Archive for December, 2010

Encouraging high-tech development in a recession (via Ninth Level Ireland)

December 31, 2010 Leave a comment

Encouraging high-tech development in a recession "Ireland has an inventive history. As the Government makes some tough economic decisions, it needs to nurture this creativity and turn it into patentable, high-tech exports …" (more) [James Dyson, Irish Times, 31 December] … Read More

via Ninth Level Ireland

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Scientific Method in Decline? (via Ninth Level Ireland)

December 31, 2010 Leave a comment

Scientific Method in Decline? "… Science is a human enterprise. Mistakes get made. Biases exist. And yet, amazingly, science still works, which is really the only justification for its existence. Science is still the most powerful approach for manipulating and predicting the physical world, period …" (more) [The Finch and Pea, 29 December] … Read More

via Ninth Level Ireland

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The Top of HBR Innovation Ideas of 2011 (via PierG (aka Piergiorgio Grossi))

December 27, 2010 Leave a comment

Another reading idea from the Harvard Business Review site: The Top Six Innovation Ideas of 2011 . Just to summarize, here they are: contestification: "crowdsourced contestification is becoming institutionalized as a way firms can grow their own innovation nations" kepp touching me and I'll screen: "designing documents to be a sensual physical experience and not just a visually cognitive one demands different aesthetics and sensibilities" WWWabs: … Read More

via PierG (aka Piergiorgio Grossi)

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Mismeasuring scientific quality (and an argument in favour of diversity of measurement systems)

December 27, 2010 2 comments

There was a short piece here recently on the misuse of impact factors to measure scientific quality, and how this in turn leads to dependence on drugs like Sciagra™ and other dangerous variants such as Psyagra™ and Genagra™.

Here’s an interesting and important post from Michael Nielsen on the mismeasurement of science. The essence of his argument is straightforward: unidimensional reduction of a multidimensional variable set is going to lead to significant loss of important information (or at least that’s how I read it):

My argument … is essentially an argument against homogeneity in the evaluation of science: it’s not the use of metrics I’m objecting to, per se, rather it’s the idea that a relatively small number of metrics may become broadly influential. I shall argue that it’s much better if the system is very diverse, with all sorts of different ways being used to evaluate science. Crucially, my argument is independent of the details of what metrics are being broadly adopted: no matter how well-designed a particular metric may be, we shall see that it would be better to use a more heterogeneous system.

Nielsen notes three problems with centralised metrics (this can be relying solely on a h-index, citations, publication counts, or whatever else you fancy):

Centralized metrics suppress cognitive diversity: Over the past decade the complexity theorist Scott Page and his collaborators have proved some remarkable results about the use of metrics to identify the “best” people to solve a problem (ref,ref).

Centralized metrics create perverse incentives: Imagine, for the sake of argument, that the US National Science Foundation (NSF) wanted to encourage scientists to use YouTube videos as a way of sharing scientific results. The videos could, for example, be used as a way of explaining crucial-but-hard-to-verbally-describe details of experiments. To encourage the use of videos, the NSF announces that from now on they’d like grant applications to include viewing statistics for YouTube videos as a metric for the impact of prior research. Now, this proposal obviously has many problems, but for the sake of argument please just imagine it was being done. Suppose also that after this policy was implemented a new video service came online that was far better than YouTube. If the new service was good enough then people in the general consumer market would quickly switch to the new service. But even if the new service was far better than YouTube, most scientists – at least those with any interest in NSF funding – wouldn’t switch until the NSF changed its policy. Meanwhile, the NSF would have little reason to change their policy, until lots of scientists were using the new service. In short, this centralized metric would incentivize scientists to use inferior systems, and so inhibit them from using the best tools.

Centralized metrics misallocate resources: One of the causes of the financial crash of 2008 was a serious mistake made by rating agencies such as Moody’s, S&P, and Fitch. The mistake was to systematically underestimate the risk of investing in financial instruments derived from housing mortgages. Because so many investors relied on the rating agencies to make investment decisions, the erroneous ratings caused an enormous misallocation of capital, which propped up a bubble in the housing market. It was only after homeowners began to default on their mortgages in unusually large numbers that the market realized that the ratings agencies were mistaken, and the bubble collapsed. It’s easy to blame the rating agencies for this collapse, but this kind of misallocation of resources is inevitable in any system which relies on centralized decision-making. The reason is that any mistakes made at the central point, no matter how small, then spread and affect the entire system.

What of course is breath-taking is that scientists, who spend so much time devising sensitive measurements of complex phenomena, can sometimes suffer a bizarre cognitive pathology when it comes to how the quality of science itself should be measured.  The sudden rise of the h index is surely proof of that. Nothing can actually substitute for the hard work of actually reading the papers and judging their quality and creativity.  Grillner and colleagues recommend that “Minimally, we must forego using impact factors as a proxy for excellence and replace them with indepth analyses of the science produced by candidates for positions and grants. This requires more time and effort from senior scientists and cooperation from international communities, because not every country has the necessary expertise in all areas of science.” Nielsen makes a similar recommendation.

The limits to social cognition imposed by Dunbar’s number – You’ve Got to Have (150) Friends –

December 26, 2010 Leave a comment

You’ve Got to Have (150) Friends –

The critical component in social networking is the removal of time as a constraint. In the real world, according to research by myself and others, we devote 40 percent of our limited social time each week to the five most important people we know, who represent just 3 percent of our social world and a trivially small proportion of all the people alive today. Since the time invested in a relationship determines its quality, having more than five best friends is impossible when we interact face to face, one person at a time.

The Happy Planet index

December 24, 2010 Leave a comment

Something to play with over Christmas.


The questions on the following pages will ask you about where you live, your health, lifestyle, and how you feel about life. The answers you give are used to calculate your own personal score on the Happy Planet Index. How happy are you… and at what price to the environment?!

Three Views of Matt Ridley, The Rational Optimist – tagline ‘ideas having sex’!

December 24, 2010 Leave a comment

Three Views of Matt Ridley.

Posted by David Boaz

Matt Ridley’s new book, The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves, is garnering rave reviews. Ridley, science writer and popularizer of evolutionary psychology, shows how it was trade and specialization of labor–and the resulting massive growth in technological sophistication–that hauled humanity from its impoverished past to its comparatively rich present. These trends will continue, he argues, and will solve many of today’s most pressing problems, from the spread of disease to the threat of climate change.

The Cato Institute has now presented three different looks at the book, with a review in the Cato Journal, another in Regulation, and an event at Cato with Matt Ridley himself.

FWIW, it is one of the most enjoyable books I have read this year, and a great counter to the pervasive misery-mongering rife. The tagline ‘ideas having sex’ is a great metaphor for the advancement of knowledge. Here is his TED talk – well worth watching.

Further on the (over)production of PhDs

December 23, 2010 Leave a comment

PhD production as a process of self-discovery by Chris Blattman (post reproduced in full). See also this post. A different and less-depressing view of PhD (over)production.

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.

Entrepreneurial academics need support: / Business education / Soapbox – Entrepreneurial academics need support

December 23, 2010 Leave a comment / Business education / Soapbox – Entrepreneurial academics need support. / Business education / Soapbox – Entrepreneurial academics need support.

It is a common lament that academics lack entrepreneurial flair. However, this perception appears to be far from reality. Drawing on a large-scale survey of thousands of UK academics sponsored by the Advanced Institute of Management Research we found that, on average, academics are five times more likely to be entrepreneurs than a member of the general public. Academic entrepreneurs are found in almost all disciplines, even the much maligned social sciences.

H/T: Sean Mulvany

From the Executive Summary:

Drawing on a unique set of surveys of academics funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), this report explores changes in the way academics engage with industry in the UK between 2004 and 2009. Although there are new and increasing pressures for academics to engage with industry, the nature and extent of this industry engagement remains an area of choice for individual academics. This report
documents how academics’ perceive working with industry and explores how academics manage and integrate these activities with their research and teaching efforts. It also examines the entrepreneurial efforts of UK academics. In doing so, it offers lessons for policy.
The key findings from the report are:
■ Industrial engagement is common among UK academics working in the engineering and physical sciences. The main forms of engagement are conferences and one-off research agreements such as joint research projects and contract research. Most academics engaged in one or two projects (consultancy, funded research or contract research) with industry over the past two years.
■ Levels of engagement with industry have increased over the past five years. UK academics appear to use more types of engagement with industry and more frequently than they did five years ago.
■ The barriers to engagement with industry remain and are largely concentrated in differences in orientation, including the time scale and nature of research, between academics and industry. In comparison with their industry collaborators, academics perceive few problems in engagement related to Intellectual Property (IP) or university rules and regulations.
■ Barriers to engagement appear to be falling over time as academics reported fewer barriers in the 2009 survey than in the 2004 survey. This result contrasts with the results of the industry survey of EPSRC collaborators, which shows an increasing volume of barriers to collaboration over the same period. These differences may reflect a divergence in collaboration experience between academics and industry.
■ The main factors the motivate engagement with industry are related to furthering of academics’ research activities, including securing additional research funding, and finding interesting and rewarding research problems. Few academics engage with industry for purely financial gain. The importance of these factors has remained relatively constant over time, but the importance of engaging with industry to build networks has increased.
■ Most academics feel supported by their department and their university for their engagement efforts with industry. However, few considered this activity as rewarded or valued by their department or university.
■ The Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) 2008 appears to have had little negative impact on industry engagement as few academics indicating that the RAE forced them to reduce their engagement efforts. However, the RAE 2008 did lead to a third of academics shifting their publications away from more practitioner-oriented outlets.
■ UK academics appear to be highly entrepreneurial. A significant proportion are directly involved in developing new ventures. Respondents to the survey are almost five times more likely to be involved in entrepreneurial efforts than general members of the UK population.
■ There are significant differences in the rates of entrepreneurship between academics working in different disciplines.
■ The main motivations for starting a new venture among entrepreneurial academics are to develop their research into a practical application and to challenge themselves. The main barrier to entrepreneurship among academics is a lack of time and resources rather than lack of support from colleagues or their university.

Policy lessons arising from the research
Read more…

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From The Scientist: ‘The astonishing secret to getting jobs, grants, papers, and happiness in biomedical research’

December 23, 2010 Leave a comment

Opinion: Success! – The Scientist – Magazine of the Life Sciences.

Two words:

So here goes. If you are committed to this path, and want papers, grants, and employment for now and tomorrow, I can sum up in two words what it is that is asked of you, and really, everyone who works in science: Astonish us. That’s it.