Science, Governments, and Knowledge Transfer

October 15, 2010

I just gave my talk at this year’s ROE workshop, on Applications of Astronomy.  The meeting was full of fascinating examples of the links between astronomical technology and the wider world – in biomedical imaging, the development of fusion energy, airport security, and so on. As most of you will know, the RAS report, Big Science for the Big Society, has lots more wonderful examples. As a community, we should keep up the PR effort. We need to get these stories out.

However I found myself musing on the whole “Knowledge Exchange” thing and where it has come from. Here is my cartoon history.

Stagnating Britain. Starting in the fifties, and accelerating through the seventies and eighties, there was a widespread feeling that Britain’s industrial prowess was declining. At the same time, our scientific prowess was burgeoning, and public spending on research was growing. (It levelled off in the seventies and has waved up and down since.) Why didn’t brainpower and economic performance go together ? What was UK Ltd getting for all that research money ?

Close the Ivory Towers. The consistent government  view seemed to be that the problem was that our brilliant ideas were not getting out of the universities. In other words, the problem was in the transmitters rather than the receivers. Academics were stuck in their ivory towers. We needed to change the behaviour of scientists, so that they would think more about wealth creation.

Academic reaction to this pressure was diverse, coming in three forms :

  1. Get off my back. Hey, we’re good at our jobs – why are you criticising us ? The problem is that industry is too timid, and doesn’t spend enough on R&D.
  2. Let me explain. Actually, ideas do get out, and we already do plenty of commercialisation. We need better PR.
  3. You’re right. We owe the taxpayer more than they are getting. The academic-industrial system as a whole clearly isn’t as good as, say Silicon Valley, or turn of century Germany.

California Dreaming. Why has the US been better at this enterprise culture stuff ? Two simple things stand out. The first is easy movement between academia and industry and back. Happens all the time. The second is willingness to take risks. Venture capitalists and government agencies expect that most projects will fail. Otherwise you don’t get anything interesting, right ?

Modern Britain. So what’s changed in recent years ? The first thing is that economic prowess returned to the UK, but not in manufacturing, or resource extraction. We are good at services, finance, technology, entertainment – and science. The second thing is that there are good funding schemes to encourage academic-industrial partnerships. The third thing is that in at least some sections of Government there is a much improved, and broader, understanding of how science makes an impact. It ain’t just widgets. It can be :

  1. Output of skilled people
  2. Shared technology development
  3. Long term fundamental impact (eg electricity, the Web)
  4. Acting as demanding customer
  5. Dissemination of techniques and technology
  6. Inventions, patents, licenses, and spinouts

Its still your fault. However, despite this improved understanding of the issues, there is still pressure to make academics change their ways. RCUK has a whole website devoted to this, called Pathways to Impact. And, as all my astronomer friends know, every grant application has to include a 2 page “impact plan” covering both Outreach and Knowledge Exchange. Wearing my AGP hat, and without going into details of course, I am happy to re-assure you that Scientific Excellence remains the dominant thing – but the question remains, should everybody have to do this ? On the other hand, and again without going into details, the KE activity of some applicants is extremely good. How can we reward this without at the same time punishing people who don’t do it ?

Questions. So I find a few questions left hovering in the air :

  1. Should we insist that all scientists become more enterprise aware ?
  2. If so, how do we encourage that change ? Carrot or stick ?
  3. How do we reward enterprise without distorting the scientific process ?

Gird your loins

August 10, 2010

Your correspondent finds himself this week in the Arizona desert, at the LSST All Hands Meeting. Of course, our brave effort last year to convince STFC to fund a UK participation came to nought. Close but no cigar. Well, actually, nowhere near a cigar, not even a quick drag on someone else’s ciggy. Strangely though the LSST folk are still chummy so some Brits get invited. As well as mineself, the awfully nice and quite tall Chris Lintott is here and gave a splendid plenary talk on the Zooniverse and why LSST needs it. He did use the word “synergy” in his talk, but immediately apologised.

On Friday morning at 0800 we will all assemble to watch a webcast from Washington DC, for yea, this will be the moment in time when the conclusions of Astro2010, aka the decadal survey, will be unveiled. The pdf file will be released at the same time. Apparently the agencies (NSF, NASA, DOE etc) have had the report since August 3rd. They are doing some quick sums, cos they know they are going to get asked questions, and want to be ready. There are one or two NSF types here but they are playing a very straight bat. Except they don’t know that’s what they are doing, because they don’t speak cricket. Anyway, back in the UK you too can watch the show : check it out here. Kickoff is at 1600 BST.

In discussing the funding prospects, Sidney Wolff quoted Riccardo Giacconi as saying that a successful big project needs to think about the science, the technology, and the politics – in that order. Miss one out and you fail. Get them in the wrong order and you fail. In the UK just now we are worrying about the political spin for our whole subject rather than just one project. The Big Question is “do we deliver for the economy ?”. A marvelous contribution to this debate, and a very well timed one, has just been delivered by the Royal Astronomical Society – a report called Big Science for the Big Society on how astronomy has an impact on society at large. It is a marvelous piece of work, and I urge you to read it and pass a copy to your local MP. Who knows if it will work, but its an honest and powerful piece of PR.

Big Kit Vote Trap

August 18, 2009

Just in case you felt bored, here’s another consulation.

(I spotted this while catching up on Paul Crowther’s amazing comprehensive STFC Funding Crisis website. How does he keep it up ? Should we officially declare him a National Treasure ?)

Anyhoo. This one is about the RCUK Large Facilities Roadmap. On the list of “emerging facilities” i.e. “things we might give money to” are four astro things – Cherenkov Telescope Array, Einstein (3G grav waves), ELT, and SKA. Get your vote in. I see that ELT got a pretty good economic impact plug. Is this a good sign ?

However, as John Peacock reminded us recently, it ain’t clear that taking money from the LFCF is a good thing. These capital investments are a loan from the Treasury, which have to be paid back. Allocations to research councils include ear-marked amounts which allow them to pay their current debts back to Treasury spread over some years.  Err… I hear you say … so why give them this money at all, if it just whistles past invisibly ? Why, so Government can boast of what a fantastic large allocation they have been given ! It took us quite some time before we realised how crap STFC’s real allocation was. Well, when I say “we”, I expect Keef and Richard understood this all the time but were too embarassed to explain it.

John’s conclusion was that this is dodgy money and we should steer clear. I’m not sure thats right. Surely now we have learned about this trick we can watch the pea under the cup next time ?

Excellence, Impact, and All That Jazz

April 29, 2009

Like several hundred others, I received an email last week from STFC explaining that from now on my grant proposals have to include an “impact plan”, i.e. we have to impress with our impact on the economy. (Read about it here.)  Along with the renewed gloom and doom about STFC finances, people seem to be seeing this as another sign that the barbarians are at the gates. I don’t see it that way; but there is cause for concern. Lets take this in three steps : why we should whinge, why we should help, and why we should be worried.

Why we should whinge : For as long as I can remember, British Industry has been (on average) second rate, and British Science has been (on average) world class, and often world beating. Whats more, the qualities that characterise our academic sector are just those you want in industry – we are competitive, ambitious, innovative, and we work hard. However, over the same period of history, Government has consistently concluded that we are the problem – the economy is stodgy because academic science is too pure, and this must change. Wuh ? Why are they wasting time leaning on us when the problem is elsewhere ?  It seems perverse. Whip the guys who are good at their jobs ????

Why we should help : Well, ok, the Government only has so many levers, so of course they are going to lean on us. And clearly the combined academic-industrial complex is not as porous as in the US; there is a problem somewhere. Furthermore, why should Government spend all that money on science unless it helps the economy ? If we make cultural “good of mankind” kind of arguments, we can expect the same budget as the Arts and Humanities Research Council. Of course we know that in much of science our economic impact is long-delayed and indirect, and we hope Government somehow takes this into account – but how do you do that ? You can’t blame them for wanting to see some evidence. If you read the Excellence with Impact report, this is mostly what its about : collecting evidence.  Likewise the new additions to grant proposals. This isn’t really about university scientists proving their impact. Its about Research Councils demonstrating to the Treasury that the money they have been given has made a difference. So we need to help our Research Council colleagues in that game. Sorry, transparency exercise.  Note that there is now a consultation on RCUK’s Knowledge Transfer schemes – see here and here.

Why we should worry : The depressing thing about the Excellence with Impact report is not some kind of brute message about only funding applied research : its that astronomy and particle physics have made little impact on the impact agenda. For goodness sake, there is a half-page splash about the Centre for Surrealism which has “generated economic impact of at least 1M” and has “restored the credibility of surrealism research”. There are boxes on PPARC detectors for medical imaging, and the careers of PPARC students, but somehow they are worded in a damp squib kind of way. Where is “World Wide Web utterly transformed our society” ???!!!!??? I just have the horrible feeling we simply lost a classic inter-departmental battle.

We need to score some Treasury goals. And we need a bold simple ticket. Complex programmes don’t sell. You need 100M size baubles you can sell over a cup of coffee – the e-Science programme, joining ESO, etc. I guess at the last CSR, STFC’s ticket was “Space ! The next frontier” which is why we have MoonLite and the RAL ESA Space Centre. They should at least be given credit for trying. Of course you have to watch the pea under the cups when you play that game…

Anyway. When faced with gloopy stuff about “impact” and “space” its maybe a mistake to back away with pegs on our noses; we should read the game and play with gusto. Its not too late to win.