Science budget cuts

I’ve signed the Science is Vital petition and clearly agree with the view that if the cuts are of the magnitude that people expect, the damage done to UK science could be extreme and irreversible. I’m, however, finding it quite difficult to really get behind this fight, largely because I’m not particularly comfortable with what this argument implies. The government wants to cut the total public budget by something like 10-20%. Their reason for doing this is that they want to reduce the structural deficit, essentially the amount of money the government has to borrow, annually, to balance its books even when the economy is performing optimally.

Although I do believe that cutting the science budget would be disastrous, if one assumes that the cuts are inevitable and we don’t want the science budget to be cut, what gets cut in its place. As far as I’m aware, health and education (although not Higher Education) are ring-fenced. Ultimately, reducing (or getting rid of entirely) the structural deficit is a perfectly sensible thing to do. We can’t expect to simply borrow money indefinitely. However, trying to do so on the timescale proposed by the government may be the problem. Admittedly, annual borrowing is currently something like 10% of GDP, so we are increasing our debt by a substantial amount every year. However, our total debt is still not particularly large. It is similar to, if not smaller than, many other comparable countries.

Allowing the debt to grow for the next few years is not obviously the wrong thing to do. Although slashing public sector budgets may also not be obviously wrong from an economic perspective, it will clearly have a very serious effect on some sectors of our society and if we can’t protect the most vulnerable in our society, then we have some very questionable ethical standards. What is more, I suspect that the impact of the proposed cuts will be very hard to predict. When scientists try to understand the evolution of a system, a very common approach is to perform a linear analysis. If you assume the perturbation is small, the equations often become analytically solvable. If, however, the perturbations are large the system becomes non-linear and understanding its evolution becomes very difficult. Computer models can deal with such systems, but predictions based on the simple linear analysis become largely useless.

Strictly speaking the cuts aren’t effectively non-linear, but the consequences of such a large perturbation must be virtually impossible to predict with any accuracy. I certainly feel that cuts of this magnitude will be damaging for the country as a whole and that even if we can protect the science budget, the damage done to some other sectors of our society may make protecting the science budget all a little pointless. I think we, as academics, should be making strong arguments as to why cuts of this magnitude are too unpredictable to be worth considering. Growing our debt in a managed way and aiming to reduce the structural deficit over a longer time period will be much safer and result in more long term stability. Included in this are decisions about the size of the public sector and how to get the required revenue, but this will be much easier to do if the economy is reasonably stable than if it is highly perturbed and uncertain.

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Common sense?

Don’t know who wrote this letter to the Guardian a few days ago, but it does make a very good point. It’s along the lines of what I was discussing in an earlier post, although put somewhat more eloquently than I could manage.

Although I certainly wouldn’t be necessarily advocating turning back the clock, trying to simplify the system does seems quite reasonable. A few years ago, one of the things I really liked about working in the UK, when compared with the US, was that money wasn’t a major issue. I don’t mean that money wasn’t important, but simply that Academic researchers weren’t under a great deal of pressure to bring in money. They would still need money to carry out their research, but because the research money primarily covered direct costs, as long as someone was productive the amount of money they brought in didn’t really matter.

With the introduction of Full Economic Costing (fEC) this is all changing. Even a basic grant brings in a lot of money to the university, some of which covers the Principal Investigator’s salary. I think this is a very negative step and could well change the motivation of some researchers and become very divisive if a two-tier system develops – those with money and those without. One of the reasons why I think the UK has punched above it’s weight internationally in the recent past is precisely because academics were relatively free to pursue what they enjoyed, rather than being pressurised to do what is most likely to bring in money.

I certainly think that the system would be much simpler if universities were given enough money to operate, probably determined by the number of students and the quality of research (as determined by the Research Assessment Excercise). Researchers would then apply for funding to cover the direct costs of their research (plus some basic overheads). Together with being simpler, this would be a much more positive environment in which the UK could continue to punch well above its weight.

Sharon Shoesmith

Have been somewhat unsure as to whether or not I should write about Sharon Shoesmith and the baby P case as it is, quite justifiably, a somewhat sensitive issue. An article in the Guardian today suggesting that the social sevices sector is now gripped by a “fear of failure” does, however, seem worth some comment.

As tragic as the baby P case was, I found the treatment of the social services people and, in particular, Sharon Shoesmith extremely distasteful. Sharon Shoesmith may well have been a very poor manager and may well be responsible for some of the failings in her department, and could well deserve to have been fired. What she did not deserve, in my opinion, is to have effectively become the face of the baby P case. Whatever she may or may not have done wrong, she was not directly responsible for the death of a child. It is possible that it could have been prevented had different decisions been made, but that – to me – is the crux of the matter. Decisions have to be made based on people’s judgements. Sometimes those decisions will turn out to have been wrong. If the wrong decisions were made because someone was incompetent or not doing their job properly, then they deserve to be appropriately disciplined or be fired. However, to essentially make someone effectively responsible for something as heinous as the death of a child when they were not directly involved and were trying to do their job, seems utterly disproportionate.

What makes this case even subtler is that the mother was being explicitly devious when dealing with people from social services. Since I imagine that most people who work for social services do so because they believe that they can help those who have been disadvantaged in some way and probably have a fairly optimistic view of the world around them, it doesn’t seem unreasonable that they could have been taken in by someone else’s deception. To then, effectively, blame social services when a mother and her boyfriend murder a child seem entirely unfair. If those working in social services are now terrified of making what will be perceived – by the general public – as a mistake (as the Guardian article suggests) then more damage will be done. We should recognise that what social services are doing is not an exact science. They are trying to use their judgement to decide what is best for children and families. Unfortunately, when they get it “wrong” the consequences could be tragic. For them to pay a higher price because the consequences of their “mistakes” could be tragic doesn’t seem entirely reasonable.

As with any major organisation, social services should (and I imagine does) try to learn from its “mistakes”. However, for the general public to effectively brand those responsible as “killers” is simplistic and damaging, and fails to recognise the complexity of what social services does. For Ed Balls (the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families at the time) to get involved and fire Sharon Shoesmith was completely inappropriate in my view, and I’m extremely pleased that he doesn’t appear to have a chance of becoming the next Labour leader. I suspect that at some point in the not too distant future (once the memory of the event has faded somewhat), Sharon Shoesmith will be cleared of any wrongdoing and will get some kind of compensation from the government. We, the taxpayer, will end up paying a lot money to someone because there was a knee-jerk reaction from both the general public and the government. Although we should try to minimise how often such tragic events occur, we surely can’t expect to prevent them altogether and if those involved are terrified of what will happen the next time such an event occurs, it will be extremely difficult for them to use their judgement when making difficult decisions about how to treat children and families who are at risk.

Insulating Cable

I haven’t written any posts for quite some time.  I did start quite a few, but always seemed to lose momentum rather quickly.  I have, however, noticed that the number of people looking at my page has increased slightly (from almost nothing to a few, to be honest) in the last day or so and wondered if those who visited were expecting some comment on Vince Cable’s recent speech.

I  should be annoyed by his speech, but really can’t bring myself to be too worked up about it.  It seems to be a typical example of a simplistic sense of how we should fund research.  John Butterworth’s Life and Physics Blog (that I’ve only just noticed is being hosted by the Guardian) illustrates this wonderfully well with a post called Conducting Cable.

I will, however, make one comment about the speech and how it can misrepresent things. Vince Cable mentions that only 54% of UK research was assessed (by RAE2008) to be “world leading” or “internationally excellent” and therefore that 45% was not excellent and should therefore not be funded. At first glance, this seems reasonable. However, the way RAE2008 worked was that all researchers who were included in the submission had to submit their 4 “best” papers published (or at least in press – I think) since 2001. These papers, together with other measures of esteem, were assessed, not the individual researchers. An individual researcher could have – for example – one paper that’s regarded as “world leading”, two that are regarded as “internationally excellent” and one that is ranked as “internationally recognised” or “nationally recognised” (i.e., not excellent). The 54% therefore essentially refers to the percentage of papers (or more accurately, research activity) submitted that were regarded as excellent, not the percentage of researchers or indeed of research projects (I’m being slightly simplistic as other factors were also included in the assessment). It is, therefore, possible that more than 54% of research projects funded lead to a paper that is regarded as “world-leading” but also result in a number of papers that don’t have much impact. Maybe we shouldn’t publish as much as we do, but maybe this is just a consequence of trying to build towards something that will have lots of impact and be “world leading”.

I guess the point I’m trying to make is that, in principle, the idea of only funding excellence is reasonable. The reality, however, is that trying to identify excellence is difficult and there are pockets of excellence everywhere and a large fraction of researchers probably do some amount of excellent research. As it is, the current success rate for STFC grants is probably worse than 1 in 5 so (if grants last 3 years) less than 60% of researchers are funded at any one time. With the coming cuts, it could easily end up being more like in 1 in 10, with only 30% of researchers funded at any one time. Hard to believe that only 30% of researchers deserve funding. Will have to wait and see – maybe it won’t be as bad as we fear.