Thursday, March 22, 2007

The Times Higher recently commissioned an article from me, the subject being the recently announced cuts in UK research funding. They were particularly interested in the views of a "young academic", so I was delighted to see that the resulting piece was made the lead opinion article in today's edition. It's available on the THES website, but I'm reproducing it here with their kind permission. The headline (and accompanying cartoon) appear to have been derived from a rather throwaway remark I made in the final sentence.

Labour's infidelity will not be forgiven easily
Martyn Amos, Times Higher Education Supplement, March 22 2007, p. 12.

Ripples from the collapse of Rover two years ago are apparently lapping at the doors of UK university departments. The decision to dip into research funds was, according to the Department of Trade and Industry, to cover "exceptional" costs. The demise of the car firm was a one-off budgetary burden that should be borne by all.

The image of an administration battling to save jobs in a region blighted by industrial decline is one the DTI is in no hurry to dispel. A closer inspection of the department's figures suggests the exercise was more about fiscal firefighting than industrial or social intervention. But behind the smokescreen of short-term financial juggling lie deeper concerns about fundamental breaches of trust.

Senior academics and industry leaders reacted with dismay to the announcement that about £68 million of funding destined for science would instead be diverted back to the DTI to address these "historic and new" financial pressures. Although the Rover debacle was pushed to the front of the crowd of good causes, other recipients of recalled funds lurked in the background. Jokes about David Cameron's alleged drug use at school have recently filled the corridors of Whitehall, but, to the Government, Weeed is no joke. That's the Waste Electronic and Electrical Equipment Directive to the uninitiated, a European Union edict that requires companies to dispose of obsolete white goods on behalf of consumers. UK implementation of this directive has been put on hold twice, the delay necessitating an additional funding shot to the tune of £27 million - only a couple of million short of the £29 million taken back from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council. Michael Kenward, a former editor of New Scientist magazine, has highlighted the irony of funding the cost of delays in implementing electrical recycling by taking money away from the very agency that has green technologies at the top of its research agenda.

Whatever lies behind the decision to cut research funding, as a relatively junior member of staff I am acutely aware of the impact that these changes may have on the rank and file. The short-term implications are that roughly 100 research council grants will no longer be funded. Many of these would have been supported in "responsive mode", a mechanism designed to offer maximum flexibility in terms of project size and scope. Younger scientists are particularly encouraged to apply within this framework, as are those proposing adventurous or multidisciplinary research - all of which are vital to the long-term development of healthy science and innovation. Since most grants run for between two and five years, the research councils are obliged to cover these future costs from a much diminished purse and must cut back on flexible, short-term activities. These include studentships and fellowships - precisely the mechanisms by which new researchers establish their groups and develop their careers. Long-term, risky research will be sacrificed for the purposes of short-term expediency.

Perhaps more significant, this decision represents a sea change in the relationship between Labour and the scientific community. For the first time since taking power, the Government has reneged on its promises about the funding of science. This had previously enjoyed protected status within the Office of Science and Engineering to encourage medium to long-term research that might extend beyond the lifetime of governments. The dismantling of this ring fence has sent out a signal to some that the DTI can choose to ignore Treasury rules on science funding whenever it sees fit.

Early portents of the cuts came soon after the resignation of Lord Sainsbury from his post of Science Minister, a long tenure that had been greeted with almost universal approval from the research community. According to one insider quoted in The Times Higher in the wake of the announcement of the cuts: "The fact that he has left has made this possible." The formal announcement came while his successor, Malcolm Wicks, was on a trip to an operation funded by the Natural Environment Research Council.

The Government will argue that the cuts amount to less than 1 per cent of the total science budget, and that funding levels will be restored or even improved in future. But, like a cheating partner, the administration must understand that the long-term damage wrought by their breach of trust cannot simply be undone by promises to behave better in future.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Passport hell

Dennis Shasha, academic, author and the series editor for my first book, has very kindly invited me over to Paris for a week to do some work. Of course, my wife and daughter were also invited, and we thought it would be a chance to introduce Alice to the city where her parents enjoyed their honeymoon (during the heatwave of 2003 - even less romantically, we thought it might also be a chance to get some rather messy but necessary work done on the house in our absence).

As is common in our household, various arrangements had been left until the last minute, the most significant one being passports for my wife and daughter. Luckily, one of the regional centres that deals with fast-track (ie. within two weeks) applications is just down the road in Liverpool, so I made an appointment to go over there today. Which is where the fun started.

The regulations concerning the acceptability of photographs for use on passports are fairly relaxed for children under five, but they still specify things like "no other person visible in the background". If you've ever tried to get a 12-month old to sit still, in a photo booth, looking in the vague direction of the camera, whilst remaining invisible yourself, then you'll know what we're up against. A couple of days ago, my wife had the following taken:

Which we thought would be fine. How little we knew. We dropped into our local Post Office on the way to Liverpool, just to double-check that the photo would be acceptable. "No", was the quick response, since Justine's arm is clearly visible in the background. Cue quick dash to Morrisons and frantic changing of notes into pound coins.

Our first effort wasn't too bad, in a moody, My Bloody Valentine album cover sort of way. But nowhere near good enough to satisfy the sticklers at the passport agency. So we tried again.

Away with the fairies. So we tried again.

Too blurred, face in the wrong part of the shot, looking down. By this point, we'd burned through 12 quid, I'd lost all feeling in my legs from kneeling on the floor of the photo booth, and we were in severe danger of missing our pre-booked appointment. So we decided to just get there and then worry about it.

Sure enough, the lovely (and I don't mean that sarcastically, they really were lovely, accomodating and helpful) people in Liverpool told us that none of the photos would be acceptable, but they had their own photo booth for just such an eventuality. They also passed on some wisdom on how to control toddlers whilst remaining invisible, thus sticking to the rules. Which is how we came to get this (acceptable!) shot:

If you look closely, you can see that Alice is actually sitting on my lap. That's me, in the background. Wearing a white T-shirt over my head.