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Tuesday, May 26, 2009

UK science policy

The transcript for the latest IUSS evidence session on "Putting Science and Engineering at the Heart of Government Policy" is now available. This is coupled with Science Question time and makes interesting reading.

The issue of the debate over the future of science policy in the UK was, of course, discussed. The committee was a bit confused over statements made by the science minister about a need for debate and those of John Denham that effectively said the debate was over. I was very confused by this as well and I cannot say that my confusion has been resolved.

You do seem to get a different answer to the same question depending on who you ask in DIUS, yet they say that the answers are the same and everyone is in agreement. I must be missing something there, but inspection of the transcript sheds no further light. Baffling!

Anyway, Paul Drayson wrote an opinion piece for the Guardian, 'Built on Brainpower', which led to a very noteworthy letter from Professor George Efstathiou in response. I reproduce said letter below:

Lord Drayson argues that the government is committed to funding curiosity-driven research. He needs to talk to the chairman (Peter Warry) and chief executive (Keith Mason) of the Science and Technology Facilities Council. Their message, both to me in person and to the scientific community, has been unambiguous - the government, and the Treasury in particular, are interested only in new projects that have direct economic impact. It doesn't matter if we have the greatest ideas for projects to study the big bang or the properties of fundamental particles; these will fall on deaf ears unless we can articulate clearly the resulting "economic benefits".

Lord Drayson needs to tackle this evident lack of communication between government and the research councils.
Professor George Efstathiou
University of Cambridge

There is a clear and continuing problem with science in the UK and it stems from the communication from government, through the upper reaches of DIUS to the interaction with the research council and thence to the scientific community.

Hostility that exists toward the whole circus surrounding 'economic impact' is not just because academics live in their ivory towers and want to be left alone (some do - not all), it is because we constantly get mixed messages about how EI should or does work in terms of effects on funding decisions. Until there is an effort for everyone to get 'on-message' (whatever that message might be) then confusion and distrust will continue. I am far from convinced the the current STFC CEO is capable of ending this distrust as I am not convinced that he knows what the government really wants even as he itches to enact their decisions.

There is nothing you can do when you are next in line...

Since my last post there has been a push from European scientists for Austria to reverse its decision to pull out of CERN. Indeed this seems to have worked and Austria are now back in.

What is interesting is that there does seem to have been a worry about a possible domino effect. Reassuring words from our very own STFC:

A spokeswoman for the Science and Technology Facilities Council said: "The STFC, on behalf of the UK, has no plans to pull out of Cern."

I do actually believe them. It makes little sense for the UK to pull out of CERN at the moment, but then I'm not convinced that 'sense' has any place in decision making. I still think that the particle physicists need to be (and I am sure that they are) looking ahead to a couple of years down the line when pulling out of CERN may look more attractive to STFC.

Of course, little alarm bells in the cynical portion of my brain go off when I see phrases like
'has no plans'
This is a beautiful weasel phrase employed by politicians down the ages. It means nothing.

"Today we have no plans to do X", yet tomorrow we find that X is done. Just because you do not plan to do something, it does not mean that plans cannot be drawn up and something done. Must respond to the changing landscape you know.

So if ever you hear or read , "we have no plans to..." don't get too comfortable.

ps. bonus points for getting the reference in the title.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

One data point does not make a trend

... but if one thinks about the context it can make one nervous that it could be the start of one.

h/t telescoper

Austria has announced that it is pulling out of CERN. This will lead to an increase in costs for the remaining members, not much in the great scheme of things but in a time of financial difficulty it will be a bit of a blow in some areas.

If I were a particle physicist in the UK I would be getting nervous now. Government wants more return on its science spending and the Research Councils, rather than operating at arms-length from government (see this article) are bending over backwards to accomodate wishes. We can debate the role of RCUK until the cows come home but the fact of the matter is (whether we like it or not and Haldane be damned) they are now a defacto branch of government and strongly subject to policy decisions. One such decision is the need to see economic impact.

Now I am sure the PP folks have many excellent examples of how their work influences the economy, but they have to be careful in considering whether such things benefit the UK economy. There is a focus on UK leadership as a requirement for funding how does this translate to projects like CERN?

It is not outside the realms of possibility that some might see CERN as a luxury in these times and Austria's pull-out as a clarion call.

[UPDATE: Do I think that the UK will rush to pull out of CERN? No. Do I think that Austria's pull out has got some people thinking? Yes. Do I think that said people would push for a CERN pull-out? No. At least not until someone else folds out.]

In general I fear that if we do not progress carefully in terms of science policy we will in fact not be progressing at all.

[UPDATE: The thing that sets alarm bells ringing in my head is Austria's rationale for pulling out. I actually understand why they are doing so given the figures involved (70% of their international science budget) and their desire to be involved in other projects. The thing is that here in the UK we hear that we should do less things, but do them better. At the same time there is a drive towards specific areas of scientific inquiry (driven by government policy). Factor in that the science minister has been talking up space as the next big thing for the UK and one starts to wonder what the new big science questions will be...]


Women 'fight off disease better'

so says the BBC.

Hurrah, Man flu is not all in the head, we can't help it because we are simply the weaker sex!

My ego will take that as a result if it means an extra day moping about the house without having to do work.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Too busy

... to blog.

There is lots I want to talk about from the exciting new Formula 1 season, through the joys of new fatherhood to the great debate over science research and economic impact.

Unfortunately (and somewhat ironically given the name of this blog) the real world keeps intervening.

Recently I go home each evening and get to spend a couple of hours playing with my daughter before her bedtime. Then I might watch some TV or, more often than not, crack open the laptop and get on with some more work. Not much time for sharing my all important opinion on things with the rest of the interwebs.

Not complaining, you understand, just explaining. Busy, busy, busy.