Archive for ireland

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.

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!

Census Day

Posted in Bad Statistics, Biographical, The Universe and Stuff with tags , on April 3, 2022 by telescoper

Today is April 3rd 2022 which means that it’s Census Day here in Ireland; I’ve just finished filling in the form, which is 24 pages long but it turns out lots of the pages are duplicates for use in homes with multiple occupancy, and others don’t apply to me at all, so in fact I only had to complete 8 pages and it didn’t take all that long.

The Census should have taken place last year but was postponed because of the Covid-19 pandemic. Apparently the corresponding 2021 census in the UK went ahead, though I wasn’t at, and couldn’t get to, the property I still own in Wales so couldn’t participate. Although I was initially threatened with a fine, the UK Census people seem to have given up trying to chase me. I blogged about the previous census in Wales in 2011 here.

On the holiday after St Patrick’s Day I was at home when I noticed a card had been pushed through my letterbox while I was still in the house. It was from a ‘Census Enumerator’ who said he had tried to deliver the form but I was out. I wasn’t out and he hadn’t rung the doorbell. More importantly he hadn’t simply put the census form through the letterbox. In the UK the census forms are just sent out in the post. This little episode didn’t inspire me with confidence. Anyway, the bloke came back a week later and gave me the form. He also asked me for some personal information such as my phone number, which I naturally refused to give him. Apparently he has to collect the form in person too, which seems daft to me. Why can’t people just send their census returns back in the post?

On the last page there is a so-called ‘time capsule’ in which to leave information for historians to read 100 years from now. All I could think of to write was any historians reading this in 2122 would probably think that it was absurd to be doing this wasteful paper-based census when the digital age started some time ago, so I just said for the record that I was one of the people who thought that in 2022…

Rory O’Neill aka Panti Bliss

Posted in Biographical, LGBT, Maynooth, Politics with tags , , , on April 2, 2022 by telescoper

Yesterday I attended an event at the Maynooth Students Union featuring Rory O’Neill, an LGBT+ rights activist who strongly involved in the campaign for Equal Marriage leading up to the referendum of 2015. Rory is perhaps better known in his drag persona, Panti Bliss. Rory left Panti at home for this event but it was extremely interesting and enjoyable – and a bit sweary! – to hear him talk about his life and experiences, especially why he became an activist and how he started out as a drag performer.

One of the things I remember very well was how he has spent time in countries where homosexuality is still unlawful talking to young LGBT+ people who a lack of hope that life can get better. He countered that Irish society even just a couple of decades ago was deeply homophobic and is now much more inclusive towards LGBT+ people. It’s not perfect, of course, but it’s a heck of a lot better than it was. Ireland proves that things do get better.

Although I’m a bit older than Rory, didn’t grow up in Ireland, and have had a very different career, much of his story did nevertheless resonate with me. I’ve said a number of times on this blog that if someone had told me back in 1988 (when the infamous Section 28 was brought in by the Thatcher Government to attack a community already reeling from the effects of AIDS) that in 25 times there would be equal marriage in the UK I simply would not have believed them. Rory said something very similar yesterday.

Anyway, although there wasn’t a huge turnout for the event yesterday I’m very glad I attended and am grateful for the Maynooth Access Programme for organizing it. The event also gives me an excuse to post this clip of Panti Bliss giving a brilliant (and now famous) speech at the Abbey Theatre in 2014.

Deciphering the past using ancient Irish genomes

Posted in Education, History, Maynooth with tags , , , , on March 30, 2022 by telescoper

I thought I’d use the medium of this blog to advertise the forthcoming Dean’s Lecture at Maynooth University by Prof. Daniel Bradley of Trinity College Dublin which takes place tomorrow evening at 7pm.

Prof. Bradley

The abstract is:

Our genomes are our biological blueprints. Their DNA code also carries the traces of our family ancestry and at a deeper level, the history of the population we come from. With modern instruments we can sequence for the first time the DNA of people who lived thousands of years ago and read their long-lost biological stories. Genomes from ancient Ireland, including from those buried in famous megalithic tombs such as Newgrange and Poulnabrone dolmen, highlight the great migrations that brought different waves of people to the island, and also give us hints of the very different societies that prevailed in our prehistory.

I’ll be attending the lecture in person on Maynooth University campus but it will also be streamed via Youtube so if you find this sort of thing as fascinating as I do but can’t attend in person please do register here in order to get the link that will enable you to join the live stream.

Update: it was very interesting!

After The Treaty

Posted in Biographical, History, Television with tags , , , , , on January 9, 2022 by telescoper

On Friday I saw a bit of a programme on RTÉ One called Treaty Live which covered the events of January 7th 1922 in the form of a modern live news broadcast. It was on that date that the Dáil Éireann voted on whether to ratify the Anglo-Irish Treaty (usually called “The Treaty”) negotiated between the British Government (led by Prime Minister David Lloyd George) and representatives of the Irish Government (led by Arthur Griffith) and signed on 6th December 1921. The Treaty was intended to end the Irish War of Independence and bring about the removal of Crown forces from Ireland, but it fell short of establishing a fully independent Irish Republic, instead creating an Irish Free State with the status of a British dominion rather like New Zealand or Australia (i.e. with its own government but with the British Monarch as Head of State). It also led to the partition of Ireland with six of the nine counties in the province of Ulster remaining under British rule.

Three days of debate preceded the momentous vote in the Dáil which, incidentally, took place in a room in a building in University College Dublin that is now the National Concert Hall. Here is some footage of TDs leaving the building after the debate:

It’s strange to think of the number of times I’ve walked up those steps to attend a concert without realizing this historic event took place there.

Anyway, in the end the vote was to ratify The Treaty by 64 votes to 57. It seems popular opinion at the time was in favour of ratification, and what was surprising was not the fact that the vote was carried but that the margin was so narrow: had just four TDs voted the other way it would have failed.

Éamonn de Valera, then President of the Irish Republic, was the most prominent opponent of ratification. Michael Collins, who was a member of the delegation of plenipotentiaries who negotiated The Treaty, was prominently in favour. Many questions can be asked about the conduct of the negotiations, including why de Valera did not conduct the negotiations himself. During the negotiations Lloyd George insisted that the Irish plenipotentiaries sign the agreement on the spot otherwise there would be “war within three days”. The Irish delegation clearly assumed he wasn’t bluffing so signed it. De Valera was unhappy that they did not consult more widely (especially with him) but then if that’s what he wanted he shouldn’t have sent “plenipotentiaries” – that word means “delegates having the full power to sign agreements” – but participated directly. Valera resigned as President on 9th January 1922 and was replaced by Arthur Griffith.

The anti-Treaty side considered it to be a betrayal of the sacrifices made during the War of Independence; the pro-Treaty side thought it was a stepping-stone towards the goal of independence. As it turned out a fully-independent Irish Republic was eventually established in 1949, though the partition of Ireland is still in place.

In retrospect the narrowness of the Dáil was an indication of what was to come. In June 1922 The Irish Civil War erupted between the two factions that lasted almost a year. All wars are dreadful, but there’s something about a Civil War that is particularly dreadful: people who had fought on the same side against British rule would now fight each other.

And that brings me to the point of this rather rambling post. I moved to Ireland at the end of 2017. Like most people born and educated in England I knew very little of Irish history before coming here; topics such as the Irish Famine are simply not taught in British schools, though they certainly are in Irish schools. I missed being here through the centennial commemorations of the 1916 Easter Rising, for example, but have followed subsequent events in the “decade of centenaries” and done the best I can to read about Irish history to gain some knowledge.

What’s interesting about this is that the events of the Easter Rising and the War of Independence, although commemorated with appropriate solemnity, do form a righteous narrative relating to the heroic birth of a new nation. As we approach the centenary of the outbreak of Civil War the issues are much more complex. An Irish friend told me that when he was taught history at school, it basically stopped at the Civil War. People generally are much less willing to talk about it than the events preceding. The Civil War left deep wounds, some of which have still not healed. Perhaps the centenary will provide an opportunity to confront some of the very difficult issues arising from this period of this nation’s history.

Storm Barra Approaches

Posted in Biographical, Maynooth with tags , on December 6, 2021 by telescoper

I’m going to have an early night tonight as tomorrow promises to be a very “interesting” day. A large Atlantic weather system – Storm Barra – is heading towards Ireland and is expected to reach the South West coast around 3am tomorrow morning. It is expected to last about two hours.

As if the winds in excess of 130 km/h were not bad enough, the storm will reach the coast just before a very high tide so flooding is expected, especially near Cork.

Colleges and schools in the Red and Orange alert areas will be closed tomorrow. Maynooth is in a Yellow alert area so the current plan is for the University to remain open, but it may change to Orange overnight and I suspect a significant number of staff and students will not be able to make it in anyway.

I’ll leave it there for tonight and update tomorrow.

UPDATE: 9.20am. It was very windy from about 6am and is now raining very heavily. Some branches have come down but no serious damage done near where I am.

Update: 14:20pm. Winds steadily backing as the depression moves out across the Irish Sea, now North-Easterly bringing colder air.

Four Years in Maynooth

Posted in Biographical, Maynooth, Politics, Science Politics with tags , , on December 1, 2021 by telescoper

 

In recent times I’ve found myself remarking quite frequently on this blog how much the Covid-19 pandemic has played havoc with my perception of the passage of time, and I come to reflect on that again now that today (1st December 2021) marks four years since I started work at Maynooth University. So much has happened in that period it seems very much longer since I first arrived here.

I started off working part-time here in Maynooth and part-time in Cardiff, commuting once a week to and fro across the Irish Sea until July 2018. That was a very tiring experience that brought it home very forcefully that I don’t have anywhere near as much energy as I did when I was younger.

I won’t deny that the past four years have had their frustrations. The teaching and administrative workload, especially since I became Head of Department in 2019, and even more so since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020, has been very heavy and has made it difficult to be very active in research. That’s not helped by the lack of opportunities for funding in basic science, thanks to what I believe to be a very short-sighted policy on research funding by the Irish government.

On the other hand, I have great colleagues and the students are very engaged. There are few things in life more rewarding than teaching people who really want to learn.

I hadn’t realized when I arrived in Ireland that it would take the best part of three years to find somewhere permanent to live, but I managed to buy a house in the summer of 2020. I am very happy here despite the continuing restrictions due to the pandemic.

The thing I’m probably most proud of over the past four years is, with the huge help of staff at Maynooth University Library, getting the Open Journal of Astrophysics off the ground and attracting some excellent papers. Hopefully that will continue to grow next year.

I am also proud of having played a part in the successful application for a new SALI Chair which we will be advertising formally in the new year. That is just one of many new developments on the horizon here at Maynooth, which suggest the next few years should be very exciting for physics and astronomy at Maynooth.

So, after a few years of hard and at times dispiriting slog, things are definitely looking up. Meanwhile, in Brexit Britain, events have turned out exactly as I predicted:

The referendum campaign, followed by the callous and contemptuous attitude of the current UK Government towards EU nationals living in Britain, unleashed a sickening level of xenophobia that has made me feel like a stranger in my own country. Not everyone who voted `Leave’ is a bigot, of course, but every bigot voted for Brexit and the bigots are now calling all the shots. There are many on the far right of UK politics who won’t be satisfied until we have ethnic cleansing. Even if Brexit is stopped the genie of intolerance is out of the bottle and I don’t think it well ever be put back. Brexit will also doom the National Health Service and the UK university system, and clear the way for the destruction of workers’ rights and environmental protection. The poor and the sick will suffer, while only the rich swindlers who bought the referendum result will prosper. The country in which I was born, and in which I have lived for the best part of 54 years, is no longer something of which I want to be a part.

In other words I don’t regret for one minute my decision to leave Britain.

P.S. After I finish my term as Head of Department next year I am eligible for a sabbatical, so if anyone fancies playing host to an old cosmologist please let me know!

P.P.S. Solidarity to all my colleagues in UK universities who are, from today, taking part in strike action against pension cuts and deteriorating working conditions.

Notes from Half Way

Posted in Biographical, Covid-19, Education, Maynooth with tags , , , , , , on November 6, 2021 by telescoper

We’ve now reached the halfway point in our teaching semester at Maynooth University. That means there are another six weeks of teaching before the end of term break. I was looking through the notes of my modules this morning in order to make a plan for the rest of term and was relieved to find that I’m roughly on track to finish on time. That is despite the first years starting a week late and lectures being 45 minutes long instead of 50.

At this point I’m still finding it very disconcerting talking to an audience of masked students, but it’s a heck of a lot better than just talking at a camera. Quite a few times I’ve been walking around campus and a student without a face covering has said “hello Peter” or words to that effect and I’ve smiled and said “hello” back while wondering who they were. Outside, you see, people take their masks off while, inside, I’m the only person whose face is uncovered.

Still, at least during lectures I get to make eye contact with the students. I don’t know why that matters so much to me, but it does. I remember as a student I had some lecturers who were pathologically incapable of making eye contact with the class, usually staring at a spot about six feet over the heads of the students. I found that most off-putting.

Although it still feels a bit weird, I’m glad that the mask-wearing protocol is being observed very well at least in lecture theatres. Unfortunately cases are skyrocketing right now – almost 4000 yesterday, as high as last January – which is all very worrying. Are we going to move to a Plan B? I doubt it, because the Government doesn’t seem to have one. Nevertheless I do think there’s still a significant possibility of our January exams being moved online yet again, but that hasn’t been decided yet.

Meanwhile, in the UK, University staff have been balloted over industrial action relating to the USS pension scheme and to various issues relating to terms and conditions. The majority of votes cast were in favour of strikes, but some institutions did not reach the 50% threshold required for strike action to be legal (some by just a handful of votes) and others achieved the threshold in only one of the disputes. I don’t know what will happen next, but I’d like to express my solidarity with those taking what I consider to be entirely justified action.

I couldn’t resist quoting this from the Universities UK statement on the dispute:

After a difficult 18 months, students do not deserve any further disruption.

Yes, it has been a difficult 18 months for students, but the absence of even a teeny bit of recognition that it has also been very difficult for staff is extremely telling.

I’m taking a particular interest in the disputes not only because I have friends and former colleagues in the UK but also because I have the best part of 30 years’ contributions locked into the USS pension scheme, plus some additional voluntary contribitions, and am relying on the benefits from those for my own retirement. If anything happens to that source of income I am financially screwed.

Apart from the USS scheme, the other side of the UCU dispute concerns ‘four fights‘ over:

  1. Pay
  2. Workload
  3. Equality
  4. Casualisation

These issues don’t only apply in the UK, of course. Workloads in my Department are at ridiculous levels – not only for me – and we have been forced by Management decisions into a situation in which half of our lecturing is being done by staff on short-term contracts. I suspect that the unpaid overtime we have put in during the pandemic is the expectation for the future, and I see no sign of the casualisation of our teaching staff being reversed in the immediate future. I hope I’m proved wrong, but in the meantime I’m keeping a close eye on my USS pension in case early retirement proves the only way to escape…

The Irish Population

Posted in Art, History, Politics, Television with tags , , , , on August 31, 2021 by telescoper

Not long ago I did a post about a documentary series called The Hunger which was broadcast on RTÉ just before Christmas. It was, of course, about the Great Irish Famine, which led to the death of one million (mainly poor) Irish people and the emigration of over two million in the subsequent years. It was a shattering episode that altered Ireland for ever. I remarked at the time that “the population of this island still hasn’t recovered to pre-Famine levels”.

Well today saw the announcement of a significant milestone in the trajectory of Ireland’s population. According to the Central Statistics Office, in April 2021 the population of the Republic of Ireland exceeded 5 Million for the first time since 1851. To be precise Ireland’s population was estimated to be 5.01 million in April 2021, which is the first time the population has risen above five million since the 1851 census, when the comparable population was 5.11 million. By “comparable” I mean the population of the 26 Counties that now constitute the Republic of Ireland.

The total population on the island of Ireland in 1851 was 6.6 million. Including the population of Northern Ireland brings the current population on the island of Ireland to about 6.9 million. The population of Ireland (ie the whole island) in 1841 was over eight million.

The following (rather old) graphic shows that catastrophic drop that was an immediate consequence of the Great Hunger but also the long period of decline caused by emigration and poor public health leading to low levels of fertility. The population did not begin to grow significantly until the 1970s.

Although the population is still nowhere near the level it reached in 1841, Ireland is in the grip of a housing shortage that the present Government seems reluctant to do anything about, not surprisingly when you realize that the present Government represents the property-owning classes in whose interests it is to keep housing scarce and rents correspondingly high. Ireland’s housing crisis is not an accident, it’s a matter of policy. Irish landlords oppressing the poorer classes and exploiting them for monetary gain. Some things haven’t changed…

It fascinates me that, with political will, human societies have made enormous changes – including financial interventions, inventing new vaccines and delivering mass vaccination programmes – to deal with the Covid-19 pandemic. Poverty and homelessness do not require new inventions – we already know very well how to build houses – only the political will is needed, and that’s just not there.