Archive for the ‘science’ category

Science: on the march or in retreat?

May 8, 2017

In around 600 locations around the world, on 22 April 2017, there were demonstrations described as ‘marches for science’. These marches were organised to make the following point:

‘We marched because science is critical to our health, economies, food security, and safety. We marched to defend the role of science in policy and society.’

More specifically, the organisers wanted to reinforce one of the key characteristics of an enlightened society, that public policy (and other) decisions should be taken on the basis of evidence.

Less than two weeks later in the United States of America, the Environmental Protection Agency has dismissed from its scientific review board all its academic members, replacing them with representatives of the industries that the EPA was set up to regulate.

In the development and implementation of environmental policy there are, as in all areas of scientific investigation, reasons for ensuring that points of view contradicting received wisdom are given consideration. But in this as in every other area, such consideration should be based on evidence rather than assertion, and certainly should not overlook the vested interests of those expressing the points of view in question.

Social, scientific and cultural enlightenment was not won easily through the course of human history. It is very easily lost. Universities have a very special responsibility to make the case – the unarguable case – that clear evidence should be sought and given priority in all matters of public policy. Dismissing from view those able to provide that evidence should and must be seen as a scandal, to be highlighted as such.


Dismissing science

September 23, 2011

Today’s modern society is built upon science. It uses the discoveries of science to find solutions to problems in areas such as health, transport, product development, nutrition, and so forth. Its industry and hence its employment is clustered around science-driven innovation. So you would expect that respect for the potential of scientific discovery lies at the heart of political strategy? Well, yes and no. Many politicians do understand this, and large-scale funding for science (by bodies such as Science Foundation Ireland) reflects this.

But there are other voices in politics, and some of these are becoming influential. Many of them are in America. In fact, at least two leading candidates vying for the Republic nomination for President – Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann – hold views that are profoundly anti-science, calling key scientific theories into question and suggesting bad motives on the part of scientists. There are touches of something medieval here. If someone with such views were indeed to take over the US presidency, the results could be profound, and could easily lead to the United States becoming a backwater in geopolitical terms.

It is not, or at any rate should not be, the task of politicians to second guess science, or to declare its theses right or wrong based on ideology. That approach is total madness. No country can afford it, not even America.

Science not yet ready for women?

July 29, 2011

In early 2010 the Royal Institution, the body that raises awareness of science and promotes its research in the United Kingdom, decided to make its director redundant, almost without giving her any notice. The director in question was Susan Greenfield (Baroness Greenfield), and when the decision was announced the suspicion in many people’s minds was that the move may have been connected with her gender and the public profile she had (to the great benefit of science, it would have to be said) managed to acquire.

The general suspicion that science is not quite ready for women continues. Research undertaken by the UK Resource Centre for women in science, engineering and technology (UKRC) has suggested that women are put off science, and that the image of those women who do make it there tends to be heavily influenced by stereotypical assumptions and prejudices.

A modern society cannot afford to harbour such views and prejudices. It is time to ensure that woman have an equal role and place in the world of science.

Sheep, robots and communicating science

July 25, 2011

A few years ago, when I was President of Dublin City University, we sought planning permission to construct a building for DCU’s National Institute for Cellular Biotechnology. The Institute was (and is) working on some really significant health and life sciences issues, including treatment for cancer and diabetes. The building we were planning (which you can see here) was a pleasing design, and was to be placed well within the campus perimeter. It could not possibly have inconvenienced anyone. And yet we found a determined group of locals resisting the planning application. It took us a while to discover what was bothering them: for some bizarre reason they believed we were going to do research there on cloning humans. This was not too long after the Roslin Institute in Edinburgh cloned Dolly the sheep, and the good citizens in DCU’s neighbourhood had decided to believe that we were about to take all this a step further. And they weren’t going to let us.

Of course the Institute had no intention whatsoever of cloning anyone, but it took us a while to convince the residents of this – but when we did we were able to proceed with the building, at which point I took a direct role in getting the construction under way. Well, I didn’t actually drive the digger. But I digress.

Recently I heard a talk at which it was explained to me that some scientists and engineers believe they may not be too far off being able to build a robot that will be operated not with the help of en electronic motherboard, but with specially grown biological brain tissue. If this works, it may not be too long before such robots could become self-aware autonomous units. Does this bother you?

And what about the concerns expressed recently by a working group of the Academy of Medical Sciences about the potential impact of putting human brain cells into primates (monkeys), and the potential ‘humanising’ effects of such experiments? And of course the use of embryonic stem cells still causes heated debates.

But actually the list if potential ethical issues could stretch for miles, depending on whom you ask and what it is that keeps them awake at night. Equally, you may find people who simply cannot believe that we agonise over the ethics of research that could help millions, save lives and generate supplies of food.

Research ethics committees are now all over the higher education system, and their work is vitally important. But that’s not what I am addressing here. It’s not just about assessing ethical dilemmas, it is about communicating what these issues are really all about. Why would a group of concerned citizens in North Dublin get hot and bothered about human cloning? Surely it’s a sign that we are not explaining the role, potential and impact of science well enough. As scientific research gets closer to some really important solutions to health issues, we need to ensure that what the scientists are doing is understood by the wider population, because if that does not happen, what we’ll face is not considered judgement but populist knee-jerk reactions. And that will help nobody. In Britain there is an annual Science Communication Conference, and there are other initiatives to bring science to the people. The academic community needs to encourage and develop such initiatives.

Let Ireland be open for innovation

March 3, 2011

As the political parties in Ireland sift through the entrails of the general election, and as Fine Gael and the Labour Party discuss a possible programme for government, let them not repeat the mistake of the outgoing Fianna Fáil/Green coalition in rejecting nuclear power and research into genetically modified organisms in their original programme. This presented Ireland as a place in which innovation was not particularly welcome.

There are, I know, valid arguments that can be raised against nuclear power and the distribution of GMOs. But there is no valid argument against doing further work on, researching into or analysing the possible benefits of either. It is time for us to take a mature approach rather than indulge in knee-jerk positions.

Is research a waste of taxpayers’ money?

January 5, 2011

The answer to the question is ‘no’, by the way, but there is no shortage of people who will claim otherwise. There appears to be a particular tendency for Irish economists (or at least some of them) to play down the economic impact of research.  The tone for this was set by the ‘Special Group on Public Service Numbers and Expenditure Programmes’ (‘An Bord Snip Nua’, chaired by UCD economist Colm McCarthy). Its report in 2009 stated:

‘Research and development (R&D) funding for the third level sector is provided through the Programme for Research in Third-Level Institutions (PRTLI) and the research councils…  In general, the Group is strongly of the view that substantial reductions in funding are warranted given the significant amounts invested to date, the lack of verifiable economic benefits resulting from these investments and the inflationary impact of funding on research and administration salaries.’

More recently Michael Hennigan, founder of website Finfacts, wrote the following:

‘Minister Batt O’Keeffe said this week that nearly half of the new projects won in 2010 by IDA Ireland, the inward investment agency, were research and development-based. This claim cannot be relied on as it could range from little to a lot! No detailed information is available. Foreign-owned companies are responsible for about 90% of Ireland’s tradeable goods and services exports and it is believed that very little original research is done in Ireland.’

This follows a fairly frequent pattern of commentators claiming that there is no evidence to support the view that research has a positive economic impact, when in fact such evidence is freely available; just because someone doesn’t look for evidence doesn’t mean it isn’t there. Also, when Hennigan says that ‘it is believed’ that little research is done in Ireland, this is a particularly inappropriate way of backing an argument. ‘Believed’ by whom? What kind of evidence is that? In this case the IDA regularly publishes information confirming the significance of R&D to foreign direct investment. Most recently the IDA has announced that, in 2010, over €500 million was invested by foreign companies in R&D in Ireland, and the volume and significance of original research done here is regularly set out by the various national agencies.

Ireland’s ability to escape from the recession and to build up its economy depends critically on a successful national research programme, allowing the country to be identified as a centre of excellence in a selected number of key areas. This will not only help to secure much of the inward investment which we can now attract, but it will also be the key to a significant proportion of indigenous entrepreneurship.

Funding the national research programme is not an easy decision, given the competing calls on the country’s scarce resources. But that is where our future lies – not particularly because these research projects will themselves create many jobs, but because they will create the conditions in which others will do so. A debate on whether investment in research is money well spent is perfectly legitimate, but contributors to that debate would do well to get their facts straight first.

Is industry funding of university research dangerous?

November 26, 2010

Last year in this blog I published a post in which I raised various questions about links between universities and industry, and in particular whether industry funding for university research can compromise academic integrity. I concluded that safeguards were necessary, but that the need for higher education to play a role in addressing society’s problems and needs suggested that academic/business partnerships could play an important and constructive role.

In the history of higher education this is a relatively new issue. It has become more significant largely for two reasons: first, the very rapid development of high value and expensive research (particularly in science and engineering) has brought in its wake pressure from governments for the funding to be shared between the taxpayer and those who could commercially exploit the research; and secondly, as industrial innovation increasingly depends on the development of intellectual property, companies have found it useful to seek partnerships with academics whose discoveries could form the basis for new patents. As I noted in the previous post, this kind of partnership gained profile with the agreement in 1998 between the University of California at Berkeley and the Swiss company Novartis on a research partnership in agricultural biotechnology. When this agreement was subsequently reviewed by external experts it was queried whether it had produced sufficient research benefits, and whether it had created risks for the university.

More recently some questions have been asked about the tendency for oil companies to fund research into alternative energy in universities. A study sponsored by the Center for American Progress has suggested that oil industry funding of university research in the United States has compromised academic freedom and has largely served to reinforce industry interests rather than open-minded discovery. The report makes some suggestions for a check list to accompany all such arrangements, such as guarantees of full academic autonomy and control over published output.

In the meantime, it must be borne in mind that industry partnerships are now at the heart of government research funding. For example, Science Foundation Ireland in its documentation has this to say about such partnerships:

‘SFI strongly encourages research collaboration between SFI funded scientists & engineers and industry. Such interactions can lead to SFI scientists & engineers becoming more informed about industrial priorities and research needs; and lead to industrial collaborators being informed about important new science and engineering research developments in Ireland.’

This statement is typical of the approach adopted by research funding agencies in a number of countries. But there has also been a section of the academic community that is suspicious this approach and feels it is compromising academic values and undermining the tradition of open-ended, ‘blue skies’ research.

It might be said that there are two issues – related but distinct – that come into play here. The first is the fear that as industry has specific commercial goals, it will want researchers to provide findings that back the company’s objectives or interests. If for example a company is developing a drug to treat a disease it will want the academic research to confirm that the drug has the desired effect, and may want to suppress research that does not come to that conclusion. This is a legitimate concern, and it is right for safeguards to be found and rigorously applied that protect academic integrity and prevent undue influence being used to secure pre-determined results.

The second issue is a more general dislike of academic discovery supporting private profit, no matter how carefully integrity is protected. There isn’t a ‘right’ answer to this, but it could be said that where the taxpayer invests strongly in research they may want to see a direct impact on economic growth, and where foreign direct investment is a major public policy objective academic research support may become compelling. To put it another way, the political reality may be that academic/industry partnerships have become an essential ingredient in public policy that universities will not be able to resist, even if they wanted to.

For myself, I have no problems with such partnerships, where they are carefully structured and monitored. I am not at all against blue skies research, and indeed I believe that it must always be an important component of higher education. But I do not believe it to be either realistic or right to suggest that academic resources cannot be harnessed directly to support economic development, nor do I believe industry/university research contracts to be inherently wrong, even where their outputs may produce industry profits. It is too late to return the academy to an ivory tower; but staying out in the world does not have to compromise ethical standards or integrity.

Research prioritisation

October 2, 2010

I confess it is very tempting to feel less than enthusiastic when yet another group is established to chart a strategic direction relevant to Irish higher education. We still don’t really know what (if anything) is happening with the Colin Hunt review, which is supposed to set out a roadmap for higher education. But before this has been completed, the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Innovation establishes the ‘Research Prioritisation Steering Group’, with the brief to ‘work on a five-year prioritisation plan for Government investment in research and “smart” jobs’. But actually, wasn’t that the subject-matter of the Innovation Taskforce, which reported earlier in the year but which now seems to have been forgotten.

And yet, I am not going to be cynical about this research prioritisation group, because I believe it may have at least a chance of doing something. First of all, its membership has the right attributes for the job. It is chaired by Intel’s Jim O’Hara, who understands both the industry and academic angles involved. There are a number of academics involved, but again with interesting backgrounds. My own successor in DCU, Brian MacCraith, is there (and he combines research and industry experience); Nicholas Canny (professor from Galway and President of the Royal Irish Academy) is there, providing a humanities dimension. Alastair Glass is there, with his SFI, industry and Canadian government experience. There is an interesting industry representation, including Martin Naughton, one of Ireland’s foremost entrepreneurs. And while there is civil service representation, it is a small part of this group.

I do hope however that they will immediately ignore the Minister’s request that they target job creation. Of course jobs are all good, but I have come to the view that every politician who mentions ‘job creation’ should be given the red card and suspended for three games, so that they can be educated to understand that you cannot ‘create’ jobs, or not any more; and certainly not sustainable ones. But I think the wider idea of considering how investment in research can be made to be most effective is good – as a small (and currently struggling) country we need to invest more in research, but we need to do it wisely and effectively. We cannot do that if we are spreading necessarily small amounts all over the place; we need to prioritise, but we also need to know on what basis we are going to do that and how we will handle the implementation of any such prioritisation.

Moving this topic to my home-to-be in Scotland, it faces very similar issues and will also need to be highly focused in identifying what to invest in and what to support in research. Scottish Enterprise, and its associated agency Scottish Development International, will need to address this. In fairness, the Scottish Enterprise Business Plan 2010-2013 does identify industry sectors that have particular potential and highlights the industry research links already involved. But these areas are, I feel, too widely drawn to allow for sufficient prioritisation; the headings are pretty all-embracing, and that may work against making the process of development effective.

Although it is common to hear people say that a focus on research undermines higher education’s teaching and learning agenda, there is no need for this to be so. In fact, a focused research agenda is capable not just of providing a basis for new foreign direct investment and business start-ups, it also has the capacity to inform teaching and allow students to be brought to the cutting edge of the link between education and national economic and social development. Others may argue that research should not be directed, but that it should be pursued by academics in whatever way makes sense for them; and to an extent that is indeed so, but where funding is scare it may need to be directed to areas where it can make the biggest difference.

As for the working group, I’ll be watching out for its report with interest.

Evolution of a book launch

September 15, 2010

In just over a month from now, on October 23, it will be 6,014 years exactly since the earth was created. How do we know that? Well, that’s the date arrived at by James Ussher, who was Archbishop of Armagh in the mid-17th century. Taking Genesis as a factual, historical account, he calculated the exact date of creation by working backwards from other known dates. Before we start sniggering, it is appropriate to remember that Ussher was a genuine scholar, that he did not have archeological information of the kind we have now (though to be fair, I doubt it would have stopped him in his tracks), and that his primary starting point was theological rather than scientific. That doesn’t stop some people today from believing that Ussher’s date of 4004 BC is historically and scientifically accurate.

Of course the key problem with this belief is that almost nothing we now know in science is compatible with it. But in particular, if the earth came to be as recently as six thousand years ago, then clearly we couldn’t have had evolution as set out by Charles Darwin. And so the battleground for those who believe that the Bible’s Book of Genesis is an historical account (which does not include the overwhelming majority of Christians and Jews) is evolution. If evolution is true, then a literal interpretation of Genesis isn’t. And so there is a whole industry of people with some sort of fixed agenda trying to pick holes in evolution.

One particular attempt has become a recent subject of controversy in Ireland – though I’ll argue in a moment that the controversy is silly.  This attempt has taken the form of a book, with the title The Origin of Specious Nonsense, written by one John May. I’m not going to spend any time discussing the arguments used, in part because I haven’t seen the book itself an am relying on media summaries. Let us just accept that he doesn’t go with the idea of evolution, and that he has written a book explaining why. That book is to be launched today, and he invited his local TD to launch it; that TD happened to be Conor Lenihan, Minister for Science. All sorts of noise followed, with people suggesting that for Mr Lenihan to give the book credibility by launching it would be to undermine Ireland’s standing as a country keen to be at the forefront of scientific research. In the end Mr Lenihan withdrew, or perhaps was withdrawn by Mr. May.

What are we to make of all this? First, I would like to suggest that the summer is now over, and maybe we don’t need stuff like fruit bats and cod science clogging up the media any more. But there is another, more important, point: whatever we may think of Mr May’s arguments, he is entitled to make them. So I suspect we should stay absolutely calm, breathing in and out slowly, even if this book were launched by his constituency TD. I may consider – as I do – Mr May’s thesis to be a lot of rubbish, but I very much doubt that R&D-focused investors will leave Ireland in droves, or that our science professors will faint delicately, just because Mr May had the run of Buswells Hotel for a launch party, even one attended by Mr Lenihan. We need to be more confident of our credentials than that. So my advice to those who have been getting hot under the collar: just chill out a little.

In praise of science research foundations

July 31, 2010

When I became President of Dublin City University just over ten years ago, the country’s research community was just convulsed in a debate that came from the then recently conducted ‘Technology Foresight‘ exercise that had been commissioned by the Irish government. This had recommended the establishment of a foundation that would coordinate and oversee science research, to ensure that Ireland’s science reputation would stimulate innovation and investment. The reason for the anguish was that it had been suggested that the national research effort would proceed more successfully if it were conducted in autonomous institutes that would draw on the universities’ expertise but would not be part of them.

For a little while there was a kind of stand-off between the universities and the embryonic Science Foundation Ireland, at the time under interim leadership. But then came the appointment from the United States of Bill Harris as the first Director-General of SFI, and he set about creating a constructive relationship between the foundation and the higher education institutions, based somewhat on the model of the US National Science Foundation. Within a short period of time SFI had enticed a number of prominent world class researchers to come to Ireland and had facilitated the nurturing of indigenous talent. We now know that a significant proportion of foreign direct investment over recent years has taken place because Ireland now offered world class expertise and innovation.

Bill Harris was followed by Frank Gannon, himself a prominent researcher with significant experience of research leadership and administration in Europe. Under his leadership SFI’s capacity to create the backdrop for high value economic success has continued. We now gather that he is about to leave SFI for a new appointment overseas, and this creates a setting in which the government will have to take an important decision. There may be some pressure to move the focus of investment away from research, or at any rate academic research, and there may be pressure to dilute the distinctive role of SFI through the creation of a much more broadly based super-funding body.

SFI has created quite specific scientific expertise in Ireland in areas that are at the heart of global industrial growth right now. They are in the health sciences, in innovative convergence between science and engineering or computing, and in other such areas. We will miss out on our share of global economic growth if we dilute our effort.

It is of course important that attention is also focused on research in the humanities and social sciences. But it would be highly unwise to under-estimate the impact of SFI in its distinctive mission on Ireland’s economic opportunities. Arguments that seek to downplay this significance, or suggest that a separate foundation for science is unnecessary, are very risky for us right now. They should not be followed.