Making Enemies

September 15, 2010

I am getting a bit perturbed by this Cable bashing thing. Maybe we are unwittingly making an enemy of someone who means to help.

After his Radio Four blunder, and the related speech at QMUL,  the BBC smelled rebellion in the air; the Twittersphere went into overdrive, as described in Roger Highfield’s S-word post; Peter Coles concluded that big cuts were signalled ; Brian Cox told Sun readers that Cable’s plans might be “wiping out 50% of UK research”; now Robert May says Cable is being “just plain stupid”.

Even The Daily Mail is worried about the lunacy of cutting science budgets. Crikey.

Lets get some context. The whole coalition government drastic cuts thing has me fuming. It is an ideological exercise aimed at rolling back the state, with the fiscal deficit employed cynically as a handy way to keep the public on side. The UK should be going for a mixture of modest cuts, tax rises, and infrastructural stimulus spending. Well, thats my personal opinion. But we are where we are. In that  context, Cable, a sound economist and all round good Liberal, is in a very difficult position. Every minister is saying “my Department is an exception !!”. Osborne ain’t accepting that.  What would you do in that position ? Well maybe you would talk tough while quietly protecting things that matter.

On Radio Four, speaking live, Cable implied that a large fraction of research grants are below world class. That is palpably wrong and was an appalling error. I hope he is wriggling in shame over that. Read the QMUL speech and there is no doubt what he really meant – that only 55% of the teaching staff employed at Universities are actually doing the world class research that the UK is justly famous for. But those folk already get 90% of the HEFCE/HEFCW/SFC research funding, and nearly all the RCUK grant funding. We are already pretty much doing what Cable argues for. So what is in his mind ? Clearly further steepening of the QR funding, maybe even removing QR from the lower end completely.

This could be bad, but is it “wiping out 50% of UK research” ? Of course not. Could it be misunderstood as wanting to do that ? Well yes, but only if you are looking to pick a fight.

Sometimes picking a fight is the right thing to do. Things are getting savage, and you need to establish that you ain’t a sucker to be victimised. What Cox and Highfield and others have been doing speaking up for science has been tremendously important and valuable. More please. But painting Vince Cable as Mr Evil ? Doesn’t smell right.

Put your tin hat on …

September 13, 2010

… its going to get a bit rough. Everybody is getting twitchy as the spending review approaches. The trade unions are polishing their breastplates and preparing the battle plan. Special pleaders are lining up – not just us bossy science types, but for example our Arts colleagues – defend the arts ! On the radio this morning I think I heard the military getting their US chums to say that defence cuts would damage the special relationship. And so on and so forth. Meanwhile the banks claim they are protecting the future by agreeing a “radical” new limit on capital-to-lending despite the fact that most banks are already safely inside that limit, and bonus culture is still rampant.

I can’t be doing with all this worrying about spending cuts. I have eight million students to interview this week. Mind you it is a bit depressing, especially the recent Vince Cable “45% of UK science is rubbish” fiasco. (Follow the links at Peter Coles’ excellent article and comment stream)

If we understand what Cable really meant – take QR away from the weakest departments – its contentious but not staggering. Yes we have the usual “shock horror half results below average” rubbish, but we all knew three years ago that such a QR shift was threatened, and it implies a cut of only a few percent. What really got the science world up in arms however was the fact that he mistakenly referred to “grants”. Research grants demonstrably go ONLY to excellent research.  The impression Cable left was very badly wrong. I can’t believe he doesn’t know this. It may be almost however in the current climate for him to make anything approaching a correction or apology.

Where I part from Peter is over his insistence that government should fund what can’t be funded elsewhere, i.e. only proper science,  not commercially relevant research, leaving that to investors etc.  I get the point of course, but that way we end up in a few years with EPSRC+AHRC having the same budget as AHRC.


September 8, 2010

In the Sirens of Titan, Kurt Vonnegut said :

Every passing hour brings the Solar System forty-three thousand miles closer to Globular Cluster M13 in Hercules — and still there are some misfits who insist that there is no such thing as progress

Kinda distracted today, but can’t get that quote out of my head.

Did he get it right ?

Grammar Grump

September 4, 2010

I find myself today worrying about the disappearing ed. The oldest example I know is the infamous “fine toothed comb”. As this venerable expression is often heard and rarely written, most folk find themselves thoughtlessly talking of a “fine tooth comb”. Most days you just let this glide past, and then suddenly you stop your conversation partner and grumpily enquire ‘What sir precisely is a toothcomb ?”

Unfortunately for the grammar grump, some dictionaries give “fine-tooth comb” as a valid alternative to “fine toothed comb”. But more distressing, the toothcomb is no longer alone. I read a restaurant menu offering Cumberland sausage with “mash potato”. A few days later I saw an advert for Lipton’s “ice tea”. Ed’s friend ing can go too. I heard someone saying they were going for their drive test.

Standing back from life, I know this is language evolution in action. And of course, evolution is always driven by errors. So its all good.

But I still can’t help harrumphing.

Grant mechanism review

September 1, 2010

As most readers will know, I am currently chair of STFC’s Astronomy Grants Panel, but have avoided blogging about grants business as it doesn’t seem appropriate, and unseemly lobbying may take place etc. But I thought I should draw to your attention that a review of grant review mechanisms is currently underway, and STFC are running a public consultation. The deadline is quite soon – September 6th, otherwise known as the coming Monday. His Darkness has also plugged it, and explains a little more.

So. Anyhoo. Better talk about something else. Errmm.

Ah yes. Just finished reading wonderful book – biography of Dirac written by Grahame Farmelo : The Strangest Man. And he certainly was. But some of them other quantum heroes were pretty weird too. The book is full of lovely little gossipy tidbits. Apparently Ehrenfest trained a parrot that he could take to seminars that would say “But gentlemen, thats not physics”. Even stranger, Oppenheimer was so jealous of Blackett that he left a poisoned apple on his desk. No really.

Ahh, we live in the age of dwarfs.

And in the age of thinking the unthinkable.