Education versus the Internet

March 27, 2008

I am a fan of Bob Cringely’s Pulpit. He is one of those guys who were blogging years before blogs, and his IT industry column is always fascinating and amusing. His latest column is very scary for an academic to read. Its about the impact of information technology on education. Most arguments on this take one of two positions; either that IT is a great opportunity we must seize, or that it is a threat that stops students concentrating. Cringely suggests that the search-and-graze style associated with the Google era will eventually be seen to be good for education per se, but that it will destroy the traditional institutions that get paid to deliver it. College not needed.

If this depresses you too much, head over to the latest xkcd cartoon. (Thanks to Dave Pearson).

The King’s Shilling

March 27, 2008

The panels for the STFC consultation exercise are filling up and starting work. I have taken the King’s Shilling and agreed to serve on the space science and space exploration panel, chaired by Steve Schwarz. I think I am seen as an independent in this context … although I have used all sorts of space-based data over many years, I am not an insider on any space project. A good colleague has suggested to the SCAP list that we only agree to serve under some sort of statement of fundamental disagreement with the process. This is a bit like those French citizens who voted for Chirac with pegs on their noses, to keep Le Pen out. I think that is going slightly too far; but I (and others) have asked that our deliberations should be public, and we can then include a statement of discomfort, along the lines that Walter Gear made for PPAN at the March Town Meeting

Paul Crowther’s web site contains an update today of a meeting that Oxford profs had with Science Minister Ian Pearson, who asked for details of grants cuts. According to the email circulated amongst the SCAP list, Pearson also said that we had to co-operate with the consultation exercise, rather than try to destroy it. I am pretty sure most people’s instincts will indeed be to co-operate to the fullest extent and to do a very thorough job. The result will be to make STFC’s job much much harder. What stands out in the Programmatic Review priority list is that a large fraction of the highest priority things are very exciting but speculative things – grand plans for the future – whereas a large fraction of the lower priority things are projects and facilities that are producing science now, or are just about to. The present is being sacrificed for the future. There is a brave logic to this; but my guess is that the instinct of most working scientists will swing the other way. Of course any sensible programme has some of each …

Here is the weekly reminder of the two mantras :

(1) STFC inherited a budget deficit of £75M from CLRC.

(2) Its the Economy Stupid

My understanding of Mike Green’s commentary on the papers released to him under his FoI request, is that the Executive explained to Science board that “previous inadequate provision by CCLRC” led to a “negative dowry of £40M”. Its not clear what time frame this refers to so we don’t have to agonise over the exact amounts, but at least the basic principle is clear.

This seems to me to be the thing to concentrate on politically. You can complain about STFC’s approach to community engagement; you can disagree if you like about their chosen science policy; but these things are within their rights as an organisation; and they may improve with time. But the political record states that the PPARC science programme was not to be damaged by the act of merger itself; this principle has blatantly been breached. And the extra cost of operating Diamond and ISIS-2, at +£25M/yr, goes on ad infinitum.

Moreover, someone high up understood this problem, and chose not to address it. This is is related to mantra number two.

Because I know these two things are really the problem, I can participate openly in the consultation exercise, and do my best for STFC under their own rules.

Keep your eye on the ball.