Tuesday, 28 November 2017

Research without borders: why international cooperation is good for STEM

I've just finished reading Bryan Sykes' (okay, I know he's a bit controversial) The Seven Daughters of Eve, about the development of mitochondrial DNA research for population genetics. One chapter mentioned Dr Sykes' discovery of the parallel work of Hans-Jürgen Bandelt, who's Mathematics Genealogy Project provided a structure diagram perfectly suited to explaining Sykes' own evolutionary branching results. This discovery occurred largely by chance, suggesting that small research groups must rely either on serendipity or have knowledge of the latest professional papers in order to find other teams who's work might be useful.

This implies that the more international the character of scientific and technological research, the more likely there will be such fortuitous occurrences. Britain's tortuous path out of the European Union has led various organisations on both sides of the Channel to claim that this can only damage British STEM research. The Francis Crick Institute, a London-based biomedical research centre that opened last year, has staff originating from over seventy nations. This size and type of establishment cannot possibly rely on being supplied with researchers from just one nation. Yet EU scientists resident in Britain have felt 'less welcome' since the Brexit referendum, implying a potential loss of expertise in the event of a mass withdrawal.

In recent years, European Union research donations to the UK have exceeded Britain's own contributions by £3 billion, meaning that the additional £300 million newly announced for research and development over the coming four years is only ten percent of what the EU has provided - and the UK Government is clearly looking to the private sector to make up the shortfall. It should also be recognised that although there are high numbers of non-British nationals working in Britain's STEM sector, the country also has a fair number of its own STEM professionals working overseas in EU nations.

The United Kingdom is home to highly expensive, long-term projects that require overseas funding and expertise, including the Oxfordshire-based Joint European Torus nuclear fusion facility. British funding and staff also contribute to numerous big-budget international projects, from the EU-driven Copernicus Earth observation satellite programme to the non-EU CERN. The latter is best-known for the Large Hadron Collider, the occasional research home of physicist and media star Brian Cox (how does he find the time?) and involves twenty-two key nations plus researchers from more than eighty other countries. Despite the intention to stay involved in at least the non-EU projects, surveys suggest that post-Brexit there will be greater numbers of British STEM professionals moving abroad. Indeed, in the past year some American institutions have actively pursued the notion of recruiting more British scientists and engineers.

Of course, the UK is far from unique in being involved in so many projects requiring international cooperation. Thirty nations are collaborating on the US-based Deep Underground Neutrino Experiment (DUNE); the recently-successful Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) involves staff from eighteen countries; and the Square Kilometre Array radio telescope project utilises researchers of more than twenty nationalities. Although the USA has a large population when compared to European nations, one report from 2004 states that approaching half of US physicists were born overseas. Clearly, these projects are deeply indebted to non-nationals.

It isn't just STEM professionals that rely on journeying cross-border, either. Foreign science and technology students make up considerable percentages in some developed countries: in recent years, over 25% of the USA's STEM graduate students and even higher numbers of its master's degree and doctorate students were not born there. Canada, Australia, New Zealand and several European countries have similar statistics, with Indian and Chinese students making up a large proportion of those studying abroad.

As a small nation with severely limited resources for research, New Zealand does extremely well out of the financial contributions from foreign students. Each PhD student spends an average of NZ$175,000 on fees and living costs, never mind additional revenue from the likes of family holidays, so clearly the economics alone make sense. Non-nationals can also introduce new perspectives and different approaches, potentially lessening inflexibility due to cultural mind sets. In recent years, two New Zealand-based scientists, microbiologist Dr Siouxsie Wiles and nanotechnologist Dr Michelle Dickinson (A.K.A. Nanogirl) have risen to prominence thanks to their fantastic science communication work, including with children. Both were born in the UK, but New Zealand sci-comm would be substantially poorer without their efforts. Could it be that their sense of perspective homed in on a need that locally-raised scientists failed to recognise?

This combination of open borders for STEM professionals and international collaboration on expensive projects proves if anything that science cannot be separated from society as a whole. Publically-funded research requires not only a government willing to see beyond its short-term spell in office but a level of state education that satisfies the general populace as to why public money should be granted for such undertakings. Whilst I have previously discussed the issues surrounding the use of state funding for mega-budget research with no obvious practical application, the merits of each project should still be discussed on an individual basis. In addition, and as a rule of thumb, it seems that the larger the project, the almost certain increase in the percentage of non-nationals required to staff it.

The anti-Brexit views of prominent British scientists such as Brian Cox and the Astronomer Royal, Lord Rees of Ludlow, are well known. Let's just hope that the rising xenophobia and anti-immigration feeling that led to Brexit doesn't stand for 'brain exit'. There's been enough of that already and no nation - not even the USA - has enough brain power or funding to go it alone on the projects that really need prompt attention (in case you're in any doubt, alternative energy sources and climate change mitigation spring to mind). Shortly before the Brexit referendum, Professor Stephen Hawking said: "Gone are the days when we could stand on our own, against the world. We need to be part of a larger group of nations." Well if that's not obvious, I don't know what is!

Thursday, 9 November 2017

Wonders of Creation: explaining the universe with Brian Cox and Robin Ince

As Carl Sagan once you said: "if you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe." A few nights' ago, I went to what its' promoters bill as ‘the world's most successful and significant science show', which in just over two hours presented a delineation of the birth, history, and eventual death of the universe. In fact, it covered just about everything from primordial slime to the triumphs of the Cassini space probe, only lacking the apple pie itself.

The show in question is an evening with British physicist and presenter Professor Brian Cox. As a long-time fan of his BBC Radio show The Infinite Monkey Cage I was interested to see how the celebrity professor worked his sci-comm magic with a live audience. In addition to the good professor, his co-presenter on The Infinite Monkey Cage, the comedian Robin Ince, also appeared on stage. As such, I was intrigued to see how their combination of learned scientist and representative layman (or 'interested idiot' as he styles himself) would work in front of two thousand people.

I've previously discussed the trend for extremely expensive live shows featuring well-known scientists and (grumble-grumble) the ticket's to Brian Cox were similarly priced to those for Neil deGrasse Tyson earlier this year. As usual, my friends and I went for the cheaper seats, although Auckland must have plenty of rich science fans, judging by the almost packed house (I did a notice a few empty seats in the presumably most expensive front row). As with Professor Tyson, the most expensive tickets for this show included a meet and greet afterwards, at an eye-watering NZ$485!

When Cox asked if there were any scientists in the audience, there were very few cheers. I did notice several members of New Zealand's sci-comm elite, including Dr Michelle Dickinson, A.K.A. Nanogirl, who had met Ince on his previous Cosmic Shambles LIVE tour; perhaps the cost precluded many STEM professionals from attending. As I have said before, such inflated prices can easily lead to only dedicated fans attending, which is nothing less than preaching to the converted. In which case, it's more of a meet-the-celebrity event akin to a music concert than an attempt to spread the wonder - and rationality - of science.

So was I impressed? The opening music certainly generated some nostalgia for me, as it was taken from Brian Eno's soundtrack for the Al Reinert 1983 feature-length documentary on the Apollo lunar missions. Being of almost the same age as Professor Cox, I confess to having in my teens bought the album of vinyl - and still have it! Unlike Neil deGrasse Tyson's show, the Cox-Ince evening was an almost non-stop visual feast, with one giant screen portraying a range of photographs and diagrams, even a few videos. At the times, the images almost appeared to be 3D, seemingly hanging out of the screen, with shots of the Earth and various planets and moons bulging onto the darkened stage. I have to admit to being extremely impressed with the visuals, even though I had seen some of them before. Highlights included the Hubble Space Telescope's famous Ultra-Deep Field of the earliest galaxies and the montage of the cosmic microwave background taken by the WMAP probe.

The evening (okay, let's call it a cosmology lecture with comic interludes) began as per Neil deGrasse Tyson with the age and scale of the universe, then progressed through galaxy formation and a few examples of known extra-solar planets. However, the material was also bang up to date, as it included the recent discoveries of gravitational waves at LIGO and the creation of heavy elements such as gold and platinum in neutron star collisions.

Evolution of the universe

Our universe: a potted history

Professor Cox also took us through the future prospects of the solar system and the eventual heat death of the universe, generating a few "oohs" and "aahs" along the way.  Interestingly, there was little explanation of dark matter and dark energy; perhaps it was deemed too speculative a topic to do it justice. Black holes had a generous amount of attention though, including Hawking radiation. Despite having an audience of primarily non-STEM professionals (admittedly after a show of hands found a large proportion of them to be The Infinite Monkey Cage listeners), a certain level of knowledge was presupposed and there was little attempt to explain the basics. Indeed, at one point an equation popped up - and it wasn't E=MC2. How refreshing!

Talking of which, there was a brief rundown of Einstein's Special and General Theories of Relativity, followed by the latter's development into the hypothesis of the expanding universe and eventual proof of the Big Bang model. Einstein's Cosmological Constant and his initial dismissal of physicist-priest Georges Lemaître's work were given as examples that even the greatest scientists sometimes make mistakes, showing that science is not a set of inviolable truths that we can never improve upon (the Second Law of Thermodynamics excluded, of course). Lemaître was also held up to be an example of how science and religion can co-exist peacefully, in this case, within the same person.

Another strand, proving that Cox is indeed deeply indebted to Carl Sagan (aren't we all?) was his potted history of life on Earth, with reference to the possibility of microbial life on Mars, Europa and Enceladus. The lack of evidence for intelligent extra-terrestrials clearly bothers Brian Cox as much as it did Sagan. However, Cox appeared to retain his scientific impartiality, suggesting that - thanks to the 3.5 billion year plus gap between the origin of life and the evolution of multi-cellular organisms - intelligent species may be extremely rare.

For a fan of crewed space missions, Cox made little mention of future space travel, concentrating instead on robotic probes such as Cassini. The Large Hadron Collider also didn't feature in any meaningful way, although one of the audience questions around the danger of LHC-created black holes was put into perspective next to the natural black holes that might be produced by cosmic ray interactions with the Earth's atmosphere; the latter's 108 TeV (tera electron volts) far exceed the energies generated by the LHC and we've not been compressed to infinity yet.

Robin Ince's contributions were largely restricted to short if hilarious segments but he also made a passionate plea (there's no other word for it) on the readability of Charles Darwin and his relevance today. He discussed Darwin's earthworm experiments and made short work of the American evangelicals'  "no Darwin equals no Hitler" nonsense, concluding with one of his best jokes: "no Pythagoras would mean no Toblerone".

One of the friends I went with admitted to learning little that was new but as stated earlier I really went to examine the sci-comm methods being used and their effect on the audience. Cox and Ince may have covered a lot of scientific ground but they were far from neglectful of the current state of our species and our environment. Various quotes from astronauts and the use of one of the 'pale blue dot' images of a distant Earth showed the intent to follow in Carl Sagan's footsteps and present the poetic wonder of the immensity of creation and the folly of our pathetic conflicts by comparison. The Cox-Ince combination is certainly a very effective one, as any listeners to The Infinite Monkey Cage will know. Other science communicators could do far worse than to follow their brand of no-nonsense lecturing punctuated by amusing interludes. As for me, I'm wondering whether to book tickets for Richard Dawkins and Lawrence Krauss in May next year. They are slightly cheaper than both Brian Cox and Neil deGrasse Tyson. Hmmm…