Archive for the ‘Opinion’ Category

TCD surging ahead of Dublin rivals UCD rivals on basic research

UCD you’ve got a problem!

I realised the extent of UCD’s problem after I put in a request this morning to the European Research Council (ERC) for a list of Irish holders of their coveted advanced grants.

[It’s well known when you have one of these, which are awarded for excellence in fundamental science, you have arrived at the top table of European researchers].

In an email back from the ERC, they confirmed that TCD has six of these grants, and UCD has zippo. Ireland in total has eight, so it’s not just UCD that is failing, but as the biggest university in the country, with a long tradition of science and engineering, it’s UCD’s failure that stands out most.

The TCD monopoly on ERC advanced grants is  broken by a single grant holder at Maynooth University and one at the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies.

It’s 6-nil then to TCD in this scientific ‘colours’ match.

It is remarkable however,  given the ferocious hostility to fundamental science that exists in Ireland, that anyone here got an ERC advanced grant.

So, like the heroes of 1916, let’s Proclaim Ireland’s scientific heroes here.

These are the men (there are no women) who have, somehow, manage to thrive in this scientific desert.

  • Thomas Ray, Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies
  • Robert Kitchin, Maynooth University
  • John Boland, TCD
  • Luke O’Neill, TCD
  • Jonathan Coleman, TCD
  • Dan Bradley, TCD
  • Paul Holm, TCD
  • Peter Humphries TCD

Paris climate deal would be a political miracle

Climate Change Ireland

A climate deal in Paris looks unlikely, and storms will hit the Irish coastline with greater frequency and intensity in coming years and decades as a result (Credit: Independent.ie)

The COP 21 UN Climate Conference is underway in Paris, and hopes are high, yet, it will take a political miracle for a solid, lasting, and enforceable agreement to be reached.

The one common denominator, of course, is that we are all potentially facing into a climate Armageddon. The problem is we don’t know precisely when that will happen or how bad it will be.

Click above to hear discussion of COP 21 deal prospects with Anne Marie Donelan, host of The Grapevine, on CRC FM.

Politics and human nature being what they are, means that politicians are very good at dealing with a ‘clear and present danger’ but very bad at dealing with some kind of vague, not easily identifiable threat.

This is what unites the problems of dealing with ISIL and climate change. The enemy is out there, but not in full view.

Meanwhile, there have already been rumblings of ‘breaches of trust’ between the rich nations at COP 21 and the poorer nations. Meetings have been held outside of the main group, and this has increased the sense of paranoia and tension that surrounds the meeting.

Think about how hard it can be to get two nations to agree on difficult issues. Ireland and the UK perhaps, or Israel and Palestine? Imagine trying to get agreement from all the nations of the world, on climate, when each and every nation working to a different agenda.

This time around, as opposed to the last attempt to get  climate deal in Copenhagen in 2009, each country has been asked to submit its own assessment of what it can achieve on emissions reduction.

The plans, when taken all together, are, one analyst reported, likely to lead to a disastrous 3 Celsius rise in global temperatures over pre-industrial levels. So, a lot of painful compromise will be required.

For a multitude of political reasons that looks an almost impossible task, and a fudge of some sort looks the likely outcome.

Expect the announcement of a deal – as no deal would look bad for all the politicians gathered in Paris – but the reality to be different.

Countries like China, India, Japan, and the western nations are not going to risk damaging their economies, by making a real deal.

There is too much to lose, and not enough – concrete – to gain. Each nation wants a deal, but they want others to do the compromising.

For example, Ireland’s emissions are high, largely due to agricultural practices here, and we are coming under pressure to reduce them. This will not be easy, and will come at a financial and political cost.

Does the Government have the political will to do this, and risk annoying rural voters with an election coming? I think not.

The US, meanwhile, is the main contributor to greenhouse gas, but they don’t want to do anything to reduce emissions which will hurt their economy. They have an election coming up too.

China, the other main offender, is busy burning cheap coal, trying to get into the elite club of developed nations, and it too, is not inclined to do anything to hinder its progress.

Then there is India. The west is in a very weak position when trying to preach about reductions in greenhouse gas emissions to a country where some 240 million people are living without electricity.

Then there are the agreed targets. Everyone is talking about limiting the damage to a rise of 2 Celsius. However, 2 Celsius is far too high for low lying nations, which could be underwater with that kind of rise. These countries need something of the order of 1.5 C or less to survive.

There is talk about eliminating the use of coal, which will have ‘no future’ as a result. Yet, try telling that to countries like India, and China and, even Japan, that are still burning huge amounts of cheap coal, to provide for their growing demand for energy.

For countries to develop they need cheap energy. Coal provides that, while renewable sources don’t – for now at least.

The best hope of success is if the rich western nations, led by the USA, agree to allow developing nations to continue to burn coal, while paying for technology which will reduce the emissions of carbon dioxide from that burning, or to bury it safely under the ground.

The west also needs to make massive investment in developing renewable sources of energy, such as wind, wave, and solar so that it can truly start to meet growing energy demand – at the right price.

The problem of course is that there is no immediate threat here, which could be the impetus to push a deal over the line.

Think about how Europe dealt with the financial crisis. The can was pushed down the road continually until a gun was put to the leader’s heads, and the break of the EU looked imminent.

Then there is the question of enforcement. How will leaders ensure that everyone is adhering to the deal, if one is reached? What will the penalties be like? Will they be sufficient?

The European Central Bank only enforced its will on reluctant nations like Ireland by threatening to stop money being available in the ATMs. Something just as drastic will be required here if a deal is to work.

However, in the absence of Paris, New York, and London being hit this week by a climate-change inspired Superstorm, a deal looks unlikely.

The history of this issue is one of fudge, from the first climate change conference in Rio in 1992, up to 2009 and failure at Copenhagen. If something real emerges from Paris it will be truly historic.

 

 

 

SFI is leading Irish science over a cliff

As science week approaches and the dust settles on the annual Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) research summit, it’s timely to ask where Irish science is headed? Sadly, it appears to be over a cliff.

Luke O'Neill

Professor Luke O’Neill, TCD, is one of just 7 scientists in Ireland awarded a prestigious European Research Council Advanced Grant.

That is unless someone, somehow, manages to remove control of our national science policy from the hands of politicians who are interested only in looking good at the next election.

SFI  is the body through which the politicians exert their control of what kind of science is funded.

The politicians have tightened their grip on science policy in recent times, to ensure that funding is linked with the need of industry.

Tradition 

Highly industrialised nations, with great scientific traditions such as Germany and Switzerland, where world class research is done (unlike here) and Nobel prizes are won, don’t do this to science.

Israel is another nation where the top tier of scientists are recognised, valued and supported, no matter what their research area, and no matter what politicians are in charge at any one time.

These countries do not impose funding pre-conditions on their scientists, as we do. They simply support them to the hilt, based on their record and reputation.

That national support translates into a steady stream of brilliance down the decades, which is seen in the number of Nobel Prize winners, and ‘game changers’ which emerge from such science-friendly nations.

In Ireland, science was, in the past, treated as something alien to the nation, having been allegedly introduced by the Anglo-Saxon invader. Science in the early days of the Free State was treated with suspicion.

However, we were told that since 2000, when SFI was set up that we shed all our suspicion of science, as part of the oppressor’s culture, and that we now embraced its possibilities.

Given how science policy has progressed in the 15 years since SFI was established, could lead some to wonder whether some of the old anti-science feeling still lingers somehow

Certainly, there is no way, despite Orwellian protestations to the contrary by SFI and the government, that Ireland could be today considered a place friendly to the best scientists.

Humdrum 

The type of science that is being funded, its humdrum ‘me too’ nature, and the subservient role assigned by science to other ‘priorities’ in our society are a big turn off for the top researchers.

In Ireland, scientists, regardless of their talent, must agree to a long list of preconditions if they are to secure funding from SFI, the premier government agency supporting science here.

Scientists must have answers to questions like, Do you have an industry partner? What is the commercial relevance of your research? Will this research create jobs? How could this work lead to new patents or intellectual property? What kind of results do you expect to find?

The simple plea of a scientist to be allowed to get on with their research carries no water. SFI will argue they protect taxpayers money, and that the taxpayer must get a research dividend.

The problem is that the type of research that changes the world does not result from the laying down of funding pre-conditions. It emerges when top scientists are trusted and supported.

The best researchers must be backed by their national funding bodies for a sustained period of time to produce great science, of the type that might, just might, lead to real economic benefits.

Yet, in Ireland, the best scientists are not properly supported, or supported at all in many cases. They are left to their own devices to try and find agencies outside of Ireland to fund them.

Their crime? They do ‘blue skies’ research. The kind of research that has no predefined outcome, which is creative, and hard to control, which has no guaranteed outcomes.

The politicians, and, thus, SFI want to play it safe. This is resulting is no funding of blue skies work, but lots of funding for ho-hum research of no great significance. And, the science world has noticed what’s happening.

Reputation 

The problem with reputations, of course, is that they are easily earned, and much harder to shake off. Ireland’s reputation in science is a place where little creativity is happening.

The evidence is there for anyone who cares to look. Take the case of the European Research Council (ERC). This is a body set up in 2007 with the mission of ‘supporting top researchers from anywhere in the world’.

Researchers based in Ireland have a dreadful record when it comes to securing prestigious advanced grants from the ERC, the gold standard today in European scientific excellence.

Earlier this year, the ERC awarded 445 million euro to 190 new advanced grantees across Europe. Not a single researcher based in Ireland received one of these 190 new grants.

The reason? It’s not due to a lack of scientific talent here. No, the problem is that the ERC requires scientists to have support from their national agencies to secure their support.

In Ireland, scientists that want to do research simply to advance scientific knowledge do not secure SFI support because they do not fulfil its plethora of commercial pre-conditions.

A really good scientist in Ireland working in a field that is not deemed by to be commercially important will not get SFI support, and thus, will have no hope of securing ERC support.

Spin 

The question arises then as to what is the role of science in Ireland under current policy? When all the spin about supporting ‘world class research’ is removed the answer is clear.

The role of science in Ireland is to support industry, create new jobs if possible, create new high tech start ups, and provide the type of graduates that multi-nationals here want to hire.

This then allows politicians to say we have invested X amount of taxpayers money in science, but that in return we have done A, B, and C, which has benefited the Irish economy greatly.

There are many problems with this approach. The most obvious is that science policy is set up to serve the short term needs of a group politicians rather than the long term needs of society.

If politicians alone decide what science should be funded then disaster must follow. It would be far better to allow scientists far more say on policy and what and who should be funded.

The demands on scientists too, to have industry partners secured in advance of funding, and to look for opportunities to secure patents or start new companies, puts serious scientists off.

Scientists that love their work, especially the best ones, and they did not go into science to claim patents, set up companies, or look at spreadsheets.

The result of this approach of course, is that many of the very best scientists in Ireland ignore SFI, and get their funding from places like the Wellcome Trust where their research is valued.

This is all bad enough, but what’s worse is that scientists are actively being discouraged from doing good science; and encouraged to do mediocre science that ticks all the right boxes.

What kind of scientist wants to do research where they know the answers in advance? Very few, I’d venture. Yet, many do it because it is the only way to get their research funded.

Grateful 

The SFI Summit this week hosted some 300 researchers, all highly grateful no doubt to receive support from SFI. Good luck to them all and many may well achieve great things.

However, if they do so, it will be largely because they were clever enough to find a way to do creative science within a system that demands they serve the short term needs of politicians.

Or, because they decide they have had enough of SFI and all the commercial nonsense in Ireland, and decide to up sticks and head for a country where they can do creative science.

This is why, as things stand, SFI is leading Irish science over the cliff.  Our reputation as a place to do science is already damaged, and, the longer current policy continues, the more serious, and long lasting the damage will be. 

Ireland failing at European research level

FOR SCIENCE PAGE... Professor Luke O'Neill of the Biotechnology Institute in TCD with clones of the Toll-like receptor 3 gene which is disabled by Pox viruses. Photograph: Frank Miller 5.3.03

Professor Luke O’Neill is one of just 10 holders of Advanced Research Grants from the European Research Council based in Ireland (Credit: TCD)

Ireland’s dire showing in the latest round of European Research Council (ERC) advanced grants last week, suggests that basic scientific research here is not up to European, let alone world, standards.

There was 445 million euro awarded last week by the ERC in advanced grants – the gold standard in European scientific excellence these days. There were 190 new advanced research grantees across Europe.

Ireland’s return? One new advanced grant out of 190, and the one that we did get wasn’t awarded to a scientist. It went to Poul Holm, an environmental historian based at Trinity College Dublin.

It’s stunning that not one scientist based in Ireland, out of 190 awardees, received an advanced grant award. Ireland simply wasn’t mapped. It’s true to say that Ireland did receive 30 million euro in consolidator and starter grants, which is very welcome.

But, at senior level, where it really matters, Irish science got nothing. To ‘celebrate’ the awarding of the 30 million as Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) did in a press release seems delusional. It is bit like Leitrim football supporters believing a senior All Ireland title is due in the next few years, because they have a couple of promising underage players.

Many of the best scientists working in Europe are supported by advanced grants from the European Research Council (ERC) which was set up in 2007, among them several Nobel Prize winners. That’s where it’s at in Europe these days, if you are a serious, top level scientist.

“It doesn’t look good whatever way you look at it as the advanced grant is definitely seen as the Champions League of Europe,” said  Professor Luke O’Neill, Trinity College Dublin, a holder of an advanced grant.

Questions must now be asked of the whole direction of science strategy here. Quite simply, there is not enough being done by Science Foundation Ireland (SFI), the main body supporting science here, and the Irish government to  get Ireland-based researchers up to the level of ERC advanced grant awards.

“One point I have made repeatedly is that unless SFI supports outstanding basic research,” said Prof O’Neill, ‘”it will definitely limit out capacity to get ERC funding and that might well be what’s happened here.”

Basic failure 

Ireland’s poor performance at advanced ERC level is nothing new. Since 2007, there have been just 10 advanced awardees, including the latest one, out of a total of approximately 1,800.

That’s a return of some 0.5% of the awards for the best, most innovative research in Europe over an eight year period, and calls into question the Government’s strategy of allowing industry-led research clusters to drive the research agenda in Ireland.

It means that despite the talk of world class research going on here that the reality is that Ireland is not even close to the top of the European research league table.

The lack of sufficient support for top quality basic research here means Irish science risks becoming something that is just done to suit the immediate needs of industry. Science here follows, while real breakthroughs are made elsewhere

“An ERC advanced grant has to be truly innovative  in the real sense of the word – if the project works it will break new scientific ground, not a new technology,”  said Prof O’Neill.

Professor Rob Kitchin, another advanced ERC grantee, at Maynooth University, said that the fact that Ireland spends less as a percentage of its GDP on research than many other countries, while what we do spend is pushed towards applied rather than basic research, means  that it is not surprising that we are not doing well at advanced ERC grant level.

“My personal view is that if Ireland wants to do really well on ERCs and university rankings then it should invest more heavily in humanities and social sciences where we perform better in many rankings than we do in a lot of sciences – and it would be easier to leverage advantage and rise in positions,” said Prof Kitchin.

“Part of the problem with ERC applications is they are very large endeavours that take quite a lot of time to put together and have low rates of success, which puts people off who have very heavy loads  and Ireland has very high staff to student ratios.”

“If we want success we have to identify who realistically stands a chance of getting one and to give them the time and space to put a competitive bid together,” said Prof Kitchin.

“ I think we do have some ‘premier league’ players but they are already significantly overcommitted.,” said Prof Kitchin. “ We either have to clone them, free them up, recruit others like them, or look to the generation slightly behind them.”

More links between science and arts can boost creativity all around

It has always irritated me a bit when people talk of scientists as lacking in creativity. This criticism often comes from ‘artsy’ people who consider themselves to be well…..creative.

We all accept that chipping at a block of stone until a muscular figure emerges is creative; that writing poetry which brilliantly describes what many of us think, but can’t express is creative; that composing a symphony is creative.

Yet, why is it that so many people then do not think that what scientists do is not creative? The image is that of a robotic, almost lifeless figure, pouring and mixing things in the lab, until something important happens, almost by accident.

What got me thinking about this – again – today was the arrival of my 7-year-old son’s report card on the doormat. It seems that he has ‘very high’ ability in maths AND visual arts.

Now, like any Dad, I was delighted with my son’s good report card. But, I also questioned why I – who should know better as I have a degree in science and arts – was left wondering how he could possibly be good at both maths and art.

Thing is, both maths and art are creative endeavours and he’s obviously a creative little chap.

How can anyone argue that the mathematics which yielded a ingenious strategy to split the atom was not creative? Or that putting men on the Moon didn’t require creativity, or building the Large Hadron Collider required no creativity.

It’s nonsense, yet the powerful myth of the robotic, dull and diligent scientist in a white coat persists.

In recent years, there has been a surge in co-operation between scientists, engineers and mathematicians, all coming at problems with a different perspective. That has yielded tremendous new insights and knowledge for mankind.

I would argue that what we now need is more research linkages between the scientists and the arts. In Ireland, we have a great heritage in both fields, and it make sense to combine all our talents to good effect.

The benefits to society – please nobody mention economics, patents or start ups! – would be enormous.

Meanwhile, take a bow young Ted. You’ve an ice cream coming to you later.

Time to ’embed’ communication into scientific training

Aalborg University

Aalborg University in Denmark has ’embedded’ communication skills into its undergraduate science and engineering programmes [Credit: Wikipedia]

There is wide acceptance in Ireland and everywhere that ‘communication’ skills are a crucial pre-requisite for a scientist to have a successful career.

For example, a recent survey conducted on academics across three universities in Ireland – DCU, NUIM and RCSI – found 78.7 per cent ‘agreed strongly’ that communication skills are an essential part of scientific training at 3rd level.

However, despite this finding, when it comes to the implementation of science communication initiatives here it’s s a case of too little, far too late.

There used to be no communication training for scientists whatsoever. These days things have improved, slightly. There are now a small number of taught modules for PhD candidates within the structured PhD programme.

The problem

I have taught some of these PhD modules, so I declare that interest. However, the experience has left me strongly believing that PhD stage is far too late. For real change to happen, it has to be implemented far earlier, and in a more radical way.

Many of the PhD students I have come across are often too focused on their research, and its minute details, to care about communication and there is little encouragement from their supervisors.

The way science is structured means that supervisors want the PhD candidates working tirelessly in the lab, and anything that is a distraction from that is resisted – actively or passively.

Science communication fits that category.

At undergraduate level in Ireland, in science and engineering, there is no science communication training at all, yet this is where it needs to begin.

The communication problem we have in science begins on the first day the science or engineering undergrad sits down and listens to their first lecture.

The undergrad begins to build new knowledge and this includes learning the language of science, or more precisely, the languages of science.

As they learn the languages of science, they delve ever deeper into the subject matter, and they move further away from what is – plain English.

By the time, students have completed a four year degree they are routinely using words and terms that are opaque to the average person.

It is seen as something of a scientific badge of honour to be able to understand the ‘jargon’ of Geology, or Biology, or subsets upon subsets of such areas.

The big picture is lost; the ability to see where a research area came from historically, where it fits in with the modern world, and where it’s going.

The drive is for new knowledge, more detailed, more precise, often more remote from the ‘man in the street’ and to publish such new knowledge.

To try and train PhD candidates to communicate science to a general audience, thus, goes against everything they have been taught up to then.

Teaching science communication to PhDs is akin to a struggle to get them to ‘unlearn’ how they communicate science, and to start again, with a completely new perspective. Difficult. Not impossible, but difficult. Far better to start earlier.

Taxpayer

The real driving force for change here in Ireland is the funding agencies, such as Science Foundation Ireland, who demand that outreach be done.

In return for receiving funding from the Irish taxpayer the scientist today MUST describe his research in terms everyone that pays tax in Ireland can understand. Fair is fair – after all the taxpayer is footing the bill.

However, this relatively new (since around 2000) landscape in Ireland is uncomfortable for many scientists, as simply they don’t like to communicate, and if they do, they believe their work is devalued.

Scientists often complain that science journalists ‘dumb down’ research to make it understandable to the public or try to ‘sensationalise it’.

These are often the same scientists that can’t be bothered to try explain their work in a way that can make it accessible to a wide audience.

The problem for these ‘old school’ scientists in Ireland and elsewhere is that government funding bodies continue to insist that they explain and talk to the public. No communication = no further funding. End of.

Solution

So, for lots of reasons, scientists need to be better able to communicate their science to a wider public, the question is how best to do that?

Given that – as I wrote earlier – the problem begins on the first day of university, then the solution has to start also on that very first day.

The whole system has to change. That is probably why nothing has really happened up to now. The solution demands a radical change at 3rd level.

Science communication cannot be done as an afterthought at post graduate level. No. The way we teach science must change. Science communication must be embedded in curriculum. It must be part of the way subjects are taught.

The ability to explain science, and to understand where it fits in to the broader picture, must be a central part of the actual teaching and learning of science itself. It might sound like common sense, but in science, this will be seen as revolutionary talk in some quarters.

So, for example, the learning of the principles of Genetics must go hand in hand with an ability to explain the science to a group of non-scientists.

This means students must truly understand the science, before they move on to the next level, and how better to test that than to get them to describe.

These communication skills can be part and part of group work, and group work is also an essential part of how science is done.

In short, the scientific leadership in Ireland must stop seeing communication as separate from science. It must become part of scientific training from day one.

Undergraduates must be encouraged to think, how would I communicate this concept to other people? This can be done in many imaginative ways. Let’s talk about it.

It’s time now to embed communication into the training of scientists. There are working models out there if we care to look – in places like Aalborg University in Denmark. It’s time for action.

Ireland should follow the Danish model of science communication

Aalborg University

Aalborg University in Denmark, pictured here, was set up in 1974 with the remit of embedded communication in undegraduate science programmes [Picture credit; Wikipedia]

More than 90 per cent of people believe – if the straw poll conducted on this site recently is accurate – that communication is essential for a scientist to be successful in his career.  This result fits all the anecdotal evidence that is available.

This is quite something. It means that most  people believe that no matter how good a scientist is in the lab, they will not have e successful career if they can’t effectively communicate the value of their research to their peers and non scientists alike.

Being a top scientist in the lab is not, it seems, enough.  Over the 20 years I have spent working as science journalist, I have found that – almost without exception –  the top scientists are also superb communicators.

The leading scientists today, those typically aged in their 40s, 50s and 60s, have managed to become brilliant communicators without any training whatsoever.

Indeed in the 1980s in my own period as a undergraduate, talking to the press, or lay people about science, was not encouraged at all. It was even frowned upon.

Today there is no argument; everyone agrees; whether it is writing a grant proposal, or pitching for funding, or talking to a group of 15-year-old school students, scientists absolutely need to have very good communication skills.

Against this background, it is remarkable that science communication training in Ireland, and lots of other developed countries too, only happens – if it happens at all – at post-graduate level. This is a case of far too little, and far too late.

Doctoral students, and their research supervisors, often resent being dragged away from the lab,  to do a science communication module, which they see, at that stage of their career – and rightly so – as being less than their number one priority.

The Danish model

So, how do other countries ‘do’ science communication? Could we be doing things better? The answer is, most certainly, yes.

Perhaps the best model around is that of Aalborg University in Denmark. This highly progressive university was set up in 1974 with the specific remit of having communication ’embedded’ into undergraduate science degrees.

Thus, learning about how to communicate science goes hand in hand, from day one, with the actual learning of scientific concepts. How better to test whether learning has happened or not, than to test students’ ability to explain a concept or an idea to others?

Undergraduates thus see communication of science, as part and parcel of the learning of science. The students realise that they will be judged by examiners on their learning of science, as expressed through the quality of how they communicate it.

In short, the students must become good communicators to make it through their degree.  The better they are at communication the higher the grades they will achieve.

This is a totally different, and much more productive approach, than lumping communication modules on post grads. It’s too late at that stage, as post-grads will have already spent four, five or six years in a system that has ignored the need to communicate.

That’s sorted then.

So, all universities in Ireland you have been served notice – It’s time to embed communication skills into all your undergraduate degree science programmes, or face the consequences down the line.

If this is done well, then students, the university, and  Irish society, and the high-tech local economy generally will benefit hugely.

 

 

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