Archive for the ‘technology’ Category

The World Of Big Data – The Daily Dish | By Andrew Sullivan

December 20, 2010 Leave a comment

Great post on ‘The World Of Big Data’ by Andrew Sullivan -reproduced in full below.

In passing, a Government truly interested in developing the smart economy would engage in massive data dumps with the presumption that just about every piece of data it holds (excluding the most sensitive pieces of information) from ministerial diaries to fuel consumption records for Garda cars to activity logs for mobile phones to numbers of toilet rolls used in Government Departments would be dumped in realtime on to externally-interrrogable databases. This would be geek-heaven and would generate new technological applications beyond prediction and application. And the activity would be local – could an analyst sitting in Taiwan really make sense of local nuances? The applications would be universal, portable and saleable, however. They would seed a local high-tech industry – maybe even a local Irish Google. Can’t see the Civil Service going for it, though…

Elizabeth Pisani explains (pdf) why large amounts of data collected by organizations like Google and Facebook could change science for the better, and how it already has. Here she recounts the work of John Graunt from the 17th century:

Graunt collected mortality rolls and other parish records and, in effect, threw them at the wall, looking for patterns in births, deaths, weather and commerce. … He scraped parish rolls for insights in the same way as today’s data miners transmute the dross of our Twitter feeds into gold for marketing departments. Graunt made observations on everything from polygamy to traffic congestion in London, concluding: “That the old Streets are unfit for the present frequency of Coaches… That the opinions of Plagues accompanying the Entrance of Kings, is false and seditious; That London, the Metropolis of England, is perhaps a Head too big for the Body, and possibly too strong.”She concludes:

A big advantage of Big Data research is that algorithms, scraping, mining and mashing are usually low cost, once you’ve paid the nerds’ salaries. And the data itself is often droppings produced by an existing activity. “You may as well just let the boffins go at it. They’re not going to hurt anyone, and they may just come up with something useful,” said [Joe] Cain.

We still measure impact and dole out funding on the basis of papers published in peerreviewed journals. It’s a system which works well for thought-bubble experiments but is ill-suited to the Big Data world. We need new ways of sorting the wheat from the chaff, and of rewarding collaborative, speculative science.

[UPDATE] Something I noticed in The Irish Times:

PUBLIC SECTOR: It’s ‘plus ca change’ in the public service sector, as senior civil servants cling to cronyism and outdated attitudes, writes GERALD FLYNN:

…it seems now that it was just more empty promises – repeating similar pledges given in 2008. As we come to the end of yet another year, there is still no new senior public service structure; no chief information officer for e-government has been appointed; no reconstitution of top-level appointments has taken place; and no new public service board has been appointed [emphasis added].

So nothing will happen.

Business Expenditure on Research and Development – 2009/2010 Preliminary Findings

December 18, 2010 Leave a comment

From the CSO:

Almost €1.9bn spent on research and development activities

Preliminary figures indicate that in 2009 almost €1.9bn was spent on research and development activities by enterprises across all business sectors in Ireland.

Estimates of expected expenditure in 2010 indicate that the research and development spend will be just over €1.7bn.
Small enterprises with less than 50 persons engaged spent €300m on research and development in 2009, while medium/large enterprises with 50 or more persons engaged spent almost €1.6bn. Estimated figures for 2010 indicate that the spend for small enterprises would be €425m, with a corresponding figure of €1.28bn for medium/large enterprises.

Preliminary figures for 2009 in this release also show that:
 Current expenditure on research and development activities was €1.54bn while capital expenditure was €326m. See Table 1.
 A total of 15,773 personnel were involved in research and development activities which equates to a full time equivalent (FTE) figure of 11,959. See Tables 2 & 5.
 There were 8,960 persons engaged as researchers working on research and development activities, while 3,572 persons were engaged as technicians and 3,241 as support staff. There were 7,732 FTE researchers, 2,599 FTE technicians and 1,628 FTE support staff. See Tables 3 & 5 .
 There were 11,601 male and 4,172 female research personnel engaged in enterprises. See Table 4.
 There were 1,282 enterprises engaged in research and development activities in Ireland in 2009 and almost a third of these enterprises spent €500,000 or more. See Table 6.
The figures in this release are preliminary and are subject to revision. Final results are expected in April 2011.

Report here: berdpre.pdf (application/pdf Object).

Science is Vital: The economic return argument in favour of investment in research

September 29, 2010 Leave a comment

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.

Longer-term dangers:

  • 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.
  • A rather odd thing for Vince Cable to say – gimpyblog’s posterous

    September 12, 2010 Leave a comment

    A rather odd thing for Vince Cable to say – gimpyblog’s posterous.

    Another nice follow-up to the post below from Chris Dillow on the forthcoming cuts to the UK science budget.

    [blogpost reproduced in full]

    A rather odd thing for Vince Cable to say

    Forget for one moment the fall out of Vince Cable’s speech on science funding. the fact the government has ignored the recommendations of last parliaments Science & Technology committee.…

    Forget the fact that a Liberal Democrat Secretary of State with a remit for science has utterly reneged on Liberal Democrat commitments to science that were made to the electorate.

    Forget even the fact that the Secretary of State does not appear to understand the criteria used for assessing the research that his department is responsible for.

    Forget all this.  For it is not the most weird thing about the speech.

    This is:

    Superstition and irrational prejudice about the natural world are rarely far from the surface and scientists help inoculate society against them – a far from risk-free task as Simon Singh and others have discovered.

    Is Cable saying scientists are inherently more rational and less prejudiced than other members of society? This would be contentious.  Or does he mean that science can provide rational reasons for events and occurrences once attributed to supernatural forces and that evidence undermines prejudice.  This would be true, but you only have too look at the public’s understanding of genetic modification, climate change or immigration to see that in practice throwing facts in somebody’s face is not always the most efficacious way of changing their mind.

    And what has Simon Singh got to do with anything?  He was sued by a bunch of quacks whose reputation now lies in tatters.  This was a terrible abuse of libel law and it needs to be reformed, but this is not the remit of the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation & Skills.  Perhaps Cable was worried that libel law can stifle science based criticisms?  It can, but I suspect that focussing science on fields that generate short term profit against all the evidence may in fact represent a far greater threat.

    Did Cable really think that a poorly conceived nod to skeptical activism and libel reform would sweeten the bitter taste this renunciation of his party’s purported principles has left in the mouths of most scientists?

    The Economist on the human genome: Biology 2.0

    A quote:

    It seems quite likely that future historians of science will divide biology into the pre- and post-genomic eras.

    In one way, post-genomic biology—biology 2.0, if you like—has finally killed the idea of vitalism, the persistent belief that to explain how living things work, something more is needed than just an understanding of their physics and chemistry. True, no biologist has really believed in vitalism for more than a century. Nevertheless, the promise of genomics, that the parts list of a cell and, by extension, of a living organism, is finite and cataloguable, leaves no room for ghosts in the machine.

    Viewed another way, though, biology 2.0 is actually neo-vitalistic. No one thinks that a computer is anything more than the sum of its continually changing physical states, yet those states can be abstracted into concepts and processed by a branch of learning that has come to be known as information science, independently of the shifting pattern of electrical charges inside the computer’s processor.

    So it is with the new biology. The chemicals in a cell are the hardware. The information encoded in the DNA is the preloaded software. The interactions between the cellular chemicals are like the constantly changing states of processing and memory chips. Though understanding the genome has proved more complicated than expected, no discovery made so far suggests anything other than that all the information needed to make a cell is squirreled away in the DNA. Yet the whole is somehow greater than the sum of its parts.

    Ed Moses “Clean Fusion Power This Decade”

    A post on ‘clean fusion’.

    Imminent fusion power

    All the light we see from the sky, Moses pointed out, comes from fusion power burning hydrogen, the commonest element in the universe—3/4 of all mass. A byproduct of the cosmic fusion is the star-stuff that we and the Earth are made of.

    On Earth, 4 billion years of life accumulated geological hydrocarbons, which civilization is now burning at a rate of 10 million years’ worth per year. In 1900, 98% of the world’s energy came from burning carbon. By 1970, that was down to 90%, but it has not decreased since. It has to decrease some time, because there is only so much coal, oil, and gas. During this century every single existing power plant (except some hydro) will age and have to be replaced, and world energy demand is expected to triple by 2100.

    To head off climate change, fossil fuel combustion has to end by about 2050. The crucial period for conversion to something better is between 2030 and 2050. The ideal new power source would be: affordable; clean; non-geopolitical; using inexhaustible fuel and existing infrastructure; capable of rapid development and evolution. Moses’ candidate is the “laser inertial fusion engine”—acronym LIFE—being developed at Lawrence Livermore.

    The question, Moses said, is “Can we build a miniature Sun on Earth?” The recipe involves a peppercorn-size target of hydrogen isotopes deuterium and tritium heated to 200 million degrees Fahrenheit for a couple billionths of a second. To get that micro-blast of heat, the National Ignition Facility (NIF) uses lasers—coherent light—at a massive scale. Laser engineer Moses notes that photons are perfect for the job: “no mass, no charge, just energy.”

    Moses ran a dramatic video showing how a shot at the NIF works. 20-foot-long slugs of amplified coherent light (10 nanoseconds) travel 1,500 yards and converge simultaneously through 192 beams on the tiny target, compressing and heating it to fusion ignition, with a yield of energy 10 to 100 times of what goes into it. Successful early test shots suggest that the NIF will achieve the first ignition within the next few months, and that shot will be heard round the world.

    To get a working prototype of a fusion power plant may take 10 years. It will require an engine that runs at about 600 rpm—like an idling car. Targets need to be fired at a rate of 10 per second into the laser flashes. The energy is collected by molten salt at 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit and then heats the usual steam-turbine tea kettle to generate electricity. The engine could operate at the scale of a standard 1-gigawatt coal or nuclear plant, or it could be scaled down to 250 megawatts or up to 3 gigawatts. The supply of several million targets a year can be manufactured for under 50 cents apiece with the volume and precision that Lego blocks currently are. Moses said that 1 liter of heavy water will yield the energy of 2 million gallons of gas.

    Fusion power, like nuclear fission power, would cost less per kilowatt hour than wind (and far less than solar), yet would be less capital intensive than fission. For the constant baseload power no carbon is involved, no waste stream, no possibility of meltdown or weaponization, and there is no such thing as peak hydrogen.

    — by Stewart Brand

    The Role of PhDs in the Smart Economy – Advisory Science Council – An Comhairle Eolaíochta |

    January 7, 2010 Leave a comment

    via The Role of PhDs in the Smart Economy – Advisory Science Council – An Comhairle Eolaíochta |

    Sometimes, important documents get less publicity than they deserve:

    The Role of PhDs in the Smart Economy
    Date:    15 December 2009
    Source:    Advisory Science Council

    A flow of knowledge and human capital between enterprise, higher education and the public sector is essential to firmly embed enterprise in the knowledge economy and ensure the recent investment in the research infrastructure is leveraged for economic development in the long term. This report examines the skills that businesses require from 4th level Ireland, the roles in enterprise that are filled by PhD graduates and the barriers that prevent their move into enterprise.

    Download doc:

    From the press release:

    A new report launched today by the Advisory Council for Science, Technology and Innovation (ACSTI) has found that Irish R&D firms employing PhD researchers have rates of patenting 2.5 times greater than similarly active firms which do not employ PhD researchers and have vastly higher collaboration rates with both Higher Education Institutes and other firms. While only 29% of R&D active firms employed PhD researchers in 2007, these companies accounted for 70% of business expenditure on R&D. The report, the Role of PhDs in the Smart Economy, highlights Ireland’s need to maintain a competitive output of PhDs in relevant disciplines in line with other developed countries and sets out a list of recommendations to maximise the development of 4th level education in Ireland and its critical relevance to enterprise and society.

    Major Recommendations are below the fold.

    Read more…