Big Science

I came across a very interesting article about `big science’ by a geneticist Bill Amos. He makes a few points which I agree with – some of them I mentioned before in a previous post about putting all our eggs in one basket.

The main point is about how we are moving towards a world where research funding goes to a few large groups, rather than to many small groups. We put all our eggs into a few baskets. One obvious consequence is that a greater percentage of scientists will have no research funding. The detrimental consequences of this are many, such as good scientists leaving the country.

It makes good sense to ask whether this practice of big science leads to good science. What exactly will throwing ever larger amounts of money at a problem solve? Further, does it lead to good training of our PhD students? Are they trained to be innovative thinkers and leaders when they are a junior member of a huge team?

Another interesting point refers to value for money. In my experience, small grants to small research groups provide much better value for money than large grants to large groups. In a small group, with a small grant, each penny has to be counted and there is very little wastage.


Percentage of Academic/Non-Academic Staff

Figures were released (via Dáil written answers) for Irish third-level institutions of the percentage of staff that are academic and non-academic.

ImageThis is a screenshot from the post.

UCD and TCD are the only institutions where academic staff are less than 50%.

The average percentage of academic staff across Irish universities is 52.4%. Across all universities in Australia, the interesting article here from Australia states that the average percentage of academic staff is 45%. In the UK it is 48%. There must be a balance point that maximizes efficiency of the system. I find it hard to believe that less than 50% academic staff is optimal, but I haven’t done any studies.

The Economist posted a humorous 1955 article by Parkinson, which contains Parkinson’s Law “work expands to fill the time available for its completion” and a funny yet realistic treatise on the growth of public administrative departments.


Replicating Austerity Results

An interesting story came to light this week when a student tried to replicate the results in a paper. He found that he wasn’t able to.

I wrote something before about the fundamental principle of the scientific method – that the results of an experiment should be capable of replication and verification by others. If you can’t do that, it’s not science. What happened here is that a graduate class was given an assignment: pick a paper and replicate the results. An excellent assignment for graduate students, in my opinion, and a valuable contribution to the scientific community. This particular student was unable to replicate the results in his chosen paper. It turns out that he found an error. The authors made a mistake.

First and foremost, this shows the scientific method and the scientific community at work. If the system works, papers with errors should be found out, and the errors corrected, and science as a whole moves on. Collectively we learn something. It’s a good example of that.

The authors are 100% responsible for the error. It was a bad error, and it’s not good news for the reputations of the authors. It makes them look bad. Other papers by these authors will now be questioned.

A second point is that scientific papers that are published are supposed to be checked by reviewers/referees. That’s part of the process. Why didn’t the peer review process catch the error in this case? Because it wasn’t peer reviewed. The paper was presented at a conference that does not referee the papers.

This student picked a paper that is being quoted a lot by politicians and economists that are in favour of “austerity measures.” Apparently it has been used as an argument in favour of austerity. One cannot blame the authors of the paper for that (unless there are things going on behind the scenes that I am not aware of, as has been alleged on reddit for example). If anyone is going to use the findings of a paper, they are responsible for checking the paper first. If you don’t check the results, especially the results of a paper that has not been peer-reviewed, and there is a mistake, you cannot blame the authors for your consequent errors. You are responsible for your own papers.

The paper in question is available here. The research was funded by the U.S. National Science Foundation.

Problem solving versus basic skills

I’ve posted before about the teaching of mathematics, and the question of teaching “problem solving” versus teaching basic mathematical skills, like how to add numbers, add fractions, or solve quadratic equations.

It’s all part of teaching mathematics, so we must teach both, and we must find a balance. On the one hand, students cannot solve interesting problems without having the basic skills needed to solve them. Skills are learnt by practice, by drill, by doing lots of similar exercises. On the other hand, learning skills by themselves is a bit dry and becomes more interesting when students can see a use for them.

Many years ago we used to teach lots of skills, with no problem solving. Now we are in danger of a complete switch the other way around. There was a comment on this by mathematician and Fields medallist Vaughan Jones in a New Zealand newspaper recently.

I believe there is a difference between asking a child “what is 3+2” and asking “if I have three apples and my friend gives me two apples, how many apples do I have?”  The latter is known as a word problem, albeit a simple example. A word problem has to be converted into an equation, which then has to be solved. In this example, the child must realize that the solution to the word problem is the solution to the sum “3+2”. That conversion, from a word problem to an equation, is a crucial part of problem solving. When the equation is found, it must then be solved, using the skills (in this case, addition) previously learnt by drill.

Word problems can be contrived, but there are enough good examples to use. If you haven’t already seen it, there is a great article A Mathematician’s Lament by Paul Lockhart about teaching mathematics and solving problems.


The Link between Research and Education

Last week’s announcement of research centres has reinforced the policy of this government that will prioritize research resources into areas that bring together research and enterprise.

The government has decided that the nation’s research budget should be targeted towards those research areas with the greatest potential for economic return. Last March, the Research Prioritization Steering Group recommended fourteen specific areas that funding should be directed towards.

What will happen to other areas, and other subjects? They are going to receive little, if any, government support for their research. In the university environment, due to the close links between education and research, the quality of education in those subjects is going to suffer, as well as the research.

The teaching of a professor or lecturer in a university is informed and influenced by their research. Ask any academic, and they will tell you that teaching and research fertilize each other.  The job of an academic is all about the discovery and the dissemination of knowledge. If research in our low-priority subjects comes to an end due to lack of government funding, there won’t be any research-informed teachers left.

Doctoral students are vital for the continuity of both research and education.  A consequence of research prioritization is that we only have PhD students in the chosen areas. Other subjects will not get the funding to support PhD students. Apart from depleting the overall research base in the country, this is a double whammy.

Firstly, the research of the PhD supervisor suffers if there are no PhD students and postdoctoral researchers. The research team starts to collapse, and an international reputation built over years may be lost.

Secondly, there are knock-on effects for the education of our undergraduates. Labs and tutorials cannot be held without PhD students. The teaching infrastructure in the universities starts to collapse. Furthermore, our future school teachers will not be properly taught in those non-priority areas.

In a few years we could have a country where university staff in non-priority subjects spend all their time on teaching, and none on research, because they have no assistants. Priority areas, on the other hand, will have the PhD students and infrastructure to enable the research to continue.  A kind of two-tier system develops.

One example to consider is maths. As part of the current major curriculum reform, the Minister for Education and Skills places great emphasis on the importance of mathematical standards at all levels – bottom up and top down. Ironically, one of the subjects not mentioned anywhere in the Research Prioritization report is mathematics. Mathematics could be said to have fallen between fourteen stools. Maths is everywhere, and at the same time, nowhere, because there is no research support. This could have consequences for mathematical standards at all levels.

The ignoring of maths does not recognize the importance of mathematics as a subject in itself, a subject that needs support by itself and not just as a servant to a priority application area.

The solution is for the government to not prioritize certain areas to the total exclusion of other areas. Prioritizing means allocating a majority of resources, but not all resources. Indeed, the press release of the launch of the RPSG report last March stated “…the Government’s plan to target the majority of the Government’s core €500million budget…”.

The government can and should fund research across all subjects, to varying degrees according to the priorities and available resources. There are several funding agencies available to distribute the €500 million research budget. Some leadership and joined-up thinking is required to allocate funds across the different agencies, which come under different government departments. There are encouraging signs in this regard from the Prioritization Action Group, chaired by Minister Seán Sherlock, which has been established to accomplish this task.

The whole research prioritization strategy could have other negative consequences. It is known as “picking winners” and is a high-risk strategy. An article ‘Picking winners, saving losers’ in The Economist (April 2010) concluded that the strategy usually fails, and works in certain circumstances only.

One consequence is that we lose expertise in the non-priority areas, leaving us unable to respond to future challenges if there is a major development in one of those fields.

This strategy could also bring about a further downgrading of our universities, which are currently struggling in the world rankings. Research is one of the key components for these rankings. Excellent world-class researchers who are already working in Ireland will be excluded from funding simply because their area of research is not considered a priority area.  In order to receive support, they may move to another country.


Eggs in one basket in the university sector

I wrote an earlier post about the idea of a country putting all its research funding (and perhaps other resources too) into a few top places. I think this is a very interesting topic for debate.

Recently there was another article on the matter in The Guardian. The former president of DCU posted about it.

One of the arguments in favour of funding only the top universities is that “the money is going there anyway.” The Guardian cites that 75% is going to the top 30 institutions, and things like that. Therefore it is seemingly correct to say that most of the funding goes to the top universities. This is probably because most of the top researchers are at the top universities. But the word “most” is the key point to me. The point is that there are some excellent researchers at universities that are not ranked highly. Those researchers account for the other 25% of the funding. If you take away that 25% from them, you are saying to them that they either need to move to a top ranked university, or stop getting funded. Presumably this will result in the movement of those people to the top ranked universities. This cements the two-tier world, cements the position of the top ranked universities, and makes it impossible for other universities to move up there. In the long term we will get a polarized situation where only the top ranked places do funded research. We will move from a 75-25 split to a 100-0 split.

Next question: is that good or bad? It depends on your point of view, and what you are trying to achieve.

Next consider a similar scenario where a country puts all its funding into a few selected areas/subjects, instead of a few selected universities. The same story plays out. Excellent researchers in the non-chosen areas do not get funded. They have a choice, either move research area, move country, or stop getting funded.

Next question: is that good or bad? It depends on your point of view, and what you are trying to achieve.

There is also an indirect way of putting all eggs in one basket – which could be happening right now in the UK. It is interesting to observe what is happening there – there was an article in the Guardian the other day about it. The upshot of raising the limit on fees to 9,000 pounds is that the top universities are thriving, and weaker ones are possibly struggling. Applications have dropped, so the weaker universities have to admit students with bad grades. Furthermore, they have to pass these students all the way through, because they need the money. Talk about buying a degree. It will take some years to see how this plays out.

They say all things are cyclical. I think this will probably happen here – we will put all our eggs in one basket for a while, then diversify, then go back, then diversify again, etc. As new people come into power, they need to make changes. Nobody gets noticed and rewarded for saying it ain’t broke, so I’m not going to fix it.

Balance between basic and applied research

This is the (slightly expanded) text of a speech I gave at the NDRC Long Debate, 25 October 2012.


What is the right balance between basic and applied research for a small island nation?

Basic research is research that is not directed towards any particular application or development. There is an old joke: Basic research is like shooting an arrow into the air and, where it lands, you paint a target.

Applied research is defined by strategic goals set by industrial or political leaders, or driven by market needs.

One can also say that applied research is where a practical application is a number of months away. Basic research is when a practical application is not yet visible.

I first would like to convince you that we should have some basic research. That is, we should not have 100% applied and 0% basic. I think most people would already go along with that, but let me make a few points in favour of basic research.

Funding of basic research is mostly done by funding a PhD student, who is then trained as a researcher.

One important result of funding PhD students is the creation of human and intellectual capital. Building research capacity and generating employees capable of inquiry is important.  We cannot predict what will be the leading technology in 10 years time, but we will need a constant supply of researchers strong in the fundamentals to stay in the game.

It used to be thought that basic research was followed by applications. In other words, a basic discovery was made, such as the invention of the laser, and later on applications were found. Certainly, this happens. Example: the CD.  First the laser was invented, for no reason. Then Philips wanted to make a disc, and someone knew about lasers, and said hey, maybe we could use this thing called a laser?  Then they wanted to correct errors due to scratches. Someone said hey, there’s this maths from the 19th century that can be used to construct these codes.

However we now understand that, very often, basic and applied research progress together, and in fact they feed off each other. For example, an applied cryptographer might design a cipher system that appears secure. The theoretical cryptographer might do an analysis and pinpoint a flaw, and then suggest a correction. The applied cryptographer might point out that then the system is too slow, but suggest another change.  And so on, back and forth, until a final product is reached. Basic and applied research happen together.

There are many examples of basic research discovering something useless, and for it later to find an application. The laser, the structure of DNA, the internet, the transistor, the sex life of the screwworm, are some. A more recent one is graphene, discovered by basic research in 2004, where we still do not know how it will revolutionize the world.

Did you know… Einstein’s theory of relativity is needed to make GPS clocks accurate.

Other arguments:  Basic research can have wider ramifications than targeted applied research. Research aimed at Alzheimers could improve Alzheimers, however a discovery in fundamental drug research could improve several conditions all at the same time.

Basic research is recognized as a longterm generator of innovation.

A preference for applied research favours certain subjects while neglecting others. Subjects like mathematics, and in particular the arts and humanities, become disadvantaged and will suffer.

I could go on, but I hope you accept the case that at least some basic research should be funded by the state.

By the way I am not saying that all basic researchers and scientists should be given funding. I am saying that our excellent scientists should.  It’s important to let scientists decide which science is worthy of being funded, through a peer review process.

Now the next question is, how much of the state-sponsored research should be basic?  And should it be directed?

The international norm seems to be around 50-50 between basic and applied research.

The Irish government funds research through agencies such as Enterprise Ireland, Science Foundation Ireland, the Irish Research Council (now just one), the Health Research Board, Teagasc, the Marine Institute.

This year has seen a shift towards funding research in certain areas of science, and funding only research that has `impact’ on the economy.

The Research Prioritisation Steering Group recommended 14 areas that the government should direct research funding towards.  The chair of the RPSG, Jim O’Hara, suggested that about 80% of funding go to these priority areas, with the other 20% going towards more fundamental research (The Irish Times, 2 March 2012).  Interestingly, the RPSG itself could not agree on the percentage, I have been told by a member.

Subsequent to the RPSG recommendations, the new SFI policy is not an 80-20 split but a 100-0 split. This puts all research funding into the priority areas and areas with impact on the economy, and absolutely nothing into research in other areas.

We don’t yet know if the other agencies such as the IRC will put all their money into the new priority areas. If this happens, it is demoralizing for researchers in other areas. This has a knock-on effects in the university environment, where such researchers are also teachers. Many young people are motivated by a great teacher.  Research-informed teaching is a crucial part of our university education. Dropping some subjects will affect future generations.

Another problem is that directing research funding into certain areas is a high-risk strategy. Many Silicon Valley companies are known for not directing the research and just letting it happen. How do you get the most out of really bright people? You put them in a room and say “do what you want. We would prefer if it helps the company.” Google and Microsoft research work this way. Researchers will create, when given the chance. You just don’t know exactly what they will create.

The Economist wrote in 2010 about this strategy of Picking Winners. It is back in fashion among governments around the world, however it mixes science policy with industrial policy. It fails more often than it succeeds, according to the Economist. Other arguments against picking winners (research prioritization) are

– You can’t predict what will be growth areas over the next ten years.
– We lose expertise in the non-priority areas, top people will move to another country, nobody in those areas wants to come here.
– Companies in non-priority areas will not come to Ireland.
– If there is a breakthrough development in a non-priority area, we will not be able to capitalise because we have lost our expertise.
I did some research while preparing for tonight, and I looked at countries of a similar size to Ireland.

Typically the leading countries in science spend about 3% of GDP on R&D. In 2009 in Ireland it was 1.77%.

The Swedish Research Council was founded in 2001, the same year as SFI. They put about 3.6% of GDP into research. In their proposal for 2009-2013 they recommended an increase of 270 million in free basic research, and 200 million in basic research in areas of high priority. (So increasing the split in favour of basic.)

I found a 2007 report from Austria (2.75% of GDP into R&D), with an analysis on the competitiveness of their research. They looked at other countries and said:

“With very few exceptions, all leading scientific nations, in particular smaller ones such as Switzerland (3%), Israel (4.5%), Sweden (3.6%), Denmark (3%), Finland (3.8%) or Holland (1.8%), are world-leading not only overall but also in all individual scientific disciplines.

This provides a strong indication for a wide-ranging effort to attain international quality in all areas of science and argues (also for countries with smaller economies) against too strong a focus on particular disciplines. It appears to be the case that excellence in individual disciplines or fields of research is hardly possible without excellence in most disciplines. The jump to a world-leading position in basic research cannot be attained in a matter of a few years. Many of today’s top nations have invested in the necessary resources, structures and incentives over a period of decades.”

Israel is slightly bigger than Ireland, and puts 4.5% of GDP into R&D (highest in the world). Michael Sela former Director of Weizman institute said:

“Israel has managed to establish an excellent scientific base that makes it an important exporter of high technologies, most notably software and biotechnology. Israel has succeeded in doing so because of the way it has been concentrating resources in science and technology on basic research as well as its application in order to strengthen its economic base.”

“For a small country, we cannot be excellent at everything. But we have no right to make compromises in our effort to strive for excellence. Such a vision includes virtually complete academic freedom and the gathering of first-rate minds, which are then left alone to ripen at will.”

“But no matter what a national science policy looks like, it must not put any constraints on the scientists but rather give them the necessary freedom and means for them to carry out their work. As they are the specialists, they know better than any politician or executive which avenues to explore and which discoveries could be developed into new products.”

“At the Weizmann Institute, our philosophy is ‘Research for its own sake’, but whenever results from this free research have potential in the marketplace, we aim to pursue this energetically, preferably by our own industry.”

What do I propose for Ireland?

A combination of funding to priority areas and funding to small basic research projects across all areas.

Some money, reaching critical mass, should be given to excellent researchers, from any subject. About 25K per year will support one PhD student. One million per year for four years will support forty different research projects. Some of those will pay off. (we can’t predict which ones.)

Partnerships between a basic researcher and an applied researcher/developer should be supported. These two people could meet and discuss back and forth how to translate an idea towards the marketplace.  I have the impression that businesses, if asked what is the role of a university, say that it is NOT the patenting and spin-off, but the informal contacts, publications, conferences and joint R&D.

All this abstract policy talk is well and good, but it’s also about people. We have in Ireland, right now, some excellent people, in whatever subject and for whatever reason. Do we want to support the research of those people? If not, they need to know.