17 December 2010

TIC’d off by the name

One idea that survived this year’s change of government in the UK is that of the, er, what do we call them? Technology and Innovation Centres? Maxwell Centres?

Both names, it seems, have bitten the dust. No one likes the idea of TICs – it was, after all, coined for the previous administration and that bĂȘte noir Peter Mandleson.

As to Maxwell Centres, another idea that was rattling around, the physicists, in the shape of the Institute of Physics complained that if you must steal the great man’s name then you should use the whole mouthful. Somehow, it seems unlikely that the media, for one, would adopt the tag James Clerk Maxwell Centres. So the people in charge of the creation process, the Technology Strategy Board, have been going into huddles to come up with clever names.

The idea of these centres arises from Herman Hauser’s report on innovation in the UK, The Current and Future Role of Technology and Innovation Centres in the UK. Borrowing the idea of Germany’s Fraunhofer Institutes, Hauser wanted TICs, as he labelled them, to “act as the bridge between research and the commercialisation of new ideas by business”.

The need arises because over the years other places that filled this role have faded into oblivion. The research associations have been privatised, the companies that arose out of the nationalised industries no longer run large R&D centres, so not railway research centre, BT’s Martlesham lab is a shadow of its former self and essentially a software a machine for the company, while energy businesses have abandoned R&D in the UK.

Universities can't, and don’t want to, do the sort of work involved in taking bright ideas from discovery to technology. And when it comes to the physical sciences that underpin much of manufacturing, the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) doesn't have the research centres of, say, the Medical Research Council and Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council.

The government plans to put £200 million into TICs. Word has it that there should have been an announcement about the first of these before the Christmas recess. This seems to have been buried in the snow that has brought the UK to a halt. Or maybe they really are stumped for ideas as to what to call the things.

11 August 2010

What’s in a name? Is it an academic question?

Headline writers can be lazy, resorting to such words as 'boffin' to label scientists. It doesn't help when the people who write press releases collude in the inappropriate use of language, especially labels.

Take the press release "Southampton academics investigate effects of lightning strikes on aircraft". It may come from one of the best, and most media savvy, research groups in its subject area in the UK, but that headline and the first sentence seem to miss out on the subtle undertones of the 'academic' word.

It says: "An academic at the University of Southampton is studying the potential for damage posed by lightning for carbon fibre composites (CFCs) which are increasingly being used in aircraft manufacture, with a view to reducing damage and minimising repair costs."

Engineers constantly moan that their title is abused by people who mend washing machines. The person quoted in the release works in the Electrical Power Engineering Research Group. Doesn't this make him an engineer? If the issue is to avoid the 'mechanic' taint, why not call the researcher just that, a researcher?

This is, by the way, an interesting story, albeit one that surfaces fairly regularly. Nothing wrong with that, it is how research happens.

16 April 2010

So, farewell then Susan Greenfield

The recent turmoil at the Royal Institution has sparked off some thoughtful comments by people who know what they are talking about. One such came from Professor Colin Blakemore in The Times. When I tried to add these comments to the article, they vanished into the ether, perhaps because they are too long and rambling. So, here they are, for others to judge, should anyone be interested in the views from someone who was around at the time.

As Colin Blakemore says, the Bodmer report lit a bomb under what some of us call the Public Engagement in Science and Technology (PEST) movement. (It started of as "Public Understanding", but that was deemed to be too patronising.) The report led to COPUS, the Committee on the Public Understanding of Science, which brought together the Royal Society (RS), British Association for the Advancement of Science (BA) and Royal Institution (RI) in what could have been a powerhouse for public communication.

The first two organisations went into overdrive. Even the Royal Society, ostensibly the stuffier of the three, became really enthusiastic about PEST. Other players, such as the Science Museum and the Wellcome Trust, picked up ideas and made them work. The RI sat on its hands.

Unlike the BA and RS, which were led by people who made their enthusiasm for public engagement clear to anyone who would listen, especially if they had money to hand out, those then in charge at the RI had little time for PESTs. They still saw the RI as a quiet haven in the middle of London for world leading researchers that would deliver yet more Nobel Prizes. That is why they rejected attempts to engineer a merger between the RI and the BA, then less healthy than it is now, and to develop the RI's buildings.

The RS remains stuck in overdrive on all fronts, proving that good science and public engagement can coexist and even feed off one an other. The BA, in its new home, and with its new name, the British Science Association (BSA), no longer needs the RI.

Does anyone?

Even after a decade with a leader who rejected the stuffier view of science, the RI as a whole, rather than its director, hasn't achieved the visibility that its excellent work deserves and that could have attracted financial backing.

The RI's biggest asset is its building. It may also be its biggest liability. But without the buildings it might as well hand its various PEST activities over to the RS or BA.

Visit the "members' rooms" at the learned societies and you will soon see that there is a real need for a venue in London where scientists who are not eminent enough to be allowed into the Royal Society can while away an hour or two and grab a bite and perhaps rub shoulders with an interested public.

Would a Groucho Club for scientists make money? Perhaps in the longer term. But is there time?

15 April 2010

Why put links to "paid for" papers

Once again, a press release has a link to a paper that you have to pay to read. No less than $30!

For a US Government lab, this is pretty rich.

It really doesn't make sense to put out this sort of thing.

Maybe there will be an accessible copy over on the password protected area of EurekAlert! But I am not holding my breath.

in reference to:

"A copy of the Nano Letters paper “Direct Chemical Vapor Deposition of Graphene on Dielectric Surfaces” can be viewed here: http://pubs.acs.org/doi/abs/10.1021/nl9037714"
- Graphene Films Clear Major Fabrication Hurdle « Berkeley Lab News Center (view on Google Sidewiki)

11 January 2010

The RI and its director – history rewritten

It has taken the kerfuffle at the Royal Institution to wake me up here. Reading the growing flood of material on the current state of the RI, and the redundancy notice handed out to Baroness Susan Greenfield, suggests that some people seem to have forgotten their history.

Baroness Greenfield has been in the job so long – can it really be 11 years? – that some of the younger bloggers commenting on the saga were probably still at school when she became director. For this reason we can forgive them for not knowing about the history of the RI before the regime of Professor Greenfield, as she still was until 2001.

You cannot apply the same excuse to Professor Lisa Jardine, who was, as the Guardian reminds us, a former member of the RI's governing council. The newspaper quotes Jardine as saying of RI directors "It has been always a charismatic scientist supported by a membership."

This is not the case. There have been some charismatic scientists in charge, perhaps most notably Professor Sir George Porter, who was eminent enough not just to be elected to the Royal Society, but to be, at one time, both the President of the RS and the Director of the RI. But there have been some directors of recent memory who were fine scientists but who were at the back of the queue when they handed out the charisma gene.

While this hardly changes the goings on at the RI, it could be seen as rewriting history, something that you would not expect of Professor Jardine.

As an observer of the RI for more than a quarter of a century, and at one time a member of a committee advising on its future, it has always struck me as an odd place. Down in the depths of the venerable old building, a prime site in the middle of London, they carried out experiments that would horrify some health and safety zealots, what with all those gas cylinders.

More important than the safety was the puzzle about its status as a research organisation. It just didn't make much sense in today's scientific environment. The RI got away with it simply because it was the RI.

For years, the quality of that research was undeniable. That is partly because of the eminence of the director. This probably explained the RI's ability to attract research funds.

But scientific eminence does not guarantee charisma or an ability to fulfil the RI's other role, as a place for public engagement in science. Some directors failed hopelessly on that front. So it is misleading to suggest that all directors managed to balance scientific excellence with public engagement.

The evidence of this failure shows in the RI's contribution to the late but not much lamented Committee on the Public Understanding of Science. (I should declare an interest here, I was one of the first members of this body.) COPUS, which grew out of the Bodmer report of 1985 on the public understanding of science, existed in part to bring together the Royal Society, the Royal Institution and the British Association for the Advancement of Science (BA), as the British Science Association was then known.

Before COPUS, the BA was really the brand leader on public engagement in science and technology (PEST), as this activity is now known. Before COPUS, the RS was itself pretty stuffy and far from a leading player in public engagement. But it soon learned how to improve its PESTery, thanks partly to the enthusiasm of Sir George and his willingness to take the RS in that direction.

The BA also became more dynamic and forged ahead in the PEST arena. The RI somehow seemed to miss out on the game. That all changed significantly during Baroness Greenfield's regime.

Quite how much of the improvement in the RI's work on PEST is due to Greenfield is for others to decide. I haven't been as closely involved in events as I once was. So it would be unwise to comment on the current kerfuffle. But anyone who does feel the urge to write about it might find it useful to look at the history of the RI.

As the accounts of recent events remind us, the RI's history is long. This year it marks 200 years "as a member organisation". That history precedes by centuries the era of the internet. It is, therefore, beyond the reach of Google. A proper understanding of even the RI's relatively recent past needs a somewhat old fashioned approach to research which almost certainly involves reading bits of paper.