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.

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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 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.

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