Tuesday, 16 March 2010

Westminster Skeptics

Went along to my second Westminster Skeptics meeting last night to listen to Prof. Brian Cox, Evan Harris (MP and Lib-Dem science minister) and Nick Dusic (CaSE - Campaign for Science and Engineering) all talk about science policy as an election issues (Lord Drayson and Adam Afriyie, the Labour and Conservative science minsters respectivly were invited but didn't come).

Most of the evenings talk was preaching to the choir: it seemed to be pretty well aknowledged that science produces a overall rise in GDP (ie it you get a positive return on investment); that our economy is heavily supported by "knowledge intensive services and hight-tech manufacturing" (40% gross value added,GVA, according to the Royal Society publication on the issue that was the main basis for most of what was said - found here); that science should be publicly funded and allowed to pursue 'blue sky' as well as applied research.

There was  a lot of discussion as to how difficult it is to fund science with the aim of making direct profit (ie no one in the 1980's would argue to fund CERN and expect it to produce the web) and on strategies to increase or maximise enteurpenurship within science. This centered mainly around whether the maxim that the UK "is good on science but bad on moneterisation" is true. My main thoughts are that in all areas this is tricky: firstly where obvious advancements can be made there is a lot of tough competition (for example medicine, how many people are looking to cure cancer) making it entirely possible (if not likely) that your prize research will be scooped by someone else while the bigger 'jackpots' (eg CERN and the net) are nearly impossible to predict so making investing directly for them infeasible. This means that the whole system relies on scientists spotting the implications for moneterisation themselves then being interested enough, able enough and lucky enough to get funding and support for it. I have no solutions other than better support and as much dialogue and funding as possible (and yes it's always more funding).

There was also an interesting (to me at least as they fund me) discussion on the future of the STFC.

I'm not going to weigh in on the politics of the STFC situation here, mainly because I don't know all the details and know enough people that do that I stand a good chance of being shot down very rapidly.  The biggest problem as I see it is not so much the loss of specific projects (which admittedly for those involved is devestating: imagine being told that your passion for the last 3 years isn't funded so go do something else) but the long lasting damage to our credibility as a scientific nation.

I'm not a big fan of patriotism and its ilk, I consider it a useless if not damaging passion, but I will say that when it comes to large scale projects (some of these projects are huge for example X-fel has 71 universities and institutes listed for authors of its Technical Design Report*) you need to maintain national credibility. It is this national credibility that the UK risks losing by letting down the partners of the 26 projects that we are withdrawing from. Countries won't collaborate with us if they think that we'll cut funding 3 years down the line and that means fewer projects that UK physicists will be able to work on. Ultimately if there is less world-class work for UK physicists they will move to where there is work, either the US (which openly has said they want to import 'the best minds'), within Europe (the support for science in Germany and France is pretty huge) or even further abroad (Japan spends nearly 3% of its GDP on science). Currently the UK has an amazing position scientifically within the global community but we can lose it and then to regain it is a huge cost that I doubt we'll be able to afford, especially when 40% of our GVA follows.

*Incidently x-fel is the project that my PhD work is for and is one of the projects whose central, STFC, funding was cut, luckily this didn't involve the removal of my PhD funding as my university is directly involved with x-fel rather than via the STFC

Tuesday, 9 March 2010

Romanticism 2.0

This post was inspired by an advert, I tend to try and ignore adverts as they have a habit of making me angry this one was exceptional only in the amount of anger produced. The new diesel advertising campaign (seen here on diesel.com or here for the ads themselves on million looks) is simple "Smart does X stupid does Y. Be stupid" (eg "Smart critiques, stupid creates") this annoys me no end. Partly it is because I consider myself smart and like to think of myself as creative but mainly because of the message: "being smart doesn't achieve anything so don't bother, just act on impulse and you'll be wonderful". This is the romantic philosophy writ large and in neon: reject rationalism, thought and technology in order to embrace spontaneity, passion and living as a "noble savage".

There are many things wrong with this not least in that by being smart you don't have to stop being spontaneous or passionate (just think about the typical mad-scientist: there are people like this). While the romantic movement has been gone for a long time it's children are apparently making a huge effort to come back. If it's not Prince Charles saying something stupid (“I was accused once of being the enemy of the Enlightenment, I felt proud of that” via The Times), Diesel adverts (diesel.com), its the Government sacking  people for doing their job (ie being a scientist, via the BBC) or even more simply the rise and rise of woo (homeopathy, or chiropractic for your headache, they're ancient traditions and natural you know!).

There seems to be a growing feeling in the public that intellectuals live in ivory towers and don't connect with 'real' people or their concerns, leaving aside the fact that we are 'real' people with 'real' concerns, we need to combat this. This is not even about bringing science to the masses (itself a concept that is likely to reinforce the ivory tower idea). It's about removing the idea of the geek, the expert and the specialist. In this age of information anyone can be an expert or a specialist (google 'health care' and look at all the so-called "experts"). Just as with all other industries why should academia expect to not have to change its business model with the new age we live in?

We need to move from being repositories of knowledge to gatherers, disseminators and educators on evidence. This is a very important distinction: we need to help lobby, educate and aid people in understanding the evidence that we supply, that they can now access, not just tell them that we have it and that it tells us X. This isn't just limited to science, it needs to encompass everything. People need to be reminded that the geeks, experts, specialists and techies are real people too; that we share their concerns and that we are not people to be feared (or looked down on for having no 'expierence', 'connection to reality' or 'common sense') we are people. People with jobs and hobbies and lives.  We just also happen to be the people who gather and interpret evidence for a job: just like everyone does all the time.

This is the only way we can stop the rising strength of 'Romanticism 2.0': by bringing ourselves back into the fold; by being human again. The alternative is that "intuition", or as it should be known "belief and superstition", will win and we'll all be worse off for it.

Tuesday, 2 March 2010

Today's game: don't annoy CPS; why the twitter-bomb-hoax means I can't say much

Well some of you may be pleased to know I can't really talk about much any more. The reason? well, as explained in this excellent article from JackOfKent in his new bad law column the trial (BBC summary) of Paul Chambers is set to close soon. He's being convicted for posting the following on twitter:
"Crap! Robin Hood Airport is closed. You've got a week... otherwise I'm blowing the airport sky high!"
Now the important part of this is that CPS is not prosecuting him for making a false bomb threat (they admit that there isn't enough evidence that he intended to cause a panic by this) so instead they pressing charges of
"Improper use of public electronic communications network"
Which is an offence for anyone who:
sends by means of a public electronic communications network a message or other matter that is grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character; 
As the Bad Law column points  out this law was intended to stop nuisance callers and their ilk; not to mop up people that have mentioned the word bomb but aren't making a threat.

Now why this concerns me is that while the tweet concerned is threatening, it is still obviously a joke (which is why Paul is not being prosecuted for making bomb threats), so at what point does something stop being a joke and start being threatening (or 'menacing' as the law states)? The following statements are all the latter but are here as examples:
"It would be so easy to inject heavy metals into the air conditioning units at Heathrow poisoning everyone"
"Anthrax is a terrorist's dream substance, it looks just like talcum powder"
Now using the CPS's logic if I now go to an airport (or other public place such as the university I'm currently sitting in) this constitutes a threat. These two statements could just as easily be from a security discussion as threats and while they would have to be taken out of their current context to constitute threats I think it is fairly obvious that this is what has already happened Paul's case.

In fact this could have happened to me recently: I had a trip to Hamburg for a meeting, running late in I put on the first t-shirt to hand before leaving, this t-shirt in fact:

for most of the day I had a coat and hoody but during the inevitable security check I had take them both off which of course revealed my horribly inflammatory t-shirt to a security guard who promptly told me off and that I could get in trouble if I wasn't careful. I didn't realise how close to real trouble I had come, given how the CPS have treated this case I doubt they'd struggle to find some law that made my t-shirt wearing chargeable.

This is a sad case, its set to make a criminal of someone who was understandably frustrated and said something stupid. It shouldn't have escalated at all, let alone to the point where they may set new precedent that anything said electronically while near a possible bomb target (ie anywhere public) no matter what the intention behind it can be treated and charged as a threat.