“Some down-to-earth blue sky thinking”

“… a dangerous convergence proceeds apace 

as human beings confer life on machines and

in so doing diminish themselves. 

Your calculus may be greater than his calculus 

but will it pass the Sullenberger Hudson river test?”

from “Insulting Machines”, Mike Cooley

(Published in AI and Society 28 373 (2013))

Last week, I listened to some of the most thought-provoking — and occasionally unsettling — presentations and discussions that I’ve encountered throughout my academic career. On Tuesday, I attended, and participated in, the 2019 Responsible Research and Innovation Conference (organised by Nottingham’s Graduate School and the Institute for Science and Society), while on Wednesday the School of Physics and Astronomy hosted the British Pugwash Ethical Science half-day conference:

More on both of these soon. But before I describe just why I found those conferences as affecting as I did, I wanted to highlight last Monday’s session for the Politics, Perception, and Philosophy of Physics (PPP) module. This was the first of this year’s PPP sessions where the students were given free rein to contribute via debate and discussion, and both Omar Almaini (the co-convenor of PPP) and myself were exceptionally impressed by their thoughtful and spirited contributions. (The first three sessions of PPP are in the traditional lecture format. Sessions 4 – 11 are much more akin to the seminar style that is common in arts and humanities disciplines but is very much not the norm in physics courses.)

I have always found the clichés surrounding the STEM vs arts & humanities divide extremely tiresome, and it’s a delight when our students demolish the lazy stereotypes regarding the supposed lack of communication skills of physicists. (Similarly, one of the invited speakers for PPP this year, the sociologist Harry Collins, has shown that social scientists can perform comparably to – or even better than — physicists when it comes to answering physics questions. See “Sociologist Fools Physics Judges” (Nature, 2006) for compelling evidence. More from (and about) Prof. Collins in future posts…)

The title of last Monday’s PPP session was “The Appliance (and non-applicance) of Science” and the slides are embedded below. (Those of you who, like myself, are of a certain vintage might recognise the tag line of the title.)


The students drove an hour-long discussion that initially focussed on the two questions given on Slide #3 of the PowerPoint file above but rapidly diverged to cover key related points such as science comms, public engagement, hostility to expertise, and political polarisation. The discussion could have extended much beyond an hour — there were still hands being raised after we’d been in the seminar room for 90 minutes. As is traditional for PPP, I noted down students’ points and questions on the whiteboard as the discussion proceeded. Here are just two of the eight whiteboards’ worth of material…



(The remainder of the slides are available at the PPP website.)

In case you can’t read my appalling hand-writing, one of the first points raised by the students was the following:

“Curiosity is more than a valid reason to fund research” 

This view kicked off a lot of discussion, culminating in the polar opposite view expressed at the bottom of the whiteboard summary below: “What’s the point of funding anything other than global warming research?”


“Humanity came and destroyed the world”

The theme of the PPP session last Monday was chosen to align with the Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI2019) and Ethical Science conferences on the following days. This post would be 10,000 words long if I attempted to cover all of the key messages stemming from these conferences so I’ll focus on just a few highlights (out of very many). This story, by Dimitris Papadopoulos‘ daughter, was a sobering introduction to the motivations and agenda of RRI2019…

Dimitris was a driving force behind the organisation of RRI2019 (alongside colleagues in the Graduate School) and in his presentation he highlighted key aspects of the RRI framework that would recur time and again throughout the day: generational responsibility; designing for the future;  the realisation that what we create often has a lifespan far beyond our own; “the burden is not on the individual researcher” but we are collectively changing the planet.

He also stressed that, in his view, the primary task of science is not just to understand.

In the context of RRI I have a great deal of sympathy with Dimitris’ stance on this latter point. But I also found it rather unsettling because science that is as disinterested as possible and focussed solely on understanding the nature of the world/universe around us has to be a component of the research “landscape”, not least because, time and again throughout history, curiosity-driven science has led to truly disruptive innovations. (Some to the immense benefit of humanity; others less so, admittedly.) Moreover, we need to be exceptionally careful to retain the disinterested character of pure scientific research when it comes to ensuring public trust in just what we do — an issue to which I returned in another RRI2019 session (see below).

Prof. Sarah Sharples, PVC for Diversity, Equality, and Inclusion, was next to speak and made powerful and pointed arguments that senior university (and, indeed, University) management, politicians, and funding bodies of all stripes need to take on board: look beyond simplistic metrics and league tables when it comes to assessing what it means for research to be successful. Sarah highlighted the importance of unintended consequences, particularly when it comes to the ironies of automation; clinical care, in particular, is not just about recording numbers and data.


Pete Licence, Professor of Chemistry and Director of The GlaxoSmithKline Carbon Neutral Laboratory, continued on the theme of being wary and cognisant of the possibility and potential of unintended consequences, but stressed that sometimes those consequences can be much more positive than we could have ever anticipated. Pete described his collaboration with a number of Ethiopian scientists, which has radically changed both his and their approach to not just the science but the economics associated with green chemistry. He also echoed Sarah Sharples’ key point on the matter of ensuring that we never lose sight of the humanity behind the metrics and tick-boxes: too many lenses mean that, paradoxically, we can often lose focus…

Maybe, Minister?

The RRI conference then split into parallel sessions. This unfortunately meant that I couldn’t go along to the Society and Responsibility discussion — which I was keen to attend (not least because my friend and colleague Brigitte Nerlich was a member of the panel) – as I was participating in the Responsibility in Research and Policy session happening at the same time, alongside Chris Sims (Head of Global Policy Impact at UoN and the Chair and organiser of the session), Steven Hill (Director of Research at Research England, and formerly Head of Policy at HEFCE), and Richard Masterman, UoN’s Associate PVC for Research Strategy and Performance. (All-male panels are never a good look but, in the organisers’ defence, the panel was not initially male only — the original speaker, Dr. Karen Salt (Director of the Centre for Research in Race and Rights at UoN), unfortunately couldn’t make it — and the parallel Society and Responsibility session involved an all-female panel.)

Steven and I have debated and discussed the issues surrounding HEFCE’s, and the research councils’, approach to research impact on a number of occasions — some more heated than others — over the years. (I was very pleased to find that we seem to have converged (give or take) on the middle ground after all these years.) After Chris framed the key themes of the panel discussion, we each had approximately ten mins to make our case. Steven’s ccontribution focussed on the core issue of just how research should (or should not) inform policy and just what RRI should look like in that “space”.

The trade-offs and tensions between researchers and politicians were a core theme of Steven’s argument. To a scientist, the answer to any question is invariably “More research is needed”; a politican, on the other hand, ideally has to make a decision, sometimes urgently, on the basis of the evidence at hand. And the last thing they want to be told is that more research is needed. This was also the resounding message I got at Westminster when I participated (along with my Physics & Astronomy colleague Clare Burrage) in the Royal Society’s MP-Scientist scheme back in 2013: science really is not as far up the pecking order as we scientists might like. For this reason, I enthusiastically recommend Chris Tyler‘s illuminating “Top 20 things scientists need to know about policy-making” to the PPP class every year.

Steven mentioned Roger Pielke Jr’s “honest broker” concept — whereby scientists should be entirely disinterested, fully objective reporters of “The Truth” (however that might be defined) when interacting with politicians and policy. In other words, any tendency towards activism — i.e. promoting a particular (geo)political standpoint — should be avoided entirely. I have major qualms with Pielke’s thesis but Ken Rice (aka “…And Then There’s Physics“) has dealt with these much more comprehensively and eloquently than I could ever manage.

I was also put in mind, on more than one occasion during Steven’s presentation, of “The Thick Of It” clip below (which also features in the PPP course each year. Apologies for the audio quality.)

Richard then outlined the University of Nottingham’s views on the policy-research interface, before I presented the following [1]:


The ensuing discussion amongst the panel members, with a lively Q&A from the floor, touched on many of the same points that had been raised during the PPP session the day before: the disinterestedness of research, basic vs applied science, polarisation in politics, trust in scientists (and other professions), the commercialisation of academic research (which was the subject of a particularly pointed question from Jane Calvert in the audience – more on whom below), and balancing public, political, academic, and commercial drivers.

Synthetic Aesthetics and The Wickedness of Global Challenges

In the first session after lunch, the aforementioned Prof. Calvert, of the School of Social and Political Science at Edinburgh, presented an enthralling keynote lecture entitled Responsible Innovation and Experimental Collaboration, in which se described her adventures in synthetic biology, with a particular focus on cross-disciplinary interactions between artists, scientists (of both the social and life variety), and designers.


A particularly fascinating aspect of Prof. Calvert’s talk was the description of her work on the Synthetic Aesthetics project, from which a book (among many other “outputs”) has stemmed. I’ll quote directly from the blurb for the book because it captures the core message of Jane’s talk:

In this book, synthetic biologists, artists, designers, and social scientists investigate synthetic biology and design. After chapters that introduce the science and set the terms of the discussion, the book follows six boundary-crossing collaborations between artists and designers and synthetic biologists from around the world, helping us understand what it might mean to ‘design nature.’ These collaborations have resulted in biological computers that calculate form; speculative packaging that builds its own contents; algae that feeds on circuit boards; and a sampling of human cheeses. They raise intriguing questions about the scientific process, the delegation of creativity, our relationship to designed matter, and, the importance of critical engagement. Should these projects be considered art, design, synthetic biology, or something else altogether?

I have a long-standing interest in the interface between the arts and the sciences — see, for example, The Silent Poetry of Paint Drying, and these posts — so was fascinated by the interweaving of function, form, and, errmm, fungi in the Synthetic Aesthetics project…


The second post-lunch keynote was from Prof. Phil McNaghten (Wageningen University & Research (WUR), Netherlands), whose work with Matthew Kearnes and James Wilsdon on the ESRC-funded “Governing At The Nanoscale: People, Policies, and Emerging Technologies” project (published in this Demos pamphlet) was more than partly responsible for sparking my nascent interest in the sociology of (nano)science and technology more than a decade ago. Phil’s talk at RRI2019 focussed on how RRI was embedded in practice and policy at the local (WUR), national (EPSRC), and international (Brazil, which is enduring vicious cuts to its science budget) levels.

The Sounds of (Responsible) Salesmen…

I unfortunately only caught the last fifteen minutes or so of the Molecules and Microbes parallel session — chaired by Pete Licence and featuring Prof Steve Howdle (Chemistry, Nottingham), Prof Liz Sockett & Dr Jess Tyson (Life Sciences, Nottingham), and Prof Panos Soultanas (Chemistry, Nottingham) — and so can’t really comment in detail. Panos’ impassioned plea for support for basic, curiosity-driven science certainly resonated, although I can’t say I entirely agreed with his suggestion that irresponsible research wasn’t an issue. (I may have misinterpreted what he meant, however — I didn’t catch all of his presentation.)

The closing plenary was expertly chaired by Dr. Alison Mohr, who introduced, in turn, Dr. Eleanor Kershaw (Synthetic Biology Centre, UoN), Prof. Richard Jones (Physics, University of Sheffield (and erstwhile PVC for Research and Innovation there), and Prof. Martyn Poliakoff. I have known Richard for over fifteen years and have always enjoyed his informed and engaging takes on everything from nanotechnology to transhumanism to the UK’s productivity crisis, via a variety of talks I’ve attended and his blog, Soft Machines. (I also had the pleasure of spending a week at an EPSRC sandpit back in 2007 that was coordinated and steered — in so far as it’s possible to steer a room-full of academics — by Prof. Jones.)

In his plenary, Richard stressed the “scientist as responsible salesman” theme that he has put forward previously (as one of many dimensions of responsibility.) For a characteristically comprehensive analysis of responsible innovation (and irresponsible stagnation), I thoroughly recommend this Soft Machines post.

Martyn Poliakoff brought the conference to a close in his ever-engaging and inimitable style, with a compelling vision of what he and his colleagues have described as a Moore’s law for chemistry,

… namely that over a given period, say five years, sustainable chemists should strive to reduce the amount of a chemical needed to produce a given effect by a factor of two and this process should be repeated for a number of cycles. The key will be to make the whole concept, especially the economics, work for everyone which will require a change in business model for the chemicals market.

[Quote taken from A New Approach to Sustainability: A Moore’s Law for Chemistry, M. Poliakoff, P. Licence, and M. George, Angew. Chem. Int. Ed. 57 12590 (2018)]

“Remember your humanity, and forget the rest.”

Although the word Pugwash has an alternative “resonance” for many of us kids of the sixties/seventies, the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs, and the subsequent International Student/Young Pugwash movement, take their name from the town in Nova Scotia, Canada where Joseph Roblat and Bertrand Russell established, in 1957, the international organisation to bring together scientists and public figures to address global security, armed conflict, and the threat of weapons of mass destruction (including, in particular, nuclear warfare). The Pugwash conferences were initiated two years after the Russell-Einstein manifesto was issued, which in turn stemmed from Russell’s deep fears about atomic weapons:

The prospect for the human race is sombre beyond all precedent. Mankind are faced with a clear-cut alternative: either we shall all perish, or we shall have to acquire some slight degree of common sense. A great deal of new political thinking will be necessary if utter disaster is to be averted.

Jo(seph) Roblat was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1995 “for efforts to diminish the part played by nuclear arms in international affairs and, in the longer run, to eliminate such arms.” 

I have organised a number of joint events with British Pugwash — more specifically, with Andrew Gibson, the British Pugwash Student Manager — over the last few years, including a PPP seminar given back in Nov. 2016 by Prof. John Finney (UCL), Pugwash Trustee, and a tireless advocate for the organisation. Alongside Peter Jenkins, Chair of British Pugwash, John kicked off the Ethical Science conference at Nottingham last Wednesday with a fascinating account of the history of Pugwash and, in particular, Jo Rotblat’s inspiring life.


Dr. Ian Crossland then discussed the ethics and intergenerational issues surrounding nuclear power, followed by a stirring presentation by Sam Harris, climate activist and Nottingham Trent Labour Society’s campaigns officer, on Labour’s Green New Deal.

LauraNolan.pngA  particular highlight of not just the Pugwash conference but of all of last weeks’ events was Laura Nolan‘s remarkable presentation, delivered with tons of energy and passion. (I try to avoid the p-word, given that it’s an obnoxiously lazy cliche, but in this case it is more than justified.) Laura, a Trinity College Dublin computer science graduate, resigned from Google, where she was a software engineer, in 2017 after she was asked to work on a project whose focus was the enhancement of US miltary drone technology. Laura’s story is recounted in this important Guardian article. (See also this interview.) The quote below, from that article, captures the issues that Laura covered in her talk at the Pugwash conference.

“If you are testing a machine that is making its own decisions about the world around it then it has to be in real time. Besides, how do you train a system that runs solely on software how to detect subtle human behaviour or discern the difference between hunters and insurgents? How does the killing machine out there on its own flying about distinguish between the 18-year-old combatant and the 18-year-old who is hunting for rabbits?

Anuradha Damale — currently of Verification Research, Training and Information Centre, and a fellow physicist — had a tough act to follow but she delivered a great talk with quite some aplomb, despite having lost her voice! Anuradha covered the troublesome issue of nuclear weapons verification programmes, and despite the lack of vocal volume, participated in a lively Q&A session with Laura following their talks.

I’m going to close this post with the source of its title: “Down-to-earth blue sky thinking”. The inspiring video embedded below was shown by Tony Simpson — who also discussed Mike Cooley’s pioneering work on the influence of technology on society (and whose prose poem, “Insulting Machines“, is quoted above) — during the closing presentation of the Pugwash conference.

I’ve waffled on for much too long at this point. Let’s hear instead from those whose actions spoke so much louder than words…



[1] It’s unfortunately not clear from the embedded SlideShare widget of the slides but I cited (and quoted from) this influential blog post when crediting Gemma Derrick and Paul Benneworth with coining the “grimpact” term.

Author: Philip Moriarty

Physicist. Metal fan. Father of three. Step-dad to be. Substantially worse half to my fiancée Lori, whose patience with my Spinal Tap obsession goes to far beyond 11...

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