Over the last couple of years I have been raising the issue of the increasing reliance on short term contracts in the case of project managers. Reading today the Research Europe article “Short-term posts feed academic insecurity“, I was happy to see that the issue is raised again, this time for researchers! In this way, hopefully, Member States and the EU will improve their policies that are currently resulting in brain drain to other sectors and reduced levels of productivity, as Nobel prize winner Peter Higgs said this week.
A very interesting report was published during the summer holidays! Sciencewise commissioned Ipsos MORI to carry out research into the public’s views of emerging areas of policy involving science and technology. 30 issues were identified through a process of consultation with experts involved in policy making and science and technology at a workshop run by the Cambridge Centre for Science and Policy.
Participants of the workshops created a grid showing how important they thought each issue was, relative to others. On the vertical axis, they showed how high a priority they thought each issue should be for the UK government, and on the horizontal axis they showed how high a priority it should be for the public to have involvement in policy-making related to the issue.
In the report each of the 30 issues was analysed but what I found most interesting was the concluding section which included the following:
The way the public responded to the issues we showed them highlights some of the challenges for engaging the public with emergent science and technology issues. Sciencewise and others should now consider how to address these issues.
How to deal with multi-stakeholder, multi-layered issues? We know the public are interested in learning about the more complex issues that do not sit with only one department or policy stream; government stakeholders should work beyond internal silos to engage the public in shared dialogue processes.
Issues in dialogue must be framed so they are relevant to the public but without oversimplifying. This project, like others, underlines the need for stimulus and framing materials which enhance specificity, urgency, relevance to individuals in the UK as well as educating participants about risk and uncertainty. It may be a challenge to deal with the issues which are high risk and far off – is there a role for more explicit horizon scanning and scenario planning exercises within public dialogue?
Dialogues about how to engage the public with risk and uncertainty. Can we find out more about how people want to engage with ‘wicked’ problems? Some issues contain a “lack of consensus on fundamental facts or judgements” - what would a public, educated about this phenomenon, say about the issues?
Dialogues about how values are formed. We need to find out more about underlying tensions in dialogue, for example the range of views on individual rights vs collective responsibilities. A dialogue on the underlying issue of personal freedoms versus responsibilities, as this relates to science, taking in a range of different scientific or technological advances as stimulus, might be fruitful. Can we find out how the public feel these values should bear on decision making in science?
Different engagement for different times in the policy cycle. Do we need engagement on how policy is to be implemented (‘Keeping the lights on’)? Or on the moral and ethical level about the principles which should drive policy – (‘Rising costs of healthcare’)? Dialogue should take place at the point where participants can see it their input will have a certain effect.
Tackling cynicism. In this dialogue participants emphasised that their involvement was conditional on it making a difference to policy; but they did not really believe such difference would happen. The differences dialogue can make are subtle, nuanced and long-term but policymakers need to communicate what the dialogue achieved. Also, participants were keen to know that their view would not be ‘outweighed’ in the decision process by voices of vested interests. Those running dialogues should explain how the views of the public are balanced with the views of other stakeholders in decision making.
“funding bodies seem ever more impressed by shiny big projects coupled with glamorous promises rather than realistic chances of finding out anything useful”
This reminds me of an article I had written at the end of my PhD, a few years ago now, in a major Greek newspaper, whose translation you can find here. Academics are desperately trying to find out what could be the next big “sexy” thing (the phrase I repeatedly heard back then) so that they can adapt to it, so that they can ensure that their funding will continue. The realisation that being a scientist today involves more of this search rather than the search for knowledge/scientific advancement shook the foundations of my (admittedly too idealistic) belief in science (and this was the main reason I decided I did not want to be a researcher). We have currently an arms race: scientists are trying to think of more and more glamorous (to use Bill Amos’s phrase) projects and funding bodies want to fund more and more of such shiny projects and the bar keeps rising (when will it stop?).
My idealism in science did not disappear completely, so at the end of my PhD I moved on the “other side”, the science policy side. The big change for me was, however, that I moved from the general field of biology to the general field of physics. In Biology most projects are comparatively small (the flowers in the garden that will die in Bill Amos’s metaphor), in Astroparticle Physics infrastructures cost from a hundreds of thousands of euros to billions of euros (the equivalent garden would contain a few big trees and some flowers around nonethless). Do the physicists need such Big Science projects? With my limited knowledge of the field, I would say yes. Do biologists need to scale up their research to similar levels to astroparticle physicists? I would say no. Not all disciplines are the same, we should not be doing copy pasting when funding science is concerned. In the same way that one expects scientists to think in their work, politicians should be doing the equivalent thinking.
“Heads of groups typically add their names to all papers, so the heads of larger groups inevitably appear more productive (and more fundable) than those of smaller groups. This effect is then exaggerated by self-citation because more authors equal more citations.”
In Biology most papers are still written by few authors, in Astroparticle Physics you have hundreds of authors. Thinking of the phrase quoted above, does this mean that the latter are more productive scientists than the former? NO!
and I wondered what are the KICs in the context of Horizon2020. Everything is explained on the European Institute of Innovation and Technology (EIT) website:
Knowledge and Innovation Communities (KICs) are the independent but operational part of the EIT, the part that puts the innovation web into practise. They are highly integrated, creative and excellence-driven partnerships that bring together the fields of education, technology, research, business and entrepreneurship, in order to produce new innovations and new innovation models that inspire others to emulate it. They are to become key drivers of sustainable economic growth and competitiveness across Europe through world-leading innovation. The KICs will be driving effective “translation” between partners in ideas, technology, culture, and business models, and will create new business for existing industry and for new endeavours. KICs are legally and financially structured entities of internationally distributed but thematically convergent partners. The relationship between the KICs and the EIT in Budapest is organised on a contractual basis, leaving a great degree of autonomy to the KICs to define their own legal status, internal organisation and working methods.