BBC BLOGS - Newsnight: Susan Watts

Archives for July 2010

David Willetts outlines vision for science

Susan Watts | 13:53 UK time, Friday, 9 July 2010

Britain cannot afford to be first in every area of science, the Government's science minister warned today.

David Willetts, in his first speech as science minister, told an audience at London's Royal Institution that just being first is not the most compelling argument for funding scientific research.

He said he's much more persuaded by the argument that we need enough cutting edge research to make the most of first class science coming from overseas - a process with the catchy title "absorptive capacity".

Mr Willetts also made clear his sympathy for pure science, which will please many in the research world. He said he'd been persuaded by the need to give scientists the space to pursue their ideas, citing what he described as the paradox that very significant impact can come from pure science, and suggesting that Sir Alec Jeffreys did not predict at the outset the extraordinary impact of his work on DNA fingerprinting.

The minister also said he believes the "scientific way of thinking" - justifying a position by argument and evidence - will become increasingly important in our society, citing his own experience as part of a coalition Government.

But as his department works out which areas of science to cut, he set out this pointer for those arguing their case. "There's certainly nothing wrong with wanting to achieve something for your country. And fame, competition and pride are human motives that we find in every walk of life. But none of this is an economic argument for being the first person to make a scientific discovery. Why does it matter economically that we should be first or that something should be discovered by a Brit? "

He said the cuts will not result in "equal misery" across all scientific fields - suggesting that some areas of science will feel the pain more than others. And in an aside that may worry the Russell Group of universities he did not rule out maintaining individually excellent departments even in a university which is not itself deemed among the elite.

The minister also officially announced today that he's putting on hold for a year a Labour Government exercise designed to weigh up the economic "impact" of scientific research. He said he's not yet convinced that the methods used to assess such impact are "sound", and that he wants to make sure that scientists are more broadly on board with this process before taking it further.

He wants less emphasis on what he called the "sausage machine" approach to innovation, whereby pure science, leads to an individual spin-off company, which attracts venture capital and results in a Porsche in the car park. Rather he supports "clusters" of excellence, quoting claims by Dundee's city council that hundreds of computer game and creative industries have grown up around Abertay University.

'Climategate' scientists honest but should have been more open

Susan Watts | 13:18 UK time, Wednesday, 7 July 2010

The rigour and honesty of the scientists at the heart of the "climategate" row is not in doubt, according to the third and final inquiry into the release of around a thousand emails from the University of East Anglia's Climatic Research Unit (CRU).

But the same inquiry team came to the potentially damaging conclusion that a graph from the scientists, used prominently by the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) was "misleading", though there had been no intent to mislead.

The vice chancellor of the University, Edward Acton, described the findings as "complete exoneration" of Phil Jones - the former head of the CRU, who stepped down during the furore.

He announced today that Dr Jones is to take up a new post as head of research at the university's school of environmental sciences, a move designed to remove some of the administrative burdens he's faced, such as dealing with Freedom of Information requests.

It's unlikely that the report will satisfy those sceptical of the motives of the climate scientists involved, and of climate science itself. The team, under Sir Muir Russell, noted that this has become an area of science with deeply entrenched views.

They stressed the need for greater openness and attempts to establish a new, constructive dialogue with the blogosphere.

The graph which drew the inquiry team's attention was the one the scientists were talking about in emails in which they spoke of a "trick" to "hide the decline". The inquiry team found this figure misleading because it combined separate sets of data, but did not make this sufficiently clear. The report does not find it wrong to "splice" data in this way per se, but given that the graph later gained iconic status, the scientists should have made clearer what they'd done.

The team said they did not find that the scientists intended to mislead in producing this graph, which was used to "paint a picture", and not aimed at submission to a scientific journal.

On the allegation that Dr Jones had deleted emails, the inquiry team did find evidence that emails "might have been deleted in order to make them unavailable should a subsequent request be made for them". But neither the university nor the inquiry team asked the scientist specifically if he had deleted emails that were subject to a FoI request. Edward Acton said the law in the UK is in a state of flux on this issue, and that he had never met anyone who had not deleted emails in anticipation that they might be requested.

The inquiry team also said it had found it easy to download the data it needed to reconstruct global temperature graphs, writing computer source code to process that over just a couple of days. They said this suggests that those who repeatedly requested data were employing a neat "debating point".

The police inquiry into who actually released the emails is ongoing. Darrell Ince, professor of computing at the Open University who advises police on computing issues, told Newsnight that this appears to be taking an inordinately long time.

I'll have more tonight Newnsight at 10.30pm, BBC Two and Gavin will be discussing the implications of the report and the whole 'climategate' affair in the studio.

Embrace uncertainty, and tell us about it

Susan Watts | 10:25 UK time, Wednesday, 7 July 2010

Today sees the publication of the last of three inquiries into the famous release of emails from the University of East Anglia's Climatic Research Unit (CRU), late last year. (The previous inquiries were by the House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee and a Science Assessment Panel led by Lord Oxburgh (pdf link).)

The report, from a panel chaired by Sir Muir Russell, a former Scottish civil servant, will surely include a further call for scientists to be more open and transparent about their methods, by publishing source code for the computer software that they use, as well as the original data. This much has already emerged as a theme in previous reports.

As Darrell Ince, professor of Computing at the Open University, told Newsnight, there's no reason these days why all of this cannot be stored in an easily accessible form on the web, for anyone to read and make sense of. This would help to make it straight forward for outsiders to verify research, or not. And that, after all, has been the way that the best science has worked for a very long time. Why should climate science be an exception?

There will undoubtedly be a call too for greater acknowledgement of uncertainty, of nuance in findings - and for that to be clearly expressed. I know I keep banging on about this, but it's an emerging mantra for the increasing number of areas where science rubs up against policy making (see swine flu story from last week). And I suspect that the conclusions of the third inquiry into "climategate" will sound a note along these lines.

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