“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…

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(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?”

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“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.

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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.

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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…

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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.

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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.

The Wiki Watchkeepers

There is now an English Wikipedia page — agus as Gaelige — for me, courtesy of the considerable time, effort, patience, and diligence of Fangda Mei, who graduated from the University of Nottingham with a 1st class honours degree in Physics with Theoretical Physics (in 2018) and is currently an MSc student at the University of Cambridge.

Getting the Wiki page online turned out to involve a lot of work for Fangda and I wanted to thank him publicly — well, given the narrow reach of Symptoms, perhaps not that publicly — via this post. Thank you so very much, Fangda! I am extremely grateful for, and humbled by, your efforts.

Fangda had previous Wiki entries he’d written about me rejected on the grounds of my lack of notability. He cc-ed me on an e-mail he sent to another Wikipedian a few months ago to make me aware of this, and to let me know that he wasn’t giving up. (That was the first I knew of an English Wiki entry having been submitted for me. I should also note, particularly in relation to Wikipedia’s laudable conflict of interest guidelines, that at no time did I act as a tutor or supervisor for Fangda while they were a student at the University of Nottingham.)

Quite whether I’m notable enough for a Wiki page is a moot point at best. I definitely do not feel as if I deserve a Wiki page; certainly not when compared to others whose Wikipedia pages have similarly been repeatedly rejected (or even deleted) over the last few years. These, remarkably, include Dr. Donna Strickland, who won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2018 and Clarice Phelps, who helped discover a chemical element…

As Jess Wade and others pointed out in Chemistry World earlier this year, notability is a hotly contested issue in the Wikipedia community. There are, unsurprisingly, very few hard-and-fast rules as to how notability is defined by Wikipedia because it’s a very difficult-to-quantify, subjective metric. (Just how many citations, prizes, awards, papers, books, media appearances, invited lectures, community activities etc… etc... does it take to cross the threshold of notability…?)

This, of course, means that “notability” is not only very much in the eye of the beholder but that it can be misused as a basis for rejecting Wiki submissions that might not meet with a Wikipedian’s particular “entry requirements” including, at worst, those arising from conscious and/or unconscious biases. Shockingly, less than 18% of biographies on English Wikipedia are about women. And, according to New Statesman, only something like 8 – 16% of Wiki editors are female. 

Jess has done an incredible job of highlighting, and significantly helping to address, Wiki’s lack of diversity both with respect to gender and ethnicity. But as Jess and Maryam Zaringhalam have pointed out, we can all get involved:

Editing Wikipedia is easy, free and rewarding. It’s a thing to do with friends or your community, and might well fill out your CV. All you need is a Wi-Fi connection, a Wikipedia account and a bunch of neutral, reliable sources, along with a couple of hours to spare. Pick a biography you like from elsewhere in Wikipedia and copy the structure, using sections to separate education, research and awards. It’s important to check that the person you’re writing about meets the Wikipedia notability criteria for academics and that writing their biography isn’t a conflict of interest (so avoid writing bios for your family, friends or supervisors). Be bold, but not reckless. If you’re nervous, reach out to other editors in the community.

I’ve not contributed an article to Wikipedia myself. This will change. I’ll also be highlighting the Wikipedia “notability” controversy to this year’s Politics, Perception, and Philosophy of Physics class and asking for their opinions and suggestions.

Is Science Self-Correcting? Some Real World-Examples From Psychological Research.

…or The Prognosis Is Not Good, Psychology. It’s A Bad Case Of Physics Envy*

Each year there are two seminars for the Politics, Perception, and Philosophy of Physics module that are led by invited speakers. First up this year was the enlightening, engaging, and entertaining Nick Brown, who, and I quote from no less a source than The Guardian, has an “astonishing story…[he] began a part-time psychology course in his 50s and ended up taking on America’s academic establishment.”

I recommend you read that Guardian profile in full to really get the measure of Mr. (soon to be Dr.) Brown but, in brief, he has played a central role in exposing some of the most egregious examples of breathtakingly poor, or downright fraudulent, research in psychology, a field that needs to get its house in order very soon. (A certain high profile professor of psychology who is always very keen to point the finger at what he perceives to be major failings in other disciplines should bear this in mind and heed his own advice. (Rule #6, as I recall…))

Nick discussed three key examples of where psychology research has gone badly off the rails:

    • Brian Wansink, erstwhile director of Cornell’s Food and Brand Lab, whose research findings (cited over 20,000 times) have been found to be rather tough to digest given that they’re riddled with data manipulation and resulted from other far-from-robust research practices.
    • The “audacious academic fraud” of Diederik Stapel. (Nick is something of a polymath, being fluent in Dutch among other skills, and translated Stapel’s autobiography/confession, making it freely available online. I strongly recommend adding Stapel’s book to your “To Read” list; I found it a compelling story that provides a unique insight into the mindset and motivations of someone who fakes their research. Seeing the ostracisation and shaming through Stapel’s eyes was a profoundly affecting experience and I found myself sympathising with the man, especially with regard to the effects of his fraud on his family.)

It was a great pleasure to host Nick’s visit to Nottingham (and to finally meet him after being in e-mail contact on and off for about eighteen months). Here’s his presentation…

*But don’t worry, you’re not alone.

** Hmmm. More psychologists with a chaotic concept of chaos. I can see a pattern emerging here. Perhaps it’s fractal in nature…


 

Update 18/11/2018. 15:30. I am rapidly coming to the opinion that in the dismal science stakes, psychology trumps economics by quite some margin. I’ve just read Catherine Bennett’s article in The Observer today on a research paper that created a lot of furore last week: “Testing the Empathizing-Systemizing theory of sex differences and the Extreme Male Brain theory of autism in half a million people“, a study which, according to a headline in The Times (amongst much other similarly over-excited and credulous coverage) has shown that male and female brains are very different indeed.

One would get the impression from the headlines that the researchers must have carried out an incredibly systematic and careful fMRI study, which, given the sample size, in turn must have taken decades and involved highly sophisticated data analysis techniques.

Nope.

They did their research by…asking people to fill in questionnaires.

Bennett highlights Dean Burnett ‘s incisive demolition of the paper and surrounding media coverage. I thoroughly recommend Burnett’s post – he highlights a litany of issues with the study (and others like it). For one thing, the idea that self-reporting via questionnaire can provide a robust objective analysis of just about any human characteristic or trait is ludicrously simple-minded. Burnett doesn’t cover all of the issues because, as he says at the end of his post: “There are other concerns to raise of course, but I’ll keep them in reserve for when the next study that kicks this whole issue off again is published. Shouldn’t be more than a couple of months.

Indeed.

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…)