Paul Drayson

Just finished listening to the Times Higher Education debate titled Blue Skies Ahead? featuring Brian Cox as the chair and including Paul Drayson (the Science Minister) on the panel. It also featured a number of other young scientists but it ended up being dominated by Paul Drayson (although this was more because most questions were fired at him than because he explicitly tried to take over).

It was quite interesting and although Paul Drayson comes across reasonably well I think he generally seems to miss the point. One of the issues was the inclusion of impact in the upcoming Research Excellence Framework (REF). His argument was that it is retrospective and is intended to make scientists think about the impact of their research and allow future funding to depend on past impact. One of the criticisms is that to a certain extent this is what peer review does anyway to which he responded, well what’s the problem then? The problem – as pointed out well by someone in the audience – is that it is generally accepted (and supposedly this has been studied) that adding these kind of impact assessments has a negative effect on future impact. Yes, we need some kind of review process to determine the value of proposed research (or how well a particular university has done in the recent past) but when you try to define – too narrowly – the assessment criteria, people (organisations?) start to play games to optimise how well they satisfy these criteria and ultimately research impact suffers.

The other point I think he missed is the issue of the funding of the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC). The Science and Technology Facilities Council manages all major UK research facilities (including international partnerships such as ESA, ESO, and CERN), but also directly funds research in Astronomy, Particle Physics and Nuclear Physics. The problem is that STFC has a £40 million hole (or what is now referred to as a hole) in its budget which is likely to significantly affect upcoming research grant applications. According to Paul Drayson, STFC was given a sufficient budget and any problems are poor management (in which case, why are they still there) or projects running over budget. His views seems to be that if projects run over budget then something else has to suffer and it is not reasonable to expect the government to step in and help, or to take money from other research councils to help STFC. I would agree with him if the only scientists who exploit STFC facilities were STFC funded scientists, but they’re not. STFC manages all major UK research facilities so why should STFC scientists be the only ones to suffer when STFC projects cost more than expected.

All in all, I thought Paul Drayson is genuinely interested in reaching some kind of consensus and is really trying to listen to the views of others, but ultimately I don’t think he quite gets all of the subtleties of the situation. My impression is that he is a better politician than scientist.


Climate change

I was at a party last night with a couple of geophysicists, one of whom had a particular interest in climate change. What was interesting was that one of them didn’t seem particularly convinced that we should necessarily worry about climate change. I asked about the relevance of Venus (which I blogged about here) and she seemed to think that even though Venus has a carbon dioxide rich atmosphere and has an equilibrium temperature of 700 K, we don’t know what the Earth’s equilibrium temperature would be if it’s atmosphere were much more carbon dioxide rich than it is now. She seemed to think that it may be the case that if we added as much carbon dioxide as we possibly could to the Earth’s atmosphere, the Earth might just heat up a little and then stabilise at some temperature slightly higher than it is today.

In fairness this wasn’t an argument against changing to renewable energy sources, but simply a suggestion that science hasn’t yet proven convincingly that adding lots of carbon dioxide to the Earth’s atmosphere could lead to runaway global warming. Although she may be strictly correct (i.e., that science hasn’t yet provided convincing prove), I still think that Venus’s properties suggests that it is reasonable to be worried (very?) about putting too much carbon dioxide into the Earth’s atmosphere.

As I discussed in an earlier post Venus being closer to the Sun resulted in more water vapour and carbon dioxide in the atmosphere which lead to a runaway greenhouse process, resulting in Venus having an equilibrium temperature of 700 K (500oC). What I didn’t mention in that post is that Venus reflects about 75% of the incident radiation from the Sun (the Earth reflects about 30%). This means that the amount of energy reaching the surface of Venus is actually less than the amount of energy reaching the surface of the Earth, even though Venus is closer to the Sun than the Earth.

So what does this tell us? It tells us that a planet that started off similar to the Earth but closer to the Sun (and hence receiving more Solar energy) has ended up with a surface temperature of 700 K, but now absorbs less energy from the Sun than the Earth (since the carbon dioxide rich atmosphere now reflects a large fraction of the incident radiation). Of course the Earth can’t undergo exactly the same process as Venus because for the same atmospheric conditions, the Earth’s surface has to receive less Solar Energy than the Sun.

However, the expected ratio of the temperature of Venus to the temperature of the Earth is 1.17:1 (i.e., Venus should be about 17 % hotter than the Earth). The difference is of course because Venus reached a tipping point where the process ran away, the temperature rose uncontrollably, water vapour and oxygen escaped from the atmosphere and the process only stabilised once essentially all the carbon dioxide was in the atmosphere and all the water vapour and oxygen had escaped. I guess this person I was speaking to was technically correct in that we don’t know where this tipping point is. What I think we do know is that if we reach it, we would expect the Earth’s temperature to stabilise at something like 630 K (357oC). The actual transmission properties of the atmosphere will influence this slightly, but it’s hard to see how it could be such as to produce a stable temperature significantly below this.

Ultimately this person’s main gripe seemed to be about how alarmist some of the climate change rhetoric can be. In principle I would tend to agree that any form of extremism is generally misguided and that with an educated society we should be able to approach this openly and honestly. Ultimately, however, this doesn’t seem to have worked very well so far. I happen to believe that climate change might be the greatest threat we’ve ever faced and if we are going to be extreme and alarmist about something, this might be it. The real problem seems to be that our leaders and politicians haven’t had the courage to do what really needs to be done and until we can rely on them to make the difficult decisions, I’m not sure what else we can do.

The tax burden

Fascinating article in the Guardian by Polly Toynbee , called
cooling the cutting fisticuffs – take a long, hard look at tax . What the article claims, and what I found particularly interesting, is that the bottom 10% of earners pay 46% of their income in tax, while the richest 10% pay only 34% of their income in tax. What is more, the top fifth of earners take 51% of the national income while the bottom fifth take 3%. This comes from a report by a centre-left pressure group called Compass , and I have no real reason to doubt its veracity.

Apparently the reason for this discrepancy is that the highest earners can take some (or most) of their income in the form of capital gains which is only taxed at 18%. So even though their salary is taxed at a high rate, their actual salary only makes up a small fraction of their total earnings – most of it coming in the form of capital gains. When I first read this I immediately thought that although this may be true, most low earners effectively recover what they lost through taxes in benefits, but I think this doesn’t really make a difference. The public sector makes up something like 40% of the UK’s economy. If we want to sustain what the public sectors offers people in the UK, we have to roughly recover 40% of the total income. We could of course decide that the public sector should only make up 30% of the UK economy which we could achieve by privatising some parts of the public sector, but I happen to believe that this would not be improve things in any way.

So assuming that we accept that the public sector is going to make up about 40% of the UK economy, how do we fund that? Well a simple way would be to take 40% of everyone’s income. This could be through both direct and indirect taxation, but at the end of the day we need this to fund the public portion of the economy. What you could then choose to do is to take a slightly higher fraction of the top earners’s income, leaving those on lower incomes with more money. You can even give some of money back to the lowest earners through benefits since they take such a small fraction of the total income, that this won’t really have a significant impact on government revenue. What you certainly don’t do is take less than 40% of the highest earners’s income. They take such a large portion of the total income that this will have a huge effect on the total amount of government revenue. How can we possibly expect to both sustain the public sector – which I think we should be doing – and draw down the deficit if we don’t at least tax the the highest earners at a rate that will give the government sufficient revenue.

In some sense this isn’t even a discussion about what is fair or not, it seems logical that the simplest way to ensure that government revenues are sufficient is to start by making sure that the highest earners are taxed appropriately. If not enough is recovered from the highest earners, it becomes increasingly difficult to get the remainder of what is required from the lowest earners since they take a smaller fraction of the total income. It seems ridiculous that we are only taking 34% of the total income of the top 10% of earners in a country that intends to have a public sector that makes up 40% of the economy. The top earners presumably would argue that they don’t rely on the public sector to the same extent as the lowest earners, but this is nonsense. Also, in an average sense, something like 40% of their income presumably comes from the public sector. In fact, since they take such a large fraction of the total income, more than 40% must come from the public sector and so taxing them at a higher rate, to a certain extent, is simply recovering public money.

Degrees from 2 different universities

Not many people are reading this blog, which may actually be quite a good thing since it is turning into a bit of a personal core dump. Someone did, however, end up here after doing a search about whether or not they should get degrees from 2 different universities. I don’t know the answer to this, but it did remind me of some discussions I’ve had in my own department about attracting and keeping good PhD students.

A few years ago – prior to my arrival back in the UK – it was apparently fairly common to encourage students not to apply for a PhD place at the same university from which they got their undergraduate degree. The idea, which is probably quite reasonable, is that it would be advantageous to study at more than one university and if everyone does this, good students will ultimately be shared around evenly. This, however, seems to have changed a little. More and more departments are starting to offer PhD places to their own good students. This is probably because we have many more places to fill than was the case a decade or so ago. Trying to fill these places with potentially good students can be hard, and so if you can attract a few good students from different universities, and offer places to some of your own good undergraduates, you will do better than if you encourage your own students to go elsewhere.

Of course, the above policy will only work for a short while, since eventually all departments will be trying to keep as many of their own good students as possible. This may not seem to make much difference but I think it has the potential to make future generations very narrow. Not only do different departments focus in slightly different areas, they also have different research philosophies and practices. Exposing students to a wide range of different topics and different research practices and styles will help our future research leaders to have both a broad understanding of their general area, as well as a detailed understanding of their particular topic. It’s not that those remaining at a single university will not have a broad understanding, but it may be harder to gain that if they’ve never been anywhere else.

I should at least acknowledge that I actually did all my degrees at a single university, but did hold postdoctoral and faculty positions at a number of different universities and in a number of different countries. This too can help – I think – develop breadth and an understanding of different possible research styles. I do think that studying and working in different universities and countries can be very advantageous. It does, however, have some side effects and can disadvantage those who are not able to easily move around – although that is probably a topic for a future post.

Ignorant university leadership?

There is a report in the Times Higher Education that a group of 25 senior university sector figures met to discuss the objection by many in the academic sector to economic and social impact being included in research assessments. They claim to have completely “bought into the impact agenda”, but that there is a group of middle ranking academics/researchers who have “rather lost the plot”.

What these senior figures seem to think is that academics don’t want their research to have impact. This was illustrated by one speaker who was quoted as saying “take a large number of academics into a room and ask them to put their hand up if they wish their work to have no impact whatsoever … I have yet to see a hand”. This statement either illustrates that the speaker is completely ignorant of what drives academics, or it is a completely disingenious comment that intentionally misrepresents the debate in an attempt to make it appear that academics are selfish prats who believe that because they’re so clever they deserve to have taxpayers’ money spent on them without giving anything in return. Of course academics want their work to have impact. They debate is about the optimum way in which to achieve and measure impact.

There is ample evidence to suggest that in many cases impact from fundamental research, be it in the sciences or social sciences, occurs many years after the research is done and in many cases is totally unpredictable. Not only this, but this unpredictable impact can have immense value, much more than would generally be true of predictable research. This is the fundamental point. The argument being made by academics is that you generally cannot predict the economic and social impact of a particular research project in advance. Additionally, if you try to do so and make this an important factor in determining whether to fund research or not, you will drive research to become more predictable and significantly reduce the potential impact.

The only positive spin I can put on the view of these senior university figures is that they believe that including economic and social impact in the assessment of research activities is going to happen whether we like it or not. We may as well, therefore, just get on with it and make the best of it. If this is the case
then I think it is incredibly cowardly and simplistic. It may well happen, but that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be doing our best to illustrate that it may do immense damage and that if too much pressure is put on academics to illustrate the potential impact of their research, it will encourage predictable research that will have minimal impact. This will ultimately be a waste of taxpayers’s money and if anything we have an obligation to spend this money as wisely as possible. Accepting the impact agenda may well violate this principle.

University inclusion policies

I hate to admit it, but I actually agree with something Peter Mandelson has said. He is suggesting that we should use “contextual data” when evaluating students’s university applications. There is quite a lot of what he is proposing that I disagree with, but I agree that we need to make universities more inclusive and that the way to do it is to consider information about an applicant’s background and circumstances.

It’s almost certainly the case that there are academically capable people from all backgrounds and from all walks of life. It’s also probably true that using school leaving grades as the prime factor in determining whether to accept a student or not will mean some potentially very capable people will miss out on university places.  I also believe that it is in everyone’s interest to try and get the “best” students into universities.  By this I mean the ones most likely to excel at their chosen subject irrespective of what kind of grades they have achieved at school.

The difficult thing is working out how to identify those potentially good students who have been disadvantaged in some way and who – consequently – don’t necessarily satisfy a simple grade requirement.  Some kind of analysis of contextual data seems like a reasonable thing to consider.  My personal view would be that determining how well they have done relative to their peers would be a decent place to start.  It seems reasonable to assume that the top students in schools who traditionally do not have many students who satisfy university entry requirements, may well have more potential than those who do satisfy the entry requirements but who are not the top students – or even near the top – in their school.

Whatever method is tried, what I do feel strongly is that we have to start trying something.  At the moment we don’t have much data to work with, so don’t really know what works and what doesn’t.  If we make some educated guesses as to which students from disadvantaged backgrounds may have the potential to do well at university, in a few years time we will be able to analyse how well these students have actually done and adapt the process accordingly.

Interestingly, having started writing this, I have found an article by Zoe Williams suggesting that Peter Mandelson’s comments are typical new labour spin.  A “diversionary row between universities and the government”.  If there is a big row about universities now, the review into students fees will not be complete before the election and the opposition will have nothing concrete to complain about.  Although I do agree with what Peter Mandelson has said about inclusion, I suspect that his real reason for saying this is more along the lines of what Zoe Williams is suggesting than because he truly cares about universities being inclusive.

Citation metrics

It seems like there is an increasing tendency to use metrics to make decisions. Essentially people want to have some measurable quantity that not only allows them to judge the quality of something, but also allows them to justify the decision that is made. In science, the quantity that is often used is number of citations that a person or scientific paper has. For those who are not familiar with this, it is essentially the number of times a particular piece of work is referred to in other pieces of scientific work. It is used when hiring people, when deciding if someone’s research proposal should be funded, and is likely to be used in the upcoming Research Excellence Framework (REF) that will in a few years time decide how much money each university should get from the Higher Education Funding councils.

Generally, citation numbers are not used in isolation and other factors are also considered. What is slightly worrying is the impression – that I am getting – that it is likely to get more and more important in the future. Why is this worrying? Although in some sense citations are a reasonable measure of quality, it is almost certainly relative. For example, it presumably must in some way depend on the size of the particular discipline or sub-discipline.

Let’s consider a field in which 100 papers are published every year and imagine each paper cites 10 other papers, none of which are more than 10 years old. This means that at any time there are 1000 papers that could be cited. A particular paper therefore has a 10 x 1/1000 chance of being cited in another paper. Since 100 papers are published every year, this means that on average a paper has an even chance of being cited once a year. Over its 10 year lifetime it is therefore likely to be cited about 10 times. This number doesn’t actually depend on the size of field. If I increase the number of papers published to 1000 every year but assume that only 10 other papers are cited in each paper published, each paper should still only be cited about 10 times in 10 years.

The problem is that the above number is an average. Some papers will not get cited at all and others will get more often than the average. The maximum numbers of citations that a paper can receive clearly depends on the size of the field. We might expect good papers to have many more citations than the average, but this is certainly limited by the total number of papers published in a particular field. If we decide to make citation counts an important metric in determining the amount of money a particular field (or particular researcher maybe) gets, this suggests that the biggest fields (or the best researchers in the biggest fields) will get the most money. At first this may seem alright, especially if the initial size of each field has been determined by some other objective measure. Over time, however, the biggest fields will get bigger and the smallest will suffer as a result, especially if the amount of money available means that only those with significantly more than the average number of citations are likely to funded.

One could argue that the smaller fields weren’t very interesting and therefore deserved to be penalised and the biggest fields deserve to get the most money since their size indicates how interested people are in this area. I would buy this argument if the potential of a field to grow didn’t depend strongly on the size of the field. The above also doesn’t consider different citation practices. I was talking recently to a reasonably eminent Cambridge professor who was arguing that we should all cite each other since this is what happens in other research areas and therefore we should do the same to make sure we aren’t disadvantaged.

Essentially I am concerned that if citations numbers become the primary mechanism for determining research quality, we could do a lot of damage to very interesting areas that are not large enough to be competitive according to this rather simplistic metric. This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t use them at all, but we should be aware of the various selection effects. Of course, one problem will be that most researchers probably work in the largest research fields and at least half of these people have better than average citations counts. Since the people making some of the decisions may well fall into this category, it’s not really in their interest to be more objective about how research quality should be determined since they will do perfectly well if citation counts becomes the primary metric for judging quality.