Hierarchy of funding sources

25/11/2013 § 3 Comments

I spent most of Friday talking about funding — where to get it, how to get it. As always, we researchers are trying to keep going. More accurately, we are trying to keep the research programmes alive. We already have the framework for understanding this situation: Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Here it is, re-purposed to explain the funding environment:


I need a sugar daddy patron.

Science stumble with young students

01/09/2013 Comments Off on Science stumble with young students

The science sector in New Zealand wants to get more people — particular young people — interested in science. It believes that science careers get short shrift when students are planning their education. It also wants to encourage more girls into STEM subjects. Don’t take my word for it. There’s a 2008 Science Maniesto from the Royal Society explaining all this.

I’m certainly in favour of my daughters having interesting, rewarding jobs. If a science career provides that, great. There’s been some science talent in the family, so it’s a possibility.

We’ve been supporting what science is available for primary and intermediate girls. Recently, one daughter participated in the NIWA Wellington Science Fair. From our experience, the event didn’t help get kids fired up for science.

The most important thing to realise is that these kids have choices. Sure, science is one possibility, but so are medicine, law, finance and more. Science has to be appealing. So let’s compare:

  • My daughter’s division had over 50 entries. Only four kids won prizes. Most of those kids won more than one prize. By comparision, a singing competition might have four prizes in a division with maybe a dozen entries. One of their maths competitions has five prizes for the 30 or so schools who participate.
  • There was no feedback. The kids have no idea what they did well and where they fell down. They don’t know what they could do better. By contrast, performance judges fill out sheets for each performer. They typically give positive and critical comments, which helps kids both understand their mark on the day and identify things to improve.
  • The best we can figure is that the judges liked some combination of science, application and presentation. But there’s no way to gauge how much those things contribute to the rankings. On the other hand, a maths competition is judged in terms of right and wrong answers. If your team gets it right, you get the point. The kids are competing against the maths problems as much as they are competing against each other. The ICAS and Australian Mathematics Competitions are similarly based on getting the answers right, not tickling the judges’ fancy.
  • My daughter’s girls’ school had one of the largest contingents from any school in her division. They won nothing. Nada, zippo, zilch. We can talk about other schools having more experience with the competition and larger schools having more resources for extra-curricular activities and the rest. But none of those explanations changes the experience this girls’ school had of sending a big group to a city-wide event and coming back empty-handed.

What my daughter and her classmates experienced seemed to be a subjective, secretive, winner-take-all tournament. Now, obviously, these folks can run any kind of competition they want. They just shouldn’t be surprised when these girls don’t rush back to do it again, and find something better to do with their time.

Strangling research in its crib [revised]

20/05/2013 § 4 Comments

The Dominion Post runs a science column by Bob Brockie, who briefly introduces readers to new findings or key ideas from the world of science. It’s a nice addition to the newspaper, better than the scandale du jour that passes for journalism, even if he has the annoying habit of speaking ex cathedra.

Monday, though, he got up my nose [no link — sorry — stuff.co.nz doesn’t actually want you to find anything easily]. He was discussing the new DSM-5, which has courted controversy by redefining psychological pathologies. We are all — well, half of us — apparently in need of treatment by the very people who decide whether we need treatment.

In his brief history of the DSM, Brockie said that psychology moved away from Freud to science. The meaning of this is clear: there is real, true knowledge that is produced through science, and then there’s all that other stuff that people believe without it actually being true, and that’s where Freud (and by extension, Lacan) belongs.

There are two enormous problems with this. The first is that this statement is glaring proof of the social production of scientific knowledge. I’d venture to guess that Brockie has not actually studied Freud, and has little knowledge of the split between Freudian psychotherapy and Anglo-American psychology. What he knows is likely to be what he’s been told, the stories he’s heard along the way. Science proceeds not only ‘funeral by funeral’ but clique by clique, lunch table by lunch table. Waving the ‘Freud’s not science’ flag isn’t so much a statement of fact but a not-so-secret handshake that marks him as one of gang.

And what a gang it is. They are in charge of funding, and funding allows science research. That’s the second problem with Brockie’s statement. They’ll say they want investigator-led research; they’ll say they want to give researchers the ability to follow their curiosity and investigate all manner of topics, regardless of where they might lead. The truth is, they are perfectly happy to strangle research in the crib if they don’t like it.

I know this, because they have strangled mine, repeatedly, while intoning ancient rites of scientific concern. They have just done the same to novel research proposed by a friend and colleague. We can show the theoretical basis for the work, we can demonstrate the linkages to international peer-reviewed literature, we can link the primary research to the hypothesis — we can do all the things these quartermasters of science demand. And then, they say that it isn’t ‘science’ because the science hasn’t been done because it hasn’t been funded.

It doesn’t help that we are talking about inter-disciplinary research – research that falls somewhere in between the disciplinary silos. Call it economic psychology, or psychological economics, or decision sciences if you like, but it is just the latest area of research in which we develop theories of human behaviour and test them. I’ve tried to explain it here (pdf), Andrew Dickson tried a different angle here, and yet another perspective is here. And still we get things like this 2012 article saying ‘Surprisingly little scholarly work has linked food and Lacan’.

Maybe that has something to do with funding decisions rather than lack of curious researchers. You want to say that Freud is not science? Give me a few a million dollars over several years to do the research. If I fail, you can have your talking point.

The scientists controlling the money are like Abraham, driven by Yahweh to demonstrate their obedience by sacrificing the young Isaac. But Yahweh is I Am Who Am, certain in His existence. Science can also be a jealous and uncertain Master, a Cronus who must devour his young to protect his reign. When he guides Abraham’s hand, he doesn’t stay the knife.

Statistical affairs of the heart

27/03/2013 § 1 Comment

I’m getting to the age when doctors want me to worry about my heart. The Heart Foundation, with their mildly neurotic ‘Fulfil a lifetime’ slogan, wants to help. I can use their on-line calculator to ‘know my numbers’ — to calculate my risk of a heart attack. Well, not a bad idea, eh? A little more information, a warning of things to come?

I’m reasonably healthy, if you can’t tell by my typing. The calculator asks about age, gender, ethnicity, smoking, blood pressure, etc., etc. It’s gathering those known risk factors to calculate a heart attack risk score tailored to me.

But really, the calculator is about striking fear into the, uh, hearts of users. How do I know this? Two ways.

First, the calculator is skewed towards bad news. I didn’t have my cholesterol numbers handy, so it calculated two results. The first result was based on average cholesterol numbers. Then the calculator told me that ‘one in four people’ has an elevated risk, and that’s the number it used to calculate my ‘heart age’. I went back and changed all the inputs to be as positive and healthy as possible, and the calculator still estimated that my heart age was two years older than my chronological age. No matter what I did, the calculator always assumed the worst, and never allowed me to have a healthy heart — a heart younger than my age.

Secondly, the risk numbers don’t add up. The lowest risk possible is a 2% risk of heart attack or stroke; mine came out at 7%. Both numbers are below the ‘mild’ level of 10%. Now, bear in mind that surviving a heart attack outside a hospital is uncommon: there is ‘an overall survival following cardiac arrest [out of hospital] of 6.8%.’ So, the risk numbers are very close to the mortality numbers — a 1.9%, 6.5%, or 9.3% chance of dying from a heart attack in the next 5 years.

Statistics NZ helpfully provides mortality statistics on-line. At age 45, males on average have a 0.98529 5-year survival rate. That is, they have about a 1.5% chance of dying from all causes combined.

The ‘and stroke’ bit complicates the calculations, but let’s just stick with the heart attacks. The Heart Foundation calculator seems to suggest that my best-case odds are 1.9% chance of dying in the next 5 years, and the mild risk category is anything up to 9.3% chance. These are much worse odds than Stats NZ is giving me, at less than 1.5%.

How can I reconcile these numbers? Well, the stroke part was left out, so I could go back and include them (but I won’t for now). The calculator picked up many risk factors, so it isn’t about age or health status. And even the best-case numbers don’t add up, never mind the other ones.

I think the healthy heart calculator overestimates the risk of heart attack, presumably to raise your awareness of the downside risk of high blood pressure, diabetes, and other conditions. That suggests it isn’t about information, but rather manipulation. All for a good cause, of course — a healthy, fulfilled population. And what better tool for manipulation than fear and anxiety?

Statistics shall be my tin-foil hat.

A new leader

15/03/2013 Comments Off on A new leader

We had news this week that a group of senior people selected a new leader, someone who could help New Zealand address some of its thorny issues.

No, silly, not Francis (although, since you raised him, why have we gone from God’s Rottweiler to one of God’s Marines? What happened to the Good Shepherd?).

Callaghan Innovation, formed from the old Crown Research Institute IRL, announced the appointment of their first CEO, Mary Quin. They are touting her experience at technology companies in the US and experience at a management firm in Alaska.

She has a difficult job ahead of her, so here’s some free advice. The presser focused on her international connections and their potential for improving New Zealand’s links overseas. Sure, that’s a concern, but the job’s much bigger than that. Here’s how it breaks down to me:

  • The company — the conversion to Callaghan has been a change, and that requires management. Although IRL is one of the more industry-focused CRIs, in general CRI scientists sit somewhere between university researchers and corporate scientists. They aren’t there for the big bucks, and they aren’t necessarily focused on solving somebody else’s problems (which are notoriously difficult to see). This is a well-known issue with CRIs (see this note from 1997), but at the same time the signals from their shareholder (the Ministry) change with fads and governments while some of their staff have been around since the DSIR days. Quin will need to figure out how to get the culture she needs, but starting with the culture they’ve got.
  • The science system — they were always going to choose someone from off shore (the search company was Australian, which set the tone). The difficulty is that the New Zealand science system is run as much by personalities as by policy. Things happen because someone wants them to happen. I’m not making a value judgement here, by the way — it’s a fact of living and working in a small country that there are two degrees of separation and sometimes one degree of freedom. In addition, there are lots of moving parts to the system. Sorting out the who-what-where-why will take time and a deft touch. Quin will need to play those relationships right.
  • Industry — this is clearly the area where Callaghan hopes Quin will shine. Some CRIs have excellent relationships with their industries, and they work cooperatively to direct the science in ways that support the industry. IRL was more fragmented than some of the others, and doesn’t have the same strong industry bodies that agriculture has. But, the plan is that the fragmented high-tech and manufacturing sector can learn to work well with Callaghan. That’s going to take a lot of jaw-jawing and some obvious successes to show the way. Quin will need to get out there and talk with the companies where the Ministry sees promise, and then produce something of value within a year or two.
  • Overseas — meh. I’m not convinced that the mythical land of milk and honey called ‘Overseas’ is all that important to this job. Yes, we do sell our knowledge and science overseas. For example, IRL’s Richard Furneaux has well-publicised international collaboration with a US group. But all that does — if and when it works — is provide a few jobs for our scientists. What we really need is science that supports our other sectors — ICT, manufacturing, medtech, etc. — so that those companies can take care of the overseas part of the equation. Put another way, Callaghan Innovation shouldn’t be doing NZTE’s job. Quin will need to figure out where ‘overseas’ fits in the business plan to deliver the economic growth that the Ministry envisions.

I wish her luck. It will be interesting, if nothing else. Let’s hope it’s successful, too.

One-sided science reporting

03/12/2012 § 3 Comments

The Dominion Post over the weekend had a set of articles — above the fold, lots of column-inches, full-colour photos — focusing on scientists. That, in itself, is great. The problem is that these scientists were stepping far outside their expertise and the journalists did nothing to rein them in, or at least present an alternative view.

I have previously discussed these problems, but going back over the posts I think I might have been too nuanced. Let me be plain:

  • New Zealand has a better environment than most tourists’ home countries. That’s why they want to come here. Are we 100% Pure? Of course not. Does it matter? Yes, no, maybe. Should we get our knickers in a twist that we haven’t lived up to the hype? Of course not — don’t be daft.
  • All the talk of creating an innovation ecosystem and fostering a high-tech economy is a patter. A patter is what the con man does to keep you distracted from his hand reaching into your pocket. One article (‘Smart means looking beyond clean green’, which I can’t find on the DP site) pointed to the Kapiti Coast and its efforts to get high-tech manufacturing going. Hey, I’ve looked at it. The KC is tiny — there are single university campuses and factories overseas with more people. There is no way to get the scale, scope, agglomeration, etc. necessary for a leading-edge sector. The New Zealand science system does really well: it publishes a lot, it has plenty of researchers, there are some areas in which we are the world’s best. But let’s not kid ourselves. Oh, and just in case you don’t believe me, check out the Growth and Innovation Framework (pdf) from 2002, which was going to solve all these problems by 2011.
  • People live here, and therefore work here, because of the quality of life. I was talking last week with a guy my age who is doing really well in the scientific world in Europe. His work and commute mean that he is away from home 14 hours a day. This is pretty standard in most big cities, where all that great innovation takes place. I’m not interested, and neither are most of the people here. If we wanted that life, we would be living it — elsewhere.
  • Don’t bring up alcohol research to prove how scientific you are, unless you are really willing to engage with it. I’ve just played around the edges and I can see how complicated it is. Yeah, okay, jacking up prices and clamping down on access will reduce harmful drinking amongst adolescents. But, at what cost? That is always the question — at what cost? If you don’t ask and answer that question, you are spouting propaganda.
  • Spare me the martyr talk. I’ve been hassled over my research, too. Heck, some of it is so controversial I can’t get it properly funded. It doesn’t make you more right.

The core problem is uncritical science reporting. These scientists have to deal with robust debate at work. More of that in the newspapers wouldn’t go amiss.

Where Am I?

You are currently browsing the science category at Groping towards Bethlehem.