Archive for the Science Politics Category

IRC Starting and Consolidator Awards

Posted in Maynooth, Science Politics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , on July 9, 2021 by telescoper

Just a quick post to pass on the news that there are a couple of new funding programmes run by the Irish Research Council. The full description of these programmes can be found here, but here is an excerpt:

The Council is inviting applications at the early and mid-career level (Starting and Consolidator). Funding will be awarded on the basis solely of excellence, assessed through a rigorous and independent international peer-review process. Laureates will enhance their track record and international competitiveness. As well as the benefits for the laureate and their team, it is anticipated that the award will enhance the potential for subsequent ERC success as a further career milestone; indeed it will be a requirement of all laureates that they make a follow-on application to the ERC.

Fortunately the remit of the IRC is broader than Science Foundation Ireland, which has a narrow focus on research likely to lead to short-term returns, so it is more likely to appeal to those working in more speculative fundamental or frontier science, including Astrophysics. Unfortunately IRC has a lot less money than SFI.

An overview of the programme can be found in the following recording of a webinar that took place last week:

The way the call works is that you must first lodge an Expression of Interest with the institution to which you wish to apply, i.e. Maynooth University. That must be done by 27th August 2021. Full applications will then be due in November.

On LinkedIn

Posted in Science Politics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , on July 4, 2021 by telescoper

A former colleague recently contacted me with a request to join my “network” on LinkedIn.  That was quite hard to do as (at least until this morning) I was not on LinkedIn. That reminded me of a talk at INAM2019 a couple of years ago about the Astronomical Society of Ireland  which was 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. The idea was to improve the lobbying power 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 was not on LinkedIn at the time and didn’t get around to joining it mainly because I’ve always thought it was more for businessy types than academics. Anyway, in the light of recent events I decided it couldn’t do any harm to bite the bullet and set up a LinkedIn profile, which you can find here. It’s really a rather basic profile but I think I’ve set it up so that posts from here will be posted to LinkedIn too, so if you’re on it yourself you might want to add me. Or not. It’s up to you!

P.S. The only thing I have put under “Awards and Honours” is Winner of Beard of Ireland 2020.

Open Science and Open Software

Posted in Open Access, Science Politics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , on May 22, 2021 by telescoper

As the regular readers of this blog – both of them – will know, I’ve been banging on from time to time about Open Access to scientific publications. After posting a video featuring Volker Springel and the GADGET-4 code I thought I’d return to an issue that came up briefly in my recent talk about Open Access and the Open Journal of Astrophysics here which is the question whether open access to scientific results enough, or do we have to go a lot further?

An important aspect of the way science works is that when a given individual or group publishes a result, it should be possible for others to reproduce it (or not as the case may be). Traditional journal publications don’t always allow this. In my own field of astrophysics/cosmology, for example, results in scientific papers are often based on very complicated analyses of large data sets. This is increasingly the case in other fields too. A basic problem obviously arises when data are not made public. Fortunately in astrophysics these days researchers are pretty good at sharing their data, although this hasn’t always been the case.

However, even allowing open access to data doesn’t always solve the reproducibility problem. Often extensive numerical codes are needed to process the measurements and extract meaningful output. Without access to these pipeline codes it is impossible for a third party to check the path from input to output without writing their own version assuming that there is sufficient information to do that in the first place. That researchers should publish their software as well as their results is quite a controversial suggestion, but I think it’s the best practice for science. There isn’t a uniform policy in astrophysics and cosmology, but I sense that quite a few people out there agree with me. Cosmological numerical simulations, for example, can be performed by anyone with a sufficiently big computer using GADGET the source codes of which are freely available. Likewise, for CMB analysis, there is the excellent CAMB code, which can be downloaded at will; this is in a long tradition of openly available numerical codes, including CMBFAST and HealPix. Researchers in these and other areas do tend to share their software on open-access repositories, especially GitHub.

I suspect some researchers might be reluctant to share the codes they have written because they feel they won’t get sufficient credit for work done using them. I don’t think this is true, as researchers are generally very appreciative of such openness and publications describing the corresponding codes are generously cited. In any case I don’t think it’s appropriate to withhold such programs from the wider community, which prevents them being either scrutinized or extended as well as being used to further scientific research. In other words excessively proprietorial attitudes to data analysis software are detrimental to the spirit of open science.

Anyway, my views are by no means guaranteed to be representative of the community, so I’d like to ask for a quick show of hands via a poll that I started about 8 years ago.

You are of course welcome to comment via the usual box, as long as you respect my comments policy…

Basic Research in Ireland

Posted in Science Politics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , on March 21, 2021 by telescoper


I realised today that I hadn’t yet posted a reaction to theannouncement earlier this month by Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) of a new five-year strategic plan. Although much of the document Shaping Our Future is fairly bland – as strategic plans usually are – there are some very welcome things in it.

Currently Ireland spends just 1.1% of its GDP on scientific research and development and SFI currently has a heavy focus on applied research (i.e. research aligned with industry that can be exploited for short-term commercial gain). This has made life difficult for basic or fundamental science and has driven many researchers in such areas abroad, to the detriment of Ireland’s standing in the international community.

The new strategy, which will cover the period from now to 2025, plans for 15% annual rises that will boost the agency’s grant spending — the greater part of the SFI budget — from €200 million in 2020 to €376 million by 2025. Much of this is focused in top-down manner on specific programmes and research centres but there is at least an acknowledgement of the need to support basic research, including an allocation of €11 million in 2021 for early career researchers.

The overall aim is to increase the overall R&D spend from 1.1% of gross domestic product, well below the European average of 2.2%, to 2.5% by 2025.

One of the jobs I had to do last week was to write the Annual Research Report for the Department of Theoretical Physics at Maynooth University. I am very pleased that despite the Covid-19 pandemic, over the last year we managed to score some notable successes in securing new grant awards (amounting to €1.3M altogether) as well as doubling the number of refereed publications since the previous year. This is of course under the old SFI regime. Hopefully in the next few years covered by the new SFI strategic plan we’ll be able to build on that growth still further, especially in areas related to quantum computing and quantum technology generally.

Anyway, it seems that SFI listened to at least some of the submissions made to the consultation exercise I mentioned a few months ago.

Hawking and the Mind of God

Posted in Books, Talks and Reviews, Science Politics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , on March 3, 2021 by telescoper

There’s a new book out about Stephen Hawking which has triggered a certain amount of reaction (see, e.g., here) so I thought I’d mention a book I wrote, largely in response to the pseudo-religious nature of some of Hawking’s later writings.

I have in the past gone on record, both on television and in print, as being not entirely positive about the “cult” that surrounds Stephen Hawking. I think a number of my colleagues have found some of my comments disrespectful and/or churlish. I do nevertheless stand by everything I’ve said. I have enormous respect for Hawking the physicist, as well as deep admiration for his tenacity and fortitude, and have never said otherwise. I don’t, however, agree that Hawking is in the same category of revolutionary thinkers as Newton or Einstein, which is how he is often portrayed.

In fact a poll of 100 theoretical physicists in 1999 came to exactly the same conclusion. The top ten in that list were:

  1. Albert Einstein
  2. Isaac Newton
  3. James Clerk Maxwell
  4. Niels Bohr
  5. Werner Heisenberg
  6. Galileo Galilei
  7. Richard Feynman
  8. Paul Dirac
  9. Erwin Schrödinger
  10. Ernest Rutherford

The idea of a league table like this is of course a bit silly, but it does at least give some insight into the way physicists regard prominent figures in their subject. Hawking came way down the list, in fact, in 300th (equal) place. I don’t think it is disrespectful to Hawking to point this out. I’m not saying he isn’t a brilliant physicist. I’m just saying that there are a great many other brilliant physicists that no one outside physics has ever heard of.

It is interesting to speculate what would have happened if the list had been restricted to living physicists. I’d guess Hawking would be in the top ten, but I’m not at all sure where…

And before I get accused of jealousy about Stephen Hawking’s fame, let me make it absolutely clear that if Hawking was like a top Premiership footballer (which I think is an appropriate analogy), then I am definitely like someone kicking a ball around for a pub team on a Sunday morning (with a hangover). This gulf does not make me envious; it just makes me admire his ability all the more, just as trying to play football makes one realise exactly how good the top players really are.

I am not myself religious but I do think that there are many things that science does not – and probably will never – explain, such as why there is something rather than nothing. I also believe that science and religious belief are not in principle incompatible – although whether there is a conflict in practice does depend of course on the form of religious belief and how it is observed. God and physics are in my view pretty much orthogonal. To put it another way, if I were religious, there’s nothing in theoretical physics that would change make me want to change my mind. However, I’ll leave it to those many physicists who are learned in matters of theology to take up the (metaphorical) cudgels with Professor Hawking.

Anyway, this is the book I wrote:.

And here is the jacket blurb:

Stephen Hawking has achieved a unique position in contemporary culture, combining eminence in the rarefied world of theoretical physics with the popular fame usually reserved for film stars and rock musicians. Yet Hawking’s technical work is so challenging, both in its conceptual scope and in its mathematical detail, that proper understanding of its significance lies beyond the grasp of all but a few specialists. How, then, did Hawking-the-scientist become Hawking-the-icon? Hawking’s theories often take him into the intellectual territory that has traditionally been the province of religion rather than science. He acknowledges this explicitly in the closing sentence of his bestseller, A Brief History of Time , where he says that his ultimate aim is to know the Mind of God . Hawking and the Mind of God examines the pseudo-religious connotations of some of the key themes in Hawking’s work, and how these shed light not only on the Hawking cult itself, but also on the wider issue of how scientists represent themselves in the media.

I’m sure you’ll understand that there isn’t a hint of opportunism in the way I’m drawing this to your attention because my book is long out of print so you can’t buy it unless you get a copy second-hand…

Funding ‘Blue Skies’ Research in Ireland

Posted in Maynooth, Politics, Science Politics with tags , , , on January 4, 2021 by telescoper

Before Christmas, Ireland’s new Department for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science embarked on a consultation about its strategy for 2021-23. Like most other departments, the Department of Theoretical Physics at Maynooth made a collective submission to this consultation and we await further developments. This blog post is not that submission. What follows here is my own rant personal view and not that of my colleagues. And before you accuse me of some kind of sour grapes I’ll point out that the Department of Theoretical Physics is actually doing very well in securing grant funding despite the difficult environment.

It has been very clear to me since arriving in Ireland that funding for basic or fundamental research – especially in the sciences – is extremely poor. This is not a new thing, but the current situation is largely the result of a high-level report published in 2012. This identified 14 priority areas of research that are most likely to give demonstrable economic and societal return, and where Ireland should focus the majority of competitive funding. Four criteria were used in selecting the 14 priority areas for future, competitively-awarded investment for economic objectives:

  1. the area is associated with a large global market or markets in which Irish-based enterprises already compete or can realistically compete;
  2. publicly performed R&D in Ireland is required to exploit the area and will complement private sector research and innovation in Ireland;
  3. Ireland has built or is building (objectively measured) strengths in research disciplines relevant to the area; and,
  4. the area represents an appropriate approach to a recognized national challenge and/or a global challenge to which Ireland should respond.

The `vast majority’ of SFI’s funding is directed towards the 14 areas so defined, leaving virtually nothing for anything else, an outcome which has dire implications for `blue skies’ research.

I think this is a deeply misguided short-term policy, which will have a strongly negative effect on science in Ireland in the medium to long term, especially because Ireland spends so little of its GDP on research in the first place. On top of that it will mean that Ireland will miss out on a golden opportunity to capitalise on Brexit, by encouraging European scientists disaffected by the hostile environment that has been created in Britain by its government’s xenophobic policies to relocate to Ireland. There’s simply no point in trying to persuade world-leading researchers to come to Ireland if insufficient funds are available to enable them to establish here; the politicians’ welcoming platitudes will never be enough.

I hope the Irish government can be persuaded to reverse this situation by investing more in basic research.
In the meantime I thought I’d re-iterate the argument I made a while ago, in response to a funding crisis in the UK, about using taxpayer’s money to fund research in universities:

For what it’s worth I’ll repeat my own view that “commercially useful” research should not be funded by the taxpayer through research grants. If it’s going to pay off in the short term it should be funded by private investors, venture capitalists of some sort or perhaps through some form of National Investment Bank. 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. That means long-term, speculative, curiosity driven research.

This is pretty much the opposite of what Irish government thinks. It wants to concentrate public funds in projects that can demonstrate immediate commercial potential. Taxpayer’s money used in this way ends up in the pockets of entrepreneurs if the research succeeds and, if it doesn’t, the grant has not fulfilled its stated objectives and the funding has therefore, by its own standards, been wasted.

My proposal, therefore, is to phase out research grants for groups that want to concentrate on commercially motivated research and replace them with research loans. If the claims they make to secure the advance are justified, they should have no problem repaying the funds from the profits they make from patent income 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 as bullshit merchants). 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. I suggest these loans should be repayable in 3-5 years, so in the long term this scheme 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 groups with loans could be re-invested in those areas where public investment is really needed, such as purely curiosity-driven science. Here grants are needed because the motivation for the research is different. Much of it does, in fact, lead to commercial spin-offs, and when that happens it is a very good thing, but these are likely to appear only in the very long term. But just because this research does not have an immediate commercial benefit does not mean that it has no benefit. For one thing, it is subjects like Astronomy and Particle Physics that inspire young people to get interested in science in the first place. That such fields are apparently held in so low regard by the Government can only encourage Ireland’s brightest young minds to pursue careers abroad.

An Open Letter from Irish Scientists

Posted in Politics, Science Politics on May 25, 2020 by telescoper

Just a quick post to pass on the news of an Open Letter from Irish Scientists (and other academics) that is doing the rounds. The letter begins:

Five years ago over 1,000 Irish scientists wrote to government urging a rebalancing of funding toward basic research. Basic discovery research is exactly the type that produces the scientists, skills and serendipitous solutions we need when faced with an unexpected challenge like COVID-19. Half a decade on from that letter little has changed for the better. The crisis in Irish research has deepened and risks becoming fatal if not addressed. To avoid another decade of drift that the nation cannot afford we the undersigned believe Ireland needs to establish a dedicated cabinet-level Department for Higher Education & Research. We fear the country will pay the price in future crises and miss opportunities for innovation if government doesn’t recommit to proper investment and attention for higher education and research urgently.

You can read the rest of it here where, if you are so minded, you can also sign it (as I have done; I’m Number 307).

The Brexit Visa

Posted in Politics, Science Politics with tags , , , , , , on January 28, 2020 by telescoper

I noticed yesterday a news item about a new fast-track ‘global talent visa’ to be launched days after Brexit. The Tory press have been jumping up and down touting this as a way to attract the best scientific talent from around the world to the United Kingdom. Global Britain and all that.

Given the very short timescale involved, it seems very likely to me that this new visa is likely to be just a slight re-branding of the existing `Exceptional Talent’ Tier 1 visa. There is at present a cap of 2000 on the number of such visas that the Home Office will issue per year but this has never been reached. The proposal to remove the cap would be of no practical consequence were it not for the fact that when the United Kingdom leaves the European Union, freedom of movement of EU and EEA citizens will be brought to an end so such citizens will also have to apply.

Currently, for most applicants the total cost of a visa application under the Exceptional Talent scheme is £608 per person (and dependent thereof). It seems likely to me that extra staff will be needed to process the larger number of applications expected under the new scheme, so I infer that additional charges will be imposed to pay for them. Remember that, currently, a scientist (or anyone else) from the EU does not need a visa to work in the UK.

In addition, EU citizens will almost certainly have to pay the so-called Healthcare Surcharge of £400 per person per year from which they are currently exempt. I’ve always felt this charge was grossly unfair to all immigrants. The National Health Service is paid for out of income tax and national insurance. If an immigrant pays tax and national insurance anyway, what possible justification can there be for a health surcharge? If you ask me it’s just another manifestation of the Tory Government’s intrinsic hostility to anyone foreign. This visceral xenophobia is now perceived across the world to be the defining characteristic of Brexit Britain. You don’t need to be a budding Einstein to see what is going on. Everyone knows the language routinely used by the Government and Tory press to demean and humiliate immigrants.

Given this hostile environment, and the fact that scientists who are EU citizens still have freedom of movement within the EU (along with everyone else), why would such a person come to the UK instead of a country with a more civilized attitude?

It is true that the science base of the United Kingdom is generally pretty strong, but that is at least in part due to the influx of EU scientists thanks to freedom of movement. I’m not saying that all the wonderful Italian, Danish, French, German and other scientists currently in the UK are going to leave immediately because many have deep roots in the United Kingdom. In the long run, however, Britain’s self-imposed loss will be Europe’s gain, and no amount of cosmetic tinkering with the visa system will change that.

Nobel Prize Time Approaches

Posted in Science Politics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , on October 6, 2019 by telescoper

Just a quick reminder that this year’s crop of Nobel Prizes will be announced next week, with the one of most personal interest to me – the Physics Prize – being due on Tuesday 8th October. Before going on here is a picture of my own Nobel Prize Medal:

 

It’s actually chocolate inside, though it is 13 years old and by now probably inedible if not toxic. You can read about how I got it here.

Anyway, as usual there has been quite a lot of speculation about these awards. Despite not having a great track-record of success some persist in trying to use citation metrics as a predictor; see here for example. Others have a less formulaic approach; see e.g. here.

I don’t really have any idea who is going to get it this year, but here are three possibilities:

  • Extrasolar Planets. This has to be a strong contender, but to whom should the prize be awarded?  Possible winners include Didier Queloz, Aleksander Wolszczan, Dale Frail, and Michel Mayor, but the maximum number allowed to win is three….
  • Geometric Phase. Although if they were going to win they probably would have done so by now, I still think there’s an outside change for Michael Berry and Yakir Aharonov.
  • Quantum Information. This isn’t my area but is very hot these days. It’s also very broad so I’m not sure what specific area and which individuals would prompt an award – quantum cryptography is a possibility, but who?

Anyway, I’d welcome other suggestions through the comments box.

 

 

 

Open Letter to the EU: Reinstate the Commissioner for Science and Research

Posted in Science Politics with tags , , , , on September 19, 2019 by telescoper

It may have escaped your attention (as it did mine) that, when the candidates for members of the European Union Commission were presented last week, the role of Commissioner for Research, Science and Innovation has apparently been phased out, and its remit subsumed by that of the Commissioner for “Innovation and Youth”.

Downgrading the role of Science and Research in this way is a retrograde step, as is the introduction of a Commissioner for `Protecting the European Way of Life’, which is a racist dog-whistle if ever I heard one.

Anyway, back on the subject of Research and Science, there is a letter going around protesting the loss of a specific role in the Commission covering this portfolio.

Here is the text:

Your Excellencies Presidents Sassoli, Dr. Juncker and Dr. von der Leyen,

The candidates for the new EU commissioners were presented last week. In the new commission the areas of education and research are not explicitly represented anymore and instead are subsumed under the “innovation and youth” title. This emphasizes economic exploitability (i.e. “innovation”) over its foundation, which is education and research, and it reduces “education” to “youth” while being essential to all ages.

We, as members of the scientific community of Europe, wish to address this situation early on and emphasize both to the general public, as well as to relevant politicians on the national and European Union level, that without dedication to education and research there will neither exist a sound basis for innovation in Europe, nor can we fulfill the promise of a high standard of living for the citizens of Europe in a fierce global competition.

President von der Leyen, in her mission letter to commissioner Gabriel, has emphasized that “education, research and innovation will be key to our competitiveness”.

With this open letter we demand that the EU commission revises the title for commissioner Gabriel to “Education, Research, Innovation and Youth” reflecting Europe’s dedication to all of these crucial areas. We also call upon the European Parliament to request this change in name before confirming the nominees for commissioner.

I have signed the letter, and encourage you to do likewise if you are so inclined. You can find a link to the letter, together with instructions how to sign it, here.