## Archive for the 'Science-general' Category

### Canada, What Were You Thinking?

Canada Sells Out Science

[T]he National Research Council—the Canadian scientific research and development agency—has now said that they will only perform research that has “social or economic gain”.

John MacDougal, President of the NRC, literally said, “Scientific discovery is not valuable unless it has commercial value”.

I’m incredibly sad to read this. I worked at TRIUMF in Vancouver for about 2.5 years as a postdoc, and I did witness some bureaucratic beancounter nonsense, but nothing like this.

Phil’s take on this is spot-on. But beyond saying that research pays off, making this policy short-sighted, is the fact that in basic research, you don’t truly know what you’re going to find! That’s what this research is — an attempt at discovering the unknown. There is no way to guarantee some kind of specific commercial benefit from the undiscovered, but the point of funding discovery is that someone will eventually think of ways to exploit newly-found knowledge! Overall, there will be economic gain as a result — that’s the way it has been for a long time. There’s no reason to think this has suddenly stopped.

### Pay Lots of Attention to the Scientists Behind the Curtain

One of the things I think about from time to time is the uneven representation of scientists, and physicists in particular — how often a biology/life sciences person is portrayed as representing a generic scientist, and within physics, how often particle physics is offered up as being representative of all physics. I think part of that can be gleaned from following the money. (In the US, federal funding (pdf alert, table 2) for life sciences is about half of all research spending at more than $30 billion. Physical sciences clocks in at under$6 billion) The other part comes from the sexiness of the work. Particle physics is big bucks and large collaborations, and is played up when the media latches onto “god particle” phrasing, or someone screws up a timing calibration and the shimmering spectre of superluminal neutrinos appears. Stories that can be written and appeal to people without too much of the gory detail of the actual physics appearing.

I am not alone in this thinking. Backreaction: What do “most physicists” work on?

The field I work in myself, quantum gravity, is among the over-represented fields. If you believe what you read, the quest for quantum gravity has become the “holy grail” of theoretical physicists all over the planet, and we’re all working on it because the end of science is near and there’s nothing else left to do.

Bee breaks down the numbers and finds

[This] tells you that “most physicists” don’t even do high energy physics, certainly not quantum gravity, and have no business with multiverses, firewalls, or “micro-landscapes of black holes”.

### The Worst Idea in the Sad, Long History of Bad Ideas

This is even worse than thinking about taking dinosaurs off of Isla Sorna.

U.S. Lawmaker Proposes New Criteria for Choosing NSF Grants

The new chairman of the House science committee has drafted a bill that, in effect, would replace peer review at the National Science Foundation (NSF) with a set of funding criteria chosen by Congress. For good measure, it would also set in motion a process to determine whether the same criteria should be adopted by every other federal science agency.

Funding criteria chosen by the Republican congress, many of whom wouldn’t know good science if it bit them on the ass, and belittle any science they don’t understand or whose conclusions are disagreeable to their ideology. Which is most science.

### Quiz Time, Now With 1/3 Lasers!

Do you know more about science and technology than the average American?

(link fixed)

By the Pew Research Center (as opposed to the Pew Pew Pew research center) and yes, there is a laser question in it. One difference between this and earlier versions: there’s actually a science procedure question, so it’s not simply a bunch of factoids (reasonable factoids to know if one is to be scientifically literate, but factoids nonetheless). The downside is that the procedure question has only two choices, and the “correct” choice is still not actually correct. There are a couple of questions you can figure out if you know a little about science but haven’t memorized the answer, and that’s also a positive IMO.

### Jargon is the Scott Evil of Science Communication

Well it’s true! It’s true! You’re semi-evil. You’re quasi-evil. You’re the margarine of evil. You’re the Diet Coke of evil. Just one calorie, not evil enough.

Why do kidneys need cells?

My point was (and is!) that “jargon” is a relative term. My degree involved learning about evolution, so I am comfortable with concepts like “punctuated equilibrium” and “mutation rates”. To me, these are not jargon, because I know what they mean. But if I were to turn to someone at random in my office, they would most likely have a bit more trouble with these words. In this latter case, such terms move from being just technical vocabulary to being incomprehensible jargon.

The point is valid; I would characterize this as being similar to the dose makes the poison. The problem is that once you label everything as jargon, the adoption of the the attitude that jargon is evil means you can’t use any words. Which is silly.

It’s basically a no-win situation. If you underestimate your audience, you can sound patronizing and insulting — a mistake I recall when I was talking to Garrett Reisman, the astronaut (when the crew of STS-124 visited the lab), and I started into an explanation of laser cooling by describing the periodic table, something with which I’m sure he’s familiar. That’s when I mentally kicked my self.

However, if you assume some bit of knowledge and your audience doesn’t have the background, you lose them. The trick is to tailor your discussion to the background of the people to whom you are speaking; as the author says, speak the same language as your audience. Where I part ways with some is that I don’t subscribe to “jargon is evil” as an absolute — I think it’s OK, to some point, to insist that people speak a little science when they come to visit science-land. It limits your audience, but that’s OK, if that’s what you want to do

### Expertise is Fascist

The Fascism of Knowing Stuff

I attempted to explain to the journalist that the world we live in has never been more complex or filled with things that require work and patience to understand. Though democracy lovers may shiver at the idea, the penalty for living in the civilisation we currently walk through is that we must sometimes accept our ignorance and defer to others.

We should not trust people just because they are experts, but if we are not prepared to put the time and effort in to understand something, to take a step beyond that column we read in The Guardian or “what my friend Phil told me”, then we are placed in a position where must defer and try and make the best decision we can as to who we should defer to.

This is some pretty good stuff. I’ve mentioned things like this before — science is a meritocracy of ideas, not a democracy; similar to something Isaac Asimov said

Anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.’

There is a reality that you have to accept: that there are things you don’t know and will never learn, so at some point you will have to trust an expert. Fortunately for people, weeding out the charlatans and lower tiers of self-proclaimed experts is not too difficult, if you have armed yourself with some basic knowledge and thinking skills — things that some basic science literacy can provide.

### Why is it Out of Reach?

Science outreach: the forgotten victim of the sequester

NASA’s decision to suspend its education and public outreach programs is questionable. However, what is most concerning about this move is what it could mean for the future of science in the United States. What if these cuts become blueprint for future budget cuts? What if other agencies follow suit?

One question is “why cut outreach?” An obvious answer is “because it’s there.” If the question is decided by people only looking at this year’s bottom line, it becomes like deferring maintenance: a quick fix to a budget cut, and one that has no obvious, immediate adverse impact. All the bad news happens much later. Think about changing the oil in your car — it almost never has to be done now, and not doing it keeps money in your pocket, but if you delay it long enough it will cost you. As long as there are people focused only on the near-term making the decisions, this is the kind of thing that will get cut. It leads to a nasty feedback loop if it continues.

However, as I have written before, it’s a better tactical decision than making cuts that are less visible, but equally damaging in the long run. Public outrage, properly aimed, can be helpful.

There’s one other thing that I thought of after reading about this. There were articles I read just after the Navy’s sequester announcements came out, where the authors called the decision to delay deployment of a carrier group a stunt. The thing is, you can’t really deploy only part of a battle group — it’s all or nothing. If you cut out a few ships, you put the whole group at risk, because they all have their jobs. Similarly, you can’t launch only part of a NASA mission, and cutting a mission is probably way too large of a cut, if we assume this is a short-term problem. I suspect that unlike delaying a deployment, temporarily delaying a mission that’s in development wouldn’t save much money — you still have to pay people, and if you cut off other purchases, you’ll be paying them to play games on their computer rather than work.

If you do cut a mission, you may never get the same opportunity for it. Once projects are canceled, people move on to other work and you might never again be able to assemble the team. Any subsequent attempt will invariably have to recreate some (much?) of the work, which is a waste.

As much as this hurts, I think that treating it as a very public event, and treating it initially as a one-time problem is the best position to take. If it makes you mad, good! It should make you mad. Write to your congresscritters and let them know.

### Playing the xkcd Card

Science: It works, bitches

### Bad News on the Doorstep

Joe over at It’s Okay to be Smart, hates waking up to bad news, in this case the news that NASA is dialing back some of their outreach due to sequestration budget cuts. I have already noted that the GOP was shocked, shocked! that the White House was canceling tours so that they could deploy secret service agents, and that (IMO) the Smithsonian was making a tactical mistake by hiding the effect of their cuts and crippling their future.

While I hate to see it happen, I think it’s the proper course of action, so that the voters can see the effect of a dysfunctional congress.

### Measuring Up

This may be a tad long for some people, but I think it’s worth it. Neil DeGrasse Tyson patiently explaining many of the reasons the so-called evidence for UFOs is rejected. It also couples nicely with why you should think like a scientist over at Uncertain Principles, because the UFO crowd could use a good dose.

Specifically,

Stripped to its essentials, science is a four-step process: you look at something interesting in the world, you think about why it might work that way, you test your idea with further observations and experiments, and you tell everybody you know what you found.

Any group falling into the argument-from-ignorance pit that Tyson describes are skimping on step 2, when they leap to the conclusion that, e.g. what they saw is an alien, rather than thoroughly thinking about/investigating other possibilities, and then they completely omit step 3, proceeding straight to 4. (5, of course, is right out)

Tyson gives one example of step 3 — grabbing some physical object if you’re ever abducted. There are other possibilities, but they have to better than blurry pictures or videos. There’s really no excuse, either, because there are plenty of amateur/citizen scientists out there, doing quality, rigorous work. The UFO crowd refuses to live up to that standard, and they will continue to be marginalized as a result. (They’ll be marginalized if/when they come up empty-handed, of course, but that shouldn’t stop someone who is convinced they will find the crucial evidence)

### Known Knowns

Science, Morality, Possible Worlds, Scientism, and Ways of Knowing

One interesting subset of the discussion is the ice cream question.

Chunky Monkey is the best possible ice cream.

The ice cream question is the one that is closest to the issue of morality. Again, one might suggest that all we need to do is collect neurological data relevant to the functioning of pleasure centers in the brain when one eats different kinds of ice cream, and decide which does the best job. But that’s the question “What effect do different flavors of ice cream have on the brain?” (which is scientific), not “What flavor of ice cream is the best?” (not). To answer the latter question, we would have to know how to translate “the best ice cream” into specific actions in human brains. We can (and do) discuss how that might be done, but deciding which translation is right is — you guessed it — not a scientific question. If I like creamy New-England-style ice cream, and you prefer something more gelato-y, neither one of us is wrong in the sense that it is wrong to say that the universe is contracting. Even if you collect data and show beyond a reasonable doubt that New York Super Fudge Chunk lights up my brain more effectively in every conceivable way than Chunky Monkey does, I’m still not “wrong” to prefer the latter. It’s a judgment, not a statement about empirically measurable features of reality. We can talk about how we should relate such judgments to reality — and we do! — but that talk doesn’t itself lie within the purview of science. It’s aesthetics, or taste, or philosophy.

One thing Sean doesn’t say (possibly because it’s tangential to his discussion) is simply this: as assertion based your ice cream preference is an opinion, and personal opinions — if they truly are opinions — are neither right nor wrong. Where some people go off the rails is when they assert opinions as if they are facts. If you start from the position that “Chunky Monkey is the best possible ice cream” is objectively true, then you’re building a house of cards; the argument is not going to hold up. Yet this seems to happen quite a bit, at least in certain discussions in which I have participated.

### “The Rich Survive and the Poor Get Devastated”

There Should Be Grandeur: Basic Science in the Shadow of the Sequester

So, add that up: sequester cuts will strike bluntly across the scientific community. The illustrious can move a bit of money around, but even in large labs, a predictable result will be a reduction in the number of graduate student and post – doc slots available — and as those junior and early-stage researchers do a whole lot of the at-the-bench level research, such cuts will have an immediate effect on research productivity.

The longer term risk is obvious too: fewer students and post-docs mean on an ongoing drop from baseline in the amount of work to be done year over year, and given that industry has reduced its demand for research-trained Ph.Ds, a plausible consequence is that some, many perhaps, those with capacity to do leading edge science — no dummies they — will simply never enter the pipeline, shifting instead to some other career that does not demand six years and more of poorly paid training to find that there are no jobs.

From my perspective as a government scientist I have not been able to delve into this discussion in this way for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that I don’t write as well as Tom Levenson, for which I not embarrassed, but also because I get incredibly pissed off at the stupidity, and repeatedly cursing at that isn’t very productive. Or eloquent. The thing is, the sequester isn’t a good situation suddenly gone bad. The dis-functionality of my government has been an impediment, to varying degrees, for a number of years now.

From a personal perspective it sucks: I’ve not had a cost-of-living adjustment in three years now, and now I am facing a furlough plan of 20% — not working one day a week. Plans are sketchy at this point, so it’s not clear what the details are on that; it’s possible that a poorly thought-out plan would have workers in a group taking different days off, with the intention of still having an “office presence” (one rumored scenario) but meaning that collaborations are hindered far beyond a 20% reduction in productivity, since there are at least 2 days a week a pair can’t work together. Too early to tell if things will be made even worse in this way. Murphy, however, is always lurking.

From a lab perspective, not having defined spending plans have hurt for quite some time — even operating under a continuing resolution has hampered things. Uncertain and uneven funding is a problem — you really want that new Thingerdoodle™ for the lab, and while it’s expensive — let’s say it costs 10% of your budget — you could afford it if you were given your promised allocation. However, you can’t when the money is portioned out over a shorter time scale. If you get a monthly release of your money, you never have enough to make the purchase. If you get a larger chunk but still only part of the budget, you risk running out of money for your day-to-day needs. And if you try and save it up, someone might see that you have not been spending as fast as you claimed you would, and you run the risk of someone taking it away from you. meanwhile, progress in the lab is limited from lack of a Thingerdoodle™.

The time compression of getting the full budget is also a problem. Let’s say you spend a few months on a CR, or in sequester mode, and then everything is resolved. But then, even if you have more money, you have to spend it before the end of the fiscal year or some other deadline, and spending money wisely takes time. Meaning you aren’t in the lab because you’re on the web or the phone, figuring out the right widgets to buy. Not being in the lab means the experiments are on hold, and that’s not the most efficient way to run things.

Basically, both feast and famine slow you down.