Bullshit and Beyond: From Chopra to Peterson

Harry G Frankfurt‘s On Bullshit is a modern classic. He highlights the style-over-substance tenor of the most fragrant and flagrant bullshit, arguing that

It is impossible for someone to lie unless he thinks he knows the truth. Producing bullshit requires no such conviction. A person who lies is thereby responding to the truth, and he is to that extent respectful of it. When an honest man speaks, he says
only what he believes to be true; and for the liar, it is correspondingly indispensable that he considers his statements to be false. For the bullshitter, however, all these bets are off: he is neither on the side of the true nor on the side of the false. His eye
is not on the facts at all, as the eyes of the honest man and of the liar are, except insofar as they may be pertinent to his interest in getting away with what he says. He does not care whether the things he says describe reality correctly. He just picks them out, or makes them up, to suit his purpose.

In other words, the bullshitter doesn’t care about the validity or rigour of their arguments. They are much more concerned with being persuasive. One aspect of BS that doesn’t quite get the attention it deserves in Frankfurt’s essay, however, is that special blend of obscurantism and vacuity that is the hallmark of three world-leading bullshitters of our time:  Deepak Chopra, Karen Barad (see my colleague Brigitte Nerlich’s important discussion of Barad’s wilfully impenetrable language here), and Jordan Peterson. In a talk for the University of Nottingham Agnostic, Secularist, and Humanist Society last night (see here for the blurb/advert), I focussed on the intriguing parallels between their writing and oratory. Here’s the video of the talk.

Thanks to UNASH for the invitation. I’ve not included the lengthy Q&A that followed (because I stupidly didn’t ask for permission to film audience members’ questions). I’m hoping that some discussion and debate might ensue in the comments section below. If you do dive in, try not to bullshit too much…

 

 

LIYSF 2018: Science Without Borders*

Better the pride that resides
In a citizen of the world
Than the pride that divides
When a colourful rag is unfurled

From Territories. Track 5 of Rush’s Power Windows (1985). Lyrics: Neil Peart.


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Last night I had the immense pleasure and privilege of giving a plenary lecture for the London International Youth Science Forum. 2018 marks the 60th annual forum, a two-week event that brings together 500 students (aged 16 – 21) from, this year, seventy different countries…

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The history of the forum is fascinating. Embarrassingly, until I received the invitation to speak I was unaware of the LIYSF’s impressive and exciting efforts over many decades to foster and promote, in parallel, science education and international connections. The “science is global” message is at the core of the Forum’s ethos, as described at the LIYSF website:

The London International Youth Science Forum was the brainchild of the late Philip S Green. In the aftermath of the Second World War an organisation was founded in Europe by representatives from Denmark, Czech Republic, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom in an effort to overcome the animosity resulting from the war. Plans were made to set up group home-to-home exchanges between schools and communities in European countries. This functioned with considerable success and in 1959 Philip Green decided to provide a coordinated programme for groups from half a dozen European countries and, following the belief that ‘out of like interests the strongest friendships grow.’ He based the programme on science.

The printed programme for LIYSF 2018 includes a message from the Prime Minster…

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It’s a great shame that the PM’s message above doesn’t mention at all LIYSF’s work in breaking down borders and barriers between scientists in different countries since its inception in 1959. But given that her government and her political party have been responsible for driving the appalling isolationism and, in its worst excesses, xenophobia of Brexit, it’s not at all surprising that she might want to gloss over that aspect of the Forum…

The other slightly irksome aspect of May’s message, and something I attempted to counter during the lecture last night, is the focus on “demand for STEM skills”, as if non-STEM subjects were somehow of intrinsically less value. Yes, I appreciate that it’s a science forum, and, yes, I appreciate that the LIYSF students are largely focussed on careers in science and engineering. But we need to encourage a greater appreciation of the value of non-STEM subjects. I, for one, was torn between opting to do an English or a physics degree at university. As I’ve banged on about previously, the A-level system frustratingly tends to exacerbate this artificial “two cultures” divide between STEM subjects and the arts and humanities. We need science and maths. And we need economics, philosophy, sociology, English lit, history, geography, modern (and not-so-modern) languages…

The arrogance of a certain breed of STEM student (or researcher or lecturer) who thinks that the ability to do complicated maths is the pinnacle of intellectual achievement also helps to drive this wedge between the disciplines. And yet those particular students, accomplished though they may well be in vector calculus, contour integration, and/or solving partial differential equations, often flounder completely when asked to write five-hundred words that are reasonably engaging and/or entertaining.

Borders and boundaries, be they national or disciplinary, encourage small-minded, insular thinking. Encouragingly, there was none of that on display last night. After the hour-long lecture, I was blown away, time and again, by the intelligent, perceptive, and, at times, provocative (in a very good way!) questions from the LIYSF students. After an hour and half of questions, security had to kick us out of the theatre because it was time to lock up.

Clare Elwell, who visited Nottingham last year to give a fascinating and inspirational Masterclass lecture on her ground-breaking research for our Physics & Astronomy students, is the President of the LIYSF. It’s no exaggeration to say that the impact of the LIYSF on Clare’s future, when she attended as a student, was immense. I’ll let Clare explain:

 I know how impactful and inspiring these experiences can be, as I attended the Forum myself as a student over thirty years ago. It was here that I was first introduced to Medical Physics – an area of science which I have pursued as a career ever since. Importantly, the Forum also opened my eyes to the power of collaboration and communication across scientific disciplines and national borders to address global challenges — something which has formed a key element of my journey in science, and which the world needs now more than ever.

(That quote is also taken from the LIYSF 2018 Programme.)

My lecture was entitled “Bit from It: Manipulating matter bond by bond”“. A number of students asked whether I’d make the slides available, which, of course, is my pleasure (via that preceding link). In addition, some students asked about the physics underpinning the “atomic force macroscope [1]” (and the parallels with its atomic force microscope counterpart) that I used as a demonstration in the talk:

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(Yes, the coffee is indeed an integral component of the experimental set-up [2]).

Unfortunately, due to the size of the theatre only a small number of the students could really see the ‘guts’ of the “macroscope”. I’m therefore going to write a dedicated post in the not-too-distant future on just how it works, its connections to atomic force microscopy, and its much more advanced sibling the LEGOscope (the result of a third year undergraduate project carried out by two very talented students).

The LIYSF is a huge undertaking and it’s driven by the hard work and dedication of a wonderful team of people. I’ve got to say a big thank you to those of that team I met last night and who made my time at LIYSF so very memorable: Director Richard Myhill for the invitation (and Clare (Elwell) for the recommendation) and for sorting out all of the logistics of my visit; Sam Thomas and Simran Mohnani, Programme Liaison; Rhia Patel and Vilius Uksas, Engagement Manager and Videographer, respectively. (It’s Vilius you can see with the camera pointed in my direction in the photo at the top there.); Victoria Sciandro (Deputy Host. Victoria also had the task of summarising my characteristically rambling lecture before the Q&A session started and did an exceptional job, given the incoherence of the source material); and James, whose surname I’ve embarrassingly forgotten but who was responsible for all of the audio-video requirements, the sound and the lighting. He did an exceptional job. Thank you, James. (I really hope I’ve not forgotten anyone. If I have, my sincere apologies.)

Although this was my first time at the LIYSF, I sincerely hope it won’t be my last. It was a genuinely inspiring experience to spend time with such enthusiastic and engaging students. The future of science is in safe hands.

We opened the post with Rush. So let’s bring things full circle and close with that Toronto trio… [3]


* “Science Without Borders” is also the name of the agency that funds the PhD research of Filipe Junquiera in the Nottingham Nanoscience Group. As this blog post on Filipe’s journey to Nottingham describes, he’s certainly crossed borders.

[1] Thanks to my colleague Chris Mellor for coining the “atomic force macroscope” term.

[2] It’s not. (The tiresome literal-mindedness of some online never ceases to amaze me. Best to be safe than sorry.)

[3] Great to be asked a question from the floor by a fellow Rush fan last night. And he was Canadian to boot!

In Praise of ‘Small Astronomy’

My colleague and friend, Mike Merrifield, wrote the following thought-provoking post, recently featured at the University of Nottingham blog. I’m reposting it here at “Symptoms…” because although I’m not an astronomer, Mike’s points regarding big vs small science are also pertinent to my field of research: condensed matter physics/ nanoscience. Small research teams have made huge contributions in these areas over the years; many of the pioneering, ground-breaking advances in single atom/molecule imaging and manipulation have come from teams of no more than three or four researchers. Yet there’s a frustrating and troublesome mindset — especially among those who hold the purse strings at universities and funding bodies — that “small science” is outmoded and so last century. Much better to spend funding on huge multi-investigator teams with associated shiny new research institutes, apparently.

That’s enough from me. Over to Mike…


A number of years back, I had the great privilege of interviewing the Dutch astronomer Adriaan Blaauw for a TV programme.  He must have been well into his eighties at the time, but was still cycling into work every day at the University of Leiden, and had fascinating stories to tell about the very literal perils of trying to undertake astronomical research under Nazi occupation; the early days of the European Southern Observatory (ESO) of which he was one of the founding figures; and his involvement with the Hipparcos satellite, which had just finished gathering data on the exact positions of a million stars to map out the structure of the Milky Way.

When the camera stopped rolling and we were exchanging wind-down pleasantries, I was taken aback when Professor Blaauw suddenly launched into a passionate critique of big science projects like the very one we had been discussing.  He was very concerned that astronomy had lost its way, and rather than thinking in any depth about what new experiments we should be doing, we kept simply pursuing more and more data.  His view was that all we would do with data sets like that produced by Hipparcos would be to skim off the cream and then turn our attention to the next bigger and better mission rather than investing the time and effort needed to exploit these data properly.  With technology advancing at such a rapid pace, this pressure will always be there – why work hard for many months to optimise the exploitation of this year’s high-performance computers, when next year’s will be able to do the same task as a trivial computation?  Indeed, the Hipparcos catalogue of a million stars is even now in the process of being superseded by the Gaia mission making even higher quality measurements of a billion stars.

Of course there are two sides to this argument.  Some science simply requires the biggest and the best.  Particle physicists, for example, need ever-larger machines to explore higher energy regimes to probe new areas of fundamental physics.  And some results can only be obtained through the collection of huge amounts of data to find the rare phenomena that are buried in such an avalanche, and to build up statistics to a point where conclusions become definitive.  This approach has worked very well in astronomy, where collaborations such as the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS) have brought together thousands of researchers to work on projects on a scale that none could undertake individually.  Such projects have also democratized research in that although the data from surveys such as SDSS are initially reserved for the participants who have helped pay for the projects, the proprietary period is usually quite short so the data are available to anyone in the World with internet access to explore and publish their own findings.

Unfortunately, there is a huge price to pay for these data riches. First, there is definitely some truth in Blaauw’s critique, with astronomers behaving increasingly like magpies, drawn to the shiniest bauble in the newest, biggest data set.  This tendency is amplified by the funding of research, where the short proprietary period on such data means that those who are “on the team” have a cast iron case as to why their grant should be funded this round, because by next round anyone in the World could have done the analysis.  And of course by the time the next funding round comes along there is a new array of time-limited projects that will continue to squeeze out any smaller programmes or exploitation of older data.

But there are other problems that are potentially even more damaging to this whole scientific enterprise.  There is a real danger that we simply stop thinking.  If you ask astronomers what they would do with a large allocation of telescope time, most would probably say they would do a survey larger than any other.  It is, after all, a safe option: all those results that were right at the edge of statistical significance will be confirmed (or refuted) by ten times as much data, so we know we will get interesting results.  But is it really the best use of the telescope?  Could we learn more by targeting observations to many much more specific questions, each of which requires a relatively modest investment of time?  This concern also touches on the wider philosophical question of the “right” way to do science.  With a big survey, the temptation is always to correlate umpteen properties of the data with umpteen others until something interesting pops out, then try to explain it.  This a posteriori approach is fraught with difficulty, as making enough plots will always turn up a correlation, and it is then always possible to reverse engineer an explanation for what you have found.  Science progresses in a much more robust (and satisfying) way when the idea comes first, followed by thinking of an experiment that is explicitly targeted to test the hypothesis, and then the thrill of discovering that the Universe behaves as you had predicted (or not!) when you analyse the results of the test.

Finally, and perhaps most damagingly, we are turning out an entire generation of new astronomers who have only ever worked on mining such big data sets.  As PhD students, they will have been small cogs in the massive machines that drive these big surveys forward, so the chances of them having their names associated with any exciting results are rather small – not unreasonably, those who may have invested most of a career in getting the survey off the ground will feel they have first call on any such headlines.  The students will also have never seen a project all the way through from first idea on the back of a beer mat through telescope proposals, observations, analysis, write-up and publication.  Without that overview of the scientific process on the modest scale of a PhD project, they will surely be ill prepared for taking on leadership roles on bigger projects further down the line.

I suppose it all comes down to a question of balance: there are some scientific results that would simply be forever inaccessible without large-scale surveys, but we have to somehow protect the smaller-scale operations that can produce some of the most innovative results, while also helping to keep the whole endeavour on track.  At the moment, we seem to be very far from that balance point, and are instead playing out Adriaan Blaauw’s nightmare.

Politics. Perception. Philosophy. And Physics.

Today is the start of the new academic year at the University of Nottingham (UoN) and, as ever, it crept up on me and then leapt out with a fulsome “Gotcha”. Summer flies by so very quickly. I’ll be meeting my new 1st year tutees this afternoon to sort out when we’re going to have tutorials and, of course, to get to know them. One of the great things about the academic life is watching tutees progress over the course of their degree from that first “getting to know each other” meeting to when they graduate.

The UoN has introduced a considerable number of changes to the “student experience” of late via its Project Transform process. I’ve vented my spleen about this previously but it’s a subject to which I’ll be returning in the coming weeks because Transform says an awful lot about the state of modern universities.

For now, I’m preparing for a module entitled “The Politics, Perception and Philosophy of Physics” (F34PPP) that I run in the autumn semester. This is a somewhat untraditional physics module because, for one thing, it’s almost entirely devoid of mathematics. I thoroughly enjoy  F34PPP each year (despite this amathematical heresy) because of the engagement and enthusiasm of the students. The module is very much based on their contributions — I am more of a mediator than a lecturer.

STEM students are sometimes criticised (usually by Simon Jenkins) for having poorly developed communication skills. This is an especially irritating stereotype in the context of the PPP module, where I have been deeply impressed by the quality of the writing the students submit. As I discuss in the video below (an  overview of the module), I’m not alone in recognising this: articles submitted as F34PPP coursework have been published in Physics World, the flagship magazine of the Institute of Physics.

 

In the video I note that my intention is to upload a weekly video for each session of the module. I’m going to do my utmost to keep this promise and, moreover, to accompany each of those videos with a short(ish) blog post. (But, to cover my back, I’ll just note in advance that the best laid schemes gang aft agley…)

How universities incentivise academics to short-change the public

Euro Money Coins Loose Change Specie CurrencyThis is going to be a short post (for a change). First, you should read this by David Colquhoun. I’ll wait until you get back. (You should sign the petition as well while you’re over there).

In his usual down-to-earth and incisive style, Colquhoun has said just about everything that needs to be said about the shocking mismanagement of King’s College London.

So why am I writing this post? Well, it’s because KCL is far from alone in using annual grant income as a metric for staff assessment – the practice is rife across the UK higher education sector. For example, the guidance for performance review at Nottingham contains this as one of the assessment standards: “Sustained research income equal to/in excess of Russell Group average for the discipline group”. Nottingham is not going out on a limb here – our Russell Group ‘competitors’ have similar aspirations for their staff.

What’s wrong with that you might ask? Surely it’s your job as an academic to secure research income?

No. My job as an academic is to do high-quality research. Not to ‘secure research income’. It’s all too easy to forget this, particularly as a new lecturer when you’re trying to get a research group established and gain a foothold on the career ladder. (And as a less-new lecturer attempting to tick the boxes for promotion. And as a grizzled old academic aiming to establish ‘critical mass’ on the national or international research ‘stage’.)

What’s particularly galling, however, is that the annual grant income metric is not normalised to any measure of productivity or quality. So it says nothing about value for money. Time and time again we’re told by the Coalition that in these times of economic austerity, the public sector will have to “do more with less”. That we must maximise efficiency. And yet academics are driven by university management to maximise the amount of funding they can secure from the public pot.

Cost effectiveness doesn’t enter the equation. Literally.

Consider this. A lecturer recently appointed to a UK physics department, Dr. Frugal, secures a modest grant from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council for, say, £200k. She works hard for three years with a sole PhD student and publishes two outstanding papers that revolutionise her field.

Her colleague down the corridor, Prof. Cash, secures a grant for £4M and publishes two solid, but rather less outstanding, papers.

Who is the more cost-effective? Which research project represents better value for money for the taxpayer?

…and which academic will be under greater pressure from management to secure more research income from the public purse?

Image: Coins, the acquistion of which is not university departments’ main aim. Credit: https://www.maxpixel.net/Golden-Gold-Riches-Treasure-Rich-Coins-Bounty-1637722

The laws of physics are undemocratic

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Yesterday saw the start of the Circling the Square conference at the University of Nottingham. This is a rather unusual meeting which has the lofty aim of bringing together social scientists, those in the arts and humanities, policy ‘wonks’ (for want of a better term), science communicators, and natural scientists (including physicists, of course) to discuss the various interconnected aspects of research, politics, media, and impact.

As one of the conference organisers, I was delighted that the first day featured fascinating keynote lectures, lively discussion, and a rather heated exchange amongst panellists (more on this below). In the afternoon, two of the UK’s most successful science bloggers, David Colquhoun and physicsfocus’s own Athene Donald, gave their thoughts and opinions on the role of new and old media in science communication, debating and discussing the issues with the other panel members – Felicity Mellor and Jon Turney – and a number of contributors from the floor. Andrew Williams’ media keynote lecture preceded the “Researchers facing the media” panel session and was full of important and troublesome insights into just how science can be distorted (for good or bad) through the lens of the media.

But it was the first panel session of the conference, on the science-policy interface, that got me somewhat hot under the collar. (Well, OK, I was wearing a t-shirt so perhaps this isn’t the best metaphor…). That’s because that particular panel provided a telling insight into the gulf that still exists between natural and social scientists when it comes to the interpretation and contextual underpinnings of scientific data. Until we find a way to reconcile views spanning this gulf then we’re going to continue to exist in our silos, as two distinct cultures, arguably even more divided within the sciences than CP Snow could ever have envisaged for our separation from the arts and humanities.

The panel featured a ‘robust’ exchange of views – if you’ll excuse my borrowing of a hoary old euphemism – on the interpretation of scientific data and just how it is used to inform political debate and decisions. Chris Tyler, of the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology, forcefully put forward his view that we can never consider scientific results in isolation from the political process. Sheila Jasanoff, Professor of Science and Technology Studies at Harvard, had earlier made very similar comments in the light of engaging presentations made by Daniele Fanelli and Beth Taylor on the interface between scientific research and policymaking. The overall tone of the debate is perhaps best summed up in this tweet from Roger Pielke (who is also speaking at the conference today in the “Challenging Established Science” panel):

Fanelli made an impassioned argument countering the idea that scientific evidence must always be considered in the context of its political framing. His comments certainly resonated with me, and I’d be rather surprised if what he said didn’t also strike a chord with the other physical/life scientists in the audience. We spend our lives aiming to do experiments in as disinterested a fashion as possible. It therefore rankles to be told that objective – and I use that word unashamedly – scientific evidence is nothing more than opinion.

For my colleagues in sociology and science and technology studies, I should stress that I am not for one second suggesting that scientists are immune to social biases. John Ziman, physicist-turned-sociologist, rightly disparaged the idea that scientists are always disinterested seekers of the truth, describing it as “the Legend”. Nor am I suggesting that data interpretation is not part and parcel of the scientific method (as Neuroskeptic argues convincingly).

The discussion yesterday, however, dangerously strayed very close at times to the ‘cultural relativism’ that was so successfully lampooned by Alan Sokal back in the nineties. Yes, scientific evidence must be considered as just one element – and, unfortunately, it’s often a very small element – of the political process. It would be naïve, at best, to argue otherwise. But the entire rationale for scientific research is underpinned by the understanding that we, as scientists, should always aim to put aside those socio-political and cultural biases. Otherwise, objective scientific evidence is reduced to pure opinion. Newton’s laws of motion, E=mc2, the Schrödinger equation, the speed of light, and the first and second laws of thermodynamics are not culturally or politically determined. Those same laws are just as valid for a race of small blue furry creatures from Alpha Centauri as they are for us.

Or, as Sokal famously put it,

“…anyone who believes that the laws of physics are mere social conventions is invited to try transgressing those conventions from the windows of my apartment. (I live on the twenty-first floor.)”

Image: The Shard in London, currently the European Union’s tallest building and a prime location to test the idea that the laws of gravity are merely an opinion. Credit: https://www.maxpixel.net/Skyscraper-Shard-Architecture-London-Landmark-949752 

The spirit-crushing impact of impact

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A couple of years ago I contributed a chapter entitled “Science as a Public Good” to a book called A Manifesto for the Public University, edited by John Holmwood, a colleague in the School of Sociology and Social Policy here in Nottingham. As a prelude to the following diatribe   cri de coeur reasoned dissection of the impact agenda, here’s the opening paragraph from that chapter (you can read both the chapter and, indeed, the entire book, for free via the preceding links):

“I have a confession to make. It’s a difficult admission in the current funding climate for academics in the UK, but here it is: I am a scientist. Not an engineer. Not a technologist. And certainly not an entrepreneur. I pursue basic research into fundamental questions about the properties of matter on a variety of different length scales (ranging, in my case, from sub-atomic to sub-millimetre dimensions), in common with a very large number of my colleagues working in the physical and life sciences in British universities. Whether or not this research can be translated into a marketable product, exploited as profitable intellectual property (IP), or applied in technology is not what motivates me. My motivation, again in common with the majority of academic scientists in the UK,1 lies in improving our understanding of nature, generating (not protecting) new knowledge, and disseminating my findings to other scientists, students and society at large.”

Clare Burrage, a Royal Society University Fellow in the Particle Theory Group at Nottingham – and, as I mentioned in yesterday’s post, a fellow participant in the Royal Society MP-Scientist pairing scheme – managed to distil the essence of the paragraph above into a pithy one-sentence question following a presentation by Alexandra Saxon, Head of Research Council UK’s Strategy Unit, in Westminster on Tuesday afternoon this week.

Before I reveal Clare’s question, here’s a slide which is wholly representative of the content of Alexandra’s talk:

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The entire focus of the RCUK presentation was on engagement with business and industry. (It’s worth noting that this was given to a room-full of scientists). Fundamental science that didn’t link to some aspect of commercialisation or direct socioeconomic impact didn’t get a look-in.

Clare’s question following the presentation neatly summed up the feelings of quite a few in the room. I had to struggle to maintain my usual dignified silence (*cough*) and not cheer out loud when Clare asked this:

“I’m a researcher working on theoretical particle physics – where do I fit in?”

To be fair to Alexandra, she, along with a number of other RCUK representatives, regularly faces the music in front of crowds of academics and it is to her, and her colleagues’, immense credit that there is a strong willingness to engage with disgruntled academics. It’s a shame, however, that the willingness to interact with rank-and-file academics sometimes isn’t quite as evident further up the chain of the RCUK hierarchy. The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, for example, has recently had its wrist slapped about failures to consult sufficiently with academics about its policies (but, again to its credit, has implemented policy changes to deal with this criticism).

Alexandra’s talk was certainly not the first time the spectre of impact reared its head during the days we spent in Westminster. The previous day’s panel featuring Robert Winston, Alan Malcolm, and Chris Tyler amongst others, also touched on the subject of the impact agenda.

I’ve heard the justifications as to why academics should embrace the impact agenda, including those offered by Robert Winston and Alexandra Saxon, countless times before. Let’s take a look at the five most common reasons used to incentivise scientists about impact:

1. Without the impact agenda, the science budget would have been cut dramatically – the flat-cash settlement we have ‘enjoyed’ over the last few years would not have been possible. Anti-impact sentiment threatens the science budget.

First, there is a very troublesome aspect of this argument which suggests that academics should keep their heads well below the parapet and just be happy that they have been protected from the vicious spending cuts imposed across the rest of the public sector. I’ve previously described this as a supine position to adopt, and, without wanting to open old wounds, I remain of that opinion. If academics see problems with just how the research councils distribute funding then it is highly questionable to suggest that they should put those concerns to one side so as not to affect the funding flow. Whatever happened to the traditional university role of speaking truth to power?

The broader point, however, is that expecting academics, regardless of their discipline, to describe the socioeconomic impact of their work in advance of the research project being carried out is antithetical to the exploratory nature of fundamental research. As the University of Nottingham put it in a response to a consultation on the introduction of economic impact criteria into the peer review process back in 2007:

“[This] appears to fly in the face of the purpose of “research” within universities … could stifle highly imaginative, original and creative work, or lead to dubious, often irrefutable, claims in many areas of science – especially fundamental/“blue skies” research.

(Sorry to be so parochial – you can find very similar statements from Cambridge and Glasgow, for example, in the chapter from A Manifesto for the Public University linked to above).

Moreover, why is asking academics to fill in a Pathways to Impact statement (and, for EPSRC, an account of National Importance) at the proposal stage, i.e. prior to starting a research project, the best way to demonstrate the socioeconomic impact of research to government?

2. You’re a publicly funded academic. You can’t just stay in your ivory tower – you have to think about the societal impact of your work.

If there’s one justification for the impact agenda that really gets my goat and grinds my gears, it’s this one. The impact agenda, for the reasons detailed in that chapter from AMPU, was not introduced because the research councils/HEFCE/government suddenly became extremely concerned that not enough academics were engaging with the public. It was introduced as a direct response to a series of government reports on the need to change the culture in university departments so as to make academia more responsive to business and industry needs.

I, along with a significant majority of my colleagues, am intensely aware of my obligations as a publicly funded academic, and spend a significant amount of time on public engagement and outreach. For example, when I finish writing this I’m boarding a train to Loughborough to give a talk to a school there on the relationship between rock music and quantum physics. (I’ll also not pass up this opportunity to plug Brady Haran’s channels, and Sixty Symbols in particular).

One can also very easily make the counter-argument that, by incentivising academics to interact closely with business and industry, the disinterested and independent qualities of academic research are being progressively eroded. That is, the impact agenda, like many aspects of the coalition government’s policies is not about improving the public good character of university science at all: it’s about making the public sector responsive to private business.

I am, of course, not for one minute suggesting that all academic-industry collaborations are compromised by the need to improve the company’s bottom line. Nonetheless, there are some shocking examples of where academic research has been distorted badly due to commercial pressures. I referred yesterday to the tagline of George Monbiot’s recent article: “Government policy in Britain, Canada and Australia is crushing academic integrity on behalf of corporate power”. The impact agenda certainly doesn’t help to bolster the integrity of academic research in the face of commercial pressures.

3. The government expects a return on its investment in university research.

Richard Jones, PVC for Research and Innovation at the University of Sheffield, has pointed out that the key reason why there is intense pressure on UK academics to demonstrate the impact of their work is that private sector investment in R&D in the UK (as a percentage of GDP) heavily lags behind that of other OECD nations. Thus, academia is expected to pick up the slack for this lack of investment from the private sector.

The key thing here is that fundamental scientific research is but one component of a highly complex innovation ecosystem. Although the motivation for academics to carry out basic, so-called curiosity-driven science is very often not the economic impact of the work – we instead are focussed on understanding fundamental aspects of nature – it is clear that the most disruptive innovations are exceptionally unlikely to stem from work which is focused on near-market impact. In this sense, by progressively skewing the research base towards commercial, near-market R&D, the total return on government investment may well be damaged, not enhanced.

Expecting academics to handle all aspects of the innovation system – from fundamental research to manufacturing and “product to market” – is in any case an exceptionally naïve strategy. Andre Geim pointed out in the Guardian earlier this week that perhaps the government should look somewhere other than the universities when apportioning blame for the so-called “valley of death” between fundamental research and commercial exploration. Jones has made this argument convincingly for quite some time.

Moreover, an exceptionally important – arguably, the most important – contribution to the return on investment for government spending on university science is the “human capital” we produce. David Willetts clearly recognised this when he spoke of the “absorptive capacity” of our society and innovation systems shortly after the Coalition government came to power.

4. “But it’s not all about economic impact – public engagement is impact as well.”

It is laudable that the research councils recognise that public engagement and outreach are essential components of the impact agenda. Why then do RCUK representatives focus so heavily on links with business and industry? In the talk on Tuesday – and this is true of very many other talks from research council representatives I’ve seen – lip service, at best, is paid to the remarkably inspiring fundamental science stemming from UK academia. Geim and Novoselov’s Nobel prize-winning discovery of graphene – and the government’s investment in commercialisation of the carbon wunderkind – are regularly highlighted without mention that graphene stemmed not from the impact agenda or directed programmes of the type to which EPSRC is now fully committed, but from exploratory, curiosity-driven fundamental science with no commercial application in mind.

One could also ask why, if EPSRC, for example, is so committed to public engagement, it no longer has a dedicated budget to fund public engagement projects.

5. “We’re just as committed to fundamental science as we ever were”

Lilian Greenwood, the MP with whom Clare Burrage and myself are paired in the Royal Society scheme, asked an excellent question of David Willetts yesterday morning during the Business, Innovation, and Skills questions session:

“Does the Minister agree that investing in fundamental research is vital to inspire the next generation of scientists and engineers and to create conditions for the serendipitous discoveries of the future?”

David Willetts responded:

I completely agree with the Honourable Lady, which is why the Government support fundamental research. Only last week I went to the launch of £250 million of public money for centres of doctoral training run by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council”

Similarly, research council and HEFCE representatives repeatedly claim that there has been no change in their support of fundamental research.

The key question here is just what is meant by fundamental research. It is interesting that each and every one of the new Centres for Doctoral Training to which Willetts refers has industrial partners (as compared to 50% of CDTs involving industrial collaboration in the previous round). Moreover, there was a very strong steer from EPSRC that those CDTs should have training programmes “co-created” with industry. One might reasonably ask just what Mr. Willetts, BIS, RCUK, and HEFCE understand by the term “fundamental research”.

As I’ve also harped on about previously, it is rather difficult to understand RCUK’s commitment to fundamental research when the #1 tip in its Top Ten list of tips on how to complete a grant application is “Draft the impact summary very early in your preparation, so that it informs the design of your research”. That’s a great piece of advice if you’re writing a proposal to do applied, near-market research, or R&D for a company. It’s certainly not how fundamental science proceeds. Indeed, one could credibly argue that it’s a distortion of the scientific method.

This has been a long (but cathartic!) post, for which my apologies. I would like to close by stating that I’m aware that a lot of what I’ve written above could prompt strong responses. I would welcome the opportunity to debate these issues in the comments section below. Given RCUK’s and HEFCE’s commitment to public accountability in all areas of research, comments from research/funding council representatives would be particularly welcome.

Image: The molecular structure of graphene. The “wonder material” was discovered from curiosity-driven fundamental science without a commercial application in mind. Credit: Dr Thomas Szkopek