Archive for research

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.

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.

 

 

From Phase Walks to Undergraduate Research

Posted in Education, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , on September 28, 2018 by telescoper

This week I put together a couple of brief descriptions for possible research projects for final-year undergraduate and/or Masters students in the Department of Theoretical Physics at Maynooth University, and I was reminded of the value of projects like this when I found this paper on the arXiv:

In fact the `Phase Walk Analysis’ developed here is based on an original idea I had for an undergraduate summer research project when I was at Nottingham University and have mentioned before on this blog. The student who did the project with me was Andrew Stannard (who is now at King’s College, London) and the work led to a paper that was published in a refereed journal in 2005 and has now been cited 21 times by various authors including the Planck Team.

Although Andrew is now working in a completely different area (Condensed Matter Physics), I like to think this taste of research was of at least some assistance in developing his career. Above all, though, it relates to something I read in the Times Higher by astronomer, Nobel Prize winner, and Vice-Chancellor of the Australian National University, namely that the idea that many politicians seem to have of separating teaching from research in universities is at best misguided and at worst threatens the very idea of a university.

Funding Basic Research in Ireland

Posted in Politics, Science Politics with tags , , on May 15, 2018 by telescoper

I received an email the other day about a scheme run by Science Foundation Ireland. Among other things, the Technology Innovation Development Award is intended (among other things)

… enables researchers to demonstrate the technical feasibility of an applied research project directed toward the development of a new or innovative technology, product, process or service that has potential for further commercial development.

The thrust of this scheme is pretty typical of funding calls in Ireland, and it spurred me to go on a mini-rant.

It’s quite clear to me since arriving in Ireland that funding for basic research – especially in the sciences – is extremely poor. This is largely because 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 recognised 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.

As the Irish economy grows, I hope the Irish government can be persuaded to reverse this situation by investing more in basic research and being more pro-active about reaping the Brexit dividend. Perhaps now that I live here I can play some sort of a role in campaigning for that?

EXPLANATORY NOTE: By `Brexit dividen’, I mean the real dividend, i.e. that which will be experienced by EU countries after Britain gives up all the collaborations, trading opportunities and inward investment that it currently enjoys by virtue of its EU membership.

In the meantime I thought I’d fire an opening salvo by re-iterating a line of thought I had some time ago in the hope that it will provoke a bit of debate.

A while ago, in response to a funding crisis in the UK, I wrote  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 or venture capitalists of some sort. Dragon’s Den, even. 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. You know, science.

A similar thing was said in in the Times Higher, in a piece about the (then) new President of the Royal Astronomical Society:

Notwithstanding the Royal Academy of Engineering’s “very unfortunate” recent submission to the government spending review – which argued that the need to rebalance the UK economy required public spending to be concentrated on applied science – Professor Davies is confident he can make a good case for spending on astrophysics to be protected.

Research with market potential can already access funding from venture capitalists, he argued, while cautioning the government against attempting to predict the economic impact of different subjects.

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 effectively 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 it  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. Indeed after a few years – suggest the loans should be repayable in 3-5 years, it 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 pure science and medicine. Here grants are needed because the motivation for the research is different. Much of it does, in fact, lead to commercial spin-offs, but that is accidental and likely to appear only in the very long term. The real motivation of doing this kind of research is to enrich the knowledge base of the UK and the world in general.

In other words, it’s for the public good.  Remember that?

Most of you probably think that this is a crazy idea, and if you do please feel free to tell me so via the comments box.

 

In Praise of Research Software Engineers

Posted in Cardiff with tags , , , on May 1, 2018 by telescoper

Yesterday in the Data Innovation Research Institute we held a special event, our first ever Conference for Research Software Engineers. Sadly I was too busy yesterday to attend in person, but I did turn up at the end for the drinks reception at the end.

In case you weren’t aware, the term Research Software Engineer (RSE) is applied to the growing number of people in universities and other research organisations who combine expertise in programming with an intricate understanding of research. Although this combination of skills is extremely valuable, these people lack a formal place in the academic system. Without a name, it is difficult for people to rally around a cause, hence the creation of the term Research Software Engineer and the Research Software Engineer Association.

We have quite a few RSEs associated with the Data Innovation Research Institute in Cardiff – as you can see here. These are quite different from system administrators or other computing support staff as they are involved directly in research, working in teams alongside academics and other specialists.

One of the biggest problems facing RSEs in the UK university system is there isn’t a well-established promotions route for them. For researchers in an academic environment, performance is usually judged through publications, PhD students supervised, grants awarded and so so. Although RSEs play a vital role, especially (but not exclusively) in large collaborations, they do not usually end up as lead authors on papers and generally do not apply for grants in their own name. That means that if they are judged by these criteria they struggle to get promotion and often leave academia to work for higher pay and better terms and conditions elsewhere.

In my opinion, one of the important things that must be done to improve the lot of Research Software Engineers is to construct a career structure in parallel with the academic route  and other grades (such as laboratory technician) but judged by more appropriate criteria tailored to the reality of the job. Writing the necessary grade profiles and getting them agreed by the relevant university committees will take some time, but I think it will pay dividends in terms of better retention and job satisfaction for these highly talented people.

I hope Cardiff can take some sort of a lead in defining the role of an RSE, but this is really a national need. There are pretty uniform grade descriptions for academic and research staff across the United Kingdom so I don’t see any reason why this can’t be the case for Research Software Engineers. They are vital to many research fields already, and their importance can only grow in the future.

 

Stern Response

Posted in Science Politics with tags , , on July 28, 2016 by telescoper

The results of the Stern Review of the process for assessing university research and allocating public funding has been published today. This is intended to inform the way the next Research Excellence Framework (REF) will be run, probably in 2020, so it’s important for all researchers in UK universities.

Here are the main recommendations, together with brief comments from me (in italics):

  1. All research active staff should be returned in the REF. Good in principle, but what is to stop institutions moving large numbers of staff onto teaching-only contracts (which is what happened in New Zealand when such a move was made)?
  2. Outputs should be submitted at Unit of Assessment level with a set average number per FTE but with flexibility for some faculty members to submit more and others less than the average.Outputs are countable and therefore “fewer” rather than “less”. Other than that, having some flexibility seems fair to me as long as it’s not easy to game the system. Looking it more detail at the report it suggests that some could submit up to six and others potentially none, with an average of perhaps two across the UoA. I’m not sure precise  numbers make sense, but the idea seems reasonable.
  3. Outputs should not be portable. Presumably this doesn’t mean that only huge books can be submitted, but that outputs do not transfer when staff transfer. I don’t think this is workable, but that what should happen is that credit for research should be shared between institutions when a researcher moves from one to another.
  4. Panels should continue to assess on the basis of peer review. However, metrics should be provided to support panel members in their assessment, and panels should be transparent about their use. Good. Metrics only tell part of the story.
  5. Institutions should be given more flexibility to showcase their interdisciplinary and collaborative impacts by submitting ‘institutional’ level impact case studies, part of a new institutional level assessment. It’s a good idea to promote interdisciplinarity, but it’s not easy to make it happen…
  6. Impact should be based on research of demonstrable quality. However, case studies could be linked to a research activity and a body of work as well as to a broad range of research outputs. This would be a good move. The existing rules for Impact seem unnecessarily muddled.
  7. Guidance on the REF should make it clear that impact case studies should not be narrowly interpreted, need not solely focus on socio-economic impacts but should also include impact on government policy, on public engagement and understanding, on cultural life, on academic impacts outside the field, and impacts on teaching. Also good.
  8. A new, institutional level Environment assessment should include an account of the institution’s future research environment strategy, a statement of how it supports high quality research and research-related activities, including its support for interdisciplinary and cross-institutional initiatives and impact. It should form part of the institutional assessment and should be assessed by a specialist, cross-disciplinary panel. Seems like a reasonable idea, but a “specialisr cross-disciplinary” panel might be hard to assemble…
  9. That individual Unit of Assessment environment statements are condensed, made complementary to the institutional level environment statement and include those key metrics on research intensity specific to the Unit of Assessment. Seems like a reasonable idea.
  10. Where possible, REF data and metrics should be open, standardised and combinable with other research funders’ data collection processes in order to streamline data collection requirements and reduce the cost of compiling and submitting information. Reasonable, but a bit vague.
  11. That Government, and UKRI, could make more strategic and imaginative use of REF, to better understand the health of the UK research base, our research resources and areas of high potential for future development, and to build the case for strong investment in research in the UK. This sounds like it means more political interference in the allocation of research funding…
  12. Government should ensure that there is no increased administrative burden to Higher Education Institutions from interactions between the TEF and REF, and that they together strengthen the vital relationship between teaching and research in HEIs. I believe that when I see it.

Any further responses (stern or otherwise) are welcome through the comments box!

 

Commercially-driven research should be funded by loans, not grants

Posted in Politics, Science Politics with tags , , , on October 27, 2015 by telescoper

I couldn’t resist a very quick comment on an item in yesterday’s Financial Times. The article may be behind a paywall, so here’s a short extract giving the essential point:

Ministers are considering proposals to replace research grants to industry with loans, in a move that business leaders fear would damage Britain’s ability to innovate.

The reason for mentioning this is that I suggested the very same idea on this blog about five years ago. My general point was the logical inconsistency in swapping grants for loans in the case of university students on the grounds that they are the beneficiaries of education and should be able to pay back the investment through earnings, when the same argument is not applied to businesses that profit from university-based research. I wonder if BIS have been reading this blog again?

For what it’s worth I’ll repeat here my personal opinion 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 or venture capitalists of some sort. Dragon’s Den, even. 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, scientific research.

This is pretty much the opposite of what the Treasury seems to have been thinking for the last five years. 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 effectively been wasted. My proposal, therefore, is to phase out research grants for groups (either in universities or in business) 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 it 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. Indeed after a few years – suggest the loans should be repayable in 3-5 years, it 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 pure science and medicine. Here grants are needed because the motivation for the research is different. Much of it does, in fact, lead to commercial spin-offs, but that is accidental and likely to appear only in the very long term. The real motivation of doing this kind of research is to enrich the knowledge base of the UK and the world in general. In other words, it’s for the public good. Remember that?

Most of you probably think that this is a crazy idea, but if you do I’ll ask you to now think about how the government funds teaching in universities and ask yourself why research is handled in such a different way.