28 February 2017

Who will buy quantum technology?

A new contender for the role of “technology that will change the world”, quantum technology (QT), has yet to provoke declarations from the usual grumpy sources that it will bring an end to civilisation as we know it, with warnings that it will wreck your health, the environment or your mental faculties. Also thin on the ground is much considered thought on how QT could influence us in any way, or how the public will respond to something that isn’t the easiest area of science and technology to explain.

The people having fun in this new playground have yet to come up with a pocket definition that they can show to us and lead discussions of the likely impacts of QT.

Perhaps that is a part of the problem. You can’t rail against something that you don’t understand. Nanotechnology, on the other hand, just means “very small” and has led to shelves of reports and numerous studies on safety and the environment.

One of the self-appointed defenders against nasty technologies, ETC Group, not only went for nanotechnology, it is now “tracking” synthetic biology, another of the technological saviours. As yet, this organisation has paid little attention to QT.

What follows is a short account of the small amount of material that came up in a recent conversation on a mailing list of people who spend their lives thinking about “science in public”, and how to engage the wider world discussions of what they are happy to have QT do for them.

Early engagement

The first source on this is one of the few reports on the subject comes from ScienceWise, Public attitudes to quantum technology. The report describes itself as “a review of information on the views and values of the public on quantum technology available at time of writing, April 2014”. The authors lay their cards on the table early on with the statement that “Despite an extensive web search, there seems to be no evidence of the views of the public on this topic.”

Three years on and the landing page for this project says “No one has commented on this page yet.” Perhaps this is another sign that there is still little public interest in QT.

Fortunately, the Networked Quantum Information Technologies Hub (NQIT), a watering hole for players in this new game, is aware of the need for an active approach to “engagement”. Last year, NQIT paraded itself with a stand at the Cheltenham Science Festival.

QuantIC, the Quantum Imaging Hub based in Glasgow, also does ‘outreach’ in this area.

There has been a flurry of video activity:

Last September, St Andrews University put on a quantum physics show, called Quantum Digits and Dances, for Explorathon.

Then there is Quantum in the Cloud, a project which aims to provide resources for anybody interested in quantum technologies. This comes from the Centre for Quantum Photonics, led by Professor Jeremy O'Brien, at the University of Bristol.

On a wider front, the EU is an active player in QT, coming up with research programmes and promoting what calls its Quantum Flagship. (The European Commission tells us that “Future & Emerging Technologies Flagships are visionary, large-scale, science-driven research initiatives which tackle scientific and technological challenges across scientific disciplines”.)

In February 2017, the Quantum Flagship High-Level expert group put out its Intermediate Report. Mostly about the science and technology and how to turn them into business opportunities, the report does say that “further measures are recommended to create better market transparency, to stimulate and support quantum start-ups and to reach out to the public, to stimulate awareness about quantum technologies’ opportunities”.

As yet, then, these are early days for wider discussion of quantum technology and how it will sell in the real world. But this is likely to change as real applications surface along with user friendly descriptions of what quantum technology is all about.

05 February 2017

How the climate has change

One of the delights of having a messy office is that you sometimes stumble upon an entertaining piece of paper. For example, on 8th November 1990, The Times published a piece by its science editor under the headline “Is this really a scientist speaking?”

It was about a speech that the then Prime Minister, a certain Margaret Thatcher, had given to the World Climate Conference. The Times piece quotes her as saying “We must not waste time and energy disputing the report of the Inter Governmental Panel on Climatic Change, or debating the right machinery for making progress.”

The science editor took issue with this, complaining that, for all her claims to have a background in science, “Somewhere along the way,” Mrs Thatcher “seems to have abandoned her scientific scepticism and adopted the simple clich├ęs of the environmental activists.” He then goes on to write “There are many things in the IPCC report that must be disputed, energetically. As a scientific hypothesis, man-made global warming is plausible but unproven.”

Even a quarter of a century ago, that was a pretty brave statement, although one that appeared more often than you might think. Today, it seems almost quaint.

The closing paragraph, after complaining that the whole scare was based on dodgy models, is chilling, though. “A couple of cold winters will take the froth off the debate, and allow us the time we need to discover whether or not the earth is really warming up. Meanwhile, the overheated rhetoric in Geneva is premature and potentially very damaging.”

We didn’t get those cold winters. Snow is a novelty for many young children living in southern parts of the UK. We did get a run of the hottest summers on record. So perhaps the problem was that the rhetoric in Geneva was not hot enough.

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.