Tag Archives: funding

Occupy RCUK! Or why science funding matters

This first appeared on the Greenpeace EnergyDesk.

Compared to Canada and Australia, Brits might be forgiven for feeling a bit relaxed about the relatively pro-science stance our government seems to take (the odd “flat earth love-in” notwithstanding).

But beware politicians who come baring science scented rhetoric, or at least be ready to ask which bits of science they are so keen on, put to what ends. Because it’s not just the size of the science budget that matters, it’s what you do with it.

See, for example, yesterday’s report from Scientists for Global Responsibility; on how research is being directed towards developing aggressive weapons rather than talking the roots of conflict. Or the University of Manchester’s £64 million deal with BP last year, to explore “Advanced Materials.” Advanced materials which are especially useful for squeezing those hard-to-extract fossil fuels out the ground. Or the big smiles from Cameron and Cable at the Big Bang Fair last spring, as they ushered our nation’s youth towards careers with Shell and BAE Systems, Or when the Natural Environment Research Council, our official body for environmental science, decided to celebrate its ability to help “de-risk”  the activities of oil companies in the polar regions. Whose hopes for our collective future do those bits of science serve? Whose pockets?

Many important debates about how we might best apply scientific energies get obscured by arguments about the need for “pure” research. But put down the spherical physicist (imaginary ideal case that doesn’t exist in real world) because large chunks of science are already being directed. And so they should be.

The idea that at least some scientific work should be focused towards key social challenges informs how we organise science the world over, and has done for as long as we’ve been doing science on a large scale. This doesn’t mean we tell scientists what to find. It just means that, because we believe in science’s power as an engine for change, we think about which direction we point in in. The idea that science should be directed really isn’t – on a policy level – controversial at all. The question is who gets to direct it.

For example, the environmental sciences body NERC has, as its number one strategic goal, “enabling society to respond urgently to global climate change and the increasing pressures on natural resources”. Dealing with climate change is their moonshot; NERC are our people who keep an eye on these things. I for one am glad we invest in some brains on that issue.

Considering this expressed goal, we might be a bit taken aback by a call for expressions of interest to run a new Centre for Doctoral Training in Oil and Gas research which was quietly offered with a very short deadline a few weeks back. A cynic might argue they wanted it to slip out reasonably unnoticed over the summer. We might even possibly wonder if it was delayed so as not to coincide with the Balcolme protests. Because it is a bit suspicious.

Before you get too angry, there is also a DTC in wind funded through the EPSRC (engineering council). But this new centre does seem a bit odd, especially coming from NERC. It’d perhaps be simplistic to say they are using public money to run PhDs in fracking. But they are kind of using public money to do PhDs in fracking. When the BP materials centre was announced last year, the Nature news blog mused that that, as corporate labs wither, industries were looking to campuses to fill their research needs. Similarly, this new centre from NERC does feel a bit like someone, somewhere is taking the piss.

PhDs are important. That’s why research councils are strategising at the level of organising doctorial training centres. DTCs are controversial across academia for this reason – strategy is easily a code for cuts – and there was some fuss when NERC said they’d bring them in. PhDs are a key part of scientific labour in that they do a lot of the actual research, but they also train and make new scientists, so a centre for training like this is designed help encourage more work in an area and strengthen it as a long-term academic field. They are a way to plan the future of science, and with it a way to plan the future of our planet.

It would be understandable if other NERC funded scientists, not to mention the British public at large, asked questions. Who decided this was a good idea? As I’ve argued before, the governance of the research councils are far from open, and that’s a failing in terms of both doing good science and democratic accountability. It’ll be interesting to see the results of the Platform/ People and Planet work on the fossil fuel industry’s involvement in UK universities, but I suspect one of the most interesting results will be what they haven’t been able to find out about.

Unpicking the politics of science funding gets harder still as public research does more and more work with industry (see George Monbiot’s “monstrous proposal”). This issue of collaboration connects to another issue in the structure of science funding we should all be paying a lot more attention to; the move to collaborative funding where it is easier to access public funds if you can also bring some resources from industry. There are lots of advantages to this, but if over-applied, it limits us to research which serves the status quo rather than disrupts it.

Science is one of the places we can find hope when it comes to dealing with climate change. But it’s also, potentially a source of a lot of damage too. Protest camps at sites for possible exploration – as we saw at Balcombe – perhaps show activism moving further upstream than equivalent targets at power stations or airports. But a really forward-thinking protester might want to consider occupying Research Councils UK.

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How science works: follow the money

I’m mainly blogging at the Guardian at the moment. Today I posted a piece on the fossil fuel disinvestment campaign, which has been rolling through  US universities for a while.

In essence, disinvestment is the opposite of investment, inviting people to think about how their money’s being used when they’re not using it themselves. There’s a good Rolling Stone piece from last February if you want a catch-up on how the campaign has taken off in the US, or see the 350 website for more.

As I wrote on the Guardian piece, I suspect UK universities will take broader approach to the ways in which their campus might become “fossil free”, largely because they don’t tend to have such large endowments to invest.

The People and Planet site already has a reasonably impressive list of demands under simply “move their money” including changes in careers advice, a phase-out of fossil fuel research and to demand more research funding on renewables. Recent years have seen growing campaigns to “disarm” universities – e.g. Leeds – not only in terms of shares in arms manufactures, but careers fairs and the money they take for research, which is substantial, as funding from the oil industry can be too.

In some respects, this is less about universities disinvesting, and more the other way around. It’s about preventing particular industries from being able to profit from the resources universities hold; the people we train, the cultural authority we hold and, perhaps above all, the focus of the research we do.

I suspect we’ll see more of these campaigns in the future. In fact, the University of Oxford will see on Thursday. Its Earth Sciences department is launching a new partnership with Shell. Ed Davey, Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, will be there. And activists are planning to meet him.

 

Talking about climate change

future it be now

Future it be now, Vancouver. 

My column for the December edition of Popular Science UK magazine is online (you have to subscribe to read January’s one, on animal testing).

The column first went live just before the Doha climate talks, and focuses on what I see as a lack of government support on communicating climate change. I remembered Mike Shanahan’s blogpost from the year before; asking his readers what their government tells them about climate change and pointing out that in 1992, 200 governments had signed up to keep their citizens informed on this issue. The answer to Shanahan’s question isn’t especially encouraging. As George Monbiot put it in his end of 2012 column, “our leaders treat climate change as a guilty secret”. They shouldn’t. What’s more, we shouldn’t let them.

Here’s an extract of the full piece, or go over to the Popular Science archive to read in full.

Freedom of information requests to the UK’s Department for Energy and Climate Change last July showed that its communications budget has been cut by nearly 95% since it had come into existence in 2008. Yet recent research showed some key gaps in the public interest and knowledge of climate change and a desire for more information. Moreover, as Shanahan asked, is our Government “just producing communications” about climate change (which might feel like alienating PR) or is it engaging its citizens in a conversation? And if not, why not?

All too often, public debate about climate change happens by accident or when someone works to engineer a news event: when there is a political scandal – be this “climategate” of climate scientists or “energygate” exposing politicians – or when activist engineer stunts like flashmobs at the British Museum or living up chimneys for a week. At a recent discussion on communicating uncertainty held at the University of Oxford, climate scientist Myles Allen made the interesting suggestion that the IPCC should stop publishing Assessment Reports, as they serve no useful public communications purpose (Adam Corner has a good report on this event).

Guardian journalist Fiona Harvey replied that she liked these reports because they gave a hook for looking back and discussing everything that had happened in climate science since the last one; “it’s like the Olympics for climate change”. She makes a good point. Except climate change isn’t a sport. Also, it’s not Harvey’s job to communicate climate science; she journalistically reports and investigate it (and sells papers). She should be free to do her job, but climate science doesn’t work to a news cycle, neither does environmental change or what we might change in ourselves to deal with it: climate communications shouldn’t be left to what’s in the news.

I’d like to see the scientific community take greater responsibility for the job of engaging with the public on climate change, and I think the governmental bodies that fund them should do more to support them in this. We invest in scientists to look at climate change in detail, armed with special equipment, knowledge and methods to see it happening – but we need to invest in sharing this knowledge, too. If governments don’t take a more proactive role in helping us see this and think about what we might do about climate change, it’s easy for it to get lost.

Science isn’t just about finding out new knowledge, it’s about sharing it and putting it to use, too. As American writer David Dobbs put it so neatly a few years ago; publishing a scientific paper is only half the job. One might argue it’s even less than half. Arguably, many are on this job already, but not enough and it’s hard work. It requires some attitudinal change in areas of science, as well a range of support – not just financial – from the range of governmental and quasi-non-governmental bodies that surrounds them.

Communicating climate change is the government’s job. They signed up to it and should be taking more of a lead. Government communication on climate science doesn’t have to be top-down. It can be something we take part in. And it can be something we demand too.

Opening up science funding

Keep Science Public – from Science is Vital Rally, Autumn 2010

Adam Smith (no, not that one, or that one, or that one, the science writer one) has a new series of posts for the Guardian on science policy starting today. His first post raises several questions, including who should set the goals for science? Scientists themselves? Or politicians? How might the public be involved in this?

I think we should open up these sorts of questions more to the public. There’s a long history of science communication in the UK, but we tend to focus on the stuff science tells us about the world, not the politics of science itself. Popularisation of scientific ideas is all well and good – sometimes important, sometimes fun, sometimes both – I’m glad we do it. But I want more public debate about the politics and structures of science too. I’d like to live in a society where we have more public debate about the science we could have, not just the science we’ve been given.

Obviously we don’t know what science we’ll have until we try some. The public can’t just present science with a shopping list “vaccine for cancer, anti-baldness pill, spray on cleverness and ever-lasting pollution free fuel, thanks”. Setting the goals of science isn’t about controlling what scientists find, only what they choose to look at and how. This happens already, so I think it should, as much as possible, happen in the open with the public involved. We can’t say what science should find, but we can discuss what challenges science might try to address, what questions it might ask and what we might do with the multiple choices which new technologies provide us (for more on the last of these, see this old post on the history of fridges). You can’t have a referendum on whether the Earth is Flat, but we can have a discussion about whether checking the Earth is flat or not is something we want to be doing.

I suggested more public engagement with science funding at Lord Taverne’s Sense About Science lecture last week (audio). Taverne had joked that the public trust scientists as long as their not funded by industry or the government, and I suggested that maybe then, we needed more public engagment with science funding. Taverne’s response wasn’t especially satisfactory – I wondered if he’d heard me properly – as he seemed to say we might have to give up on public funding of science entirely and rely on the Wellcome Trust. I find that quite depressing. I’m not sure I’m ready to give up of the public funding of science yet, and I stand by the idea that we could try to involve the public in this process (indeed, never know, the latter might help us support the former).

Science policy is very dry. It’s full of a lot of dull discussion about the geekier everyday ends of science and an awful lot of bureaucracy. If I was feeling cynical, I might argue that it suits a fair few policy makers and scientists to keep this debate so dry as a way to keep public scrutiny out. That might be unfair. Still, science funding could actually be one of the most exciting areas of science storytelling, if we let it. A few people have started looking into public engagement projects (The IFR at Norwich, Cobi Smith in Canberra) and research councils increasingly include a range of ‘lay’ members of peer review panels. As I’ve argued before, in terms of upstream science journalism, I think it’d make good stories for science media too.

I’ve always thought that CP Snow line about scientists having the future in their bones was a tad overblown, but there is a truth in there somewhere, and it’s an exciting truth I’d like to share with more people. Deciding our future, as best as we can, shouldn’t be left to the privileged few.