Friday, 6 December 2013

Addendum & woo!

So, in my extensive recent post about the Royal Society Pairing Scheme, I totally forgot the most active talk of Tuesday, in which we had a speaker from RCUK.  Suffice to say, the assembled researchers were very interested in funding policy and there were some vociferous comments from the less applied end of the spectrum about the impact agenda.  From my part, I don't mind having to talk about my "impact", even if it is nebulous, but I do sort of worry that specialisation of funding (e.g. to particular applied areas, but the argument works in general) will lead to the UK abandoning swathes of research to concentrate on areas that prescient civil servants or ministers have predicted will be the key areas and we will therefore drive brilliant people away and go on a one way path to a second-class science nation.  As pointed out in the first talk on Tuesday, we are second in the world in several measures on science research.  I don't think we can or should make conscious decisions to abandon research areas given that. 

Anyway... I really wanted to post now to point out that a paper written by my PhD student combining results from his MPhys and PhD days has just been published.  The paper also includes another MPhys placement student, who is currently working out at Yale University in the USA.  The paper is "gold" open access, which I should probably blog about separately, but for now, enjoy the paper!

Royal Society Pairing Scheme Days 2 & 3

I posted about taking part in the Royal Society pairing scheme I'm taking part in after the first day on Monday.  The week continued with a day of talks and discussions on Tuesday, followed by some time shadowing my paired civil servant on Thursday.  Wednesday was, in principle, another shadowing day, but I'd had a long-standing funding panel meeting that day, which I wanted to keep.

While Monday's talks were more concerned with science in Parliament, Tuesday's were about science in Government - i.e. that section of parliament which is currently in power, along with the various departments (DECC, BIS, DfT and so on...).  Unfortunately I took notes on my laptop whose power supply has since died, and until I replace it the notes are only so many inaccessible magnetised domains.  However, my short-term memory has not yet entirely failed, and I'll attempt to recall what I can.

Tuesday kicked off with a talk by Jill Rutter, of the Institute for Government, which is a think tank promoting better government.  She is their programme director, and has much experience as a civil servant.  She started off commenting on the dearth of people with science backgrounds at the very top of the civil service, as highlighted on this slide.  She went on to discuss various structures in government in which science plays a role.  The theme was reiterated from yesterday that scientists should remember that in a democracy, non-scientific, non-evidence-based outcomes may prevail, and went on to give what to me was a rather extreme view - that the advice of scientists should be limited to their very narrow specialism and they shouldn't attempt to do anything but pass on this expertise with whatever context is necessary to enable decisions to be made.  What I found a bit much was her explicit suggestion that because they are experts in x, they don't know a thing about y.  I rather think people in general, and expertise in particular, is not so black and white.  We are always being told (correctly, I think) that physicists learn all sorts of transferable skills that they can apply to other situations.  The same is true of other disciplines.  Oh well.  I think she certainly did have a point that scientists should be a sort of honest broker, and do thier utmost not to deliberately steer the policy maker to the scientist's single favoured outcome.  There may be all sorts of partial solutions that would work in a compromise between competing sides.  We also learned about the Commons Science and Technology Committee, whose constitution is shown in the slide attached to this post.  I hadn't realised the suprise inclusion.

The second talk I think highlighted why should not ignore the opinions of people unless it is in their narrow area of expertise;  David MacKay gave a characteristically iconoclastic talk about his role as the Chief Scientific Advisor to DECC.  He highlighted some of the activities he's been involved in, his push to make data and processes completely open (with mixed results) and made lots of interesting comments.  The one that stuck with me was that, to turn the message of their being so few scientists in Westmister on its head, he pointed out that being one of the few scientists can give one disproportionate influence.  

The third talk was about Horizon Scanning (our usual world of academic jargon was replaced  by one of wonkese).  I'm not sure that I got too much out of that one, except to know that the government keeps its eye on potential long-term changes to the world in general that might require science input to think about what to do about them.

After lunch, we had a quick "top ten tips for academics" talk by Chris Fleming from GO-Science.  I wrote them all done on my currently dormant laptop, so can't reproduce them all  here.  But they're all sort of obvious things.  Perhaps one to highlight and record here is the one that (paraphrased) reads don't give up.  This is in the context of trying to give scientific input to a government process.  If you don't succeed in getting your voice heard, or if it is heard but ignored, don't let it stop you trying again.  Probably good advice, there.

There was then a gap of something over an hour before a scheduled all-group optional pub visit to mark the end of the activities we'd be doing all together.  I was going to go into the spectators' gallery of the house of commons, but the organisers, probably sensibly, just decided to move the pub visit forward.  So I went there, and enjoyed talking to some of the other participants in the pairing scheme.  That included another participant from my institution.  I didn't feel too bad about not recognising her since she only started a few weeks ago.

And so to supper and bed.

Wednesday found me taking part in a Nuclear Physics Grant Panel meeting for STFC from the comfort of my office, and some videoconferencing software, then going out with my other half, our daughter and my mum for my partner's birthday for lunch, then to buy a new (though old) car to replace the one that the garage said wasn't worth repairing, then to my partner's Dad's place for dinner, before I returned to mine to prepare for an early start.

That early start involved me getting a lift to the workplace of the civil servant I was paired with.  He works at the Centre for Applied Science and Technology near St Albans.  I got a pretty exhaustive tour of the activities they are involved with, which is basically anything that the police and Home Office need science input for.  Examples include police body armour, license place recognition, CCTV image processing and so on.  It was all interesting stuff, and I enjoyed talking to my pair and his colleagues.  On the other hand it is the sort of place I have visited many times when visiting our students out on placement, so I do feel I'd have learned a lot more if I had been paired with an MP.  Still, I think i got a lot out of the week in general.  

I attended the final talk of the week, at the Royal Society, which summarised some of the work the Royal Society do, particularly in linking with government.  I'm not sure I learned too much, being pretty familiar with the RS, but I think the event was more organised to get us all back together for an informal chat over coffee before the end of the week.  

So - that's it.  Probably too long a blog post, but I might bring up other things as they come to me in following posts.  There will certainly be more to write about when my paired civil servant makes his return visit to Surrey, and when I go to the wrap-up (followed by piss-up) session at the Royal Society in January

Monday, 2 December 2013

Royal Society Pairing Scheme Day 1

I set my alarm for 6 this morning to awake in the hotel in the Strand that the Royal Society was putting me up in to finish assembling and writing the paperwork for the Period Review of our physics programmes at the University of Surrey, sent it off and breathed a sigh of relief.  I headed downstairs to the pretty good breakfast buffet, where I had the habitual breakfast that I have when I'm in hotels, though I would rarely do so at home.  This one was good.  The stuff sitting in the hotplates seemed fresh.  There was fried bread and sautéed potatoes, though no veggie sausages.  There was a nice selection of fresh fruit, too.  The hotel also had a stash of newspapers for guests to take.  No Independent, but at least the Guardian.  

Still, I suppose the day was not about the breakfast.  In the hotel lobby I bumped into a bunch of the other participants and we went off together to the Palace of Westminster to begin our day with a guided tour.  It was fun.  I've been there before, to some receptions - mostly organised by the Institute of Physics together with MPs - but never to much of it, including the actual house of commons and house of lords chambers.  That was pretty neat.  They are much smaller than you'd expect.  Well, much smaller than I expected.  

When we were through with the tour, someone commented on how much I looked like Benedict Cumberbatch, and then it was time to go to Portcullis House (right next to the houses of parliament) to a series of events interspersed with coffee and lunch breaks. 

I more or less immediately found the civil servant I was paired with as part of the scheme.  Though I thought I hadn't heard of the branch of the civil service that he worked for (CAST), it turned out that I had. It used to be called the Police Scientific Development Branch (PSDB) and we have sent some students on placement there before.  I'm going to be shadowing him on Thursday, which will involve going to St Albans, but today, we both took part in the series of sessions which consisted of a series of talks with some panel sessions with questions from the audience.  I tried to make sure I asked questions, partly to find out the answers, but also to make sure I engaged... 

Well, there were lots of talks and corresponding panels.  It started with an overview of Parliament from a speaker from the Hansard Society.  I had never heard of the Hansard Society, only knowing of Hansard in the context of the records of parliament, but they exist to promote our variety of parliamentary democracy as a good thing.  It was interesting in the sense that part of the reason that I signed up to the scheme was to understand more about how parliament in general works.

This session was followed by one in which previous people taking part gave a talk about what they made of it and giving advice to us as to what to get out of it.  Clearly some of the previous participants got a lot out of it, and we started with an academic from Loughborough and her MP, Nicky Morgan (who made a point of recommending Mark Henderson's Geek Manifesto to read) who clearly developed a good relationship out of the scheme.  It did make me (and perhaps my shadowing partner, as we discussed later) feel that I was potentially missing out on the benefits of the scheme by not being paired with someone much actually linked with parliament.  Still, interesting talks, and gave me things to think about to make sure I do get the most out of the event.

The last session was a series of people talking about the role of science in parliament.  It was chaired by the director of POST - the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology.  This was a fine series of wonks, and I learned a lot about the role of science in parliament, limited as it is.

There were many interesting questions asked and answered afterwards, and one could have a long debate about many of them.  Perhaps Lord Winston provided most of the answers and opinions that would have provided most fodder for debate if there were really time.  I don't really have time tonight to explore things before going to bed and going back for more tomorrow, but I took the salutary lesson from some of the panelists that parliamentarians really have no obligation to take scientific evidence as the only or main basis for their deliberations.  Parliamentary democracy is not about doing what scientists say is right.  While we might wish to persuade people that a scientific way of looking at things is a good idea, it is not the default position.  In a democracy, if enough people prefer non-scientific ways of looking at things, we should engage with them on a basis of respect rather than look down at them.  Obvious, but salutary words.

Sunday, 1 December 2013

Royal Society Pairing Scheme Day Zero

I'm in London, staying in the smallest room in the Strand Palace Hotel (see the picture, in which I think it's pretty clear that my room, highlighted in yellow, is the smallest one).  I'm here as a precursor to taking part in the Royal Society scheme in which scientists (me, included) get paired up with MPs or civil servants for the scientists to see what goes in in government.  The reverse swap takes place a bit later.

The formal start of the event is tomorrow, but to kick things off, the scientist participants had dinner together tonight at a restaurant on the Strand.  It got off to a bad start, when I found that there was some spilt milk on my chair, but only found out by sitting in it.  I didn't cry over it, but did spend the first minutes of the dinner sponging myself in the toilet.  Well, it all went okay after the milky countermanding.  I enjoyed chatting to the epidemiologist from Guy's Hospital who sat opposite me, and the electronic engineer from Manchester next to me.  We talked about all sorts of things, mostly about academic things like the funding situation in each of our areas, and had the sort of fun that only a slew of scientists can have in a chain Italian restaurant.  

Amusingly, I was asked if I had a brother who was an actor.  The answer, of course, is yes, but the questioner really just used the question as a way to introduce the fact that he thinks I look like a particular actor.  It's been a while...