Girl, Interrupting

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.

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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.

May 27, 2010

Ivory towers, science and society

why it takes all kinds

Ok it appears there is no more money – I mean science, research, business innovation, technology and higher education money, where both the US and the UK governments are making cuts. (see my previous post) I think everyone knows this and there are probably going to be more cuts, more cuts, and more cuts.

So those lucky enough not to be made redundant in science research and academia are going to be under more pressure than even before to find grant money, while doing MORE teaching and oh, yes, publishing more high-impact papers. (The point the research scientists are going to become ‘administrators’ has been made excellently by Austin Elliot from his blog about the real problem with elitist funding.)

And at the same time, there needs to be a big push to increase scientific literacy and science in society. The sector does need to promote itself better undoubtedly – but the sector may not necessarily mean every working scientist. Just like the US government is not necessarily representative of everyone in America.

Or does it?

Both the US National Science Foundation (NSF) and European research council funding bodies have a broader-impact portion to their grants, where they want to make this much more prevalent in years to come. What is entails is that to get funding you as a research scientist need to address the broader impacts your specific research has to society. But as was pointed out by Corie Lok at Nature, this may not be the most efficient way to actually increase scientific literacy.

But the original idea was, according to the NSF, ….established to get scientists out of their ivory towers and connect them to society.

I think its a good idea to get ‘SCIENCE’ out of the Ivory tower but not necessarily all scientists…

For 2 reasons

1 – Science really takes all kinds. Scientists are humans and humans aren’t necessarily good at all things equally. We all know how this works. Its like sports teams. Most good prop forwards in Rugby are pretty bad fly-halves, just as a good offensive lineman in American football is probably pretty crap as a wide receiver.

Why does anyone think that scientists are different? Some scientists need an ivory tower environment to be good at what they do, some need more input from others, some are inspired by and for teaching, some are good at connecting with the world at large and increasing scientific literacy. And sometimes a person trained in communication who works WITH scientists can be more effective than scientists themselves, because this after all is what they are trained to do.

Just because you are a good scientist, doesn’t mean you are a good administrator – to pick the most often used example I have heard in research science. And this idea that every scientist can excel in all of these functions is ludicrous.

and 2 –

Many working scientists already have too much to do. And they will have even more to do with all of the budgetary cuts in the UK universities – because not only are faculty members being made redundant but so are technicians, secretarial staff and graduate student places who often do a lot of demonstrating and teach.

Using the example of say a senior lecturer in the UK (or associate prof in the US) – they teach, they write grants to do research, if they are lucky and can get grants they supervise graduate students, they do admin, they do secretarial work, they do IT, then they run out of research money and have to write grants again…

But then we want scientists to produce stuff and discover great new things and which have obvious benefits to society. But in reality there are sometimes no obvious benefits to society, at least in the short term. Some science is technology driven, and produces in the short term but big chunks of science is pretty slow and but can potential have HUGE impact in the longer term.

AND to reiterate the first point, some scientists work on short-term technological research, some on fundamental (long term) research; so not only have we forgotten that there needs to be different roles for different people, but we are trying to get scientists to all of these roles at the same time.

What is needed in the scientific and higher education sectors is a massive re-think of how things are done. Perhaps a massive restructuring, and I don’t mean in the way that restructuring is currently done, when universities chop around research and divisions, but an actual revolution in how we work and how we accomplish all of the tasks at hand both societally and scientifically. We need to seriously assess not only who would be most useful where but how we need to as a community increase scientific literacy

I don’t really have any answers, but I do think its time to open this discussion in a different more productive way, where we assess different roles, rather than just assuming if you are good at getting research money, you are good at administration and a good teacher.

The goal, I think, might be to get people in the correct roles where they could achieve more, and it might also increase scientific literacy, allowing science as a sector to descend from the Ivory tower and leave the scientists who work better there right where they are.

May 24, 2010

Do we really need another sputnik before we do something?

Filed under: higher education,science — sylviamclain @ 4:13 pm
Tags: , , ,

Do you like your mobile phone? Do you like the fact that you can use the world wide web to connect with your friends?
do you like using your iphone when you sit on a delayed train?

Yes?

Than why don’t you support government funding of the sciences?

I think the answer many folks would give is this:
I already have a mobile and a computer and television, what is your point?
Governments are in deficit, we don’t have any money – we need budget cuts, I don’t want to fund some scientist that does something esoteric and useless…

I am a scientist, and I can’t count the times that people have said to me ‘but how is this useful?’ or ‘what is the point of that?’ or even worse ‘Wow, you must be really smart, I could never understand that’

These questions are not so easy to answer because there is not always a clear connection between scientific discovery or the science we are doing right now and this is, in part, because we don’t know precisely where science is going to lead us in the long-term.

but I also think one of the problems is that there is not always a clear public understanding of science and its history and its link to modern technology

So, who’s fault is that?
There are several places we could lay blame but I think now might be a good time to ask…

Do we as scientists do a good job at communicating with the public?
I would say yes and no and we are going to have to do better…

Yes: There is a huge amount of science blogging these days, on science, on science policy, on the use of evidence-based methods, on bad science in the media and many more. There are science programmes with Brian Cox, Simon Singh, on Planet Earth and the BBC recently announced it wanted to help increase science literacy by launching programmes on the celebration of science.

But is this enough?
No: Apparently not Because people and politicians still ask this question – ‘ how is this useful?’ and then, perhaps by default, decide it isn’t useful enough. Among the first things that are being cut in this economic crisis by both the US and UK governments are science and higher education.

The US House just blocked the scientifically based America COMPETES bill and wants to freeze funding for research budgets at US Department of Energy and the National Science Foundation over the next 3 years.

and today the first cuts announced by the UK coalition government were:
…. £836m of cuts to the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS), £670m to the Department for Education, and no cuts to the Departments for Health,
Defence, and International Development
(my italics).

Would this happen if there were public outrage? Perhaps it would anyway, but perhaps not.

as is noted by Road from Ruin authors Bishop and Green, today’s £6bn cuts are political rather than useful economically . Aside from the obvious caveat that public outcry doesn’t mean much to the government, as it often doesn’t, this is at the very least is where the government thought the best cuts could be made and must on some level be linked to a public perception of the importance of government funding for science and education.

but as was simply put: from twitter today:
@THE (Times Higher Education) @NHJ_HE Does the sector communicate effectively how important it is to the public?
I think not. If they did, everyone would #loveHE

Despite all of the gargantuan efforts of scientific writers such as Ben Goldacre, Simon Singh and Brian Cox there is more to do and maybe as a community we need to try to do better.

Or maybe we need another Sputnik:

At exactly 19:28:34, October 4, 1957 the soviet satellite Sputnik was launched and spent 3 months in orbit, I wasn’t alive then, but apparently you could see it from the USA on a warm summer evening, travelling in the Earth’s upper atmosphere.
the US freaked out – how were the Soviets ahead? They thinking about satellites too, the US decided that they were a good idea in 1955, but Spunik caught Westerners off guard – and thus became NASA…

I probably don’t have to go into the details of what NASA brought us, do I? We all know this – everyone likes the Velcro example but what about SATELLITES, which allow things like mobiles, the internet, wireless internet..
But what Sputnik also did was increase the education budget and specifically the science education budget in the US, as politicians at the time saw the link between science research and higher eduction.

but we don’t need another cold war to inspire us – maybe we can up the ante in the scientific community – extend the efforts of those already blogging about science (see above, and apologies for anyone I missed) and creating such laudable organizations as ‘Sense about Science’ and I’m a scientist.

I think we need to add a little history – about how technology has been developed from scientific research, which was considered, perhaps ‘useless’ at the time, and this is what I, for one, intend to do.

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