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Archive for the ‘Thinking out loud’ Category

A different way

Like many physicists, I suspect, I grew up gripped by the developments in quantum mechanics that happened at the start of the 20th century. This is often portrayed as the work of lone geniuses: Einstein, Bohr, Schrodinger, Heisenberg and the rest. That this work was carried out in isolation is to some extent true, but there was a surprising amount of collaboration and certainly discussion between the big hitters of the time. This work, and related studies in areas such as radioactivity, ultimately led to one of the biggest scientific collaborations that had ever existed – the Manhattan Project. This was an altogether different beast: one goal, build a bomb. Many of the brightest minds, engineers, physicists and chemists came together to work out how to achieve what they viewed as something that could help to win the war.

In modern times we have our own parallels of such large scale collaborations, CERN being the most obvious example. These mainly occur because of the huge scale and expense of the projects under consideration. I do often wonder though if we wouldn’t be much better placed to carried out nearly all scientific research through such large ‘crowdsourced’ efforts.

I have a small research group, too small to easily carry out the various ideas that I might have, too small to have the resources to fund all the experiments I’d like to try. It may be that I can persuade a funding council to give me money for these ideas, but the odds are against me. I can then wait and see if we can do them on the fly somehow, or find, depressingly, that someone beaten us to it, a few years after my original thought. I suspect nearly every scientist has similar thoughts about work that just never gets done.

But there are lots of groups out there, lots of talented people, lots of equipment going spare – lots of slack at certain times within any research group, big or small – why don’t I just publicly lists all my ideas and hope someone else runs with it and sees if it’ll work or not? It doesn’t work like that of course. We are precious with our ideas as they define our careers, the funding that we do get, which in turn allows us to build our groups and justify the continued need to employ us. Even collaborations, which are a way to help realise ideas that often we can’t do ourselves can be difficult, time consuming and often not quite what you need if you team up with the wrong group.

This does, I suspect, also have the problem of massively slowing down progress. We all want to win the prize, get the plaudits, get the pay rise, and this stems from doing the work and having your name in the right place on the author list. In this day and age of open access publishing, open data and near instantaneous access to all knowledge it does seem that if the end goal, the experiments, the finding things out is what we want to achieve , that our current way of ‘doing’ science seems increasingly outdated.

Could we do things differently? Would it be possible simply to fund research teams that can then respond to new ideas – take the very best ideas and see them through – have secure funding for staffing and equipment at certain Universities and then let academics the world over provide them with the ideas? This would provide much greater focus and possibly much greater efficiency in how we spend research money. An example would be, say, a centre for optical microscopy in the life sciences, based, for arguments sake at Dundee. We fill it with 100 staff and then throw open to the world the idea to present us with the most pressing problems in the area. It may be that these ideas receive some peer review to set priorities and then we task the centre with solving the problems. The originator of the idea gets appropriate credit, and the centre works collaboratively with the research community to help it make progress. We set up these little ‘Manhattan Projects’ with stability for staff, enhanced training for students, and better opportunities to exploit the research through critical mass. In a sense it centralises the experimental skills and distributes the ideas. It is a model that appears to work for very large scale experimental work, but would it be more efficient than our current massive distribution of experimental skills?

As it happens I am reading J. Craig Venter’s most recent book ‘Life at the speed of light‘ which in a way promotes this idea – a highly skilled, well funded lab pushing for a clear and ambitious research goal. Admittedly he was (and is) in competition with other groups, but if that funding was more concentrated and the initial thinking open and free for wider input and discussion to happen, could things have gone even more quickly? Do we want to see the results and the progress and quickly as we can or keep all the glory for ourselves?

The answer is that I am not sure – the model would seem to work in some cases, but clearly has problems, and would more than likely have to be globally accepted to work in the way I think it could. But with new paradigms appearing in the field of ‘open’ academia very rapidly, maybe there is a different way that we could do science, and actually see more of the collective ideas of the research community come to light and bear fruit.

Inspiring the kids and vice versa

I was a judge today (14th June) at the Big Bang Fair Scotland at the SECC in Glasgow. I have had the pleasure of taking on this role several times over the past few years and this year the event was the biggest yet. There were an estimated 4000 kids due to attend with hundreds of competitors from schools all over Scotland, even from as far away as Shetland.

One of the big things that the judges are told is that the judging is actually a highlight for the kids, that the discussion with a professional scientist or engineer is a big deal, a form of validation, and it helps to add a little to the inspiration that hopefully they are all privy too as part of being involved with the competition and the event. Equally we are told not to be too hard on them, and to focus on the positive, as this can shatter the experience and put them off science and engineering.

I never have a real problem with the judging – the kids are always fairly enthusiastic and rightly proud of what they have done – the projects are often amazing – 10 year olds building working wave electricity generating machines, teams building little satellite sensor systems in a juice can, volcano investigations, Raspberry Pi controlled racing cars, Robots (lots of robots) and more renewable energy houses than you can shake a stick at – and it’s clear that they have the bug. They have been inspired. And this is in very large part due to a group of very dedicated, hard working and brilliant teachers who are the ones to help pull all the projects together.

What I found this year was that I was inspired to actually try and do something myself – one of the science club projects was sponsored by the Weir Group, and it was to look at using 3D printing to build a water wheel system. This involved giving those schools participating a 3D printer. On speaking to one of the teachers from Eastbank Academy in Glasgow it was also clear that the printer had hugely impressed some of the teachers and that the possibilities were huge – the kids had used it to print all sorts of stuff, from minecraft objects to jewellery. The comment we both made was that soon every school will want one.

3D printer at the Big Bang Fair Scotland

3D printer at the Big Bang Fair Scotland

So that got me thinking – one of the things Universities are supposed to try and do is engage with the local community – so why don’t I (or at least my School/College) try and get one of these devices in every high school in Dundee? I haven’t quite thought through the details yet, but I’d hope the University, some local businesses and maybe some crowdfunding might allow me to get to the target needed. There are other details to consider such as ongoing consumable costs, but let’s not let them spoil my afternoon vision. So my goal (and making this pledge in public might actually focus my mind) is to try and give the local high schools of Dundee a 3D printer as a Christmas present. I see this part of the “Transform Dundee” vision that the University of Dundee has.

If anyone wants to help in this endeavor, let me know. If anyone wants to point out the fatal flaw in my idea, that’d be good to know as well. If anyone wants to pledge money to support it, drop me a line and I’ll work out someway to take that from you.

What did EPSRC do?

May 15, 2012 1 comment

Today there has a protest in London against the recent policies of the UK’s Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC). The idea of driving a horse drawn hearse through the streets proclaiming the death of British science is, in my view, somewhat childish and probably a distraction to what is happening in the UK funding scene, but what is it that seems to have gotten so many UK engineers and physical scientists so het up about things?  Even the UK’s most recent Nobel Laureate has written a letter this morning decrying the policies being implemented, and he has recently (sort of) been awarded a de facto research budget in the tens of millions by EPSRC recently?

There are, it seems, a couple of issues floating around this topic, which appear to get intertwined and confused. There is an issue of an overall reduction in research council budgets, and the Campaign for Science and Engineering discusses this in a statement today, but running in tandem to this is an issue with structural changes relating specifically to the EPSRC, and it seems to me that it is these that many are really protesting about, and if not protesting, somewhat exasperated with.

I want to try and think out loud about a few of the issues I think that EPSRC has gotten itself into a mess over, and will try and look at these various issues in a set of discrete posts. Here I want to summarise the points:

  • Restrictions on proposal submissions
  • Removal of PhD studentship applications from grants
  • Shift to Doctoral Training Centre model
  • The inclusion of Pathways to Impact
  • Adoption of a national importance statement
  • The removal of direct PPE funding
  • The move to larger, often EPSRC internally driven, grants
  • Matching funding requirements for equipment with separate business cases for expensive equipment
  • Back dating of rules to cover submitted proposals
  • Shaping our capability programme
  • Communication issues – disconnect from research community, issues over consultation
  • Move to metric based outputs

Just for clarity, I currently receive EPSRC funding through a conventional grant, and have EPSRC money supporting departmental PhD studentships, and have had other grants in the past – but I am not a big player in the grand scheme of things (I’d quite like to be, but that’s a different issue), so the points of view expressed here come from the perspective of someone who would like to get more out of EPSRC and who sometimes despairs of how EPSRC reach their decisions. In addition, Dundee is not a huge beneficiary from EPSRC – we have some big grants, but not nearly as many as I think we could have. The fact that we are a small player in this regard also has bearing on how future EPSRC decisions might impact both the University and myself. While much of what I will say comes from an ‘expert’ user, some will likely be based on hearsay and anecdote. So not terribly scientific, but an honest view.

Moving from easy to hard

February 3, 2012 3 comments

Nothing profound here, more thinking out loud. How is it that we move from ‘easy’ material to ‘hard’ in a sensible and systematic way? I mentioned on twitter a figure my son had drawn based on what he has been learning about magnets at school, and some stuff his mum was telling him about the Northern Lights. He drew the picture to explain them to his little sister.

The interaction of the solar wind with the Earth's magnetic field, as envisaged by a seven year old.

I was fairly impressed, as the basic ideas of magnetic fields and the solar wind are clear to see. It’s a bit scrappy, but he’s seven, so let’s not complain that it’s not a da Vinci. The thing is, it set me wondering how well one of my first year undergraduates might go about drawing such a diagram. Would there be much more detail or information there? Surely at seventeen I might expect a whole lot more? We do teach first years the basics about magnetic fields. We deal with vectors and field strengths and field interactions, so clearly this is much more difficult than a primary 3 kid can deal with, but it’s not so much more advanced. How do we bridge this gap between ‘easy’ and ‘hard’ and why does it take ten years and embarking on a technical degree to get more info on magnetic fields?

The second thing that started me thinking about this was one of my son’s reading books. He uses a set of books by Collins called the ‘Big Cat‘ series and they are all fairly modern and up today, with interesting fiction and often very good non-fiction. One of the non-fiction books he had a while ago was called, “Is there anyone out there?” and it’s about the possibility of extraterrestial life and extrasolar planets. It gives an overview of how one can detect extra-solar planets, and what life might be like on the type of planets that might exist (with different gravity conditions etc). So we are teaching seven year olds how to find extra solar planets, but again to really do this (in a technical sense, rather than do one of the crowd sourced data analysis projects like those from Zooniverse) you probably have to study at University. There is a large gap here I think, there is little in the way of middle ground on many of these technical subjects. For sure you need to learn the tools, you must learn increasingly advanced maths, and delve into other subject areas (optics, signal analysis, for the planet hunting, for example), but unless these are interesting in and as of themselves, you may just get bored, unless the end goal is really exciting for you. Maybe this is why so many give up on things like science and engineering. The easy bit is fun and cool, perhaps, and gives you the take home message, but the effort, the 10 years of work to understand the hard bit, just isn’t worth it in the end for most.

It is this, the ‘hard’ bits and the knowledge acquired to get there, that makes those who do learn the tools the experts. A biologist can explain to me how a cell binds to another cell and I could describe this to you, but without much more significant study I won’t really understand the details, won’t really be able to craft that information into something new. The question I have, is if all I know is the ‘easy’ knowledge is there anything I can usefully do with it? Or do I not really need to know the hard stuff? Maybe it is the experts who find the path from easy to hard interesting in spite of itself. My son and daughter are quite happy with their explanations of where the Northern Lights come from, and they don’t really know anything about ionisation or atomic energy levels. I hope they will one day, but until then I guess I am quite happy about what they are learning at school.