Archive for the Science Politics Category

On the Exploitation of PhD Students

Posted in Maynooth, Science Politics on July 5, 2022 by telescoper

Last week the Government of Ireland announced a new scheme intended to recruit “high-level researchers” to PhD programme in Ireland. The scheme, which is a public-private partnership of around  €100 million, will fund around 400 PhD studentships with an annual stipend around €28K, which is substantially higher than the current rate for, e.g., ICR-funded students which is €18.5K.

The call for applications has not yet been issued, so I don’t know how the new scheme will operate. I will, however, comment on the implications for postgraduate landscape in general.

With inflation rampant at the moment, even the IRC level of stipend is difficult for a student to live on (especially in the Greater Dublin area) yet many receive even less than that. Maynooth University, for example, funds many of its PhD students at the paltry level of €10K per annum which is impossible to live on and which forces recipients to undertake large amounts of tutoring or other work in order to get by financially. In my opinion stipends paid at this level are simply exploitative. They exist in order to force PhD students to undertake extensive and poorly paid teaching duties because there aren’t enough teaching faculty to cover what is required. That situation is a direct result of the chronic underfunding of higher education in Ireland. Universities will argue that they don’t have any choice, but that doesn’t make the situation is acceptable.

It is of course good for a research student to get some teaching experience during their PhD but this should be on a voluntary basis. A PhD student who chooses to teach will probably do a better job than one who is forced to do it in order to pay the rent. My basic point, though, is that a full-time research student should be funded to do research full time, and it is grossly unfair to pay them too little for this to be possible.

Apparently the level of the new €28K stipends is “in line with financial supports offered under similar global scholarships”. I take this as a statement that the Irish Government has acknowledged that the proper rate of pay for a PhD student is at this level, which seems to me to be about right. It is howeer about 50% higher than what existing PhD students actually receive. Now it has been explicitly accepted that €28K is the right amount, it seems to me to be logical that all PhD stipends should be increased to this level.

In order to get a place on a PhD course, any student needs to have an excellent undergraduate track-record, so all graduate students are “high-level” researchers however they are funded. This new scheme will create a new tier of higher remuneration for some students, many of whom will be in the same departments and laboratories as others doing exactly the same level of work but at a much lower income with heavy teaching duties to do on top of their research, and who will justifiably feel like second-class citizens. This is unfair and will prove extremely divisive and bad for morale.

I have nothing against the new scheme, but it needs to be accompanied by a drastic “levelling up” (to coin a phrase) across the entire postgraduate system.

P.S. I note that the new scheme costs €100M and will fund 400 PhD students. Maynooth University ran up a surplus of €13.2M during the first year of the pandemic. This is enough to fund about 50 PhD studentships with a 28K stipend. Just saying.

P.P.S. Another difficulty in Ireland not addressed at all by this scheme is at Masters level, where there are currently even fewer funding opportunities than at Doctoral level. Students who want to do a Masters in Ireland usually have to fund themselves whereas they can do one for free – or even get paid! – at other European universities. There is therefore a strong incentive to leave to do a Masters programme.

Euclid Launch Delay

Posted in Science Politics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , on June 17, 2022 by telescoper

Until relatively recently we al thought the European Space Agency’s  Euclid mission would take place later this year (2022). For various reasons that date subsequently slipped to the first quarter of 2023.

Then Russia invaded Ukraine which, because Euclid was intended to be launched on a Russian Soyuz vehicle a further delay seemed likely (see here). The subsequent decision by the Russians to remove all their personnel from the launch site at Kourou (see here) made these even more likely as an alternative launch vehicle would have to be used.

There was an update about the situation at the recent Euclid Consortium meeting in Oslo which I could not attend but which I referred to here. The basic problem is that Plan B involves launching Euclid on an Ariane 6 rocket (which comes in two varieties, Ariane62 and Ariane64, with two and four boosters respectively). The problems are (a) that Ariane 6 is that it hasn’t yet had its first flight and (b) Euclid isn’t the only spacecraft now having to find an alternative launcher. The competition from commercial and military satellites may mean a lengthy delay to the Euclid Launch unless lobbying succeeds at a political level.

It has now emerged that earliest feasible date for launch on an Ariane 6 rocket is the 3rd quarter of 2024 and it may well be later than that, the uncertainty exacerbating the effects of the delay itself.

This is all very unfortunate. Euclid is now fully built and ready so a lengthy delay would be very damaging to morale. More concretely, many researchers employed to work on Euclid are on fixed-term contracts which will now expire before they can complete their work. This will have a very serious effect on younger researchers. To keep everything going while the spacecraft waits for a launch will be extremely expensive: the Euclid Consortium Board estimates a cost of about €50M for every year of delay and it is by no means clear where those funds would come from.

It seems to me that the best hope for a resolution of this problem would be for ESA to permit the launch of Euclid using something other than Ariane 6, which means using a vehicle supplied by an independent commercial operator. I sincerely hope ESA is able to come up with an imaginative solution to this very serious problem.

P.S. With this update, the odds on me retiring before Euclid is launched have just shortened considerably…

Revisiting the Case for Irish Membership of CERN

Posted in Politics, Science Politics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , on May 31, 2022 by telescoper

At last week’s Irish Theoretical Physics meeting I had the opportunity to have lunch with particle physicist Professor John Ellis (of King’s College London). Among other things we discussed whether or not it was likely that Ireland might join CERN. Currently Ireland has no official relationship with CERN, not even associate membership, which makes it anomalous among European countries. In November 2019 I blogged about the issue here.

There was a move reported in the news here in Ireland of a report from a Committee of the Houses of the Oireachtas making the case for Ireland to join CERN. You can download the report here (PDF) and you’ll find this rather striking graphic therein:

You will see that there are only three European countries other than Ireland that don’t have any form of membership or other agreement with CERN: Latvia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Moldova. The fact that almost everyone else is in is not in itself necessarily a good argument for Ireland to join, but it does make one wonder why so many other countries have found it to join or have an agreement with CERN while Ireland has not.

As the document explains, if the Irish government  were to decide to take Ireland into CERN then  it would first have to become an Associate Member, which would cost around €1.2 million per year. That’s small potatoes really, and  the financial returns to Irish industry and universities are likely to far exceed that, so the report strongly recommends this step be taken. This Associate member stage would last up to 5 years, and then to acquire full membership a joining fee of around €15.6 million would have to be paid, which is obviously a much greater commitment but in my view still worthwhile.

There were some positive noises when the document came out, but that was near the end of 2019. Not far into 2020 the pandemic struck and the idea sank without trace. Perhaps now is a good time to raise the issue again?

While I strongly support the idea of Ireland joining CERN I do have a couple of concerns about the case as presented in the Oireachtas report.

One is that I’m very sad that the actual science done at CERN is downplayed in the  report. Most of it is about the cash return to industry, training opportunities, etc. These are important, of course, but it must not be forgotten that big science projects like those carried out at CERN are above all else science projects. The quest for knowledge does have collateral benefits, but it a worthy activity in its own right and we shouldn’t lose sight of that.

My other (related) concern is that joining CERN is one thing, but in order to reap the scientific reward the government has to invest in the resources needed to exploit the access to facilities membership would provide. Without a related increase in research grant funding for basic science the opportunity to raise the level of scientific activity in Ireland would be lost.

Ireland recently joined the European Southern Observatory (ESO), a decision which gave Irish astronomers access to some amazing telescopes. However, there is no sign at all of Irish funding agencies responding to this opportunity by increasing funding for academic time, postdocs and graduate students needed to do the actual science. In one respect ESO is very like CERN: the facilities do not themselves do the science; we need people to do that. The jam is already spread very thinly in Ireland so having an extra thing to spread it on will not necessarily be a good thing for science in general.

Science vs Marketing

Posted in Astrohype, Education, Science Politics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , on May 20, 2022 by telescoper

I saw a paper some months ago by former Sussex colleague Xavier Calmet and collaborators that attracted quite a lot of press coverage largely based on a press release from the University of Sussex that claimed:

Stephen Hawking’s famous black hole paradox solved after hair-raising discovery

(If you want to learn more about the black hole information paradox you could start here.)

The press release is pure unadulterated hype. The paper in Physical Review Letters is actually rather good in my opinion but it says next to nothing about the black hole information paradox. Unfortunately the Sussex press release was picked up by the BBC’s science editor Pallab Ghosh who turned it into a very garbled article. Unfortunately Ghosh has quite a lot of form when it comes to producing nonsensical takes on science results. See, for example, this piece claiming that recent results from the Dark Energy Survey cast doubt on Einstein’s general theory of relativity when they do nothing of the sort.

Fortunately in the case of the black hole paper David Whitehouse has done a good job at demolishing the “BBC’s black hole baloney” here so I don’t need to repeat the arguments.

What I will mention however is that there is an increasing tendency for university press offices to see themselves entirely as marketing agencies instead of informing and/or educating the public. Press releases about scientific research nowadays rarely make any attempt at accuracy – they are just designed to get the institution concerned into the headlines. In other words, research is just a marketing tool.

This isn’t the only aspect of the marketisation of universities. If an academic tries to organize a public engagement event or do some schools outreach activity, the chances are their institution will hijack it and turn it into a marketing exercise, aimed exclusively at student recruitment. Universities are increasingly unconcerned with education and research and obsessed with income.

Forget the phony controversies about woke politics and free speech manufactured by right-wing press. The real culture war in modern universities is between those who believe in the intrinsic value of higher education and those who see it simply as a means of generating profit by whatever means possible. As in any war, truth is the first casualty.

The Researchfish Saga continues

Posted in Science Politics with tags , , , on May 19, 2022 by telescoper

You may recall that I blogged here and here about a software platform called Researchfish and the heavy-handed reaction response to criticism by the provider of this “service”, a company called Interfolio, and the Government organization UK Research and Innovation that harvests the data thereby collected. In its response to Interfolio’s apparent misuse of data and bullying of academics who dared to express negative opinions about Researchfish – which I would say, based on my own experiences (admittedly several years ago), is a very poorly designed system – UKRI made a sort of non-apology that managed to make matters worse.

A couple of days ago, in response to a Freedom of Information request, UKRI released correspondence between itself and Infosys that shows not only that UKRI knew about the bullying by Infosys but actively encouraged it. The story is covered in full by Research Professional so I shall comment on briefly here.

Here’s an example from UKRI which talks about taking “disciplinary” action against someone for criticizing Researchfish on Twitter (even though they subsequently apologized and deleted the tweet) and goes on to list their grant awards, presumably in order to facilitate sanctions against the individual:

Here’s another that claims that bullying by Researchfish “set the right tone”:

Unbelievable. I bet the redacted bits are even worse!

It’s a shocking indictment of the culture at UKRI that they are prepared to behave in such a way, conniving in threats against the community it is supposed to be supporting. Moreover, Interfolio seems to be keener to police comments about Researchfish than it is to make improvements to its service. It can’t be healthy for researchers in the UK to have their freedom of speech stifled to protect a software company’s reputation.

The brevity and informality of the emails between UKRI and Infotech suggests they have a very cosy relationship. Does anyone know anything about the tendering process by which Interfolio acquired its contract with UKRI?

A Major Merger in Irish Research

Posted in Science Politics with tags , , , , on May 18, 2022 by telescoper

Taking a short break from examination matters I just read a news item announcing a big shake-up in Irish research funding. As part of a new Research and Innovation Strategy, called Impact 2030, it seems the Irish Research Council (RC) and Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) are to merge to produce a single entity, perhaps as early as next year.

Changes are much needed, especially for science. Science in Ireland is in a dire state of under-investment, especially in basic (i.e. fundamental) research. For many years SFI has only funded applied science, though recently seems to have shifted its emphasis a little bit in its latest strategic plan. Currently Ireland spends just 1.1% of its GDP on scientific research and development and SFI’s current exclusive focus on research aligned with industry that can be exploited for short-term commercial gain) is making life very difficult for those in working in “blue skies” areas which are largely those that dras young people into science, and has consequently driven many researchers in such areas abroad, to the great detriment of Ireland’s standing in the international scientific community.

Here is an excerpt from an old post explaining what I think about the current approach:

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.

SFI recently announced a new strategy, to cover the period up to 2025, with 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. I hope these commitments will be carried forward into the new organization.

The Irish Research Council funds research in all areas, not exclusively applied science, so what little jam it has is spread very thinly. Applying for IRC funding is a lottery, with very few winners and the vast majority rejected without even cursory feedback.

There are two main worries about the fate of IRC in the merger merger. One is that research in arts & humanities will suffer as a result of being lumped in with science, and the other is that the culture of short-termism will be adopted so the small amount of basic research that the IRC currently funds will be sacrificed on the altar of quick commercial gain.

There is a welcome emphasis in the Impact 2030 document on early career researchers, especially at doctoral level where it is currently difficult to find funding for excellent graduate students. It has to be said though that there are problems in this area which are much wider than the shortage of appropriate schemes. The cost of living in Ireland is such that PhD stipends are inadequate to provide an adequate quality of life, especially in the Dublin area. The same goes for postdoctoral salaries which make it difficult to recruit postdocs from elsewhere in Europe.

Another crucial difficulty is the complete lack of funding for Master’s degrees, for many an essential bridge from undergraduate to research degrees. Many of our best graduates leave for European countries where a Master’s degree is free (and may even attract a stipend) and it is then difficult to entice them back.

There’s no question that the current lack of opportunity, low salaries, high living costs and the availability of far better opportunities elsewhere is leading to a net exodus of young research talent from Ireland. Whether any of this will change with Impact 2030 remains to be seen, but at least it doesn’t propose an Irish version of the dreaded Research Excellence Framework!

Research Excellence in Physics

Posted in Bad Statistics, Education, Science Politics on May 16, 2022 by telescoper

For no other reason that I was a bit bored watching the FA Cup Final on Saturday I decided to construct an alternative to the Research Excellence Framework rankings for Physics produced by the Times Higher last week.

The table below shows for each Unit of Assessment (UoA):  the Times Higher rank;  the number of Full-Time Equivalent staff submitted;  the overall percentage of the submission rated  4*;  and the number of FTE’s worth of 4* stuff (final column), by which the institutions are sorted. The logic for this – insofar as there is any – is that the amount of money allocated is probably going to be more strongly weighted to 4* (though not perhaps the 100% I am effectively assuming) than the GPA used in the Times Higher.

1. University of Oxford 9= 171.3 57 97.6
2. University of Cambridge 3 148.2 64 94.8
3. Imperial College 18= 130.1 49 63.7
4. University of Edinburgh 13= 118.0 51 60.2
5. University of Manchester 2 87 66 57.4
6. University College London 24= 112.5 42 47.3
7. University of Durham 23 84.2 45 37.9
8. University of Nottingham 7 63.9 59 37.7
9. University of Warwick 20 79.2 47 37.2
10. University of Birmingham 4 55.2 66 36.4
11. University of Bristol 5 54.1 61 33.0
12. University of Glasgow 12 58.2 53 30.8
13. University of York 13= 59.9 51 30.5
14. University of Lancaster 21 56.1 46 25.8
15. University of Strathclyde 13= 46.7 52 24.3
16. Cardiff University 18= 52.2 46 24.0
17. University of Exeter 22 49.4 48 23.7
18. University of Sheffield 1 34.7 65 22.5
19. University of St Andrews 8 40.8 55 22.4
20. University of Liverpool 16 44.4 49 21.7
21. University of Leeds 9= 34 53 18.0
22. University of Sussex 26 42.7 42 17.9
23. The University of Bath 24= 38.8 42 16.3
24. Queen’s University of Belfast 31 49.7 32 15.9
25. Queen Mary University of London 28= 48 33 15.8
26, University of Southampton 27 41.7 38 15.8
27. The Open University 32= 41.8 36 15.0
28. University of Hertfordshire 38 42 32 13.4
29. Liverpool John Moores University 17 25.8 50 12.9
30. Heriot-Watt University 9= 21 55 11.6
31. King’s College London 28= 33.9 34 11.5
32. University of Portsmouth 6 19.8 58 11.5
33. University of Leicester 35= 34.3 28 9.6
34. University of Surrey 35= 30.6 31 9.5
35. Swansea University 32= 25.2 32 8.0
36. Royal Holloway and Bedford New College 35= 19.1 36 6.9
37. University of Central Lancashire 39 19.3 25 4.8
38. Loughborough University 40 19.8 22 4.4
39. University of Keele 32= 9 38 3.4
40. The University of Hull 30 11 28 3.1
41. University of Lincoln 43 15.2 16 2.4
42.The University of Kent 41 19 12 2.3
43. Aberystwyth University 44 18.2 7 1.3
44. University of the West of Scotland 42 8 11 0.9

Using this method to order institutions produces a list which clearly correlates with the Times Higher ordering – the Spearman rank correlation coefficient is + 0.75 – but there are also some big differences. For example, Oxford (=9th in the Times Higher) and Cambridge (3rd) come out 1st and 2nd with Imperial (=18th in the Times Higher) moving up to 3rd place. Edinburgh moves up from =13th to 4th. The top ranked UoA in the Times Higher table is Sheffield, which drops to 18th in this table. Portsmouth (6th in the Times Higher) drops to 32nd in this version. And so on.

Of course you shouldn’t take this seriously at all. The lesson -if there is one – is that the use of the Research Excellence Framework results to produce rankings is a bit arbitrary, to say the least…

The Time of the Pandemic

Posted in Biographical, Books, Talks and Reviews, Covid-19, Science Politics, Talks and Reviews with tags , , , , on May 11, 2022 by telescoper

I’ve posted before about the way the Covid-19 pandemic has played havoc with my perception of the passage of time and today I’ve experienced another example because I was reminded that it was on this day (11th May) last year that I received my first shot of Covid-19 vaccine.

It’s very hard for me to accept that it was just one year ago that I was waiting in City West to get my injection as it seems in my memory further back than that in my memory. It’s not only how long ago things happened, but also even the sequence of events that has become muddled. I wonder how long it will take to restore any normal sense of these things?

Anyway, I’ve just updated the daily statistics on this blog and although case numbers remain relatively high they do seem to be falling steadily and things do seem to be under control in terms of hospital admissions and deaths. Only 254 people are in hospital with Covid-19 today and the trend is downward.

Maybe the time of the pandemic is drawing to a close?

Further evidence that things may be getting back to normal is that I’m giving the first in-person research talk I’ve done since before the pandemic started at the Irish Theoretical Physics Meeting (ITP22) at the end of this month in Dublin (at the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, to be precise). I’m looking forward to giving a talk in the same room as real people. I’m even top of the bill (though only thanks to alphabetical order):

I’ve only got a 30-minute slot so I hope my sense of the passage of time returns at least to the extent that I keep to schedule. My PhD student is travelling to Newcastle next week to give her first ever conference talk at the UK Cosmology Meeting. Hers is a 5-minute talk, which is quite a difficult thing to do well, but I have every confidence it will be excellent.

And talking of research, I see that tomorrow sees the public announcement of the results of the 2021 Research Excellence Framework. Universities have had their results since the start of the week but they are embargoed until tomorrow, no doubt to allow PR people to do their work. I’ll probably post a reaction tomorrow, but for now I’ll just send best wishes to colleagues in the UK – especially in Cardiff and Sussex – who are waiting anxiously hoping for a successful outcome and say that I’m very happy to be here in Ireland, out of the path of that particular bureaucratic juggernaut.

Euclid Launch Concern

Posted in Politics, Science Politics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , on April 27, 2022 by telescoper

I saw the following picture on Twitter. It was taken during a talk at the annual Euclid Consortium Meeting (which I am not at) and it gives a not -very-optimistic update about the timescale for the launch of Euclid.

Picture Credit: Hervé Aussel

I thought a delay in the launch was inevitable as soon as news broke of the Russian invasion of Ukraine (see here) because the original plan was to launch on a Russian Soyuz vehicle. The subsequent decision by the Russians to remove all their personnel from the launch site at Kourou (see here) made these even more likely, although according to the slide not certain.

The basic problem is that Plan B involves launching Euclid on an Ariane 6 rocket (which comes in two varieties, Ariane62 and Ariane64, with two and four payloads boosters respectively). The problems are (a) that Ariane 6 is that it hasn’t yet had its first flight and (b) Euclid isn’t the only spacecraft having to find an alternative launcher. The competition from commercial and military satellites may mean a lengthy delay to the Euclid Launch unless lobbying succeeds at a political level, which is what the last lines of the slide are about.

Being one of life’s pessimists I think a long delay is the likeliest outcome, though this is not based on any specific knowledge at all about the discussions going on and I’d be delighted to be proved wrong. I am now however seriously wondering whether Euclid will be launched before I retire!

Why we don’t need scientific papers

Posted in Open Access, Science Politics with tags , , on April 21, 2022 by telescoper

There’s a recent piece by Stuart Ritchie in The Grauniad that argues that the concept of the “scientific paper” has outlived its usefulness and should be scrapped. I think there’s a lot in the arguments presented and the article is well worth reading. Indeed, I have made similar points myself a number of times on this blog relating both to individual papers and to the journals in which they are published.

In this post from a couple of years ago, for example, I asked the question: what are scientific papers for? Here is an extract:

I can think of two main purposes (which aren’t entirely mutually exclusive): one is to disseminate knowledge and ideas; the other is to confer status on the author(s) .

The academic journal began hundreds of years ago with the aim of achieving the former through distribution of articles in print form. Nowadays the distribution of research results is achieved much less expensively largely through online means. Nevertheless, journals still exist (largely, as I see it, to provide editorial input and organize peer review) .

Alongside this there is the practice of using articles as a measure of the ‘quality’ of an author. Papers in certain ‘prestigious’ ‘high impact’ journals are deemed important because they are indicators of status, like epaulettes on a uniform, and bibliometric data, especially citation counts, often seem to be more important than the articles themselves.

By the way, I put up a poll in that piece, which is still open. You can vote here:

The point – also made by Stuart Ritchie – is that the traditional scientific journal is a 17th Century invention and, as such, does not reflect the way modern scientific is performed and disseminated.

In fields like astrophysics and particle physics this anachronistic approach leads to absurdities such as papers with thousands of authors, many of whom won’t have even read, let alone contributed any writing to, the article. Reflecting on the publication of a paper with 5000 authors back in 2015, I wrote this:

It seems quite clear to me that the academic journal is an anachronism. Digital technology enables us to communicate ideas far more rapidly than in the past and allows much greater levels of interaction between researchers. I agree with Daniel Shanahan that the future for many fields will be defined not in terms of “papers” which purport to represent “final” research outcomes, but by living documents continuously updated in response to open scrutiny by the community of researchers. I’ve long argued that the modern academic publishing industry is not facilitating but hindering the communication of research. The arXiv has already made academic journals virtually redundant in many of branches of  physics and astronomy; other disciplines will inevitably follow. The age of the academic journal is drawing to a close. Now to rethink the concept of “the paper”…

This is the closing paragraph of Ritchie’s piece, which says much the same thing:

We’ve made astonishing progress in so many areas of science, and yet we’re still stuck with the old, flawed model of publishing research. Indeed, even the name “paper” harkens back to a bygone age. Some fields of science are already moving in the direction I’ve described here, using online notebooks instead of journals – living documents instead of living fossils. It’s time for the rest of science to follow suit.

It seems to me that the barrier to opening up the processes of scientific publication to these is that the more accurately publications reflect how science is actually done in the digital age, the more difficult it is for the bean counters to assess research quality or productivity. The academic publishing industry has cornered the market on bibliometric indicators so it rather than the scientific community gets to dictate how scientific quality will be measured. The tail is wagging the dog. Until that ends – and it will only end when we fairer ways of evaluating research – we will be saddled with the broken system we have now.