Archive for the Science Politics Category

Who uses LinkedIn?

Posted in Science Politics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , on September 5, 2019 by telescoper

We had a talk at INAM2019 yesterday about the Astronomical Science Group of Ireland which is about to be re-launched with a new website. One of the main reasons for doing this is that Ireland recently joined the European Southern Observatory and in order to capitalize on its involvement it is important to persuade the Irish government to invest in the resources needed (especially postdocs, etc) to do as much science as possible using ESO facilities. At the moment there isn’t a very well organized lobby for astronomy in Ireland.

One of the suggestions made yesterday was that astronomers in Ireland should join LinkedIn in order to raise their profile individually and collectively.

I am not, and have never been, on LinkedIn and this is the first time I’ve ever even thought of joining it (though I do from time to time receive emails from people I don’t know asking me to). I’ve always thought it was for more businessy types. I don’t know of any astronomers (or scientists generally) who use it either, but that may be just because I’m not on it and wouldn’t know either way.

I just thought therefore, that I might invite any readers of this blog – whether astronomers or not – if they use LinkedIn to please comment on its usefulness or otherwise using the box below. Please also comment on whether you think it would help astronomers in Ireland organize in the manner envisaged.

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ERC Starting (and Finishing) Grants

Posted in Politics, Science Politics with tags , , , , on September 3, 2019 by telescoper

Just time for a quick note to announce that the European Research Council has announced the winners of the latest round of `Starting Grants’ (which are intended to further the research plans of early career researchers). Full details are here. Congratulations to all the winners, and especially  Erminia Calabrese in the School of Physics & Astronomy at Cardiff University!

In all, 408 applicants were selected for funding, hosted in 24 different countries. The split by nationality and discipline is as follows:

I’ll make two comments on the numbers.

First, the United Kingdom is host to a total of 64 awards. It is however very unclear what will happen in the case of a `No Deal’ Brexit in which the British Government refuses to honour its existing financial commitments. Hopefully even in this case these grants will go ahead in some form (perhaps funded directly by the UK).

Second, note that there is only one award for Ireland and nothing in either Physical Sciences or Life Sciences. This is very disappointing, but is probably a fair reflection of the Irish governments ongoing failure to invest in basic science.

It’s not that the Irish aren’t good at research. Here is another graphic that shows that 7 Irish researchers were actually awarded grants under this scheme, but none of them chose to hold their awards in Ireland:

 

 

That tells you something about the environment for early career researchers in this country.

The imminent departure of the United Kingdom from the European Union makes its future participation in such schemes unlikely. Brexit could be a great opportunity for the research community in Ireland, if only the Irish Government would seize it, but it would first need to recognize the benefits of increasing investment in research. Sadly I don’t think it will.

 

Walter’s Leaving Do

Posted in Cardiff, Science Politics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , on May 18, 2019 by telescoper

As I had little window of opportunity before the start of exam marking season and other goings-on in Maynooth I decided to make a quick trip back to Wales back in Cardiff for the weekend.

I flew back on Thursday evening. It had been a busy day and I’d only had a sandwich for lunch so I went into the bar in Dublin Airport to get a beer and a burger. Who did I bump into there but Professor Walter Gear…

Walter was Head of the School of Physics and Astronomy at Cardiff University when I joined it in 2007, so and was he persuaded me to leave Nottingham. He was a very good Head of School and, in particular, he helped a lot when I had mental health problems seven years ago.

Anyway after twenty years in Cardiff during which he built up the School and particularly the world-leading Astronomy Instrumentation Group there, Walter has left for a new position as Dean for Science and Engineering at NUI Galway, in Ireland.

He was in Dublin Airport because he was travelling back to his leaving do in Cardiff, which I turned up for on Friday. There were drinks and speeches and presents and it was nice to see some old friends there and in the Flute and Tankard afterwards. It was a good send-off.

I’m sure that Walter (who was born in Ireland) enjoy his new role in the Emerald Isle very much indeed. Galway is quite a distance from Maynooth (almost 200 km) but I hope we will be in regular contact.

Anyway I should mention that there are advertisements out for a Research Associate in Sub-mm Astronomy and and a Lecturer in Astronomy (with an emphasis on the same) in Galway. I’m sure these will prove very attractive to many applicants!

A Hint of Blue Skies for Irish Science?

Posted in Science Politics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , on February 9, 2019 by telescoper

I was quite excited the other day when I got an email notifying me that Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) has announced a new funding programme called Frontiers for the Future. What particularly caught my attention are the so-called Frontiers for the Future Projects, which..

will provide funding for high-risk, high-reward research that facilitates highly innovative and novel approaches to research.

The wording here contrasts with the Frontiers for the Future Awards, which…

will provide larger scale funding for innovative, collaborative and excellent research programmes that have the potential to deliver economic and societal impact.

The Projects can fund up to €480K over 4 years (compared to the Awards, which are up to €1M over 5 years). This second category seems to follow the policy of the past decade of SFI which is only to fund research which is able more-or-less immediately to generate a financial return. I’ve argued previously that I think this is a short-sighted policy, but I won’t repeat that argument here. It is a fact however that SFI’s policy has made it very difficult in Ireland for researchers who want to do basic `blue skies’ research, including us astronomers and astrophysicists.

The new `Projects’ however may just be a step away from this damaging shor-termism.

Further down the page SFI states (my emphasis):

To be eligible for funding through the SFI Frontiers for the Future Programme, all proposals must be aligned to one of the 14 Refreshed Priority Areas for 2018-2023, or to any other research area within SFI’s legal remit (i.e. oriented basic or applied research) where there is convincing evidence that there will be significant potential for economic and/or societal impact in Ireland.

Astronomers in the UK have succeeded in arguing that their big science projects have all kinds of societal impact (in inspiring more students into STEM disciplines, as well as wider public engagement) as well as direct economic impact in terms of developing research methods, and building up a talent pool, especially in areas like data science. Whether SFI will accept such arguments in Ireland, I just don’t know.

If you’re wondering what `oriented basic or applied research’ means, SFI defines it as follows:

Oriented basic research is research that is carried out with the expectation that it will produce a broad base of knowledge that is likely to form the background to the solution of recognised, or expected, current or future problems or possibilities.

To me that means virtually any science!

Anyway, I’ll probably throw the dice to see if I can get some  SFI support for my research in cosmology. It might turn out to be a waste of effort, but if you don’t buy a ticket you don’t win the lottery…

 

 

The Future Circular Collider: what’s the MacGuffin?

Posted in Science Politics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , , on February 7, 2019 by telescoper

I’ve been reading a few items here and there about proposals for a Future Circular Collider, even larger than the Large Hadron Collider (and consequently even more expensive). No doubt particle physicists interested in accelerator experiments will be convinced this is the right move, but of course there are other projects competing for funds and it’s by no means certain that the FCC will actually happen.

One of the important things about `Big Science’ when it gets this big is that it has to capture the imagination of people with political influence if it is to be granted funding. Based on past experience that means that there has to be a Big Discovery to be made or a Big Idea to be tested. This Big Thing has to be simple enough for politicians to understand and exciting enough to capture their imagination (and that of the public). In the case of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), for example, this was the Higgs Boson. In the case of the Euclid space mission, the motivation is Dark Energy.

The Big Thing that sells a project to politicians is not necessarily the thing that most scientists are interested in. The LHC has done a lot of things other than discover the Higgs, and Euclid will do many things other than probe Dark Energy, but there has to be one thing to set it all in motion. It seems to me that the Big Question about the FCC is whether there is something specific that can motivate this project in the way the Higgs did for the LHC? If so, what is it?

Answers on a postcard or, better, through the comments box below.

 

Humphrey Bogart with the eponymous Maltese Falcon

Anyway, these thoughts reminded me of the concept of a  MacGuffin. 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.

Or the MacGuffin may not be a real thing at all. It could be an event or an idea or even something that doesn’t actually exist in any sense, 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 in which the 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. That’s often how it goes with MacGuffins -even the Maltese Falcon turned out in the end to be a fake – they’re only really needed to start things off.

So let me rephrase the question I posed earlier on. In the case of the Future Circular Collider, what’s the MacGuffin?

Sustainability and Irish Science

Posted in Politics, Science Politics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , on December 19, 2018 by telescoper

There’s an interesting news item in the Education section of the Irish times about the appointment of Prof Séamus Davis to positions at both the University of Oxford and University College Cork, under a Science Foundation Ireland scheme intended to capitalize on Brexit (and the imminent loss of EU funding it implies) and the unhappy situation for science in the USA. This is the first appointment to one of the new Research Professorships, which allow the holders to be paid up to €250K.

While I support any investment in Irish science, and wish Prof. Davis every success in his new role, my reaction to the SFI scheme is very similar to my view of the Sêr Cymru (“Star Wales”) project which began a few years ago when I was working in Cardiff, with the aim of attracting `research leaders’ to Wales.

I am very skeptical about the likely success of `top-down’ moves like this. What Ireland really needs (and currently does not have) is a sustainable research base, so at very least I’d like to complementary  `bottom-up’ projects nurturing  researchers at PhD and PDRA level, perhaps through a greatly expanded system of national fellowships.  The trouble in Ireland is that there are so few opportunities for early career researchers that many have to go abroad to further their careers. There’s nothing wrong with Irish researchers choosing to work in another country, of course, but in an ideal world they would choose rather than be forced to do so by lack of opportunity and their loss would be offset by a other nationals choosing to come into Ireland. Unless this problem is fixed Ireland might end up with some leaders but nobody around to follow them.

The question I ask myself is, if one had to choose, what would be better in the long run for Irish science, one Professor on a salary of €250,000 or eight new postdoctoral fellowships (at roughly the same cost)?

Of course the idea of bringing in `research leaders’ is that they will manage to bring in funds from elsewhere, especially the European Union. This may indeed happen and indeed some may already have money in the bag when they move in. The problem with the strategy, though,  is that it’s not very easy to persuade such leaders to leave their current institutions, especially in experimental sciences, if they’ve already spend years acquiring the funding needed to equip their laboratories. This is not just a question of moving people, which is relatively easy, but can involve trying to replace lots of expensive and delicate equipment. The financial inducements needed to fund the relocation of a major research group and fight off counter-offers from its present host are likely to be so expensive that the benefit gained from doing this takes years to accrue, even they succeed. And EU grants are exceptionally competitive..

It’s a big shame that Ireland does not take research funding as seriously as it should, especially in fundamental science. Brexit could well turn out to be very damaging for the Irish economy, but science is one area where in which there are enormous opportunities if only there was the political will to seize them.

 

 

Newsflash: Ireland and ESO

Posted in Science Politics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , on September 26, 2018 by telescoper

Some good news was waiting for me when I got back to the office after my lecture just now, namely that Astronomy in Ireland will shortly receive an enormous boost, as the Republic has joined the European Southern Observatory (ESO).

For those of you not in the know, ESO is an intergovernmental astronomy organisation and is the world’s most productive astronomical observatory. Founded in 1962, its headquarters are in Garching (near Munich, Germany), and it currently has 15 member states. On October 1st, Ireland will become the 16th. Its main work is conducted using a variety of large optical and radio telescopes which are all located in the southern hemisphere, notably at Paranal in Chile.

ESO’s VLT telescopes at Paranal (in the Andes Mountains).

The official press release includes the following:

We are delighted to welcome Ireland as the newest member of our organisation” stated ESO’s Director General, Xavier Barcons. “Ireland’s mature and thriving astronomical community will add to the broad variety of expertise in the ESO Member States, strengthening ESO’s position at the forefront of global astronomy. Irish astronomers will gain access to a suite of the world’s most advanced ground-based astronomical telescopes and will have the opportunity to be part of the construction of the next generation of ESO instruments in partnership with other ESO Member States. We are also very much looking forward to working with Irish industrial partners to build and operate ESO’s state-of-the-art telescopes.

It was probably the industrial opportunities afforded by ESO membership that persuaded the Irish government to stump up the subscription fee, but this decision is also extremely positive news for the relatively small but vibrant community in Ireland working on observational astronomy which I’m sure will make the most of the chance to do ever more exciting research using these facilities.