Premier league football

I’m not a huge fan of football, but do watch it now and again and used to quite enjoy playing the game – although fairly poorly. I have also been quite a vocal (to people I know at least) opponent of the current free market approach to the game in England. The premier league footballer’s salaries are enormous (the top ones earning well in excess of £100000 per week) and it seems as though the only reason they can afford to pay these salaries is because they have very wealthy owners and not because the business model makes such salaries viable.

According to a recent BBC news report, the English premier league clubs currently have more debt than all of the other major Europeans teams put together. Portsmouth has just gone into administration, and Manchester United and Liverpool both have massive debts passed onto them when they were bought by their current owners. Although I suspect there is nothing technically wrong with this, it does seem odd to be able to buy something using borrowed money and then pass on the debt to the organisation you’ve bought. I guess technically it is yours, but it still seems strange. Manchester United is particularly interesting. The current owners bought it, in 2005, with about £300 million of their own money and a £500 million loan. They currently plan to sell shares worth £500 million to pay off most of the debt. With what they will be allowed to keep and with what they (or their other companies) have earned in the last few years, they will have made in excess of £300 million and still own a share worth £300 million. Again, technically probably perfectly legal, but to have effectively had returns of 20% a year in an area that generally appears not to be particularly profitable does seem odd. Manchester United may, however, be something of an exception as it appears to be a club that does indeed make a profit.

I don’t really want to write a long post about English football, partly because I don’t really know much about it and partly because I can’t really be bothered. What motivated this was an article in the Guardian about a Labour party plan to fix football. I didn’t read it extremely carefully, but it seems like one of the ideas is to give fans a 25% stake in clubs “in recognition of their links with their local community”. It has always surprised me a little that Arsenal supporters still support a club with apparently very little current link with London, so maybe this is good thing.

I’ve no idea if the Labour party’s plans have any merit (if past history is anything to go on, probably not), but I have felt for quite some time that something has to give. Either there has to be a real change to the way in which English football is run, or it will collapse spectacularly when billionaires realise that owning an English football club isn’t a good way to make money, and decide to spend their money elsewhere. Essentially this is my attempt at a post that will allow me to say “I told you so” when something does indeed happen. I could quite well be wrong and English football could go from strength to strength, but something tells me that there are big changes ahead.

Ada Lovelace Day

Today is apparently Ada Lovelace day, a day when bloggers are meant to draw attention to the achievements of women in science and technology. Although I am aware of many women who have done and still do contribute greatly to science and technology, I had – embarrassingly – never heard of Ada Lovelace.  It turns out she lived from 1815 to 1852 and was one of the world’s first computer programmers, working with Charles Babbage on his mechanical computer.

The idea behind Ada Lovelace day is for bloggers to “tell the world about these unsung heroines”, but I wasn’t really sure how to do this. I probably don’t know enough about any scientist (man or woman) to really do them justice in this blog. What I thought I would do instead was to write something that would at least support what I think is the goal of Ada Lovelace day : to highlight – even today – how underrepresented women are in some areas of science and technology. Certainly in most physics departments – or at least in the ones of which I’m aware – the fraction of permanent posts taken up by women is small. In mine, it’s something like 10% and none of the women in my department are yet professors, although this is largely because most of the women in my department are early to mid-career and aren’t yet in a position to really expect a promotion to professor. I would, however, expect this to change some time in the not too distant future.

A simple interpretation of why women are so underrepresented in physics departments today is that in the past they were clearly disadvantaged in some way, either directly or indirectly, and it will take some time to redress the balance. It takes something like 30 years to change completely the personnel in a department and so assuming that 50% of all future hires are women, it will take about 30 years before physics departments have an equal representation of men and women.

It is, however, somewhat more complicated than this. Even in PhD programmes, there is still not an equal number of men and women. In most physics departments something like 30% of the PhD students are women. This is clearly not ideal, but is probably an improvement on the recent past and means that we should expect at least 30% of academic hires in the near future to be women. However, when one looks at the make-up of research staff (i.e., non-permanent) in Physics departments today, the fraction of women in these post is often less than 20%. This is slightly concerning because most research staff have been hired recently and so why the fraction of women in these research posts is significantly less than the fraction of women in PhD positions suggests something is wrong. If a smaller fraction of women, compared to men, choose to continue with their academic careers, this implies that we won’t improve the current 1 in 10 ratio anytime soon.

The fact that the ratio of women to men in research positions decreases as you move through the different career stages is well documented and is often referred to as the “leaky pipe” syndrome. There are probably a number of reasons for this but, I believe, that we are now in a position where the ratio of women to men on a research job shortlist is similar to the ration of women to men who apply for the job. I also believe that the number of women hired into academic jobs is consistent with these ratios. This suggests that there is no obvious bias in the hiring and selection processes today. Presumably something is discouraging many women from continuing their academic/research careers. I don’t know what this is (or even that my interpretation is necessarily correct) but I do think we should do all we can to reverse this.

There is absolutely no reason why we shouldn’t be striving to have diverse and balanced physics departments. If there is something about academic careers that particularly discourages women compared to men then we should try to work out what this is and do something about it. Maybe it is seen as too competitive and aggressive. Maybe the methods we use to determine quality disadvantage women compared to men, although I think all would benefit from a more balanced – and less simplistic – view of what it takes to be a good academic and researcher. An organisation that is trying to help is Athena SWAN. They do this by encouraging universities and university departments to have responsible working practices that don’t disadvantage women or, in fact, anyone who has, for example, family responsibilities.

I don’t really know how to increase the ratio of women to men in physics departments, but I do think we should strive to do so. It is in no one’s interest to have a system that disadvantages one group of people compared to another. We should be aiming to give everyone (men or women) an equal chance to contribute to science and technology, now and in the future. We can continue to have an Ada Lovelace day that highlights the contribution of women to science and technology prior to the 21st century, but I would like to think that at some point in the near future men and women will be contributing equally and we won’t need to have a day that particularly highlights one group’s contribution.

The UK Space Agency

The new United Kingdom Space Agency (UKSA) was launched to a reasonable amount of fanfare today and according to some, anyone who was anyone was there. Clear proof that I’m not anyone. I’ve written about this before and my opinion hasn’t really changed much. I hate to be a killjoy, but I don’t really understand what the new UKSA is meant to do and quite why we are doing it.

One of the reasons I don’t quite get the logic is that the UK is already part of the European Space Agency (ESA). We spend something like £100 million a year to belong to ESA. What some might not realise is that according to juste retour we get all (or almost all) of this money back, either in the form of industrial contracts or contracts to universities and national research laboratories. Spending some money to try and ensure that these contracts are such that they will benefit the UK economy (i.e., go where we want them to go) is certainly a good thing, but do we really need our own space agency to do this. Also, ESA already carries out a large number of scientific missions and is intending to start manned space flights (one of the future astronauts is British, even though the UK does not – at this stage – contribute to ESA’s manned space flight programme). Is the UK really intending on doing any of these things independently of ESA? I really hope not and I doubt that this is ultimately the intention.

Reading the press release, most of what is mentioned is how important the space industry is to the UK economy. This may well be true, however, my rather cynical view is that it is actually the space industry that has been pushing for the formation of a space agency. Something like 40% of the UK economy is public and the space industry would like a larger chunk of this money. They may well be quite viable without this and have just been chancing their arm, but maybe this industry isn’t quite as self-reliant as we have been lead to believe. Whatever the reason, my opinion is that the real reason for the formation of a UK Space Agency is to try and strengthen the UK space industry, not to do more space science. Make no mistake, this may well be a good thing and making sure that the core of the space industry is secure and allowing them to then grow their business is a perfectly good thing. I just think we should be careful not to confuse a Space Agency that benefits the space industry with one that might benefit space science.

In fairness to what has been reported, there hasn’t actually been much mention of science and what seems to be the goal is growing the space industry from something worth about £6 billion a year to £40 billion a year. Admittedly, they are only investing something like £12 million a year of new money to do so, so if it succeeds it would end up being one of the shrewdest investments ever made. What is worrying is the possibility that the money to fund the new Space Agency will ultimately come out of the current science budget and that the government will actually invest very little – if any – new money. If it is true that the space industry can grow from a £6 billion a year industry to a £40 billion a year industry (and, assuming this is real growth and not just redirected public money, the government can expect to get a large part of this new wealth in the form of taxation.) they should be more than happy to throw new money at this new agency. This makes me wonder if anyone really believes this rhetoric and suggests – to me at least – that the main reason for the formation of this Space Agency is to satisfy Paul Drayson’s ego (and possibly some childish fantasies about space and astronauts).

Since I don’t really like being critical without suggesting alternatives, what do I think they should do. If some investment in the UK space industry will really reap huge rewards in the medium- to long-term then go ahead and do this. As far as space science and manned space flight is concerned (assuming we want to get involved) we should commit to ESA and make sure that our involvement is such that we can influence how the juste retour is reinvested in the UK economy. Of course, some other European countries (Italy and France) have their own Space Agencies, but it wouldn’t surprise me if they started reducing their roles – independently of ESA – sometime in the near future. Maybe they’ll announce something like this in the next few days just to embarrass us.


I listened to most of the Science debate, a couple of days ago, between Adam Afriyie, Evan Harris and Paul Drayson. Couldn’t quite listen to it all because my daughter decided to be diligent and practice her guitar and insisted on me helping. The debate was pretty good, but it hasn’t really done much to change my view of the different parties. I find Adam Afriyie unconvincing and insincere. He also insists on stating things like the UK has the highest deficit and the worst debt, none of which is strictly true (as far as I can tell). I know our economy isn’t in good shape, but when I look at the data it doesn’t look much worse then Germany, for example, and seems better than the US. It appears as though the conservatives are going to continue to insist that the UK economy is in dire straits, that it is all Labour’s fault and that there is therefore no chance of extra investment in anything (or conversely, they are unable to suggest that extra investment might be possible because this would imply that the economy isn’t quite as bad as they want it to appear and therefore Labour hasn’t done as bad a job as they would like us to think).

I’m still not particularly impressed with Paul Drayson. Part of this is clearly because I don’t like a system in which people can become part of government by being made Lords. However, I do think that he is really listening to what he is being told and is trying to reach some kind of consensus. He has recognised problems with the structure of STFC and has come up with what appears to be a reasonable solution (although no reversal of the cuts to the grants line). He did, however, say something a little odd. He made the comment that the £600 million cut to HE funding and science funding is a cut on an as yet undefined budget and therefore doesn’t necessarily mean a reduction in funding. I guess that if the message gets through in time, the HE and science budgets could be set at a level such that a £600 million cut can be included without a reduction in the budget and without anyone losing face. Still seems rather odd to announce a cut but then suggest that this doesn’t necessarily imply a reduction in the budget (although it was Peter Mandelsson who announced the cut, not Paul Drayson).

Paul Drayson also went through his arguments for the inclusion of impact statements in grant applications. One was that evidence is needed to help make the case for doing research. I happen to agree with this. I just don’t see how academics writing statements about how their research “might” have impact qualifies as evidence. There must be a way to get evidence that is more concrete than this . The other argument he made was that it is taxpayers money and therefore there is an obligation to convince the public that it is well spent. Again, I agree with this in principle. However, there is a subtlety to this that I think Paul Drayson doesn’t get (or choses not to get). Many people in the UK are in careers that rely on public funding, but we don’t necessarily expect individuals within these different areas to justify their existence. We – the public – realise the value of, for example, healthcare, education, social services, etc. The fact that he wants us as individual researchers to justify what we do implies – in my view – that in some sense research is viewed as some kind of luxury and that we are in some way privileged. Make no mistake, I do feel very lucky and privileged to get paid to do a job I enjoy and that brings me much satisfication. I just don’t believe that research is a luxury. It is a crucial part of our economy and is a primary reason why we have world class universities and graduates that can subsequently contribute significantly to our economy. Of course at some level we do have to justify how public money is spent and how much should be spent. But, like other publically funded areas, I just feel that it should be done in a much broader way. Holistic rather than reductionist. It is the science minister and the heads of funding councils who should be making the case to treasury, not individual researchers. What we as researchers and academics have to do – in my view – is to do our teaching and research to the best of our abilities, which then makes it easier for these people to make the case for HE and science funding. This is what we (or certainly me) were hired to do.

Evan Harris was, once again, fantastic. He even managed to keep his comedy (which is actually pretty funny) at what seemed like a perfectly reasonable level this time. He seems to really understand the value of universities and of university research and he makes clear and coherent arguments about how we should fund these organisations and the role of science in society. In fairness, maybe it is easier to make these kind of idealistic arguments if you’re never likely to become science minister and never have to deal with more of the realities of the job, but he makes them extremely well nonetheless. He also seems to be the only person making the argument that research funding plays a crucial role in ensuring that we have world class universities that can attract world class academics. He also seems to realise that to attract world class academics into university and research jobs, we are going to have to make sure that the career prospects are attractive. Academics and researchers are a resource but not an infinite one, and the more pressure we place on these people and the more we imply that their role is not of obvious value, the less likely we are to attract people into such careers. He also seems to recognise the issue of gender imbalance in academia and that it is not a simple problem. For some reason, women are less likely to remain in academic or research jobs and we need to do something to reverse this trend.

All in all, I’m very pleased that science is a becoming an important election issue, but concerned that the two main parties are not making a convincing case that they genuinely believe in the value of science and scientific research. I would really like to see Evan Harris playing a bigger role in making science policy, so would be quite comfortable with a hung parliament. Adam Afriyie, on the other hand, seems to think a hung parliament would be a disaster which suggests – to me at least – that what is driving the Tories is a desire to be in power, rather than a desire to play a role in developing policy that would be of benefit to the UK and its people.

Celebrity scientists

It feels like celebrity scientists are the flavour of the month at the moment. Whenever I turn on the TV I seem to do so just as Brian Cox’s new BBC documentary Wonders of the Solar System is being advertised. Also ended up watching him on CBBC (newsround or something like that) when watching TV with one of my kids a few days ago. My wife then came in to say she’d been listening to him on Radio 4 talking to Dara O’Briain, Eddie Izzard and others, and I think he was also on the News Quiz yesterday with Sandie Toksvig, although I didn’t listen myself. Then I turned on the radio in the car this morning only to hear Maggie Aderin-Pocock, a physicist and engineer who now works for Astrium Ltd. as an optical instrument scientist, talking to Kirsty Young on Desert Island Discs.

Maybe I’m just noticing it more, but it does seem like science is getting an awful lot of exposure at the moment. Those doing it, such as Brian Cox and Maggie Aderin-Pocock, also seem to be doing a good job of not only educating the general public but also of being incredibly enthusiastic and excited about what they do. Without wanting to sound too cynical, I have been wondering if this enhanced exposure is somewhat contrived. There has been a great deal of concern recently about the possibility – despite the government’s rhetoric about the importance of science – that there would be significant and damaging cuts to science funding. There has also been a concern that there would be an attempt to shift public science funding away from the more fundamental science areas into areas that could have more immediate economic impact. Maybe people are actively working to increase the exposure of science and, in particular fundamental science, to try and illustrate it’s importance and how much general interest there is in these areas – although maybe there isn’t any agenda at all and it is just coincidental. Either way, I think it’s generally a very good thing.

I only hope that the various “celebrity scientist” know when they’ve reached the limits of their expertise. The Tories, if they get into power, want to return to more traditional school lessons, but the only people they suggest would help with deciding what to do in the different areas are the various celebrity experts. We also already have Carol Vorderman helping with deciding how maths should be taught at school. I do think that the various celebrity experts have an extremely important role to play in exposing people to science and the arts and generally they do it very well. I just sometimes wish that they would realise that their skills are generally in communicating difficult subjects and that, although their science communication can inform policy, their role is not necessarily to become directly involved in making policy. I also wish politicians would realise, more often, that celebrities aren’t the only people worth listening to. In fairness, Brian Cox did a pretty good job in front of the parliamentary select committee on Science and Technology a week or so ago, so maybe some can do it all.

Restructuring the STFC

The Department for Business, Innovations and Skills (BIS) has announced the new arrangements for the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) which is the result of Paul Drayson’s review of STFC. This has been reported in a number of places already, including the BBC, the Times Online and has already been covered in various blogs such as the telescoper, Leaves on the Line, and The S word.

I haven’t been particularly complimentary about Paul Drayson in my earlier posts but, to be fair, the result of his review seems quite reasonable. The basic idea seems to be that BIS “expects to continue to provide STFC with a level of protection similar to that which has been provided this year and last in respect of the additional costs of international subscriptions due to exchange rate changes.” The intention is also that there will be better long-term planning of the costs of running and operating large facilities. Basically, they will attempt to protect the grants line from being completely overrun by exchange rate fluctuations and unexpected increases in the cost of running large facilities. All in all, quite sensible and a lot of credit must go to the various blogs (mainly the telescoper, the eAstronomer, and Living in the Real World), who have regularly been highlighting the issues, and to people like Paul Crowther and Brian Cox, who have been very vocal about the various issues with the structure of STFC and the importance of Physics in our society and economy.

I don’t really need to say much more about the details as they have been covered extensively by others. One of the reasons I wanted to write a post was to add my voice to the others who, although supportive of the suggested changes, feel that fixing the structure may not really be enough. A lot of damage has already been done to our ability to carry out world class research in Physics and Astronomy. I believe that a strong Physics research base is crucial to the country’s ability to sustain world class universities and to support an economy that relies more and more heavily on science and technology. Simply protecting grant funding at the current level is not going to ensure that we are able to maintain a world class research base in Physics and Astronomy.

I also think there is a real problem with the current STFC senior management, or at least with certain individuals. There are some exceptions but, by and large, the community seems to no longer have any confidence in the people who are running STFC. I also don’t quite understand why the government still has any confidence in the senior management. Right from the moment STFC was formed, numerous people have been highlighting issues with the structure of STFC. I have followed the STFC crisis pretty much from day one and at no time did any member of the senior STFC management acknowledge that there were any problems. What is more, they didn’t even seem to acknowledge that any real damage was being done to Physics and Astronomy research in the UK. If anything, the message from STFC management was that there were too many Physicists and Astronomers and that cutting back would be a good thing. How can anyone have confidence in a management team that not only doesn’t recognise structural problems with the organisation they are running (despite these problems being pointed out at regularly intervals) but doesn’t even seem to value what they are explicitly meant to be supporting. In fairness, the problem may well lie with one or two individuals rather than with the team as a whole, but some major changes in this team would also seem to be required if we really are to have an organisation that can effectively support world class research in Physics and Astronomy.