Irish Science BlogsPublished 29 September 2010
There are lots of Irish science blogs nowadays where you can keep up with what’s happening in the world of science and find out what issues people are discussing.
These bloggers range from scientists and science teachers to members of the public who have an interest in science.
To give you a flavour of what’s out there, have a look at these ones we’ve come across…
Antimatter, by physics lecturer and Science Ambassador Cormac O’Raifeartaigh
Chris Horn, leading Irish electronics engineer, entrepreneur and STEM policy expert
Communicate Science, by our Science Ambassador Eoin Lettice
The Frog Blog – St Columba’s College Science blog
Irish Science – this is by a group of contributors
James McInerney, evolutionary biologist
Karlin Lillington, technology journalist
Mary Mulvihill, science journalist
Michael Seery, lecturer in physical chemistry (his blog is called “Is This Going To Be On The Exam?”)
Science Communication Review by Diarmaid Mac Mathúna
The Science Gallery blog
Science Line by science journalist Cormac Sheridan
Science Spinning, by Seán Duke
The Strange Quark by Marie Boran
TeachNet Learning Blog
Think For Yourself by physics teacher Noel Cunningham
Using ICT in Further Education by Patricia Donaghy, ICT teacher
Last but not least, don’t forget to check out our own blog at MyScience.ie
FIRE, GOAT, PLUM, SUMP, VANE, HAIR, FARM…
How come you can recall your first day at school vividly but won’t remember this list of words when you get to the bottom of this paragraph? Why are some of us memory champions while others have heads like sieves? Is our ability to remember nature or nurture?
TO PARTICIPATE IN MEMORY LAB YOU WILL NEED TO FILL IN A CONSENT FORM AND FOLLOW EACH EXPERIMENT’S PROTOCOL.
PLEASE NOTE RESEARCH RESULTS TAKE TIME TO PROCESS AND WE WILL NOT BE ABLE TO GIVE YOU SPECIFIC INDIVIDUAL FEEDBACK AFTER EVERY EXPERIMENT. TWO SECOND MEMORY
WHAT DID THAT ROAD SIGN JUST SAY?
Can you recall an image or a name you have just been exposed to and will youremember the details tomorrow? Howdoes time effect your ability to recall?In this task we will test your Visual Iconic Memory.
HEAD LIKE A SIEVE?
REMEMBER THAT PHONE NUMBER YOU JUST LOOKED UP?
In this test we will measure your Short Term Memory based on the number of words and digits you can recall over a short time span. Compare yourself to others and find out if you really do have a head like a sieve.
ARE YOU QUICK AT ADDINGNUMBERS IN YOUR HEAD?
Working Memory is the ability of the prefrontal cortex in your brain to store information needed to perform everyday tasks. We may also need to learn new information quickly and discard what is no longer relevant—a process known as updating. Working Memory is known to diminish with age. In this experiment you can test your Working Memory with number sequences.
DON’T YOU KNOW WHO I AM?
KNOW THE FACE BUT HAVE NO IDEA OF THE NAME?
Remembering names and faces requires your memory to make associations between different pieces of information. This experiment tests your Associative Memory, which involves an area in the temporal lobe of your brain called the Hippocampus. Assess your own capacity for mental association through pairing faces with correct names.
Why are we better at recalling recurring situations in our lives? What triggers the brain to remember certain details and not others? The ability to remember events encountered previously is a classic test of memory.
SAVED BY THE MEMORIES
WHY DO HUMANS HAVEMEMORIES?
How and why has the human memory evolved? Research suggests that we evolved the capacity to remember in order to avoid potential predators and remember the location of our food sources. Your brain is well equipped at processing survival related information. In this experiment we will find out if your memory serves you well in threatening scenarios.
RUSHING OUT THE DOOR ANDFORGOT TO TURN THE IRON OFF?
How is your recall affected bymulti-tasking? In this ‘pen and paper’ testwe look at your Dual Tasking Memory andby over-loading your brain with too muchinformation we are putting it into a morestressed state. How will you perform underpressure?
SMELL OF SUMMER RAIN: WHAT DO YOU REMEMBER?
Certain smells can trigger particularly vivid memories and associations for different people. Research suggests that our memory for different odours may be better then our memory for other sensory information. Our sense of smell can decline with age and so does our memoryfor odours. This experiment will test yourmemory for particular smells.
A TRIP DOWN MEMORY LANE
This exploratory survey asks you to recall your earliest memory and rate a range of criteria associated with it. Share your early memories on Science Gallery’s memory wall!
STRESSED OUT OF MY MIND
Cortisol is a hormone involved in our response to stress. Levels of cortisol in our blood fluctuate throughout the day but are particularly high when individuals are stressed. Research suggests that this inturn can influence functional memory performance. By donating a sample of your saliva for cortisol measurement we’ll investigate if there is any correlation between cortisol levels, stress and memory.
A BRAIN FIT FOR MEMORIES
Recent research shows that exercise maybe a powerful protective strategy against dementia and age-related cognitive decline. It may also enhance cognitivefunction in young healthy adults. Test your cardio respiratory fitness at MEMORYLAB to assess whether your performancein cognitive tasks correlates with your physical fitness.
[This is the second in a series of posts relevant to the all-consuming topic in Ireland at the moment: the fall of the Fianna Fail/Green Party Coalition Government, and the resulting general election to take place on the 25 February 2011. My title approximates a question/comment posed by a guest (I think it was Jim Glennon, the former FF TD) on George Hook's programme on Newstalk].
The iron law of institutions is the name given to the concern of people who have power in institutions to preserve their power within that institution (even when the institution is failing), rather than being concerned with the success of the institution itself. We have seen this law in action during the recent ructions in Fianna Fáil. Taoiseach Brian Cowen continually asserted as he fell from 52% to 8% in the polls that he was the democratically-elected party leader. Fianna Fáil found itself incapable of terminating (as it fell from 40% to 14% in the polls) his badly-ailing leadership. And this despite the electoral cliff that Fianna Fáil was driving over! Disputes over Brian Cowen’s leadership convulsed Fianna Fáil. There is a substantial literature on successful and unsuccessful leadership. One major review suggests successful leadership requires obeying a few simple precepts. Leaders must be sensitive to their followers, support them, treat them with respect and exceed their expectations; to be positive and inspirational; to work hard and to be seen to work hard for the group; and not be overbearing or arrogant. Which of our leaders, past and present, can tick off these precepts successfully?
Solely focusing on individual leadership and ignoring the situations within which behaviour occurs is known as the fundamental attribution error, and is a cognitive bias caused by the salience of the person, and the relative invisibility of the system (group norms, laws, rules, etc.). The lesson for Irish politics is simple: changing personnel is not enough to solve our problems, because the dysfunctional system itself persists. We need substantial systemic changes too. Political decisions are often (usually?) taken within a group context (think Cabinet collective responsibility). Groupthink occurs when a group makes poor decisions because of high levels of within-group cohesion and a desire to minimise within-group conflict (as might happen in an exhausted, embattled and worn-out Government Cabinet!). The necessary critical analysis does not occur. NAMA would hardly have emerged as the optimal policy response had there been a competitive public forum to test and vet competing policy ideas (with the Cabinet adjudicating). The hugely-criticised ‘Credit Institutions (Stabilization) Act 2010’ (e.g., e.g., e.g., e.g.) would hardly have emerged from such a process. Such a process would show that vesting such astonishing power and authority in the frail, bounded rationality of a single individual (the Minister for Finance) is a recipe for future catastrophe. Groupthink can be reduced by the group having an extensive network of weak ties to other individuals and groups. Weak ties provide us with novel ideas and knowledge, and provide a route to ‘reality-test’ planned courses of action. An extensive national and international weak tie network would provide Government Ministers knowledge, insights and ideas unavailable within the Dáil bubble.
Atlantic Corridor STEM Conference, which focuses on how science, technology, engineering and maths are taught
The Atlantic Corridor STEM Conference, which focuses on how science, technology, engineering and maths are taught in our schools and colleges, takes place in March with a keynote speaker of international quality. Dr Ben Goldacre M.D. is an author of the Guardian newspaper’s weekly column called Bad Science. His website www.badscience.net is devoted to satirical criticism of scientific inaccuracy, health scares, pseudoscience and quackery. It focuses especially on examples from the mass media, consumer product marketing, problems with the pharmaceutical industry and its relationship to medical journals as well as complementary and alternative medicine in Britain.
In its third year, the conference gives industry professionals such as teachers, lecturers and anyone connected to the education sector the opportunity to examine the quality in the way in which certain subjects are taught in our schools and colleges. It examines how young the children should be when introducing them to STEM subjects as well as methods used to teach. The conference examines alternatives to this and give educators an opportunity to help make a difference to the existing curriculum.
The conference will also host over 100 Transition Year students who will be challenged to give their honest views on the subjects. The students will then deliver the results to those attending the conference.
The conference takes place on March 10th 2011 in the Tullamore Court Hotel. To book your place at this event please visit www.eventelephant.com/atlanticconference2011
Other speakers at the conference include Sarah Baird from the Arizona Centre for STEM Education, Prof. Patrick Cunningham Chief Scientific Advisor to the Government, Dr. Thad Starner Founder and Director of the Contextual Computing Group in Georgia Tech and Paul Carroll from CPL.
The conference is sponsored by Ericsson, the world’s leading telecommunications company and running in parallel to the conference is a primary school science competition and a workshop for secondary school students focussing on their attitudes to science and technology.
There is an oversupply of PhDs. Although a doctorate is designed as training for a job in academia, the number of PhD positions is unrelated to the number of job openings.
Meanwhile, business leaders complain about shortages of high-level skills, suggesting PhDs are not teaching the right things. The fiercest critics compare research doctorates to Ponzi or pyramid schemes.
From The Economist.
Many of the arguments are valid. But make two plausible assumptions and you get a different answer.
Assumption 1: Innovation, including academic research, is the fundamental driver of long term health, wealth and happiness for the human race. (The “including academic research” bit is the biggest leap.)
Assumption 2: Unfortunately it’s very difficult to say beforehand who will and who will not produce great, or even good, research. (Even after five years departments have trouble predicting which of their crop will excel.)
In this world, each extra PhD raises the chances of one more brilliant, world-changing idea. While hardly comforting to the thousands who toil without job prospects, the collective benefits just might outweigh all the individual misery.
The decision might be individually rational as well, especially if students are no better at predicting their success than their advisors (they probably aren’t).
(A similar analogy comes from Lant Pritchett, who points out that you need a system that produces an enormous number of terrible dance recitals to get the handful of sublime performers. The same logic applies, he argues, to development projects and policies.)
One counterpoint: Here is where I would expect to see overconfidence bias lead to oversupply (and few of the collective benefits thereof). So maybe we need a system that gives the least promising an easier out that saves face.
A very disturbing story from The Economist regarding the past, present and especially the future of PhDs.
‘… the production of PhDs has far outstripped demand for university lecturers. In a recent book, Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus, an academic and a journalist, report that America produced more than 100,000 doctoral degrees between 2005 and 2009. In the same period there were just 16,000 new professorships. Using PhD students to do much of the undergraduate teaching cuts the number of full-time jobs. Even in Canada, where the output of PhD graduates has grown relatively modestly, universities conferred 4,800 doctorate degrees in 2007 but hired just 2,616 new full-time professors. Only a few fast-developing countries, such as Brazil and China, now seem short of PhDs.’
The graphics are fantastic, and the plan itself is short and sweet.
Our animating ethos rests on the belief that major and fundamental research problems are best solved by combining research strengths across disciplines and levels of analysis.
Combining our strengths in this way will allow us to deliver major scientific discoveries of great consequence for human health, welfare and knowledge.
Table of Contents:
- Why Explore the Brain? [Our short, simple answer: 'Understanding the structure and functions of our brains brings us a good way along the path of understanding ourselves as humans. Progress in understanding the nervous system materially benefits human health, welfare and knowledge.']
- Trinity College Institute of Neuroscience Mission
- Transformative Neuroscience
- Trinity College Institute of Neuroscience Today
- Trinity College Institute of Neuroscience Tomorrow
- Research Focus 1: Synapses, Cognition and Behaviour
- Research Focus 2: Neuropsychiatry and Neurodevelopmental Disorders
- Research Focus 3: Neurodegeneration, Neuroprotection and Neuroplasticity
- Platform Technologies: Imaging and Neural Engineering
- Contribution to Society and Outreach
- Future Opportunities
- Measuring Impact: Hard and Soft Metrics
- Final Thoughts
A non-ranking ranking system for Graduate education in the USA.
Graduate programmes are assessed and measured, but stale data could reduce impact of long-awaited report.
Which US chemistry department is the biggest? As of autumn 2005, the University of California, Berkeley, had a whopping 406 graduate students. That must be some departmental picnic. Which ecology programme takes the longest? The median time to complete a PhD degree in the ecology and evolutionary biology department at Tulane University in Louisiana is 8.5 years. Which genetics programme has the highest average number of citations per faculty publication? The Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge dominates, with a knockout 10.08. Which physics programme is the best? A new report that supplies all of the other answers doesn’t make the call.
Released on 28 September, the long-awaited National Academies study on US PhD programmes, A Data-Based Assessment of Research-Doctorate Programs in the United States (see go.nature.com/tqvokc), is notable for not ranking programmes in 1-2-3 order. But it aims to offer comparisons that are detailed enough both to help students determine where to apply and to help job-seekers judge offers. The findings could also guide spending by administrators at a state or school level — whether by lavishing funds on standout programmes or by spending money to improve less-successful ones.
More at the NAS and the rest of this report via the link at top.
Science is Vital (a new UK organisation opposed to cuts in the science budget there) offer a very interesting economic rationale for investing in research on their site [post reproduced in full]. Many of these points are just as important here in Ireland. There are lots of links below to actual evidence on the importance of investment in R&D.
Point 1. Investment in science and engineering skills and research yields broad and historically proven economic returns. Such investment, if made now, could drive the growth needed to secure a strong economic recovery:
- By showing a strong and sustained commitment to science and engineering, the UK can attract and retain excellent and internationally mobile scientists and engineers and the industries that seek to employ them, which will give immediate gains through tax revenues and employment.
- The UK’s economic climate, funding, and the reputations of its universities, all help to attract more and more overseas students – 250,000 in 2008/09, who contributed about £5bn to the UK economy. (BIS SET statistics)
- 180,000 people gain from working in R&D. (BIS SET statistics)
- Finland and Korea responded to their economic crises in the 1990s by investing heavily in R&D while severely constraining public spending; these investments helped their strong regrowth in knowledge-based economies. The UK has not yet seized the opportunity, still available, to invest in science and engineering to accelerate the recovery
- Multifactor productivity (MFP) reflects the extent to which an economy can derive GDP growth from a certain level of labour and capital. A 2004 OECD analysis estimated that a 1% increase in business R&D increases MFP by 0.13% and a 1% increase in public R&D increases MFP by 0.17%.
- A 2008 medical research report estimated that every £1 spent on public or charitably funded research gave a return of 30p a year in perpetuity from direct or indirect GDP gains, on top of the direct gains of the research.
- Corporate investment in R&D brings a return of around 50% to the public. This compares to a private return of around 20% captured by investors themselves.
Point 2. The Government is keen to boost confidence in the UK by making decisive cuts. But cuts in the science and engineering sectors would have the opposite effect, damaging investor confidence, reducing levels of investment and impacting the quality of higher education:
- Science in the UK already operates as a ‘Big Society’, with public investment and private enterprise strongly interacting. Cuts to academia or innovation support could have unforseen and damaging consequences due to the links between them.
- Investment in science cannot simply be turned off and then turned back on again a few years later. As former Science Minister Lord Waldegrave said, “If we cut science now, just as the benefits of nearly twenty years of consistent policy are really beginning to bear fruit, we will seriously damage our economic prospects.”
- The total budget for R&D is an important signal to investors and researchers. If the UK is not perceived to support R&D then they move to more favourable countries, as UK business leaders have previously warned. The UK currently receives a very high proportion of its R&D funds from foreign owned firms (17%), which may be even more responsive to market conditions than UK-based companies.
- If research projects are cut short, this wastes money that has already been spent and risks mothballing large-scale projects such as the Diamond Light Source or Isis.
- Reducing investment in R&D would reduce the potential for economic growth. There will be fewer breakthroughs, and less development of them into beneficial products. The general public will notice falling productivity, given the level of media interest in and coverage of scientific and medical discoveries, as well as new (including green) technologies.
- The UK’s reputation in science and engineering has already been damaged (e.g. physics funding crisis, and cuts already announced). We can recover with prompt action, but if not done soon, it will be hard to regain our previously enviable reputation.
- Reduced funding for higher education teaching and research has already resulted in job losses. As the teaching of high-cost science and engineering courses is already under-resourced, and some universities have accepted unfunded places, further financial pressure is likely to lead to departmental closures.
- Universities increasingly bolster their finances by recruiting overseas students, who bring with them high levels of fees. If the UK becomes less desirable, then this income will fall.
- If the capacity and quality of the higher education system is reduced, a generation of less-skilled graduates is the result. Without enough people trained in science, technology, engineering and maths, it will be difficult to retain industrial investment in the UK.
- If university funding is lowered, universities will scale back on renewing and upgrading their teaching and research facilities, reducing the value of the skills of new graduates.
Point 3. UK science and engineering is already extremely efficient:
Nearly 30% of the UK’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is produced by sectors intensive in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Yet the UK government spends a smaller proportion of its GDP on research than any other nation in the G7, bar Italy. We rank 14th in the OECD under the same metric – just behind Belgium and Canada, and on par with the EU27 average. Despite this, the UK:
- Leads the world in a huge range of scientific disciplines.
- Produces 12% of global citations with around 1% of the population.
- Is home to 29 of the world’s top 200 universities, including three of the top ten (THE rankings).
This is possible through UK science being very efficient:
- The UK is 3rd in the world in terms of citations per researcher
- The UK is ranked first in the G8 for scientific papers produced as a proportion of GDP
- We overwhelmingly focus on world-class research. About 90% of research funds (£980m out of £1095m) from HEFCE go to 3* or 4* research (defined as ‘internationally excellent’ and ‘world-leading’, respectively).
- Research council grants are extremely competitive. For instance, success rates of 19% at the MRC (down from 21% in 2008-9) and 22% at the BBSRC mean that thousands of proposals are rejected. In 2003, the overall grant success rate across research councils was around 40% – it has now fallen to around 20% (in 2008).
While efficiency savings in R&D still need to be made, these savings must be reinvested in science and engineering.
Point 4. The Government needs to develop a long-term and stable policy framework to make the UK a country where people and companies want to do science and engineering, enabling researchers to innovate, and encouraging private investment:
- Analysis of over 100 UK case studies by the Russell Group found that it took an average of 9 years from an initial discovery to produce a license or other measurable impact (e.g., significant commercial investment in a spin-out company). Given that the research cycle can have a decades-long timeframe, the public environment in which research plans are made needs to be of the same order.
- Private investments, research programmes and careers are reliant on a long-term, coherent, and credible policy framework. Instability will reduce the ability of these individuals to do their most high-impact and valuable work.
- A lack of long-term investment framework will compound
- In spring 2010, the most important organisations in UK science urged the government to develop long-term plans. The Royal Society’s Scientific Century report urged the government to outline spending plans over a 15-year period to provide “a clear, long-term framework within which to plan, build, and compete globally”.
- The House of Lords Science & Technology Committee recommended that the government adopt and articulate a long-term vision for UK Research, and the Council for Science and Technology talked of a vision for the future in which the UK research base is successful and globally competitive 20 years out. They urged that, “the Government needs to develop consistent, focused long-term industrial strategies”.
Point 5. Investment in science must be increased, or at the very least maintained, it order for the UK to remain internationally competitive
- The UK invested 1.8% of its GDP in R&D in 2007. This is short of the UK’s own target of 2.5%, and further behind the EU target of 3%.8. The new Government needs to commit to the challenging goal of at least 2.5% of GDP to be spent on R&D from all sources by 2014.
- The UK has an excellent track record, with four of the world’s top 30 research universities. But this excellence is threatened by rapidly increasing investment overseas, particularly in countries such as Brazil, Russia, India and China, that could grow into research giants. Indeed, the UK’s share of scientific publications fell over the last decade, while China’s quadrupled.
- Other world leaders have set out the case for investing in science and engineering.
The advantages that the UK built upon – including an early scientific and industrial base, the English language, and openness to international investors and workers – will not sustain our excellence without a strong new commitment to the future.
Now here’s a great idea from The Frog Blog [blog post reproduced in full]:
Blogging, for me, is an opportunity to reveal the wonders of the natural world to all age groups and bring to light the vast multiplicity that exists in the world of science, nature, technology and engineering. It is about promoting critical thinking and questioning skills, informing and enthusing and, specifically as a teacher, it’s about dispelling the view of science as stagnant and dormant, as portrayed by our inadequate science curricula. Science is an ever evolving field, where individuals seek the truth and aim to solve our society and world problems through investigation, experimentation and exploration.Science is now more important to the Irish public than ever before, as our government finally begins to see the value of scientific research in the face of economic meltdown. Over the coming years and decades, our government aims to create a “smart economy”, with Irish people working in science, technology, engineering and other cutting edge fields. Ireland’s young people are now being encouraged to study science and related courses in university and, for this reason, it is extremely important that good science communication be available to the Irish public.Ireland is awash with excellent science communicators. Established science bloggers like Eoin Lettice, Mary Mulvihill, Shane O’Meara*, Sean Duke, James McInerney, Cormac O’Raifeartaigh, Marie Boran, Cormac Sheridan, Diarmaid Mac Mathúna, Noel Cunningham and Michael Seery do an excellent job promoting their fields. The Irish Times science team, which includes Dick Ahlstrom, Claire O’Connell and William Reville, are the sole national media organisation to have a devoted science section. The science message is getting out there, but I ask one question, is its message reaching a wide enough audience?Not meaning to offend anyone, science blogs have a specific followership – generally those already with an interest in science – and every blogger / writer wants to improve their readership figures. Our national broadcaster, RTÉ, is doing little to promote the sciences to a general audience (unlike the BBC) and it is being left to science blogs and a few other publications (like the Irish Times and Science Spin) to enthuse, inform and promote the work of Irish researchers. Of course, I must mention the brilliant work of Discover Science and Engineering and the wonderful Science Gallery in the elevation of science communication in Ireland too.What I wish to propose is this – a central network of Irish science bloggers similar in structure to the newly launched Guardian Science Blogs. Such a network would provide a medium for the provision of science news and stories relevant to the Irish public. All that would be required are five or six principal writers, each with a specific remit, contributing one or two accessible pieces per week. Of course, there should also be scope for guest bloggers too, providing the Irish public with a vibrant platform for learning, debate and entertainment.The most effective way to introduce such a network would be through an already well established and highly trafficked platform – ideally a national newspaper like the Irish Times, Irish Independent etc. The Irish Times immediately comes to my mind, as it is the only Irish newspaper and media website with a dedicated science section.I don’t mean to sound preachy on this – I am just a lowly science teacher after all – so I would like to invite anyone to comment on the idea and provide suggestions for its implementation, should consensus be established on the value of such a network (Please be aware that the Frog Blog is aimed at science enthusiasts of all ages so comments are moderated). Ireland needs good science communication right now and, I believe, it is time for science communicators to work together and unite in the promotion of science.
[* It's O'Mara! ;-)]