NAM and the Knife Edge

pointer NAMcupwin Had a jolly few days at NAM2013, the annual UK astronomy jamboree. I gave two talks, a contributed talk and a plenary. This was hard work. Stress City. But I got through it and even enjoyed myself with a giant broom-pointer gag. Later the same day, the Edinburgh team won the NAM footie, beating St Andrews 6-1 in the final, so smiles all round this side of the Firth of Forth. Thanks to Duncan Forgan for the piccie.

Wednesday afternoon was the STFC community session. John Womersley gave an upbeat talks on the state of STFC but the community was left rather nervous. Here are a few key points :

  • Because of the upcoming election, the spending review is for 2015-16 only. The long term funding is all still to play for.
  • The science budget has its allocation (flat cash plus a teensy bit of extra capital) but the Research Council carve-up is still to come. My giant mop may be needed to clean up the blood.
  • The STFC budget result will come in September, same time as the STFC programmatic review outcome is announced. I guess this means that we still won’t know whats in and whats out…
  • Three years ago flat cash seemed like a victory. This time it could look more like disaster. The longer it continues, the more inflation erodes. As erosion continues, at first you just lose some soil – but there comes a day when the cliff collapses. Womersley uses a different metaphor. He said he is telling government that we are on a knife edge. There are rumours that ISIS may have to be mothballed. Wouldn’t make my high-pressure chums very happy…
  • JCMT is now up for sale. (See also SEN article). Meanwhile STFC are negotiating with two serious potential new owners for UKIRT. It seems unlikely this will conclude before the axe is due to fall in September, so there may be a temporary stay of execution.
  • We need to make the case to Government for our economic relevance. Well ok, we have all heard this again and again, but Wommers had a potentially important new idea. We need quantifiable metrics – somewhat along the lines that a road building project might use, quoting the number of commuter-hours saved and attaching a pound-note figure. This won’t be easy, but it really is necessary. You see, I think most politicians are already convinced that science is important, but this warm feeling doesn’t tell them whether they need to spend N pounds or 2N pounds or 0.5N pounds.

Well that will do. For those with a Research Fortnight subscription, there is an excellent article just out by James Wilsdon from Sussex with some interesting insight.

Meanwhile, just to show that it is technically possible to balance permanently on a knife edge, here is Emerson Lake and Palmer forty years on. A treat for prog rock fans. Janacek fans still divided.

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25 Responses to NAM and the Knife Edge

  1. davecl says:

    The quest for metrics again…

    The problem with metrics of any kind is that what you can measure does not equate to what you want to do. But once you have a metric, what you do is pretty much forced to become what you can measure. So, in your example, road building changes into cutting the time of journeys.

    The other problem with metrics are the uncertainties, and I’m pretty convinced that politicians don’t understand even gaussian errors. But with the economic benefits of science, each new result is like an earthquake – most are small and insignificant, but some are vast. But the whole process is unpredictable and the vast quakes may depend on some small and insignificant ones to get them going. I wouldn’t be surprised if the impact of scientific results is a power law distribution, just like earthquakes or stock market crashes.

    We could always fall back on the old law of thumb that every extra percentage point of lawyers in the population cuts GDP by 0.1%, while every extra percent of scientists and engineers raises it by 0.1% (can’t find the exact figures right now). But since most politicians are lawyers…

  2. andyxl says:

    All true, but I think you are missing the point Dave. We have to give them something. We can’t complain that politicians are Phillistines because they don’t give us the right amount of money. How are they supposed to *know* what is the right amount of money?

    • davecl says:

      Isn’t the whole point of science that we must speak truth to power?

      If a health minister was wanting to switch the whole of the NHS over to homeopathic remedies you’d be sure that scientists would complain, if an education minister wanted to switch the national curriculum over to young earth creationism, astronomers, biologists and everyone else would be queuing up to set them right.

      Why is this not the case when the assumptions behind the way we’re told to report the ‘impact’ of science are a fundamental misunderstanding of how science works?

      Have we really been so ground down by decades of pointless managerialism in funding agencies and universities that we’re going to meekly accept such a flawed approach and ignore our responsibility to speak truth to power?

      If so, maybe the homeopathic NHS isn’t far away.

      • andyxl says:

        Hmm. Lets see. You are kind of exploding outwards from the point, but all v.interesting.

        “Isn’t the whole point of science that we must speak truth to power?”

        No. The point of science is to find the truth about Nature. Speaking truth to power is a jolly good thing, but something else.

        “…the way we’re told to report the ‘impact’ of science are a fundamental misunderstanding of how science works?”

        Exactly why we should try to solve the problem by our own initiative rather than meekly filling in the latest boiler plate.

        “…ground down by decades of pointless managerialism in funding agencies and universities that we’re going to meekly accept such a flawed approach ..”

        Yes, the growth of pointless managerialism is a big problem. Now, when you complain about “pointless managerialism”, do you mean “management per se is a a bad thing” or do you mean “we need sensible management”?

        “…and ignore our responsibility to speak truth to power?”

        A child can speak truth to power. It is a not a special gift of scientists. When asked for scientific advice, we do have a special responsibility to make truthful statements. And as *people* it is much healthier if we are honest and forthright.

        So, all very interesting, but lets see if we can answer the question. If you were Vince Cable, *how* would you decide how much money to give us? Or would you say “these scientists are much cleverer and more honourable than we weaselly politicians. I’d better let them tell us how much they need”.

  3. […] of readers for NAM and the Knife Edge, but only one comment. Maybe its a summer thing. The other Professor L expressed his surprise that […]

  4. Going off on a tangent . . . who is that huge, triple-chinned bloke standing in for Greg Lake?

  5. andyxl says:

    I think he is one of the Slatheen and has eaten Greg Lake

  6. Gary Davis says:

    I hate to be a wet dishcloth Andy but the JCMT is not “up for sale” – it is available at no acquisition cost. It probably doesn’t matter on here but if used in the wrong situation, language like that could be very damaging since anything that smacks of commercial activity on Mauna Kea is a no-no. I’d appreciate it if everyone could be a wee bit careful about the choice of words.

    • ian smail says:

      gary – i think we’re past the point of worrying about the form of words on a blog… ian

      • Gary Davis says:

        Ian, I agree. I said “it probably doesn’t matter on here”. My post was a request not to use such language in more public fora. Form of words is important when there are sensitivities involved.

    • “Up for sale” is a fair colloquial expression. The truth, that the STFC is effectively giving away a telescope and instrumentation that cost taxpayers millions of pounds might be even more damaging. The prospectus says: “There will be no acquisition cost associated with taking over the operation of the observatory.” So it is indeed not “up for sale”. A valuable instrument is being offered “free” – as long as you can afford to run it.

  7. Michael Merrifield says:

    Surely there is a sale being sought here, albeit one “in kind”: in return for the telescope, the purchaser also takes on its decommissioning liability.

  8. ian smail says:

    i thought that UH have taken on the site and liabilities (in return for the BIS decommissioning cash). as i understand it we were sub-leasing it from them anyway.

  9. Michael Merrifield says:

    Sounds very plausible, and would explain why there is no mention of any liability in the prospectus. Does that mean that if no-one takes the telescope on then STFC can walk away?

  10. I can’t find it now, but thought I read somewhere that the STFC will still be responsible for dismantling the telescope and returning the land to pristine condition.

    • ian smail says:

      i believe those costs are covered by the transfer of decommissioning costs to UH as leaseholder.

      so – yes – we can walk away if no buyer is found. similarly we could now choose to buy back in as a minor user of JCMT, with it now being a UH-held facility operated by a third party… if such a third party comes forward.

      • Gary Davis says:

        To clarify: this is correct. STFC is currently responsible for decommissioning the telescope and restoring the site. This responsibility will be transferred to UH when STFC-funded operations cease. STFC will compensate UH in cash for taking on this liability (using BIS money, not astronomy programme money).

        If no new operator (not “buyer”) can be found it is a bit murkier. UH might still take over the telescope and the site responsibility, in which case STFC could indeed walk away. But UH might in this situation refuse to take over – meaning that STFC would be obliged to decommission the telescope and restore the site. I don’t know how likely this is so let’s just hope we can find a new operator so that the question doesn’t arise.

      • ian smail says:

        dear gary

        how can we compensate UH for taking on the decommissioning liabilities… and yet if they can’t find a new operator – we’re still then liable for the decommissioning?!?

        i appreciate that STFC do have a track record commensurate with negotiating such a bad deal… but is that actually what would happen?

        ian

  11. andyxl says:

    A nice lively discussion. I must admit the “no commercial activity” thing hadn’t occurred to me, so sorry about that Gary. I shall watch my words, as long as I can still be funny.

  12. davecl says:

    Falling foul of the limited nesting of replies – this is a reply to Andy’s reply to me upthread…

    “Isn’t the whole point of science that we must speak truth to
    power?”

    No. The point of science is to find the truth about Nature.
    Speaking truth to power is a jolly good thing, but something else.

    The tools we have come up with, and the mindset one has to develop, in finding the truth about nature surely also put us into a unique position to find truth about other stuff. If, as I think we should, apply those methods to things those in power are doing, and find they’re mistaken, surely there is an obligation to tell them (and by implication the rest of the country) about it?

    “…the way we’re told to report the ‘impact’ of science are a
    fundamental misunderstanding of how science works?”

    Exactly why we should try to solve the problem by our own
    initiative rather than meekly filling in the latest boiler plate.

    And yetI don’t see anybody doing that. We’re all spending our time in finding the truth about the Nature, teaching, outreach and filling in the boilerplate. My own experience of complaining about the boilerplate has not met with any useful responses. Meekly filling in is what we’re expected to do, and any challenges to REF, eVAL etc. are ignored. Tell me, what other solutions to the problem are making the rounds, because I don’t see any?

    “…ground down by decades of pointless managerialism in
    funding agencies and universities that we’re going to meekly
    accept such a flawed approach ..”

    Yes, the growth of pointless managerialism is a big problem.
    Now, when you complain about “pointless managerialism”, do you
    mean “management per se is a a bad thing” or do you mean “we
    need sensible management”?

    By managerialism I mean the idea of management as an end in itself, and for management to demand an ever increasing level of monitoring and control, even if it’s control over something that it doesn’t actually understand. I know management per se is not a bad thing – hell, I’ve been/am a manager at some level – but the mistaken belief in management by metric is something we have to recover from. NewLab’s target culture has left us with a huge hangover in that regard, and I don’t see it going away any time soon.

    By any sensible ‘metric management’ measure, some scientists who have made fundamental advances would have been thrown out on their ears long before they achieved their breakthroughs. The guy who invented the conformal microscope didn’t publish anything for 10 years as he worked through the idea. It has since had a huge impact on a wide range of fields, but under the REF, or RAE before it, he’d have been fired or, at the very least, had his research funding withdrawn.

    “…and ignore our responsibility to speak truth to power?”

    A child can speak truth to power. It is a not a special gift of
    scientists. When asked for scientific advice, we do have a special
    responsibility to make truthful statements. And as *people* it is
    much healthier if we are honest and forthright.

    As stated above, if we’re doing our job properly, scientists are uniquely placed to be able to seek the truth that power has to hear, even if that truth is inconvenient. Those truths need to be communicated whether ask for or not. To do anything else is to not be responsible, as a scientist or citizen.

    So, all very interesting, but lets see if we can answer the
    question. If you were Vince Cable, *how* would you decide how
    much money to give us? Or would you say “these scientists are
    much cleverer and more honourable than we weaselly politicians.
    I’d better let them tell us how much they need”.

    I’d use international comparison to show how poorly funded UK science has become. Images like this would be involved:

    which shows how little the UK spends on science to our major economic competitors (0.57% of GDP compared to 0.79% for the G8 and 0.74% for the Eurozone). On this basis, I think a 30% increase in the science budget, phased in over the next 5-10 years, would not be unreasonable. That would get us up to the Eurozone average, but would still leave us well behind key competitors like the US, China and Germany.

    I’d also use the well established links between innovation and increases in GDP – according to NESTA 63% of UK growth between 2000 and 2008 was due to innovation.

    This is not complicated stuff. The links between GDP growth and technical innovation have been well researched over the last several decades, but are largely ignored by the arts & law dominated UK government. The other thing we need is more scientists in parliament, but I’m not sure many of us would want to take the cut in job satisfaction, and our tendencies to look for what’s true rather than what’s politically expedient don’t make us natural party apparatchiks.

  13. andyxl says:

    Crumbs. A lot to absorb. I am going to resist all the stuff about managerialism, as we probably largely agree but its not au point.

    Just three things.

    (i) You still seem to be saying “we know better than you because we spend our days thinking about stars”. I hope this is not what you tell visiting Ministers. For goodness sake, do you really think that people like Cable and Willets are stupid people?????

    (ii) Yes we have to keep repeating messages about international comparisons, and links between technical innovation and GDP. The picture you linked is excellent. But if we are not careful we are arguing for big increases in condensed matter, life sciences, and IT, and a reduction in astronomy and particle physics.

    (iii) You are apparently arguing simultaneously for the scientific method, which is of course quantitative, and against metrics, which is about trying to assess performance quantitatively. Surely what we want is not absence of metrics, but better metrics.

    Anybody else ?

    • davecl says:

      (i) You still seem to be saying “we know better than you
      because we spend our days thinking about stars”. I hope this
      is not what you tell visiting Ministers. For goodness sake, do
      you really think that people like Cable and Willets are stupid
      people?????

      I don’t think they’re stupid – far from it (in at least Cable’s case
      :-)), but they’re dancing to a different drummer than scientists. We’re interested in being right, in, as you put, finding the truth about nature. The fundamental goal of a politician, in contrast, is to get elected and to get elected to government. That does not always mean they’re interested in finding the truth about something if that truth doesn’t help them get elected. Yes, running the country well is a good way to get re-elected to government, but there are other methods, including rubbishing the opposition, and varnishing the truth to make it more favourable to you. In some cases, as we’ve seen just recently from IDS, this means completely ignoring what the statistics experts say because ‘I have a belief I am right’. For a politician, popularity beats accuracy every time. That’s not true for us. So, if a politician is seeking something that is accurate, they should come to scientists, not other politicians.*

      Whether those scientists should be astronomers, well versed in Bayesianism, biases, selection effects and the like, or some other kind of scientist, I’ll leave to other commenters to discuss.

      *I’m going to ignore the opportunity to discuss Blair’s tendency to call something ‘evidence based policy’ when it turns out to actually be ‘policy based evidence’.

      (ii) Yes we have to keep repeating messages about
      international comparisons, and links between technical
      innovation and GDP. The picture you linked is excellent. But if
      we are not careful we are arguing for big increases in
      condensed matter, life sciences, and IT, and a reduction in
      astronomy and particle physics.

      Surely a bigger pie means the chance of more money for all? There are plenty of advances we can point to that have come from astronomy rather than those other areas (WiFi, CCDs, GPS etc.) that I think we can get our share of the expanded budget. The problem we have now is that the budget is contracting in real terms, so we are slipping away from our competitors, not catching them up.

      (iii) You are apparently arguing simultaneously for the
      scientific method, which is of course quantitative, and against
      metrics, which is about trying to assess performance
      quantitatively. Surely what we want is not absence of metrics,
      but better metrics.

      I think the problem with the current set of metrics is that they do not match the process they’re trying to measure. Science progresses pretty slowly, especially for fundamentally important results. Upthread I referred to the invention of the confocal microscope, which took 10 years, with the inventor publishing nothing during that period. If we’re to take this as a fiducial point, we could say that our metrics should be judged over at least that length of time. Bearing in mind the amount of time for other fundamental advances to take root, like relativity and QM, 10 years is probably too short.

      But the metrics we’re told to work with are much shorter time scaled. REF is 5 years – I know a lot of colleagues on Planck who are going to be screwed by that. Other metrics, as far as I can tell, work over shorter timescales. Why is this? It’s at least partly because they’re driven by political timescales – the yearly budget round, the ~3 yearly CSRs and 5 yearly elections. That’s understandable, but it’s not a way to get the most accurate and useful results. If accuracy is what they’re after, the inconvenient truth is that the methods they’re using won’t provide it. After all, if you’re looking at a process that varies on a 10 year timescale, you don’t just look at 5 years of data. This isn’t exactly rocket science, so one has to ask whether accuracy is actually what they’re after.

      Anybody else ?

      Yes – this shouldn’t be the Andy and Dave show!

  14. Gary Davis says:

    Ian – in response to your comment above:

    STFC will only compensate UH in cash if UH actually take over the liability. If they refuse to do so (which I consider unlikely, and would only happen if we can’t find a new operator) then STFC will keep the cash and use it to decommission the telescope and restore the site. So it’s not the disastrous deal that you suspected. Apologies if I misled you.

  15. […] Thoughts on the responsibilities of scientists in ‘speaking truth to power’, inspired by discussions over on the e-Astronomer’s blog […]

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