Girl, Interrupting

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.

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.

November 4, 2010

US politics are not UK politics, don’t believe the hype!

and please PLEASE stop worrying about the stupid Tea Party.

I have spoken to several folks in the UK about the US election results. Varying between fear and bewilderment, its a general perception that US voters are crazy and that, on the whole, America is eroding via backlash against Obama into some neo-conservative nation. Given the recent stain of GW Bush this is somewhat understandable, but in reality the US has never been even close to becoming unilaterally neo-conservative, not even under W.

News about America in Britain is sensational, and appears to be designed to look for the crazies, who you will certainly find; but disregards the other half of the story. In this last election, there was extensive UK coverage of the ‘Tea Party movement’ – a quick Google search on ‘US Tea Party in UK news’ gives 5,000,000 hits, while there was relatively little coverage of the ‘Coffee party – return to rational politics – movement’ – a similar Google search gives only 300,000 hits.

The news organizations in Britain don’t give a fair assessment of the politics in America, largely because they seem to superimpose a UK political model on top of the US political system, which is in reality quite different. And this is really misleading, but probably news worthy as crazy Americans are more exciting than the moderate ones and to be fair the US is good at breeding crazy.

So here, in my opinion, are some of the reasons the mid-term elections in the US are not the end of rational politics in the US or as The Daily Mash put it on Twitter @thedailymash: ‘AMERICA EXERCISES RIGHT TO PUNCH ITSELF IN THE NUTS’ (happily retweeted by thousands)

1. The tea party scares the crap out of me too, but some won and some lost-

And important thing to remember here is that Republican does not equal Tory, and Republican does not often equal,
tea party or neo-conservative. There are many more moderate Republicans than ultra conservative ones – they are just not as exciting and don’t make the news in the UK.

2. A few ‘tea partiers’ won seats in the House of Representatives, seats which are 2 year terms. They may soon vanish. Most of the Republican seats won in the House were not ‘tea party’ candidates. Gaining a seat in the House does not necessarily gain you immediate power as such, the new GOP electees are junior. (N.B. the Republican ‘nickname’ GOP stands for the Grand Ole’ Party)

3. Being junior makes a difference in the US system. Lots of policy is done on the fly, through deals, being junior doesn’t help- especially if your party itself doesn’t like you. Many standard GOP party members are none too happy about the tea party.

4. There is not the same whipping system in the US legislative branch as there is in the UK parliament, much legislation occurs cross party lines, most of the committees in both House and the Senate are bi-partisan. Unlike the UK, the minority party has votes, they still make legislation, they aren’t a ‘shadow’ government. They participate actively in governing.

5. The US system is much, much more fluid than the UK system. In the UK a government is in charge because it won the most seats. In the US there are different branches of government (judicial, executive (presidency), legislative) they work in concert, not independently. Never forget the great balancing power of the courts in the US who actively turned over much of Bush legislation.

This doesn’t happen in Britain, in the UK the active government makes ALL of the decisions, they don’t work much across party lines. Because the US system does work this way many Americans believe different parties in executive and legislative branch is a GOOD thing, a balance leading to a more fair government. It’s not that uncommon in the US for someone to vote for a Democratic president and a Republican Senator. Americans tend to vote for the candidate not for the party. In America you vote for minimally a State Senator, a State Representative, a State Governor, 2 National Senators to, a National Representative and the President. In Britain you vote for one MP from one party who goes to Parliament – one.

Don’t get me wrong, I do love the UK – it’s my adopted country. There are so many things I like from the very simple -Bovril, clotted cream and the abundance of book stores (which actually contain good books); to the more complex and difficult to define – a cup of tea in a crisis, the gentleness when you are in real need – like of NHS nurses and the police, the tolerance of differences in cultures and people. Even if some one doesn’t like you in the UK they generally leave you alone.

I also love my native country, and I am more than a little miffed that even to say that near as dammit labels me as a neo-conservative, nutso Palinesque Republican, am I not allowed to love a place even though it pisses me off?

What I particularly love is the idea of America, which is ultimately a nation built almost solely on an idea, in that respect it is unlike any other place (no offense to the French). And it was, arguably, built upon a BRITISH idea, you could even consider it the ultimate product of British Enlightenment.

But the folks in the US and the UK are not really the same, not only in the way we speak but in the way we think and importantly VOTE! And you cannot transpose a model of one onto the other. So when reading about US politics in the UK in the words of Public Enemy: Don’t believe the hype!

June 21, 2010

China is becoming more progressive than the UK

So China just announced it is opening up its trade and (slowly) letting the Yuan float free – previously they have kept the Yuan fixed against the dollar, in part, to make exports to other countries cheap.

This, I think, is going to change China and indeed the world fundamentally.

And while China has made this progressive move, the UK coalition government is being economically Draconian? They are evidently not listening to the economic arguments from Nobel Prize winner Paul Krugman and Road From Ruin authors Bishop and Green – that now is the time to put money INTO the economy, not effectively shut it down. And as Krugman says ‘How hard is that to understand?”

The UK Con/Lib coalition government is going to announce its budget tomorrow, and I don’t think things are looking good for science, higher education in addition to the economy. Given that higher education places and the business innovation budget have already been slashed, more than likely there will be more budget cuts to these two sectors by the government.

But science research, higher education and business innovation are essential to a solvent future for the UK, so to echo Krugman..

How hard is this to understand?

The Chinese get it.

China is currently putting big money into these sectors, with a 25% rise in their science funding budget in 2009 and a 45% increase in the 2008 budget for universities.

China seems to understand that their future is in scientific research and education, presumably to create new high technolgical industries which will make them a world competitor in the future.

Maybe George Osbourne could use a trip to China, but I somehow doubt he would listen.

May 8, 2010

Science funding, where do we go from here???

Science needs a Saatchi!

Whether you supported the Lib Dems or Labour, or even the Conservatives things are looking pretty dire for science funding. As the New Scientist says in the elections ‘Science is the Loser’.

Science is, or rather should be a long-term investment. However new polices arising from the new government (once it forms), will almost certainly have largely short-term goals. From a political point of view, its pretty hard to explain to the electorate that you are going to cut housing in favour of science. Obviously, life isn’t really this simple but the majority of voters did support the Conservatives, who want to cut public spending NOW. I think it might be hard for any government to convince that public they need to pay for science research.

And who will be in even worse shape is the Arts – who will likely have even LESS funding that science.

but the arts have people like Charles Saatchi; and, while this isn’t anywhere close to ideal, as private collectors tend to support only the ‘it’ artists – it’s better than nothing – and maybe these private collectors will even branch out to support more artists in general during these difficult economic times.

Don’t get me wrong, I believe funding sciences and arts are both good things, that they are an essential part of society, but where is the money going to come from ?!? And how in a government that is armed for budget cuts is MORE spending in these areas ever going to happen ?

There are very very strong arguments for supporting science, which many many others have made for instance: Brian Cox on Space funding and CaSE , to name only two, there are many more!
Many of the proponents for science funding point out that it is needed for growth in the economy.
And Conservatives, Lib Dems and Labour all have at least indicated that Britain needs to have a technological future.
How exactly that is going to happen without science funding and higher education funding ? Logically, it just doesn’t follow that you can cut the science budget and still develop technological industry.

The Conservatives and Lib Dems want education reform (in secondary schools), but if we inspire students in the UK to ‘achieve their dreams’ and encourage students to study science – where are they going to go to University? If places are being cut and higher education budgets squeezed – how can more British students enter into technology?

Perhaps immigration is the answer, but that doesn’t really work either in the current political climate, given all of the rhetoric about ‘British jobs for British people’.

I would like to see an increase in governmental budget for science and higher education funding, so that the UK doesn’t cut off its nose to spite its face…


the reality is, like it or not, this is exactly what IS going to happen, if only in the short-term…

so what is next for science funding ?

Investment in science and technology should not be considered short-term funding, but rather needs to be long-term if it is to be effective. Science takes time, Rome wasn’t built in a day and new technologies don’t emerge overnight – even though it often appears that way (usually you don’t ‘see’ them in the media until most of the background science has been done, which takes years).

And the money, even for the short-term, isn’t going to come from the government in the UK. Like it or not, science needs a new funding regime which is not completely dependent on government funding. This already happens to some extent with the Wellcome Trust for instance, but its not enough.

What science really needs a Saatchi, or some kind of funding regime based on philanthropy and private investors.

There is an interesting article concerning this very point by Michael Green and Matthew Bishop, authors of Philanthrocapitalism , which suggests a longer-term scientific funding scheme where the private sector helps via philanthropy or in their words “since philanthropy is often at its best when it thinks long term and takes risks that government cannot”.

Agree or disagree with scientific and higher education funding cuts from the government, scientific research funding is going to have to find another answer.

May 5, 2010

If you vote for science, which party do you choose?

I think its gotta be Labour….

The general buzz (twitter, blogs, newspapers, etc) is that the Lib Dems are the best on science, so if you want to save science – Vote Lib Dem! But it depends on which bit of science policy you look at and what you think about the economy..

The guardian does a nice comparison on science policy between Labour, the Tories and the Lib Dems from the great and the good of British science journalism – Brian Cox, Ben Goldacre and Simon Singh, to name a few.

Comparing the three articles in the Guardian…

On several issues all three parties say about the same thing – they are all vague about the science budget, given the economy this is not surprising, they don’t want to commit – and as Cox says “this is frustrating but fair enough”. They all want libel law reform on scientific intercourse and they all support animal testing – except for cosmetics on bunnies and fur coats (well maybe the Tories still want fur coats).

On homeopathy, the Tories and Lib Dems say NO – but Labour says, disappointingly, let someone else sort it out, maybe a result of being the last responder and wanting to keep the homeopathic vote? Is there a homeopathic vote?

On drug policy and public health issues, the Lib Dems really are the most progressive and reassuringly believe in actual scientific investigation to inform this policy, which is laudable and a breath of fresh air compared to the other two parties.

This all looks good for the Lib Dems

Labour does seem to be the best on climate change and has the most ‘credible’, ‘coherent’ and ‘reasonable plans’ for tackling climate change.

I don’t have a dog in this fight, or rather I do, but can only cheer for it. I live in the UK but am foreign and can’t vote – but if I could it would be a hard hard decision to decide between Labour and the Lib Dems.

But on balance I’d vote Labour. Why? Two reasons:

It is pretty unlikely that the Lib Dems are going to achieve even any semblance of power from this election. Barring some unforeseen miracle, the Lib Dems won’t secure enough seats to form a government by their lonesome BUT they will more than likely be the second party in any coalition government.

In this more likely case, as the junior partner in government, many of the Liberal Democrat policies will probably get largely ignored, with only the biggest things on their agenda (like electoral reform) being pushed forward. Science policies would have a high chance of being thrown out the window – while I am sure MPs like Dr. Evan Harris (Lib Dem) would lobby against this, how much influence would he be likely to have in Tory/Lib Dem government? The Tories aren’t historically all that open minded….

But in the words of Bill Clinton “its the economy stupid”.
If the UK economy doesn’t recover, then there really ISN’T going to be an increase in science policy budget at any time in the near future and in fact if there is a bigger recession this will probably lead to a decrease in funding. The economy is a central issue in this election, fix the economy – then lobby to fix science policy or all of those ideas about it will just be that ideas…

and Labour seems to me to have the winning economic policy.

N.B.: For my American friends, in case you don’t know, there is a General Election tomorrow in Great Britain where the new leader of government will be chosen. The contenders? Tories (Conservatives), Labour and Liberal Democrats – the problem is that in order to form a government the winner has to obtain a certain majority (not simple) and if no party achieves this (which is likely in this election) than the party with the simple majority goes to one of the other parties to form a coalition in order to form a government. And unlike US government, the government in charge makes ALL of the decisions (albeit with some influence from the other parties, if they can muster a big enough voice).

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