Sunday 9th February–More storms

winter-storms-uk-christma-448115.jpgLast night the wind rattled the windows all night, I have never known anything like it and it made for a disturbed sleep yet again.

The only good thing I have seen in the news, about these storms, is that someone in the Met Office has announced that they are linked to global warming and climate changes – not before time, there are still too many people unwilling to accept these changes are man-made.  Perhaps even worse for this country is the fact that the current disaster has now become a party political agenda and all we are likely to see for the next few months are the two main parties facing-off against each other to gain political points before the next election!  This is the opposite of what we need and, instead of bleating on about the cost and whose fault it is that there has been a lack of investment, what we need is a clear cross-party proposal to plan for water management (a plan that everyone can understand and accept the reasoning behind) and a political agreement to see the cost as an investment in the future and an opportunity not a burden.  The plan should detail the cost of possible further flooding and storm damage so that people can also understand the cost of doing nothing, but even more important is that communities should see how they can help and how funding can rescue them from the current disaster – this is an opportunity for everyone to work together.  A part of this plan should include insurance coverage and the government must ensure people are protected from excessive premiums.  It really is a chance for all political parties, utility companies, local government and communities to work together to meet this challenge and an opportunity for the political parties to show that they can be trusted to look beyond a singe parliamentary term.

Okay that is my rant for the day!

Time to play politics

It was interesting to hear the UK Prime-Minister, yesterday, indicating he wanted to support pensioners (who represent the most significant voting group in the UK) and, unsurprisingly, that a similar spin came from the Opposition.  So, the politicians are focussed on next year’s election and there will no doubt be a series of short-term initiatives over the coming months.  This initiative was closely followed by an economic “doom and gloom” speech from The Chancellor, who indicated lots of budget cuts following the next election (I am not sure that tactic will win votes though) and, in the meantime, most of the country is floundering though some of the wettest weather any winter has brought us!Car-floods

As one of the voters who the politicians are “chasing” I find the current views on what amount to important political issues very strange.  There is no doubt in my mind that the weather systems of the world are starting to change (as predicted by those who have described the effects of global warming) and that the adverse weather we have seen recently will get worse, but the politicians do nothing to address this issue.  This is a classic symptom of short-term thinking that governments are driven to by the nature of the five-year term (something that led previous governments to ignore the problem of pensions for the baby boom generation).  It is clear that storm damage is already affecting the economy and that if things go on as they have been for the last few weeks that the total cost will escalate.  This is a classic case of a need for a long-term scheme to improve infrastructure.  It is no good the Prime Minister pushing blame, and who should provide solutions, toward local government, the problem of the impact of global warming needs to be addressed in many ways and one of these is to improve water management – this means solve issues of flooding as well as improving long term storage issues.  This would represent an ideal opportunity for industry (the Water youthvoteCompanies) and Government to work together over a twenty year period.  This would also be an unusual political gamble that would require the usual opposite views to be put aside and the main political parties to agree to discuss details in a constructive manner – something that I think might encourage young voters to vote!

So, stop trying to woo voters with short-term offers that have little or no real value and start to look like a truly altruistic Government.  Bring the Opposition on board with the aim of creating a mechanism for long-term schemes to be financed properly and I for one might change the way I vote!  Invest in the infrastructure of the country and strengthen the economy through jobs and reduce the impact of disasters.

TV sound balance – a bit of a whinge

SoundI watch TV using Sky, but I cannot believe the problem I am hearing is their fault, it is that between programmes, on many if not most channels, the sound balance changes dramatically.  Advertisements seem to be the worst and are much louder than the sound level used in the programme, but also station announcements about forthcoming programmes are also far too loud.  This problem is really pronounced when listening to a film, any advertisements during the break are so loud we have to turn the sound level down to hear ourselves think.

I have noticed this problem developing over the last few years (and I am not the only one to notice) and it first started to manifest itself as music that was too loud during speech passages in a variety of TV shows (I really noticed in Dr Who).  I assumed that a new generation of sound engineers were learning their trade, but it continued!  It is also happening on imported TV shows, so this is a problem worldwide, but why?

Surely it is not so difficult for sound engineers to monitor the sound levels during a programme and balance the transmitted levels when they have announcements between programmes.  I have software that does this for music, so it cannot be that difficult.

Who owns science

scienceYou might think that this is a simple question with a simple answer, but the truth is far from simple and this subject led to a very lengthy debate the last time I raised it with my colleagues.   However, before we get to the subject a simple definition or two are needed:

  • Science – what I mean by science is “experimental-based discovery science” of the type that is carried out in Universities.  I do not mean industry-funded science, or research that involves review of a subject.  Pure research, carried out for the sake of interest is often known as “blue-skies” research, but it can often lead to unexpected commercial outcomes.
  • Ownership of science – by own I really mean how accessible is scientific information as it is access to the science that defines ownership.  I hope this will become more clear as I develop this blog!

I guess before we get to ownership of science it is important to first explain how research is funded in the UK and how it is carried out in Universities:

Research Funding:

Science-funding-graphic-007

There are a large number of funding sources available both in the UK and across Europe, of which the research councils and European research grants are the largest funders, but significant funding also comes from charities and from private sources.  All of these types of funding are competitive and awarded to individual scientists, or groups of scientists who collaborate toward an overall goal.

Universities also receive direct funding of research from government, through the research councils, in the form of infrastructure awards (often based on how many research grants were awarded, but also on measured success of individual researchers).  Sometimes, this funding is targeted at commercially-orientated research and sometimes at “blue-skies” research.  In addition, there are various sources of infrastructure funding, to which universities can bid in a competitive way, in order to establish equipment or resources for research.

Finally, individual researchers may have access to funds that allow small research projects to be initiated, that are either university-based or belong to the individual within the university’s research framework (overheads and slush funds).

Establishing a research project:

Any full-time employee at a university can apply for a research grant and carry out research; although, to get a competitive grant the individual usually needs an established research profile.  However, it is often a surprise to those outside of the university system that carrying out research is not a contractual requirement for a university employee, but simply something that is often expected or desired by the employer.  So, academics do not have to apply for research grants and are not forced to do so – research usually springs from their own interests – and many academics only carry out teaching duties.

Those that want to engage in a research project have two ways to start:

  1. Join an existing research group and follow their own path within that research group.
  2. Establish a new research group, seek external funding and hope to gain sufficient expertise to follow the first funding with further funding – often a difficult pathway.

Researcher%20reading%20books%20about%20Biology%20The%20Arts%20MIt is generally accepted that the chances of obtaining funding from most sources is at best 1:5, so it may well take five applications to get one grant, but sometimes this process also means changing the details in the grant application and also looking to a different funding sources – becoming an established researcher is not easy and may require many hours of reading and writing!  Sometimes support comes from the university in the way of PhD studentships, which lend a pair of hands to the process of obtaining enough results to add weight to an initial application.  In addition, some funding sources include grants aimed at new researchers 9often young scientists at the beginning of their career).

Measuring Research Ability:

In this modern era, where every work-based activity is monitored for efficiency, science is no different and grants are only awarded to researchers who have a strong rating in what is known as the Research Excellence Framework (REF – previously known as, the Research Assessment Exercise or RAE).  The award of externally-funded grants is a major part of this exercise, but the other major measurement of research excellence is publishing in peer-reviewed journals and this now brings us to our main subject as this is the first measure of access to science.  Without easy access to published research it is impossible to write a successful research grant proposal.

research-impact-cartoon

It should be clear from what I have already said that access to published science is the start point for writing any grant application.  Strangely, despite the fact that the researcher carries out the research, he does not necessary have access to even his own published work.  This is a quirk from using publishing houses to print and distribute published science, but is also a trap created by the REF exercise where a main requirement is to  publish in high-impact journals to improve the REF-rating.  However, these high-impact journals are usually owned by the major publishing houses and the general method for publication means that copyright lies with the publishing houses.  This problem of access to published science is compounded by the fact that the publishing houses restrict access to published papers unless you subscribe, in one form or another, to the journal!  Recently, there has been a strong movement amongst scientists to change the way science is published, but this is still a problem area.  Some grants include sufficient funds to pay for “open-access” research papers, but many do not.  In fact, a good illustration of this problem is how difficult it is for the general public to access published science – without a library subscription to a number of journals, the cost would be prohibitive.

In summary, even the best scientists do not have immediate access to their own published work, at best they depend on their university library to purchase journals that enable such access and as such they do NOT own their own research!  If they have used grant funds to publish in an open access journal then they will be able to read and access that paper, along with anyone else in the world, and therefore they will have “bought” ownership of their research.

Invention, Patents and Ownership:Law

Of course, publishing research papers is only one aspect of research, but it is the primary means by which research is disseminated and as a consequence a very important aspect of science.  However, some research leads to invention and under the British patent system that is the primary mechanism for obtaining a patent.  A patent allows release of details of the science, publication to the general public, but uses the “strong arm of the law” to prevent the work being copied, allowing the inventor the right to commercial exploitation.  If the research looks as though it may lead to commercialisation then a patent is a very important aspect for protecting the work and the ideas.  Often a university will pay the costs of patent applications, but who owns the patent and who owns the research that led to it?  There is no doubt that the researcher’s input is an absolute requirement for the invention, but university employees (in the UK) are subject to a clause in their contract that states that any invention, arising from research at the university, will belong to the university!  One argument that is used to support this situation is that without the university’s infrastructure (especially high cost equipment) the invention might not be possible.  So, a patent may have the inventor’s name on the front, but ownership is the university’s.

sif_chemists_28feb06So, who really owns science?  Well, it doesn’t really seem that it is the researcher (in many cases they cannot even guarantee that they can read their own papers); although, there are often benefits that come the way of the researcher that make the work worthwhile (such as reduced teaching loads), but overall science is a hobby at work and the real benefits are simply your name on papers, grants and patents.  this may be best illustrated by DNA sequencing, which is named after the scientist who developed the technique – Sanger sequencing – and despite his recent sad death, Fred Sanger’s name will live on because of this.  Very few scientists make money from their research, but it can be fun!  However, there is a final aspect of all of this that should be the main thought of any budding scientist – RESEARCH IS OWNED BY SOCIETY – the benefits that come from research are unpredictable and varied, but the technological progress of recent years is one example of the benefits of good science and the description of the research should be freely available to everyone.

 

Online shopping – one thought.

image

Hearing on the news today that Tesco planned to change their policy about launching hypermarkets, I got to thinking about what would be a good business plan!  Clearly, online shopping is working well and local Tesco Express stores work well, but one problem with online shopping is the occasional need for a few items that are not available in the local store.  Such a situation does not justify the normal delivery charge, and it is clear there is a reluctance to shop in a hypermarket for only a few items.  So, I suggest an online ordering system for up to five items, which could be collected at the local store at a prearranged time!

Anyone think that might be useful?

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UK floods, just one comment!

Autumn weather November 26thI heard a report on the BBC from a representative of one of the Water Boards, making a valid comment about the reason pumps were often breaking down when dealing with sewage during the recent floods.  The comment referred to some of the types of waste being flushed into the sewers, especially surface wipes, baby wipes and other “strong” paper-based materials, which could not be pumped effectively and caused the pumps to breakdown.

Erator-Sink-Commercial-Waste-Disposal-UnitAll of these points are very valid, but I balked at his next comment when he said this was costing a £million per month to repair the pumps – my immediate reaction was surely the money would be better spent on an inline garbage disposal device and filtration system!  If you can build a domestic device then surely a commercial waste device could be produced for this level of funding, or am I naive?

Broadband speeds – slow progress?

Internet speeds can be quickly determined at this site, the results for my line are:

Line speed

Having just moved house (May 2012) I find i have gone from a Virginmedia connection (formerly NTL fibre optics) to a BT landline (through Sky) and what a difference I notice in download and especially upload speeds!  This subject seems to have disappeared out of the news, but there is still a major issue to be addressed by the government, if they are to make good use of modern internet capabilities within the economy.

The reason for this blog is that I am disappointed with the speed I get from out BT landline, but also because I think this is a typical example of a missed opportunity – a new housing estate with poor internet speeds.  I cannot understand why there is no fibre optic capability on this new estate, nor any sign that there may ever be such a fast connection.  It seems to me this is one place the government could provide regulation (just as they have regulated the energy use of new buildings) by insisting that a new housing estate should be provided with fibre optics and a choice of supplier who can use this facility!

speed4As you can see from the data at the top of this blog, I am only getting 5Mb/s download speed (against a maximum offered speed of 8 Mb/s; although the advertisements suggest upto 14 Mb/s) and an upload speed of only 0.68 Mb/s!  This illustrates the other area that needs government regulation – advertised speeds are theoretical maximums, not actual situations.  This is very misleading and should not be allowed – it is the use of the phrase “upto” with the offered speeds that is particularly misleading.  Although, I could choose another supplier (other than Sky) this is unlikely to help me as they all have to use the BT landline.  I have asked Virginmedia if they plan to lay fibre optics in the area, but they may not be able to gain access to do so!  BT would make no comment about upgrading our area to fibre optics.

So, I imagine that nothing will change in this area, the government simply make noises when they have to, but implement no policy changes.  The suppliers are only competing on price (except for Virginmedia) and there is no coherent policy to introduce fibre optics in areas that could be upgraded without too much disruption – very disappointing!