War opens on another front

So the results are in and we are all ecstatic because we have only lost an ear and not an eye. (Reminds me of a confessional post I shall write sometime). Meanwhile the wise are shaking their heads slowly, and pointing out that the The Great RCUK Carve Up is yet to come, that nothing has been said about capital expenditure, and that STFC is “particularly vulnerable”. The S-word post by Imran Khan sums it all up well.

So as usual we are expecting to be at war with the medics and lose. But now some suggest that another front is opening – war with the engineers. In the build up to the spending review, many were upset when the submission by the Royal Academy of Engineering contained these words :

Much of particle physics work is carried out at CERN and other overseas facilities and therefore makes a lower contribution to the intellectual infrastructure of the UK compared to other disciplines.    Additionally, although particle physics research is important it makes only a modest contribution to the most important challenges facing society today, as compared with engineering and technology where almost all the research is directly or indirectly relevant to wealth creation.

Woah ! Chip on shoulder or what ? Now an article by Colin McIlwrain on Nature News suggests there will be a battle coming, and that this is a sign of long standing cultural differences between scientists and engineers in the UK, and in particular the low standing that engineers have in UK and US society as compared to much of Europe. Put another way, we are intellectual snobs.

I find this hard to react to because I think it is true of UK society that engineers are undervalued, but not true of scientists – depending on what you mean by “engineer”. I wrote a couple of posts on this subject some time back – on my own blog, and as a guest on \\engtech. Anybody who has had any experience with instrumentation or software projects has enormous respect for engineers. They are a different beast from us, but just as creative, and just as clever. We have symmetrical roles to play and are both crucial in many projects. I don’t see bitterness or paranoia there. So what’s going on ?

I think where there is scepticism, it is not about engineers but about academic engineers. The simplistic view of many scientists is as follows.  “We are the folk who do the research and stubbornly pursue truth; you are the folk who solve problems and invent stuff and make things work. So what does engineering research mean ?”

In other words, many physicists are secretly thinking “Hmm, surely the academic engineers are the ones who aren’t good enough to actually be engineers ?”

Provocative enough ?

Not saying thats what I believe of course, but I detect this undercurrent.

53 Responses to War opens on another front

  1. There’s also the state-funding/impact side of this: if engineering is, almost by definition, useful and wealth-creating, then isn’t there enough money available from industry to fund most engineering research? Surely the state should be funding “blue skies” research that wouldn’t otherwise receive financial support?

    I’m not saying that’s what I think, but it’s a question that’s been nagging me.

  2. telescoper says:

    That’s a point I’ve tried to make several times on my blog.

    If engineering and applied science really is “near market” then it shouldn’t need research grants, but should instead be supported by venture capital or direct investment from industry. To be fair, a large fraction of engineering research is funded that way and some is undoubtedly too speculative for the market to touch and therefore merits state support. However, that part that needs state support is in precisely the same boat as fundamental physics and shouldn’t keep banging on about being more likely to generate wealth because, ipso facto, it isn’t.

    “Whoever, in the pursuit of science, seeks after immediate practical utility, may generally rest assured that he will seek in vain.”

    Hermann Ludwig Ferdinand von Helmholtz, 1862.

  3. mark says:

    I agree – if its generating so much wealth then they don’t need any research grants, because some private company would be very happy to invest in it….unless of course it is not actually going to generate any short term financial gain – which blows their argument out of the water about transferring money from particle physics to academic engineering.

  4. Michael Merrifield says:

    Surely the issue is primarily to do with means and standard errors.

    The Government invests in science for a variety of rather complex reasons, cultural (learning is a good in itself), political (we are more credible as a World player if we do it) and economic (it pays for itself in spin-offs). If the last is the driver, then there is a further trade-off in that very blue skies research may offer by far the greatest economic return when something pays off, but the probability of any individual project paying for itself is very small. So the expectation value of the pay-off may be highest for the bluest-skies research, but the scatter is very large.

    When times are good, the best strategy is to invest in lots of blue skies projects, get a big return on a small fraction of them, and end up with a good solid return on your total investment.

    However, when times are tight, you could end up investing in so few programmes that you miss out entirely and get no return on your investment. In that case, the better strategy may be to invest in lower-risk grey-skies science, get a lower marginal rate of return but with a greater certainty to ensure that you have a reasonable probability of at least some profit on your investment.

    The reason that industry cannot make this kind of investment is that they do not have the underwrite of the entire GDP of the country to deal with the times when even the lower-risk approach draws a blank, They therefore have to play things even more conservatively and only invest in very near market research. There is certainly an argument that they should be investing more, but there will always be a gap where the research is reasonably close to market, but too far for a company to risk the research, and in tough times there will always be an economic pressure for the Government to fill that gap.

    • That makes a lot of sense, but in that case, shouldn’t engineering research be self-funding – over sufficiently long timescales?

      And some companies spend billions on R&D, so I’m not sure how much university engineering research is really outside of their budgets, following this particular argument.

      For example: http://www.gizmag.com/worlds-top-20-corporate-rd-spenders/13406/

      • Michael Merrifield says:

        I guess that the issue is that they don’t have sufficiently long timescales: they have to answer to their investors on a quarterly basis when they report their cash flow.

        I also suspect that the impressive R&D numbers in that article are much more D than R, and are much closer to market than the kinds of things that university engineering departments typically take on through Government funding, so that the companies don’t end up with the kind of Poissonian fluctuations in cashflow that would spook their investors and potentially destroy them.

      • Ross Collins says:

        The BBC posted an article on Tuesday this week entitled “Viewpoint: Science is better off without the government”, where I quote:

        Dr Terence Kealey has done much to demonstrate that the government is not necessary for science to flourish.

        This is why, despite government funding, IBM is one of the largest research institutions in the world.

        True perhaps if you substitute science for engineering – I’d consider IBM’s research to be more engineering focused than “science”.

      • andyxl says:

        Ross – both IBM and Bell used to fund serious pure science labs. Tony Tyson, well known cosmologist and director of LSST project, did most of his best known work while working for Bell Labs. They have now pulled out of that game completely, and IBM Thomas Watson research center in New York is not what it used to be. So it seems this can work in the boom times, but not when they get lean. This was Mike’s point I think.

      • Dave says:

        At the time Bell Labs was spending lots of money on pure research, their parent AT&T almost was an arm of the US government since they had a monopoly on telephone service. They thus had a huge amount of money to play with.

        Once the market crept in in the 80s, with the break up of AT&T into the Baby Bells, the money spent on pure research rapidly disappeared.

        I suspect IBM’s once near-monopoly of computer sales led to much the same effect, but in both cases it’s clear that the market is death to pure scientific research.

  5. john womersley says:

    On Monday, I saw some very interesting EU statistics about the number of scientists in each of the European countries. The number of scientists per head of population is highest in the Nordic countries, but the UK is quite respectable and ahead of the EU average. However, when you look at the fraction of these scientists who are employed in the public sector, the UK sits with the ex-communist countries in having a very large fraction of its scientists in the public sector and very few in the private sector. Research in the UK is far more dependent on public sector support than in other north western European countries. I think this tells us something interesting about UK industry’s willingness to support R&D.

    • telescoper says:

      I’d be interested to know, for example, how much our privatised energy companies are investing in energy R&D, climate change, etc, in general. I suspect not much.

      • Dave Carter says:

        Peter that is not quite fair, for instance all of E-On, EDF and Npower are currently advertising for substantial numbers of science and engineering graduates on their graduate schemes. And they don’t do this unless there is a realistic prospect of employing them in the long term.

  6. paulcrowther says:

    Less than a third (<0.6% GDP) of the total UK R&D spending (1.8% of GDP) goes on the civil 'science budget'. The other two thirds are from the private sector, presumably also involving scientists & engineers.

    For comparison, a quarter of the 2.6% of GDP spent by Germany on R&D is public spending (CaSE Sept briefing). Overall, a greater willingness of German industry to invest in R&D than the UK.

    p.s. Anyone else get their "Particle Physics: Why we need it" glossy flyer from the PP action group today? As usual, PP are ahead of astro in the post-science budget settlement lobbying effort.

    • ian smail says:

      …oh i don’t know – did you see/hear the “z=8.6” galaxy coverage? i think more opinion-formers (and indeed normal people) probably saw that on the CSR day than any glossy PP flier.

      maybe we should follow it up with a picture of a 100-km NEO?

      • Paul Crowther says:


        Indeed, Astronomy has a higher media profile, but the stories go “UK astronomers have..” or “A NASA moon mission” so there isn’t a strong brand image for ESO per se. Whereas, anything on LHC tends to start with “Scientists at CERN..” Clearer brand image. When I spoke to Justin Webb about monster stars in the Summer on the Today programme he found the name `Very Large Telescope’ highly amusing, clearly never having heard of it before.

        David Willets can take credit for having protected science against the worst of the cuts, but capital investment for RCUK is not yet agreed and likely to decrease significantly. STFC is more dependent on capital than other RCs, and half of its capital investment has gone on ESO and CERN this year. Subscriptions will be under severe scrutiny, whatever STFC’s cash settlement.

        If it becomes a choice of ESO or CERN, 9 out of 10 PP colleagues say that CERN is essential for their science, whereas everyone in our more diverse community will have their own personal favourite. All non-ESO optical/IR telescopes are likely to be lost to the UK within 2yrs, apart from ESO. I mentioned in the BBC piece this week that if we lost ESO too, ground-based astro would go from Premier league to Sunday league.

        Still, arguments have been made that ESO is less central to UK astronomy than CERN is to PP. If we disagree with this argument (I certainly do) we need to make this clear to those above our pay grade both in scientific and economic (industrial ELT contracts) terms. Especially the latter. No-one on STFC Council currently is a ground-based astronomer (George Efstathiou has a piece on STFC Council in the current Res Fortnight). A link to the PF is `you know where’..


      • Dave Carter says:

        Paul, I think that is getting into the realms of dangerous hyperbolae. Say ESO is important to astronomy by all means, but don’t stray into the territory of saying that if we can’t afford ESO then astronomy is not worth doing. Large parts of the community would strongly disagree with your “Sunday League” comment.

      • Paul Crowther says:


        Although ESO came top of the MRR ground-based review, I recognise many people only really care about HST, or Herschel or theory.

        Still, the UK’s future ground-based strategy over the last decade or so has narrowed towards VLT -> ALMA -> ELT. Without ESO, many of us would be back to square one and so would need to either give up research of bugger off overseas. We’d very much be (seen as) second class citizens in Europe. I’d argue that you would struggle to recruit a postdoc from overseas, even for a science programme focused on HST, Herschel…


      • Dave Carter says:


        Arguments about recruiting postdocs become moot if the ESO subscription squeezes the budget so hard that there is no source of funds for them.

        I agree that there are substantial parts of the community which are reliant on ESO, but there are also substantial parts which are not, they may depends upon other things which are under threat, or they may not. But without young people coming into the subject through studentships, postdocs and above all fellowships, then it really is quite hard to see where the subject is going, and I would argue that it is protecting those lines, rather than your favourite facilities or mine, which should be the overriding objective.

      • iansmail says:


        having sat on AGP for 7 years, i have to disagree with your view that “large parts of the (observational) community” aren’t reliant on ESO.

        i agree that there are significant communities which don’t use ESO facilities, but of the “traditional” observational astronomers, most of them (including almost all of the highest impact groups) have future plans which are focused on ESO facilities (VLT/VISTA/ALMA/E-ELT). or at least that is what they claim in their grant proposals.

        withdrawl from ESO would therefore directly impact on the research plans of many of the UK’s internationally leading observational groups… with obvious consequences for the competitiveness of the whole community.

      • Dave Carter says:


        SKA is outside of that of course, and there are a number of groups whose plans focus on that.

        But a different question is whether the plans of the groups are focussed that way because of a perception that it is the only way to get grants funded. That excellent science which is not focussed on ESO/ESA/CERN is disadvantaged, which was a concern which I had, and I was not the only one, when STFC was formed. You may have more insight from your time on AGP, but as largely an outsider it is a perception I still have.

      • richard wade says:

        I will make sure the STFC Council are aware of the z=8.55 result at their meeting this week. A great example of the benefits of supporting both the best people and the best facilities. we need both.

      • telescoper says:

        Just make sure you don’t show the actual spectrum!

      • Paul Crowther says:


        I agree there has to be a suitable balance between people and facilities in observational astronomy. John W has asked the community (via Astro Forum) if we want ESO at all costs, and of course the answer is no, if there is nothing left in the coffers for students/postdocs/fellows to exploit.

        Both are relatively pointless in isolation if we want to stay at the top of the Premier league. Without cutting edge datasets from ESO et al. to work through, many PhD students won’t have much to do apart from update their facebook profiles.

        Aside from exploitation, large chunks of the UK instrumentation community are necessarily focused primarily on E-ELT (not least ATC) after the loss of Gemini membership.

        p.s. Before I showed my yr4 undergraduates the z=8.6 SINFONI Ly-a spectrum I thought it wise to first present the simulated rest frame UV spectrum from Trenti’s N&V item.

      • richard wade says:

        No I wasn’t planning to show the spectrum 🙂

      • telescoper says:


        You are evidently a wise man!


      • Dave Carter says:


        That is one of the things which really annoys me about the way in which “the community”‘s views are decided, You say “John W has asked the community via Astro Forum”, well what is that? And how does one get to be part of it? Who is this privileged circle called “the community”? And who decides who they are? And why does approaching 4 decades of work in the subject including working all hours at many of the facilities which the UK uses and used to value not qualify you even to be on the mailing lists?

        And Richard, really no, don’t show them the spectrum. Although I must admit that I remember Hy Spinrad showing spectra claiming to be redshift 1 galaxies, which attracted similar incredulity, more often than not he turned out to be right.

      • andyxl says:

        Dave – I think Astro Forum is Heads of Department/Groups. Its expected that news spreads out from there. I guess you don’t go to coffee these days ?

      • Dave Carter says:


        Ok, apologies, yes there was a meeting which we couldn’t get anyone to as it clashed with teaching and other things. I was confusing it with Astro Community, which is something else.


        Just be careful with the football analogies. Coming from where you do you will know what happened to Sheffield Wednesday when they overstretched themselves. As with Leeds, Portsmouth and very nearly Liverpool.

      • richard wade says:

        Hi Dave
        I’m not questioning the result, just the value of showing that spectrum and saying “Here is a 6 sigma result”. Not in front of STFC Council at least 😉

      • Insomniac says:

        Regarding ESO, Dave, you are the exception that proves the rule. This was demonstrated convincingly by Rowan-Robinson’s Ground-Based Review Panel.

        Without access to VLT, VISTA and ALMA/E-ELT, a large majority of UK astronomers would be hamstrung, very much like UK PPs without CERN. The idea that we could make a significant impact with our non-ESO facilities would be funny if it weren’t so misguided. Hot on the heals of the Gemini and JIVE withdrawals, no-one would consider bi-partite (or any-partite) agreements with us again, and UK astronomy would not recover for generations.

        As an important aside, much of the European radio astronomy community would like to see SKA managed and built by ESO. It is the only astronomical organisation capable of running such a project. The timescale fits well with that of E-ELT, i.e. an SKA ramp-up in the late 2010s (by which time even the Americans might be interested).

        Time to smell the coffee.

      • andyxl says:

        How do we argue against the suggestion that we still have plenty of space missions – Herschel, Planck, XMM, Gaia coming soon.. ?

      • richard wade says:

        I couldn’t agree more. And despite all the financial problems we still serve coffee at STFC Council meetings. I hope they are grinding the beans in Garching too.

      • Insomniac says:


        Herschel requires follow up with VISTA, VST, VLT and ALMA. Locked out of that, we’d be stuck counting blobs. And even Americans can do that.

        Gaia requires wide-field spectroscopic follow up. Developing an instrument to make this possible, at modest cost, is one of ESO’s highest priorities, hopefully in partnership with UK instrument groups.

      • Dave Carter says:


        We can debate the GBFR process at length if you like, but this is not the place. I would be surprised if the Australians or the South Africans would agree to handing over SKA to ESO.

      • Insomniac says:


        I take your point. If each member of ESO’s 100+ science group were to grind a single bean, perhaps in the 50% of their time many of them have for personal research, then there would be sufficient coffee for the whole of Garching bei Munchen, and for the workers building their new headquarters. But difficult to lecture them on this topic, given the situation in Oxfordshire? 😉

      • Winter Lightning says:

        “Just make sure you don’t show the actual spectrum!”

        I wouldn’t show them the author list either as it’s invariant under removal of UK ESO subscription: French-led astronomers use ESO telescope to measure redshift of most distant galaxy found by US & UK teams using ESA/NASA telescope.

        Perhaps STFC Council would find this “useful” in their deliberations.

      • iansmail says:

        no – richard can be very open about the UK involvement in this paper and its link to our membership of ESO:

        4/9 of the authors on the paper are at UK institutions – i believe that three of these (those at Durham and ATC) are on there because this project came out of discussions of the science case for the EAGLE E-ELT instrument (elements of which they wrote).

        so if the UK weren’t in ESO then we wouldn’t be part of EAGLE and we wouldn’t have ~half of the authors on this nature paper…

  7. Ross Collins says:

    in particular the low standing that engineers have in UK and US society as compared to much of Europe

    That’s certainly true… when Chilean miners were rescued how much time did the media spend singing the praises of the engineers who made it all possible, or how many politicians for that matter?

    It didn’t always used to be that way. Walking around the city of Glasgow’s Necropolis you’ll see many fine tombstones and sarcophagi proudly inscribed “Engineer” from the Victorian era.

  8. Martyn Wells says:

    Going back to engineers…

    Is there not a much closer and symbiotic relationship between engineering and science than that indicated in the Royal Academy of Engineering submission or perceived cultural differences? Particle physics maybe mostly carried out at CERN but there’s lots of engineering in the LHC with considerable UK input. Their second sentence then confuses particle physics contribution to challenges facing society with engineering input to wealth creation. The challenges may or may not involve wealth creation ( eg renewable energy vs prevention of malaria) but most will involve both science and engineering.

    There are also plenty of examples where the interaction between science and engineering goes in interacting cycles like –
    steam engines/thermodynamics/improved steam engines/internal combustion engines or
    for an astronomy example, diffraction gratings where the cycle goes from observation of diffraction, experimentation, theory of gratings, engineering development of ruled gratings which are then used extensively in pure and applied science, not least astromony. The cycles then continue with more detailed diffraction theory which allows more efficient gratings to be designed and manufactured with the aid of computers and lasers (both involving more science/engineering leapfrogging).

    Then there are other cases where one person’s engineering (adaptive optics) is another person’s science (atmospheric dynamics)

    In fact it would be hard nowadays to find any area of science or engineering which is not heavily dependent on the other discipline and so in good times or bad you cant go too far towards blue or grey skies if you want progress in science and/or wealth creation.

  9. andyxl says:

    Martyn – quite right; the link between science and engineering is often intimate, and it goes both ways. Thermodynamics was a scientific obsession in the nineteenth century, but this was initially driven by very practical desires to understand heat engines and so on. In the twentieth century solid state physics and the electronics industry were likewise very closely linked.

    Engineer-teasing aside, this is why the R.Acad.Eng submission was so distressing. Splitting the unified front seems a bad idea.

  10. Mr Physicist says:

    This arguement is sterile. Surely, both scientists and engineers are necessary for large projects to succeed? Love not war.

  11. In case you didn’t already receive it in your pigeonhole, the “Particle Physics: Why we need it” flyer I referred to earlier is available as a pdf plus the Particle Physics Action Group CSR background info is here.

    • martin E. says:

      I didn’t find that PP sheet very impressive. It doesn’t really give many reasons that are economic. And those that are there are a bit weak. E.g. would spending the same amount on other physics, or other science/tech., produce fewer jobs/contracts? On non-economic arguments it’s just “We’ve been doing this for 100 years so we shouldn’t stop now”. Not really a word about what the science means.
      The astronomy booklet at least talks nicely about the science, and about spin-off. Economically though it too suffers from the problem of whether this is a higher rate of return than other fields might give.
      The numbers on “inspiration” are interesting; how much below PP is astronomy? I’d guess very little.

  12. Jim Wild says:

    Anyone else get their “Particle Physics: Why we need it” glossy flyer from the PP action group today? As usual, PP are ahead of astro in the post-science budget settlement lobbying effort.

    Paul: I agree – the PP action group are light on their feet and don’t seem to be paralysed with fear that they’ll upset the applecart by fighting their corner. Astronomers could learn a trick or two from them. But in fairness, we shouldn’t forget that the RAS produced the A new view of the universe: big science for the big society booklet in the run up to the CSR.

    Something punchy post-CSR would be good though…

    • Michael Merrifield says:

      I don’t think it is fair to characterize astronomy as “paralysed with fear that they’ll upset the applecart by fighting their corner.” The issue is how in the current climate we make the optimal case for supporting astronomy, and I would like to think that we recognize that making the argument badly could do a lot more harm than good, so are treading carefully rather than being paralyzed.

      • kav says:

        I think whether ‘paralysed with fear’ or ‘treading carefully’ has tended to result in the same outcome.

        Consequently Jim’s main point that we could learn a trick or two from the PP action group stands.

      • Michael Merrifield says:

        Unfortunately, we seldom get to do the experiment more than once, so it is impossible to tell whether more inversion of fruit stalls results in a net gain or loss. I do know, however, that there was some vociferous opposition when STFC was created in the first place (I was one of those most vociferously opposing!), and in retrospect it didn’t do us much good.

        Even so, I take your point: it would be helpful if the RAS were proactively lobbying for us with those in a position to influence the final dispersement of funding. Hopefully, they are.

      • Mike,

        Robert Massey emailed RAS fellows yesterday asking them to write to their MPs. Filled in your RAS membership application form yet?


      • Michael Merrifield says:

        Yes, I sent it a couple of weeks ago. I haven’t received the rejection letter yet, though…

  13. […] time to post much today so I thought I’d just put up a quick item about something that the e-astronomer (aka Andy Lawrence) has already blogged about, and generated a considerable amount of discussion […]

  14. Andy,

    getting back to the original topic this thread, namely the RAEng CSR submission to Adrian Smith (RCUK’s Mr Big at BIS) advocating investment preferentially on areas with short-term benefits to UK plc (engineering and technology) rather than longer-term stuff, less certain of economic return (PP explicitly and astro by association).

    What wasn’t clear at the time was the view of RAEng Chief Exec and STFC Councillor, Philip Greenish. This week, we got our answer at the Royal Institution science question time event with David Willetts. PG’s opening statement was almost lifted word-for-word from the RAEng submission to BIS. Fortunately, his arguments were countered by others on the panel, Colin Blakemore and Janet Finch, who recognised the benefits of a broad research base for the UK.

    It is by no means surprising that an engineer might seek to highlight the benefits of engineering, but his perspective is curious in view of his membership of STFC Council – recall George E’s recent RF opinion piece from 20 Oct – given the ongoing tough strategic choices facing STFC, including questions over continued membership of CERN and ESO.

    I asked PG about some of these issues after the debate. He recalled a chart from a previous STFC Council meeting showing the (spiralling) costs of subscriptions becoming becoming unsustainable. As you know, the only major subscription whose costs have spiralled over the last decade at STFC has been ESA, rather than ESO or CERN which have remained flat over that period.

    Shifting ESA out of STFC spreadsheets can’t come soon enough in my book (Apr 2011 to UKSA). The increasing chunk of STFC expenditure going on ESA subs has helped to propagate the false impression – even among STFC Councillors – that UK spend on astro has become unsustainable.


  15. Rerocurge says:

    I am about to formulate my personal business since you don’t see any good jobs ?n existence.

    Could any person provide any ideas or web sites about how to find government grant money to set up my own small business? I have been previously looking on the web but almost every site demands for money and I have been told by the unemployment office to stay away from the sites that request cash for grant info because they’re rip-offs. I’d personally be sincerely thankful for any support.

  16. Rerocurge says:

    My goal is to try to create my own, personal project since there aren’t any great jobs ?n existence.

    Can someone provide any recommendations or sites about how to get government grant money to begin with my own business? I have been looking over the internet but just about every site requires for money and I have been told by the unemployment office to avoid the websites that want money for grant information because they’re scam. I’d be sincerely grateful for any advice.

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