21 April 2007

Even researchers can write about IT with style

Those mad fools at EPSRC recently showed their lack of judgement by inviting me to be one of the judges for this year's Computer Science Writing Competition. They made up for this lack of wisdom by also lining up some of the country's leading lights in academic IT research as judges. EPSRC has now put out a Press Release on the results of our deliberations, all done electronically with the teeniest carbon footprint imaginable.

The interesting bit as a judge from the writing side rather than an IT expert was that most of the articles made a pretty good fist of explaining their subjects. They were no worse than some of the copy that has appeared in print, and certainly better than some that has come across my desk from "professional" writers in IT.

If there was a general trap that caught all of the writers it was that they took a bit too long to get to the message, and to tell us what they were writing about. These articles were, after all, around 750 words long. More a news item than a feature.

But I reckon that most of the pieces I read could have made it into something like the Guardian's interesting technology section.

15 April 2007

Time to explode the hydrogen myth

The hydrogen bandwagon continues to roll. Only rarely does someone point out that this really is a case of the emperor with no clothes. So we must be thankful to Russell Seitz for chiming in with his piece At Last- A Genuine Hoax!.

Seitz hits the nail on the head with his observation that "hydrogen produced from H2O is a rare and precious commodity, costing a quarter its weight in silver because of the high price of American electrical power-- most of which comes from coal".

Hydrogen is just a carrier of energy. In this respect it resembles electricity. It is only a good idea if you need something to replace oil and gas in applications where you need a fluid that you can carry around.

In his attack on hydrogen from water Seitz misses reasons why hydrogen might have a role to play in a future energy system. Rather than turning coal into electricity to make hydrogen, why not get the carbon out of the coal and just use the hydrogen it contains? In that way you could tap the coal's energy without puffing CO2 into the atmosphere.

I leave it to others to calculate the thermodynamics of this idea. I raise it only because Lord Brown, the boss of BP, told me (links to a PDF file) that it is why the company is interested in hydrogen.

Another way to turn an "immobile" fuel into one that you can carry around is, of course, to use nuclear power as the source of energy for hydrogen creation. But once again the thermodynamics have to be right. And the sort of people who call for a hydrogen economy are almost certainly the last to contemplate the idea of building more nuclear power stations. They would rather see the lights go out all over the planet.

08 April 2007

Science communication in a political climate

Scientists like to think that it is the evidence that they provide that sways thinking on such issues as climate change. Matthew C. Nisbet and Chris Mooney beg to differ. Were that the case, then we would not end up with the recent poll finding that "23% of college educated Republicans think global warming is attributable to human activity, compared with 75% of Democrats".

Nisbet and Mooney raise this issue in an article in the latest issue of the journal Science. They set out to dispel the notion of many scientists who "retain the well-intentioned belief that, if laypeople better understood technical complexities from news coverage, their viewpoints would be more like scientists’, and controversy would subside".

In reality, people approach science much as they do any other subject. "Faced with a daily torrent of news, citizens use their value predispositions (such as political or religious beliefs) as perceptual screens, selecting news outlets and Web sites whose outlooks match their own." From this we can conclude that it is against the Republican philosophy to believe in anthropomorphic climate change.

The press release put out to drum up interest in the article, Scientists must improve communication tactics, Science article proclaims, spells it out in a quote from Mooney. "In writing this article together, we argue that scientists shouldn't exclusively blame politicians and journalists for gridlock on issues like climate change. Part of the problem is that scientists carry with them the wrong assumptions about what makes for effective communication."

One problem with the scientists' approach to getting their message across is that they can be so convinced that they are right that they are dismissive not just of crackpots but of anything that smacks of religion. Not all scientists take this stance, of course, but a few well known media superstars certainly take this line.

Bad idea, is the message from Nisbet and Mooney. Instead, they suggest, "scientists must realize that facts will be repeatedly misapplied and twisted in direct proportion to their relevance to the political debate
and decision-making. In short, as unnatural as it might feel, in many cases, scientists should strategically avoid emphasizing the technical details of science when trying to defend it."

They don't go into the implications of this for science writers. They are there though. While it isn't the writer's job to make the scientists' arguments for them, but to report what they say. But we all know that writers pick and choose the material they include in their articles. With luck they want to pick the bits that will convince their readers. Thus they are in the same boat as the scientists.

There isn't, then, any point in presenting an argument that the reader will dismiss. Then again, another issue is that if you write for a publication that reaches an audience of people who are naturally inclined in one direction, you may have an uphill struggle when writing about a piece of science that is at variance with their view of the world.

05 April 2007

Does it matter if the UK excels at research?

It may make politicians feel good, and give them something to put into their speeches, but it is hard to know what to make of the news that the UK research impact outstrips US. The press release with this headline gives Malcolm Wicks, the relatively new Science and Innovation Minister, an opportunity to gloat.

"I'm proud to say the UK produces nine per cent of the world's scientific papers and has a citation share of 12 per cent.

"Britain's 21st century knowledge economy depends on science and innovation. We are in a good position - we have excellent science and strong investment."

He doesn't quite take all the credit for the government, but the message is in there. It is also the argument that the government uses when it wants to beef up the effort the researchers in the UK put into turning that research into money. We are really really good at doing science, the argument goes, and with just a bit more effort we could make oodles of cash by innovating on the back of that research.

The question you have to ask is if there is any proof that this research excellence has much to do with the ability of companies in the UK to innovate. After all, as the report that prompted this outburst shows, the scientific disciplines where the country excels include biological, clinical, environmental, humanities, maths, pre-clinical and health, social sciences and business.

You can argue over how they manage to shoehorn some of those subjects into science, or whether they can provide the foundations for successful innovation. More important, though, is the simple minded bean counting nature of the exercise.

Plenty of countries do nicely thank you without featuring as high as the UK in these league tables. Just think Korea and Taiwan. Even Israel, whatever you think of the country's atrocious racism, does very nicely in several areas of technology.

The cue for Mr Wicks's comments is the report with the unfathomable title PSA target metrics for the UK research base. It has a detailed analysis that provides a field day for anyone who wants to theorise.

Take the first paragraph of the summary. This says:
"The UK’s strong international excellence has been achieved with lower investment compared to its competitors. On available OECD data, the UK has a relatively sparse density of people with research training. However, this has led to a high level of research productivity, in regard to both research publications and trained people."
The bit about lower investment could mean that we do it on the cheap, paying researchers badly. You could infer the same notion from the later statement that "The UK produces relatively more PhDs per unit HERD (Higher Education R&D spend) than most OSI comparator group nations." PhD students may not be as poverty stricken as they once were, but few live in the lap of luxury.

The bit about the density of people could be a sign of inequities in the way the UK distributes its spending, a theory that will strike a chord with any scientists who operates outside the golden triangle of Oxford, Cambridge and London. Then again, those within the triangle might well point out that the fact that they are a money magnet is the reason why the UK punches above its weight.

In reality, you can probably pick over the data and come up with support for any crackpot theory you care to dream up, including those out out by the government.

04 April 2007

How does innovation work?

Like many countries, the UK has been screaming about the need for innovation. It is the only way to make the economy grow, says the official line. So Gordon Brown and Tony Blair have vied with one another to make the right noises about innovation and the science that, they believe, will make it happen. Spending more on science may not have quite the same Daily Mail appeal as throwing cash at health and education, but it has come out at least as well as these sinks of taxpayers' money. And yet we don't really know how innovation works.

If we did there would be no reason for the Economic and Social Research Council to launch a new initiative: £2 million for Targeted Initiative on Innovation. The money will go to "eight different research projects focusing on innovation". Among the things they will investigate are, says the announcement:

  • How can the rate of innovation be increased to enhance economic growth and competitiveness, while the direction of innovation simultaneously steered to achieve social and environmental sustainability?
  • What are the options for public policy at different levels to increase innovation and steer towards such policy objectives?
  • What economic, social and managerial factors enable an economy such as the UK to best capture high value from increasingly global innovation processes?
  • How is it best to model and measure emergent innovation activities and systems?
All this is happening under the banner of the Advanced Institute of Management Research. As a part of the same package, AIM, as it calls itself, has also awarded seven Innovation Fellowships. one area that these people will delve into is that of innovation in the service sector, something that recently cropped up on the agenda when the UK's R&D Scoreboard suddenly added the sector to its number crunching.

As the ESRC announcement puts it "with over 75% of employment in the UK now being located in services, we need to enhance our understanding of service innovation".

Another topic for discussion is "green innovation". It isn't enough, it seems for innovative stuff to be "sustainable". We also need to look at how it happens. Or, as the announcement puts it "can the rate of innovation be balanced with the need to achieve environmentally and socially sustainable levels of innovation?"

01 April 2007

Nearly half of Americans believe that Darwin was wrong

The fact that Charles Darwin was himself of a religious turn of mind, and saw no conflict between evolution and his belief, does not mean anything to most Americans. A recent NEWSWEEK Poll found that 90 per cent of Americans believe in God. Nothing wrong with that, but following this belief, it turns out that it colours their views on other issues where science should be their guide. As the article puts it:

"Nearly half (48 percent) of the public rejects the scientific theory of evolution; one-third (34 percent) of college graduates say they accept the Biblical account of creation as fact. Seventy-three percent of Evangelical Protestants say they believe that God created humans in their present form within the last 10,000 years; 39 percent of non-Evangelical Protestants and 41 percent of Catholics agree with that view."
We mention this here only because it shows that science writers clearly have an uphill struggle. There may be people in our community who don't believe in man-made climate change, partly because a handful of maverick scientists fuel their belief, but has anyone ever come out against evolution, even though that too has a smattering of sceptics?

The other question is, where are these people? They seem to be like Americans who voted for Bush. There are plenty of them, but you never meet one.