Blogging and things

Yesterday’s post about science careers generated more interest that any post of mine has done for quite some time. It wasn’t a huge surprise as I knew I had linked in to various others blogs about the same subject so expected some interest. I do find, however, the interest a little unsettling. I quite enjoy writing about various things, but am also quite comfortable with very few people reading what I write. I think I am partly concerned that I’ll say something particularly stupid (which isn’t that difficult) or that what I write will be mis-interpreted. Given that I write research papers for a living this may seem a little odd, but I think this also influences how I write research papers. I don’t mind being controversial but I do try very hard to ensure that what I write is, to the best of my knowledge, correct (or as correct as it can be given the assumptions that need to be made when doing research). This may seem like an obvious thing to do but it’s not that difficult, when you’re trying to be on the cutting edge of research, to make some silly mistakes. This is especially true if there is a lot of pressure to get things published.

Anyway, the really big news of yesterday was the appointment of John Womersley as the new CEO of the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC), replacing (a little earlier than expected) the heavily criticised current CEO, Keith Mason. I did write a post a couple of years ago criticising something John Womersley had written but, in general, I’ve been very impressed with what I’ve seen of him. Others have already written in more detail about the new appointment, so I won’t say more other than to wish him all the best for what will presumably be quite a difficult and challenging job.

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Science career structure

The issue of scientific careers and the general scientific career structure has received a lot of interest recently. This is largely due to the Science is Vital campaign who released a report that has been sent to David Willetts. Jenny Rhon, who is the chair of Science is Vital, and Athene Donald, a Professor of Physics at the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge, have both written about the issues with scientific careers. There was also an interesting astro journal club on twitter (@astrojc) last week, the review of which can be found here.

One of the primary problems with the academic career structure – as highlighted by the telescoper – is the overproduction of PhD students. We’ve convinced ourselves (and government) that PhD graduates take valuable skills into industry and that therefore we should have a large number of PhD places. Although it is probably true that PhD graduates do take useful skills into industry, it’s not clear that a PhD is the optimal place in which to gain these skills. A Bologna-like system with 3 years Honours degrees followed by 2 year research Masters degrees would probably provide the skills in a shorter time and at a lower cost. Furthermore, most who start a PhD do so because they have a genuine interest in a career in research (which today is typically in academia). It can therefore be very discouraging to then discover just how difficult this is. Less than 1 in 10 have a chance of a long term career in academia. Reducing the number of PhD places and introducing research Masters degrees may therefore not only provide a better mechanism for teaching research skills, but will also be the first step towards improving the academic career structure.

There are, however, still – in my opionion – other issues with the Academic career structure. The structure is fairly monochromatic. You do a PhD then get a postdoc position. You then try to get a Fellowship followed by a permanent academic position. One of the issues I have is the significant role that getting a Fellowship has in determining whether or not someone is likely to get a permanent academic position. I accept that those who get Fellowships will be amongst the strongest in their fields and hence are quite likely to be the strongest candidates for academic positions. However, in many cases Fellowship holders are simply moved into a permanent position without any open competition being held. Many will acknowledge that getting a Fellowship is a bit of a Lottery. The Fellowship panels also primarily consider the candidate’s research record. Therefore, in my area certainly, a significant fraction of academic positions are filled by those who’ve benefited from a system that is a bit of a lottery and which doesn’t, at any stage, consider their ability to teach. To be fair, I don’t have a problem with Fellowship holders using their Fellowship to negotiate better job prospects. I have a problem with Academic departments allowing this to happen. If the Fellowship holders are indeed the strongest in their area, they are quite likely to win academic jobs through open competition. This also allows others, who may have just missed out on a Fellowship, to at least make a case for being hired into an Academic job.

There are also other games that are played. I’m aware of situations in which someone has been offered a permanent academic job only to then be offered a Fellowship that is only open to those who don’t have permanent jobs. The University then retracts the job offer so that the person can accept the Fellowship, then promises them a permanent job at the end of the Fellowship. I’m also aware of situations in which a University has interviewed for a permanent job. The successful candidate is, however, then given a university fellowship so that they can still compete for other fellowship. They are, however, promised a permanent job after 5 years. I accept that the above are probably not explicitly wrong but seem, in my view at least, to be playing fast and loose with the rules. These are also likely to be the people who would get academic jobs anyway, so this does maintain some kind of balance. However, it illustrates a lack of transparency in the system. It also illustrates something odd about academic jobs. In most industries you hire someone when you need a job to be done. In academia you can advertise for a permanent position which would typically carry a certain amount of teaching and admin and then hire someone on a Fellowship who doesn’t do much of either for a number of years. Either you need someone to do these tasks or you don’t.

How does one fix the system. I’m not exactly sure but there have been a number of suggestions (in particular during the astronomy journal club on twitter) that we should consider permanent research positions and I think this is quite sensible. At the moment, once someone gets beyond a certain age (typically expressed as an experience level, rather than age) they find it harder and harder to get a research job. There is a perception that if they haven’t yet got an academic job, there must be something wrong with them. There’s also a sense that everyone who remains in academia/research has to effectively become a group leader (or Principal Investigator – PI). There’s no real reason why some couldn’t simply have a career as a researcher. Replacing such people every few years with younger researchers is probably not optimal. There must be a way in which we could balance the system such that some people remain as researchers and other become university academics and do both teaching and research. There are numerous aspects to consider and quite how such a system would be implemented is not entirely clear. Would only university academics be allowed to become PIs or could some research only staff progress to PI level? Would we separate academic salaries into a teaching component and a research component (as is done in the US)? How would we balance the system in terms of number of PhD places, number of postdoctoral positions, number of permanent research positions and number of academic positions?

This post has become rather long, so I’m going to stop now. I hope it has contributed positively to the debate about academic career structures. I’ve been slightly concerned that I might be perceived as anti-Fellowship holders. This isn’t the case, I just don’t see why they should be given additional advantages. They are typically excellent researchers and so should be extremely competitive in the job market anyway. I probably shouldn’t worry since, as my current stats suggest, very few people will read this post.

Guardian comment’s page

Yesterday, I made a few comments on a Guardian article about Liam Fox and Adam Werrity. Essentially I responded to a comment from another commentor called kvlx387. A few comments later, someone called grubbedout aimed a comment at me in which they accused me of being a Tory Troll and telling me to go back to reading the Daily Mail. I immediately realised that they had probably aimed the comment at the wrong person and were probably intending to aim it at kvlx387. This did indeed turn out to be the case as they later apologised. What I found slightly amusing, but a little disturbing, was that 56 people recommended their comment despite the fact that it was clearly aimed at the wrong commentor. This seems to indicate that people simply quite like aggressive comments accusing others of being a Tory Troll and telling them, in no uncertain terms, to go away.

Far right-wing undemocratic?

A long time ago – when I was much younger – I assumed that, in general, the various political parties had similar goals, but different views about how to reach those goals. Essentially I assumed that all parties wanted to help to develop a decent and fair society but disagreed about the best way to achieve this. I assumed that left-wing parties believed in a welfare state providing basics services for everyone, while right-wing parties believed it better to have private provision as this would promote more growth and hence give more opportunities for people to succeed. Ultimately right-wingers believed (I thought) that most – in a well run society – would be able to afford all the things that a welfare-like state would provide.

I have known for quite some time that the above view was simplistic and naive. The Liam Fox affair seems to have illustrated just how naive the above view can be. Liam Fox has had to resign as Defense Minister because of his links to his friend, Adam Werrity, who was – it appears – being funded by right-wing lobby groups to try and influence the Defense Minister. Prior to resigning, Liam Fox seems to have been the darling of the right-wing of the Tory party.

It seems like the ultimate goal of people on the far-right of the Tory party, in the UK, and the Republican party, in the US, is to do whatever they can (within the law if possible) to help big business and big corporations. This includes influencing defense spending, spending on healthcare and influencing policy (keeping taxes low, reduced regulation, etc). They presumably argue that this is good for all of us as it helps to create a strong economy. It’s possible that this could be true by chance, but certainly doesn’t seem to be by design and on current evidence doesn’t seem to be true at all. Ultimately, the goal seems to be to try and maintain the wealth of those who are already wealthy and, as far as I can tell, very little of what they try to do is in any way aimed at helping society in general.

It seems – to me at least – that the goals of the far right are not entirely consistent with what I would regard as the principles of democracy. Our elected leaders are meant to be ruling in such a way as to create a society that’s free and fair for all, not just for the wealthiest few. Of course, those on the far-right of the Tory and Republican parties are indeed elected so it’s partly our own fault for believing their rhetoric. There’s also nothing strictly illegal about holding these views (even if some of their tactics might be). You can’t really accuse them of being prejudiced. You don’t have to be from a particular race group, gender, or have a particular sexual orientation. You don’t even have to be from a wealthy background, you just have to be wealthy now. The main issue I have is that their policies seem to be explicitly aimed at benefiting the few rather than the many and hence do not appear to be consistent with what I would regard as the standard democratic principles.

One might argue that the same could be said of the far-left of the Labour and Democratic parties. Acknowledging that both left- an right-wing radicals are dangerous, the left-leaning elements of the Labour and Democratic party at least have policies that are aimed at benefiting the many rather than the few. I would happily agree that hardcore socialism is not a good way to run a society, but at least the intention is decent and consistent with the basic principles of democracy (at least in theory, if not in practice).

Just as I started writing this I discovered this article by George Monbiot about
think-tanks suggesting that the practices of many right-wing think-tanks are a threat to democracy. It’s more factual that what I’ve written above and certainly worth a read.

We are the 99%

Today the protests that started in Wall Street, New York, have spread to many other cities in the world. The basic idea seems to be to protest in the financial sectors of these various ctities against the banking sector’s excessive salaries (at least for investment bankers) and against their excessive risk taking. Essentially, it is felt that this excessive risk taking is a prime cause of the current financial problems and yet those who are paying the highest price are the lowest earners (who are losing their jobs) while those in the banking sector are carrying on as if nothing has changed.

We were chatting about this at work a few days ago and I mentioned that I really liked that the slogan was “we are the 99%”. I said that this really encapsulates the problem that the top 1% of earners are taking a disproportionate amount of the income. In the US the top 1% take 24% of all the income while in the UK the top 10% (I couldn’t find a number for the top 1%) take 31% of all the income (up from 28% 10 years). What got a an argument going was that one of my older colleagues said that he didn’t see what difference it makes how much the top 1% (or 10%) earn as it all goes back into the economy. My immediate response was that this was essentially bollocks (although I didn’t actually use the word bollocks). The top earners are essentially extracting a large fraction of all the income every year, leaving less for the rest of us to share. Even if it goes back into the economy, it essentially goes back to them and, in fact, for the last few decades the top earners have been extracting an ever increasing fraction of the total income.

My suspicion is that this person was confusing income with wealth. It is possible that a viable economy could exist in which most of the wealth was held by a few people. If this wealth is reinvested in the economy then it would be acting to drive economic growth and would ultimately be paying our salaries. Since these few people essentially owned everything, all the money we spent would go back to them to be reinvested in the economy and the cycle would continue. I’m not suggesting that this would be a good thing, simply that in this scenario the wealth of the few would be driving the economy and my colleague’s argument would have some validity.

Income is, however, different from wealth. The more income the top earners take, the less there is for the rest of us. The question we need to ask is what is the optimal income distribution. If everyone earned the same, there would be no incentive to take risks or to work particularly hard. Similarly, if a few people took all the income how would the rest of us survive and how could an economy flourish if no one has any money to spend. My personal view is that in the US and the UK the income distribution has become so skewed (benefiting the few) as to be detrimental to the health of our economies.

It has certainly been argued that one of the reasons for the current financial crisis is that the skewing of the income distribution lead to a problem with consumer spending (most people didn’t have enough disposable income). To solve this, banks started lending money to people. The problem was that this didn’t increase these people’s incomes, it simply allowed them to spend money that wasn’t really theirs. The highest earners initially benefited in two ways. Firstly, people had money to buy products made by companies in which they had invested money. Secondly, these people had to pay interest on their loans, which again provided profit for companies which were primarily owned by the wealthiest. The problems started when people could no longer pay back their loans and many financial products (in which various debts had been bundled together and sold to other financial institutions) became worthless.

I certainly feel that there are both moral (we don’t really want children dying of poverty in the wealthiest countries in the world) and economic (a consumer economy needs people with disposable income) arguments as to why we need to have a more equal income distribution and I sincerely hope that these protest have some impact on the ideology of current government and provides an incentive to start working towards a more equal society, for the benefits of all of us.