Citations and the attention loop

The measurement of article citations is becoming increasingly prevalent in research policy circles. While the attractions of quantitative measures of research quality are many, it is time to take stock. There is so much momentum behind the notion of citation counts that it is easy to forget the limitations, some of which are fundamental and beyond technical fixes. I strongly believe we need better evidence to inform research policy decision making, but I think there is a real tendency to overplay citation data as it is currently used.

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Website update

In the last few days I have made some changes to this website. As well as a different look to the site, there are also some significant changes behind the scenes. I have moved from a hosted Wordpress site to a static site, built with Jekyll and hosted on Github Pages.

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On public engagement with research and activism

In the last decade the breadth of activities that we regard as public engagement has expanded considerably. As well as informing and inspiring, consulting and co-creating are now also considered integral and important parts of the landscape. This is a good thing.

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The benefits of basic research

The debate about the importance of basic research in innovation was recently reignited by a piece in the Wall Street Journal by Matt Ridley. Much of Ridley’s argument has been ably dismantled by Jack Stilgoe, but there are legitimate questions about how the balance of investment should be distributed between different types of research. There are opportunity costs, both in terms of the investment of financial resources and researchers time. Time and money spent on one type of research can’t be used on another, so there is a need to optimise allocation.

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Dimensions of quality research

To say that the assessment of research quality keeps me awake at night would be an exaggeration. But a lot of my waking hours are taken up thinking about and discussing what we mean about quality in research, and how it can and should be assessed. So I was pleased to hear about a new project, The Qualities of Quality, that is taking a multidisciplinary approach to addressing these important questions.

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On scholarly monographs and the sciences

One of the most enjoyable aspects of working in research policy is that it forces you to explore and understand the research cultures of disciplines other than your own. I am a life scientist who specialised in plant biology by background, but in my current role I need to understand the processes, challenges and norms of the whole range of research disciplines. And it is fascinating to see both the differences and, importantly, the similarities across diverse subjects.

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Understanding academic culture

Next week I am going back to school. I will start a research project as an Associate Fellow1{#fnref1.footnoteRef} of the Centre for Science and Policy (CSaP) at the University of Cambridge. The aim of my research is to investigate how decisions of policy-makers that shape the research policy environment are translated into actual outcomes and responses within the academy; how policy and research culture interact. You can read a slightly more expansive summary of the project here[pdf].

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His master’s voice?

There are many different styles of blog covering an incredible range of content. Many people write about their personal life, topics unconnected with their professional roles, but equally a lot of blogs, like this one, cover topics where the author has a direct professional interest. This raises interesting questions for the author, and by extension the readers: whose voice is it, the author or the corporate? And if the author is writing their personal views, how does this relate to the views of their employer.

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Engaging wisdom from Sciencewise

The engagement of the public with the tricky debates around science and technology is now a common occurrence. Ten years ago that wasn’t the case. Fresh from the BSE crisis, and the (still) ongoing controversy about genetically modified crops the Government took a bold step, the creation of an organisation to help Government engage in public dialogue. So Sciencewise was born, and is now celebrating its tenth birthday.

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On commonplace books

If you are looking to kill some time try Googling ‘commonplace book’. You will find an endless stream of fascinating material, both examples of commonplace books themselves, and writing about commonplace books, including, eventually this post.

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How many research mavericks do we need?

The topic of ‘scientific mavericks’ is receiving some attention at the moment. There was a letter, signed by a number of Nobel laureates and FRSs among others, published this week in the Guardian suggesting that the current structures inhibit mavericks, and that this is a problem. And this follows on the heels of The topic of ‘scientific mavericks’ is receiving some attention at the moment. There was a [letter](http://www.theguardian.com/science/2014/mar/18/we-need-more-scientific-mavericks), signed by a number of Nobel laureates and FRSs among others, published this week in the [Guardian](http://www.theguardian.com/uk) suggesting that the current structures inhibit mavericks, and that this is a problem. And this follows on the heels of by Peter Higgs last year. The arguments in the Guardian letter are flawed in my view (there is an excellent post by Jenny Rohn that sets out why), and based on a very particular reading of history.

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care.data – a failure to engage

From time to time, when stressing the importance of public engagement with research, I find myself challenged with the question ‘why bother?’. The current debate about care.data – the highly contested attempt by the UK Government to improve access to patient data – provides a sharp illustration of why engagement matters. The nature of the current challenges around care.data, and what’s at stake have been well set out by others. I want to stress at particular point: at the heart of this debacle lies a failure to engage.

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Open access and academic freedom

There is always a point in any policy-making process where a clash of objectives or values takes place. Sometimes different aspects of what you are trying to achieve turn out, on analysis, to be in conflict with one another. In other cases, it emerges that objectives are in opposition to principles which were held to be important at the start of the process. These dilemmas are one aspect that makes policy-making a challenge and enjoyable, but also they often result in some stakeholders, sometimes all stakeholders, ending up unhappy with the outcome.

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Open data reflections

I am spending a lot of time thinking and reading about open research data at the moment, in preparation for some policy development work in the New Year. I am personally positive about the open research data agenda, seeing lots of benefits to more sharing of data, both for research itself and wider. There are some strong public-good arguments for making data available, including, but not limited to, potential economic benefit.

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Woodpeckers

It’s been a tough year for Great Spotted Woodpeckers. I know this because I was lucky enough to speak recently to a former work colleague who now publishes about woodpeckers in her retirement. The problem this year has been the cold spring, which dramatically impacted the caterpillars that the woodpeckers rely on.

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Open data: technology and culture

Last week I attended an informal dinner at Royal Society of Chemistry to discuss their plans for enabling better data management and sharing in the chemical sciences. It was a private discussion, so I won’t share the details, but a thread ran through the conversation that crops up regularly in the context of open data discussions. What are the barriers for researchers to better manage and share their data?

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Debating GM crops

I have history on the question of the use of GM crops in agriculture. I spent the 1990s working in research that was directly or indirectly involved with the use of GM in agriculture, including working with a company to investigate the commercial potential of some of my research. Then in the early 2000s I worked for Defra providing science advice on GM crops to ministers, and operating the regulatory regime for the release of GMOs.

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Assessing impact

One of the ironies of working in research policy is how little research evidence there is to inform policy-making decisions. And this is especially true in the relatively new area of assessing the wider impacts of research. An excellent new contribution to this sparse evidence base has recently been published by Holbrook and Hrotic, and it’s available[pdf] open access too.

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Open access and research assessment

Yesterday, after lots of hard work from colleagues, the HEFCE consultation on open access in the next national research assessment process was published. The consultation is open until the end of October, and I looking forward to reading the inputs. We will also be taking and making opportunities to hear views during the consultation period.

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On data management and open research

I recently attended a fascinating workshop showcasing the work Oxford University has been doing to develop systems for management of research data. The Data Management Roll-out project (DaMaRo) has built and enhanced a suite of tools for handling data across the research life-cycle. Central to the thinking in this project has been ensuring seamless interoperability between the components of the system, using open standards. There has also been considerable effort to make sure that components also ‘talk to’ national and international infrastructure. The tools are being made available as open source software, so they can be used by other institutions.

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Public good innovation and the free market

A couple of weeks ago I attended the annual Science and Innovation Conference. I haven’t been to this event for a few years, and, while in some respects the points being made from the platform seemed quite familiar, there was a new degree of enthusiasm for Government action to support innovation. The steps towards an industrial policy seems to be well regarded, and there was also praise for the increased funding for the Technology Strategy Board, that had been announced in the Spending Review the day before.

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Weekly update #4

Once again only getting round to this after two weeks – maybe I should retitle as a ‘fortnightly’ update! Anyway, over the last two weeks I have:

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Lab or factory?

Seth Godin had an insightful post contrasting the mindset of the laboratory and the factory. The laboratory is about experimentation and innovation, so there is an inevitable risk of failure. The factory, on the other hand, is about efficiency and incremental improvement. Failure is not an option. According to Godin, these two approaches, while not actually linked the the physical locations, are mutually exclusive:

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Weekly update #3

The last two weeks have been quite hectic, so much so that I missed last weeks weekly update. In the last two weeks I have:

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Reflections on daily blogging

Over the last couple of weeks I have been experimenting with posting an entry here every day. Over the last 16 days I have posted 15 times, so very nearly met the target. As I have written previously, I have been frustrated with how little I have posed in the past, and this was an attempt to increase the frequency by imposing a strict (and simple to measure) requirement.

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Three dilemma of research-teaching interactions

One of the things that I recall from my own student days is the excitement of being taught by world-leading researchers. I was privileged to have lectures and tutorials from individuals who were are the leading edge in their fields. Some were better teachers than others, but from all of them I and my fellow students derived real insights. I would also like to think that the research benefitted too. Explaining things clearly often leads to a deeper understanding, and maybe some of the questions that we posed sparked thoughts and new lines of inquiry.

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Battle in the Garden

Every year at around this time our back garden becomes the site of an aerial battle. Let me explain. There is a hole under the eaves of the house that is a prime piece of ornithological real estate. Early in the year a pair of starlings, part of the large local population, move in and settle down to the business of raising a family. But then later in the spring, a pair of swifts arrive with the objective of securing the nest site for themselves. This is when the trouble starts.

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The increasing internationalisation of research

Research is an international activity. Clear data to support this assertion have just been published in Nature, in an article by Jonathan Adams (unfortunately the article is pay-walled). In this analysis Adams looked at the extent to which journals articles are purely ‘domestic’, with only authors from a single nation, compared with those that have authors from two or more countries. The findings are startling:

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The daily pages habit

Yesterday I reached a significant milestone. On 25 November last year, sixth months ago, I started out on an attempt to develop a habit of writing a journal or ‘morning pages‘ every day. I have managed to write at least 750 words every single day since then.

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Dual funding and the status quo

There is an interesting comment from Stephen Curry on my post about the balance of dual support for research last week. He points out, correctly, that while the situation with research funding in UK universities has been relatively stable, there have recently been major perturbations on the teaching side, with in the increases in undergraduate fees. In the face of these changes, he rightly points out that it is as important to look for evidence for not altering the balance of dual funding for research as it is to look for evidence in favour of change.

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Writing on productivity

One of the amazing things about the internet is the ability it gives to learn about topics in a diverse way, drawing on both systematic research and on the personal experience of people prepared to share what they have leaned. The area where I have personally benefitted the most in this regard has been learning about personal productivity and effectiveness. The things I have learned have helped me deliver in both my personal and professional life. I wouldn’t want anyone to think that I have personal productivity cracked by any means, but I am so much better than I would have been had it not been for the great material that many people are prepared to share online.

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Balance in Dual Funding for Research

Earlier this week I attended a roundtable discussion of the recent report produced by the UK Innovation Research Centre on the dual funding system. The report is full of detailed material, and is pretty dense reading, so it was really helpful to hear the lead author, Professor Alan Hughes, summarise the key findings. The central conclusion is that UK university researchers are active in generating benefits from their research in a wide range of ways, and, most importantly, there is no evidence of a trade-off between research excellence and achievement of impact. It’s an ‘and’ not an ‘or’. The study also demonstrates the extent to which both streams of the dual funding system contribute to excellence and impact.

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The end of journal impact factors?

Last week it was great to see the publication of the San Francisco Declaration on Research Assessment (DORA), which sets some important principles for the assessment of research. Advising on whether the Higher Education Funding Council for England should sign the declaration was one of my first tasks in my role there and I am really pleased that we are a founding signatory. Central to the declaration is the notion that journal impact factors should not be used as proxies for the assessment of the quality of research outputs. Quite right – this excellent post by Stephen Curry explains why.

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Measured excellence in research

One of the comments on my piece last week on the Guardian science policy blog questioned my assertion that the UK research base is ‘in good shape’. The commenter used the relatively low UK spend on education as a justification for this. While I don’t think the education spend figure is especially relevant to research, it is the case that the UK public sector spend on research is low compared to some other nations, so why do I assert that the research base is in good shape?

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Spin out numbers

Sir Mark Walport, the new Government Chief Scientific Adviser, made his inaugural speech last week at the Centre for Science and Policy annual conference. One of the things he mentioned, subsequently [Sir Mark Walport](http://www.bis.gov.uk/go-science/chief-scientific-adviser/biography), the new Government Chief Scientific Adviser, made his inaugural speech last week at the [Centre for Science and Policy](http://www.csap.cam.ac.uk/) annual [conference](http://www.csap.cam.ac.uk/events/csap-annual-conference-2013/). One of the things he mentioned, subsequently by Times Higher Education, was a belief that rather than measuring the number of university spin-out companies, “The metric surely has to be the number of successful spin out companies”.

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On (not) writing

It’s been quiet here for a while. It could be that I have been busy. I am about to transition into a new work role, so the last few weeks I have been finishing things off, and now I will have lots of new things to learn.

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Engaging with Galileo

How can we engage people outside of the worlds of research and policy with debates about research policy? One of the challenges in doing this is framing the debates in ways that are meaningful to the audience, and bringing them to places where they can engage. And one option for this is the theatre. The current production of Brecht’s ‘Life of Galileo’ by the Royal Shakespeare Company presents an opportunity to do this, but I think it is an opportunity missed.

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The evidence divide

Earlier this month I attended a conference organised by the STEPS centre at the University of Sussex. The topic of the conference was the use of evidence, especially scientific evidence, to inform the development and implementation of policy. There was a great line-up of speakers, and the organisers should be congratulated for making enough space in the programme for discussion and debate.

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On the research career pyramid

Are we training too many scientists? That question is posed by Paula Stephan in a recent post at Chemistry World. Stephan explains very clearly the notion of the career pyramid, and wonders why people entering research careers are so surprised that there aren’t jobs at the top of the academic pyramid for everyone. She has some good explanations for this, observing, among other factors, that:

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‘People’ by Alan Bennett

Who is best living English playwright? I am never particularly taken with questions and comparisons of this type, and I am certainly not going to attempt to answer the question. I can say, though, that some of the most memorable new plays that I have seen are by Alan Bennett. ‘The Lady in the Van’, ‘The History Boys’ and ‘The Habit of Art’ all spring to mind. There is something about the way in which Bennett is able to blend the mundane and the extraordinary, the comic with the poignant, that makes for compelling drama on stage and screen. And Bennett’s reputation means that his plays attract some of the finest actors, which itself adds to the quality.

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On power and open access

The The of Aaron Swartz is a sobering moment in the journey towards open access to the research literature. It brings sharply into perspective much of the ‘debate’ which, frankly, focuses on trivial issues of detail.

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Forms of engagement

Last month I attended the Engage 2012 conference, organised by the National Coordinating Centre for Public Engagement. The conference was a fantastic celebration of the diverse range of activities that UK universities are under-taking under the banner of public engagement. I was struck by how far we have come in the last decade. Public engagement is now considered a mainstream activity in many universities and by many people who work in universities. In particular, there are now many institutions that consider being ‘engaged’ to be part of their missions.

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Flying ants and other myths…

Systematically gathered and analysed evidence is important, because it challenges myths and prejudices that we all have a tendency to develop. Sometimes these myths are important for innovation or policy, but other times they are just plain interesting. In the latter class, a fascinating study was reported by the BBC this week. The study shows that, contrary to a widely held myth, flying ants do not all emerge on the same day each summer. In fact emergence is spread over a more extended period.

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Reflections on The Geek Manifesto

As I read Mark Henderson’s new book “The Geek Manifesto” I found my mood alternating between enormous optimism and nagging pessimism. Perhaps this is spot on for a book that seeks to inspire geeks (and I would count myself within this group) to action; at times it is inspiring, at others the challenge to make a difference seems overwhelming. But while in some senses the book covers familiar ground, it does an excellent job in bringing together material and arguments in a form that is clear and inspiring. As I read, there were some broad issues that I kept returning to. These aren’t criticisms of the book, as such, but areas were I think there is some room for further reflection and debate.

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New questions for science policy

What are the key outstanding questions in science policy? This challenging question has recently been addressed in a paper describing work led by the Cambridge Centre for Science and Policy (CSaP). The resulting list is interesting and comprehensive and will be a useful guide both to those working on science policy in academia and science policy practitioners. There have been some criticisms that the work is insufficiently reflective, or that there are already, at least partial, answers to some of the questions in the literature, but I think the authors are to be congratulated in pulling together a comprehensive list.

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Eyes on the prize?

High profile prizes for science and engineering have been making the headlines recently. Last week the Royal Academy of Engineering announced a new international prize for excellence in engineering, the Queen Elizabeth prize. Worth a million pounds to the winner, the ambition is to make this the equivalent of the Nobel Prize for engineering. Like the Nobel, this prize has a broad scope and contrasts with prizes focussed on addressing specific challenges. The idea of awarding prizes for advances in science and engineering has an illustrious history, and there is good evidence that prizes can act as strong incentives for innovation (Tim Harford‘s recent book, Adapt, covers this point in detail).

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Patterns of UK research investment

BIS published their annual ‘SET statistics’ last week, which provide a wealth of information on the UK’s investment in science, engineering and technology. The Campaign for Science and Engineering have published their take on the numbers. For me, one of the interesting aspects of the dataset is the reasonably long time series it provides, giving insights into long term trends. I compiled the following graph from the data to show how the general pattern of research investment has varied over time:

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The virtue of useless maths

Nature has recently published a fascinating article (paywall) developing the argument that theoretical work in mathematics that has no apparent application can prove to be really useful in the future. These quotes summarise the argument:

The mathematician develops topics that no one else can see any point in pursuing, or pushes ideas far into the abstract, well beyond where others would stop.

There is no way to guarantee in advance what pure mathematics will later find application. We can only let the process of curiosity and abstraction take place, let mathematicians obsessively take results to their logical extremes, leaving relevance far behind, and wait to see which topics turn out to be extremely useful. If not, when the challenges of the future arrive, we won’t have the right piece of seemingly pointless mathematics to hand.

These points are then illustrated with seven examples where advances in mathematics precede, sometimes by centuries, their use in new innovations or products. One of the examples explains that the mathematics of quaternions, which were first described in the nineteenth century, turns out to be really useful in computer game programming.

The examples provide evidence that abstract developments can prove useful, but I was left with a question. If the new understanding hadn’t happened first, would the application itself have driven the new mathematics? This is a hypothetical question, and there is no doubt that having the maths in place already will have speeded up the application. In order to get a better picture, though, it would be interesting to know how easy it is to find examples where new advances in maths have been catalysed because of a pressing need to solve a practical problem. If can think of examples like this please add them to the comments.

 

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The cult of personality in science

It was recently announced that the UK Centre for Medical Research and Innovation has been renamed the Francis Crick Institute. While the reduction in the alphabet soup of UK research policy is to be applauded, I find the obsession with naming scientific institutes and facilities after famous individuals problematic for science and its relationship with society. It is part of a wider personality cult in science, that is manifest by the emphasis that is given to personal awards like fellowships of the major academies or big international prizes, of which the Nobel prize is probably the best known.

I think that the focus on individuals raises a number of problems:

  • It suggests that advances in science are dependent on the particular insight of special individuals, but the history of science shows that the cultural context within which scientists operate is at least as influential as individual genius. It is the rule, rather than the exception, that new ideas emerge in parallel in multiple places, and the name we associate with discoveries often reflects accidents of history or aptitudes for self-publicity, rather than some unique contribution.
  • The focus on the individual ignores the importance of teams. Almost any major scientific advance is now dependent on a team effort, and while every effective team needs a leader, to single out individuals misses the point and devalues the wider contributions. And even beyond the research team, science progresses through the development of a body of evidence to which many researchers contribute. This is equally relevant to the current focus on delivering impact from research, as pointed out recently by Jack Stilgoe and Alice Bell: impact comes from people and the interactions between them, rather than from journals article or individuals.
  • Perhaps most importantly, the focus on individuals leads to a perception outside of the research community that there are some special characteristics that are needed to be a successful scientist, and can reinforce stereotypes about age, gender or social background. If we want to attract young people into science focusing on the fact that scientific research is an exciting career that is open to many would seem a better strategy than building a cult of ‘special’ individuals.

 

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Publishing peer review

Peer review is the central pillar of the process of scientific research yet it remains a black box, invisible to those outside of the research community. As I have said previously{.vt-p}, lifting this veil and making peer review of journal articles more transparent could make a big contribution to increasing trust in scientific research. A recent report{.vt-p} [subscription required] in Nature{.vt-p} decribes a programme to just that at the journal{.vt-p} of the European Molecular Biology Organisation (EMBO){.vt-p}. There is also an excellent discussion{.vt-p} of the article by Joerg Heber{.vt-p} on his blog{.vt-p}.

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7 steps to restore trust in science – step 7

  1. Communicate about the process of science as well as the content [previous post]
  2. Make research outputs available to all for free [previous post]
  3. Publish negative results and unsuccessful experiments too [previous post]
  4. Publish peer review comments with research outputs. [previous post]
  5. Attach a summary for non-experts to research outputs. [previous post]
  6. Make raw data available as early as possible. [previous post]
  7. Use new technology to open research conferences to all. Research conferences play an important role in the development of science. Initial finding are presented, ideas discussed and new insights generated.  But access is restricted to those that can afford to travel to the conference and pay to register, making conferences appear closed. Technology makes is so easy to make research conferences more open, and at the simplest level all organisers need to do is publish a Twitter hash-tag. The participants then do the rest. Or why not make audio recordings available online together with slide presentations? With the help of a cheap video camera and YouTube, a video record can be published. Live streaming is a slightly more complicated option.  In the face of all these choices some conferences organisers are trying to close down rather than open up, but surely more openness can only help us all to engage with the research that matters. After all, science has nothing to hide.
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7 steps to restore trust in science – step 6

  1. Communicate about the process of science as well as the content [previous post]
  2. Make research outputs available to all for free [previous post]
  3. Publish negative results and unsuccessful experiments too [previous post]
  4. Publish peer review comments with research outputs. [previous post]
  5. Attach a summary for non-experts to research outputs. [previous post]
  6. Make raw data available as early as possible. An essential feature of the scientific approach is repeating others’ work, either strengthening or calling into question their findings. To make this possible, all scientific reports are accompanied by detailed descriptions of the experimental methods used. But it has not been normal practice for researchers to make their raw data available. As science becomes more and more data rich this has to change. As well as a focus on how data has been generated, we also need to scrutinise the analysis of large and complex datasets. Re-analysis of data can reveal errors, confirm original findings and strengthen confidence, as a recent example illustrates. And the internet makes sharing data simple and almost cost free.
  7. Use new technology to open research conferences to all
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7 steps to restore trust in science – step 5

  1. Communicate about the process of science as well as the content [previous post]
  2. Make research outputs available to all for free [previous post]
  3. Publish negative results and unsuccessful experiments too [previous post]
  4. Publish peer review comments with research outputs. [previous post]
  5. Attach a summary for non-experts to research outputs. Science is becoming more and more specialised, so even scientists in related disciplines can find it challenging understand work that isn’t directly in their field. The challenges that people without a scientific background face are even greater, so scientific research appears remote. If every piece of research had a short clear summary written in non-technical language it would help everyone be clear about its implications.
  6. Make raw data available as early as possible
  7. Use new technology to open research conferences to all
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7 steps to restore trust in science – step 4

  1. Communicate about the process of science as well as the content [previous post]
  2. Make research outputs available to all for free [previous post]
  3. Publish negative results and unsuccessful experiments too [previous post]
  4. Publish peer review comments with research outputs. Peer review is a central process in science for maintaining quality. Peer review takes many forms, both formal and informal, but a key stage is the peer review of scientific outputs. But this process is not transparent, even to those within the subject. Often the anonymous peer reviewers make a major contribution to the content of papers adding extra weight to the robustness of the findings. This could be made more apparent if peer review comments were published, and it was made clear how the paper evolved in response to those comments.
  5. Attach a summary for non-experts to research outputs
  6. Make raw data available as early as possible
  7. Use new technology to open research conferences to all
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7 steps to restore trust in science – step 3

  1. Communicate about the process of science as well as the content [previous post]
  2. Make research outputs available to all for free [previous post]
  3. Publish negative results and unsuccessful experiments too. Sherlock Holmes knew that dogs that don’t bark can be as important as those that do. Science progresses as much through negative results as through positive, but it can be hard to get negative results published. This means that those outside of science are only able to see part of the picture. And it can also lead to duplication of effort by scientists themselves, testing ideas that have already been shown to be false.
  4. Publish peer review comments with research outputs
  5. Attach a summary for non-experts to research outputs
  6. Make raw data available as early as possible
  7. Use new technology to open research conferences to all
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7 steps to restore trust in science – step 2

  1. Communicate about the process of science as well as the content [previous post]
  2. Make research outputs available to all for free. The cost of access to the scientific literature is barrier for many to engage directly with research, and this has the effect of making science appear as a closed world. People outside of the research community, even those that have a strong education in science, are not able to make their own judgements about controversial subjects, but have to rely on secondary sources. The publishing model for science is from the age of Gutenberg, but we are in the age of Berners-Lee. Of course the costs of publishing scientific research need to be paid for, but surely there is a better business model than ‘pay to access’, especially now that the costs of delivery (in electronic format) are so low?
  3. Publish negative results and unsuccessful experiments too
  4. Publish peer review comments with research outputs
  5. Attach a summary for non-experts to research outputs
  6. Make raw data available as early as possible
  7. Use new technology to open research conferences to all
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7 steps to restore trust in science – step 1

  1. Communicate about the process of science as well as the content. Many of the controversies around science and its interface with society are really about the processes of science. But often the background is not well explained. Peer review should be explained clearly, covering both the formal and informal aspects, and being honest about the weaknesses as well as the strengths of the system. The ‘weight of evidence’ approach should be discussed as a real strength of science. So often our understanding of the world depends on the alignment of a large number of small pieces of evidence. None of these on the own are particularly compelling but taken together… And when one piece of evidence turns out to be in error it may only have a minor impact on the overall story. Finally, we need a wider understanding of Kuhn‘s Scientific Revolutions. Sometimes the lone voice is right and the consensus wrong, although history tells us that this doesn’t happen often.
  2. Make research outputs available to all for free
  3. Publish negative results and unsuccessful experiments too
  4. Publish peer review comments with research outputs
  5. Attach a summary for non-experts to research outputs
  6. Make raw data available as early as possible
  7. Use new technology to open research conferences to all
Read More

7 steps to restore trust in science

  1. Communicate about the process of science as well as the content
  2. Make research outputs available to all for free
  3. Publish negative results and unsuccessful experiments too
  4. Publish peer review comments with research outputs
  5. Attach a summary for non-experts to research outputs
  6. Make raw data available as early as possible
  7. Use new technology to open research conferences to all
Read More

Measuring innovation

The measurement of innovation is a difficult and challenging task, but having reliable metrics of innovation is important for research and innovation policy. There are two principal reasons why policy makers need this: first to provide an evidence base for the targeting of public sector interventions to stimulate innovation; and, second to assess the impact of those interventions.

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Emerging technology debates

What are the new technologies that are going to shape the coming decade? This is a question addressed by Andrew Maynard in a recent post on 2020Science. In my opinion Andrew has come up with a pretty sensible list, but, as I commented on his blog, for me the real issue is whether society has the means to have a robust and realistic debate about the deployment of these and other new and emerging technologies.

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The trouble with evidence

Professor Nutt is in the news again. David Nutt is one of the UK’s leading neuroscientists, and chairs the Advisory Committee on the Misuse of Drugs, which advises the UK Government on drugs classification. He first hit the headlines earlier this year, when he pointed out that the drug ecstasy was no more harmful than horse riding and got a dressing down from the then home secretary. Fiona Fox wrote a great piece about this on her blog.

Now, he has criticised a government decision on the classification of cannabis, pointing out that it compares favourably to legal drugs, alcohol and tobacco, on many measures of harm. These debates around drug classification highlight two key issues that we need to face up to if we are serious about evidence based policy making:

  • Policy debates seldom start from a blank sheet of paper. So the consequences of taking an evidence-based approach can be wide-ranging. In the case of drugs policy, the big problem is the existence of two addictive and harmful drugs that are widely accepted in society – alcohol and tobacco. Whatever the evidence says about relative harm, the choices of either banning these substances or adding to the list of legal drugs are both politically fraught.
  • Evidence often goes against the prejudice that people have, or the so-called common sense view. The real value of taking an evidence based approach is to challenge the accepted view. Evidence to confirm the accepted view is nice, but it is the challenge that should really make a difference. The irony is that when evidence, however rigorous, goes against the commonly held view it is most likely to be ignored.

I firmly believe we need to face up to these issues as evidence-based approaches will lead us to better outcomes. And I also hope that Professor Nutt will be treated a little better this time. We need to hear the evidence however politically unpalatable it might be.

Update [30 October]:

So it turns out that Professor Nutt has been sacked as chair of ACMD. How ironic, in the week a new Government report opened with the words:

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If government decisions are to be robust, they need to be based on all relevant evidence. Science and engineering are key elements of this evidence base.

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