Girl, Interrupting

February 18, 2011

Scientists need to ask ‘important’ questions – oh and stop “whingeing”

Scientists need to ask ‘important’ questions – oh and stop “whingeing”

Science question time on Feb 16th – put on by the Biochemical Society, CaSE (Campaign for Science and Engineering) and the good folks from Imperial College was, I thought, an excellent event. An invigorating panel loaded with a large variety of thought provoking questions. Sophie Scott was in my opinion the star of the panel with thoughtful and well-balanced comments and answers.

Mark Walport , Director of the Wellcome Trust, on the other hand, spent a fair proportion of his ‘air time’ telling scientists to ‘stop whingeing’, saying that scientists must ask ‘important’ questions – and defending, in a nutshell, an ‘excellence’ based structure of science research funding where less people are given more money. This wouldn’t lead to less jobs, he argued, but rather more focused work on ‘important’ questions. I am of course paraphrasing, Walport also had some good things to say, which I think were somehwat contradictory to his paraphrased statements above.

I have a lot to say about this but I will try to be brief

1 – I am so very tired of being hearing ‘scientists need to stop whingeing’ and the implication that ‘scientists’ are just lazy and not working on ‘important’ questions but rather as Walport suggested that lots of scientists sit around and work on non-important, esoteric, navel-gazing type of questions which are a waste of everyone’s time.

First of all this is hard to prove in any real sense, if you want to try and make a statement about this in terms of funding (who gets funded and who doesn’t), this doesn’t work so well. As almost everyone that writes grants is aware, you write a significant larger number of grants than you ever get funded for. Does this necessarily mean that your question isn’t important? but I will say more about this in a minute…

This attitude really bothers me. And its not just Walport (others, such as Vince Cable who said most reserach in the UK is ‘not excellent’ relatively recently)

Stop whingeing and get on with it
What bothers me about this is that it is just a throw-away thing to say, and it instills anger in people trying to do research, telling a group of educated people to shut up and do your job publicly only increases hostility between the people who are ‘in charge’ (of funding, of decisions, of whatever) and the people doing the science – Apparently pyschology isn’t an ‘important’ science because maybe if it was Walport would have read something about how bitching at people isn’t exactly the best way to get them to be efficient.

This attitude indicates that people like Walport aren’t listening to complaints by scientists – some may be legitimate some may not, but it seems to me if you are in some sort of position of administration for a grant funding body it should be a part of your JOB to listen to what the people that are doing the research actually think about how you are funding it. There are times when people do need to shut up and get on with it – but in this instance it is dismissive and an easy way out on Walport’s part. If you just tell people to shut up and go away it keeps you from having to address any real questions.

2 – Scientists need to be asking “important” questions.

Really, did we not know that? Most people that do scientific research feel they are asking important questions – I really doubt there are people that go to work and think – I am going to do my OWN research on a non-important question just becuase I don’t have anything else to do today.

and as @Stephen_Curry asked – well who decides what is ‘important’? I have blogged about this here, in the long-term you NEVER know where discoveries will come from. Do your peers decide? As Walport argued all funding comes by virtue of a peer-review grant process, yes it does, but peer-reviewers can be and are constrained, it depends on the funding scheme and importantly on the number of grants that are funded.
For instance, if all research councils decide that they are only going to fund certain topics than only people that work on these sexy topics will get funded. Deciding what topics are “sexy” is a dangerous game, as it is easy to identify sexy science when sexy science is ALREADY successful, but this greatly destroys your base for up and coming science or science that may well be “sexy” in 20 years, but maybe not so sexy now.

If only 3% of all grants are funded than many ‘important’ questions will get cut based on sheer numbers. Ranking importance isn’t easy to do for any peer-review group as they may be wrong and they don’t have crystal balls that peer into the future. Paraphrasing from the US Television Drama The West Wing, Einstein probably wouldn’t get funded today – people like Einstein would have been writing grants to funding bodies that were headed by people like Lord Kelvin who thought that physics was dead, in short he would have never gotten funded.

3 – People will keep their jobs they will just work on common problems (‘important’ questions)

This is good in some respects but it very much depends on the research. The Atomic bomb was a good example of very smart people working on a common problem. Working towards a specific technological advance is another very good example.
But only funding research like this is limiting and short-sighted.
One of the great strengths of the UK science research system, at least in the past, is that it tends to fund quite broadly – lots of ideas from blue skies research to established research – but you have to fund things across the board.

I am not arguing that really good scientists shouldn’t get money, they should and they already do, maybe they should get more but you have to fund younger scientists and less well known scientists with new ideas so that in 20 – 30 years you will have new sexy science instead of a monolithic non-diverse structure – like in ecology and finance – you need a diverse system to allow growth into the future. The danger is that if only 3 research topics get funded what happens when that research begins to reach a natural end? Where do you go next? If you have a pool of research (like a gene pool) you ensure, as much as you can ever ensure, that the soil is ready for the future and that you don’t end up with the scientific equivalent of the Hapsburg Chin.

Scientists as a group, of course have room for improvement, we can do things better, like communicate, but I don’t think continually telling us to get on with it, stop complaining and work on ‘important’ science is getting anyone anywhere. I think there needs to be some give on both sides – Scientists listing to what those in charge say and those ‘in charge’ taking some time and care to listen to working research scientists, not those who already have their FRS or Nobel prize, but those who are at different levels in their careers.


January 3, 2011

Science Funding cuts are political not a reflection of elitist science

In the US and the UK governments are making or threatening science education and funding cuts, is that partly the fault of scientists being ‘elitist’ ?

Today is the first day of the new Republican Majority Congress in the US – with Eric Cantor taking the reins as House majority Leader …

One of Cantor’s first ‘targets’ of attack to stop the ‘overspending’ by the US government is the National Science Foundation – which is roughly equivalent to a research council in the UK – that is scientists write for competitive grant funding from the NSF to do a variety of scientific research. Cantor and Co. have set up a website called You Cut which asks the general public to search on the public NSF website here to find funding which they deem ‘un-necessary’ – Why Cantor chose the NSF if he really wanted to cut money is beyond me – the 2011 budget request for NSF is $7.4 billion out of a total of around $3.5 trillion is about 0.2% of the total US budget – as opposed to say Social Security or Defense (both around ~20% of the US federal budget) – so if you cut two or three $1 million projects (at 0.00002 % of the federal budget each) then you can work out the real financial savings this makes – zilch.

Similar to the budget cuts in the UK – the reasons for this attack are almost certainly political not financial. Cantor himself says that much of what the NSF funds is ‘useful’. Both deficit reducing policies want to be seen as tackling the deficit and ‘looking’ out for how government wastes money, thereby saving the tax-paying electorate from profligate spending. There are obvious similarties with the US Republican Congress under Gingrich (after Clinton’s first mid-term in 1992) with its attack on the NEA (National Endowment for the Arts). The NEA, which has a relatively tiny budget (155 million as of FY2009 – 0.004% of the US federal budget), was attacked because, in a nut shell, some of the funded art was deemed to have anti-family and Christian values.

But the NSF doesn’t really cross loggerheads with many social conservative issues, so why attack the NSF? Why attack science budgets in general? (as has also been happening in the UK – see all of the coverage of the Science-Is-Vital campaign)

One of the arguments for WHY science is under attack is because there is a public perception that scientists are ‘elitist’. The last UK government was concerned about this perception, Labour launched a campaign to reduce the public perception of scientists as elitists in January 2009. Science, like art, should be for all and for the benefit of all, but is this why it is under attack? Because it is perceived as an elitist activity? Because people feel like you have to be a ‘genius’ to engage in science? Is it the fault of scientists, who ‘don’t communicate’ but stay in their ‘high-brow’ ivory towers, feeling so superior to the rest of the plebeian world?

I don’t think that science communication or scientific elitistism (Yes some scientists are ‘elitist;, but I would argue most aren’t) has much to do with it, except in the sense that the arguments for science funding may lack public support. It is a political attack and may or may not work in the next US congressional session (it is too early to tell), but because it is something that is not seen as ‘essential’ to the public it is an easy attack. It is also a tiny bit of the budget, but a single program which could be cut and not effect but a few (in the short term) in comparison to say Medicare which has a big chunk of the budget and its dissolution would effect alot more people in the US.

Do scientists need to communicate better? Absolutely, but we are working on that, and science communication IS getting better, especially with the advent of social media and the blogosphere. It needs to get better because science is important and needs to garner support when these crazy cut ideas come from any government but, again, I don’t think ‘elite science’ or bad communication is responsible for the current cut scare, short-sighted governments are and it is indeed more political in flavour than purely anti-scientific.

The good news is that the NEA has survived, since attacks since the 1980’s; let’s hope the NSF does too.

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…

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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