Some science policy stuff

A survey of political tweets by Tweetminster has shown that Science was among the top thirty-nine tweeted about subjects in politics in the first hundred days of the new government, edging out Mandelson and his memoirs and even the hardy perennial of immigration.

One reason for this is a vociferous campaign on where the axe should fall in the upcoming cuts and reprioritisation of spending. Articles like this in the Sun have been written by scientists. The Government has also been running a project whereby people could send in their ideas on where cuts can be found (of which, the ideas are being collated for people to vote on the best ones at this website). Among those submitting ideas were people affiliated to the Science and Technologies Research Council, who suggested cutting the shared services centre. Another suggestion is to remove the ‘scientific impact’ statement from the grant request assessment procedure (on which it has no bearing, but takes up plenty of time) and perhaps tag it on as a requirement for successful grant requests only, as a follow up to the assessment, which ninety percent of requests fail to make it through. And thirdly, a suggestion I’ve wondered about for a while, is the merger of the seven research councils into one. Not only would this be more cost-effective, it would also make interdisciplinary funding more accessible. Jon Butterworth has more comments on this.

One aspect of science policy is in the news at the moment, with the publication of A-level results, teaching through the universities is in the spotlight. The Telegraph has highlighted an apparent fall in some ratings of UK universities (although others have pointed out at least one of the universities hasn’t actually changed position). But the research groups are getting on with it. UCL has been finding supercomputing time for two projects, for example, one to study turbulence and another to improve solar panels as well as being involved in the first tentative steps into the region of potential new physics through the LHC.

But to make the case for science, it can be useful to demonstrate the impact of science and the space industry on everyday life. The UK Space Agency has been doing just that, looking at the use of satellite derived data in legal evidence, meanwhile the European Space Agency has been highlighting potential new spin offs from the space industry aimed at the oil and gas industry.

Costly new instruments will never have a set of ready made results to prove their worth before building, but they can still make their case. This paper examines the potential science payoff from the European Extremely Large Telescope (Unique Selling Point – it is big) and the FAQ page for the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (USP, it looks at things that change in brightness or position and sends out alerts to scientists) includes everything down to the crossover between what it can see and what an amateur telescope can spot. But things like this, really big projects, tend to require either their own sources of funding or for the community to come together and decide they fit with the priorities of the field over the coming years. This is assessed by various means including the Decadal Survey and decisions taken by ESA and the STFC. Thoughts on the results of the latest decadal survey and what it means for the shape of astronomy over the next ten years can be found on Sarah Askew and In the Dark among many, many others.

Moving onto science journalism and the baying twitter mob whose growth was fostered by various attacks on science, impending cuts and the election, has been on the lookout for potential breaks in the quality of science reporting. This led to one poor reporter’s innocent request for information supporting a story to be savaged before the mob realised this was a friend not foe and apologised. The kind of things the mob are on alert for, asides from general bad science, include things like these Sins of Science Journalism. In the absence of warning labels on journalistic content,  and in the face of perennial hoaxes such as this, the word of mouth, or tweet of fingers, is all we have.

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