Archive for Royal Society

Astronomical and Other Events this Week

Posted in Biographical, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , on July 4, 2017 by telescoper

This week sees the 2017 National Astronomy Meeting which is taking place in Hull (which, for those of you unfamiliar with British geography, is in the Midlands). I usually try to attend this annual event but this year haven’t been able to make it owing to other commitments. I’m particularly sad about this because I’ll miss seeing two old friends (Nick Kaiser and Marek Kukula) being presented with their RAS medals. Moreover, one of the pieces of astronomical research announced at this meeting that has been making headlines features my office mate and fellow resident of Pontcanna, Dr Emily Drabek-Maunder.

Anyway, to keep up with what’s going on at NAM2017 you can follow announcements on twitter:

This week also sees a meeting in Cambridge on Gravity and Black Holes to celebrate the 75th birthday of Stephen Hawking, which goes on until tomorrow (Wednesday 5th). This conference also looks like a very good one, covering a much wider range of topics than its title perhaps suggests. Stephen’s birthday was actually in January, but I hope it’s not too late to wish him many happy returns!

Finally, though not a conference as such, there’s annual Royal Society Summer Science exhibition going on in London this week too. This is a showcase for a wealth of scientific research including, this year, an exhibit about gravitational waves called Listening to Einstein’s Universe. There’s even a promotional video featuring some of my colleagues at Cardiff University (along with many others):

Anyway, if you’re in London and at a loose end and interested in science and that, do pop into the Royal Society and have a look. The Summer Science Exhibition is always well worth a visit!

 

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On the Importance of School Experiments

Posted in Biographical, Education, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , on February 27, 2017 by telescoper

Twitter drew my attention this afternoon to a series of videos produced by the Royal Society designed to give teachers in schools some additional resources to encourage their pupils to do science experiments. They star the ubiquitous Professor Brian Cox, and they cover a wide range of science. You can see the whole playlist on Youtube here (although it is unfortunately back-to-front):

Although I ended up doing primarily theoretical work in my scientific career, there’s no question that ‘hands-on’ experiments played a big part in the development of my understanding of, especially, physics and chemistry. I remember vividly when I was about 12 years old doing a simple series of experiments in which we weighed out samples of chemical material of various types, then burned it somehow (usually over a bunsen burner) and weighed what was left. Commonsense based on experience with burning stuff like wood and paper is that the process reduces the amount of material so I expected the mass remaining at the end to be less than the initial mass. The first stuff that I did was a few grains of calcium. I couldn’t believe it when the residue turned out to weigh more than the stuff I started with. I was sure I was wrong and got quite upset for failing such an elementary practical exercise, but the same thing happened every time whatever the material.

Of course, the explanation is that the process going on was oxidation, and the calcium was actually combining with oxygen from the air to form an oxide. It did look as if some kind of destruction had happened, but the oxygen taken from the atmosphere had bonded to the calcium atoms and this increased the mass of the residue.

The teacher could have talked about this and explained it, but it wouldn’t have had anything like the impact on my understanding of discovering it for myself.

That’s a personal story of course, but I think it’s probably a widespread educational experience. These days few students seem to have the chance to do their own experience, either because of shortage of facilities or the dreaded ‘Health and Safety’ so I think any effort to encourage more teachers to allow their students to do more experiments is thoroughly worthwhile!

Unconscious Bias – from the Royal Society

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , on May 21, 2016 by telescoper

I’m in examination-marking mode at the moment so in lieu of a proper post I thought I’d post this video from the Royal Society which explains the key points of Unconscious Bias (which was the subject of half the Awayday I attended this week):

 

 

Out in STEM at the Royal Society

Posted in Biographical, LGBT with tags , , , on February 10, 2016 by telescoper

Last night I attended a very enjoyable meeting at the Royal Society in London called Out in STEM. In the 356 years that the Royal Society has been in existence this is the first event that has been devoted to a discussion of LGBT+ matters, so I feel honoured not only to have been present but to have been one of the panellists invited to start off the evening by talking about the question:

“Choosing to be out in the workplace or when studying – what influences that choice?”

In my five-minute answer to this I talked about my own personal decision to be open about my sexuality when I started as a research student at the University of Sussex way back in 1985. In fact, three of the nine panellists as well as a number of other participants did their doctorates at the University of Sussex, an institution has clearly been a kind of incubator of LGBT scientists and engineers! My decision was heavily influenced by the events of the time, chiefly the ongoing AIDS crisis and the infamous Section 28. I felt at the time that it was necessary to stand up and be counted in the face of so much prejudice, a decision which I have never regretted.

Having never really been “in” for my whole research career, coming out wasn’t really an issue for me and I have been openly at every insitution I have worked in – Sussex, Queen Mary, Nottingham and Cardiff. Although I have encounted some isolated examples of unpleasantness, I can’t say that my career has suffered any adverse consequences.

Getting back to the question, I think what influences the choice is a combination of personal factors and the environment of the institution in question. For early career researchers, the choice – and it should always be a choice – can be affected by the perception that one’s career depends on the patronage of persons higher up the hierarchy, be that PhD supervisor, research group leader or departmental head. The less hierarchical the department is, the less likely one is to feel suffocated by the need to conform. It also helps if senior managers make it clear that any bullying or harassment associated with sexual identity or other personal characteristics will not be tolerated. I have tried hard to create such an environment in the School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences, of which I am now the Head. I’ll leave it to others to judge whether or not I have succeeded.

In fact none of the nine panellists described any major adverse consequences of the decision to come out either, but stressed how positive it can be to feel liberated by being open about who you are.

After the nine short answers to the above question, we split up into small groups and discussed other questions. I enjoyed this part very much because the discussion was relaxed and wide-ranging. One theme that ran through many of the responses when groups were asked to feed back a summary of their deliberations was what a big difference it can make to have an LGBT staff network. I am proud to have played a role in the creation of such a network at the University of Sussex, although I am still saddened that it has taken so long for this institution to create one. I am also glad to say that the Institute of Physics is setting up an LGBT network of its own, with a particular emphasis on early career researchers, for whom the sense of isolation that is often involved in working on short-term contracts in highly competitive field can be exacerbated by the perceived need to conceal important aspect of their private life.

Once the discussion session was over we adjourned for wine and canapés, and informal chats. That was extremely pleasant, although I did perhaps have a bit too much wine before I dashed off to catch the train back to Brighton.

It was particularly nice to meet in person some of the people I’d previously known only through social media. I also met an old friend from my previous incarnation at Sussex, Tom Welton, who is now Dean for Natural Sciences at Imperial College. I haven’t seen Tom for over 20 years, actually. I hope we’ll be able to meet up again before too long.

Anyway, I’d like to thank the Royal Society for putting on this event, and especially to Lena Cumberbatch who did a lot of the organizing as well as trying to keep the panellists to time. I enjoyed it greatly and look forward to working with them again. I hope it’s not another 356 years until the next Out in STEM event!

 

 

 

The real decline of UK research funding..

Posted in Science Politics with tags , , on February 12, 2015 by telescoper

I saw a news item the other day about a report produced by the Royal Society, the British Academy, the Royal Academy of Engineering and the Academy of Sciences calling for a big uplift in research spending. Specifically,

A target for investment in R&D and innovation of 3% of GDP for the UK as a whole – 1% from the government and 2% from industry and charities – in line with the top 10 OECD research investors. The government currently invests 0.5% of GDP; with 1.23% from the private sector.

For reference here is the UK’s overall R&D spending as a fraction of GDP since from 2000 to 2012 as a fraction of GDP:

 

PublicFunding2000_2012

Some people felt that scientific research funding has done relatively well over the past few years in an environment of deep cuts in government funding in other areas. Iit has been protected against a steep decline in funding by a “ring fence” which has kept spending level in cash terms. Although inflation as measured by the RPI has been relatively low in recent years, the real costs of scientific research have been much faster than these measures. Here is a figure that shows the effective level of funding since the last general election that shows the danger to the UK’s research base:

flatcash

As a nation we already spend far less than we should on research and development, and this figure makes it plain that we are heading in the wrong direction. It’s not just a question of government funding either. UK businesses invest far too little in developing products and services based on innovations in science and technology. Because of this historic underfunding, UK based research has evolved into a lean and efficient machine but even such a machine needs fuel to make it work and the fuel is clearly running out…

Herschel at the Royal Society

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , on July 2, 2012 by telescoper

I found this nice little video about the forthcoming Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition which opens tomorrow at the Royal Society’s premises in Carlton House Terrace in London.

Astronomers from Cardiff University are heavily involved in one of the exhibits related to the Herschel Telescope – To infrared and beyondI’m actually doing a couple of shifts on the Herschel stand myself, on  Thursday and Friday afternoons, as well as during a posh black tie  “soirée” on Thursday evening. Last time I attended such an event (in 2009) was during a heat wave, which made the soirée an uncomfortably sticky experience, but the forecast suggests the weather might be a bit different this time round…

If it ain’t open, it ain’t science

Posted in Open Access, Science Politics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , on May 16, 2011 by telescoper

Last Friday (13th March) the Royal Society launched a study into “openness in science”, as part of which they are inviting submisions from individuals and organizations. According to the Royal Society website

Science has always been about open debate. But incidents such as the UEA email leaks have prompted the Royal Society to look at how open science really is.  With the advent of the Internet, the public now expect a greater degree of transparency. The impact of science on people’s lives, and the implications of scientific assessments for society and the economy are now so great that  people won’t just believe scientists when they say “trust me, I’m an expert.” It is not just scientists who want to be able to see inside scientific datasets, to see how robust they are and ask difficult questions about their implications. Science has to adapt.”

I think this is a timely and important study which at the very least will reveal how different the attitude to this issue is between different science disciplines. On one extreme we have fields like astronomy, where the practice of making all data publically available is increasingly common and where most scientific publications are available free of charge through the arXiv. On the other there are fields where experimental data are generally regarded as the private property of the scientists involved in collecting the measurements or doing the experiments.

I have quite a simple view on this, which is that the default should be that  data resulting from publically funded research should be in the public domain. I accept that this will not always be possible owing to  ethical issues, such as when human subjects are involved, but that should be the default position.I have two reasons for thinking this way. One is that it’s public money that funds us, so we have a moral responsibility to be as open as possible with the public. The other is that the scientific method only works when analyses can be fully scrutinized and, if necessary, replicated by other researchers. In other words, to seek to prevent one’s data becoming freely available is profoundly unscientific.

I’m actually both surprised and depressed at the reluctance of some scientists to make their data available for scrutiny by other scientists, let alone members of the general public. I can give an example of  my own experience of an encounter with a brick wall when trying to find out more about the statistics behind a study in the field of neuroscience. Other branches of physics are also way behind astronomy and cosmology in opening up their research.

If scientists are reluctant to share their data with other scientists it’s very difficult to believe they will be happy to put it all in the public domain. But I think they should. And I don’t mean just chucking terabytes of complicated unsorted data onto a website in such a way that it’s impossible in practice to make use of. I mean fully documented, carefully maintained databases with both raw data, analysis tools and data products. An exemplar is the excellent LAMBDA site which is a repository for data arising for research into the Cosmic Microwave Background.

I’ve ranted before (and will no doubt do so again) about the extremely negative effect the academic publishing industry has on the dissemination of results. At out latest Board of Studies meeting, the prospect of further cuts to our library budget was raised and the suggestion made that we might have to cancel some of our journal subscriptions. I, and most of my astronomy colleagues, frankly don’t really care if we cancel astronomy journals. All our relevant papers can be found on the arXiv and/or via the NASA/ADS system. My physics colleagues, on the other hand, are still in hock to the old-fashioned and ruinously expensive academic journal racket.

One of the questions the Royal Society study will ask is:

How do we make information more accessible and who will pay to do it?

I’m willing to hazard a guess that if we worked out how much universities and research laboratories are spending on pointless journal subscriptions, then we’d find that it’s more than enough to pay for the construction and maintenance of  sufficient  open access repositories.  The current system of publishing could easily be scrapped, and replaced by something radically different, but it won’t be easy to change to a new approach more suited to the era of the internet.  For example, at present  we are forced to  publish in “proper journals” for the purposes of research assessments, so that academic publishers wield immense power over university researchers. These vested interests will be difficult to overthrow, but I think there’s a growing realization that they are actively preventing science adjusting properly to the digital age.

Anyway, whether or not you agree with me, I hope you’ll agree that the Royal Society study is an important one so please take a look and contribute if you can.

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