Girl, Interrupting

February 23, 2011

I have moved! (my blog anyway)

Filed under: Uncategorized — sylviamclain @ 10:53 pm

Just to let you know – I have moved my blog to a lovely site full of interesting bloggers

Its called Occam’s Typewriter and here is the link

Girl, Interrupting

hope to see you there.

February 18, 2011

Scientists need to ask ‘important’ questions – oh and stop “whingeing”

Scientists need to ask ‘important’ questions – oh and stop “whingeing”

Science question time on Feb 16th – put on by the Biochemical Society, CaSE (Campaign for Science and Engineering) and the good folks from Imperial College was, I thought, an excellent event. An invigorating panel loaded with a large variety of thought provoking questions. Sophie Scott was in my opinion the star of the panel with thoughtful and well-balanced comments and answers.

Mark Walport , Director of the Wellcome Trust, on the other hand, spent a fair proportion of his ‘air time’ telling scientists to ‘stop whingeing’, saying that scientists must ask ‘important’ questions – and defending, in a nutshell, an ‘excellence’ based structure of science research funding where less people are given more money. This wouldn’t lead to less jobs, he argued, but rather more focused work on ‘important’ questions. I am of course paraphrasing, Walport also had some good things to say, which I think were somehwat contradictory to his paraphrased statements above.

I have a lot to say about this but I will try to be brief

1 – I am so very tired of being hearing ‘scientists need to stop whingeing’ and the implication that ‘scientists’ are just lazy and not working on ‘important’ questions but rather as Walport suggested that lots of scientists sit around and work on non-important, esoteric, navel-gazing type of questions which are a waste of everyone’s time.

First of all this is hard to prove in any real sense, if you want to try and make a statement about this in terms of funding (who gets funded and who doesn’t), this doesn’t work so well. As almost everyone that writes grants is aware, you write a significant larger number of grants than you ever get funded for. Does this necessarily mean that your question isn’t important? but I will say more about this in a minute…

This attitude really bothers me. And its not just Walport (others, such as Vince Cable who said most reserach in the UK is ‘not excellent’ relatively recently)

Stop whingeing and get on with it
What bothers me about this is that it is just a throw-away thing to say, and it instills anger in people trying to do research, telling a group of educated people to shut up and do your job publicly only increases hostility between the people who are ‘in charge’ (of funding, of decisions, of whatever) and the people doing the science – Apparently pyschology isn’t an ‘important’ science because maybe if it was Walport would have read something about how bitching at people isn’t exactly the best way to get them to be efficient.

This attitude indicates that people like Walport aren’t listening to complaints by scientists – some may be legitimate some may not, but it seems to me if you are in some sort of position of administration for a grant funding body it should be a part of your JOB to listen to what the people that are doing the research actually think about how you are funding it. There are times when people do need to shut up and get on with it – but in this instance it is dismissive and an easy way out on Walport’s part. If you just tell people to shut up and go away it keeps you from having to address any real questions.

2 – Scientists need to be asking “important” questions.

Really, did we not know that? Most people that do scientific research feel they are asking important questions – I really doubt there are people that go to work and think – I am going to do my OWN research on a non-important question just becuase I don’t have anything else to do today.

and as @Stephen_Curry asked – well who decides what is ‘important’? I have blogged about this here, in the long-term you NEVER know where discoveries will come from. Do your peers decide? As Walport argued all funding comes by virtue of a peer-review grant process, yes it does, but peer-reviewers can be and are constrained, it depends on the funding scheme and importantly on the number of grants that are funded.
For instance, if all research councils decide that they are only going to fund certain topics than only people that work on these sexy topics will get funded. Deciding what topics are “sexy” is a dangerous game, as it is easy to identify sexy science when sexy science is ALREADY successful, but this greatly destroys your base for up and coming science or science that may well be “sexy” in 20 years, but maybe not so sexy now.

If only 3% of all grants are funded than many ‘important’ questions will get cut based on sheer numbers. Ranking importance isn’t easy to do for any peer-review group as they may be wrong and they don’t have crystal balls that peer into the future. Paraphrasing from the US Television Drama The West Wing, Einstein probably wouldn’t get funded today – people like Einstein would have been writing grants to funding bodies that were headed by people like Lord Kelvin who thought that physics was dead, in short he would have never gotten funded.

3 – People will keep their jobs they will just work on common problems (‘important’ questions)

This is good in some respects but it very much depends on the research. The Atomic bomb was a good example of very smart people working on a common problem. Working towards a specific technological advance is another very good example.
But only funding research like this is limiting and short-sighted.
One of the great strengths of the UK science research system, at least in the past, is that it tends to fund quite broadly – lots of ideas from blue skies research to established research – but you have to fund things across the board.

I am not arguing that really good scientists shouldn’t get money, they should and they already do, maybe they should get more but you have to fund younger scientists and less well known scientists with new ideas so that in 20 – 30 years you will have new sexy science instead of a monolithic non-diverse structure – like in ecology and finance – you need a diverse system to allow growth into the future. The danger is that if only 3 research topics get funded what happens when that research begins to reach a natural end? Where do you go next? If you have a pool of research (like a gene pool) you ensure, as much as you can ever ensure, that the soil is ready for the future and that you don’t end up with the scientific equivalent of the Hapsburg Chin.

Scientists as a group, of course have room for improvement, we can do things better, like communicate, but I don’t think continually telling us to get on with it, stop complaining and work on ‘important’ science is getting anyone anywhere. I think there needs to be some give on both sides – Scientists listing to what those in charge say and those ‘in charge’ taking some time and care to listen to working research scientists, not those who already have their FRS or Nobel prize, but those who are at different levels in their careers.

February 13, 2011

On becoming (naturalised, half) British

Filed under: America — sylviamclain @ 8:21 pm
Tags: , ,

I am undertaking ‘a journey to citizenship’ and happily (thankfully) I just passed the test and can apply for citizenship soon.
Fortunately I can be a US/UK citizen; the UK isn’t particularly concerned with dual citizenships and the US wants to keep us:

In order to lose U.S. citizenship, the law requires that the person must apply for foreign citizenship voluntarily, by free choice, and with the intention to give up U.S. citizenship.

Broadly meaning that unless you actually denounce your U.S. citizenship, or become a citizen of certain (mostly communist) countries – having dual citizenship is ok as was decided by the US Supreme Court in 1952 (Kawakita vs. the US)

My mother, like I assume many Americans, didn’t know this- she sent me an email:

Are you applying for British Citizenship? I am surprised but understand if that is what you want to do.

As if I was telling her I was joining a fascist regime.

I reassured her that if I had to choose I wouldn’t do it – I would stay American. Why?

Ok, I am actually kidding about that (yes, really) but this sure is what you learn growing up in the US- We are great Great GREAT and everyone wants to be like us. As embarrassing as it sounds now, I definitely grew up believing this. If the US is good at nothing else it is damn good at indoctrination. Its like Disney, its easy to make fun of Disney when you are old and wizened but as a child it was magical – the wonderful world of Disney with singing birds and dreams that came true.

I wouldn’t say I am particularly patriotic but I am rather attached to my country – its a visceral thing – and I am proud of the idea and indeed ideals of the USA (even though I think we don’t often live up them) – the Constitution is an amazing document. I am also pretty attached to the UK and in particularly to England – I have lived here for a while and plan to stay. I wouldn’t describe myself as an Anglophile, I don’t have a particular love of all things English but I am fond of England and there is alot I like about it.
For example:

1 – Tolerance – England is an incredibly tolerant society
2 – Gentleness – the Police here are amazingly gentle; the Doctors and Nurses at A&E’s here are wonderful – and they have a certain gentleness about them in a way that just doesn’t happen in the US from either public service (in my experience)
3 – the availability of books – books galore, cheap books, good books… everywhere everywhere –
4 – Newspapers – Newspapers in this country are great, relatively
5 – the BBC – which has REAL documentaries – REAL
6 – Cheap food, in grocery stores here you can get decent veg for a decent price even in places like Tesco’s
7 – Trains
8 – you can have a pint in the pub and read a book and people leave you alone.
9 – Manners and moderation – if you don’t appreciate the scrum queue at a pub, go to the US in a crowded college bar on a weekend

The Quiet Pint

There are so many more things I could list. But what I find curious, from an outsider’s point of view, is that most of the English people I know are quite shy about telling me what is good about England – in fact many of them have nothing good to say at all, its like a negative patriotism and wonder why on earth I would want to move here
My butcher summed it up the best:

“You paid over a £1000 to live HERE?!?!?!”

And I am aware that to any point on my list a negative example can be provided- like ‘Yes but the bloody trains are never on time’ and ‘we aren’t that tolerant, look at the BNP’.

Why does patriotism have to be a bad thing? Just like you can be a patriotic American and not be Sarah Palin, can you not be a patriotic English man or woman and not be a member of the BNP? I think you can. There ARE some exceptional things about England and I think alot to be proud of if you are English. And it doesn’t mean you have to turn into someone who is worried about
“the immigration invasion of our country’ or ‘the threat to our security posed by Islamism”

You really don’t. Being an American, which is hardly the nationality du jour if you live just about anywhere in the rest of the world , I am attached to the idea of ‘take back the patriotism’. Why not? It seems reasonable to me that you can love your country and hate some of the things it does.

I am really excited to (hopefully) be becoming a UK citizen, though I doubt I will ever refer to myself as British (though it might be fun for the irony as I have a definite Southern US accent), or go out waving a flag at the upcoming Royal wedding – I am very proud of becoming a part of this country, a country which, in my opinion, has alot to be proud of.

January 27, 2011

Peer review – a bad example

Filed under: Peer review — sylviamclain @ 4:39 pm

Cameron Neylon has published one of 2 posts defending his opinion of peer-review –
standing by the quote ‘it makes more sense in fact to publish everything and filter after the fact’ though he admits this is somewhat of an over simplification.

What Neylon doesn’t suggest is what the alternative actually is yet – hopefully he will cover this in Post 2.

Meanwhile back at Occam’s Typewriter, Austin Elliot gives a nice balanced view of peer-review, in my opinion, with its pluses and minuses.

But I’d like to add something that is perhaps a bit orthogonal ( the picture below shows orthogonality; the blue lines are orthogonal to the red curves at the points they touch each other (or intersect) …

Orthogonal curves

The metaphoric example which Neylon uses in his blog post of the UK government giving money to a business isn’t, I don’t think, really equivalent or applicable to the majority of scientific publication.

He starts the argument as such:

“The UK government gives £3B to a company, no real strings attached, except the expectation of them reporting back. At the end of the year the company says “we’ve done a lot of work but we know you’re worried about us telling you more than you can cope with, and you won’t understand most of it so we’ve filtered it for you.””

First – companies and scientific research aren’t the same thing – this is a confusion between science and industry. Industry gives deliverables and science industry develops technology – basic science isn’t the same thing – you never know where discoveries come from in basic science AND basic science research doesn’t always lead to the conclusion you want it to. Its not really possible (if you are doing basic science) to say we will absolutely get this result, this is much easier to do in industry.

When you write a grant you DO have to put in milestones and goals and objectives – its not just a matter of here’s some money – do what you want. Also these are checked at many grant funding institutions, you have to write a progress report to get the rest of the money each year or 1/2 through the grant for example the ERC (European Research council).

With regard to publishing a paper the statement ‘we were worried about telling you more than you can cope with and you won’t understand most of it?’ I think is a bit of a fallacy

Do most scientists do this? I don’t think so – I never assume when I am writing a paper that the reviewers ‘won’t understand it’ and leave out data they ‘won’t understand’.

But I do ‘filter’ if that is what you want to call it as I don’t present every single piece of data I collect. Why? Not because most people can’t ‘understand it’ or can’t ‘cope’ but because alot of it is redundant information, and doesn’t enhance or detract from the central results.
Also you can add more detailed information into ‘supplementary materials’ which you can attach to many publications, and many people routinely do this!

So a real life example – I have a paper in a journal called Angewandte Chemie – it is a generalist journal for chemistry research so covers ALL of chemistry – its for a pretty wide audience. The article in question is a communication and there are rules for how much information you can put in an Angewandte Chemie Communication; roughly – maximum size is 3 to 4 figures – 4 pages – about 10,000 characters per article total – other stuff can be put into supplementary information for the more ‘specialist audience’ (which I have also done).

So I am not sure that I understand what the alternative would be? – I guess this is the ‘can’t cope’ argument however, to a generalist journal which covers lots of subjects – do you get rid of these journals, which have short papers? Or do you fill a whole journal with loads and loads of data figures for each paper – is this a realistic alternative?

Even if I didn’t have my doubts about this argument – how would the alternative to peer-review deal with leaving out data? If its out its out whether you publish it in a peer-reviewed or non-peer-reviewed journal.

The other thing he goes on to use in his example is that of a reporter asking the fictitious business dude the question:

Reporter: “So you’ll be making the whole record available as well as the stuff that you’ve said is most important presumably? I mean that’s easy to do?”

Business dude: “No we’d be worried about people getting the wrong idea so we’ve kept all of that hidden from them.”

Do most scientists keep things hidden when submitting a paper for peer review? I don’t think so – this is part of the supplementary information and the email addresses (usually the Senior Author’s email address is included in the publication for further queries) available both to the people doing the reviewers and the people that read the paper later. Having participated on both sides of the peer-review process often referees DO ask for additional information or even experiments.

Also again, even if this is a good argument for finding an alternative to peer-review – how is this alternative going to deal with ‘hidden data’ ?

He concludes in his example the following:

“Well we can’t show any evidence that the filtering is any good for deciding what is important or whether it’s accurate, but our employees are very attached to it. I can get some of them in, they’ll tell you lots of stories about how its worked for them…”

You also can’t show any evidence that ‘filtering’ is bad at deciding what is important, or can you? I may have it around my neck on this one – I don’t know or couldn’t find any studies that say this..
Neylon also accuses those who are proponents of peer-review of being un-scientific about believing in peer review – but I would counter that peer-review and its benefits are indeed hard to measure. For instance, I have a peer-review response which I think is helpful and think that it makes the quality of my research better and tunes me into other research going on out there- how do I measure this empirically? Survey? If we need data on this, I think we need to think carefully about how to get it – and if there is data, I am hoping that Neylon will cover it in post 2. Moreover, what is wrong with stories about how ‘it worked for them’ in fact there is a whole scientific discipline about people telling stories about how things worked for them and how they feel – its called psychology – and you can come up with measures to quantify this.

The problems I have with Neylon’s example is that to me it seems to imply that scientists routinely try to cover up things ‘they don’t think other people will understand’ or think others ‘can’t cope with’ and I don’t think this is the case.

I worry over my publications, I try to quadrupole check everything at the minimum. Do my publications (even after peer-review) contain mistakes that I myself didn’t catch? Of course – normally they are small, misspellings or my graph isn’t quite right, or I mis-referenced something by complete accident – but does this fundamentally change my scientific results? Nope not at all

What if it does? What if I missed something essential – I can issue an erratum, retract the paper, apologize, publish a new paper explaining the difference, there are options – and again how is an alternative to peer review going to deal with this?

I have made a somewhat big mistake in a paper before, which didn’t change my actual results or my interpretation of my results but definitely needed to be fixed – so what did I do? I published an erratum, which are available in most journals; likely because they do understand that people make mistakes.

Publishing scientific results, whether with peer-review or not, entails a certain amount of trust – if I look at a graph produced by a research group, I have to trust they did the actual experiment and are showing a graph of something they actually measured and mistakes, especially small ones, aren’t easy to catch – either before or after publication, either in peer reviewed literature or something I publish on the web myself. So in this respect I don’t understand how the argument for changing peer-review will help with most if any of the issues that Neylon brings up in his metaphorical example – but I am looking forward to his second post on the matter to clarify further.

January 22, 2011

Peer review here we go again

Filed under: Peer review,Trial by Twitter — sylviamclain @ 8:23 pm
Tags: , ,

Once again the peer-review vs. science online debate appears!

In an article by Peer review: Trial by Twitter – Apoorva Mandavilli talks about a lot of things but it mentions that science is getting ‘torn apart’ in the online media… which is ‘scary’ @rpg7twit (aka. Richard P Grant) has a nice response to this in the F1000 online magazine Naturally Selected from The Scientist…

OK maybe it is ‘scary’ but, sorry this, as a scientist is part of your damn job, presenting your work. It isn’t always pleasant going through peer-review, but it is a part of the process of presenting your science. And if your science makes it into a spot in one of the ‘big’ journals – like Nature well you want people to read it, or you wouldn’t have put it there in the first place. And like movie stars, you can’t have the fame without the Paparrazzi – that is you can’t only have praise with no critique, sorry life doesn’t work that way. Science is about, for better or worse, proving your hypothesis, it has to stand up to the test of time. It occurs to me perhaps the ‘test of time’ is just accelerated by the social media/internet process. This is a GOOD thing – maybe not for the scientist who got something wrong, but wake up – scientists get things wrong.

And it seems to me, as has been said, all this ‘taking apart of papers online’ just shows the public what scientists actually do – they take apart – or agree with – other’s work and this leads them to retest or look for new phenomena – that is a part of what we are supposed to be doing as scientists.

A few years ago in a field related to my own – somebody published a finding which said that liquid water (as opposed to being a tetrahedral network as most people have measured that it is) was not tetrahedral but actually linear. This, most people in the field thought, was crap. But instead of them all just sitting around and saying online it was crap – which they did – they also went back and re-measured and retested old data on liquid water. And as a much respected colleague of mine said at the time – this probably wasn’t such a bad thing for our field it shook it up and got people really explaining in better detail than before WHY the data showed what it WAS.

tetrahedral ice

But this isn’t actually why I am writing this blog post.

One thing that seems to come up in this debate often is something that is advocated by Cameron Neylon quite strongly which is:

‘it makes much more sense to publish everything and filter after the fact’

And this is where I’d like to archly raise an eyebrow myself.

I really cannot see, nor have I heard a very good argument as to why this makes more sense?

Its hard enough trying to filter through all of the work IN peer review journals if people just publish everything, imagine the volume. And imagine the volume of crap – as I pointed out in a blog post about a year ago – the internet now, and just the newspapers in the past already sometimes serve this function – look at the cold fusion story – where the science never even made it to peer review.

Also what if a ton of people think its crap but it really isn’t crap – which would be sort of opposite of the recent arsenic story.

This sort of implies and it has been implied that peer-review as it stands now is a bad thing
Why do so many people think everything is wrong with peer review? Perhaps it is these articles we see on Twitter – the ones where we see where the peer review process has missed something, but there are far more stories about where this doesn’t happen, I would suspect, you just never hear about them.

Does peer review go wrong? Yes
Do we hear about where peer review failed in the news? Yes – think of the recent example of arsenic.

Are there problems with the peer-review process? Of course.. look at Jan-Hendrick Shoon and recently Amil Potti

Do most peer-reviews articles NEVER make it to the news? Yes

But will publish first filter later make this better? I really doubt it.

Peer review is a team of people who are ‘experts’ in your field who look at your work and assess it – why is this altogether a bad thing?

In fact it can be, and largely is, a good thing. I have written papers – especially my first papers as corresponding author, where I was so focused on the forest I didn’t just miss the trees I actually, unknowingly, cut down the trees. After these manuscripts were peer reviewed – it was clear to me, from the reviewer’s comments – that they had no idea what I was talking about. Why? Because I wasn’t at all clear – so I had to fix it and as a result had a better paper. I have also had reviewers suggest work to me by other that I wasn’t aware of, often in agreement of what I was saying. That not only strengthened what I was saying in a particular paper but also my research in general.

If everything was published first – would be people take the time to even look at my piece of research to tear it apart? I am not an FRS or a Nobel prize winner, nor am I likely to be, but when I submit my paper to a suitable journal I have the same equality as anyone else in getting it read (this isn’t true for all journals, but specialists journals, certainly) – and I want it to be ‘torn apart’ to see if my science withstands the test because THIS is the point, whether it scares me or not.

January 12, 2011

Gun Laws and banker’s bonuses

Filed under: bankers bonuses,gun control — sylviamclain @ 6:05 pm
Tags: ,

Two issues which have dominated this week’s news; both are damn near impossible to legislate, no matter what the public desire.

First the guns:
In case for some amazing reason you missed it – Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Gifford has been shot along with six others who have been killed – one of which was a nine-year old girl. Which has understandably brought forth (again) the debate about US and gun laws.

Many in the UK think this lack of gun control in the US is crazy – or in the words of @cromercrox ‘I’m really quite perplexed by the US of A’. Cromercrox brings up in his blog ‘Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Picturesque Seaside Town of Cromer’ dealing the perplexity of US gun laws – where even the ‘quite normal Americans’ engage in what he calls gunsplaining – eg annunciations of the reasons why guns are here to stay – unlike rock and roll which is apparently dying.

Cromercrox suggests banning guns altogether, or in his words ‘get rid of the guns’ – which is never going to work in the US.
So at the risk of being termed a gunsplainer, or seeming not quite normal – here is my view on the perplexity.

Many Americans know that gun control issues are near as damn it dead issues in the US of A – despite the recent shootings. However lots of people also explain this by evoking the 2nd amendment or the constitutional right argument. The right of the people to ‘keep and bear arms’ as written in the Bill of Rights is really a pretty crap, weak argument.

Constitutional amendments have been added and overturned since the US government was born. The Constitution states that slaves are allowed to be owned and only represent 5/8ths of a human (for census purposes) which was repealed by the 13th amendment abolishing slavery. The constitution also had a prohibition amendment (the 18th) passed in 1919 which was repealed by the 21st amendment in 1933 (when people really needed a drink).

And prohibition is good example of why a gun control amendment (or even a mere federal law) would never work. Did people stop drinking because alcohol was illegal? No. Think speakeasys and moonshine liquor. So by the US imposing some kind of gun law, would this work, would people suddenly give up their guns? No. How exactly would you round up all of those guns? US gun ownership is estimated to be around 300 million with around 45% of US Citizens owning some type of gun. And these are just the registered ones. Do you think people will just turn them in? A large number of people own guns for hunting (just like you can in Britain) as well, do you deny them their guns?

So say you regulated guns down to British levels, with no automatic weapons – where only permit holders and criminals and the police had them, this would reduce the number of gun deaths but they would still happen and I think the effect would be marginal. Because this is assuming that by some kind of legislation you could ban guns and collect them, guns are already there, good luck trying to get ’em out. People that are not very likely to mow down the general public with their automatic weapon (or hand gun for that matter) would be the only ones turning them in- which wouldn’t reduce gun crime significantly I would think.

As an aside, contrary to popular belief many UK police officers do have guns: just take a stroll around London where many police at high security locations are posted with machine guns (something you don’t see so often in the US – police with machine guns, they usually have hand guns). Gun deaths do happen in Britain.

Now the banks:

Do you really think regulating banker’s bonuses will make them stop making money or feel remorse. Watching footage of the treasury select committee interviewing Bob Diamond – he was asked questions like ‘Are you grateful to the British Tax payer?’ and ‘Are you going to resign your job?’. These are just sort of non-questions which might make the MP questioning him look like he is being ‘tough on bankers’ but are useless in reality. Of course the man isn’t going to resign his job, Barclay’s emerged relatively unscathed from the banking crisis (Bob is one of the big banking dudes that wasn’t fired) and who cares if he is eternally, externally grateful, even if he said it.

So say you did cut banker’s bonuses, would they really not find some loop hole to still make money? Instead of cash bonuses maybe they would get stock options, or a new car, or a new Persian rug? Financial guys can easily find their way around regulations – If you read the book ‘The Road from Ruin’ by Michael Green and Matthew Bishop, two British authors (launched in the USA but available in the UK after February) – they cover this topic quite nicely.

Regulation, in both of these cases, isn’t going to be effective, and is moreover not cost effective to any government. And in these financial times, the later is a pretty persuasive argument.

In both cases – ‘ban all guns’ and ‘stop banker’s bonuses’ you are treating the symptom rather than the underlying problem, and it provides no real solution. How to regulate the financial sector is a lot more complex than the relatively small example of bankers bonuses – which seem like a lot to us mere mortals but represents tiny amounts of money on a large scale (there are some good suggestions for real effective financial regulation in the Road from Ruin).

Ban all guns or even some won’t decrease violence in the US and won’t really ever be effective, as the gun ban would yield marginal returns. How to stop violent crime in any country is a difficulty and one I have no idea how to solve (along with scads of politicians world wide)

January 3, 2011

Science Funding cuts are political not a reflection of elitist science

In the US and the UK governments are making or threatening science education and funding cuts, is that partly the fault of scientists being ‘elitist’ ?

Today is the first day of the new Republican Majority Congress in the US – with Eric Cantor taking the reins as House majority Leader …

One of Cantor’s first ‘targets’ of attack to stop the ‘overspending’ by the US government is the National Science Foundation – which is roughly equivalent to a research council in the UK – that is scientists write for competitive grant funding from the NSF to do a variety of scientific research. Cantor and Co. have set up a website called You Cut which asks the general public to search on the public NSF website here to find funding which they deem ‘un-necessary’ – Why Cantor chose the NSF if he really wanted to cut money is beyond me – the 2011 budget request for NSF is $7.4 billion out of a total of around $3.5 trillion is about 0.2% of the total US budget – as opposed to say Social Security or Defense (both around ~20% of the US federal budget) – so if you cut two or three $1 million projects (at 0.00002 % of the federal budget each) then you can work out the real financial savings this makes – zilch.

Similar to the budget cuts in the UK – the reasons for this attack are almost certainly political not financial. Cantor himself says that much of what the NSF funds is ‘useful’. Both deficit reducing policies want to be seen as tackling the deficit and ‘looking’ out for how government wastes money, thereby saving the tax-paying electorate from profligate spending. There are obvious similarties with the US Republican Congress under Gingrich (after Clinton’s first mid-term in 1992) with its attack on the NEA (National Endowment for the Arts). The NEA, which has a relatively tiny budget (155 million as of FY2009 – 0.004% of the US federal budget), was attacked because, in a nut shell, some of the funded art was deemed to have anti-family and Christian values.

But the NSF doesn’t really cross loggerheads with many social conservative issues, so why attack the NSF? Why attack science budgets in general? (as has also been happening in the UK – see all of the coverage of the Science-Is-Vital campaign)

One of the arguments for WHY science is under attack is because there is a public perception that scientists are ‘elitist’. The last UK government was concerned about this perception, Labour launched a campaign to reduce the public perception of scientists as elitists in January 2009. Science, like art, should be for all and for the benefit of all, but is this why it is under attack? Because it is perceived as an elitist activity? Because people feel like you have to be a ‘genius’ to engage in science? Is it the fault of scientists, who ‘don’t communicate’ but stay in their ‘high-brow’ ivory towers, feeling so superior to the rest of the plebeian world?

I don’t think that science communication or scientific elitistism (Yes some scientists are ‘elitist;, but I would argue most aren’t) has much to do with it, except in the sense that the arguments for science funding may lack public support. It is a political attack and may or may not work in the next US congressional session (it is too early to tell), but because it is something that is not seen as ‘essential’ to the public it is an easy attack. It is also a tiny bit of the budget, but a single program which could be cut and not effect but a few (in the short term) in comparison to say Medicare which has a big chunk of the budget and its dissolution would effect alot more people in the US.

Do scientists need to communicate better? Absolutely, but we are working on that, and science communication IS getting better, especially with the advent of social media and the blogosphere. It needs to get better because science is important and needs to garner support when these crazy cut ideas come from any government but, again, I don’t think ‘elite science’ or bad communication is responsible for the current cut scare, short-sighted governments are and it is indeed more political in flavour than purely anti-scientific.

The good news is that the NEA has survived, since attacks since the 1980’s; let’s hope the NSF does too.

December 10, 2010

Guest post at Occam’s Typewriter

Filed under: student fee increase protests — sylviamclain @ 12:56 pm

I have a guest post today at Occam’s typewriter

Reflections on the aftermath of a student protest

Churchill in the fee aftermath

Picture courtesy of – The Big Picture

Occam’s typewriter is a blog worth following, it features regular posts from

Stephen Curry
Richard P. Grant
Jenny Rohn
Erika Cule
Henry Gee
Austin Elliott
Athene Donald
Cath Ennis
Frank Norman

and a whole host of ‘Irregulars’ guest bloggers – enjoy

December 5, 2010

On humanism and Christmas

Filed under: Atheism,humanism,religion — sylviamclain @ 7:15 pm
Tags: , , ,

Humanism – What is humanism ? Go to the British Humanist Association website and have a read, there are some nice things in there. I have listed some of the definitions of Humanism from their website:

* Humanism is a naturalistic view, encompassing atheism and agnosticism as responses to theistic claims, but is an active and ethical philosophy greater than these reactions to religion.
* Humanists believe in individual rights and freedoms, but believe that individual responsibility, social cooperation and mutual respect are just as important.
* Humanists believe that people can and will continue to find solutions to the world’s problems, so that quality of life can be improved for everyone.
* Humanists are positive, gaining inspiration from our lives, art and culture, and a rich natural world.

These are fantastic – I agree with alot of it myself – improving quality of life and especially with respect to ‘individual rights and freedoms’ and ‘mutual respect.’ this is great. But is religion not included in an individual’s right and freedom? You can choose to believe in God or the Easter Bunny or Fairies if you wish to. Isn’t that part of an individual’s right?

If the humanists really want to be a counter to religion and believe in improving life on earth for themselves and for others why do they go out and purposely attack religions? This doesn’t seem like mutual respect to me.

I find this truly disappointing.

Today on the Richard Dawkins website I found this article about promoting atheism in the US and how it has caused ‘protest and ire’. This usually happens when you go out and purposely attack people for what they believe in.

Well they probably cause IRE because the billboards (really guys Billboards? Like Visit Rock City See 7-States for humanists) which say things like:
“The Bible: ‘A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach authority over a man; she must be silent,” “Humanism: ‘The rights of men and women should be equal and sacred .’

atheist billboards

If these guys had done their homework they would have remembered that few modern Christians take a literal meaning of the Bible and that Christianity got somewhat up dated, in their opinion, after the Old Testament.

Admittedly many of the adverts don’t directly attack religion such as

But in either case these adverts are either intentionally set up to attack religion or convince religious people that atheists are moral too. Its like some kind of weird mud-smearing/convincing the world that atheists ‘don’t eat dead babies’ campaign. In the former case this is not at all dissimilar to what ill educated Americans say about Muslims, for instance and in the later, do you really care what religious people think about you if you are an atheist? Perhaps you might but if you do, do you really think an advert on the side of a bus will convince anyone?

It seems like humanism might ‘combat the religious overtones of Christmas and Hannukah’ by just offering another way, a way which didn’t intentionally attack something people have a cultural, visceral attachment to. A way which says, I hate going to church on Christmas Eve too and am not sure I believe but lets all have dinner at my house instead and talk about something else – but that something else doesn’t have to be religious people are stupid and control the world – it could be – how can we make a difference, and how can we celebrate the year to come and improve the world for humanity? This I think would send a better message and actually be non-religious as humanism is, in principle, meant to be.

November 29, 2010

Big news, US protects its own self interests and is often a bit nasty about it


I, like billions of other people, spent a large portion of yesterday evening trawling through some of the wikileaked US diplomatic cables. I found myself somewhat, well disappointed. Is that it?

The secure yet unsecured diplomatic network the US government is the most troublesome part in my mind, and why is it open to so many? This seems pretty dumb on the part of the US State Department; given the system is so insecure, it wouldn’t be implausible that many foreign nations had already been privy to this information as one of the leaked cables tells us China has become pretty good at hacking.

Perhaps the exception is the revelation that the US is obtaining biometric data from UN officials – we don’t know if they successfully obtained said information, just that they want it. Spying on your friends at the UN is pretty naughty and stupid, but are we really surprised by this? I’m not, I am surprised the leaks didn’t reveal something much worse..

True whistle-blowing is necessary and even a part of Democracy – free speech, free press. A perfect example was the Iran-Contra affair in 1986 where Col. Oliver North took the fall for illegal sale of weapons to the Iranians. Who ever blew this whistle revealed that the US was illegally selling arms to Iran (under an embargo) to supply secret funds to the Contras in Nicaragua. North took the bullet which was aimed at Reagan though nothing ever officially attached Reagan to the affair, I personally still have my doubts. As an aside Col. North made out OK in the end given that he now is a host on the History Channel and writes books and is more famous than he ever would have been if he hadn’t done something illegal. Go American justice.

Oliver North

But do these recent Wikileaks of US cables count as true whistle blowing? I don’t think so, as one Max Boot of the US Foreign Policy thinktank Council on Foriegn relations said:

“The WikiLeaks files only fill in details about what has generally already been known. Those details have the potential to cause acute embarrassment — or even end the lives of — those who have communicated with American soldiers or officials, but they do little to help the general public to understand what’s going on…”

Many of the leaked documents are not official policy but opinions of diplomats (which they didn’t really ever think we would be reading) and maybe it reflects some US foreign policy attitudes and maybe it doesn’t. It’s hard to tell how much it does or doesn’t, I don’t think the US State Department is going to let us know somehow. For example, an official’s assemesnt of French president Nicholas Sarkozy is that he is “thin-skinned and [has an] authoritarian personal style.” and that Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi is described as “feckless, vain, and ineffective as a modern European leader.”

Is anyone really surprised that someone thinks this? Do we really expect people to always be nice about each other in their opinions? But what this isn’t, I don’t think, is whistle blowing. I would personally be curious to read official diplomatic opinions about George W. when he was in office. But presumably other governments aren’t so stupid as to let this information be as widely accessible and I think we all have a pretty good idea of, for instance, what the French thought of W.

The other big revelation is that States in the Middle East are worried about Iran having a nuclear weapon, which I would agree is worrying, but I am not sure the release of this information is not actually harmful, if there are already tensions in the Middle East don’t you think this might make things worse? Maybe not, I hope not…

And there is evidence that the US is trying to take out Al-Qadea – but did we not already know this?

There is nothing, in my opinion that I would consider true whistle blowing, such as maybe the US government is still engaging in something like the Tuskegee syphallis experiments; if you want to be truely appalled at something nasty the US government has done go and read about this, where US Heath Department ‘tracked’ untreated syphallis in African-Americans, where they NEVER TOLD the subjects they were infected – this is a truely horrific page in US history and like most States there are many others.

Tuskegee victims

Was Assange right to leak this? I am not sure, possibly because I am a bit biased against the man, I think he is arrogant and self-aggrandising but that isn’t a good enough reason to condemn him. Really I think the US should know better than to make these things so accessible if they really want them kept private, with so many people having access to these documents why they haven’t been leaked earlier is beyond me.

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