I suspect that most readers returning to this blog post-Purdah will wonder what are the PPDRs of the subject line (and the PP is not ‘post-Purdah’…). PPDR stands for Personal Performance and Development Review, and represents a formal annual interview of individuals with their line managers (at BBSRC and elsewhere). They are one of the mechanisms, and a very valuable one, that helps to ensure that an organisation and its people – at different places in the wider or narrow scheme of things – are working effectively. As an annual event they have a season, and this starts after Easter, such that I have conducted three this week alone. (Of course I have my own PPDR, that happens later in the summer.)
As with the previous two blogs (before Easter), my activities continue to include meetings designed to develop our thinking (and strategies and delivery) in the Bioenergy and Industrial Biotechnology space. To this end we had a useful meeting with the leaders of BP’s Biofuels activities, since it is not news that they have been making major investments here. From the perspective of the Research Base, where we recognise that this needs to happen bigtime in the world of manufacturing, it is highly encouraging that such companies have already joined the party for the development of the Knowledge-Based Bio-Economy.
The Technology Strategy Board is an important partner of BBSRC (and of other Research Councils) with regard to helping to turn science and innovation into economic and social benefits, and we had a very useful meeting as part of a regular series.
An important consideration, in a world largely organised by humans on the basis of human knowledge, is the role of science in understanding human risks and how we might best choose to mitigate them within the constraints of finite resources for doing so. This is clearly a nexus of Governments and Research Councils generally, and it is hardly news on a historical or indeed geological timescale that societies are exposed to risks. Thus I much enjoyed attending the inaugural Sheffield Leonardo lecture on this topic given by Sir John Beddington, the Government’s Chief Scientific Advisor. His authoritative talk partly reflected recent events and dangers such as Swine Flu, space weather, Chernobyl and Fukushima Dai’ichi, casino ‘high-frequency trading’, and so on. More generally, he recognised that we need collectively to think about (and thereby act on) the consequences of areas such as Prediction, Vulnerabilities, Complex Cause and Effect, Emergencies, Rational Responses, and their resultant effects on Growth. Consequently, another important theme involved rehearsing the fact that Risk and Hazard are not the same thing (roughly, risk = hazard x exposure), a fact not universally recognised in the setting of EU legislation that in some areas such as the deployment of fungicides at low concentrations that seems to be based on hazard alone.
To be clear: the effect of a large asteroid hitting the Earth constitutes a hazard in that it could happen and it would potentially be catastrophic. However, the likelihood (exposure) is low (and entirely calculable). Consequently the risk is small.
The concept of likelihood is intimately bound up with the question of how we come to believe what we do, and this is an important part of scientific reasoning. This is especially so from a Bayesian point of view, and I much enjoyed reading a clear and formal (and not so new) exposition of this. Thoroughly recommended.
I remain very interested in this question of the formalisation of scientific reasoning, and – following the original Robot Scientist paper – a new article sets down such an approach and its application to the (more or less) automated reuse of scientific knowledge.
- Howson C, Urbach P: Scientific reasoning: the Bayesian approach. Chicago: Open Court, 1989
- King RD, Whelan KE, Jones FM, Reiser PGK, Bryant CH, Muggleton SH, Kell DB, Oliver SG: Functional genomic hypothesis generation and experimentation by a robot scientist. Nature 2004; 427:247-252
- King RD, Liakata M, Lu C, Oliver SG, Soldatova LN: On the formalization and reuse of scientific research. J R Soc Interface 2011. Full free text
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