The Hydrogen Sonata (Culture, #10)

Iain M. Banks (2012)

4/5. Finished Saturday 24 November, 2012.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

Chief scientific advisor for Ireland

I’m a little perplexed by the direction of the current discussion over Ireland’s chief scientific advisor. The need for scientific advice, as a driver of (and sanity check upon) evidence-based policy formation, has arguably never been greater. Certainly many of the challenges we face living in the 21st century are, directly or indirectly, influenced by a sound understanding of both the science and its limitations. This is why it’s attractive for governments to have dedicated, independent scientific advisors. We need first to be clear what a good chief scientific advisor isn’t, and that is an oracle. The chief scientist will presumably be a trained, nationally and internationally respected practitioner who brings to the job an experience in the practice of science but also in its wider analysis and impact. In many respects these are the qualities one looks for in a senior academic — a full professor — so it’s unsurprising that chief scientists are often current or former (emeritus) professors at leading institutions. They will not be expert on all the areas of science required to address any particular policy question — indeed, they might never be expert in the details pertaining to any question asked — but they can act as a gateway to those who are expert, and collate and contrast the possibly conflicting views of different experts who might be consulted in each case. They provide a bridge in this sense between the world of the research and the world of policy, and will need to be able to explain clearly the basis and consequences of what the science is saying. Ireland has recently abandoned having a chief scientist as an independent role, and has instead elected to combine it with the role of Director of Science Foundation Ireland, the main advanced research funding agency. There are several stated reasons for this, most centring on the current resource constraints facing government spending. I don’t think this structure is really consistent with the role of chief scientist, nor with the principles of good governance. To avoid any misunderstandings, let’s be clear that this has nothing to do with the individuals involved: the current or former directors of SFI would be eminently suited to be a chief scientist in their own right. However, having the SFI director fill this additional role ex officio seems not to be best practice. The concern must be that the combined role cannot be independent by its very nature, in that the scientific direction of SFI may wholly or in part be involved in the policy decisions being made as a consequence of advice received. If this occurs, the chief scientist is then recommending actions for which the director must take responsibility, and the perception of a confusion of interest is inevitable if these roles are filled by the same individual. To repeat, the integrity of the office-holders is not the issue, but rather a governance structure that conflates the two roles of execution and oversight. If resource constraints are really the issue, one might say that the chief scientist does not need to be independently employed to be independent in the appropriate sense. The chief scientific advisory roles in the UK, for example, are typically filled by academics on part-time release from their host institutions. They collate and offer scientific advice, possibly made better by the fact that they remain active researchers and so remain current on both the science and its practice, rather than being entirely re-located into the public service. (The chief scientific advisor for Scotland, for example, remains a computer science researcher at the University of Glasgow in addition to her advisory role.) The risk of confusion is significantly less in this structure, because a single academic in a single institution does not exert executive control or influence over wider funding decisions. Moreover the individual remains employed by (and in the career and pension structure of) their host university and is bought-out for part of their time, which reduces the costs significantly. It also means that one can adjust the time commitment as required. I thought when the post was first created that it was unusual that the Irish chief scientist’s post was full-time: requiring the (full-time) SFI director to find time in addition for the (presumably also full-time) duties of chief scientific advisor is expecting a lot. It is of course vital for the government to be getting good science advice, so it’s good that the chief scientist role is being kept in some form. But I think it would be preferable to think about the governance structure a little more, to avoid any possible perception of confusion whether or not such confusion exists in practice.

Thinking, Fast and Slow

Daniel Kahneman (2011)

I’m slightly conflicted about this book (and I’m writing this review without having quite finished it). Some of the insights are quite astounding, and the basic premise — that people are poor decision-makers, and that this basic fact needs to be reflected in all our social, economic and scientific systems — is one that’s well worth our taking on board.

As a scientist, I spend time working within and developing systems of enquiry. There’s a temptation to think that good people working with goodwill will generate accurate, honest and balanced results. The message from this book is that this isn’t at all correct: ability and integrity are insufficient, and we need to design our systems with this in mind. What this means for practical scientific enquiry is unclear. For example, is peer review the best system for assessing research results? How about for research funding proposals? Does bibliometrics a better rear-view mirror of quality than human assessment? All these are valid questions thrown-up by a more behaviourist perspective on human enterprise.

However, I did feel that the book itself is very laboured. In fact I feel the same way about it as I felt about books like The End of History and the Last Man and The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference: that they’re basically essays that have been extended to book form, and struggle to maintain that length. A more concise presentation would have omitted a lot of supporting evidence, obviously, but whether that would weaken the appeal of a popular science book is questionable, and more exploration of the consequences and potential mitigations of the science would perhaps have made for a better read.

It’s also slightly annoying that only American universities seem worthy of being named: research done elsewhere is attributed to “a British university” or “a German university”. I know the author is at a US institution, but science is an international endeavour that deserves better treatment.

3/5. Finished Wednesday 14 November, 2012.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid

Douglas R. Hofstadter (1979)

This is a book that’s either loved or hated. It has a cult following amongst mathematicians and computer scientists: Hofstadter himself is a respected computer scientist with an interest in biological modelling.

The “plot”, such as there is, revolves around explaining Godel’s incompleteness theorem: the idea that any formal mathematical system has inherent limitations and inconsistencies. Godel incompleteness is to mathematics what Turing computability is to computing: a bound on ambition, a constraint that prevents some problems from being explored. The former perhaps has less significance to everyday life than the latter, but still remains one of the cornerstone discoveries of 20th century science.

Hofstadter also zones in on the familiar discussions about art and mathematics, the appeal that recursive, self-reflecting art works (like those of Escher and Bach) have to the mathematically inclined. The weaving of these themes within the book is quite astonishing, and at times illuminating. However, it does mean that this is not a book one can dip into: it requires concerted and prolonged effort, which it only partially repays.

The scope is both impressive wide and restrictively narrow, with the reader emerging with an understanding of a problem whose everyday relevance can be questioned, but also with an exposure to a wide range of aesthetic and scientific problems that he might otherwise never consider.

3/5. Finished Sunday 11 November, 2012.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World

Niall Ferguson (2002)

4/5. Finished Sunday 11 November, 2012.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)