Cummings makes an impact?

An intriguing and potentially encouraging story was published over at the Research Fortnight website yesterday. It appears that the research councils’ Pathways To Impact process, which mandates academics to consider the broad societal repercussions and applications of their research (beyond its scientific/academic influence) at the grant application stage, is to be imminently discontinued. Here are the opening paragraphs from Sophie Inge‘s article:

UK Research and Innovation has set out plans to scrap separate impact sections from all grant applications as part of a drive to reduce bureaucracy, Research Professional News can reveal.

In an internal memo circulated among senior research council staff this week, seen by Research Professional News, the funder said its executive committee agreed at a meeting in December 2019 to remove the requirement for the Pathways to Impact attachment and Summary Impact Statement from applications submitted through the Je-S system.

I have had significant issues with Pathways To Impact over the years since its introduction (in 2009), as summarised in this post and this Times Higher Education article (among too many other posts and polemics. I was tediously persistent on the impact issue — to the extent that I did not submit grant proposals to the research councils for a number of years — as it cut to the very core of why I became an academic scientist.) As described in that THE article, however, I became somewhat less “militant” about the impact agenda when it was clear that, to the research councils’ credit, commercial application was not the only route to a successful Pathways To Impact case.

I very much share James Wilsdon‘s suspicions in the tweet below that the haste with which the Pathways To Impact requirement is being retired is not entirely unrelated to Dominic Cummings’ oft-voiced commitment to rolling back bureaucracy, especially with regard to science and innovation: no micromanagement [and] bureaucratic cancers treated like the enemy. In many ways this is to be applauded, although I share the concerns of many of my fellow academics that Cummings has a rather reactionary and cliched view of just how science works, as described in this perceptive and incisive post by Dorothy Bishop(Psychology, Oxford). The “lone genius” model, while making for a compelling narrative that resonates with both scientific and non-scientific audiences, is very far from the reality of how the vast majority of scientific advances are made.

The Tucker-esque mythos surrounding Cummings is similarly a less than entirely realistic framing of the man; the breathless sycophancy of the more excitable Tory faithful can often raise a chuckle, as can the theatrical character of some of the Chief Special Advisor’s more “out there” pronouncements. (Uri Geller’s response to Cummings’ call for “weirdos and misfits” was perhaps not quite the calibre of applicant that the great man had in mind.)

But we mock Cummings at our peril;  he’s smart (just not in the sartorial sense (but then, those in glass houses…)), driven, and clearly not averse to doing his homework on the issues with the UK’s science and innovation base. That Cummings had the wherewithal to read and digest Richard Jones’ authoritative and detailed posts on UK science, productivity, and manufacturing — and cite them on more than one occasion — is enough alone to convince me that there’s a willingness to adopt at least a reasonably informed approach to research funding and policy.

This will, of course, be refracted through Cummings’particularly rose-tinted and overly traditional view of scientific progress, but his clear enthusiasm for fundamental curiosity-driven research is certainly going to be welcomed by those of us who have argued for many years for the difficult-to-quantify value of basic science. Quite how Cummings will ensure a balanced approach to funding of applied R&D, industry-academia partnerships, and the type of unfettered exploratory science he champions — and how this might shape UKRI’s funding policies and processes over the next few years — remains to be seen.

And on the subject of balance, while Cummings’ strong case of STEM envy is flattering for us physicists, one upshot of the “Pathways To Impact” process over the last decade has been its contribution to a healthy — if, admittedly, sometimes rather opportunistic — erosion of boundaries between STEM, arts, and humanities disciplines. It would be a great shame if Cummings’ clear preference for maths and physics over an education in the humanities (despite his own 1st class honours degree in Ancient and Modern History) reversed the progress made in bridging that long-standing “two cultures” divide

Diamond Days … and Nights

It’s 6:00 am on Day 5 of our six-day beamtime at the Diamond Light Source and I’m writing to stave off tiredness so I can make it to the breakfast hour*. We’re on Beamline I09 — where we filmed this Sixty Symbols video three years ago — and we’re once again trying to determine just how a water molecule (and, time permitting, HF) rattles around inside a buckminsterfullerene cage.


Pictured above are three of the beamtime team: Sam Jarvis, Oli Gordon, and Joe Hodgkinson. Sam, whose tweet opens this post, is a lecturer at Lancaster, and a relatively seasoned beamtimer — having been a core member of the team three years ago — while Oli and Joe are PhD researchers at Nottingham and it’s their first synchrotron experience. The remaining beamtime team members are David Duncan (one of the IO9 beamline scientists — more of whom below), Rob Jones, and myself. Rob is on the left in this reflection from the surface of the hemispherical electron energy analyser that plays a central role in our experiments… 


Without Rob, it’s safe to say that I09 might never have happened — he was responsible for writing the proposal and leading the working group that coordinated the design and development of the beamline. He is also responsible for major contributions to the development of the X-ray standing wave technique we’re using on I09 — we’re very fortunate indeed to be able to rely on his expertise. 

Diamond is an exceptionally impressive facility. The term “world-class” is often lazily and misleadingly thrown around with wild abandon to describe just about everything under the sun, but Diamond is genuinely, truly world-leading. Part of that is, of course, due to the state-of-the-art instrumentation and infrastructure, but equally important are the Diamond scientists, technicians (thanks, Dave!), and administrative staff; without exceptionally dedicated and talented staff like David Duncan, we simply could not do our experiments. For one thing, finding the “ON” switch in all of this is a challenge…


Quite a bit of my PhD work back in the early nineties was synchrotron-based, carried out at the now defunct Daresbury Synchrotron Radiation Source (which was to be found somewhat further north of where Diamond is now located). Synchrotron radiation has continued to play a big part in my research over the subsequent twenty-five (…gulp) years. In addition to Daresbury and Diamond, we’ve used Max-Lab (Lund, Sweden), ELETTRA (Trieste, Italy), the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility (ESRF, Grenoble, France), and the Australian Synchrotron. What I absolutely love about synchrotron-based work is the “big science” feel of it all; I vividly remember that sense of scientific community when walking into the “experimental hall” at Daresbury for the first time. There’s also a particularly strong camaraderie (both scientific and social) that’s born of conversations in the wee small hours as the experiment progresses in the background.

I’m about to emerge, bleary and groggy-eyed into the outside world… (Let’s just hope that Morgan* isn’t quite as irritating at breakfast this morning.)


* The breakfast in Diamond’s Ridgeway House user hotel is wonderful but I could do without starting/ending my day with Piers “Moron” Morgan (© Private Eye) pontificating in the corner of the room to his “Good Morning Britain” TV audience.


The doctors will see you now…

It’s been a quiet time at the blog of late — trips to Boston, Kanazawa, and, right now, the Diamond Light Source (more of which soon) since the start of the year have kept me away from the WordPress editing page. I had to quickly break radio silence, however, to offer some hearty congratulations to two freshly minted doctors of philosophy, whose PhD viva and/or defence (depending on which side of the pond you fall) were held last week.

I was absolutely delighted to hear, while I was in Japan last week, that both Chris Morley (@ChrisRiffBeard), fellow condensed matter physicist (and, equally importantly, fellow metal fan), pictured below with his PhD supervisor, Mark Fromhold


… and Taleana Huff (fellow scanning probe microscopist and H:Si(100) surface fanatic) passed with flying colours and are now Dr. Morley and Dr. Huff, respectively. Well done, both!


The photo above is of Taleana with her PhD research supervisor, Bob Wolkow, and colleague Roshan Achal — who was awarded his PhD just days before Taleana; congratulations to you too, Roshan! — on the day of Taleana’s defence. (The photo was taken after the defence, as you may have guessed…)

I’ll congratulate Chris in person when I get back to Nottingham at the end of the week, and I’ll meet Taleana — for whose thesis I was external examiner — when I spend two weeks at the University of Alberta in March. I’ll leave you with Bob describing some of the pioneering research that formed just part of Taleana’s thesis…





Neither left nor right, but international environmentalism: Australia reflections part 8

I’m reblogging this compelling post by Jeff Ollerton, Professor of Biodiversity at the University of Northampton. I share Jeff’s immense frustration at the relentless demonisation of “The Other” that not only characterises so much of our political discourse but has come to define how we communicate with each other in general. Not everyone with whom we disagree politically is, as some would have it, a sociopath or a simpleton. It is refreshing to see that Jeff — whose politics, like my own, are very firmly left of centre — foregoes the usual “Boris is a buffoon” sloganeering to remind us that some members of Johnson’s family have strong environmentalist credentials.

As Jeff puts it so well,

“…there are plenty of historical and current examples of rapacious right-wing and left-wing governments, and also examples of such governments being highly pro-active at reducing their country’s environmental impact. The one thing that seems to me to be environmentally damaging is a rigid ideology that is followed through regardless of where it is positioned.”


Jeff Ollerton's Biodiversity Blog

2020-01-13 12.17.33

The NASA Earth Observatory reported this week that “explosive fire activity” has caused smoke from the Australian bushfires to enter the stratosphere and be carried half way around the world.  That smoke is currently creating hazy skies and colourful sunrises and sunsets across South America.  In the coming months the smoke will complete a full circuit and arrive back in Australia, and then continue onwards … for who knows how long?

Nothing I’ve read this week sums up better the fact that the world’s environmental challenges, including climate change, are global in scale and scope.  They therefore require global initiatives to solve.  But as I’ll argue below, equating “green” politics with the left and “anti-environmental” policies with the right is an unhelpful characterisation.

Despite the need for global action, the world’s political landscape seems to be going in the opposite direction.  Inward-looking, right-wing populism is on the rise, and governments…

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