Archive for the Science Politics Category

No Science Please, We’re The Government

Posted in Politics, Science Politics with tags , , on April 18, 2016 by telescoper

Scary news. A government ban on state-funded scientists using their research question official policy is set to come into force on 1st May 2016. I knew about this before but was under the misleading impression that the effect on academic research had been clarified. It has not. I’ll leave it to others to decide whether this is just poorly-drafted legislation or a deliberate attack on academic freedom, but it will be very damaging not only to scientists but to academics in any field that might influence government policy. Indeed it runs counter to the logic of “impact” as defined in the Research Excellence Framework, which actually rewarded researchers who had ‘an effect on, change or benefit to the economy, society, culture, public policy or services, health, the environment or quality of life, beyond academia’.

I think this proposal is completely idiotic and more than a little sinister. If you agree, you can help stop it by signing the petition here. I have just done so.

Here are more details from the petition website:

The Cabinet Office has announced that a new ‘anti-lobbying’ clause will be included in all Government grants from May 2016. This is an attack on academic freedom as it would stop grants for university research being used to influence policy-makers. It is bad for the public interest and democracy.

The announcement by the Government on Saturday 6 February can be accessed here.

It does not mention that Government grants for research in universities and research institutes would be covered by the new clause.

The Government should ensure that grants from the higher education funding councils and research councils to support research are exempt from this new clause.

There are currently over 14,400 signatures on the petition so the Government is obliged to respond. If it reaches 100,000 signatures, which I hope it will, then the Government will have to consider a debate in the House of Commons.

 

UPDATE: 20th April. I don’t know if the petition (which is now over 28,000 signatures) played any part in this, but it appears that the government has (partially) backed down. There is supposed to be an exemption for researchers funded by HEFCE, at least, but I’m not sure exactly what the form of words will be.

 

Why EU funding is so important for UK science

Posted in Politics, Science Politics, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , on April 12, 2016 by telescoper

One of the figures bandied about by the Leave campaign and in particular by the strangely litigious group  that calls itself “Scientists for Britain” (which has only six members that I know of, not all of them scientists) is that the EU is not important for British science because it only funded 3% of UK R&D between 2007 and 2013). They’ve even supplied a helpful graphic:

UK_RD_2007-2013

The figures are taken from a Royal Society report and are, as far as I’m aware, accurate. It’s worth noting however that the level of funding  under the FP7 “Framework Programme” which funds research is much smaller than the current Horizon2020 programme.

However, as Stephen Curry has pointed out in a typically balanced and reasonable blog post, the impact of a BrExit on UK science is much more complex than this picture would suggest. I want to add just a few  points from my specific perspective as a university-based researcher.

First, the 3% figure is arrived at by a tried-and-tested technique of finding the smallest possible numerator and dividing it by the lowest possible denominator. A fairer comparison, in my view, would just look at research funded by the taxpayer (either directly from the UK or via the EU). For one thing we don’t know how much of the research funded by businesses in the UK is funded by businesses which are only here in the UK because we’re part of the European Union. For another these figures are taken over the whole R&D effort and they hide huge differences from discipline to discipline.

From my perspective as an astrophysicist – and this is true of many researchers in “blue skies” areas – most of the pie chart is simply not relevant. The main sources of funding that we can attempt to tap are the UK Research Councils (chiefly STFC and EPSRC) and EU programmes; we also get a small amount of research income from charities, chiefly the Leverhulme Trust. The situation is different in other fields: medical research, for example, has much greater access to charitable funding.

As it happens I’ve just received the monthly research report of the School of Mathematical and Physics Sciences at the University of Sussex (of which I am currently Head) and I can tell you the EU counts not for 3% of our  income but 21% (which is in line with the proportions) above; most of that comes from the European Research Council. The possibility of losing access to EU funding  alarms me greatly as it would mean the loss of about one-fifth of our research base. I know that figure is much higher in some other institutions and departments.

But it’s not just the money that’s important, it’s also the kind of programmes that the EU funds. These are often to do with mobility of researchers, especially those early in their careers (including PhD students), grants that allow us to exploit facilities that we would otherwise not be able to access, and those that sustain large collaborations. It’s not just the level of cash that matters but the fact that what it funds is nicely complementary to the UK’s own programmes. The combination of UK and EU actually provides a much better form of “dual funding” than the UK can achieve on its own.

Some say that BrExit would not change our access to EU funding, but I maintain there’s a huge risk that this will be the case. The loss of the UK’s input into the overall EU budget will almost certainly lead to a revision of the ability of non-member states to access these programmes. The best that even BrExit campaigners argue for is that access to EU funding will not change. There is therefore, from a science perspective, there is no chance of a gain and a large risk of a loss. For me, that kind of a decision is a no-brainer. I’m not the only one who thinks that either: 150 Fellows of the Royal Society agree with me, as do the vast majority of scientists surveyed in a poll conducted by Nature magazine.

Of course there will be some who will argue that this “blue skies” academic research in universities isn’t important and we should be spending more money on stuff that leads to wealth creation. I can think of many arguments against that, but for the purposes of this post I’ll just remind you that 45% of UK research is done in industry and commercial businesses of various kinds. Where do you think the supply of science graduates come from, what kind of research draws students into science courses in the first place, and where do the teachers come from that educate the next generations?

As a scientist who cares passionately about the sustainability of Britain’s research base, I think we should definitely remain in the European Union.

Fear, Risk, Uncertainty and the European Union

Posted in Politics, Science Politics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , , , , on April 11, 2016 by telescoper

I’ve been far too busy with work and other things to contribute as much as I’d like to the ongoing debate about the forthcoming referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union. Hopefully I’ll get time for a few posts before June 23rd, which is when the United Kingdom goes to the polls.

For the time being, however, I’ll just make a quick comment about one phrase that is being bandied about in this context, namely Project Fear.As far as I am aware this expression first came up in the context of last year’s referendum on Scottish independence, but it’s now being used by the “leave” campaign to describe some of the arguments used by the “remain” campaign. I’ve met this phrase myself rather often on social media such as Twitter, usually in use by a BrExit campaigner accusing me of scaremongering because I think there’s a significant probability that leaving the EU will cause the UK serious economic problems.

Can I prove that this is the case? No, of course not. Nobody will know unless and until we try leaving the EU. But my point is that there’s definitely a risk. It seems to me grossly irresponsible to argue – as some clearly are doing – that there is no risk at all.

This is all very interesting for those of us who work in university science department  because “Risk Assessments” are one of the things we teach our students to do as a matter of routine, especially in advance of experimental projects. In case you weren’t aware, a risk assessment is

…. a systematic examination of a task, job or process that you carry out at work for the purpose of; Identifying the significant hazards that are present (a hazard is something that has the potential to cause someone harm or ill health).

Perhaps we should change the name of our “Project Risk Assessments” to “Project Fear”?

I think this all demonstrates how very bad most people are at thinking rationally about uncertainty, to such an extent that even thinking about potential hazards is verboten. I’ve actually written a book about uncertainty in the physical sciences , partly in an attempt to counter the myth that science deals with absolute certainties. And if physics doesn’t, economics definitely can’t.

In this context it is perhaps worth mentioning the  definitions of “uncertainty” and “risk” suggested by Frank Hyneman Knight in a book on economics called Risk, Uncertainty and Profit which seem to be in standard use in the social sciences.  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”.In the context of BrExit there is unpredictability because we don’t have any hard information on which to base a prediction. 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.

When it comes to the EU referendum is that probabilities of different outcomes are difficult to calculate because of the complexity of economics generally and the dynamics of trade within and beyond the European Union in particular. Moreover, probabilities need to be updated using quantitative evidence and we don’t actually have any of that. But it seems absurd to try to argue that there is neither any risk nor any uncertainty. Frankly, anyone who argues this is just being irrational.

Whether a risk is worth taking depends on the likely profit. Nobody has convinced me that the country as a whole will gain anything concrete if we leave the European Union, so the risk seems pointless. Cui Bono? I think you’ll find the answer to that among the hedge fund managers who are bankrolling the BrExit campaign…

 

 

Have you been threatened with legal action by “Scientists for Britain”?

Posted in Politics, Science Politics with tags , , , , , on April 3, 2016 by telescoper

Back in circulation after a short break I hope to write a few pieces about why I support the case for the United Kingdom to remain in the European Union, partly because it’s good for science, but also because it’s good for many other reasons.

But before I do that, I feel I have to do a quick post about the extremely unpleasant antics of an organization called “Scientists for Britain“, or rather the anonymous person or persons operating their Twitter feed.

Last Saturday I found myself in receipt of a message, apparently sent by this outfit, that explicitly threatened legal action on grounds of libel because of a comment I had made on one of their posts on Twitter which was alleged to be “disparaging”. I was refrained from referring the sender of this intentionally intimidatory message to the response given in Arkell versus Pressdram but it soon became clear that a number of other scientists on Twitter had received similar threats.Then, fortunately for us, in stepped renowned legal journalist David Allen Green, who blogs as Jack of Kent and is something of a specialist in libel law. He made it quite clear that the threats sent out by Scientists for Britain had no basis whatsoever in law, not least because you can’t libel an anonymous person. I hadn’t said anything even remotely actionable anyway.

Within hours, all the threatening messages had been deleted by Scientists for Britain, and they also blocked those of us to whom they had sent them in the first place, including myself. There are such things as screen grabs, however…

This social media car crash would be very funny were there not something very sinister behind it. I’m all for healthy robust and vigorous debate on the issue of the United Kingdom’s membership of the European Union ahead of the forthcoming referendum, but bullying those you disagree with by means of threats of legal action is no way to make your case. Also, for the record, I will point out that I have seen no evidence that the anonymous operator of the Scientists for Britain Twitter feed, who delights in issuing unwarranted libel threats, is a actually scientist at all. I very much doubt that is the case, in fact. Why else would Scientists for Britain be so obsessive about their anonymity? Even their response to a letter signed by 150 Fellows of the Royal Society is unsigned….

I am posting this information here in an attempt to find out how many other scientists  Scientists for Britain have tried to silence through legal threats.  If this has happened to you, please let me know via email, Twitter, or via the comments box  of this blog (below).

If Scientists for Britain wish to comment they are welcome to do so below, although please note my comments policy: I do not accept postings from anonymous individuals.

 

 

“British physics” – A Lesson from History

Posted in History, Politics, Science Politics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 13, 2016 by telescoper

The other day I came across the following tweet

The link is to an excellent piece about the history of European science which I recommend reading; as I do with this one.

I won’t pretend to be a historian but I can’t resist a comment from my perspective as a physicist. I am currently teaching a course module called Theoretical Physics which brings together some fairly advanced mathematical techniques and applies them to (mainly classical) physics problems. It’s not a course on the history of physics, but thenever I mention a new method or theorem I always try to say something about the person who gave it its name. In the course of teaching this module, therefore, I have compiled a set of short biographical notes about the people behind the rise of theoretical physics (mainly in the 19th Century). I won’t include them here – it would take too long – but a list  makes the point well enough: Laplace, Poisson,  Lagrange, Hamilton, Euler, Cauchy, Riemann, Biot, Savart, d’Alembert, Ampère, Einstein, Lorentz, Helmholtz, Gauss, etc etc.

There are a few British names too  including the Englishmen Newton and Faraday and the Scot Maxwell. Hamilton, by the way, was Irish. Another Englishman, George Green, crops up quite prominently too, for reasons which I will expand upon below.

Sir Isaac Newton is undoubtedly one of the great figures in the History of Science, and it is hard to imagine how physics might have developed without him, but the fact of the matter is that for a hundred years after his death in 1727 the vast majority of significant developments in physics took place not in Britain but in Continental Europe. It’s no exaggeration to say that British physics was moribund during this period and it took the remarkable self-taught mathematician George Green to breath new life into it.
I quote from History of the Theories of the Aether and Electricity (Whittaker, 1951) :

The century which elapsed between the death of Newton and the scientific activity of Green was the darkest in the history of (Cambridge) University. It is true that (Henry) Cavendish and (Thomas) Young were educated at Cambridge; but they, after taking their undergraduate courses, removed to London. In the entire period the only natural philosopher of distinction was (John) Michell; and for some reason which at this distance of time it is difficult to understand fully, Michell’s researches seem to have attracted little or no attention among his collegiate contemporaries and successors, who silently acquiesced when his discoveries were attributed to others, and allowed his name to perish entirely from the Cambridge tradition.

I wasn’t aware of this analysis previously, but it re-iterates something I have posted about before. It stresses the enormous historical importance of British mathematician and physicist George Green, who lived from 1793 until 1841, and who left a substantial legacy for modern theoretical physicists, in Green’s theorems and Green’s functions; he is also credited as being the first person to use the word “potential” in electrostatics.

Green was the son of a Nottingham miller who, amazingly, taught himself mathematics and did most of his best work, especially his remarkable Essay on the Application of mathematical Analysis to the theories of Electricity and Magnetism (1828) before starting his studies as an undergraduate at the University of Cambridge ,which he did at the age of 30. Lacking independent finance, Green could not go to University until his father died, whereupon he leased out the mill he inherited to pay for his studies.

Extremely unusually for English mathematicians of his time, Green taught himself from books that were published in France. This gave him a huge advantage over his national contemporaries in that he learned the form of differential calculus that originated with Leibniz, which was far more elegant than that devised by Isaac Newton (which was called the method of fluxions). Whittaker remarks upon this:

Green undoubtedly received his own early inspiration from . . . (the great French analysts), chiefly from Poisson; but in clearness of physical insight and conciseness of exposition he far excelled his masters; and the slight volume of his collected papers has to this day a charm which is wanting in their voluminous writings.

Great scientist though he was, Newton’s influence on the development of physics in Britain was not entirely positive, as the above quote makes clear. Newton was held in such awe, especially in Cambridge, that his inferior mathematical approach was deemed to be the “right” way to do calculus and generations of scholars were forced to use it. This held back British science until the use of fluxions was phased out. Green himself was forced to learn fluxions when he went as an undergraduate to Cambridge despite having already learned the better method.

Unfortunately, Green’s great pre-Cambridge work on mathematical physics didn’t reach wide circulation in the United Kingdom until after his death. William Thomson, later Lord Kelvin, found a copy of Green’s Essay in 1845 and promoted it widely as a work of fundamental importance. This contributed to the eventual emergence of British theoretical physics from the shadow cast by Isaac Newton. This renaissance reached one of its heights just a few years later with the publication a fully unified theory of electricity and magnetism by James Clerk Maxwell.

In a very real sense it was Green’s work that led to the resurgence of British physics during the later stages of the 19th Century, and it was the fact that he taught himself from French books that enabled him to bypass the insular attitudes of British physicists of the time. No physicist who has taken even a casual look at the history of their subject could possibly deny the immense importance of mainland Europe in providing its theoretical foundations.

Of course science has changed in the last two hundred years, but I believe that we can still learn an important lesson from this particular bit of history. Science moves forward when scientists engage with ideas and information from as wide a range of sources as possible, and it stagnates when it retreats into blinkered insularity. The European Union provides all scientific disciplines with a framework within which scientists can move freely and form transnational collaborations for the mutual benefit of all. We need more of this, not less. And not just in science.

 

 

 

Big Cuts to UK Science Research

Posted in Science Politics with tags , , , on March 4, 2016 by telescoper

I have been off sick today, but felt a whole lot sicker when I saw that the government had unveiled its plans for UK research spending over the next few years.

At first sight the picture looks encouraging. For example, the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) sees a modest increase on cash terms from 16/17 to the end of the budget period. However that picture soon changes when you note that the allocation to STFC this year (15/16) was £400M. The allocation for (16/17) is £388M, so there’s an immediate reduction of £12M in available resource corresponding to a 3% cash cut.

This is  a truly terrible result for the STFC community. It may not seem like a big cut, but so much of the STFC budget is locked up in subscriptions that cash cuts have a disproportionately damaging effect. I fear for grant funding in particular; that’s always what takes the hit when immediate savings are needed.

It seems clear to me that a deliberate decision was made in BIS to exclude the current year’s figures from their document in a cynical attempt to present a misleading picture of the settlement. It’s a shocking betrayal.

Here is a response from the Royal Astronomical Society.

The unwillingness of our own government to fund scientific research property demonstrates how vitally important it is for us to have access to European Union funding and will strengthen the determination of UK scientists to keep us in the EU.

Why the EU is Vital to UK Science

Posted in Politics, Science Politics with tags , , , on February 22, 2016 by telescoper

The EU referendum campaign may only just have started but already there have been deliberate attempts to mislead the electorate about the realitites of  EU membership. I know that people will consider a wide range of issues before casting their vote in the forthcoming referendum. I am glad there is to be a referendum because there is at least a chance that some truth will emerge as these topics are discussed publicly over the next four months.

My views on the wider questions raised by the referendum are of no greater value than anyone else’s so I am going to restrict myself here to one issue that I do know something about: the importance of continued EU membership to UK Science. Before going on I will state, for the record, that I am not in receipt of any grants or other income from the EU. Not that this should matter. I deeply resent the snide implications of the “out” campaign that  ERC or other EU grants represent some form of gravy train. They don’t. Such awards are highly competitive and subject to strict accounting rules. They are used to fund research not to generate personal wealth. Scientists are not bankers.

Anyway, I believe that it would be a disaster for science if the UK were to quit the EU. In the Department of Physics & Astronomy at Sussex around one-quarter of our research income comes via the EU. Without that cash we would have to make drastic cuts which would certainly lead to redundancies. And I don’t for one minute believe that such funding would be replaced by increases from the UK government. It has been a hard slog just to get level cash settlements for science over the last two Parliaments, and that has led to steady real-terms attrition of support for scientific research. Meanwhile, the EU has, wisely for the future of the European economy, been increasing its science budget in real terms. Many research groups are only viable because of the EU’s strategic vision. We have in front of us the very real prospect of the devastation of our science base if Brexit becomes a reality.

But it’s not just about loss of funding. It’s also about the loss of influence. The UK benefits from EU membership because it has representatives around the table when funding priorities are decided. We provide scientific leadership to many projects, which reflects well on our reputation in the world and attracts significant inward investment. This loss of influence is, of course, not only the case for science but also for other areas of policy. The “out” campaign’s desire for isolationism would leave Britain with even less influence on its own destiny than it has now.

Of course these are personal views and you are free to disregard them. On the other hand, they are also the views of most UK scientists. Here are the key conclusions of  a recent survey and report:

  • 93% of researchers asked in the CaSE and EPC survey agreed that EU membership is a major benefit to UK.
  • Some regions of the UK are more dependent than others on EU funding in maintaining research capacity and infrastructure, and as a result could suffer disproportionate adverse impacts if this source was withdrawn.
  • The ability to attract academic staff to the UK through free movement of labour is important, particularly in science and engineering.
  • The role and benefits of EU membership to UK research is considered by researchers to be broader than just the funding for research that EU projects bring to the UK. The improvement in quality, reach and impact, facilitated by EU collaboration and coordination, helps to solve “Grand Challenge” problems in a way that would be much harder for any one country to achieve alone.

My only surprise with these survey results is that the fraction quoted in the first bullet point is as low as 93%. In my experience strong support for the EU is practically universal amongst scientific researchers across the entire spectrum of disciplines.

I realise science funding is unlikely to be the decisive issue for many people when it comes to casting their vote, but it is a topic I feel strongly about and it angers me greatly when campaigners deliberately misrepresent the view of real scientists. That is one of the reasons why I am a strong supporter of Scientists for the EU and I shall be campaigning strongly for Britain to remain at the heart of a Europe committed to science for the benefit of all its citizens.

 

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 5,000 other followers