11 June 2016

Science and the Brussels money laundry

Science shows that there is more to the EU debate than migration and economics.

It is odd when, as soon as the call comes from Stockholm, Nobel prize winners emerge from the obscurity of their laboratories to become "elder statesmen" whose every utterance garners media attention, even when they stray far from their areas of research expertise. So it is hard to take their views on #Brexit, as laid down in the letter to The Telegraph, any more seriously than those of the rest of the scientific community. After all, Nobelists probably don't have to worry about the loss of those EU funds that they warned about.

The good thing about this intervention, though, is that it has provoked media coverage. It has even elicited a response from the Brexiteers who previously ignored what scientists have said. They clearly think that Nobel laureates are worth rebutting.

The "get us out of here" brigade are correct in stating that R&D funds from the EU are money from the UK, laundered through Brussels. But that laundering is important.

For a start, the UK's participation in European science brings a seat at the tables where they set the agenda for the EU's support for research and innovation. For example, a recent report from the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee on EU regulation of the life sciences shows how valuable that can be when it comes to bringing new technologies to the market. As the committee puts it: "Once medicines and implants and other technologies are approved under the EU system they can be sold across the EU."

Just as important, the Brussels laundromat means that the UK's money does not get spent on other things, or simply trousered in the cause of reduced taxes at home. So the statement from Vote Leave won’t wash, especially when it repeats the much dismissed "£350 million pounds sent to Brussels every week". In any case, isn’t the money we send to Brussels already earmarked for the NHS and all the other things the outers have promised to spend it on?

Science is one of those areas where the UK’s participation in the EU isn’t all migration, money and other petty self interests. Are we allowed to talk about the benefits we bestow on other countries? Yes, British science does gain something, and not just money, from being in the EU, but its presence also does much for countries that don’t have the budgets and history of backing researchers.

As the Nobel laureates put it: “Science thrives on permeability of ideas and people, and flourishes in environments that pool intelligence, minimise barriers, and are open to free exchange and collaboration.”

British scientists can collaborate with whoever they like, EU or not, but it is harder for researchers from countries that do not have a long tradition of science, including picking up more than their fair share of Nobel prizes. By running schemes that encourage the flow of scientists and collaboration between those in different countries, the EU is a force for good, with scientists from the UK doing more than most in this ebb and flow of influence.

Collaboration won’t go away if the UK leaves the EU, but being outside the tent isn’t likely to do much for the part that British scientists play in this exchange. Shouting loudly from across the Channel will be no substitute for being in the scrum.

No one is saying that being in the EU's science system doesn't have its problems. The House of Lords Science and Technology Select Committee went into some of them in its recent report EU membership and UK science. (There will be a debate on this in the Lords on Wednesday 15 June.) But seeing the issue as simply a matter of money is silly. That's only a part of what the Nobel epistle was about. It is probably beyond the skills of Vote Leave to deal with the broader issues.

11 March 2016

Rules against lobbying government threaten advice on science

The UK government plans to make it illegal for learned societies to spend public money to give it unbiased expert advice.

The mission of the Royal Society, the UK's leading scientific body, is “to recognise, promote, and support excellence in science and to encourage the development and use of science for the benefit of humanity”. As a part of this mission one of its priorities is “Providing scientific advice for policy”. If the government has its way, that priority will bite the dust.

The government thinks that anyone who takes taxpayers' money should be banned from “lobbying” government and Parliament. You can read the bald facts here: Government announces new clause to be inserted into grant agreements. This says that “Organisations receiving government grants will be banned from using these taxpayer funds to lobby government and Parliament.” To this end:
“A new clause to be inserted into all new and renewed grant agreements will make sure that taxpayer funds are spent on improving people’s lives and good causes, rather than lobbying for new regulation or using taxpayers’ money to lobby for more government funding.”
There is just one problem for the research community and the likes of the Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering (RAE), another body with a remit to advise government, grants could include the money that they receive from government to do the work that is their raison d’etre.

As its website puts it:
“The Royal Society receives a grant from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS). This supports work on scientific excellence and innovation, science and mathematics education, international activities and science communication activities.”
In 2015/16, BIS gave the RS £47.101 million. The latest accounts for the RAE (pdf file), for the year ending 31 March 2015, show that it received £13.1 million from BIS.

Like the RS, the RAE, the RS's engineering equivalent, spends some of this money collecting and presenting advice to government. As the RAE puts it: “The Academy undertakes a range of activities to ensure that engineering is at the heart of policy-making, providing authoritative, impartial advice and expertise.”

All of this could well fall foul of the proposed wording in grants agreements issued under the new regime. This would rule out:
“Payments that support activity intended to influence or attempt to influence Parliament, government or political parties, or attempting to influence the awarding or renewal of contracts and grants, or attempting to influence legislative or regulatory action.”
Bang goes all that work on impartial, advice.

The RS and RAE sometimes work together in their roles as advisors. For example, in July 2015 they put together their Response to the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee inquiry into the environmental risks of fracking. What is the point of that study if its does not “influence or attempt to influence Parliament, government or political parties”.

Sometimes the government even asks these bodies for help. For example, in 2014, the then Minister for Universities, Science and Cities, Rt Hon Greg Clark MP, asked Dame Ann Dowling DBE FREng FRS, and now the President of the RAE, “to lead a review examining how government can support the development of more effective collaborations between businesses and university researchers in the UK”. Could a successor do the same if it meant urging the Academy to break the law?

In recent years, the RAE has also opined on:
  • Innovate UK’s integration with Research UK
  • Higher education: teaching excellence, social mobility and student choice
  • Relationship between EU membership and UK science
  • the Nurse Review of Research Councils
  • Digital Communications Infrastructure Strategy
  • Science and Innovation Strategy
  • Emerging technologies
For its part, in recent times the Royal Society has published advice on:
  • EU regulation of the life sciences
  • Innovate UK’s integration with Research UK
  • The global humanitarian system
  • Purpose and quality of education in England
It also wrote a “Letter to the Rt Hon Sir Stephen Sedley regarding the delayed publication or withholding of government research”.
It is hard to see how either body could have written on subjects like those without running the risk of being accused of trying to “lobby government and Parliament”. Isn’t that the whole point?

And what will the government’s lawyers say about the comments of the RS and RAE, along with the Academy of Medical Sciences and the British Academy, two further recipients of government grants, on party manifestos at election time? These bodies “urge the next government to strengthen public investment in research and innovation”.

Even though they even handedly say that they are “pleased to see that four of the five manifestos make commitments in this area”, that statement might well provoke a slap over the wrists under the proposed law. What are these bodies doing sticking their noses into our manifestos?

Petition position


The research community itself fears that the same new law would hit anyone who receives a grant from a Research Council, which is government money after all, without also falling foul of the proposed new law. That is why some aggrieved researchers have promulgated one of those petitions to parliament.

This petition, which may itself to have benefited from government grants to pay the individuals who launched it, warns:
“The Cabinet Office has announced that a new ‘anti-lobbying’ clause will be included in all Government grants from May 2016. This is an attack on academic freedom as it would stop grants for university research being used to influence policy-makers. It is bad for the public interest and democracy.”
The petition then points out that the proposed ‘no lobbying with our cash’ law “does not mention that Government grants for research in universities and research institutes would be covered by the new clause”. It then goes on to say that “The Government should ensure that grants from the higher education funding councils and research councils to support research are exempt from this new clause.”

The petition does not address the issue of organisations that hand out that money. But they also need protection from this asinine edict.

Corridors of powerlessness


Organisations like the RS and RAE don’t jump up and down in public  or start petitions when dodgy legislation threatens their livelihood. That would look too much like lobbying. Instead they quietly go into ‘corridors of power mode’, as one president of the RS described it to me long ago. Sadly, it seems that those behind-the-scenes mutterings have fallen on deaf ears in Whitehall.

If anything, the explanation of how the new rules will work confirm the fears of the organisations involved. The notes pose the question: “Should the clause be included for all types of grant recipient – e.g. public sector organisations and individuals?” The answer is clear: “Yes, the presumption is that this clause is always included.”

The notes do go on to say “Grant recipients are still free to engage in lobbying but should not fund this sort of activity from government grants unless it is specifically part of the terms of the grant itself.” But that would eliminate much of the work of the national academies. Unlike the charities that raise money from the public, they don’t have chuggers with their clipboards accosting shoppers on the high streets, or call centres harassing charitable old people and urging them to hand over their savings.

Sock puppets


There are, as yet, no plans to exempt researchers or the organisations that represent them from the new regime. So they will sit alongside what the government’s announcement, citing the Institute of Economic Affairs, calls “so-called ‘sock puppets’”.

At one stage there was much talk in Whitehall and Westminster of a need for ‘evidence based policy’. In other words, if you want to change the way in which the NHS works, for example, you first analyse the issue, gathering the evidence and then trying to devise policies that will bring about the desired effects. In its plans to make the NHS a “24-7” operation, the current government seems to have turned that on its head. It now prefers ‘policy based evidence’. "Here’s what we want to do, go and find the evidence to prove that it makes sense."

Perhaps this is why the government refuses to make an exception in the new grant wording for research and the bodies that promote it. It does not want those pesky national academies offering advice that could make policies look even more daft and ill considered than they now do. Who needs input from researchers and experts who actually know what they are talking about when you can listen to all those political think tanks that exist purely to tell you what to do?

19 February 2016

When is a fusion device a reactor?

Reports on scientific events should use the right words to describe what is going on. That means not describing a plasma device as a reactor.
A flurry of media coverage heralded the arrival of the Wendelstein 7-X “fusion device”. (The quotes are there for a reason that will become clear.) Unfortunately, even writers who should know better have mistakenly attached the “reactor” tag to this interesting German experiment. It is no such thing. In reality, it is a plasma physics machine that stops a long way short of a fusion reactor. Nor does it claim to be a reactor.

The first sign of confusion was when, within days of the “switch on” – more on that later – an anonymous editor “improved” the Wikipedia page on fusion power. The contributor claimed that the machine “performed fusion and sustained it for several seconds”. Oh no it didn’t.

In reality, it wasn't even a plasma experiment that sparked off this example of Wikipedia’s ability to publish scientifically misleading cobblers. The event on 10th December 2015 at the Max Planck Institute for Plasma Physics (IPP) in Greifswald, Germany, was one of those “flick the switch to see if it works” steps on the path towards doing proper science on Wendelstein 7-X. It was another month before the device produced a hydrogen plasma, the sort that you need if you want to research nuclear fusion.

The official announcement of that initial event described it as “the first helium plasma”. (Helium shots, as they are known on fusion devices, help to clean up the machine’s innards.) There was no fuel in there to perform, let alone sustain, fusion reactions.

Helium (He) is the “ash” that you get when you use the traditional fusion fuels, deuterium (D) and tritium (T). Bang these together under the right conditions and you get He and a neutron (n+ in the equations). Catch the neutron and you can recover its energy.
Energy free
There’s another clue as to the new machine’s role in that first announcement: it revealed that “Wendelstein 7-X, the world's largest stellarator-type fusion device, will not produce energy.”

While it is disappointing when even Wikipedia gets this sort of thing wrong – it is, after all, the first website that many people will visit when researching a subject – it is more frustrating when reputable sources get it wrong, or at least mislead their readers.

For example, that otherwise reliable magazine The Engineer would have us believe that Wendelstein “is set to bring the concept of nuclear fusion to fruition”. Not a hope. Even the enormous, and enormously expensive, International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) isn’t likely to do that. And ITER really will have deuterium and tritium in its plasma.

That otherwise reputable scientific journal Nature also made the reactor mistake. You can, just about, forgive misleading headlines, such Nature’s Reactor roars into life, but the short item beneath that headline also gushed that “The fusion reactor’s design differs from that of the other most-promising fusion facility, ITER, being built near Cadarache, France.”

Nature managed to repeat the blunder when it reported in the same issue “German Chancellor Angela Merkel this week kicked off real fusion research on the country’’s new reactor Wendelstein 7-X by flicking the switch to fill the reactor with hydrogen plasma.” (As an aside, it is inelegant writing to use the ‘reactor’ word twice in one sentence.)

The next example of misidentification appeared in Materials World. This billed the machine as “the world's largest stellarator fusion reactor”. The magazine then goes on to explain that Wendelstein 7-X won’t enter reactor territory when it says “IPP currently has no plans for a deuterium-tritium mix test with the W7-X”. No reactor then.

The only mention of reactors in IPP’s own material is when it refers to ITER as the “international test reactor”. By no coincidence, IPP is also involved in ITER, it is developing the all important plasma control system.

For a much more realistic and accurate description of Wendelstein 7-X read Dan Clery in Science. Clery, a long term observer of the fusion scene and author of a book on the subject, A Piece of the Sun, clearly knows his reactors from his elbow. (Sadly, Clery could not prevent an editor at Science from headlining Wendelstein 7-X as a reactor in an earlier story, but we all know that journalists don’t write their own headlines.) As Clery says, the real value of Wendelstein is as a plasma device, it is a stellarator, a different arrangement of the magnetic fields that it takes to hold a hot plasma in place while fusion happens.

Stellarator is an interesting alternative to the Tokamak configurations that have dominated fusion research since around 1970. As IPP’s material puts it: “The goal is to put the quality of the plasma confinement on a par with that of a tokamak for the very first time.”
Finger on the button
There was also a reasonable and reasoned account of Wendelstein 7-X on The Wire. The only reason for mentioning that, apart from welcoming its detailed assessment, is to mention another ripple in reality.

The piece told us that "German Chancellor Angela Merkel pressed a button that switched the Wendelstein 7-X on". Well, up to a point, but the piece was only quoting an official announcement.

An unnamed technician “switched the Wendelstein 7-X on” in December, when the original press release went out, although even that is stretching the notion of switching on. These machines are a complicated combination of all sorts of bits and pieces that get switched on at different times. (That's sort of implied in the piece.)

If you read that official announcement you will see that the IPP team is careful to explain what did happen when Merkel waved her finger. “At the push of a button by Federal Chancellor Angela Merkel, a 2-megawatt pulse of microwave heating transformed a tiny quantity of hydrogen gas into an extremely hot low-density hydrogen plasma.”

In defence of The Wire, dragging in someone famous to press a fake button is a part of the game that science has to play to get funds and to persuade people that it is spending that money wisely. As such, it is a harmless conceit. It is certainly more interesting that cutting ribbons or smashing bottles of champagne, or whatever Germans do instead of that wasteful practice.

Does it matter when publications attach the reactor label to what the people who built it describe as a “fusion device”? Apart from  favouring scientific accuracy, it is also important to give readers the right impression. What will they make in five years time when Wendelstein has been through its original research programme without a fusion reaction in sight?

For decades the fusion community has mis-sold its machines. Once upon a time the US operated a fusion device that it sold as the Tokamak Fusion Test Reactor, a short-lived, misguided and failed attempt to upstage Europe’s Joint European Torus (JET). It no way was it a reactor. And unlike JET, it didn’t do much, if any, fusion.

One day, faced with another request for a pile of money to build yet another “reactor”, the people who pay for them may finally throw up their hands and abandon the whole venture. That would be a pity. It may be a century before the likes of EDF start building fusion reactors, but when it does these machines will be a bit more reliable than wind turbines and solar panels.

11 February 2016

Back in the land of the blogging

The arrival of Windows 10 was a mostly painless experience. Most software and hardware worked without problems. Entertainingly, perhaps, it was Microsoft’s own blogging tool that brought a temporary end to noodlings here.

In theory, you can write posts for this place in Microsoft Word. Unfortunately, there is a long standing conflict that means that while Word can connect to any number of blogging services it throws up its hands when you try to connect to Google’s Blogger service. It reports Cannot register blog account in Microsoft Word 2013 when you try to negotiate a connection to Blogger, even though Word offers this as one of its supported services.

In previous versions of Windows this was no big deal. You just installed one of a small bunch of utilities that went under the label Windows Essentials. This gave you the option to install “Movie Maker, Photo Gallery, OneDrive, Family Safety, Mail, Writer”.

The important one for bloggers was Windows Live Writer. It is a slim-line word processor that looked and worked a bit like Word and integrated nicely with Blogger. Sadly, it doesn’t install in Windows 10 and Microsoft has abandoned the whole Essentials idea.

The good news is that there are people out there, some of them within Microsoft even, who don’t like the decision to cast Live Writer into the wilderness. Thanks to their bosses, they have take the software and turned it into an open source fork.

Known as Open Live Writer, the new package first arrived at the end of 2015. The programmers quickly did what their colleagues at Microsoft had failed to do with Word over some years, they got it to talk nicely to Blogger.

OK, so we are back in business, with no need to mess around with cranky web interfaces that can crash when you are in mid flow.

07 December 2014

Science research as a cultural activity with impact

Not all researchers are averse to providing evidence of 'impact', or even to making it happen.

The Nuffield Council on Bioethics has done interesting work on The culture of scientific research in a project that "aimed to explore the effects of a wide range of influences on scientific research, including funding mechanisms, publishing models, career structures and governance processes”.

Surprisingly, the full report of the project give little detail of one of the subjects that evoked interesting observations in the discussion events held “in collaboration with universities around the country to facilitate debate among researchers on this topic”. That missing subject is the impact of research, in particular, the introduction of impact statements in the recent Research Excellence Framework. The Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) carried out REF to benchmark the quality of research and to provide “league tables” that will guide the destination of future funding for research. (Perhaps in a move to provide some light relief, HEFCE plans to issue the results from REF in the week before Christmas.)

One thing that the main Nuffield report covers only in passing is the “impact” bit of REF. The main report itself refers to “high-impact journals” but says little, if anything, on the public engagement side of impact.

The write up of the discussion meetings is more informative on the community’s view of ‘impact’. In general, the academics present, or some of them, seem to have positive views of the engagement stuff. For example, it reports that “some believed strongly that the impact agenda is having a positive influence on science and that impact has contributed to a culture within which scientists are more accountable to the public”.

I was also slightly surprised to read the statement:
“One participant said that scientists should not simply be paid to do whatever they want, echoing views expressed elsewhere that research should be justifiable to tax payers.”
I’ve been saying that for years, but many people in the research community, especially of the older generations, don't like the idea that they should so something 'meaningful' in return for the public money that keeps them off the streets.

The impact thing doesn't even have to change what scientists do. They just have to find ways of describing it in impact terms. As the write up also says:
“Another participant said that impact encouraged scientists to engage more closely with the users of research, who might be patients or professionals of different kinds.”
You just have to be smart enough to recognise that “the definition of impact used in the REF is quite flexible and can accommodate a range of different kinds of impact”. So, do what you always wanted to do, but don't keep it to yourself or bury it away in journals that mean nothing to 99.999 per cent of us.

Another participant made what, to many researchers, might seem like a revolutionary comment:
“researchers are able to exercise some control over the impact of their work, and potentially increase it, by involving research participants and research users early on in their work”.
Don't leave impact to chance, seems to be the message.
 With a whole page in the summary of the discussion events on impact, it is surprising that so little of this input found its way into the main report.

Because it fits in with something else I have been banging on about for years, I also love the observation:
“One speaker described arguing successfully for research that had concluded with a negative result being included in his institution’s impact case studies. This, he had maintained, had had a high degree of impact, in that it prevented a large amount of money being spent on further work pursuing the same line of research.”
I once tried to get a few leading lights in the scientific world to own up to their own research failures. Not a chance, was the response, suggesting that they prefer to be thought of as omniscient rather than human beings who sometimes got things wrong.

Put all of the quotes together, and they suggest a research culture that is changing to reflect the real world. It would be interesting to know how widely these views are held within the research community. Did the Nuffield Council on Bioethics find a few mavericks with heretical views? or is the community really becoming more public friendly?