Friday, December 19, 2008

Recession? What recession?

From a newsletter that hit my inbox recently:
Japan’s Tentative Science Budget for 2009

Japan’s new Prime Minister, Taro Aso, participated in his first meeting of the Council for Science and Technology Policy (CSTP). The CSTP is the major decision-making body for science and technology within Japan’s Cabinet Office.

The meeting on 31 Oct. discussed the annual budget for science and technology for 2009 and the important issues which should be prioritized within the budget. With a requested increase of 14% for the overall science and technology budget, greater importance is being placed on areas of research such as innovative technologies, environmental energy technologies, science and technology diplomacy, activation of science and technology in the regions, and projects for the solution of social problems. Overall the budgetary requests for these areas increased by 43% on last year.

The budget requests were received from each Government Ministry in August 2008. The Cabinet will decide on the 2009 budget in December. The Diet, Japan’s Parliament will vote on the budget before 1 April 2009.
Only a 14% increase? We will have to do our best to cope in these hard times :-) Of course the article says this is only a "request" and it may not all make it through into the final budget, but I suspect that the requests were tuned to fit some off-the-record hints and the final outcome will be very similar. Given the current international economic climate, Japan doesn't seem like a bad place to be!

Monday, December 15, 2008

The dangers of blogging.

An amusing exchange on scienceblogs has been used here as an example of the dangers of blogging about a job search. In summary, a few months ago commenter Are sent an email enquiry relating to her concerns about the scheduling of a informal "tailgate party" during a faculty visit, and some interesting debate ensued with IMO some valid points on both sides of the "grow up and learn to cope with normal social environments" vs "sounds like it might be a hostile climate, especially for women" argument. It seemed pretty reasonable to me, so I was surprised to see just recently a rather hostile comment from someone identifying themselves as the search chair, having a go at the applicant. Sciencewoman had lifted their comment out of the previous thread and featured it as new post, so I went back and checked...and found this gem from Are immediately preceding it! Suddenly the chair doesn't sound so bad, and just in case there was any room for doubt, Are sticks her foot in it over and over again with a sequence of hostile and bizarre comments down the ensuing comments thread (exhibit 1, 2).

So does this mean that people should not talk about their experiences during job searches? Actually the message seems rather more general to me. It is not an example of the risks of blogging a job search so much as the risk of blogging under the cover of anonymity - or rather, the presumption of anonymity. It provides a prime illustration of one of the main reasons why I don't blog anonymously - I would much rather write in the knowledge that anyone might read this, and choose my words appropriately for a public discussion, than sound off under the presumption of anonymity and then suffer the embarrassment of being uncovered. I do accept that some people may have good reasons for blogging anonymously, but am somewhat concerned that it appears to be predominantly female bloggers who feel the need for this cover (perhaps my perception on this is skewed, so if anyone has some hard numbers they would be welcome). But anonymous or not, it is always necessary to consider how people might react when they read what I write, and in fact if I blogged anonymously I would probably have to conceal more (to protect my identity) than I do knowing that I'm out in the open. Even though the typical institute atmosphere is perhaps slightly more "corporate" than a university setting, we are still officially encouraged to present our work to the public and I would not be comfortable working somewhere I was not expected to offer my opinions in public. In principle, many big scientific meetings are open to the public - at least on payment of a fee, and sometimes journalists also attend.

Getting back to the topic of job searches, it seems to me that the main reason for keeping quiet would not be related to offending the potential new employers, but rather so as to not alert the current one, especially if the blogger in a vulnerable position. (Of course if the current position was a term-limited post-doc with no chance of extension that would not apply.) The only time that have I told a boss I was planning on leaving (and why) before actually having a new job lined up, his response was to ask for jules' CV in order to see if he could find a suitable position for her...

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Do solar/heliospheric changes affect the earth's climate?

That was the title of the keynote talk at a workshop held here last week. To save you the trouble of reading any further, I should just say now that the answer provided was "no, at least not to any significant extent since the middle of last century".

Based on the talks I attended, the field basically consists of little more than people data-mining for correlations that usually fail to hold when tested on out of sample data, and for which there is no real evidence or even plausible modelling to support the hypothesis that there may be a significant effect. Of course it is obvious enough that gross changes in solar output will have some sort of effect, such as the orbital changes at Milankovitch time scales, and a modest sunspot-related influence. But nothing of much significance in the context of anthropogenic global warming. The main speaker (Usoskin) even admitted as much, despite doing his best to present (in his own words) somewhat of an advocacy of the hypotheses rather than an impartial review. I mostly went along to see if there would be any sceptic-baiting fun to be had (remembering that Akasofu had been a previous invitee here, and having heard some vague rumours of scepticism in the higher echelons of Jamstec itself) but was rather disappointed by how weakly it was all presented. The only really interesting point was that Jamstec has apparently decided in its wisdom to sponsor a new big interdisciplinary project in this area.

To be fair, I don't know the exact scale of this project, although one person presented results from a high-resolution model that used fully half of the Earth Simulator to run, which certainly didn't come cheap. And I do think that it is worth providing a certain amount of support for somewhat speculative and innovative research - 5 years ago people told me that my ideas wouldn't work either. But I'd expect the resources could make a more useful contribution if they were focussed on climate science rather than being siphoned off on this wild goose chase.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

It's deja vu all over again in "Physics a decade ago"

Although for some reason they call themselves "Physics Today", this is clearly a retread of an article from over a decade ago:

Japan aims to internationalize its science enterprise - Physics Today December 2008

Some choice excerpts:
In a bid to attract both global recognition and foreign scientists, last year Japan launched the World Premier International Research Center Initiative, or WPI. For 10 years, the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT) will pour ¥ 7 billion (roughly $70 million) annually into five new interdisciplinary institutes in cosmology, materials science, nanoscience, immunology, and the interface of cells and materials.

The WPI institutes are supposed to have about 30% foreigners among their researchers. That, says Okaya, "is bizarre for Japanese. The WPI is revolutionary. It's innovative and very flamboyant."

The other WPI institutes are the Immunology Frontier Research Center at Osaka University, the Advanced Institute for Materials Research at Tohoku University, and the Institute for Integrated Cell–Material Sciences at Kyoto University. All five have different formats, and interactions with their host institutions vary. The common features, which were in part set by MEXT, include using the MEXT funding for salaries and start-up funds, aiming for a total of about 200 people per institute, setting a minimum number of non-Japanese members, and raising additional funds from other sources. Host institutions are expected to provide buildings and other resources. IPMU, for example, is getting a new building and two positions from the University of Tokyo. The MEXT money may be extended to a total of 15 years.

English is the lingua franca at the WPI institutes. And, to attract people to them, the seniority-based pay scale typical in Japanese universities has been turned on its head. For example, says Okaya, the director of IPMU earns more than the president of the University of Tokyo. More broadly, salaries at the institute are higher than professors typically earn in Japan, says Murayama. "We pay better to compensate for people [from Japanese universities] losing their pension plans" and to attract foreign scientists.

"To my pleasant surprise, people in their thirties gave up tenured jobs" to come to IPMU, says Murayama. "Because this place cannot offer tenure, the hardest generation to get is in the forties and fifties. Thirties is easier—they are ambitious, they think this is a place they can concentrate on research for 10 years and then go wherever they want. The forties and fifties think ahead, and might be worried about finding another good job. In the late fifties it's easier, because in 10 years they will retire anyway."

Sounds like an exciting and novel idea? Allow me to introduce the MEXT-funded Frontier Research Centre for Global Change, which was set up more than a decade ago as a highly internationalised and collaborative institute for research into climate change. It had a substantial number of foreign scientists, English was the lingua franca (it was an explicit requirement of employment when I applied here) and they even interviewed some internationally-recognised scientists for senior positions, although they didn't quite get round to employing them (ignoring the case of Suki Manabe who is clearly regarded as Japanese still even though he took US citizenship years ago).

Of course just as is mentioned in this new article, the short-term nature of our employment system means that no decent mid-career Japanese scientists were prepared to come and work here. Instead they act as part-time managers who turn up about once a month but understandably focus most of their attention on their real jobs elsewhere, and this legacy of absentee management remains to this day. This keeps the institute weak which probably suits all the major domestic rivals (or as the Japanese say, "collaborators") as well as our overlord Jamstec which doesn't really understand, or see it as its mission to get involved in, scientific research (and certainly not climate research). The terms and conditions of employment are still good in parts but have been substantially degraded for many, especially the more junior employees. Now Japanese fluency is explicitly required for any senior positions, the institute has been more-or-less fully absorbed as a domestic Jamstec research centre and the "Let's Internationally" theme has been basically replaced with "Ganbare Nippon". Another fortunate consequence of (and indeed perhaps a major motivation for) the post-doc style term-limited contracts is that the foreigners can be easily sent home (or will leave voluntarily) when they have fulfilled their purpose of raising the profile of these new institutes. Of course there are still some foreign hangers-on here who haven't left yet but our proportion is significantly down on the early years.

I confidently predict the evolution of these new institutes will follow in our path - they have even re-used the "Frontier Research Centre" name (which incidentally we are losing next year as part of our ultimate absorption) for one of them!

Back to the closing paragraph of the article:
Mark Vagins is in his early forties, but he jumped at the offer to move to IPMU. He'd been shuttling back and forth between the Super­Kamiokande neutrino detector in Japan and a soft-money position at UC Irvine for years. "I have long believed that discoveries tend to get made where fields collide. It's very unusual to have pure math people interact with people who build experiments," says Vagins, who hopes to increase Super­Kamiokande's sensitivity by adding gadolinium salt to the water to make neutrons visible in a project called GADZOOKS! (gadolinium antineutrino detector zealously outperforming old kamiokande, super!). "My guess," he adds, "is if we achieve the success we are expected to, we'll be funded. It's our mission to make it so they can't pull the plug on us in 15 years."
Good luck with that. The sticking-out nail is liable to get hammered down even when that nail is a whole research institute.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

They don't like it up 'em

While Stoat is busy polishing his Green credentials with a series of mildly snarky posts about climate porn, I hope I am not the one who is hugely amused by the outrage expressed over an Honourable Member having his collar felt by Plod (in the form of a posse of Counter-Terrorism Officers).

For some time now, random members of the public have been harassed, arrested and had their lives generally turned upside down by said Plod, under the guise of various ill-thought-out draconian laws that have been rushed through Parliament in recent years. And this was brushed under the carpet, or considered an acceptable price to pay to Defend our Freedoms, or some such pious nonsense.

It would of course have been even better had the victim this time been a member of zaNU-Labour rather than what passes for an Opposition these days. But both sides of the House are equally culpable for the legislation IMO - both are so desperate to be seen "doing something" that they troop obediently into the lobby even when the "something" they are voting for equates to locking up innocent people. So I don't see this as the Govt knobbling the Opposition so much as the Houses of Parliament unleashing a police state on all of us and getting caught up in it themselves.

I only wish I had a vote so I could abstain.