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?

11 September 2014

Devolution of Scottish R&D?

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A recent writing commission involved talking to a group of researchers in Scotland. They were mostly English ‘immigrants’ working north of the border simply because that is where the work took them. not being Scots, I'd guess that they had little allegiance to the country, although circumstances probably meant that they get to vote in the devolution poll.

Not having sought their permission, I had better not name the research centre they worked in, and ran. But it was obvious that Scotland was not really a natural home for their area of research.

Yes, there were companies nearby that the centre’s R&D fed into, but most of the audience was several hundred miles to the south, in the Midlands. Some local money and academic facilities persuaded the UK government that it wasn’t completely bonkers to set up shop in this northern enclave. But most of the money that keeps the place going comes from London, or rather, the Westminster money machine, in the shape of the Technology Strategy Board (the other TSB), now known as Innovate UK.

What happens if the Scots tell England to sling its hook? The research centre isn’t like to move its facilities back into friendly territory overnight, even though it would have no trouble finding excellent facilities next door to many more of its “customers”, not to mention world class academics. But in the longer term Scotland’s universities and businesses may have difficulties persuading their government to chuck money, whatever the currency, if it has any to spare, at researchers whose activities mostly benefit the enemy down south.

In the longer term, there will be pressure what is left of the UK to repatriate the research, pressure that many of the people who work their may not resist. The centre already has a hard time attracting experienced engineers who don’t want to cross the border. And it will find plenty of the bright young recruits its now relies in universities to the south and west.

Then there is the issue of where to build future generations of industrially oriented R&D centres. Old centres are harder to move. New ones can go anywhere. England isn’t likely to want to put money into Scottish research.

England is full of places that aspire to become the next Cambridge cluster. There is plenty of competition to ensure that the research and innovation that now makes Silicon Glen a global power house does not all end up in Silicon Fen.

For example, there is talk of a new National Institute for Materials Research and Innovation in the north of England. This is part of a general move on the part of the UK government to make up for past misdemeanours and to ensure that research spending is more evenly spread across the country. An independent Scotland isn’t likely to feature in such largesse. It can’t even guarantee to get a European contribution until it has completed what look like being long and complicated negotiations to persuade Brussels to let it join the club.

Nothing will happen immediately, but examples like this show why so many research in Scotland, many of whom are not Scottish, fear for their future. Not that this will carry any weight with Alex Salmond and his fellow secessionists. They just want to give the English a bloody nose because they feel like it. Sadly, if Salmond’s “Yes men” win, it could be sustained knockout blow to Scotland’s own research.