Girl, Interrupting

June 17, 2010

Persevering against all odds is NOT the way forward

Beware of the hype..

Most of us love a good old perseverance, against all odds, pulling yourself up by your boot straps story.

And there are thousands of them about scientific people – some apocryphal, some mythological and some of them are even true.

Are most great scientists like this? Should we take these stories to heart during these difficult financial times? Definitely not.

So many people love to talk about Einstein and how he merely worked as a lowly patent officer and then miraculously launched into cutting edge world physics – apocryphally on his own, where he was anti-establishment, beyond the realm of normal stuffy academics.
But the man had a PhD in Physics and worked hard, incredibly hard, and importantly always maintained access to the library at University of Vienna, where he read alot. And his job at the patent office, wasn’t exacly, what most people probably think it was. They weren’t paper pushing bored bureaucrats at Einstein’s patent office, like the driver’s license offices of today. Nope, they were scientists trying to prove if what was being patented was actually scientifically sound. Intellectually, it was a fabulous place to be.

Then we have the mythological – the Good Will Hunting model, where the poor Boston working-class boy who sweeps the floor is actually a mathematical genius and can solve things just by well, you know, gazing at numbers on the wall knowing what they mean – with NO training. Which would be akin to learning to speak Chinese by just looking at the characters, which I have tried – it doesn’t work ( but maybe I am just not a genius).

But, really. This just doesn’t happen. Almost every story like this, when you behind this veneer of idiot savant, there is usually some training, sometimes autodiadectic, hard work and some pre-exposure to the subject at hand.

Then there are the stories about women – how against all odds they overcame adversity to do the scientific research they were passionate about and always wanted to do. Rosalind Franklin is a good example – she was shunned, ousted, and eventually (posthumously in fact) given credit for her contributions to science. This is cool, don’t get me wrong, against-all-odds stories usually puts a tear even in my crusty eye.

But think how much MORE Dr. Franklin could have done with more support and more funding!

And while these are great stories, they are also really dangerous stories.

Why? Because sometimes it leads people to believe that ALL science is conducted, or rather all science COULD be best conducted against the odds by people so passionate they don’t care about things like, getting paid! AND this gives governments a good excuse NOT to fund science or higher education under the idea the adversity is the mother of invention. The real quote, as you know, is necessity is the mother of invention.

But a mother is not the only parent – whether you are single parented or not, it takes two – in some capacity. And what I am getting at is the other parent is almost always SCHOOL and TRAINING. Thinking, and thinking well, takes an awful lot of reading, grist to the mill and work.

So should we give up on science funding and vainly hope that all of the researchers and geniuses out there will just beat the odds and discover what they were going to discover anyway?

Perhaps some would say – yes, sure, why not? If Einstein can do it so can anyone else (I think it is worth mentioning here, Einstein was a theorist… back in the day when they didn’t need computers, but now to be a theorist you really need them, and they cost money).

On the surface this might seem sort of viable.

For instance, the UK, per capita, has a higher scientific publication rate and a higher citation rate from those publications compared to the rest of the world, second only to the US, despite spending a smaller proportion of their GDP, on the average, on science funding than most countries (the US actually spends a lower proportion of their GDP, but the US has a much bigger GDP than Britain).

Now in the current funding climate, this should give us a warm fuzzy smug feeling in the UK, we can pump ourselves up know that we can achieve so much with ‘so little’ and persevere despite the lack of funding.

It really isn’t much solace however, largely because it is NOT TRUE.

These are statistics from 2004, AFTER the UK has increased its R&D budget over a 10 year period from 1992 to 2003, under Labour, to be close to the highest in Europe by the end of 10 the year period. However, NOW, the science, R&D and Higher educations budgets are decreasing, so these publication statistics will undoubtedly get worse, the UK won’t be soaring at #2 after all of the budget cuts.

When you are close to the top of research and innovation is when you want to put in MORE money to keep up the momentum, not slide back into wartime austerity measures, and start bringing up stories about those who persevered without.

This is true especially now, when most UK-based industries are failing and new ‘technologically based industries’ are needed. ALL of the candidates in the recent UK general election were in agreement about this, during the election anyway, though not apparently any more.

A ‘make do and mend’ mentality, persevering against the odds are admirable individual qualities and of course help with research, teaching and reading science. But relying on these qualities to emerge from underfunded science and education sectors is not simply less than ideal, it is the death toll for science, innovation and higher education en masse.

But I guess we will get some good stories out of it.

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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…

BUT

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.

April 25, 2010

Should scientific funding really be MORE elite?

Filed under: science — sylviamclain @ 4:55 pm
Tags: , , ,

or how to creatively hamstring scientific progress….

Funding the scientifically elite is fundamentally short sighted.

The new (or almost new) head of the Royal Society in Britain, Sir Paul Nurse, wants to reform scientific funding – joy!
Something does need to be changed, as funding to do scientific research is shrinking to the point where it is almost non-existent in the UK and other parts of the world.

But what Nurse proposes will in reality make the situation worse– he wants to make funding more elite or in his words – “I think this has got to be solved really by having support systems that can reflect the fact that some people are very, very good”

Ignoring for the moment the class-based, bigoted language problems with Nurse’s statement – even though he says he is really non-elitist in other parts of his life – I am sure he has lots of friends who are not elite; this is going the wrong way for funding in fundamental scientific research. The system already funds these people who are very, very good; so do they get even more money at the expense of everything else?

Nurse also says “Much of the [current non-elite] work is worthy but the question is, do we have enough at that top end who make real discoveries?”

This ignores the fact that that boring ‘worthy’ science is what is needed for the ‘top end’ elite to make those real discoveries…

As Issac Newton once said, ‘standing on the shoulders of giants’ even though Newton himself liked to squash the opposition like small ants (Newton, wasn’t a nice guy) – the point is well taken. Before we can get to the sexy stuff, there is lots of detailed graft you have to do… if you stop funding anything that is not a top discovery – you strip the backbone of science.

Funding the elite would also obliterate the important discoveries that no one ever expected; and kill some important research just because the funders presuppose that it is crap – Lord Kelvin (who was a very, very good scientist back in the day) once said that ‘radio has no future’ and that ‘X-rays were a hoax’, it is probably a good thing that Lord Kelvin wasn’t in charge of handing out scientific funding to who he thought was elite.

Nurse only really has a point when you think about industrial or applied research which solves ‘societal problems’ and has a specific goal. Arguably the best example of this is the Manhattan project which had a specific goal – build a nuclear weapon. The US government hired the best ‘elite’ scientists as well as thousands and thousands of the presumably non-elite – and in the end, they were successful. In fact government and industry should do more of this – using focused big-cash methods to solve problems such as for alternate energy to fossil fuels but they, TOO, need to keep the funding up even when the science seems slow or not a ‘top discovery’ – science takes time and, again, a whole lot of graft. (As an aside the Royal Society and similar funding bodies don’t typically have a large amount of money anyway – so these ‘elite’ funding methods would be like firing a couple of mail room clerks to save costs at Lehman Brothers.)

But there is a difference between industrial (or applied) research and fundamental research.

Both use scientific methods to solve problems but fundamental research is considered distinct from applied research. As a loose definition, ‘fundamental research” (such as that which is funded by the Royal Society) is academic. It is research that may not have a direct application which is apparent or immediate but does actually add to the wider scientific body of knowledge. And applied research is well, applied.

The line between fundamental and applied research is often fuzzy. Some fundamental research eventually leads to practical applications – the discovery of the neutron for instance was fundamental, but led to lots of industrial applications in the long run and the big government funded NASA program brought us Velcro, same idea – you never know where science may go and what discoveries will be made.

And Sir Nurse should know better.

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