Saturday, 25 October 2008

The imperative of collaboration and world leadership

The imperative of collaboration (Herald Tribune Oct 24, 2008) by Felix G. Rohatyn, a former US Ambassador to France and Allison Stanger, a professor of politics and economics in the US is a clear call for more collaboration between the nations to curb and regulate the globalized world of finance. It is also a call for multilateralism where all countries would have their says and role in a balanced world:
The antiquated notion that the world needs one leader must itself be put to rest. For collaboration to produce a new rule set that binds all the players, all the players must be present at the creation. This is indeed the right time to invite China, Russia and India to join the conversation.
In the same page, Redefining multilateralism by Rober B. Zoellick (President of the World Bank Group) goes one step further, as if unilateralism were already established:
Our New Multilateralism must build a sense of shared responsibility for the health of the global political economy and must involve those with a major stake in that economy. We must redefine economic multilateralism more broadly, beyond the traditional focus on finance and trade. Today, energy, climate change, and stabilizing fragile and post-conflict states are economic issues. They are already part of the international security and environmental dialogue. They must be the concern of economic multilateralism as well.
For basic research, collaboration is also imperative for reasons often described in this blog: the complexity of the problems to solve, the growing size of the equipments and of the related budgets, the advanced technology not always available in a single country ... But also because basic science is the development of basic knowledge which is a world common heritage and resource.

But it is interesting to confront these opinions, mainly triggered by the financial crisis, to the current positions of the 2 main candidates to the US presidency. A simple look to the Science Debate demonstrates that the US is still more concerned about "leadership", "leading the world" or to "become a leader" than to actually collaborate and cooperate in Science. Just counting the number of these expressions in the text gives 11 for B. Obama and 7 for J. Mc Cain plus 2 more in the questions themselves showing that even for the questioners the goal of making research is to secure the leadership of the world.

So we still have a long way to go before building balanced global project in science, but maybe this crisis will have the virtue to underline what necessity rules.

PS: the LHC inauguration gave many opportunities to the European leaders to praise the collaborative success of the CERN organization.

Sunday, 5 October 2008

Ford T anniversary: the first Engine of Mass Destruction

Oct. 1 marks the 100th birthday of Ford's Model T (Time Magazine, Sept. 24, 2008)
It also marks the beginning of not one, but of a flurry of new industries. In mainly 2 categories, those supporting the new transportation system and those generated by this new freedom . For example: the whole petrol industry from drilling to distribution (and the related chemical industry that was sparkled (so to say) by the gasoline consumption), the building of road, highways and all other necessary infrastructures (tunnels, bridges), and in addition, the development of off-center supermarket and shopping centers changing the whole scheme of goods distribution, the huge extension of the metropolis, a large part of the tourism industry, ... It also started the development of a flock of explosion-engine devices: from large trucks to moped, from caterpillars to chainsaws, from airplane to powered paraglider...

Which part of the GDP growth rate is linked to this innovation
and how many direct and indirect jobs were created during these 100 years, it is difficult to say, but it is certainly tremendous.

So in sympathy with most of the celebrations and together with
Henry Ford's grandson Edsel Ford II we should thank him for his visionary and pioneering dream-comes-true.

"I'm thrilled to be with the keepers of my great-grandfather's legacy,'' Edsel Ford II, referring to company founder Henry Ford, told those attending the opening banquet. His voice breaking with emotion at one point, Ford said it was the spirit of Model T that made the vehicle so successful.

"It was a product that delivered freedom,'' he said. "You are the guardians of the spirit that got the whole thing going. You are the keepers of the flame. As long as we have people who love the Model T, we will never forget what brought us here.'' (see more here)

But 100 years later, dreamland is not quite as expected, what do we have instead ? a world sick of air pollution, of noise and of massive environmental destruction. Wherever we go, in the developed countries, there is no way to escape the view, the sound or the smell of some explosion engine. It is sometime even worse in the developing countries cities, where crossing a street is as risky as walking over the Niagara falls on a thin wire. But even worse, the need for petrol has often contributed to trigger conflicts or wars over the gas rich fields countries.

Beyond questioning Henry Ford's unwillingness or inability to foresee that a device emitting pollutants will pollute the world if massively produced and used, after all, at this time, people and even scientists were not that sensitive to environmental issues, one should ask what about today ? Did we learn from history? Would we reject technologies that can arm the planet and its inhabitants, today, environmental aware as we are ?

I am afraid, the answer is no:
  • car companies want to sell more and more cars at the lowest price (2500$) to open new markets with no consideration to environmental consequences.
  • new so called green energy like hydrogen is blatantly advertised, although we know that the real global energy efficiency is very poor and therefore probably not a solution to the energy crisis if no new discoveries are made.
  • Nuclear energy seen as the most promising solution to the raising energy demand relies on secured waste management although, "So far no country has implemented a high-level, long-lived radioactive waste management option" (see here).
  • Genetically Modified crops are raising serious concerns if extensively used.
  • Nanotechnologies, food processing, ... you name it
Solutions certainly exist, but to find them and to make them commercially available, investment on research is mandatory, now, before proceeding to large scale production.

There was a debate in France (in French a report to the prime minister) on the so called "precautionary principle" which actually became part of the French constitution in February 2005. Some was arguing that the law was too constraining and would hamper innovation (in French "le Principe de Precaution"). But it is simply a reasonable attitude that should prevail on all important decisions embarking the whole humanity for decades and hundreds of decade.

Here again the scientists have a major role to play: to inform the society about the limits of our knowledge, to develop further the basic understanding of the law of nature and, when breakthrough are made, to set up research strategies to solve societal issues.

Tuesday, 30 September 2008

R&D spending in recession times

In recession times and shrinking economies, reducing spending becomes the main motto. Research, and more particularly basic research, is often seen as an easy sacrificial lamb. But these short viewed decisions jeopardize future recoveries and history shows that sometimes different stands are taken.
Back in the 90's, Japan was badly hurt by the real estate bubble burst similar to the American sub-prime crisis. The Japanese government and the industry leaders counteracted by raising the R&D budgets whereas the GDP was falling substantially. This proactive attitude did promote Japan as the leader in many consumer markets:
For example, there is no doubt that technology and new-era thinking played a major role in the Japanese bubble. During the bubble, Japan took over leadership of high technology in the areas of consumer electronics, the automobile industry, manufacturing, and even robotics, and was perceived as a major threat to dominate all technological development around the globe – just as the U.S. is today.("The Japanese Bubble economy")
So lessons should be learned and it seems at least some are, as reported by the french economy newspaper Les Echos (The Industry rescue the American R&D (in French).
The US,
although plagued by the sub-prime crisis, have invested in 2007 386 B$ in R&D, 100 B$ more than the European countries all together. Most of the budget came from the industry for product developments with an increase of more than 10B$ as compare to 2006. But at the same time, we all remember the serious budgets cuts in basic research projects (-1.6 B$) by the US government. This shows that the industry was wise enough not to follow the natural decline slope. However nothing should be taken for granted and there are fears that 2008 will not go the same way and concerns are high for basic research.

Although science is not a central topic of this presidential year, a flurry of questions were thrown at the two main candidates (Science Debate).

Most questions reflect concerns on the rising of the Asian power, the loss of interest of the young generations for science, the budget cuts and the decreasing attractiveness of the US for the foreign researchers.
Concerning "the lost of interest of the young generation" in particular for basic research (mainly done in government owned research centers), let me refer here to a recent survey on the white collar salaries made by another french economy magazine, "L'expansion", where it is shown that a researcher in the industry has a salary twice as high as he would get at the end of his carrier in a government center. In addition, the potential promotion openings (like becoming a R&D director in a big company) may end up with salaries up to 7 times larger than whatever you can get as a civil servant. This may play a role in this "loss of interest" although there are compensations that motivate many of us: more freedom in selecting projects, more time for fundamental and basic research. It is passion that attract youngers to science, but salary issues may divert them to more financially rewarding jobs. For french speaking people: you may even compute your expected salary here.... Yes that is what you should get but then you still have to find "the Company" and stay there...

Let's hope that Europe (and the european countries) will follow this courageous and proactive approaches as more than ever we need a balanced world-wide endeavor in R&D. The world is facing major challenges: the more or less near end of the petrol era and the replacement by alternative energies, the vanishing of mineral resources, the steady raise of all type of pollution hazards, some leading to climate change, the fast growing of the world population expected to go from 6 to 9 billions by 2050.

Only scientific and sociological innovations give us a hope to survive. There are lessons one should not forget specially in troubled times.

Friday, 18 July 2008

Should we continue scientific research?

In the last issue of Sciences&Avenir (July 2008) a short article on Alexandre Grothendieck, a french mathematician, is presented in connection with the up-coming publication by IHéS (Institut des Hautes études Scientifiques) of a 1000 pages book he wrote, mostly about his life.
"Récoltes et Semailles" is available free on the Grothendieck_circle web site in French but some parts are also available in English, Spanish, Russian ... Many other writings both on mathematics and on his political activities can also be found on this well documented site. See also
"Comme Appelé du Néant— As If Summoned from the Void: The life of Alexandre Grothendieck by Allyn Jackson".

This 1966 Field medal laureate decided when he was at the top of his carrier to resign from IHéS partly after discovering that his institute was, to some extend (5%), supported by the defense ministry.

He started then a new life as a "anti-militarist" activist accepting to give mathematic talks only if he could also present his political ideas.

With a few other scientists, he founded an international movement called "Survivre" for the survival of mankind and a newsletter was published from 1970 to 1973.

1) Goal of the Movement
To fight for the survival of mankind and of life in general threatened by the ecological imbalance created by the present industrial society (pollutions and environmental and natural resources devastation), by military conflicts themselves and even by the dangers of military conflicts.
For a short period, he gave a lecture at the "College de France" (CDF) in Paris entitled: «Faut-il continuer la recherche scientifique ?» (Should we continue scientific research?) he was then turned down by the assembly of the CDF professors. He gave also a talk (in French) at CERN on this provocative question.

These writings raise important issues (central to this blog) that any scientist, at one point or another of his life, has been concerned with. A.G. should then be acknowledged for underlying the responsibility of the scientists toward the society at large, the role of science in the making of War and Peace and the implication of new technologies on the planet ecology.

Jean-Jacques Salomon, a French philosopher and writer who died last January had also strong criticisms on the underestimated social responsibility of the scientist (la responsabilite du scientifique) that sometimes he calls the social irresponsibility of scientists (Talk). But J.J. Salomon was also a convinced supporter of basic science. (why sustain fundamental research).
He was remembered recently during a conference of
the Japan Sokendai group "War and Peace" (see also here and there) by D. Leglu (War and Peace Tokyo 2008 to be published).

Back to the question "Should we continue scientific research?" IMHO YES, because stopping would mean stopping thinking.
From the prehistorical ages, the act of thinking has been dedicated to the research of ways to, precisely, survive: accessing basic needs (food, shelter, ...), providing a more secure and better life, fighting disease, reaching mental/spiritual balance ... This personal and permanent search for survival has led to the survival of humanity. Even if man was physically weaker on many respects than most of the other animals, his thinking brain has got, for better or worse, the upper hand over all life on this planet. And we are still doing research because all questions have not been solved, because some of the solutions found must be revisited as they are not fit to our today world, because new questions arise ...
Have we reached the no return point where
man is becoming dangerous to man? Yes probably, since sometime, pollution and weapons of mass destruction (WMD) could now destroy the world as it was feared by A.G. but solutions will not be found by advocating for less research but on the contrary to more in the hope to find new technical innovations and a new social organization to avoid the "big human crunch".

To the question "Should we continue scientific research the way we do it today?" A.G. in the CERN's talk reply by a strong NO. Research brings more harm than relief. Unavoidably all scientific results are and will be used to improve the military power, to more efficiently coerce people into slavery (George Orwell's 1984) and to contribute to the destruction of the planet ecology.

Well one can agree with this but, it is only up to us ( the society) to fight against the evil use of science and to us to promote a peaceful, free and sustainable world that science and technology can also contribute to provide.
What should be changed in the way we do research? One may advance on many fronts:
  1. Scientist's Rights: If scientists have responsibilities, they must also have rights: the right to oppose to some applications of science and the right to speak out openly without constrains or retaliation risks. How to fulfill these conditions is a major issue and will imply a change of society. But the solution will include a better protection of the scientists although not excluding some control by the society and more regulations at the global level (arms, pollution, resources, labor, ...) to the setting up of which scientists should participate...
  2. Improving the common understanding between scientists and politician/decision makers. The gap is often large in term of scientific/political knowledge, short and long term visions and goals, agenda ... although both communities are genuinely willing to bridge those differences (see for example here)
  3. Moving away from a market/profit-driven research: Research funding should be managed by scientific organizations even if the global envelop is set directly or indirectly by the society. Public or private, it is not so much the source of the budget which counts, it is the freedom which comes with it. However public money is the direct effort of the society to support an open research.
  4. Making science information more accessible to the people. Internet can play a major role through the development of open access and good informative sites. Scientists are committing themselves and spending a fair amount of time on science internet forums, high quality scientific blogs, science cafés (real or virtual), world science festivals ...
  5. Get the people involved in scientific research. Some attempts although modests are quite successful and more attention should be devoted to those activities. After the "Volunteer Computing" initiated by seti@home and generalized by BOINC where anyone with a PC connected to the internet could dedicate CPU power to some scientific project, "citizen science" or "distributed thinking" (see Bossa) is now relying on ordinary people to perform large classification or pattern recognition tasks where human brains, even from non-scientifically trained people, are often much better than computers (see The Economist and galaxy zoo, or stardurst@home).
  6. Research and particularly basic research should become Global. Country level basic research makes no sense nowadays, resources must be federated and the results made freely available to the whole world. New world-wide research infrastructures should be developed based on international treaties like CERN to secure long term budgets. In this context the LHC and ITER projects among others should provide important inputs to this discussion.
  7. Developing countries should be involved on frontier research and in particular on the large research infrastructures to help solving the knowledge divide.
Proof reading this post, I wonder if these 7 items are actually achievable or pure utopia leading to the dishearten thought that A. Grothendieck was maybe right... but is'nt utopia sustaining progress?

Monday, 7 July 2008

Politics and science: linear motor or linear collider ?

I had the story of a former research minister talking to a scientist who had given a talk on HEP projects who said half serious, half joking... :
-- You know,... I am glad I attended your talk, I learned a lot ... I didn't know the difference between a linear motor and a linear collider !

This is a good illustration of the difficult path linking science and politics to convey the right messages and of how deep is the gap between both communities.
Should we blame the politicians for not learning fast enough the important topics under their responsibility ? should we blame the scientists for under or overselling their projects ? or should we blame the social organization that put untrained or unprepared people on the decision makers seats and provide no established and trusty framework for articulate and in depth discussion about the goals, consequences and risks of science and research?

Obviously, my prejudice goes to the third option and the goal of this blog is to find new ways to organize the society so that the dialog between politics and science becomes more productive.

Today let's be optimistic and see a few recent examples of the willingness of politicians to be more involved, closer to science and scientists and of scientists ready to meet their expectations.

See for example: Annette Schavan the current German research minister who, with a PhD in Theology, was bold and sensible enough to say:

"I want the discussion between science and politics to be intensified. More and more, scientific knowledge is absolutely necessary for responsible decision-ma
king. Therefore, I find it important to have one institution that is the contact for political leaders and that can also bring issues to the attention of politicians that they haven't yet considered." This institution is the Leopoldina: Germany's National Science Academy

Or Margaret Beckett, the British foreign secretary who started an important talk on "Science and globalization"by the following words:
"Parliamentary Links Day is the most high profile and in many ways the most important science-related event in the Parliamentary calendar. I am acutely aware how vital it is to deepen the dialogue between, on the one hand, Members of both Houses and, on the other, the leading scientists and engineers in the country."

In Japan a group of 55 LDP Diet members headed by KaoruYosano, former Chief Cabinet has been formed back in 2006 in support for the ILC.
More recently, under the same guidance, a forum for the promotion of advanced accelerator technology and science was setup gathering the executive officers of leading Japanese companies, important dignitaries, and a physics Nobel Prize laureate, Prof. Masatoshi Koshiba.

Scientists want also to talk to the politicians. In the US, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), an international non-profit organization dedicated to advancing science around the world better known as the publisher of Science, contributes to the annual Congressional Visits Day in an effort to promote federal support of research and development:
"The event is designed to encourage scientists and other research professionals to develop ongoing contact with politicians. "The overall goal is to talk about research and development, and how they are important for competitiveness and innovation," said Joanne Padrón Carney, director of the AAAS Center for Science, Technology, and Congress and an organizer of the activities."

But scientists wants also to embark in the political arena stating that the best way to talk to the politician is to become a politician. The Scientists and Engineers of America (SEA) is very active on promoting science in the political arena as reported in Nature (reminding us that Margaret Thatcher has been a chemist):
"On 10 May, SEA held a workshop in Washington DC to tell scientists what it takes to run for public office — and how to go about it. Around 75 scientists, science teachers, science-policy experts and other interested parties gathered on the campus of Georgetown University to explore the transition from scientist to politician. Some were aspiring politicians. Others hoped to contribute to the inner workings of political campaigns. All of them learned how difficult it is to translate a scientific career into a leadership role in politics."
From SEA see also: Innovation & the election 2008 and the results of the pool (1000 responses).
ScienceDebate presents the 14 questions the candidates for president should answer about science and america's future or the 7 Congressional Questions and candidates' responses hosted at SEA.

Thursday, 26 June 2008

Yet another physicist's blog ....

"Bare Glow" (short for Basic Research in a Global World) shall focus on the multipronged interplay of research, politics and society at the global level.

Basic Research in many field including physics, chemistry and life science is nowadays universal. Scientific priorities are the same in Europe, US or Asia. Scientists are tackling the same problems, using the same technologies, going to the same conferences, working in the same large international teams... but is basic research as for now a truly global endeavor ?

Not quite! the lack of a global approach to funding, to management, to political and societal communication has led to serious difficulties, misunderstandings and even misconceptions specially when it comes to developing large world-wide projects.
The bumpy road to the final ITER decision and the recent unilateral and abrupt US/UK cuts are quite instructive in this respect. They reveal the poor level of dialog between decision makers and scientists, the lack of open and transparent international forums involving both scientists and policy makers, the poor involvement of the society due to a lack of communication ...

Scientists and decisions makers should revise the organization and coordination of research at the international level.

This is an ambitious project to which, I hope, this blog will bring its modest contribution by simply gathering related informations and by prompting opinions from the research community but also from experts in the political, social, diplomatic and international law affairs.