Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Science Funding

I’m a scientist by training, a physicist in fact, the one science to rule them all, as some (well physicists anyway) might call it.

The last week has seen a couple of stories relating to science funding that I’ve found very disappointing. Firstly there was news that specifically physics funding would be cut by at least £115m resulting in cancellations in the area of astronomy and nuclear and particle physics as well as a 25% cut in the grants available for fellowships and PhDs.

Some of the largest cuts appear to be in Nuclear physics, where a 52% cut in funding is going to force our physicsts to withdraw from major international projects (no doubt including the ITER replacement for JET, the next generation nuclear fusion reactor experiments, and leave us with a lack of trained nuclear physcists despite promises to build new fission reactors for energy.

Cutting phsyics funding is like stopping the heart of science, physics provides us with an understanding of the underlying principles of every other science. Yes much of it lacks a real world application, but the equipment and technology developed by projects such as the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) and other physics programmes often make a real difference to society and technology. However there is also a lot of physics like the area of nuclear physics that is vital to the world’s future energy security, or like the area of quantum mechanics vital to the future development of computing technology.

But it’s not just been scientific funding cuts, the way university research is funded is also changing. The government is about to introduce something called the Research Excellence Framework, whereby a quarter of all research funding will depend on the social, public policy, cultural and quality of life” impact of their research. This is ridiculous, scientific research is scientific research, there are thousands of examples of discoveries that occurred in research that wasn’t looking to improve humanity’s lot, just to improve it’s knowledge.

This kind of policy will just lead to an increase in funding for social sciences, research that support government policy, or to an entirely new focused area. It will no doubt also lead to a large number of people forcing their scientific research to be related to climate change (I’m interested in the mating habits of butterflies say, so I title my research proposal the affects of a changing climate on the mating habits of butterflies), the current “hot topic” in science.

It is perhaps telling of Gordon Brown’s interest in science that it was only in February of this year when he delivered his first speech in relation to it and apparently stated “The downturn is no time to slow down our investment in science but to build more vigorously for the future.” A great soundbite, but it hardly seems to have been backed up by action.

The problem is that modern science isn’t cheap and it isn’t easy to understand. ITER for example will cost at least 5 billion euros but will lead to an entirely new and potentially clean way of generating energy. It’s efficency will make wind, solar and other green sources look pathetic, it is after all the same energy source that powers the sun that creates wind and solar energy in the first place. We’ve spent billions to bail out banks and to try to stop climate change, why aren’t we investing money into projects like this and other pure scientific research that could, and in fact will, produce the technologies of tomorrow.

Or look at the work of particle physicists at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) in Cern, ground breaking work that has been reduced to a search for the “God Particle” or if you believe some people an experiment that will create a black hole that will destroy the universe. The general public, and indeed politicians can’t understand science so can’t see the value in it. Even the current Minister of State for Science and Innovation isn’t a scientist he has a PhD in robotics and a degree in production engineering. His previous company may have manufactured vaccines, but at the end of the day he’s an engineer not a pure scientist.

In all I think science is being severely short changed by both the funding cuts and the change in funding priorities. In reality the cost of our science funding is tiny, the physics research funding programme is 2.4 billion pounds over 5 years, so £480 million a year. To put that in perspective Tesco’s profits last year were £3billion, Tesco made more  profit  in one year than we will spend on science in five. In fact Tesco’s sales topped £1 billion a week, so more money went through its tills in 3 weeks than we will spend on physics in five years. Or you can look at it this way as a nation will have spent more money on groceries in one super market by January 3rd than we will be spending on physics in the whole year.

That truly is a terrifying statistic, but perhaps it shows where scientific funding will end up under this government, the purview purely of companies or wealthy patrons, research that is aimed at achieving a goal or objective, the end of pure research.

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Saturday, December 19, 2009

Education spending

There's an interesting post on the Adam Smith Institute Blog about the effects of education spending. Firstly it points put that as with everything there is a point at which spending more on education will not make it anymore efficient. Past a certain point you get diminishing returns. It also points to a relatively old, but still relevant study that showed that the attitude of teachers towards pupil ability affects attainment more than additional money. So if more teachers just felt that pupils could achieve more then they would.

As I mentioned in a previous post this government's approach to any issue has been to throw money at it rather than look at underlying issues. Could a change of attitude rather than ring fenced spending be the answer.

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Monday, December 14, 2009

Super Injunctions

After Trafigura (Google it if you don’t know), one of the first high profile super injunctions, it seems that they are on the rise again, with news on twitter and the blogosphere that law firm Schillings have been sending to whom it may concerns to all and sundry.

Super injunctions as they’ve become known are basically court orders banning the publication or dissemination of certain information, but also banning anyone from saying that there is a ban. In the past an injunction was often used on the grounds of national security, publication of the arrest of a terrorist suspect for example could tip off the rest of a terrorist cell sending them to ground and making them impossible to catch. However they are also used increasingly by  celebrities and those in the public eye to in the sanitized words of Guido and CharonQC keep their mistakes hidden and covered.

These kind of super injunctions also come with all kinds of threats, contempt of court citations, jail time, possession of assets and are meant to scare publishers into saying nothing, the problem is they’re only valid in England, and the Internet pretty much ignores them. So I can check Wikileaks say, or just look at a scottish website seeing details on the Scotsman website say that the Telegraph can’t publish or even talk about for legal reasons.

In my opinion Super injunctions are an over reach of the law and a mis-intepretation of it’s purpose. Yes I agree that an individual’s private life is their life. Just ask my wife, an avid Heat reader, and she will tell you I couldn’t possibly care less about the latest celebrity goings on, although I’ll happily admit that isn’t the case for most of the population.

I am certainly not in disagreement there has to be some protection in the law for an individual’s privacy but these super injunctions are not it. They are a distortion of my personal view of the law and the courts’ primary purpose, that is to protect society. Our laws are there to enforce the morals of society on society, the laws we have outlawing murder are there to say society as a whole believes murder is morally wrong and so society should be protected against it, not individuals but society.

The problem with injunctions and certainly super injunctions is that they only protect the individual, whilst injunctions on the basis of national security protect society. Injunctions on the basis of it making an individual feel uncomfortable or embarrassed do not protect society in the slightest. They are increasingly being used to cover up an individual’s mistakes so that the public don’t know about it.

So what’s the solution? The solution must be reform, reform of the libel and privacy laws of this country. Not the creation of new offences and the extension of the law into places it should not be, and not the enshrining of aims and aspirations into law,  but the reform of existing laws to make the system better. It is easy to blame the courts but they are only interpreting the law, it is the law that needs work not them.

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Saturday, December 12, 2009

Government Debt - £300bn and counting

I’ve been reading a fair bit lately about the structural debt versus actual debt of the UK government. For those that don’t know the structural debt is the debt that the government would have regardless of the recession, the day to day borrowings that it has accumulated as a result of spending more than it’s tax revenues. At the moment the Treasuary says that it stands at £127bn, however independent bodies think it might actually make up a lot more of our £300bn national debt.

When this recession started the Conservative party began to talk about how Gordon Brown had failed to put anything away for a rainy day during the last decade of economic growth, but it actually appears worse than that. Whilst the economy continued to grow and grow the UK government continued to borrow more and more, continually spending more than tax revenues and running a deficit. Personally I think that we were extremely lax in opposition not to point that out then, and that we’re not doing enough now.

Look at it from the point of view of the public, you cannot borrow money and take on debt to support your lifestyle, it is extremely bad practice and likely to cause trouble later down the line. However that is what the government has done, and indeed it is something that the public have done as well, the economic growth of the last decade was, it now seems, built on debt, borrowing on credit cards and equity release from inflated house prices. Why did people think that this was acceptable? I would like to suggest that if the government of the day does not show sound financial principles in the management of the UK’s finances then unconsciously the public thinks that they do not have to. If the government is borrowing money, then why shouldn’t I?

Many people have blamed the mountain of personal debt on the instant gratification culture that we have today, and this seems to have affected not just the public but government as well. The current government had to deliver more to public services, it said it would spend more on the NHS and achieve it’s aims and regardless of whether it could afford it or not it was going to do it.

The splurge on public services in the last decade is the equivalent of an individual who wants to watch better quality television so they decide they need to buy a new 42” television but can’t afford it now, so they put it on hire finance, then they decide that that television isn’t delivering what they want, so they need to spend more to get it right, so they buy a new top of the range surround sound system, again on finance. But that’s still not quite right, they need to spend more money so off they go to  DFS and buy a new sofa, on finance as well. The problem is that none of this fixes the problem, the problem wasn’t that more money needed to be spent on it, it was the quality of programming in the first place that was the issue, and this is the situation the government is in now. For the past decade the government has spent more and more on the public sector without identifying the initial issues first. In fact new data from the Office of National Statistics is said to show that there has been no improvement in public services such as the NHS despite the billions more spent on them.

Lets go back to our man and his television for a second. He could afford to pay his debts every month (mainly because they weren’t going to be due for an excessively long time, 50 years say), but then one day his boss calls him into his office. “I’m sorry” he says “but times are tough, we’re going to have to cut your salary” so suddenly his income is less and he can’t afford all his outgoings anymore, but he’s got good credit so he takes out a loan to make up the shortfall hoping that his salary will go back up soon.

After a year of being told that business is improving by his boss and that his salary will go up again soon, he starts to run out of money again, so he goes back to the banks to ask for a loan again. Unfortunately because his salary has dropped to even less in the last year his credit score has dropped, he’s no longer AAA and the banks can offer his money but only at a huge interest rate, or perhaps they just say no. Either way it either costs him a huge amount of money or he has to default. In the end he has two options, get a new job that pays more or cut his spending, slash his costs, downsize his house, cancel the gym membership, drive a more fuel efficient car, get a cheaper haircut every month.

That’s the situation the government has got this country into now. It hasn’t quite got to the stage whereby our national credit rating has dropped, however there have been warning signs and the cost of insuring UK debt has skyrocketed. Two years ago it cost $5,000 per year to insure   £10 million of UK government debt against non payment for three years, now it is $52,000 as opposed to $2,000 for  German government debt and $22,000 for  BP debt. So to put that in perspective the market thinks the UK government is more likely to default on it’s debt than not just Germany, but a British company that makes up its economy. That is the state that our country’s finances are now in.

The Labour Party’s approach as laid out in the Pre Budget Report is basically option 1 and a tiny bit of option 2  for the man and his television (He’s going to cut back on his expensive hair cuts and look for a new job), they effectively want to raise more and more tax revenue but not significantly cut back on spending.

Personally I don’t believe that this is a real option, the only real option is to find or force substantial savings in government expenditure, live within our national means and handle the root cause of issues.  Lets go back to our man with his television, could he have just improved the quality of the television he watched by writing a letter of complaint to the BBC, or watching a different channel? Perhaps something simpler and cheaper? By analogy could we have fixed the NHS by just doing things differently rather than spending more and more?

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Wednesday, December 9, 2009


There's an interesting little post on the Adam Smith Institute blog that points out that government borrowing effectively began when we needed money to finance the Napoleonic war and has continued ever since.

That's not the interesting bit though. The interesting bit is that the cumulative borrowing (total borrowing) for what was approximately 200 years up to the year 2000 was roughly £300 billion pounds (although I don't know if this is adjusted value). Now the PBR has just revealed that in the next 20 months we will be borrowing as a country £300 billion pounds, so basically as much money as we have borrowed in total in the last 200 years!

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Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Lagos, dealing with politics of a different kind

I'm in Lagos, Nigeria for a week working very intensely on a project to automate the high courts of Lagos State. Internet here is pretty erratic at best so my blog posts and tweets might be a bit sparse or irrelvant to those back in the UK.

Much of this week is being taken up dealing with internal politics, not the grand national or local level politics, but the hierarchies and political maneuvering that happens in any organisation and seems to happen even more so in the civil service of any country.

The organisation I am working with has been drafted in to basically make good a workflow and document management system that entered development nearly 6 years ago and launched nearly 4 years ago but today is barely used. The original project was funded by DFID through the British Council's Strength, growth and Justice programme and focused mainly on technology although there was some business process re-engineering done, all by an American company.

The technology itself has not really been the failure, it's technically a good system, but it fails to take into account the people. For it to be implemented properly working practices had to change, business processes had to be modified and this just hasn't happened. The internal politics weren't taken into account in the implementation phase so it's stalled.

This inertia to change is largest in the so called frontline staff of the civil service (anywhere in the world), the people who actually carry out the processes and use the IT system, middle managers and senior managers will go along with it but people at the bottom seem to hate change. This issue will I think be one of the largest to be overcome by an incoming Conservative government that is determined to cut the deficit through efficiency savings.

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Thursday, December 3, 2009

Alveston By-election - Update

As I previously wrote we narrowly lost the recent Alveston By-election after the local paper ran a negative front page story on the day of the election. The story claimed that 800 new houses would be built in Stratford and that the conservative led council was going to vote to lift the moratorium on building new homes the following Monday. This issue became a last minute leaflet drop in Alveston and the article quoted the lib-dem candidate as being against.

Well the vote has now been and gone and no such thing happened, a decision on a specific aspect of a planning application has been sent back from the cabinet to the scrutiny committee, and I'm willing to bet that the local papers won't say anything today.

So did we lose the by-election just because of this story, no I don't think we did, it only worked because of the existing narrative about the conservative led council. If that wasn't there it wouldn't have been anywhere near as damaging.

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I just received a text from O2 reminding me that from 1st of January VAT is going back to 17.5%. Basically forewarning me that my phone bill will be more expensive (by about £1.50 on average). It's only because it's been mentioned a few times recently that I'd even remembered that we had had a temporary VAT cut (being out of the country when it happened didn't help me even notice a change in prices). It will be interesting to see what it does to prices come January, will the January sales effectively absorb them? Or will nothing look quite as attractive this year.

Now as I remember it the cut in VAT was only temporary and until January 2010 because it would help stimulate economic growth and spending and by then we'd be out of recession...

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I spent yesterday at Slough Borough Council delivering a training session to their apprentices. The SBC apprentice programme is a fantastic programme that takes school leavers and puts them through what is effectively an apprenticeship for office administration. Every year in September the council takes on about 20 apprentices who are then attached to various departments throughout the organisation, they do real work and also receive lessons on english, maths and various other developments, ultimately obtaining qualifications as well.

Now I'm not going to lie to you, I found yesterday's training session one of the toughest to deliver in a long time, their attention spans were low and also their behavior wasn't the best (I think being sat around tables like they were in a classroom defaulted them to classroom like behaviour, talking whilst other people were talking, not paying attention etc), certainly not what you would expect from employees, but they are young and new to the world of work so you can forgive them.

Effectively "teaching" them for the day though did make me think about the current state of education. Their ability to discuss abstract concepts and in fact to just discuss what they thought of something was severely limited, however when I gave them what was in effect a worksheet and they had to answer some clearly worded questions they had no issues.

All of these young people had finished at least basic education (GCSE's) although I don't think there is a hard and fast grade requirement to get onto the programme. However hardly any of them seemed to have critical thinking skills, or the ability to articulate their view on a subject and debate it with others. I should have thought that these were basic skills that should come about in education, however their ability to answer questions in written form when they were presented straight to them, I think tells us the problems with this government's approach to education.

For the last decade the solution to continued underperformance of schools and the education system has been to either target schools and pupils more thoroughly, leading to teaching to the test and the key being getting the right answer, or to suggest that young people need to be in formal academic education for longer. Either starting school earlier or finishing it later.

In the type of training I generally deliver the important thing isn't getting the answer, it is talking through with other people, engaging with others to hear their views and debating with them. The realisation moments are what's important, when someone challenges your opinion and you see things with a different set of eyes. When I was at school quite a lot of focus was put on showing your workings, that getting there was just as important as the result. At the time I thought this was stupid, if you got the wrong answer who cared if you got it by the right method, but now I see that this is actually very important.

In a modern world our complex problems can only be solved by complex solutions that involve creativity, and shared development. The issues of tomorrow and indeed today be they related to energy, technology, the internet or human interaction won't be solved by one person working through a work sheet answering clearly defined questions with clearly defined answers. They will be solved by teams collaborating, challenging each other searching for a solution to a problem that is ill defined and indistinct.

Sadly it seems that isn't how our education system prepares people, we read constantly of organisation's complaining that school leavers lack the basics and are not ready for the world of work, our universities complain about the lack of critical thinking in their intake students. In education the current goverenment has become obsessed with the idea that what you can measure is important and anything else is unimportant, they have forgotten or perhaps never heard Esinstein saying "“Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts”.

So what is the solution, education needs to be looked at thoroughly and with a new set of eyes, yes concentration on the basics is important, science, maths, english. These are vital skills fo the economy of tomorrow and not one of those in my training yesterday knew for example why ice floats, but they are not the only thing we need to concentrate on. Schools need to train students to think critically and to be able to debate and discuss ideas, not just come up with answers, and alongside this the obsessions with making everything academic needs to be dropped. Not all careers need to be academic, there is nothing stopping someone following academic study in a subject if they want to, but to make it compulsory for nurses to be degree level qualified or teachers to be educated to a master's level misses the point of education and what it is about.

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