Science Cuts: One Day Left

The results of the Comprehensive Spending Review are being announced tomorrow and the feeling in the astrophysics community is increasingly pessimistic about the size of the cuts to research funding. With one day to go until the broad outline of the cuts is given, rumours are running wild that STFC will have to cut major programmes, exit from international collaborations and in the worst case scenario start to claw back grants which have already been awarded.

Peter Coles has a post summarizing the current swarm of rumours, and Andy Lawrence has a poll where you can pick your poison cuts-wise. At this late stage the mainstream media has finally started picking up on the message of the Science Is Vital campaign, that cuts in research funding are a ruinous road to lower growth in the future. The Guardian and The Times have both had editorials denouncing cuts to science funding in the last few days, while the FT got in ahead of the curve. Jon Snow has been outlining the possible brain drain, and the BBC have given a platform to CASE‘s Imran Khan. But is it too late to change the headline figures? The claim is that most if not all the deals are done at least as far as headline figures go. The Department of Business Innovation and Skills, which is responsible for research funding, is rumoured to be the one holdout left. Whether this indicates a change in attitude in Whitehall or an entrenched position in the Treasury, we will find out tomorrow.

A word of warning though, the announcements tomorrow are probably going to be broad and impenetrable. Colin Talbot has produced a handy guide to what to expect. (Charlie Brooker provides some light relief in his advice to George Osbourne.) The resultant changes in the budgets of the research councils, and particularly STFC, may not be known until December, when the axe will truly start to fall.

Update: 20:00 19/10 According to this Guardian story, the science research budget may escape the deepest cuts, and retain “flat cash”, in other words an approximately 10% decrease in four years, depending on inflation.


Science is Vital

Science is Vital Campaign Logo As a practising scientist you might expect me to believe that Science is Vital. “He would say that wouldn’t he,” you might say. Objectively speaking though, science research has a large impact on the wealth and success of a country.

Even during these times of austerity, most developed countries are investing in science research, anticipating the benefits that a research led economy has historically provided.

In contrast to this approach the UK coalition government is poised to announce the largest cuts in science funding in a generation. The Royal Society has said that cuts of 25% would representGame Over” for science in this country. The government will announce the broad cuts on the 20th October so any action against the impending funding crisis must be swift. The possible outcomes if a full range of cuts go ahead are quite dire.

The Science Is Vital campaign is a grassroots movement which has been guided from its infancy by Dr Jenny Rohn, a cell biologist at UCL. A petition, a rally in Westminster and a lobby of MPs have been organised which it is hoped will be able to alleviate the impending cuts by showing the government how essential scientific research is to the economic welfare of the country.

As a cosmologist, I know that my research has little intrinsic advantage for the UK economy in the short term. The advantage gained is in the number of students who are inspired to study science after wondering about the origins of the universe and the Big Bang. The contribution these students go on to make to the UK economy through science, industry or commerce benefits the country overall.

It is imperative that the tradition of scientific discovery in the UK is protected. I implore you to do what you can to show the government that Science is Vital. Sign the petition, email your MP and if you can be there, join the rally in Westminster on the 9th of October!


Durham UK Cosmo meeting

Durham University, and in particular the Institute for Particle Physics Phenomenology hosted the annual two-day UK Cosmology meeting this year. There were lots of very interesting talks, and I hope to give a flavour of some of the issues that were mentioned over the course of the meeting.

Durham Cathedral, taken by Ian Huston

The list of participants and the programme outline are on the Durham website, however I do not expect the slides of the talks to be uploaded except perhaps by individual speakers.

Due to it being organised at the last minute and the fact that it took place quite close to the start of the academic term the meeting wasn’t as well attended as others have been, but this allowed for more discussions and for everyone to get to know each other quite well. It also meant that the speakers were allocated 30 minutes each including time for questions, a time scale which is a lot more manageable than the ten minute slots that have previously been used.

The talks and discussions were of a very high quality over the two days, helped by the generous lunch and tea breaks which encouraged the research conversations to continue. The setting was also superb, the Ogden Centre being a very impressive place with a friendly open atmosphere. On Monday evening we were shown what must be one of Durham’s most spectacular outreach efforts, the 3-D film Cosmic Origins, which shows a journey from our solar system, through the Hubble Deep Field, out to the Last Scattering Surface. A 2-D version of the film is embedded below, but for the full experience the 3-D version, glasses and all, needs to be seen. The film was shown at the 2010 Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition.

The two days of talks were really enjoyable and the unrushed pace of the meeting should be replicated next time if possible. With a one day meeting time constraints are very severe, but I think longer time slots and extra discussion time could still be beneficial. I tweeted a few times during the meeting but penetration of Twitter in to the cosmological field has not reached the levels seen in the Science Online London conference last week.

I would like to thank everyone who helped to organise the meeting and make us feel welcome in Durham. I hope to put together a few overview posts about the work that was presented so they should appear here sometime in the future.


Getting to grips with web based research tools

Every day I use web-based tools in my research. Some are specifically designed for scientific research, but some are just general purpose tools. It continually surprises me when other students and more established researchers have not heard of the many different ways the web can help research. This list is not meant to be exhaustive so please let me know if there are any tools you use that deserve a mention.

Paper hunting:

  • The arXiv – You aren’t going to get far in physics without having heard of the arXiv, but it deserves a mention for getting rid of trips to the library.
  • SPIRES – For article searches in particle physics/astrophysics, SPIRES is the last word. The search syntax is a little more involved than a Google search (“find a authorname and j journalname” etc.) but the information available for each article is worth the effort. Particularly valuable is the BibTeX entry for each article, and links to both arXiv preprints and e-journals.
  • Google Scholar – Not specific to physics, this is Google’s take on academic search. It catalogues the main journal indexes, and has some useful features like the “Related Articles” search, which does a good job of finding other articles with similar subjects.

Categorizing papers:

In the old days, researchers had piles of papers on their desks, under their desks, and generally all over the place. But if required they could pick a required paper out of this filing disaster quite easily with a good memory and a little luck. Today most of the papers you read might remain out there on the network with only a select few qualifying for ink and paper. How do you remember which papers you’ve read, where they are and what you thought of them?

  • Citeulike – This site allows you to add papers to a personal list, add tags to describe the papers, and provides automatic links to the electronic versions. When looking at an abstract on the arxiv for example, you simply click a bookmarklet and the title, journal etc are automatically added. You are also able to rate papers, and export a BibTeX list of all your papers.
  • Connotea – This is the Nature Publishing Company’s effort at an online reference manager. As with Citeulike a bookmarklet is used to add papers to your collection. The export functions also allow you to also use a desktop based reference manager such as Endnote.
  • The Academic Reader
    This is a very new site that hopes to offer a portal to many different
    sources of scientific articles. Unlike Citeulike or Connotea you read
    the abstracts on the site itself and don’t have to deal with
    bookmarklets. It also provides a “Library” where you can store
    references to papers you have read.
  • – This is not a science specific tool, but rather a handy social bookmarking system. You give webpages tags, can view other users’ saved items (while also being able to hide selected items) and use “Live bookmarks” of the RSS feed of tags to access your bookmarks in your browser. Now with the new Firefox extension, this functionality is integrated seamlessly into the browsing experience. A lot of people tag abstract pages so they can go back to get the file any time, many using the arXiv tag.


A large part of doing research, or so I’m told, is becoming part of the research community, communicating with your peers about your work and networking to form possibly collaborative relationships.

  • CosmoCoffee – For cosmologists, this site provides a forum for discussions of recent papers and general queries. There is some integration with the arXiv, allowing search and BibTeX retrieval (handy as this is not provided by the arXiv itself) but also keyword based filtering of the latest papers. This allows you to concentrate on papers relevant to your work, especially from large sections like astro-ph, which is getting so large it’s easy lose your way.
  • Nature Network London – This is the Nature Publishing Group’s attempt at a social network for scientists. It only started recently, so there is not that much activity yet, but it does seem to have a few people writing and networking.
    [Update] PZ Myers points to a good discussion of the benefits of social networking for scientists and the Nature Network in particular.

So not an exhaustive list, but hopefully there are a few useful resources there. As I said above, if there are any other sites you would recommend please let me know in the comments section.