Physics isn’t Fun

Seems the Government has decided the British Public doesn’t value science enough. Science Minister Lord Drayson wants to combat the perception that Science is elitist, and a campaign has been launched called “Science : So What ?” . I find myself wriggling uncomfortably. Well of course we want the public to appreciate science; and of course we want more kids picking science subjects at school; and of course we want more physics teachers. And I love doing PUS stuff myself – public lectures, talks to schoolkids. So why do I feel uncomfortable ? Here’s three reasons :

  1. You don’t get dates if you look desperate. The lady doth protest too much. Anybody remember that old British Rail campaign ? The one that said “We’re getting there”. Cringe.
  2. People don’t like being patronised. Should we be telling people science is fun fun fun ?  Its not a Saturday morning cartoon. Its important. Physics is very difficult. But its worth it. Sue Blakemore made this point in the Guardian recently.
  3. The public know perfectly well how important science is. Maybe the problem is with the power brokers : the captains of industry, the mandarins, the Threadneedle Street Masters of the Universe.  I speak of the UK : in the US, its probably the other way round.

Or maybe I am just being a grinch cos its been raining for three days.

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29 Responses to Physics isn’t Fun

  1. MatthewH says:

    Oh dear, I think that must be the worst campaign site I’ve seen for a while (not that they’re ever that good). I didn’t look at everything, but the first few obvious links discuss such outstanding breakthroughs as Facebook, how laser eye surgery means sports people don’t have to wear special glasses anymore, and sports psychology. Look! Science is great! We can make tenuous links to trendy websites and the Olympics! The worst quote award goes to “Why not take a look around, and see how science is touching you” which sounds as though its been lifted straight from Alan Partridge.

    For another jaded look at one of Lord Drayson’s previous campaigns see here: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2008/10/23/bloodhound_car_project/ (Page 2 is the interesting one).

    I have to agree with reason 3 here: there does seem to be a fundamental lack of understanding of the place of science in society at the very top in the UK. Certainly in the Netherlands, where I was working until recently, there was a much more supportive and (importantly) consistent message coming from the politicians to the science community.

  2. But what about those parts of science that are not directly related to technology and health – astronomy, for example? What about “Science: because it’s interesting”?

  3. Conor says:

    For more of Drayson’s buffoonery, and a quite thorough dirt-digging, a more recent reg article than that posted by MatthewH may be of interest:

    http://www.theregister.co.uk/2009/02/13/cern_drayson_bitchslap/

    I tend to take the register with a grain of salt, mind you. They tend to oscillate between being the geek version of the Private Eye and the Daily Mail respectively. I’d rather more of the former and less of the latter.

  4. andyxl says:

    The idea of a geek version of the Dail Mail has my head spinning. How about an emo version of ApJ ?

  5. Paul Crowther says:

    For the source of the Register’s story, watch Lord Drayson’s speech here together with Martin Rees’ excellent response. Well worth a look.

    Elsewhere in DIUS-land, Adrian Smith, the new Director General for Science and Research (Keith O’Nions’ replacement) is in trouble with John Denham over his (quite sensible) comments that the Government’s focus should be on getting A-levels and GCSE’s right before introducing the new Diplomas.

  6. Kav says:

    Having watched Horizon, I say we just give all the science-promotion money to Brian Cox and let him loose.

  7. Kav says:

    Andy,
    You make some good points in the post. I would just take umbrage with one thing: your title.

    I think physics is fun, yes it’s hard but the two are not mutually exclusive. I enjoy what I do; I find it fun. It’s not easy to do, but as you say it’s worth it. Given how hard it is, if one isn’t having fun doing it, then perhaps one should not be doing it.

  8. andyxl says:

    I tell all my new PhD students “if you are not bored you are not doing it right”. Of course, the necessary and boring rigour is balanced by occasional amazing highs, when you crack a problem or finish the paper etc. These give you a kind of impulse that keeps you motoring through the tedious stuff.

  9. telescoper says:

    To win an Olympic Gold medal for the 100 metres you have to be good at sprinting, so the Olympics is “elitist”. Just think of all the kids who must be put off athletics by watching how fast those guys can run.

  10. Conor says:

    telescoper: Taking the other side of the coin, If they televised physics (or most science for that matter) in the way that they do with the olympics, with huge opening ceremonies, controversy surrounding the usage of caffeine to boost performance, huge sponsorship deals with leading brands so that top-notch scientists would be seen wearing Nike or Addidas pocket protectors and swearing blind that their performance relies on only using Crayola ProMaxSuper chalk do you reckon kids would be as inspired? 😉

    Everything can be made interesting or boring depending on how it is presented. I guess the way to reach out to younger generations of Scientists is to emphasize the ‘contributing to a greater understanding of our universe’ aspect. When compared to getting across a field faster than someone else the former suddenly seems like a more glorious goal to me.

    (Fine Print: The author of this post may in fact have been the last one picked for teams in school sports.)

  11. Martin E. says:

    [re: fine print: ME TOO! I had a contest with my just-as-sports-blind friend Stephen, and I was disappointed if he got last spot instead of me.]

  12. telescoper says:

    Conor,

    To answer your question, no I don’t think so. But I’ve often wondered why it’s so unimaginable that big companies would sponsor scientific research rather than sports…

    ..but sadly it is. And that’s coming from someone who actually enjoys sport. Watching it, anyway.
    Peter

  13. andyxl says:

    Many big companies expect to make money from research rather than sponsoring it. Most of the cost of research is not in the odd theory postdoc, but in the big engineering contracts required to build the LHC, ALMA etc, or just buying the arrays from Rockwell etc. Possibly however we often get cut price bargains, and in return these companies can use their involvement in advertising etc. Meanwhile, Google and Microsoft have given money directly to LSST. But maybe this isn’t what you had in mind ?

  14. telescoper says:

    Andy

    I have a dream that one day companies will sponsor scientists for similar reasons to why they sponsor sport, i.e. not for direct financial return but because they want their brand to be associated with it. Big businesses also sponsor the arts (including opera) in this way, but I’ve never heard of any significant sponsorship of science along similar lines. Part of the reason must be that so few scientists are perceived as having the necessary cachet. Hawking is probably the only British one who might attract such an investment.

    Peter

  15. Michael Merrifield says:

    Somehow, I don’t see Prof Hawking going for the logos on his wheelchair, and his voice box announcing “this lecture was brought to you by…” at the end of each seminar!

  16. Conor says:

    It isn’t uncommon for companies to advertise their involvement with big science, but their advertising tends to be aimed at other scientists looking to buy similar equipment.

    I think the advertising/sponsorship side of things is more pragmatic in that sense. While many members of the public wear $100 ‘performance’ trainers when they’re shuffling to the pub, people are less likely to buy a sky survey plate or science kit of similar value and of presumably as much use to them.

    As an additional boot to young ‘uns looking to make a career out of research:

    http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/story.asp?sectioncode=26&storycode=405439&c=1

    It looks like Kief and friends at the Star Trek Fan Club are looking for ways to take from the bottom now that they’ve had their wrists slapped for doing it at the top.

  17. andyxl says:

    Conor – once I read down that article a little, it becomes clear that its a problem specifically for particle theory. The idea is to allocate studentships formulaically, based in part on funding per academic. (Money makes money…). In principle this is cost neutral over all. I guess STFC might take the opportunity to reduce total funding in the confusion, but we don’t know that. But it would specifically hit PP theory groups, who have only a smattering of RAs and none of that big project money. This is a recurring problem – PP theory groups often look bad on University spreadsheets for example. So what I don’t understand is this : why don’t PP theorists attach themselves as co-Is to the big experiments, and the PP Experiment rolling grants, rather than staying stubbornly aloof ? Their appearance on all the spreadsheets would be instantly transformed.

  18. Michael Merrifield says:

    With the consultation document, STFC circulated a plot showing the percentage change in 2007 departmental allocations in going from the current “competitive” process to their proposed formula, and apart from very small awards, which presumably suffer from quantization effects, the changes were all at about the +/-25% level or below. Presumably how departments then subdivide their quota between theory and experiment/observation will be left up to them to figure out on the basis of what is appropriate locally.

    Even if the formula were applied all the way down to group level, I rather struggle to believe Prof Glover’s nightmare scenario of studentship numbers in particle theory dropping by a factor of 4-5 due to their relative lack of PDRAs. The formula is essentially based on staff+PDRA numbers, and since you won’t find more than one PDRA per staff member pretty much anywhere, surely the relative lack of PDRAs in particle theory would have to result in more than a factor of two drop in studentships. Still fairly disastrous, but not quite on the scale claimed.

    Incidentally, STFC have also considered the “bottom line” problem of big project money in this process — the proposed formula is primarily based on responsive-mode PDRAs, with those funded on projects only counting as 1/3rd of a PDRA in the weighting, so one might imagine that some of the objections that STFC will receive will come from the experimental groups, objecting to their activity only being counted as third class!

  19. Paul Crowther says:

    Mike

    The PhD `consultation’ is yet another example of the top-down approach at STFC i.e. someone senior directing panels (the Education and Training Ctte in this instance) from to go down a particular route, rather than coming from the bottom up (the Ctte itself who were apparently content with the current setup).

    Initially project RA’s were to count equally with responsive PDRA’s but a couple of departments would have benefitted hugely (no prizes for guessing which, but think groups involved in long-term instrument building), so the Ctte did what it could to soften this shift before it was opened up for wider input from HoDs.

    Still, no longer can AGP referee’s comfortably argue that a specific PDRA project should be done by a PhD student. Not allocating the PDRA means that there is less chance of a PhD studentship getting awarded to that group at the next round.

  20. andyxl says:

    Paul – personally I would like to go down the US route, and explicitly propose funded studentships on grants, as well as PDRAs

  21. Paul Crowther says:

    Both the US and (current) UK systems have pros & cons, but my point was that the UK setup – awards through peer review of proposals from groups – seemed to be working to most people’s satisfaction, yet the argument made for changing this to a formula method was `improved transparency’.

    As is often the case by going down a formula route, more effort will now be given to maximising studentship awards through means of optimising “research active” staff numbers, rather than proposing high calibre PhD projects, good completion rates or ensuring the best training possible.

  22. Michael Merrifield says:

    I am afraid I am once again in the uncomfortable position of backing STFC on this one. I have gone through the quota-bidding process several times, and never really been convinced that there was a correlation between how good a job we had done and the outcome, instead being awarded pretty much a status quo that seemed retarded by the relatively recent creation of the group. As ever, this is just my perception, but right or wrong I would be happier with a system that had a more transparent guarantee of equitable treatment, with the extra benefit that we will not have to put anything like the same level of effort into producing the paperwork for what seemed to me to be little benefit.

    As I understand it, the current proposal is intended to include issues such as completion rates and quality of training, but as a modifier to the formula figure. Presumably one of the things that groups will be feeding into the consultation will be how they would like to see this modifier applied.

    I do agree, though, that the risk with any formula is that we will find ways to abuse it. For example, the wording of the consultation says that your staff numbers are all academics “eligible to hold STFC research grants.” Since all 3000+ academics at my university meet this requirement, I was planning on entering them all. I think they might plug that loophole at some point, though…

  23. ian smail says:

    andy – you can request studentships on STFC grants (as well as PDRAs). although i have to admit that in the face of the funding squeeze and the existence of quota studentship awards – awards of studentships through the astronomy grants line have been minimal.

    i’m against coupling the studentship quota award to the grants outcome as this has the potential of creating a positive feedback loop with disastrous consequences (as paul points out).

    i believe the current system is basically formulaic – based on the number of academics and fellows (weighted as a half and only considering those whose positions last longer than 3yrs) and a factor determined by the completion rates and the quality of the submission (in terms of training/etc). tweaking this a little would seem the best route forward. maybe with more feedback to the applicants to help them improve?

  24. Michael Merrifield says:

    Hi Ian —

    If it is basically formulaic, and you plan to offer feedback to iron out any remaining wrinkles that lead to departures from the formula, why not just go the whole hog and use a formula in the first place, thus saving everyone effort and making life much more transparent.

    Given a formula that depends at least 50% on the number of academics, and that allocates studentships to a department rather than an individual, I can’t really see the likelihood of runaway feedback unless individual departments are very small or particularly obtuse in how they share them out.

  25. ian smail says:

    mike:

    i think there is a formula and a small “delta” variation which is based on other factors – maybe someone on ET&C can enlighten us.

    anyway – in the light of the RG outcomes from last round and this round – i think you will find people at some institutes who would definitely not want their studentship numbers coupled to their PDRA allocations…

    STFC could of course allocate _all_ students through AGP (rather than the current small fraction) but that would simply risk AGP recommending studentships as “consolation” prizes place of PDRAs.

  26. Paul Crowther says:

    Mike, Ian

    Indeed, the AGP chair Mike Cruise recently commented:

    Of particular concern is the plight of newly appointed researchers who, quite naturally, find it difficult to compete at the very highest levels of international achievement so soon in their careers.

    so I do worry that the young researchers who have historically been able to tap into the pool of PhD studentships at their institute will now have a lower likelihood of such support if they were unable to secure PDRA support during the current cycle. Young academics typically benefit greatest from PhD support as their teaching/admin loads ramp up.

  27. Michael Merrifield says:

    I don’t follow this line of argument, Paul. The allocation of PhD studentships is still made to a department, not to individual researchers. The PDRA+Staff figure is just used as the metric of the department’s size and productivity, as a way of deciding how many studentships to award. I can’t speak for other departments, but certainly I would ensure that studentships were divided appropriately here, with particular prominence given to younger researchers and those who *weren’t* awarded PDRAs in deciding where the studentships should go, and no nonsense about anyone claiming it was “their” studentship because they had a PDRA already.

  28. Paul Crowther says:

    Its good to hear that you’d be fair dishing out the awards, but this might not be the case universally. To date, groups split across PPARC/STFC (mostly ether astro or PP flavoured) have received specific awards for their own areas. However, one could perceive greater tensions across astro/PP when a single award *if* either PP or astro dominated their institutes’ PDRA/project RA numbers.

    My main concern remains that the new method would provide less PhD studentships to groups dominated by younger academics (less likely to succeed in PDRA requests) than those dominated by, more mature academics (more likely to succeed in PDRA requests). PDRA numbers may be the easiest thing to include in a formula, but I dispute its use as the (sole) measure of quality, especially at a time of instability in PDRA numbers (referred to by Mike Cruise at the last Astro Forum).

  29. andyxl says:

    Paul – sounds like you are worried about the split between PP and astro groups within a Department, rather than the split between individuals. That is a tricky issue; HODs are more likely to allocate groups a fixed earned slice than they are for individuals. Thats true for overhead earnings too. From what I have seen its normal in Biology and Chemistry Departments for PIs to keep their own overheads (or at least whatever isn’t handed to central admin), but in Physics, aggregation by group is the norm I would guess.

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