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Scientific Integrity April 22, 2011

Posted by gordonwatts in physics, physics life, politics, press, science.

… means not telling only half the result

… means not mis-crediting a result

… means an obligation to society to not falsify results

… means not making false claims to gain exposure

… means respecting your fellow scientist and their results

means not talking about things that aren’t public (or, say, that haven’t undergone an internal review)

… means playing by the rules you agreed to when you enter into a collaboration

It means being a scientist!

Integrity is more important that ever given how much the public eye is focused on us in particle physics.

Update: I should mention that this post was authored with Alison Lister.

Wikileaks December 3, 2010

Posted by gordonwatts in politics.
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Normally I try to stick to science and things affecting education (or just not write much), but I find the Wikileaks thing in the news lately fascinating for several reasons. The most mundane of which is I’ve always been interested in international diplomacy and this gives quite a peak into what conversations were actually going on. When I was reading lots of books (more on that in a future post, if I get back to posting) one of the topics was international relations. In many cases the authors would use public actions to infer the diplomacy that must have gone on behind closed doors. This gives us a glimpse into that – and I can’t wait to see more articles sifting through the cables.

I suspect how you feel about Wikileaks depends on where you sit on two issues. First, do you trust your government when it comes to doing the right thing internationally? If the answer is no, then I would guess that anything that makes the government more transparent you will like. The other axis is how much damage you think this causes to the US’ ability to conduct international relations and, perhaps, how important it is to get unvarnished opinions from others around the globe without their fear of their words being published. The balance of those two issues probably governs your basic reaction. Personally, I’m more concerned about the latter.

But that isn’t what prompted me to write this.

Everyone is going after Wikileaks. They have been kicked off servers in the UK, now out of Amazon, and as I write this their servers are offline or at least not responding. My guess is that since countries are out to get Wikileaks and its founder, its life is going to be short. But… I think it doesn’t matter what happens to Wikileaks.

When you break it down, Wikileaks is doing two things, well, three things.

  1. First, Wikileaks receives the secrets. Someone sends it to them with the expectation that they will publish the secrets and do their best to keep them secret.
  2. Wikileaks does do some filtering – removing names, etc., and other things that are obvious references to names that might get people killed or similar.
  3. Indexing and collation. This is especially true of the latest batch of cables – if Wikileaks had dumped the complete trove on the web it would have been a lot less accessible or interesting to most of us. Right now you can just browse their website and look at topics and look at the cables that concern that topic.
  4. Finally they publish the secrets to the web and the world.

I think it is a given that as long as you have humans working with secrets you’ll have leaks. So I don’t think the source of leaks in the world is going to dry up. I think this is especially true now that Wikileaks has shown everyone how easy it is to publish the secrets. But lets say Wikileaks goes away, and that the world is successful in keeping new Wikileaks clones from being created. Now what?

Well, we already know how to widely publish something we aren’t supposed to with very little effort. It is called file sharing! Once a file gets started it is very difficult to tell exactly where it came from – and so it quickly becomes anonymous. That takes care of step #1 and #4. What about #3? I’m going to go with crowdsourcing here. The idea is that some data is published and then the people who are interested will comb through it and publish their findings online. Blogs, tweets, etc. That takes care of #3.

This isn’t without problems in the future. For example, #2 won’t be dealt with – or you’ll have to rely on every single person who is combing through the data. Second, #4 isn’t going to be as nice – it will be spread all over the web. Perhaps more serious is the way #4 will occur – most people who put up the information will also put up a interpretation – perhaps cherry picking the comments. We saw a classic example of this with http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ClimategateClimateGate. I’m not sure how well #1 is going to work. Doing that with file sharing isn’t trivial. You have to have a computer connected to the net and up and running long enough to publish the fact that you have this file – something someone leaking a secret may not like to do. There are other methods – but it is unlikely that the person who has access to the secrets also knows how to publish them anonymously and effectively.

None-the-less the information is out there for all to see. Now that these leaked secrets have gotten so much publicity and people will start to realize how easy it is. So, while Wikileaks might disappear I think the cat is out of the bag, so to speak. You know the saying, right? Don’t write anything in email you wouldn’t want repeated, even if it is a private email… well… more proof!

The Higher Ed Protests in California January 18, 2010

Posted by gordonwatts in politics, university.

I suspect most readers of this blog have seen or heard about the protests in California staged by students at the Berkley, Davis, and other campuses. As a member of a state that that had the worst single-year cut in its support of higher education until California whacked its system, I was quite happy to see some folks complaining about it in a way that got real press. Of course, this took more than it should have: they shut down buildings, there were some mass arrests. I don’t think anyone was seriously hurt (but I’m not sure). Things have been amazingly silent up here in Washington. Students have staged small protests, but as far as I can tell no one in the papers noticed.

I’m getting most of my information about California from a recent New Yorker article, A Letter From California, which tries to give an inside look at what has been going on there. I don’t like the article too much – it spends most of its time concentrating on one woman, only to suddenly decide at the end that perhaps she isn’t the real story. However, it does a good job at explaining many of the moving parts. Short conversations with some of my friends in California seem to back this version of events. I also was attending a workshop in UC Davis, arriving the day after students took over a building and the police brought in helicopters to flush them out.

The students have (as far as I can tell) two targets: high administration salaries and tuition hikes. The second one they should definitely be mad at. Ca is raising their cost of in-state tuition by 32% in one year! One year! UW is raising it 14% two years in a row – so 28% – almost the same as Ca, just spread over two years. Ouch! That said, both institutions are doing their best to put financial aid in place to help students who need it pay for the increases, and compared to private schools these two public, state, institutions are still an good bargain. It is important to keep in mind that in Ca the university system has direct control over the tuition and in Washington while the legislature has direct control, UW doesn’t have to raise the fees even if the legislature gives them permission – so it seems logical that university administrations be a target over the anger in tuition increases.

Second: the administration. I’ve seen the president of the Ca system, Yudof, and the president of the UW system, Emmert, have both been targets of their respective school student’s anger. And, it would seem, main targets in some cases.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I can see why they are easy targets. They make boat-loads of money. In some respects, they are a symbol of the general corporate drift of public universities – and get paid to match (i.e. they get paid a lot). And cutting their salaries and those of the top administrators down would certainly free up some cash.

But in the grand scale of things – it won’t free up that much cash. For example, the budget that was put together for UW last year by the state had our funding dropping by 26%. That is close to a 70 million cut in UW’s yearly budget. If you slashed all the administrators salaries to be mine, I suspect you’d save about 2 million per year. Those salaries aren’t the main problem!

The problem is the what the state! Higher education is not a priority. In California they spend more on prisons than they do on higher education! That doesn’t seem right – invest in the future, not the past! In Washington higher education is one of the few expenses that isn’t required by some law – so it is also something that gets cut often:

emmert_budget[1]That red line on the right hand side is the funding per full time student (adjusted for 2009 dollars) from 1990 until the present. While this last drop was steep – this has been going on a long time. Public universities all over the USA have been seeing similar trends – this is not unique to California or Washington – it is just particularly bad here.

And, I think, that is where most of the anger of the students should be directed. The president of UW, Emmert, has decided that the state really doesn’t care any more – and that red curve will never return to its former level – so it is time to stop acting like it will and move on and negotiate a new relationship with the state. Still a public university, perhaps, but not in the same way. No matter what there will always be a better deal for in-state students – but that only works to the level that the state continues to kick in some cash. I suspect he is right – and it is too bad.

While the anger might sometimes be misdirected (and it sounds like the Ca administration made some pretty serious missteps), I do hope that in the future most students target legislators and other government officials. Who knows, perhaps a constitutional amendment is the answer?

It’s not about the people July 24, 2009

Posted by gordonwatts in NASA, politics, science.

This is a copy of a guest post I made over at Gordon’s blog a few days ago (he is away and asked for some help).

So – who’s been following the Apollo 8th’s 40th anniversary? NASA has put together a pretty cool web site with lots of great resources. The Apollo mission was truly one of our crowning technological achievements. And at a time like this you can’t help but look forward at the same time you look forward. And you run right into the same questions as always: can America afford space exploration? What should the program look like in the near and long-term future?

Ignoring the moral factor for the country, the science case for exploration is pretty strong in my view. There is a lot we don’t know about our own earth, about the moon, and, especially, about near-by planets. Telescopes that are out of the earth’s atmosphere have unique advantages when it comes to deep space exploration. We have a lot yet to discover about the planet we currently live on and on the solar system, galaxy, and universe we inhabit. I’m always in favor of more knowledge. Can we afford it. The USA? Certainly! I can’t think of many crises in the USA that would warrant totally canceling the space program (or any other science program for that matter). No country can survive without a balance in how it spends money – on the present as well as the near and far futures. The global warming crisis has already taught us how important it is to know where we live and how we are affecting the environment around us (no matter which side of the debate you are on!).

So what should be space program look like? I think it should look more like this:

rover_sundial[1] and less like this:

man-on-the-moon[1]The reason is bang-for-the-buck. I think it is pretty hard to deny that sending people up into space is amazingly expensive right now. You have to get them up, and you have to get them back. You have to supply life support. Escape hatches. Lots of space you might fill with equipment is people and oxygen and etc. People are amazingly good at improvising. Something goes wrong – your buggy gets stuck on a rock or similar – people can adapt. That is where they really beat out a robot. We can get an idea of something that needs to be done, and quickly come up with a plan that balances all the risk factors, the obstacles, and still achieves the goal. Heck, if on the way to accomplishing the plan something interesting distracts us – well, that is useful too – perhaps we made one of those serendipitous discoveries; whatever: we can quickly evaluate the interesting thing and decide if it is just a rock reflecting light or some form of Martian currency. Finally, because we have to bring back the humans, bringing back that discovery has very little additional cost (other than biohazard containment!).

Robots have different strengths. Many of the things I’ve listed above robots aren’t so good at. On the other hand, they can stay on a planet for months or years. Need no life support – so getting them there is a lot cheaper. We are getting good enough at creating these exploration robots that we can given them simple tasks and they can take care of themselves. Since they are there for months or years at a time, it doesn’t matter if they aren’t extraordinarily efficient, we can just have them repeat the exercise several times until they get it right. And, perhaps because we don’t have to carry all the support equipment for humans out there, we can stuff an extra scientific instrument or two on the device and get that much more information out.

The thing is – the science case is overwhelmingly in favor of the robots right now. Check out the poster-child for this – the Mars Rover Missions. 5 years of exploration and science. Less than one billion bucks. What did putting a man on the moon cost? I can’t find firm numbers – but it isn’t uncommon to see numbers like 100 billion. Now, I don’t think going back to the moon would be that expensive – it usually is cheaper the second time around. Mars, which was Bush’s stated goal, would probably be that or close to it. For that kind of cost you could littler Mars with rovers and send a few to other planets.

Maybe these commercial endeavors getting people into space cheaply will change the cost/benefit equation. If successful they may well change my opinion of things like the space station – things in low earth orbit. If you could fly the parts up there cheaply and ferry people back and forth – then it might just be another expensive government lab where micro-gravity experiments could be done (in isolation too). But getting people further out to the Moon or Mars would still be very expensive – I doubt I’d be convinced.

Besides, the more experience we have with sending objects up the better prepared we will be when the aliens arrive. ;-)

Following the Money May 22, 2009

Posted by gordonwatts in politics.

Saw this in What’s New:


Even as researchers in the U.S. are looking at record basic research increases, Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government next door plans cut basic research to help pay for his "stimulus package." According to Monday’s Globe and Mail, one of the worlds leading immunologists, Dr. Rafick-Pierre Sekaly, is leaving the University of Montreal for Florida and taking 25 scientists on his team with him.

This is so true. A number of years back, when science budgets weren’t going anywhere, Canada’s looked pretty nice – they were seeing constant increases and seemed to be quite serious about attracting Canadian Americans back up north. Especially the good ones. Then Harper showed up. Things haven’t been as nice since, and they have gotten much worse as this economic slump has bit in. The US’ approach has been to try to spend its way out, and Canada is attempting to keep costs down while redirecting spending. You can see one affect here – someone who will create new ideas and research is shifting countries. Of course, no one knows if he is going to generate some new cure that will be worth millions, but if he does he will be in the USA now and that will go towards our GDP and our taxes and…

Part of the reason I never totally understand people who don’t want to attract and let in more highly trained foreigners. :-)

He Said That!? Niiice! Now, lets see where the rubber meets the road April 28, 2009

Posted by gordonwatts in DOE, NSF, politics.
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I’m in Geneva right now, so imagine my surprise reading this when I arrived at CERN this morning:

In a speech on Monday at the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, President Obama presented a vision of a new era in research financing comparable to the Sputnik-period space race, in which intensified scientific inquiry, and development of the intellectual capacity to pursue it, are a top national priority.

Doubling the NSF budget, large increases in DOE Office of Science, etc. Very nice. This sort of talk is music to my ears: I firmly believe that the only way to move forward is a combination of short term and long term research. Short term is very easy to argue for: improving the gas engine efficiency by 20%, etc. Long term is much harder to argue for – for example my research isn’t going to help cure cancer or otherwise develop some new product. But both are needed for science and a country to move forward (well, more than the country – the world). And the fact that a president showed up at the National Academy of Sciences. That hasn’t happened in a while!

But… yeah, there is always a but, isn’t there. We’ve heard this tune before. And congress has always removed it. There are definitely strong proponents of this in congress, but it always looses out to other things. So, I’m very happy to see this speech, and it definitely makes me feel much better about the science future in America, but I’m going to be a bit skeptical for a while longer. On the other hand, if there is anything I can do to help make this happen, I’ll be happy to help!! :-)

Cutting At Universities March 10, 2009

Posted by gordonwatts in politics, university.

The economy keeps getting worse. State governments are talking about huge cuts to Universities – 20% in one year, something I don’t think any large, healthy, university has had to absorb in the  history of the USA. State governments are calling for the elimination of tenure – so they can fire tenured faculty. It is already getting crazy and it will only get worse until the economy finds a bottom – part of the panic that policy makers see is that they have no idea where it will fall to.

The American Physical Society produces a small rag which has a neat article by the father, Soren Sorensen of one of my former graduate students. He is chair of the physics department at Tennessee. They have a great deal of research funding there, similar to what we have here at UW, and also teach large introductory courses. The article is long – but if you are interested in this sort of thing he has a catalog of things they have tried to do to help their department.

So how do these budget cuts influence our physics department here at University of Tennessee? Profoundly! We now have 25.5 Full Time Equivalent faculty members in our department. This is two less than just a year ago, since we lost two positions as a result of the budget cuts in June. We have to go all the way back to around 1960 to find fewer faculty members in our department.

He goes on to list a few other things that have changed at their department and then notes:

This high efficiency, however, is coming at a cost. There is no more “slack” in the system in the form of professors who can teach more courses. If we have to implement additional budget cuts, we will have to cancel classes. This will result in much higher student dissatisfaction and, more importantly, longer graduation times for our majors, since many students will not be able to schedule the needed 15 credit hours each semester.

This is between a rock and a very hard place. This is because state legislatures get extremely angry when this sort of thing happens (reducing # of students admitted, etc.). Something is going to have to give. In a nice touch, Soren finishes up that bit of the article noting that is where they are now – the recent falls in the economy mean that things are actually going to get a fair amount worse. And, as he correctly points out, there are no contingency plans in place for these sorts of cuts. No one at a major university has ever faced something like this before. We can’t look to another university and see how they dealt with it, there aren’t books titled “how to cut a university by 20%”. This is complicated by the fact that the state isn’t the only source of funding – donations and endowments make up something like 60% of UW’s budget, the state is less than 40%. Those two revenue streams work in concert to make the university run, and they are being cut at different rates (sadly, the money from those two revenue streams has different colors – you can’t use one to make up for the other).

One option that has been floated in our state is to cut the amount of research we do and replace it with teaching. Apparently, Tennessee has (or is) being faced with similar suggestions:

… and 2/3 of our total budget consists of external research grants and contracts. So for a physics department it is vital also to maintain the emphasis on excellence in research and graduate education, and that is not an easy task in the current climate. Letters to the editor of our local newspapers or online comments to articles about our university give the impression that a large segment of the public (and therefore maybe also the politicians) considers research a nice hobby for the faculty, but nothing that should have any priority during a financial crisis.

Let me put it this way. Lets say my group get 1 million a year from the NSF to do research here at UW on particle physics. The university skims more than 400,000 off the top of that. So that 1 million is worth only 600,000 to me. This is called overhead (I’m making up the exact numbers, I have no idea what the average overhead is at large universities). So, if we are busy doing teaching and less research, we will get less money, which means the university has less of that 400,000 to play with – which is another budget cut. So increasing teaching isn’t a win-win game. Not to mention the fact this will drive many of the best people away.

There is no easy way out. Whatever happens it is going to hurt. Everyone is going to see it – students, graduate students, post-docs, lecturers, professors, staff. And, of course, the rate of science output. Good thing the country is already leading in innovation – we can coast for a few years. Oh, wait… Right. Back to work.

uhhhh… Paul or Robert? March 1, 2009

Posted by gordonwatts in politics.

I saw this go by:

In his CPAC speech, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell insisted that conservatives are more "interesting" and "fun" than liberals. Here’s his proof: "who wants to hang out with guys like Paul Krugman and Robert Reich when you can be with Rush Limbaugh?"

Seriously? Krugman has a Nobel prize, and his columns and blog are a hell of a lot of fun (and make sense). Reich used to be the cabinet of the US government and his NPR columns are fantastic (and I just discovered he has a blog). Limbaugh…

Those Crazy French February 28, 2009

Posted by gordonwatts in France, politics.

Ok. We are used to politicians saying crazy things. Science, however, is rarely a direct target of a high level politician – like a president. Not so in France. Sarkozy recently gave a speech about science. He pissed off a few scientists (to put it mildly). Someone right away posted a YouTube parody of the speech, which I’ve linked below. It is like a French version of the Daily show:

What is amazing is he seems to imply the most scientists at the various national labs just show up because they get a pay check. Having worked for a year at CPPM, one of their national labs, I find this statement incredible. Of course, the French national scientists didn’t use the word “incroyable”!! His specific remedy reminds me of the mantra during the Bush years: evaluation evaluation evaluation. So… how do do you evaluate researchers? According to Sarkozy we really don’t have a way.

Riiiight… isn’t that what peer review is all about? Oh wait, he does address that. What a cushy job, he says, we all evaluate each other and give each other passing grades, and kick back and suck down a Pastis. I’d like to see him go through a habilitation! Or perhaps the jury for getting a position in CNRS (the main funding agency for national research laboratories in France). And he quickly dismisses the fact that France has its share of Nobel prizes. If that isn’t external evaluation, I don’t know what is!!

But I do like the way the scientists decided to try to protest this. According to the Nature science blog (and I hear the same thing from friends of mine):

Meanwhile “Let’s save research,” a grassroots organization of French researchers, called 1 Feb for researchers to protest Sarkozy’s assertions about French scientists not being productive, by inundating the Elysée president palace with mailed copies of their most recent articles to “improve his understanding of French scientific productivity.”

The beauty behind this act is that by law the French post must transport any letter mailed to the President for free! I hope Sarkozy reconsiders or at least gets some scientists to advise him soon! A few months ago I would have just shook my head and thought “another country has to suffer”… but I’d like to think it is a new day here in the USA.

Another thing to watch in that video – notice how he gives the speech. Someone who gave regular speeches like that would never get elected in the USA (“because the lights are on!?”)! Thanks to my friend Laurent who pointed me to the YouTube video and Nature blog entry.

The Stimulus is Coming! The Stimulus is Coming! February 24, 2009

Posted by gordonwatts in politics.
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Wow – I never thought I’d see the day. I’m still sort-of looking around in disbelief. Did that really pass? Was there really funding in there for science!? The House always had it in there – there are some great friends of science in the House. For a while the senate had totally stripped it out of the stimulus package, and then some reappeared, but not all that much. When the bill went to conference – pow! Almost all of it came back! How nice is that?

But now starts the hard part, as WhatsNew notes:


If we got that big a fraction of the total federal budget we wouldn’t know how to spend it, and we may not know how to spend this. It’s great news, but science can’t afford to screw up the allocation. Initially the bill ignored NSF completely; it wasn’t the science lobbyists that got the numbers up, it was Republican Sen. Arlen Specter almost single handedly.

Actually, considering how badly physical science funding has suffered over the past 15 years we will have no trouble. There is plenty of infrastructure at national labs that need immediate attention. And, as you might image, science is always bursting with new ideas. After a careful peer review, here’s to hoping some of these projects get funded!!

On a smaller scale I hope that some of this stimulus money will trickle down to university groups, like mine. If it did arrive at our doorstep it would almost immediately be spent on things like new computers (from Dell, for example), air plane tickets (on American carriers – as that is all you can use federal dollars for), and students and post-docs. I think that is a pretty good bang for the buck. I expect the equation is very similar for many other university groups in physics and chemistry and biology and computer science. A pretty good bang for the buck – and my vague understanding of economics tells me that the multiplier should be better than that for tax cuts!

Sorry. Just too happy about this.


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