Girl, Interrupting

August 27, 2010

Ensuring that there really will be no jam tomorrow-

Filed under: UK Science policy — sylviamclain @ 1:50 pm
Tags: ,

Shutting down research facilities today? Does this mean Jam tomorrow? No! No! No!

It’s short-sighted and stupid.

Even Margaret Thatcher knew that… The ISIS facility in Oxfordshire (a neutron source in danger of being ‘mothballed’) was built in 1984 and opened by… Margaret Thatcher – there is a plaque there which shows the Iron lady’s appearance,you can go and see it
Margaret Thatcher

Now George Osborne and Co. want to shut it down. Shame on you, what would the blessed Margaret think? My point is, even the Tories of yore thought it was a good idea, despite their economic policies, which says alot.

The Guardian reports:
John Womersley, director of science programmes at the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC), told the Guardian it would not be possible to achieve such deep cuts without mothballing a major facility. (N.B. the STFC ‘runs’ several major facilities – Diamond, a synchrotron for X-rays, ISIS – a neutron facility, among others in the UK – one of which might be targeted to shut down. Not to mention the UK’s involvement in CERN.)

Great that Womersley is supporting the STFC, that is really what you need in a director ….

In this same Guardian article shutting down a major facility has been likened (aptly in my view) to building the Olympic stadium and then just deciding not to have the Olympics.

Moreover, former Lib-Dem MP and science advocate Dr. Evan Harris has invoked a call to arms in a Guardian article, where and points out that the Con/Lib government doesn’t even have a Science Advisor! (Correction: I originally mis-quoted this, the government does have a Scince advisor, its theTreasury Department that doesn’t have a Science Advisor see here , apologies)
Similarly, Prof. Brian Cox has written about this as well, in the Sun.

so this is me arming myself in protest, for whatever its worth:

This idea to ‘mothball a major facility’ is so stupid on so many levels, and because I am so angry about this its hard to even comprehensibly write this blogpost. However who will care? Besides the obvious scientists…. Especially now that the DIRECTOR of STFC said lets mothball these things, and if he says so, than there might be the mistaken message this could be a good idea!

So here are my thoughts on why this is A REALLY BAD IDEA!

1 – OK its expensive to run ISIS, Diamond, etc. And maybe making financial changes is needed, but there a couple of points about this – Other EU countries buy into to this, do you think they can just transfer their money to saving the UK economy in some other fashion?

It took billions of £’s, time and effort to build these facilities in the first place, shutting them down wastes all of that money and in the long-term isn’t economically smart.

Private, industrial companies PAY to run experiments at these facilities they don’t necessarily need to use these facilities in the UK, they can go to the US or Japan if they have to and pay them. Maybe, with a little CAREFUL THOUGHT, this private use could be increased?

2 – Short sighted, short-sighted short-sighted –
This kind of wholesale cuts are what the US did in the 70’s. After putting ALL sorts of money into alternative fuel source research, initially, when the oil crisis stopped, they took the money, away?!? Even to the level that Reagan took the solar panels off the White House, which the Carter administration put on! And as a result look where we are now.
Now, we think alternative fuel source research is a GOOD idea, and we missed 30 years of progress that could have been made (both technological and scientific) on this front, and now we are desperately trying to pay catch up in the middle of an economic crisis….

3 – Q-Dos,q-dos, q-dos
NEVER ever underestimate the value of being ‘the best in the world’ ISIS and Diamond are WORLD CLASS Facilities, that means something – people come here from ALL over the world to collaborate and do scientific research at at WORLD CLASS facility. You shut the facilities down, the government looks stupid and they don’t just start back up very easily, everyone has gone somewhere else. So say you decide to shut down a major facility and then you decide to turn them on again in say 2015- ALL of your expertise will be gone! and the UK’s science reputation will be lost – and given that the US and Japan are both building major facilities equivalent to ISIS and Diamond, why would you want to stay in the UK?

I realize there are counter-arguments to all of my points, but this idea of shutting the facilities is over the top, its throwing the baby out with the bath water. Oh and STFC might want to think about a new director…


August 20, 2010

It is damn hard to admit you are wrong

And I don’t mean when you get the facts unequivocally wrong like in a pub quiz, you kind of have to say you were wrong when you find out Sylvia Plath wrote the Bell Jar after you claimed it was Charles Darwin.

What is hard to see – really hard to see – is when you only might be wrong. For instance you think X, someone asks you have you thought about Y? which might make you change your mind about X. Lots of us just a) choose to ignore Y, b) spend a long time justifying why really Y doesn’t matter or c) get really angry and argue more about X.

Its the standard criticism people a large portion of the scientific community have about Homeopathy. Practitioners of homeopathy say it works, scientific evidence says it doesn’t. Homeopaths ignore scientific evidence, so the story goes.

What is true is that data is data, data doesn’t lie – but the interpretation of data, and this is what scientists spend, arguably, most of their time doing, is an entirely different matter. Even though we don’t like to admit it, especially in science (because, after all scientists are supposed to be entirely rational), its hard to alter your pet theory when the data doesn’t quite match up, when it is not obvious that you might be wrong.

BUT, even though this is difficult, it is also part of the job. You must to try to weigh the evidence rationally, and when your theory is wrong just say it is wrong.

The Ben Goldacre/Samira Ahmed twitter ‘debate’ is a good example of this – Goldacre said he was wrong, but not without a flood of excuses…
(see here and here)

So Ben Goldacre tweeted that an upcoming news show (which included maths formula, he assumed was not kosher) was ‘bollocks’ on Twitter and invited heckler’s from the Twitter community to reiterate this point. Turns out, he was wrong, so admitting his mistake he tweeted:

BenGoldacre: @samiraahmedc4 humblest apologies, all the outward signs of bullshit were there, and was impossible to tell from PA report. sorry!

and quoting Suw Charman-Anderson:
It was entirely unsurprising that he should see Samira’s tweets and dismiss them out of hand, given the PR industry’s history of producing bunkum formulae to promote their own brands.

Maybe so, we all have reasons why we are wrong, but and here is the point… its a not easy to say what probably should be said. In this case something like – “I was wrong because I didn’t read the evidence and just had a knee-jerk reaction, even though most of my articles are about gathering evidence and in this case I didn’t bother before I reacted” – would have maybe been more appropriate. And more difficult.

Its much easier when you make a mistake to blame it on other stuff, rather than just saying ‘that was stupid, sorry’
I have caught myself doing this, and even with regard to my research, but in my job there is a standard I have to live up to. If I want to be worth my salt as scientist I have to try to read and collect the evidence before I just decide something is crap.

I think this is a good lesson, for lack of a better word, about what ‘evidence-based’ should mean. It means actually listening to the evidence, reading the evidence, before you say anything, even if it is from sources you don’t always respect. Evidence is not about the people or venue its reported in, it is about the evidence. This is not always so easy, but it is an ideal we should strive for.

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