The case for fundamental science!

I’ve been trying to get this post going for a while and am not really sure how to start, so apologies if it seems somewhat rambling and incoherent. As most of you know, the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) prioritisation exercise, that was largely finalised on December 16, has resulted in significant cuts to facilities, exploitation grants, and to fellowships and studentships. The one positive outcome is that Paul Drayon (The Minister for Science and Innovation) has now recognised (quite why it took him so long is a mystery) that “there are real tensions in having international science projects, large scientific facilities and UK grant giving roles within a single Research Council” and will find a solution by the end of February. A number of solutions have been presented some of which are summarised in Jon Butterworth’s Life and Physics blog.  Some more detail can be found in these slides from Paul Crowther’s STFC funding crisis webpages.

Given the current situation, all of these suggestions are reasonably sensible and we may well end up going down one of these routes in the near future. One problem I have is that none of these really intend to even try to resolve the real problem :  for the foreseeable future, Astronomy, Particle Physics and Nuclear Physics (PPAN) will be funded at a level that barely makes them viable. The projected level of exploitation funding suggests that only 1 in 4 academic staff will be funded at any one time and that grant success rates will be something like 1 in 12. As pointed out in Mike Cruise’s (outgoing Chairman of the Astronomy Grants Panel) slides, also on Paul Crowther’s STFC page, this means that on average most academics will only hold two STFC funded research grants during their career. What is more likely is that some will be more successful at holding onto grants (especially if they are successful early on in their careers) and many others may never have a successful grant application. Some of these may still have successful research careers, but with the inclusion of Full Economic Costing it is going to become increasing difficult to sustain a research career without funding.

Over time one would expect Physics (and Astronomy) departments to slowly move from PPAN research areas to areas that are more likely to receive funding, potentially reducing the number of PPAN staff by as much as three-quarters (the most extreme scenario admittedly). Some of you may note that this is roughly in line with a recommendation of the Wakeham Review of Physics , namely :

The Panel recommends to the Funding Councils and Research Councils that they work together to consider how they can encourage physics departments to reclaim the intellectual leadership in the broader spectrum of physics supported across the full science base.

Although the Wakeham review was generally well received, I do have one problem with it.  Rather that reviewing Physics in the UK, it reviewed Physics Departments.  One of the conclusions (implied by the above statement from the review) is that there is too much fundamental physics taking place in Physics Departments (or more correctly, Physics Departments are too reliant on STFC funding). In fact, I have heard, that this has resulted in a general view that too large a fraction of UK Physics funding is spent on fundamental physics and not enough on applied physics.  In truth this view may have been held prior to the Wakeham Review, but the Review certainly didn’t help.  The problem with this view is that it ignores all the physics taking place in other departments (Engineering, Medicine, Chemistry, Biology, Geosciences, Mathematics, etc.).

The idea that a lot of fundamental physics research takes place in Physics Departments and that applied physics research moves out into other departments seems perfectly reasonable to me.  This isn’t to say that Physics Departments shouldn’t do applied research, but just that being dominated by fundamental research may not be unreasonable. Certainly changing the makeup of Physics Departments because of some misconception about physics research in the UK seems like the wrong reason for doing it. It seems important to me that we should be making the case that not only is the fraction of physics funding spent on fundamental physics not too high, but that Physics departments being dominated by fundamental research areas is perfectly fine (as long as the applied research is being done effectively and in the appropriate place).

What is more, I think we also need to make a passionate case for the value of fundamental research itself.  Brian Cox in his two articles in the S word (here and here) has done a really good job of making the case for fundamental science, and so have others. It just doesn’t seem to be having any impact with those who are making the decisions.

We need to convince people that the reason we do this is because we are fascinated by the subject and that it is curiosity driven. What is more, society in general is fascinated and we are a much better society as a result of our understanding of the universe and the world around us than we would be if we were ignorant of these things. At this stage some might argue that this places us in the same positions as the arts, who are not funded nearly as well as the sciences. The difference is that we also know that physics itself underpins something like 6% (~ £40 billion a year) of our economy. The ability to attract students into physics degrees to sustain this sector of our economy is crucial and there is good evidence that a fascination with fundamental physics is a prime factor in students deciding to do physics. Spending less than £1 billion per year to underpin a sector of our economy worth about £40 billion a year seems like a really small price to pay.  I am convinced that the damage being done today to research in fundamental physics will have a negative impact on our ability to attract good students into physics degrees.

We then have the additional benefit that some fundamental research produces completely unexpected results that change the way we live and have an economic benefit that completely dwarfs what has been spent funding the research itself. This is particularly unique to fundamental research, since applied research is inherently predictable. Again, I’m not arguing against applied physics, but arguing that we must not undervalue the importance of fundamental research (I should clarify here that my definition of fundamental research is research that is curiosity driven, while my definition of applied research is research with a particular, well defined goal – i.e., the result is essentially known and the research is trying to work out how to get there).

My concern for the near future is that although people are making these type of arguments, the general view is that the Science Minister wants to make a decision by the end of February and that there is no chance of extra money.  What will therefore happen is that – rather than making a passionate defence of fundamental physics and putting pressure on the government to protect a research area that is crucial for our society and economy – we will essentially give the Science Minister what he wants in order to protect the small amount of funding that remains.  In a sense we would rather keep what we have than take the risk of damaging it further by annoying the government and the Science Minister.  To a large extent I believe that, as publicly funded scientists, if we feel that what we do is important and that the current cuts will do immense damage to our society and economy, we have an obligation to fight against it.  We should not sacrifice the future to protect the small amount of funding we have today – it is selfish and cowardly.

The one thing I have not mentioned is, who does the fighting?  There have been plenty of very good articles in newspapers and on blogs making the case for fundamental science, but this doesn’t seem to be enough (although they have clearly had some impact).  Even David Mitchell has been in on the act. One person would be the head of the research council responsible for funding research in fundamental physics. However, since he doesn’t seem to believe in the value of fundamental science (my opinion admittedly, rather than a fact) and seems to think we spend too much money on exploitation grants anyway, this is unlikely to happen. Although I believe strongly that we should continue to fight for fundamental physics because we believe in its intrinsic value, I am not particularly hopeful of much success.


Science Advisors cont…

I posted a comment about the firing of David Nutt (here) in which I suggested that it was probably justified in the sense that his position was no longer tenable. I have learned a little more since then and it does appear that he was treated very badly by the home secretary, but I don’t think my general view has changed. I think he should have resigned earlier, although forcing the government to fire him has brought the role of science advisors into the spotlight, which is certainly a good thing. The fact that David Nutt is now forming an Independent Scientific Committee on Drugs (outside of government) is, however, something I find slightly worrying. It seems incredibly arrogant and the concern I have is that David Nutt’s arrogance will lead to him to do something that will ultimately undermine the position of future government science advisors. I’m sure he must have some enemies who are just waiting for him to fail. I think he should slip quietly into the background for a while and let the process evolve without him. He’s already done his bit by getting fired.

What motivated this post was, however, a comment by Adam Afriyie during Tuesday’s CaSE Science and Engineering Policy Debate to the effect that government ministers should be allowed to fire advisors whenever they like. This has received quite a lot of coverage (here and here) and in general it appears that most are critical of this view. I must admit that although I don’t think much of Adam Afriyie, I tend to agree with him on this. Assuming that he is referring to unpaid advisors, then I see no real reason why ministers shouldn’t be able to get rid of them at will (this may not be entirely relevant to the David Nutt case as – I believe – he was chair of statutory body, rather than simply a science advisor) . The caveat, of course, is that this should be done publicly and ministers who regularly ignore advice or fire advisors for no good reason should pay the ultimate price. We, the electorate, have to be willing to not re-elect people who do not listen to well founded advice and who are willing to fire people whose advice they don’t like. Giving ministers this freedom also means that the process will be more honest and they will be more likely to give away their true views and will give us a chance to judge them accordingly.

CaSE Science Debate

I watched and listened – last night – to the Science and Engineering Policy Debate between Adam Afriyie (Shadow Science and Innovation Minister), Paul Drayson (the current Minister for Science and Innovation) and Evan Harris (the Liberal Democrat science spokesman).  The debate was organised by the Campaign for Science and Engineering (CaSE) and was chaired by Roger Highfiled, the editor of New Scientist.  I was a bit disappointed as I was rather selfishly hoping that the STFC situation would be discussed in more detail and that there would be more discussion about including the assessment of “impact” in future funding decisions.   Both of these were covered, but only briefly, and the debate was explicitly steered towards more of a discussion about future science policy, rather than a discussion of existing issues, and each candidate was pushed to give their partys’s views on various topics.  This was okay, but it did mean that a broad range of topics were covered and that nothing was really covered in any detail.  The three speakers were all extremely polite and complimentary about each other, so nothing particularly exciting happened.  Adam Afriyie even commented that Paul Drayson was a good Science Minister who was probably in the wrong party. As good as Paul Drayons may or may not be, I’m somewhat disturbed by the fact that the he is unelected, and the fact that one can qualify to be a government minister by being made a Lord seems somewhat archaic and undemocratic.  The same is true for Peter Mandelson and the less said about that the better.

Overall I thought Adam Afriyie was a little benign.  Didn’t say anything that I particularly liked or disliked.  Paul Drayson was disappointing.  I quite like the fact that he’s on Twitter and that he seems to be trying to listen to others and to actually take on board what they are saying, but whenever I listen to him I get the impression that he really doesn’t get the subtleties of scientific research.  He also seems to be spouting more and more of the standard party rhetoric and had to be pushed to use the word “cuts” rather than “efficiency savings”.  He still regurgitates the rather simplistic arguments about why including impact statements is a good thing and that it won’t have a negative impact on fundamental research.  He also stated that the government needs to fund more applied research in order to help the economy as if this was obvious and didn’t really merit much discussion.  I don’t have a problem with applied research at all, but nothing the government does now regarding research funding (apart from possibly using a Keynesian approach and increasing it) is going to fix the current recession, so increasing funding for applied research to help the economy now is almost certainly not going to work.   Another issue I have with increasing the amount of government funding for applied research is that it could further discourage industry (which in my view is where a lot of applied research should take place) from investing in research.  The government should really be putting more pressure on industry to take more risks, not spending taxpayers money on research that will be of short or medium term benefit to industry.  As decent as I think Paul Drayon is trying to be, I personally don’t think he’s a particularly good Science Minister and I’m not particularly confident about the outcome of his review of STFC that is due to be completed by the end of February (although I am at least pleased that he has recognised that there is a problem).

Evan Harris, on the other hand, was fantastic.  He was very well informed and a lot of comments were hard-hitting and direct.  He was also hilarious.  Maybe he shouldn’t try quite as hard to be funny, but he is pretty good at it.  Could almost be a comedian.  I was really impressed by how he performed and by what he presented as the Liberal Democrats’s views about how science should be funded and what kind of role it should play in society.  I particularly liked his argument that politicians who misuse data and statistics should be hammered for doing so.  I’m really hoping that the Liberal Democrats do well in the upcoming elections, but am not particularly hopeful.  The media seems to largely write them off as having no hope and I’m not quite sure why this is.  I’m starting to suspect that the various media outlets are too strongly tied to individual political parties and as a result the different parties are not getting objectively represented (I may be saying something patently obvious here).  I suspect the fact that the Liberal Democrats are unlikely to form the next government gives them the freedom to say what they like and to make promises that they might never have to keep, but I’m not sure we should hold that against them and I’m quite prepared at this stage to take them at face value.  Labour and the Conversatives have proven that when they’re in government they can’t keep their promises, so maybe it’s time to give the Liberal Democrats their chance.  Really can’t be any worse, can it?

Fair and balanced?

To be honest, I’ve been finding it difficult to write about the whole STFC crisis at the moment as I’m so resigned to the situation that I’m not really getting too worked up about it anymore. The recent article by John Womersley (the STFC Science Director) claiming that the prioritisation excercise was “fair and balanced” does, however, seem to require some kind of response. I don’t personally know any of the senior STFC people, but of all those of whom I’m aware, John Womersley is the one I’ve been most impressed with. Whenever I’ve encountered him, I’ve found what he says quite reasonable. His article claiming that the facilities cuts were “fair and balanced” has therefore been somewhat disappointing since it seems to be effectively toeing the party line, and once again missing some of the fundamental points.

His article starts by at least implying that the prioritisation exercise was largely a result of the global financial crisis. The decrease in the value of the pound has clearly had an impact on STFC finances, but as many people have pointed out in the past, this is not the primary reason why STFC has a financial problem. The CSR2007 settlement that STFC received was not sufficient for STFC to carry out all the programmes it had inherited from PPARC and CCLRC. This has even been acknowledged in a parliamentary select committee report, so why senior STFC people cannot at least acknowledge that this was a major part of the problem is beyond me. I do agree with the claim that the prioritisation exercise was required (i.e., there wasn’t enough money to carry on as before), I just don’t agree that the primary problem was the global financial crisis (although this clearly did not help).

The article then goes on to claim that STFC based it’s prioritisation on recommendations from independent advisory panels. These panels may well be independent in the sense that they weren’t manned by STFC staff, but they clearly weren’t independent in the sense that the people on the panels didn’t have anything to lose from this exercise. I suspect everyone on all the panels were involved with something that was funded by STFC and hence clearly cannot have been truly independent. As far as I understand the process there were five advisory panels : the Particle Physics Advisory Panal (PPAP), the Nuclear Physics Advisory Panel (NPAP), the Particle Astrophysics Advisory Panel (PAAP), the Near Universe Advisory Panel (NUAP), and the Far Universe Advisory Panel (FUAP). Each of these were made up of people from the relevant disciplines and essentially determined priorities in their own discipline. The recommendations then went to the Particle Physics, Astronomy and Nuclear Physics Science Committee (PPAN) which then interleaved these recommendations into a single priority list. Given the short timescale, this may well have been the best way to do this, but the claim by the Nuclear Physics community that they have been hit especially hard because there was only a single nuclear physicist on PPAN may well have some merit. It must have been extremely difficult to have been part of these panels and not have been very aware of how the decisions were going to influence projects with which you were personally involved (although I’m not claiming that everyone involved didn’t do their utmost to be completely objective).

The article also claims that cuts to the Nuclear Physics community will have no impact on the UK’s ability to build and maintain future nuclear power stations.  This isn’t my area of expertise, but this doesn’t quite seem right.  My suspicion is that a large number of the people who teach nuclear physics in Physics department today are STFC funded, or at least do research in an STFC funded area.  The ability to teach nuclear physics in the future must surely be affected by a large cut in STFC’s nuclear physics funding.

Although there are things in the article with which I disagree, the tone of the article is actually quite reasonable and the articles does at least acknowledge that this will be difficult for university departments. What I find most disappointing is the final paragraph of the article  that makes the standard statements about the importance of research for the UK economy and essentially seems to argue that the prioritisation exercise was a key part of making the case for future funding.  This may be true and it certainly would not have been good to have had a funding (facilities) council that developed a programme that it could not afford.  What I would like to see, however, is a senior STFC executive at least showing some annoyance at the fact that the STFC was funded at a level that forced them to impose these extremely damaging cuts.  If research is crucial to the future of the UK economy (and if physics does indeed pay its way in the sense that the fraction of the economy that relies on physics dwarfs the level of physics funding in the UK) then why are we not all (STFC plus the community) making an extremely strong case for increased funding in these areas.

I actually went to a talk by JohnWolmersley a few years ago, just before the STFC crisis started.  During the talk he hinted that a crisis was looming and that when we became aware of it we should all shoot outwards rather than inwards.  I took this to imply that we should all work together, rather than fighting amongst ourselves.  In general I agree with this, but this would only have worked if STFC had done some fighting itself, rather than lying down and accepting these cuts as if they were reasonable and just what we deserved.  In fairness, John Womersley (I believe) has worked in the US, so maybe he used the words “fair and balanced” in the Fox News sense, implying that he doesn’t believe they were in any way “fair and balanced”.  Maybe this is the beginnings of a fight back, but that might just be my eternal optimism at work.

Gross Domestic Product

I was in the process of writing a post about science becoming an election issue, but have been somewhat distracted by an article in the Guardian by George Monbiot. The basic idea of the article is essentially that we are so fixated on growth that some people now believe that we should consider using all the resources on our planet if it allows us to then explore other worlds. What I found interesting was, however, the discussion of Gross Domestic Product (GDP), in particular the use of GDP growth as a measure of an economy’s success.

I’ve always had a bit of a problem with using GDP as a measure of a country’s wealth. Although I’m not an economist, it seems a little simplistic to just use this, especially since it gives no real indication of how the wealth is distributed. It is simply a measure of a country’s total economic output. I have argued before (here) that we should really use something like the Gini coefficient (indicating wealth distribution) and GDP, in order to optimise a country’s wealth together with how it is distributed. We could consider accepting a lower GDP if the wealth is more evenly distributed, especially since there doesn’t seem to be any strong evidence showing that giving excessive amounts of money to a select few ultimately benefits everyone.

What I found interesting in George Monbiot’s article was the suggestion – which came from a paper published by someone called Sir Parth Dasgupta – that another problem with GDP is that it doesn’t take into account the effect of GDP growth on a country’s resources. A country with a rapid growth in GDP could be doing this by depleting its resources in an unsustainable way so that even though GDP is growing, the total effective wealth is decreasing. Maybe we need to consider total wealth, GDP and how the wealth is distributed when trying to determine the strength of an economy. Maybe we also need to stop being so fixated on growth and start to consider how sustainable our economy’s are. As the current financial crisis has shown us, rapid growth is unsustainable and we would probably have been much better off if the financial sector had been more cautious and accepted a lower growth rate that would have been more sustainable (we probably can’t get rid of boom and bust completely, but we can probably minimise the amplitude of the perturbations).

Although I’m pleased to see more discussion about how a country’s economy is measured and would personally be very in favour of us considering how wealth is distributed and how sustainable our economy’s are when determining the wealth of a country, I’m not convinced that we are going to be seeing any paradigm shifting changes in the near future. It’s not really in the interests of today’s business leaders (who probably have a great deal of influence with our political leaders) to change the way in which we measure a country’s economic strength, especially if – in order to have an sustainable economy that would ultimately be of long-term benefit to the country, and possible even the world – this would involve them accepting a smaller fraction of the total wealth.

Happy New Year

Happy New Year to everyone and I hope 2010 is better than 2009. I haven’t posted anything substantial for a week or so. This is partly because I’ve been taking it easy over the Christmas period. We were planning on going away for a few days, but cancelled because of the weather and stayed at home instead. Also haven’t really done any work. Have quite enjoyed it, although maybe having a few drinks every evening isn’t a good habit to get into.

Another reason for not posting anything is that I’m not quite sure where to go with this blog. I don’t really want to turn it into a science blog as there are plenty of good science blogs out there. It has primarily been noticed because of my posts about the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC), but also don’t want to turn it into an STFC blog – although the next few months may be an interesting time to write about the STFC. I’m also sightly concerned about the anonymity issue – I don’t really want to use my anonymity to say things that I wouldn’t say otherwise. As I’ve mentioned before, I don’t really have a good reason for being anonymous (in fact I’m not entirely sure how anonymous I am anymore as I know I’ve given myself away to a couple of people and am not sure how far the knowledge has spread). One of the reasons for starting an anonymous blog was that I gave away to someone else that I was reading their anonymous blog. Admittedly they had already let slip that they were writing a blog and had also made it completely obvious – in their blog – who they were. They, however, looked so shocked when I told them I had found their blog, that I felt quite guilty and decided I should maybe see what it was like to write an anonymous blog and also see how easy it was to keep it anonymous (it might also give this person a chance to get back at me for outing them – although I didn’t actually tell anyone else where to find their blog).

I could simply de-anonimise this blog, but at this stage I don’t really want to do that (although I don’t have a good reason for being anonymous – I do quite like writing anonymously). Since this blog, so far, has really just been my current views on various topics that happen to have caught my interest, I’m going to try very hard to keep it that way. I don’t claim to be an expert at anything I blog about, and don’t even necessarily claim that what I’m writing is necessarily correct (although I will do my best to check my facts). I also reserve the right to change my views as I learn more about something. I also intend to keep it reasonably balanced and as objective as I possibly can.

Please feel free to make comments about any of my posts. I have an open comment policy, although would appreciate if those commenting tried to make the comments at least reasonably pleasant. At the end of the day, this blog is more for my benefit (in the sense of giving me an avenue for ranting – mildly probably – about things that I feel strongly about) than for anyone else’s, so if you find what I’m posting interesting, that’s great, if not feel free to exercise your right to not read it.