Girl, Interrupting

September 15, 2010

On being a ‘foot soldier’

Or cannon fodder speaking out.

In case you haven’t heard, science funding in the UK is under threat.
From Paul Nurse, who said we need to fund only ‘excellent’ science to Vince Cable who thinks 45% of research in the UK is not-excellent and we should be only funding either ‘excellent’ theoretical work or things that will make money (eg technological advances) its not looking good for science research in the UK.

Of course scientists and science aficionados are dismayed, angry and trying to fight for what they know science to be, and why it needs funding, all kinds of funding.

One of the arguments for funding says science needs ‘foot soldiers’ – where the argument goes a la Newton – that excellent science needs other science which is ‘boring’ to stand on. eg foot soldier scientists.

BUT I think this term should be used with caution, or maybe even not at all.

Foot soldier implies to me ‘cannon fodder’ and this is a bad image for several reasons:

1 – This implies that science is a pyramidal process with those on the bottom being weed-like and just doing the background work for those on the top. Science is not linear, nor that predictable. It grows and recedes in fits and starts and it not just simply marching forward toward a common goal or puzzle to solve. Technology works like this, but not science! Science looks for answers to questions, one paper, research project at at time. You often don’t know what the answer will be and the answers often open up a whole load of other questions and importantly – you NEVER KNOW where a breakthrough will come from over the long term. Lots of important discoveries were actually by accident – when someone was working on something completely different.

2- this term implies that the ‘excellent’ science is at the top and the ‘dull’ science is at the bottom. which calls into question what do you mean by ‘dull’ and ‘excellent’ ? Do you base it on citations? Do you base it on the quality of the Journal it is in? Most scientists have observed that some of the best papers aren’t in Nature, and are actually in more low-impact journals. And if you base this on citations, sometimes bad or wrong science is more highly-cited – because everyone is saying it is wrong. And different scientific fields have different citation levels, just due to the sheer number of people working in a given subject area. Simply put – quantity does not always equal quality.

An important test of scientific research is its longevity – something might be highly cited and highly ‘important’ in one generation of scientists – but then just a blip in the overall body of scientific research over time. What about the Luminiferous aether? And no one has a crystal ball that tells us the most important research in the future. Moreover, sometimes old ‘boring’ research gets revived when new discoveries are made in different areas – Lie Algebra is a good example of this.

As a side note, Cable said we should support theoretically excellent ideas, which I would agree with, but ONLY along with everything else. Theory is an important part of science, but its hard to say what is excellent until the theories are proved or disproved – and this again takes time.

This pyramidal model is exactly the idea that advocates of science are trying to argue against – that science is marching towards some big common goal, with the great people on top – it is but only in the sense that science answers questions and that is a pretty broad goal.

Maybe a better statement is ‘it takes all kinds’, though not as evocative, it actually is perhaps closer to the reality.

The research I do I am not doing so that someone more excellent than me can show up in the future and stand on it and thereby make it excellent. I would bet many other scientists feel this way as well. My research is striving towards its own excellence, whatever that means and maybe only in my mind, because I have some specific scientific questions I want to answer, and you never know, this may be a big breakthrough or it may be a blip in the aether.

September 9, 2010

On Cable, Dawkins and the Papal Visit

Filed under: papal visit,richard dawkins,Vince Cable — sylviamclain @ 5:36 pm
Tags: , ,

The uproar(s) seems to be largely a matter of tone…

Vince Cable, his remarks are condescending in general, speaking as if scientists are just a bunch of naughty school children who want more cake off the tax-payers dime. The tone is annoying, yes, but the results of that attitude will be even worse, more cuts (in case you forgot funding was also cut last year). Scientists are angry, nobody likes being talked to by their government as if they were just a bunch of lazy slackers sitting around drinking tea all day. If you really are trying to get scientists to do more with less, it might be better to be a little more understanding and re-invoke that Blitz spirit or even the Obama spirit of Yes We Can. You catch more flies with honey.

William CullerneBown has written a nice post on Exquisite Life about Cable and science reaction here.

And the arguments against Cable are largely a matter of TONE. His tone, and his attitude towards academic scientists.

There is another tone problem this week, Richard Dawkins, or rather another tone problem which is being discussed, I don’t think Prof. Dawkins tone has changed in the last 10 years. There have been several posts in the blog-o-sphere starting with Jonathon Jones, followed by a post today Alom Shaha about tone (both of Dicky D and of Jonathon Jones). And several other posts for instance by a member of the Cambridge Skeptics Andrew Holding. There are various arguments about Dawkins, but the theme of these, in part, is his tone.

But the other thing that comes to mind to me, speaking of Dawkins, is the hoopla about that papal visit.

Ok, so now there is a whole protest about the Pope, presumably because he knew all about abuse of children and didn’t do the right things. There are other human rights issues in there too, according to the protestors see the petition to Number 10.

What I am definitely NOT saying is that we shouln’t be appalled by rape, or any human rights abuses. And another thing I am NOT saying here, is I am not making any judgements on whether or not the Holy See is guilty, that is not the point of this post, and in all honesty I don’t know enough about human rights records in one country vs. another to really give a fair comment.

But there a couple of things about this protest that are just weird.

1 – Running a State means you have State visits, and the Papal visit isn’t any more expensive than any other State visit, and not that I know this but I bet a visit by Obama is even more expensive.

2- State visits don’t always entail representatives of States which have practices that you entirely agree with. For instance Prince Andrew is in China right now. China is a communist country, and uh democracies or even in this case a constitutional monarchy, and they don’t exactly see eye to eye about all sorts of issues, including human rights. Guantanamo Bay is a human rights violation, but George Bush still got to visit the UK, while he was president – without a petition to number 10.

Anyone, in the UK, does have the right to protest, and I can see why you would protest against human rights abuses BUT if its really about human rights – there are lots of state visits you could protest, where do you start? Do you stop State visits altogether?

3- I don’t think human rights abuses is solely the issue with this visit. And why do I think this? Because of the TONE. What its about is the fact that the Pope is religious leader and a State leader – and we know Dawkin’s position on Religion being the harbinger of immorality. So really this protest appears to be about about RELIGIOUS people doing bad things and not people just doing bad things.

And this is the part that really bothers me, why is it any WORSE because its the Pope? Human rights violations are human rights violations no matter who the perpertrator, full stop. Why pick the Pope? If you believe there is a leader who doesn’t protect against human rights violations, shouldn’t you be appalled equally, independent of that leader’s metaphysical belief system?

But maybe the real point – as Dawkins is a champion of atheism as an opposing force to religion, and given his tone about that subject – is that really he is appalled because there is a State visit by a religious leader, who hasn’t always done something he agrees with. The Pope does happen to be one of the few, relatively, State leaders who are also the head of a Religion.

But then again, so is the Queen.

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