07 December 2014

Science research as a cultural activity with impact

Not all researchers are averse to providing evidence of 'impact', or even to making it happen.

The Nuffield Council on Bioethics has done interesting work on The culture of scientific research in a project that "aimed to explore the effects of a wide range of influences on scientific research, including funding mechanisms, publishing models, career structures and governance processes”.

Surprisingly, the full report of the project give little detail of one of the subjects that evoked interesting observations in the discussion events held “in collaboration with universities around the country to facilitate debate among researchers on this topic”. That missing subject is the impact of research, in particular, the introduction of impact statements in the recent Research Excellence Framework. The Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) carried out REF to benchmark the quality of research and to provide “league tables” that will guide the destination of future funding for research. (Perhaps in a move to provide some light relief, HEFCE plans to issue the results from REF in the week before Christmas.)

One thing that the main Nuffield report covers only in passing is the “impact” bit of REF. The main report itself refers to “high-impact journals” but says little, if anything, on the public engagement side of impact.

The write up of the discussion meetings is more informative on the community’s view of ‘impact’. In general, the academics present, or some of them, seem to have positive views of the engagement stuff. For example, it reports that “some believed strongly that the impact agenda is having a positive influence on science and that impact has contributed to a culture within which scientists are more accountable to the public”.

I was also slightly surprised to read the statement:
“One participant said that scientists should not simply be paid to do whatever they want, echoing views expressed elsewhere that research should be justifiable to tax payers.”
I’ve been saying that for years, but many people in the research community, especially of the older generations, don't like the idea that they should so something 'meaningful' in return for the public money that keeps them off the streets.

The impact thing doesn't even have to change what scientists do. They just have to find ways of describing it in impact terms. As the write up also says:
“Another participant said that impact encouraged scientists to engage more closely with the users of research, who might be patients or professionals of different kinds.”
You just have to be smart enough to recognise that “the definition of impact used in the REF is quite flexible and can accommodate a range of different kinds of impact”. So, do what you always wanted to do, but don't keep it to yourself or bury it away in journals that mean nothing to 99.999 per cent of us.

Another participant made what, to many researchers, might seem like a revolutionary comment:
“researchers are able to exercise some control over the impact of their work, and potentially increase it, by involving research participants and research users early on in their work”.
Don't leave impact to chance, seems to be the message.
 With a whole page in the summary of the discussion events on impact, it is surprising that so little of this input found its way into the main report.

Because it fits in with something else I have been banging on about for years, I also love the observation:
“One speaker described arguing successfully for research that had concluded with a negative result being included in his institution’s impact case studies. This, he had maintained, had had a high degree of impact, in that it prevented a large amount of money being spent on further work pursuing the same line of research.”
I once tried to get a few leading lights in the scientific world to own up to their own research failures. Not a chance, was the response, suggesting that they prefer to be thought of as omniscient rather than human beings who sometimes got things wrong.

Put all of the quotes together, and they suggest a research culture that is changing to reflect the real world. It would be interesting to know how widely these views are held within the research community. Did the Nuffield Council on Bioethics find a few mavericks with heretical views? or is the community really becoming more public friendly?

11 September 2014

Devolution of Scottish R&D?

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A recent writing commission involved talking to a group of researchers in Scotland. They were mostly English ‘immigrants’ working north of the border simply because that is where the work took them. not being Scots, I'd guess that they had little allegiance to the country, although circumstances probably meant that they get to vote in the devolution poll.

Not having sought their permission, I had better not name the research centre they worked in, and ran. But it was obvious that Scotland was not really a natural home for their area of research.

Yes, there were companies nearby that the centre’s R&D fed into, but most of the audience was several hundred miles to the south, in the Midlands. Some local money and academic facilities persuaded the UK government that it wasn’t completely bonkers to set up shop in this northern enclave. But most of the money that keeps the place going comes from London, or rather, the Westminster money machine, in the shape of the Technology Strategy Board (the other TSB), now known as Innovate UK.

What happens if the Scots tell England to sling its hook? The research centre isn’t like to move its facilities back into friendly territory overnight, even though it would have no trouble finding excellent facilities next door to many more of its “customers”, not to mention world class academics. But in the longer term Scotland’s universities and businesses may have difficulties persuading their government to chuck money, whatever the currency, if it has any to spare, at researchers whose activities mostly benefit the enemy down south.

In the longer term, there will be pressure what is left of the UK to repatriate the research, pressure that many of the people who work their may not resist. The centre already has a hard time attracting experienced engineers who don’t want to cross the border. And it will find plenty of the bright young recruits its now relies in universities to the south and west.

Then there is the issue of where to build future generations of industrially oriented R&D centres. Old centres are harder to move. New ones can go anywhere. England isn’t likely to want to put money into Scottish research.

England is full of places that aspire to become the next Cambridge cluster. There is plenty of competition to ensure that the research and innovation that now makes Silicon Glen a global power house does not all end up in Silicon Fen.

For example, there is talk of a new National Institute for Materials Research and Innovation in the north of England. This is part of a general move on the part of the UK government to make up for past misdemeanours and to ensure that research spending is more evenly spread across the country. An independent Scotland isn’t likely to feature in such largesse. It can’t even guarantee to get a European contribution until it has completed what look like being long and complicated negotiations to persuade Brussels to let it join the club.

Nothing will happen immediately, but examples like this show why so many research in Scotland, many of whom are not Scottish, fear for their future. Not that this will carry any weight with Alex Salmond and his fellow secessionists. They just want to give the English a bloody nose because they feel like it. Sadly, if Salmond’s “Yes men” win, it could be sustained knockout blow to Scotland’s own research.

11 February 2014

Plain madness keeps #flooding in

You know that the world has gone bonkers when the Secretary of State for Defence is sent along to defend the government’s response to the recent floods on the Today programme on Radio 4 this morning. The Secretary of State for Defence and Flooding rightly questioned the practice of building on floodplains. Then a Tory MP, Nick Herbert, went into the studio and complained about “foul water” sloshing around the place and plans to build houses on places at risk of flooding in his constituency.

The best bit was yet to come. Today then invited John Stewart of the Home Builders Federation to defend the industry’s position. The discussion then descended into real lunacy in his “don’t blame us guv” stance.

Mr Stewart’s defence started with an explanation of what builders do about water running off of the places where they put new homes. No one, he insisted, had built houses in unsuitable places. The builders all had planning permission and they all had to install SUstainable Drainage Systems (SUDS) to ensure that their new developments did not contribute to local flooding.

So far so good, but then the fun began. In any case, Mr Stewart continued, it wasn’t the houses that caused all that flooding. “I suspect that the water comes from somewhere else, not from the new housing itself”, he told to James Naughtie. Mr Stewart didn’t just say it once, he repeated this strange assertion.

After you have picked yourself up off the floor, the immediate response is to ask which bit of the word “floodplain” doesn’t Mr Stewart understand. Flood or plain? Of course the water came “from somewhere else”. (And no, not just the sky.) That’s what a floodplain does. It is somewhere for water to sit until it feels the urge to move on.

Stand on many a floodplain in England and look around you. What do you see? Here in Sussex the view often takes in the South Downs, a rather nice range of hills that we walk as often as possible, rain permitting. Guess what, Mr Stewart, water runs off those hills. Where does it go? Into the flat bits at the bottom. These are floodplains, places where water hangs about until a nearby stream or river has emptied out enough to carry away the water.

The water that floods those houses might even come from that river. Rivers do not have infinite water carrying capacity, as they know on the Somerset Levels. Shove too much water into a river and it may well overflow on to the floodplain.

Here is what the Foresight report Future Flooding has to say on the subject:

“Nearly 2 million properties in floodplains along rivers, estuaries and coasts in the UK are potentially at risk of river or coastal flooding.”
If Mr Stewart’s understanding of earth sciences reflects that in the rest of the building world, heaven help us. The one consolation is that he is Director of Economic Affairs at the Home Builders Federation, “The voice of the home building industry”. With any luck the HBF can also call upon people with some understanding of hydrology.

10 February 2014

Floods of ignorance in Whitehall

A decade ago, a high powered panel of experts spent near on two years thinking about flooding in the UK and the possible impacts of climate change. Somehow all their work seems to have escaped the attention of today’s politicians as they run around blaming everyone but themselves for the floods that have brought large parts of the UK to a halt. Politicians can’t stop the rain, but they can implement policies that build on facts rather than knee-jerk reactions.


In a couple of months, there will be an opportunity to “celebrate” the tenth anniversary of one of the first reports from the government’s revived Foresight programme. The Department of Trade and Industry, forerunner of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS), issued the Foresight Future Flooding report, also known as Foresight project Flood and Coastal Defence.

The piles of paper that came out of this work are deeply familiar. Late in the day, the many people writing it decided that they needed some help in making the words "politician friendly" and internally consistent in their style. They roped me in for what turned out to be an enlightening week ensconced in the basement of 1 Victoria Street as we worked our way through various drafts.

Ostensibly a look “30 to 100 years ahead”, the Foresight project's various reports have many lessons that oafs like Eric Pickles might care to reflect on in the gaps between their attempts to garner photo opportunities and to pass the buck for the fiasco surrounding the current wave of flooding in the UK. That effort would teach him and his boss that the main factors in determining the effects of flooding on the UK are not what they get up to at the Environment Agency, but the policy decisions made in departments throughout Whitehall and in town halls across the breadth of the land.

The Foresight project looked at a set of future scenarios that depended on, as the press release put it, “factors such as climate change, GDP growth, economic development and government structure”. The press release goes on to warn that “In each scenario, if flood management policies remain unchanged, the risk of flooding increases significantly, and the damage could be very costly. Under the most extreme scenario, annual cost of damages could increase 20-fold from the current level.”

Pickles and his colleagues can find the detailed reports on the on the BIS website and the Project outputs. There they will read that this was no back-of-the-envelope project but was “comprehensive and drew upon a team of nearly 90 leading experts in the UK, working over 18 months.

So much for the background, what would these headless chicken find in the reports? In the Executive Summary they will read “The numbers of properties at high risk of localised flooding could typically increase four-fold under the four future scenarios.” Then they will read “The number of people at high risk from river and coastal flooding could increase from 1.6 million today, to between 2.3 and 3.6 million by the 2080s.”

In other words, floods will affect more people and places. No, then, the best time to be reducing funding for flood research and management.

Research? Don’t we know enough already? Not really. as the experts behind the report say one of their key findings “is the inadequacy of present tools in modelling and predicting intra-urban flooding”.

Let’s just pick a few more bits from the report that seem to have fallen on deaf ears over the past decade:
“new developments and weak planning controls on the types, densities and numbers of new buildings could also increase risk.”
And yet the Environment Agency says that it has no idea if the local councils that approve planning applications, or the central government agencies that ‘referee’ the process, heed its advice. How many of the houses under water today went up contrary to the agency’s advice?
Another bit of the summary says:
“Environmental regulations – could be risk-neutral or could affect flood pathways by constraining maintenance and flood-risk management along rivers, estuaries and coasts, thereby raising risk. This argues for an integrated approach to decisions on flood management and environmental regulation in order to achieve multiple benefits for people and nature.”
Has this happened? Or have we seen yet more disconnected policy making, where the Department for Communities and Local Government, Pickles’s fiefdom, does its thing without bothering to consult the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs?
How about the bit where the report talks about rural land management and says:
“a recent major study showed that there is substantial evidence that current land-management practices have led to increased surface runoff at the local scale”.
Did the farmers on the Somerset Levels do anything to alleviate, or compound, this risk? Or did they just sit on their hands expecting the Environment Agency to dredge channels deep enough and wide enough to accommodate more rain than has dumped itself on the area in many centuries?

The report gets really interesting when it gets round to discussing aims for future flood management. We have three options, accept increasing risk of flooding, try to maintain the risk at current levels, of set out to reduce the risk of flooding. The middle road might seem to be the most reasonable, but as the report says society “expects increasing standards of safety and risk reduction”. The point here is that there is little discussion between politicians, or in the media, about this choice. They all scream “something must be done”. But what?

That’s just one of many points that you can glean from a close reading of the reports from this project. The pity is that so little seems to have happened in the decade since it appeared.

As Sir David King, the government’s Chief Scientific Adviser at the time of the exercise, said “we must either invest more in sustainable approaches to flood and coastal management or learn to live with increased flooding”. Not much sign of any of that. Spending has gone down and there is little apparent appetite for living with flooding.

The executive summary itself says:
“If an effective way forward is to use the realignment of defences, retreat or even abandonment of some areas, then the sooner long-term plans are in place, the easier it would be for those affected to divest assets with minimum negative impact.”
Here too there is little sign of progress over the past decade.

Perhaps the 10th anniversary of this major study would be a good opportunity to convene a meeting of experts and politicians to revisit the main findings of these reports and to see if they can come up with better responses than running around pointing fingers on all directions.

22 August 2013

Manchester does the business with #graphene

Not much has been happen to graphene in these dog days of summer, when all sane journalists go to earth. With few politicians to run around making daft statements, and much of Europe shut down, publications have a hard time finding anything serious to write about. One consequence of the silly season is that, just as Friday is a good day to bury news during normal times, August is a fine time to put out stuff that you don’t really want trumpeted to the heavens.

Can this really be why the University of Manchester chose the holiday season to trickle out the news that it has "appointed a Business Development and Strategy Director for graphene to attract some of the world’s biggest companies to partner with the National Graphene Institute”?

This is, after all, the university that gives lab space to none other than Andre Geim, “inventor” and cheerleader for graphene, and the man who,  a week or so before the latest announcements, said in a programme on BBC Radio 4 that the taxpayer funded his research, so he felt no great urge to patent his work or to rush to make money out of it. (The BBC also gave air time to Geim’s ideas in a recent Radio 4 Profile of the frog levitating Nobel laureate.) If the taxpayer backed him, Geim argued, then he owes it to society to publish what he does openly for anyone to develop as they see fit.

Perhaps it is just the conspiracy theorist in us that looks for ulterior motives behind the absence of Geim’s name in Manchester’s announcement that Nathan Hill, another lapsed physicist, is to be Business Development and Strategy Director. (It can be hard to tell these days if those capital letters deliberate, and a job title, or sloppy editing.) The press release tells us that the appointment “marks a pivotal phase in the engineering and commercial development of graphene as an industrial material”.

Hill certainly has done time in a business that grew out of university research. He worked at Oxford Instruments “where, as a Managing Director, he worked on thin film and bulk superconductors and semiconductor materials and devices”, all good grounding for work on graphene. Over on the website of another of Hill’s businesses, Qi3, with a focus on “providing hands-on expertise in all aspects of marketing technology-based products, from strategy to implementation”, we read that his skills “are in sales, sales management, product marketing, strategic portfolio management, acquisitions and general management in export markets”.

Those skills probably explain why Manchester reeled him in. The job there seems to be to bring in businesses to work with the local researchers. Hill’s first job there, we read, “will be to set up a graphene Industry Club and a number of strategic partnerships with major companies”. At a strategic level, the job will be “focus on strategy and business development for the £61m National Graphene Institute”.

These days governments throw money like that at research in the expectation of a payback. They don't invest in research for its own sake. There has to be impact, as they tirelessly proclaim. So there has to be someone in there countering the woolly minded liberal thinking of all those scientists who do research fore the fun of it and for the greater good of mankind, rather than for the money that they could make out of it.