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Tightening scientific belts

The editor of Science, Bruce Alberts, published an editorial yesterday called "Am I Wrong?". It's a fairly bog-standard call for the taxpaying public to cough up more money for the public sector, and it will be no surprise to readers that one of Alberts' hoped-for recipients is the scientific community (the other is "infrastructure projects").

In response there is a comment from Mike Kelly, of Oxburgh panel fame:

Some points that you have not considered, which blunt the strength of your argument: The scientific enterprise is not immune from the peril of obesity. Periodic downturns in funding provide an opportunity to weed out the less than effective. Even you I think would agree that much of the ‘science around climate change’ is second rate – repeatedly drawing unwarranted conclusions from incomplete data and extrapolating from simulations of model climates that have not been robustly verified in terms than an engineer would regard as essential as the basis for future action. I could go round other subjects, you will have your own, where a bit belt-tightening would be positively beneficial. If much of the second-rate were squeezed out, US science would be in a better place. During Mrs Thatcher’s period as Prime Minister, UK science was squeezed hard, and I would argue came out of it better, leaner and fitter. Like dieting, it is not a healthy permanent state, but its absence is definitely unhealthy. In times of plenty, one ‘lets a thousand flowers bloom’ and in tough times, one redoubles the effort to exploit the stock of recently acquired new knowledge, rather than generate more new knowledge and leave it unexploited. This makes sound economic sense. It is the point I made in a lecture (sponsored by Intel) to the Irish Academy of Engineering in Dublin in December 2011. Science should not be privileged above all else in the nation’s finances: a little privilege only. When everyone else is feeling the pinch, and I mean those who are hungry and in fuel poverty, it ill behoves the ‘rich man in his laboratory’ being immune. If support for the arts is being cut, then the ‘cultural’ science of ‘innate curiosity’ should take a commensurate cut, and ‘science with a consideration of use’ should be privileged in what is left to spend. The US is just ending a period of artificially high federal R&D spending because of the stimulus package. Now is the time to reset the national balance between R&D and genuine entrepreneurship. You must be aware that there is not a one-to-one reciprocal relationship between science spending and social prosperity, and it is a dangerous myth to rely on or perpetuate. There has been a letter in The Times (of London) in the last week special-pleading for science. If the signatories had been industrialists rather than the scientists themselves, the case would have been more appealing and convincing.

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Reader Comments (35)

Back-pedalling/repositioning/a*** covering.
What a piece of work.

Mar 16, 2013 at 10:20 AM | Unregistered CommenterDon Keiller

Apparently, 'survival of the fittest' and 'natural selection' are true in evolution, but not in science funding.

Bet Darwin is surprised.

Mar 16, 2013 at 10:24 AM | Unregistered CommenterStuck-Record

Please fund me instead of the wastrels.....

Mar 16, 2013 at 10:29 AM | Unregistered CommenterAlecM

The flood of low quality work on climate was virtually inevitable given the rapid expansion of funding for what was only a few decades ago a tiny area of research. Hubert Lamb had little more than an office and a half-share of a secretary in the early 1970s at the UEA's CRU. The riches obtained by his successors distracted them so much that instead of building on his integrity and scholarship we got the mess revealed by HarryReadMe and the other Climategate materials, and a marked contribution to the general degradation of climate studies as a scholarly endeavour. It has become more like some version of political economics at its most superficial - a permanent engagement with politics, issuing portentous forecasts to win a place at the table, providing timely and facile interpretations of any weather event that gains headlines or has the potential to do so, and deploying a fluency with hindcasts and spin to maintain some credibility in the face of virtually no forecasting skill..

Mar 16, 2013 at 10:40 AM | Unregistered CommenterJohn Shade

I never thought I would agree with a member of the Oxburgh panel.

Manufacturing industry is constantly under pressure to improve efficiency and reduce cost. This has to be balanced against the funding of R&D and other investments. Payback is closely monitored.

Some organisations do not have similar financial pressures and gradually grow more bloated than is healthy. When I see the massive waste of taxpayers' money where the sums are frequently described as "billions" I feel that much of the public sector is out of control.

As a passionate supporter of the NHS, I think it was wrong of the PM to ringfence its funding. I am convinced that substantial cuts could be made in the areas of general management, remuneration packages for failed executives, procurement and renegotiation of public-private investment contracts to name just a few.

Managers tend to ignore areas of wastage until the financial realities demand tough decisions.

It helps to have good managers in the first place....

When I see the vast sums spent to combat climate change, words fail me.

Mar 16, 2013 at 10:47 AM | Unregistered CommenterSchrodinger's Cat

I think you will find that Mike Kelly was atypical of the Oxburgh panel as his released notes have already shown.

Mar 16, 2013 at 11:05 AM | Unregistered CommenterArthur Dent

Around the time he says UK science was "squeezed hard", I was at a UK university. Occasionally I would find myself in the wrong part of a campus building, one belonging to the researchers. It was always obvious when this happened, lino, striplighting and painted walls gave way to thick carpets, concealed lighting and expensive finishes. Looking into the labs found ranks of gleaming state of the art equipment in stark contrast to the battered and broken assortment of museum pieces made available to students. There never seemed to be anyone about; from the Climategate emails I can now see that this was probably because they seem to spend all their time flying off to conferences etc. in exotic locations.

Mar 16, 2013 at 11:30 AM | Unregistered CommenterNW

NW, you obviously didn't look in to the theoretical physics department then.

Mar 16, 2013 at 11:55 AM | Registered CommenterGrantB

Back in the 1980s, the head of the National Science Foundation was testifying in Washington. Probably the Senate, though that is not important. He gave exactly the same complaint about how shameful funding of science was in the states. One of the Senators asked how much of an increase would be needed to adequately fund American science. 20% 50% 100% ?The response was "deer in the headlights." The Senator observed that is was hard to take such testimony seriously without some sort of quantitative background.

Mar 16, 2013 at 11:57 AM | Unregistered CommenterTregonsee

Patriotism may be "the last refuge of a scoundrel", but "think of the grandchildren/polar bears" often runs it a close penultimate. No reasonable person could disagree with "saving" either. Right? Of course you are Mr Alberts.

The comfortably numb don't mind thinking about their own grandchildren, but often forget to acknowledge other people's children at the sharp end of poverty.

I'm not familiar with Mike Kelly but his words above seem reasonable. Is there a link to other articles related to him? Economists often use the phrase "creative destruction" when describing the tangible benefits that can accrue during recessionary times as a result of enforced improvements. The problem with climate-change science and media hangers-on, is that too many of the practitioners limit their creativity to producing new problems and reasons to be afraid of the future.

The real world currently has enough problems and more. Perhaps it is time they turned their attentions to other matters rather than becoming more efficient at scaring the unwary, the uneducated and the ill-informed?

Mar 16, 2013 at 12:01 PM | Unregistered Commentermichael hart

michael hart
Remember Mencken's adage "The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary."
Scaring the unwary, the uneducated, and the ill-informed is normal behaviour. And so much easier than trying to convince the rest of us.

Mar 16, 2013 at 12:11 PM | Registered CommenterMike Jackson

"Even you I think would agree that much of the ‘science around climate change’ is second rate"

Does it mean that scientist involved in the concensus are second rate?

Mar 16, 2013 at 12:30 PM | Unregistered CommenterMartyn

Second rate? Being a bit generous isn't he?

Mar 16, 2013 at 12:40 PM | Unregistered CommenterJimmy Haigh.

'survival of the fittest' and 'natural selection'

FYI, many in the modern Evolution Movement have abandoned these tautologies.


Mar 16, 2013 at 1:54 PM | Unregistered CommenterBad Andrew

"the ‘science around climate change’ is second rate – repeatedly drawing unwarranted conclusions from incomplete data and extrapolating from simulations of model climates that have not been robustly verified in terms than an engineer would regard as essential as the basis for future action. " Please note Mr Osborne when the likes of Ed Davey comes knocking on your door and asks for even more money to subsidise wind and solar farms. Especially when he says "the models predict....."

Mar 16, 2013 at 2:10 PM | Unregistered CommenterPeter Stroud

@ John Shade
" a permanent engagement with politics, issuing portentous forecasts to win a place at the table, providing timely and facile interpretations of any weather event that gains headlines or has the potential to do so, and deploying a fluency with hindcasts and spin to maintain some credibility in the face of virtually no forecasting skill".

Strong words and very true. But we should not put all the blame on the climate scientists. The system has some culpability. Some years ago I served on a funding review panel for the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) of Canada. Our job was to review applications for federal funding of research mostly from Canadian universities. One of the key criteria that was heavily weighted in the assessment was "Research Impact". The applicants had to demonstrate all the ways in which their research was significant. I would expect that funding for climate research requires similar criteria. Hence the desperate attempts to appear relevant and important.

Mar 16, 2013 at 2:24 PM | Unregistered Commenterpotentilla

With the Bish's indulgence I can do no better than again re-posting one of my comments most recently from:-

"@Mar 19, 2010 at 11:20 AM | Martin Brumby

Although picked up by the Financial Times and the Grauniad, so far the blogosphere seems not to have caught up with the Royal Academy of Engineering's release yesterday:-

The 2 Mb pdf download of the full report "Generating the Future" is available at the top of the Press Release.

I suggest this should be an essential read for everyone on here and, indeed, a thread on "uncertainty" may be the perfect place to flag it up.

Again, little uncertainty is in evidence about the 'robust', 'settled' climate science that we all know and love.

The only uncertainty seems to be which breathtakingly radical and expensive (and probably dangerous) set of policy decisions should be taken to achieve the 80% reduction in CO2 emissions demanded as now required by UK law (thanks to the 2008 Climate Change Act).

I was almost tempted to believe that this paper was actually subversive, an attempt to highlight just how bizarre, unaffordable and indeed unachievable are the raft of actions which
would have to be introduced to achieve this completely nonsensical emissions reduction.

But I fear that isn't the case. Perhaps some of the authors (all allegedly eminent engineers) may be at the "more homeopath than surgeon" end of the engineering profession, with titles like "Professor of Environmental Technology" or "Prince Philip Professor of Technology (sic!)" or "Professor of Engineering for Sustainable Development". But they don't appear to be wide eyed greenies who smoked too much weed when they were younger.

Their first "scenario" envisages building 80 Nuclear or Carbon Capture power plants AND 9,600 more onshore 2.5MW wind turbines AND 38 "London Arrays" (an array of 341 offshore turbines planned for the Thames Estuary) AND 25 Million 3.2 kW Solar Panels AND 1,000 miles of Pelamis machines (for wave power) AND 2,300 Tidal Stream turbines AND the largest proposed Severn Barage AND 1,000 Hydro Electric schemes AND and enormous increase in the use of Biomass AND capping electricity use at current levels by achieving fantastic domestic energy savings.

Other scenarios envisage swingeing, or positively draconian REDUCTIONS in electricity use (which would likely necessitate rebuilding half of the existing UK housing stock, although that seems to have escaped them). And a slightly reduced requirement for Nuclear and CCS plants but a similar "investment" in renewables.

One might have thought that anyone coming out with recommendations like these, pointing out that:-

"In technological terms there are no choices to be made – the demand is so large that every available technology will be needed as quickly as possible. The main problems for scenario 1 will be buildability and cost to the nation. With over 80 new nuclear or CCS power plants required – around two per year – along with vast increases in all forms of renewables, building the system would require an enormous effort, probably only achievable by monopolising most of the national wealth and resources."

- one might have thought they would have sat back in their chairs and wondered about the initial premise. Whether 80% reduction in CO2 emissions was actually such a good idea. Especially as there isn't a scintilla of a chance of the Chinese & Indians following suit.

This is where we have arrived at from Phil Jones and Jim Hansen's fiddled data. From Michael Mann's corrupt and incompetent statistics. From the 'Climate Modellers' dodgy algorithms, designed to demonstrate the 'truth' of their initial alarmist premise. From Pachauri and the IPCC's tendentious 'errors' and frauds. From HRH Prince Charles obsessive drivellings. From Al Gore's greed. From the Bankers' salivation at the thought of all that Carbon Trading.

Aren't we alright?"

Back in March 2013 it is depressing how little has changed and to note that we are striding even more purposefully towards the energy precipice.

But I rather think that Mike Kelly is considerably less barmy than some of his RAE colleagues, let alone the weapons grade morons like Ed Daveylump. At least he seems to have a grasp of the implications of little Eddie Milipede's masterpiece:- "The Climate Change Act 2008".

Mar 16, 2013 at 2:33 PM | Unregistered CommenterMartin Brumby

1) Note that Alberts thinks the sequester is 'mindless'. I bet he thinks money grows on trees

2) Alberts thinks it is the job of government to generate 'tremendous future benefits'. He doesn't know the role of government. (you are 'deranged' if you don't agree with him)

3) Alzheimer's is a neurodegenerative disease. There is not going to be a 'cure'. So it is with 'cancer' - a bunch of two dozen etiopathogenetic entities tied together. There is not going to be a 'cure'. Scientists have been successfully blowing smoke about such things forever to mooch funds.

Alberts is a big fish in the cell biology world. His textbook is the bible for undergrads and graduate students.

Mar 16, 2013 at 2:49 PM | Registered Commentershub

Martin Brumby @ Mar 16, 2013 at 2:33 PM
"Perhaps some of the authors (all allegedly eminent engineers) may be at the "more homeopath than surgeon" end of the engineering profession, ...."

If homeopathic treatment was appropriate, the disease would be eased, the symptoms reduced, if not eliminated, and all done without the risks of surgery.
However, as homeopathic treatment is not renowned for performing amputations, I fear that the field of climate science are in for surgery! So that will mean anaesthetics, loss of 'blood', and feeling sore afterwards.
Without it, the medical bills will mount and the disease will destroy the body, our wealth creating industry.

Mar 16, 2013 at 3:51 PM | Registered CommenterRobert Christopher

"...Perhaps some of the authors (all allegedly eminent engineers) may be at the "more homeopath than surgeon" end of the engineering profession..."

One of the authors is Nick Cumpsty, a one time Rolls-Royce consultant and writer of a standard textbook on gas turbine theory. I mention this because it has become common to associate such position statement documents from learned associations with the view that it represents all of their beliefs unanimously. It would be interesting to see how those from the numerate end of the engineering profession, who are critically bound by facts and figures, regard the contorted statistics and faith-like reliance on unproven computer models of the climate science mongers. Indeed, it would be useful if those same numerate engineers would run us through their logical analysis of why they are concerned, and also tell us why they are associated with the climate homeopaths at all.

Mar 16, 2013 at 4:43 PM | Unregistered CommenterSteven_wh

Great comment by Anonymous Scientist:

"Yes, you are wrong. The system needs to crumble to dust so it can be rebuilt properly. Our problems are not due to a lack of money. No, our problem is that the massive amounts of money we pump into the system are being poorly spent. Why?

1. Old professors are not retiring. They are clinging on to their jobs with clenched, white-knuckled hands, with little regard to future generations of scientists. And because they have been in the system so long, they have all the connections and control all the purse strings. Several of my senior faculty have flat out said they will have to be taken out in a body bag before they leave the school, and they care little about the success of future faculty. Fantastic!

2. The rich labs are getting richer and the middle class labs are getting destroyed. Limit the number of RO1s a lab can have to 2, or be prepared to have 5% of the labs controlling 90% of the funding - or pretty much what has happened in the general US economy. How can a small 2-4 person lab possibly compete for an RO1 with a 20-30 person lab?

3. Stop the paper chase. The system has been created to reward labs for producing papers, regardless if the data is reproducible, or even necessary for that matter. Thus, there is more effort put towards productivity and little to actually studying something worth studying. How many more papers about the role of LTP/ERK/UBQ/mTOR in Y cell line for Z disease do we really need? Stop the insanity. As both a tenured scientist and a taxpayer, this disgusts me.

4. Too many K-99's. Why keep funding a pathway to independence when at the end of that pathway is a bunch of senior professors who won't retire who use their political connections to hoarde funding, then deny tenure because the junior faculty couldn't get an R01 or enough papers?

But of course, none of these changes will happen, because the Baby Boomers who can make the changes are so heavily invested in the system as it exists today that they will do everything in their power to perpetuate this utter ridiculousness. Do you really think a powerful 6 R01 lab super senior PI will say "you are right Dr. Alberts, I shouldn't have so much funding, I should worry about the future of the country and my grandchildren..."

Every few months someone powerful like you writes another article like this... and nothing happens. If only Baby Boomers could follow George Washington's example and know when to step down and let others lead... but that won't happen either.


...and then I stumbled onto this article:

I have not seen evidence of a replacement Editor-In-Chief.

Mar 16, 2013 at 5:13 PM | Unregistered Commenterintrepid_wanders

Mike Jackson: Here in the USofA we recently began labeling the ignorant public, "low information voters." It seems apt and covers most of the people who are now on the dole and have given up searching for jobs. Four years of Obama has significantly altered the demographic structure of our society for the worse. We are well on our way to becoming like Greece.

Mar 16, 2013 at 6:56 PM | Unregistered CommenterPaddyL

List of pathways/molecules studied to death, and found little ...


Mar 16, 2013 at 7:04 PM | Registered Commentershub

List of pathways/molecules studied to death, and found little ...

I'll take your word for it. I bet they are advancing knowledge faster than all the string theorists are though.

And the money wasted in social sciences doing "research" is mind-bending. Some of that actually pushes knowledge backwards. There's been a big spat recently in NZ as it is becoming obvious that the new version of Maths teaching, all based on research of course, has actively made the kids less good at Maths.

Mar 16, 2013 at 8:16 PM | Unregistered CommenterMooloo

In cost-cutting there is a worrying simplicity to cutting all budgets by 10%. It is immediately effective with respect to the bottom line, but is probably not an ideal way to re-allocate resources in times of acute or prolonged scarcity. Instead one should weed out the ineffective and let the successful flourish all the same, as has been by Mike Kelly in the article above.

The now ubiquitious socalist dogma would not allow the second option though, as it ackowledges that we are not all created equal and that is anathema to the politically-correct movement who would rather this fact wasn't acknowledged. And so we will bumble along choosing not to choose and keeping 2nd rate climate science alive. Michael Mann will be pleased.

Mar 16, 2013 at 8:50 PM | Unregistered CommenterFarleyR

mooloo - thanks for the NZ maths reference. UK experience looks to be similar but apparently steps are being taken to rectify things:

"The conclusions follow a decision by ministers to reintroduce traditional methods of calculation into primary school maths exams because of concerns children were increasingly being taught using “clumsy, confusing and time-consuming” methods of working out."
Arthur Dent +1 re: Mike Kelly - one of the good guys IMO.

Mar 16, 2013 at 9:03 PM | Unregistered Commenternot banned yet

NW, you obviously didn't look in to the theoretical physics department then.
Mar 16, 2013 at 11:55 AM | GrantB


No-one's ever found it, because they know where it's meant to be.

Mar 16, 2013 at 9:36 PM | Unregistered CommenterDaveS

NW, you obviously didn't look in to the theoretical physics department then.
Mar 16, 2013 at 11:55 AM | GrantB


No-one's ever found it, because they know where it's meant to be.

Mar 16, 2013 at 9:40 PM | Unregistered CommenterDaveS

"But I fear that isn't the case. Perhaps some of the authors (all allegedly eminent engineers) may be at the "more homeopath than surgeon" end of the engineering profession, with titles like 'Professor of Environmental Technology...'"

It's probably no accident that homeopathy is often alluded to in climate science commentary. But it should be noted that the London Homeopathic Hospital had a far lower (~1/3) mortality rate than conventional hospitals during the 1854 outbreak of cholera.

Medical science has moved on, of course, in the meantime. For more historical information on homeopathy, as well as other topics (such as Buddhism, Astrology, art, and poetry), see Peter Morrell's extensive website:

Mar 16, 2013 at 10:01 PM | Unregistered Commenterjorgekafkazar

How much public funding did Galileo receive?

Mar 17, 2013 at 1:46 AM | Unregistered CommenterHarry

I bet they are advancing knowledge faster than all the string theorists are though.

Absolutely. We now know more about cellular pathways and signaling than, say 25 years ago. In other words, we are ignorant, but in a different way.

However, if you read the grant proposals with any of these pathway/molecules being proposed to be studied, the language would make the claim that unravelling understanding about a given protein would be a important breakthrough in curing Alzheimer's, cancer, etc. Neither are they going to accomplish that nor will these studies result in a breakthrough that changes our perspective. And, the best part is, the grant writing PIs know this.

Adding a node to a signaling pathway can take upto 5 years. Adding a node to a signaling pathway, in 99.99% of instances, results in no change of knowledge. Whole legions of grad students and post-docs however dream through their 5 years everyday that it would be their molecule of study that would lead to a target for a small molecule drug that would finally break the disease.

The whole scenario is set-up because cell biology is a system biology, which means there are networks of interactions, which means all target of current interest appear tantalizingly to either be the final edge of a net or a weak spot. Only to be shown that there was not an edge in that location and the network spans much wider, and it was not a weak link, and everything is linked up with everything else pretty tight.

Mar 17, 2013 at 12:27 PM | Registered Commentershub

There are several possible epidemiological reasons for why a given hospital can have a lower mortality for a disease. The superiority of 'treatment' given in that hospital is usually last on the list, or not at all.

Mar 17, 2013 at 12:33 PM | Registered Commentershub

Don Keiller,

I think you may have another Dr Kelly in mind.

The emails presented as evidence were self- selected by CRU, so were uncontroversial in nature. (Phil Jones chose which emails were "typical", got his pal Trev Davis to ask his chum, Martin Rees, at the Royal Society to say he chose them. Abracadabra, All controvertial Emails chosen by "Independent experts". White lie for a noble cause and all that) Kelly noted, “Up to and throughout this exercise, I have remained puzzled how the real humility of the scientists in this area, as evident in their papers, including all these here, and the talks I have heard them give, is morphed into statements of confidence at the 95% level for public consumption through the IPCC process. This does not happen in other subjects of equal importance to humanity, e.g. energy futures or environmental degradation or resource depletion. I can only think it is the ‘authority’ appropriated by the IPCC itself that is the root cause.”

No back peddling.


Mar 17, 2013 at 8:52 PM | Unregistered Commenterandymc

They come like bees to the honey pot but yield little, more buzzzzz than substannce (

Mar 18, 2013 at 12:15 AM | Unregistered CommenterBeth Cooper

See "The economic laws of scientific research" by Terence Kealey for a book-length informed exposition of these issues. Kealey preferred to leave Cambridge's world-class biochemical milieu to run the private University of Buckingham. His unfortunately titled more recent book "Sex, Science and Profits" is essentially an updated version.

Mar 18, 2013 at 10:46 AM | Unregistered CommenterAnton

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