Archive for February, 2010

What on earth is wrong with some economists? « University Blog

February 25, 2010 Leave a comment

What on earth is wrong with some economists? « University Blog.

Blog post reproduced in full.

What on earth is wrong with some economists?

Yesterday I was interviewed on Newstalk 106 – for overseas readers, an Irish talk radio station. My task was to give some advice to aspiring students making subject choices, but just before winding up the interview, the presenter asked me to comment on what had been said by a well-known economist (who works for another university) on the same radio station: that Irish universities waste resources, are over-funded, cannot manage student retention and unnecessarily promote subjects that don’t attract any real interest. Or something like that. I am not naming the economist in question, since I didn’t hear him myself and he may have been mis-quoted, or I may not have caught it correctly.

Read more…

Utilitarian funding rules will stifle science, says Sir Mark Walport « Ninth Level Ireland

February 25, 2010 1 comment

Utilitarian funding rules will stifle science, says Sir Mark Walport « Ninth Level Ireland.

“New science funding rules that prioritise studies with anticipated economic or social benefits are misconceived and risk stifling discovery and understanding, according to the head of Britain’s biggest independent supporter of research …” (more)

and also:

The initiative will place needless constraints on research while asking scientists to make impossible predictions about what their experiments will reveal, he said. The Wellcome Trust, which as Britain’s biggest biomedical research charity awards more than £600 million in grants every year, is taking the opposite approach to funding, by backing talented scientists and then allowing them to pursue the questions they think most important.

Policy makers, please listen. Research is a decades-long process, and harvesting the riches of research takes time. Harvard and MIT didn’t just fall out of the sky about four and a bit years ago, and Nokia, as discussed here previously has a history extending back to the 1800’s. Returns from this form of investment take a long time to come, but as this report and this report show, the returns are huge and sustained over very long periods of time. The Executive Summary of the Wellcome Trust report is available here.

Sense about Science: Simon Singh’s appeal hearing today

February 23, 2010 Leave a comment

Simon Singh’s court appearance today.

***To get in touch with me use Reply-To Address:***

Dear Friends

Simon Singh’s libel case v the BCA was at the Court of Appeal today in front of three of the most senior judges in England and Wales: Lord Chief Justice Lord Judge, Master of the Rolls Lord Neuberger and Lord Justice Sedley. They heard arguments from both barristers on the meaning of Simon’s article and on whether it was fact or comment and their judgment is expected in 6 – 8 weeks. A crowd of supporters greeted Simon as he arrived at the court.

Simon said after the hearing: “First of all, thanks to everyone who came to the Court of Appeal today, and everyone who has been so supportive over the last two years. Without your goodwill, I probably would have caved in a long time ago.

I am delighted the Court of Appeal has decided to reconsider the meaning of my article about chiropractic, and I am particularly glad that three such eminent judges will make the ruling. They grilled both sides on all aspects of the appeal. However I should stress that whatever the outcome there is still a long way to go in this libel case. It has been almost two years since the article was published, and yet we are still at a preliminary stage of identifying the meaning of my article. It could easily take another two years before the case is resolved.

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Categories: scientific thinking

Sense About Science – Latest email on the Simon Singh case

February 19, 2010 Leave a comment

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Dear friends

Simon Singh’s libel case with the British Chiropractic Association appears before the Court of Appeal in London next week on Tuesday 23rd February. His case will be heard by three of the most powerful legal figures in the UK, Lord Chief Justice Lord Judge, Master of the Rolls Lord Neuberger and Lord Justice Sedley and has been named one of the top ten cases to watch in 2010 by The Lawyer magazine.

Read more…

Categories: scientific thinking

A review of ranking systems for universities (Annual review of university rankings « Ninth Level Ireland)

February 18, 2010 1 comment

Via Annual review of university rankings « Ninth Level Ireland.

“EUA (the European University Association) has said it intends to publish an annual review of world university rankings. Given the growing number of league tables and rankings, national and international, and the impact of these on ‘decision-making and activities in universities across Europe’ EUA has, rather helpfully, decided to publish an annual review of university rankings …” (more)

So another ranking system is inevitably going to appear in the near future, based this time on the analyses from the EUA.  See this blog for a partial listing of some of the differing systems, and see this blog for critical comment on the differing ranking systems.

Two questions:

1. Will anyone constructing any new ranking system  pay attention to basic measurement theory (you know – the boring stuff like reliability, validity and all the other tedious stuff that tells you that a ranking relates in some way to the construct it purports to measure – the ‘quality’ of a university, however that is defined). Otherwise we are going to run the usual error of mistaking numbers for data.

2. How long  can it be before someone conducts an inter-correlational analysis to see to what extent all of the differing ranking systems are actually measuring the same thing? This kind of statistical meta-analysis using all of the data from the various ranking systems [from relative web presence to citation measures to student employment to student satisfaction to grants gained to patents published to spin-outs started  to teaching quality assurance to research assessment, etc., etc.] should reveal a statistical ‘positive manifold’ (i.e. they are all highly inter-correlated), if they are actually measuring the same thing. There’s a nice MSc thesis for someone to do – just credit this blog please! It certainly would be nice to see the EUA review attempt something quantitative of this type.

Previous posts on this topic here include this, this, and this.

PS: The Scientist is doing its own version of a ranking system.

Update:  have a look at this on on digital scholarship and rankings.

Categories: University Quality

Why is a third-level education useful? And why is underfunding the sector counter-productive? Answer: because it reduces the future potential growth of the economy and depresses future earnings.

February 16, 2010 Leave a comment

There are lots of reasons why a third-level education is useful to the recipient as well as society at large. Here is one good reason: education future-proofs the receipient against unemployment (the data are a time-series from the USA). In other words, probablility of unemployment is stratified by educational attainment, and the more educated you are, the less likely you are to be unemployed.

Which make you ask: why cut university spending?

Chris Dillow writes on his blog about the cuts in university spending in the UK (blog post reproduced in full):

Why is the government cutting university funding? I ask, because if you believe conventional economics, and the justification for expanding universities in the first place, the cuts might be counter-productive. This is because lower investment in human capital means that people will earn less in future – either because they were denied a university place or because they got a worse education at university. This will mean lower future tax revenues. It could be, therefore, that cutting university spending would merely reduce public borrowing this year, at the expense of higher borrowing in future years. With real interest rates  low – which means future cash flows should be valued highly – this danger is especially great now.
Read more…

Rethinking how innovation drives start-ups

February 16, 2010 1 comment

A must-read report on innovation policy, with lots of lessons for Ireland.

R&D contracts for customers the key to successful hi-tech start-ups

UK Government innovation policy should be refocused to reflect the crucial role played by customers in stimulating and funding the development of new hi-tech companies, claims a major new report on the Cambridge hi-tech cluster.

For many years, the “Cambridge Phenomenon” has been associated in most peoples’ minds with academic spin-off firms, established to develop new products based on intellectual property created within their university laboratories, and with Silicon Valley style venture capital providing the finance.

But a two year research study at Cambridge University has found that the key to the success of hi-tech firms generating the most employment lies in developing solutions to customer problems.

“The business of carrying out R&D contracts to solve customer problems and develop new products has been highly tuned by leading Cambridge firms”, says David Connell, one of the report’s authors. “But besides generating thousands of jobs in its own right, this kind of paid R&D often also leads on to ideas for standard, proprietary products that can be commercialized through subsidiaries or separate spin off companies.”

The research team studied successful companies in a wide range of sectors, from IT to instrumentation to biotech and found that solving customer problems and paid R&D contracts have played a key role in the creation of all of them.

“Over the last thirty years Cambridge has seen the development of whole new sectors of industry – in printing technology, semiconductors, wireless technology, software, and scientific instruments, for example. But in each case it is R&D contracts for customers that have generally played the key role in building teams, developing intellectual property and usually in financing early growth”, says Connell.

“These are exactly the sorts of high wage rate, export intensive industries we need to rebuild the UK economy. But if we want to extend and repeat Cambridge’s success elsewhere we must put much more emphasis on policies that encourage these natural, demand-led innovation processes.”

Read more…

More from Craig Barrett – an interview: ‘Looking to the future’ – The Irish Times – Fri, Feb 12, 2010

February 14, 2010 Leave a comment

Great interview with Craig Barrett. Lots for our policy makers to ponder, but here are three key quotes:

“They foolishly asked me, ‘what do you think?’,” he recalls, “and when you ask an engineer a question like that, you will get the standard engineer’s response.

“What I said is that [having] smart people (good education) is important, smart ideas (investment in research) is important, and then letting smart people get together with smart ideas to do something is the third thing (the environment).

“I said: ‘I am not an expert on your education system but when I look at it, you are not world leading in your education system. In fact, if you look at the people who are interested in mathematics and technology and science, and the performance of the country in that area, it’s not wonderful, so that’s not so good.

“And if you look at your investment in research and development, okay, it’s grown a bit, but it’s still very average by most measures. And the things in the environment that allowed you to be so successful – the low corporate tax rate, the IDA – all of those have been copied by many other people, so what exactly do you have that is unique?.’ I kind of left it at that. I said those are the only three levers you have to pull, going forward.”


“There are things you can do in the short term in the areas of education and investment in research and development, but you have to be very aggressive in what you do . . .because the environment has changed so dramatically,” he says. “The game plans we all had 10 years ago are not the game plans for success today.”

Barrett gives the clear impression that he believes the traditional economic powers in the West, including Ireland, find it difficult to embrace such dramatic change. A case in point is universities. He believes passionately that universities must work more closely with industry. “Ireland has two universities in the top 100 worldwide . . . but frankly, neither of them has extended expertise as a wealth creation centre for the economy,” he says.


Increasing Ireland’s investment in RD to close to 3 per cent from its current level of roughly half that – in line with commitments made a decade ago – would help, he argues, and points to Stanford and MIT to show that a more commercial approach does not necessarily mean sacrificing academic excellence.

The half-baked approach to investment in R&D really has to come to end. We either really mean it or we don’t. The reality is that unless we want to retreat to the backwater of ‘Preventing the Future’ (Tom Garvin’s must read-book on how bad policy, inward-looking policy makers and an appalling education system prevented Ireland’s economic development for fifty years), we have to invest in ideas, innovation and education. He has been quoted here before, but is worth quoting again, Derek Bok, former President of Harvard University: ‘if you think education  is expensive, try ignorance’. And make no mistake, education is expensive. And one day, we will have to return to a rational and evidence-based debate, and then a solution, to paying for third-level education. If we want our universities to be wealth-generators on the scale of Stanford or MIT then the limited vision imposed by current policies will have to disappear forever.

Read the whole thing – via Looking to the future – The Irish Times – Fri, Feb 12, 2010.

UPDATE: a plug for Tom Garvin’s book:

Tom Garvin’s bestselling and thought-provoking book looks at Ireland’s public policy from 1920 to 1970, which, he argues, left large numbers of young people without preparation for life in the modern world.
Between the years of the mid thirties through to 1960, independent Ireland suffered from economic stagnation, and also went through a period of intense cultural and psychological repression. While external circumstances account for much of the stagnation – especially the depression of the thirties and the Second World War – Preventing the Future argues that the situation was aggravated by internal circumstances.

The key domestic factor was the failure to extend higher and technical education and training to larger sections of the population. This derived from political stalemates in a small country which derived in turn from the power of the Catholic Church, the strength of the small-farm community, the ideological wish to preserve an older society and, later, gerontocratic tendencies in the political elites and in society as a whole.

While economic growth did accelerate after 1960, the political stand-off over mass education resulted in large numbers of young people being denied preparation for life in the modern world and, arguably, denied Ireland a sufficient supply of trained labour and educated citizens. Ireland’s Celtic Tiger of the nineties was in great part driven by a new and highly educated and technically trained workforce. The political stalemates of the forties and fifties delayed the initial, incomplete take-off until the sixties and resulted in the Tiger arriving nearly a generation later than it might have. (Emphases added)

Let’s not make the same mistake twice: human capital formation is at the heart of the modern economy, and the education system is the means for doing this.

Big rise in college ‘spin-out’ companies – The Irish Times – Fri, Feb 12, 2010

February 12, 2010 Leave a comment

Good news – and there will be more of this if investment in R&D is sustained.


THE NUMBER of “spin-out companies” from Irish third-level colleges increased by 250 per cent in 2009, according to new figures from the Irish Universities Association (IUA).

The data shows 35 companies were created directly from campus research last year, compared to 10 in 2008. About half of these are in the information technology sector, and half are in the bioscience or food areas.

via Big rise in college ‘spin-out’ companies – The Irish Times – Fri, Feb 12, 2010.

Europe’s New Research Chief: Yes, I Can « Ninth Level Ireland

February 11, 2010 Leave a comment

“She had been on the job for barely a few hours, but during a 1-hour chat with a dozen reporters yesterday the woman who will hold Europe’s top science policy job for the next 5 years oozed self-confidence and a can-do attitude. Máire Geoghegan-Quinn, the Irish politician who was confirmed as the E.U’s new Commissioner for Research, Innovation and Science on Tuesday, promised to tackle all of the intractable problems in E.U. science policy – but she avoided going into details …” (more)

[Martin Enserink, Science Insider, 11 February]

via Europe’s New Research Chief: Yes, I Can « Ninth Level Ireland.

Let’s hope she understands how science itself works, and the long timelines for a return on R and D.

More on her here:

and here:

Get lobbying!