would, indeed, be hard if some half-dozen were not tolerable. And when that is said, all is said that can justly be said of Schubert.

Or this, by Louis Spohr, written in 1860 about Beethoven’s Ninth (“Choral”) Symphony

The fourth movement is, in my opinion, so monstrous and tasteless and, in it’s grasp of Schiller’s Ode, so trivial that I cannot understand how a genius like Beethoven could have written it.

No less an authority than  Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians (Fifth Edition) had this to say about Rachmaninov

Technically he was highly gifted, but also severely limited. His music is well constructed and effective, but monotonous in texture, which consists in essence mainly of artificial and gushing tunes…The enormous popular success some few of Rachmaninov’s works had in his lifetime is not likely to last and musicians regarded it with much favour.

And finally, Lawrence Gillman wrote this in the New York Tribune of February 13 1924 concerning George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue:

How trite and feeble and conventional the tunes are; how sentimental and vapid the harmonic treatment, under its disguise of fussy and futile counterpoint! Weep over the lifelessness of the melody and harmony, so derivative, so stale, so inexpressive.

I think I’ve made my point. We all make errors of judgement and music critics are certainly no exception. The same no doubt goes for literary and art critics too. In fact,  I’m sure it would be quite easy to dig up laughably inappropriate comments made by reviewers across the entire spectrum of artistic endeavour. Who’s to say these comments are wrong anyway? They’re just opinions. I can’t understand anyone who thinks so little  of Schubert, but then an awful lot of people like to listen what sounds to me to be complete dross.

What puzzles me most about the critics is not that they make “mistakes” like these – they’re only human after all – but why they exist in the first place. It seems extraordinary to me that there is a class of people who don’t do anything creative themselves  but devote their working lives to criticising what is done by others. Who should care what they think? Everyone is entitled to an opinion, of course, but what is it about a critic that implies we should listen to their opinion more than anyone else?

(Actually, to be precise, Louis Spohr was also a composer but I defy you to recall any of his works…)

Part of the idea is that by reading the notices produced by a critic the paying public can decide whether to go to the performance, read the book or listen to the record. However, the correlation between what is critically acclaimed and what is actually good (or even popular) is tenuous at best. It seems to me that, especially nowadays with so much opinion available on the internet, word of mouth (or web) is a much better guide than what some geezer writes in The Times. Indeed, the   Opera reviews published in the papers are so frustratingly contrary to my own opinion that I don’t  bother to read them until after the performance, perhaps even after I’ve written my own little review on here.  Not that I would mind being a newspaper critic myself. The chance not only to get into the Opera for free but also to get paid for spouting on about afterwards sounds like a cushy number to me. Not that I’m likely to be asked.

In science,  we don’t have legions of professional critics, but reviews of various kinds are nevertheless essential to the way science moves forward. Applications for funding are usually reviewed by others working in the field and only those graded at the very highest level are awarded money.  The powers-that-be are increasingly trying to impose political criteria on this process, but it remains a fact that peer review is the crucial part of the process. It’s not just the input that is assessed either. Papers submitted to learned journals are reviewed by (usually anonymous)  referees, who often require substantial changes to be made the work before the work can be accepted for publication.

We have no choice but to react to these critics if we want to function as scientists. Indeed, we probably pay much more attention to them than artists do of critics in their particular fields. That’s not to say that these referees don’t make mistakes either. I’ve certainly made bad decisions myself in that role,  although they were all made in good faith. I’ve also received comments that I thought were unfair or unjustifiable, but at least I knew they were coming from someone who was a working scientist.

I suspect that the use of peer review in assessing grant applications will remain in place for a some considerable time. I can’t think of an alternative, anyway. I’d much rather have a rich patron so I didn’t have to bother writing proposals all the time, but that’s not the way it works in either art or science these days.

However, it does seem to me that the role of referees in the publication process is bound to become redundant in the very near future. Technology now makes it easy to place electronic publications on an archive where they can be accessed freely. Good papers will attract attention anyway, just as they would if they were in refereed journals. Errors will be found. Results will be debated. Papers will be revised. The quality mark of a journal’s endorsement is no longer needed if the scientific community can form its own judgement, and neither are the monstrously expensive fees charged to institutes for journal subscriptions.

Why Research Loans Should Replace Grants For Commercially-Driven Research

Posted in Education, Politics, Science Politics with tags , , , on August 4, 2015 by telescoper

Two recent items in the Times Higher about UK Higher education – concerning the abolition of maintenance grants for less well-off students and whether business should contribute more to the cost of research reminded me of a post I wrote almost exactly five years ago. Was it really so long ago? Anyway, I am old so I am allowed to repeat myself even if people aren’t listening, so here’s the gist of the argument I made way back then….

Universities essentially do two things, teaching and research. However, when you think about it, there’s a fundamental inconsistency in the way these are funded. It seems to me that correcting this anomaly could significantly improve  both the main benefits  universities contribute to the UK economy.

First, research. If  research is going to pay off in the short term it should be funded by private investors, interested businesses 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. This is pretty much the opposite of what the Treasury thinks. It wants to concentrate public funds in projects that  can demonstrate immediate commercial potential. Taxpayer’s money used in this way either ends up in the pockets of entrepreneurs if the research succeeds or, if it doesn’t,  the grant has effectively been wasted. It’s yet another example of the taxpayer bearing the risk that an investment might fail, but not sharing in the benefits if it succeeds. This is analogous to the way  the taxpayer bailed out the banking sector in the aftermath of the Credit Crunch in 2008, only to see the profits subsequently transferred back into private hands.  This is happening to an increasing extent elsewhere in the United Kingdom, as public services built up through state investment are being transferred to for-profit organizations. Even our beloved National Health Service seems to be on an irreversible path to privatization.

My proposal for research funding would involve phasing out research grants for groups that want to concentrate on commercially-motivated research and replace them with research loans. If the claims the researchers  make to secure the advance are justified, they should have no problem repaying it  from the profits they make from patent income, commercial sales,  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 for having made over-optimistic claims). 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 – I 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 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, but if you do I’ll ask you to now think about how the government funds teaching in universities and ask yourself why research is handled in such a  different way.

Way back in the mists of time when I was a student, I didn’t have to pay fees and even got a maintenance grant from the government that was more-or-less sufficient to live on. That system changed so that students don’t get grants any more, but may qualify for loans. They also have to pay fees. The government only pays an amount directly to the university on their behalf if they are studying an “expensive” subject, i.e. a laboratory-based science, and that amount is very small (and decreasing with time). This change of policy happened because the (then) Labour government wanted to boost the rate of participation in universities, but didn’t think the taxpayer should pay the whole cost. The logic goes that the students benefit from their education, e.g. in terms of increased earnings over their working lifetime, so they should pay a contribution to it. The policy has changed since then into one in which many students bear the full cost of their tuition.

I don’t come from a wealthy family background so it’s not clear whether I would have been able to go to University under the current system. I would have been prepared to borrow to fund tuition fees, but without a maintenance grant for day-to-day living I don’t think I could have afforded it as my parents could not have supported me financially. In my opinion the removal of maintenance grants is far more likely to deter students from poorer backgrounds from going to University than the introduction of fees.

Anyway, the problem with all these changes is that they have led to a huge increase in enrolment on degree courses in “vocational” areas such as Leisure & Tourism, Media Studies, and Business while traditional courses, such as those in STEM disciplines, providing the sort of rigorous intellectual training that is essential for many sectors of the economy, have struggled to keep up. This is partly because subjects like Mathematics and Physics are difficult, partly because they are expensive, and partly because the UK school system has ceased to provide adequate preparation for such courses. I’m by no means against universities supplying training in vocational subjects, but because these are the areas where the primary beneficiary is indeed the student, I don’t think the government should subsidise them as much as the more rigorous courses that we really need to encourage the brightest students to take up. Universities are not just for training. They have a much deeper purpose.

If it’s fair to ask students to contribute to their teaching, it’s fair to ask commercial companies to pay for the research that they exploit. Just as student grants should be re-introduced for certain disciplines, so should research loans be introduced for others. You know it makes sense.

However, if you want to tell me why it doesn’t, via the comments box, please feel free!

The Renewed Threat to STEM

Posted in Education, Finance, Science Politics with tags , , , , , , on July 26, 2015 by telescoper

A couple of years ago, soon after taking over as Head of the School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences (MPS) at the University of Sussex, I wrote a blog post called The Threat to STEM from HEFCE’s Funding Policies about how the funding policies of the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) were extremely biased against STEM disciplines. The main complaint I raised then was that the income per student for science subjects does not adequately reflect the huge expense of teaching these subjects compared to disciplines in the arts and humanities. The point is that universities now charge the same tuition fee for all subjects (usually £9K per annum) while the cost varies hugely across disciplines: science disciplines can cost as much as £16K per annum per student whereas arts subjects can cost as little as £6K. HEFCE makes a small gesture towards addressing this imbalance by providing an additional grant for “high cost” subjects, but that is only just over £1K per annum per student, not enough to make such courses financially viable on their own. And even that paltry contribution has been steadily dwindling.  In effect, fees paid by arts students are heavily subsidising the sciences across the Higher Education sector.

The situation was bad enough before last week’s announcement of an immediate £150M cut in HEFCE’s budget. Once again the axe has fallen hardest on STEM disciplines. Worst of all, a large part of the savings will be made retrospectively, i.e. by clawing back money that had already been allocated and which institutions had assumed in order to plan their budgets. To be fair, HEFCE had warned institutions that cuts were coming in 2015/16:

This means that any subsequent changes to the funding available to us from Government for 2015-16, or that we have assumed for 2016-17, are likely to affect the funding we are able to distribute to institutions in the 2015-16 academic year. This may include revising allocations after they have already been announced. Accordingly, institutions should plan their budgets prudently.

However, this warning does not mention the possibility of cuts to the current year (i.e. 2014-15). No amount of prudent planning of budgets will help when funding is taken away retrospectively, as it is now to the case. I should perhaps explain that funding allocations are made by HEFCE in a lagged fashion, based on actual student numbers, so that income for the academic year 2014-15 is received by institutions during 15/16. In fact my institution, in common with most others, operates a financial year that runs from August 1st to July 31st and I’ve just been through a lengthy process of setting the budget from August 1st 2015 onward; budgets are what I do most of the time these days, if I’m honest. I thought I had finished that job for the time being, but look:

In October 2015, we will notify institutions of changes to the adjusted 2014-15 teaching grants we announced in March 20158. These revised grant tables will incorporate the pro rata reduction of 2.4 per cent. This reduction, and any other changes for individual institutions to 2014-15 grant, will be implemented through our grant payments from November 2015. We do not intend to reissue 2014-15 grant tables to institutions before October 2015, but institutions will need to reflect any changes relating to 2014-15 in their accounts for that year (i.e. the current academic year). Any cash repayments due will be confirmed as part of the October announcements.

On top of this, any extra students recruited as as  result of the government scrapping student number controls won’t attract any support at all from HEFCE, so we wll only get the tuition fee.And the government says it wants the number of STEM students to increase? Someone tell me how that makes sense.

What a mess! It’s going to be back to the drawing board for me and my budget. And if a 2.4 per cent cut doesn’t sound much to you then you need to understand it in terms of how University budgets work. It is my job – as the budget holder for MPS – to ensure that the funding that comes in to my School is spent as efficiently and effectively on what the School is meant to do, i.e. teaching and research. To that end I have to match income and expenditure as closely as possible. It is emphatically not the job of the School to make a profit: the target I am given is to return a small surplus (actually 4 per cent of our turnover) to contribute to longer-term investments. I’ve set a budget that does this, but now I’ll have to wait until October to find out how much I have to find in terms of savings to absorb the grant cut. It’s exasperating when people keep moving the goalposts like this. One would almost think the government doesn’t care about the consequences of its decisions, as long as it satisfies its fixation with cuts.

And it’s not only teaching that is going to suffer. Another big slice of savings (£52M) is coming from scrapping the so-called “transitional relief” for STEM departments who lost out as a result of the last Research Excellence Framework. This again is a policy that singles out STEM disciplines for cuts. You can find the previous allocations of transitional relief in an excel spreadsheet here. The cash cuts are largest in large universities with big activities in STEM disciplines – e.g. Imperial College will lose £10.9M previous allocated, UCL about £4.3M, and Cambridge about £4M. These are quite wealthy institutions of course, and they will no doubt cope, but that doesn’t make it any more acceptable for HEFCE to break a promise.

This cut in fact won’t alter my School’s budget either. Although we were disappointed with the REF outcome in terms of league table position, we actually increased our QR income. As an institution the University of Sussex only attracted £237,174 in transitional relief so this cut is small potatoes for us, but that doesn’t make this clawback any more palatable from the point of view of the general state of health of STEM disciplines in the United Kingdom.

These cuts are also directly contrary to the claim that the UK research budget is “ring-fenced”. It clearly isn’t, and with a Comprehensive Spending Review coming up many of us are nervous that these cuts are just a foretaste of much worse things to come. Research Councils are being asked to come up with plans based on a 40% cut in cash.

Be afraid. Be very afraid.

Bad Statistics, Bad Science

Posted in Bad Statistics, Science Politics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , on July 2, 2015 by telescoper

I saw an interesting article in Nature the opening paragraph of which reads:

The past few years have seen a slew of announcements of major discoveries in particle astrophysics and cosmology. The list includes faster-than-light neutrinos; dark-matter particles producing γ-rays; X-rays scattering off nuclei underground; and even evidence in the cosmic microwave background for gravitational waves caused by the rapid inflation of the early Universe. Most of these turned out to be false alarms; and in my view, that is the probable fate of the rest.

The piece goes on to berate physicists for being too trigger-happy in claiming discoveries, the BICEP2 fiasco being a prime example. I agree that this is a problem, but it goes fare beyond physics. In fact its endemic throughout science. A major cause of it is abuse of statistical reasoning.

Anyway, I thought I’d take the opportunity to re-iterate why I statistics and statistical reasoning are so important to science. In fact, I think they lie at the very core of the scientific method, although I am still surprised how few practising scientists are comfortable with even basic statistical language. A more important problem is the popular impression that science is about facts and absolute truths. It isn’t. It’s a process. In order to advance it has to question itself. Getting this message wrong – whether by error or on purpose -is immensely dangerous.

Statistical reasoning also applies to many facets of everyday life, including business, commerce, transport, the media, and politics. Probability even plays a role in personal relationships, though mostly at a subconscious level. It is a feature of everyday life that science and technology are deeply embedded in every aspect of what we do each day. Science has given us greater levels of comfort, better health care, and a plethora of labour-saving devices. It has also given us unprecedented ability to destroy the environment and each other, whether through accident or design.

Civilized societies face rigorous challenges in this century. We must confront the threat of climate change and forthcoming energy crises. We must find better ways of resolving conflicts peacefully lest nuclear or conventional weapons lead us to global catastrophe. We must stop large-scale pollution or systematic destruction of the biosphere that nurtures us. And we must do all of these things without abandoning the many positive things that science has brought us. Abandoning science and rationality by retreating into religious or political fundamentalism would be a catastrophe for humanity.

Unfortunately, recent decades have seen a wholesale breakdown of trust between scientists and the public at large. This is due partly to the deliberate abuse of science for immoral purposes, and partly to the sheer carelessness with which various agencies have exploited scientific discoveries without proper evaluation of the risks involved. The abuse of statistical arguments have undoubtedly contributed to the suspicion with which many individuals view science.

There is an increasing alienation between scientists and the general public. Many fewer students enrol for courses in physics and chemistry than a a few decades ago. Fewer graduates mean fewer qualified science teachers in schools. This is a vicious cycle that threatens our future. It must be broken.

The danger is that the decreasing level of understanding of science in society means that knowledge (as well as its consequent power) becomes concentrated in the minds of a few individuals. This could have dire consequences for the future of our democracy. Even as things stand now, very few Members of Parliament are scientifically literate. How can we expect to control the application of science when the necessary understanding rests with an unelected “priesthood” that is hardly understood by, or represented in, our democratic institutions?

Very few journalists or television producers know enough about science to report sensibly on the latest discoveries or controversies. As a result, important matters that the public needs to know about do not appear at all in the media, or if they do it is in such a garbled fashion that they do more harm than good.

Years ago I used to listen to radio interviews with scientists on the Today programme on BBC Radio 4. I even did such an interview once. It is a deeply frustrating experience. The scientist usually starts by explaining what the discovery is about in the way a scientist should, with careful statements of what is assumed, how the data is interpreted, and what other possible interpretations might be and the likely sources of error. The interviewer then loses patience and asks for a yes or no answer. The scientist tries to continue, but is badgered. Either the interview ends as a row, or the scientist ends up stating a grossly oversimplified version of the story.

Some scientists offer the oversimplified version at the outset, of course, and these are the ones that contribute to the image of scientists as priests. Such individuals often believe in their theories in exactly the same way that some people believe religiously. Not with the conditional and possibly temporary belief that characterizes the scientific method, but with the unquestioning fervour of an unthinking zealot. This approach may pay off for the individual in the short term, in popular esteem and media recognition – but when it goes wrong it is science as a whole that suffers. When a result that has been proclaimed certain is later shown to be false, the result is widespread disillusionment.

The worst example of this tendency that I can think of is the constant use of the phrase “Mind of God” by theoretical physicists to describe fundamental theories. This is not only meaningless but also damaging. As scientists we should know better than to use it. Our theories do not represent absolute truths: they are just the best we can do with the available data and the limited powers of the human mind. We believe in our theories, but only to the extent that we need to accept working hypotheses in order to make progress. Our approach is pragmatic rather than idealistic. We should be humble and avoid making extravagant claims that can’t be justified either theoretically or experimentally.

The more that people get used to the image of “scientist as priest” the more dissatisfied they are with real science. Most of the questions asked of scientists simply can’t be answered with “yes” or “no”. This leaves many with the impression that science is very vague and subjective. The public also tend to lose faith in science when it is unable to come up with quick answers. Science is a process, a way of looking at problems not a list of ready-made answers to impossible problems. Of course it is sometimes vague, but I think it is vague in a rational way and that’s what makes it worthwhile. It is also the reason why science has led to so many objectively measurable advances in our understanding of the World.

I don’t have any easy answers to the question of how to cure this malaise, but do have a few suggestions. It would be easy for a scientist such as myself to blame everything on the media and the education system, but in fact I think the responsibility lies mainly with ourselves. We are usually so obsessed with our own research, and the need to publish specialist papers by the lorry-load in order to advance our own careers that we usually spend very little time explaining what we do to the public or why.

I think every working scientist in the country should be required to spend at least 10% of their time working in schools or with the general media on “outreach”, including writing blogs like this. People in my field – astronomers and cosmologists – do this quite a lot, but these are areas where the public has some empathy with what we do. If only biologists, chemists, nuclear physicists and the rest were viewed in such a friendly light. Doing this sort of thing is not easy, especially when it comes to saying something on the radio that the interviewer does not want to hear. Media training for scientists has been a welcome recent innovation for some branches of science, but most of my colleagues have never had any help at all in this direction.

The second thing that must be done is to improve the dire state of science education in schools. Over the last two decades the national curriculum for British schools has been dumbed down to the point of absurdity. Pupils that leave school at 18 having taken “Advanced Level” physics do so with no useful knowledge of physics at all, even if they have obtained the highest grade. I do not at all blame the students for this; they can only do what they are asked to do. It’s all the fault of the educationalists, who have done the best they can for a long time to convince our young people that science is too hard for them. Science can be difficult, of course, and not everyone will be able to make a career out of it. But that doesn’t mean that it should not be taught properly to those that can take it in. If some students find it is not for them, then so be it. I always wanted to be a musician, but never had the talent for it.

I realise I must sound very gloomy about this, but I do think there are good prospects that the gap between science and society may gradually be healed. The fact that the public distrust scientists leads many of them to question us, which is a very good thing. They should question us and we should be prepared to answer them. If they ask us why, we should be prepared to give reasons. If enough scientists engage in this process then what will emerge is and understanding of the enduring value of science. I don’t just mean through the DVD players and computer games science has given us, but through its cultural impact. It is part of human nature to question our place in the Universe, so science is part of what we are. It gives us purpose. But it also shows us a way of living our lives. Except for a few individuals, the scientific community is tolerant, open, internationally-minded, and imbued with a philosophy of cooperation. It values reason and looks to the future rather than the past. Like anyone else, scientists will always make mistakes, but we can always learn from them. The logic of science may not be infallible, but it’s probably the best logic there is in a world so filled with uncertainty.

 

 

The Tim Hunt Debacle

Posted in Politics, Science Politics with tags , , , on June 14, 2015 by telescoper

After a whole day off yesterday to recover from an exceptionally busy week I’m back in the office on a Sunday to sort out a few things before leaving tomorrow on a short trip to the Midlands, of which more, perhaps, anon.

In a way I’m quite glad I have been so busy over the last few days, with Exam Boards and the like. Had I had time I might have been tempted to write a post at some point about the Tim Hunt affair which broke on Tuesday. As it turns out, everything moved so quickly that anything I wrote would have been overtaken by events. In any case I didn’t feel that I had much to add to the excellent response written by the Head of the Department of Physics & Astronomy, Prof. Claudia Eberlein, in the Huffington Post on Thursday.  However, now I have a little bit of time I thought I would add a few comments.

I hope it goes without saying that I thought Tim Hunt’s comments about female scientists, made in public at an event in South Korea, were outrageous and indefensible.  My heart sank when I found out what he’d said. I might have believed his story that they were intended to be humorous had it not been for an awful non-apology on Radio 4, which effectively made that line of defence untenable. Nobel Prize winning biochemist he may be, but Tim Hunt clearly has a lot to learn about how to interact with people. When we find ourselves in a hole, most of us have the sense to stop digging.

I know my opinion here differs from that of some of my friends and colleagues, but I also think University College London did the right thing in asking him to resign. I’ve heard it argued that it over the top for him to lose his job over his remarks. But that’s not what happened. In fact, Tim Hunt is in his seventies and has been effectively retired for many years; his position at UCL was honorary (i.e. unpaid). I don’t think the severance of his relationship with UCL can be construed as an excessive punishment. In today’s Observer there’s a piece in which Tim Hunt claims he has been “hung out to dry” . I have to admit that I find his attempt to portray himself as victim to be as nauseating as his earlier apology.  I think UCL were fully justified in severing their relationship with Tim Hunt. This is not an issue of freedom of speech. Tim Hunt had every right to express his opinions. Those opinions are, however, completely incompatible with the values of the institution with which he was associated and his statement of them harmful to the reputation if UCL. He simply had to go.

On the other hand, there’s a lot about this story that troubles me greatly. Although some of the social media reaction to Tim Hunt’s comments was incisively humorous, some was unpleasant and some downright nasty. Worse, the Twitterstorm that raged last week also unleashed the gutter press, chiefly the Daily Mail, whose hacks tried to drag Prof. Mary Collins (Hunt’s wife) into the story. That was unpleasant, even by the standards of the Daily Mail. Mary Collins’ private life has nothing to do with her husband’s failings.

Anyway, I hope that a line will now be drawn under this episode. Tim Hunt should now be left alone to enjoy his retirement. As someone once said of someone else “I’ve nothing against his family, but I’m glad he will be spending more time with them”.

Nobody should be deluded that the departure of one high-profile academic will solve anything.  Tim Hunt was one senior academic stupid enough make offensive comments in public. There are countless others in positions of power and influence who hold very similar opinions but only express them behind closed doors, or under the cover of anonymity. Indeed, I know a number of senior academics who put on a public show of being in favour of equality and diversity but in private have acted deliberately to undermine the careers of, usually junior, female scientists. The culprits aren’t always men, either..

P.S. In the interest of full disclosure I should point that I have never met Tim Hunt so do not know what his views really are. Neither do I have any connection with University College London.

Big Science is not the Problem – it’s Top-Down Management of Research

Posted in Finance, Science Politics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , on June 2, 2015 by telescoper

I’m very late to this because I was away at the weekend, but I couldn’t resist making a comment on a piece that appeared in the Grauniad last week entitled How can we stop big science hovering up all the research funding? That piece argues for a new system of allocating research funding to avoid all the available cash being swallowed by a few big projects. This is an argument that’s been rehearsed many times before in the context of physics and astronomy, the costs of the UK contribution to facilities such as CERN (home of the Large Hadron Collider) and the European Southern Observatory being major parts of the budget of the Science and Technology Facilities Council that often threaten to squeeze the funds available for “exploiting” these facilities – in other words for doing science. What’s different about the Guardian article however is that it focusses on genomics, which has only recently threatened to become a Big Science.

Anyway, Jon Butterworth has responded with a nice piece of his own (also in the Guardian) with which I agree quite strongly. I would however like to make a couple of comments.

First of all, I think there are two different usages of the phrase “Big Science” and we should be careful not to conflate them. The first, which particularly applies in astronomy and particle physics, is that the only way to do research in these subjects is with enormous and generally very expensive pieces of kit. For this reason, and in order to share the cost in a reasonable manner, these fields tend to be dominated by large international collaborations. While it is indeed true that the Large Hadron Collider has cost a lot of money, that money has been spent by a large number of countries over a very long time. Moreover, particle physicists argued for that way of working and collectively made it a reality. The same thing happens in astronomy: the next generation of large telescopes are all transnational affairs.

The other side of the “Big Science” coin is quite a different thing. It relates to attempts to impose a top-down organization on science when that has nothing to do with the needs of the scientific research. In other words, making scientists in big research centres when it doesn’t need to be done like that. Here I am much more sceptical of the value. All the evidence from, e.g., the Research Excellence Framework is that there is a huge amount of top-class research going on in small groups here and there, much of it extremely innovative and imaginative. It’s very hard to justify concentrating everything in huge centres that are only Big because they’ve taken killed everything that’s Small, by concentrating resources to satisfy some management fixation rather than based on the quality of the research being done. I have seen far too many attempts by funding councils, especially the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, to direct funding from the top down which, in most cases, is simply not the best way to deliver compelling science. Directed programmes rarely deliver exciting science, partly because the people directing them are not the people who actually know most about the field.

I am a fan of the first kind of Big Science, and not only for scientific reasons. I like the way it encourages us to think beyond the petty limitations of national politics, which is something that humanity desparately needs to get used to. But while Big Science can be good, forcing other science to work in Big institutes won’t necessarily make it better. In fact it could have the opposite effect, stifling the innovative approaches so often found in small groups. Small can be beautiful too.

Finally, I’d have to say that I found the Guardian article that started this piece of to be a bit mean-spirited. Scientists should be standing together not just to defend but to advance scientific research across all the disciplines rather than trying to set different kinds of researchers against each other. I feel the same way about funding the arts, actually. I’m all for more science funding, but don’t want to see the arts to be killed off to pay for it.

Gay Astronomers – At Last Some Data!

Posted in Biographical, LGBT, Science Politics with tags , , , , , , on June 1, 2015 by telescoper

Some time ago I wrote a blog post entitled Where are all the LGBT Astrophysicists. I wrote that piece when I accidentally discovered that somebody had recently written a blog post (about Einstein’s Blackboard) which mentions me. I used to look after this famous relic when I was in Nottingham many years ago, you see.

There’s a sentence in that post that says

Professor Coles is one of the few out gay astrophysicists in the UK.

Well, it all depends by what you mean by “few” but at the time I wrote that  I thought there are more gay (or lesbian or bisexual or transgendered) astrophysicists out there than most people probably think. I know quite a large number personally- dozens in fact- most of whom are “out”. It’s a safe bet that there are many more who aren’t open about their sexuality too. However, it is probably the case that LGBT scientists are much less visible as such through their work than colleagues in the arts or humanities. Read two research papers, one written by a straight astrophysicist and one by an LGBT astrophysicist, and I very much doubt you could tell which is which. Read two pieces of literary criticism, however, and it’s much more likely you could determine the sexual orientation of the writer.

You might ask why it matters if an astrophysicist or astronomer is straight or gay? Surely what is important is whether they are good at their job? I agree with that, actually. When it comes to career development, sexual orientation should be as irrelevant as race or gender. The problem is that the lack of visibility of LGBT scientists – and this doesn’t just apply to astrophysics, but across all science disciplines – could deter young people from choosing science as a career in the first place.

Anyway, at last we have some evidence as to whether this might be the case. In 2014 the Royal Astronomical Society (of which I am a Fellow) carried out a demographic survey of its membership. This happens from time to time but this one was the first to include a question about sexual orientation. The Institute of Physics did a similar survey about Physics about a decade ago, but did not include sexual orientation among its question, so this is the first time I’ve seen any data about this from a systematic survey. The results are quite interesting. About 7% of UK respondents (from a total of around a thousand) refused to answer the sexual orientation question but, among those who did, 3% identified themselves as bisexual and 4% as gay men. Both these proportions are significantly higher than the figures for the general UK population reported by the Office of National Statistics. The fraction of respondents in the RAS Survey declaring themselves to be heterosexual was 84%, whereas the corresponding figure from the ONS Survey was 93.5%. The number of UK respondents in the RAS Survey identifying as lesbian was only 0.2%; the proportion of respondents identifying themselves as male was 77.5% versus 21.3% female, which accounts for only some of the difference between gay and lesbian proportions.

So, according to the survey, gay men are actually significantly over-represented in the Royal Astronomical Society compared to the general population. That confirms the statement I made earlier that there are more gay astronomers than you probably think.  It also shows that there is no evidence that gay men are deterred from becoming astronomers. In fact, it seems to be quite the opposite. It’s a different story when it comes to other demographics, however. The RAS membership is older, less ethnically diverse, and more male-dominated than the the general population, so there’s a lot of work to be done redressing the balance there.

On the other hand, next time the Royal Astronomical Society is looking to elect a President it will naturally want to find someone who is representative of its membership, which means an ageing white gay male. I rest my case.

 

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