“How will the world end? Not with a bang but a whimper”. These are, of course, the closing lines of T.S.Eliot’s famous poem of 1925 The Hollow Men, and I was reminded of their cosmological nature when reading various announcements of the ‘discovery’ (interestingly, as at the BBC, often in inverted commas) – or more accurately the inference from many trillions of candidate collisions – of the existence of a particle that may or may not be related to the ideas of Peter Higgs. In all of this I have largely failed to find the actual data (here are some secondary data) that underpin the announcement, and whether they have any statistical merit (given that quite recently similar data did not). Especially in the absence of any detailed data, and knowledge of whether the analysis of the trillions of tests was subject to a Bonferroni correction as one would assume is necessary, I do strongly wonder whether, and rather suspect that, the actual result will be similar to the one I predicted for the tachyonic neutrinos. I hope I am wrong, and that we can now firm up our thinking of what this knowledge actually means for our scientific understanding of these matters and their intellectual consequences.
Getting scientific analysis into governmental decision making is arguably the most important thing that most scientists can do for making and stewarding a better world. Thus I attended two very interesting meetings sponsored by the excellent Cambridge Centre for Science and Policy: the first was a networking event and insightful dinner discussion, and the second a lecture by Mark Henderson, onetime Science correspondent of the Times and now Head of Communications at the Wellcome Trust, based on his superb new book The Geek Manifesto. Required reading for those who love science and recognise the need to ‘geek the vote’, as his chapter 2 puts it.
I also attended a very interesting Open Day at the National Institute of Agricultural Botany (NIAB), including an excellent opening speech from, and discussion with, Cambridge biochemist and Liberal Democrat MP Julian Huppert. During the tour, it was especially interesting to see a variety of interspecific hybrids on the NIAB Innovation Farm, undoubtedly with a large range of interesting genetic variation, and with some of the novel brassicas already commercially available as seeds and presumably soon coming to the supermarkets. Other exhibits gave a salutary reminder of how hugely scientific research has improved wheat yields, especially since the beginning of the 20th century.
Following on from a recent blog post, I am pleased to see that our strategy development in the area of digital organisms is progressing. It is practically impossible to do engineering well without a parallel model of the system being worked on, so digital organisms – digital models of the biological systems of interest – represent a hugely important area. Thus, we have just opened a community consultation in this area. We are seeking inputs from researchers active in academia or industry at all stages of their careers and from all disciplines to give us their views on modelling and digital organisms. This consultation will feed into an expert working group we have set up in the area. I would encourage as many scientists as possible to fill in the questionnaire found here to help shape our policy on digital organisms.
We are also pleased to announce our joint call with the Department of Biotechnology in India focused on Bioenergy. The call is a direct output from the Workshop that was held in New Delhi in October 2011 and plans for which were announced by Minister of Universities and Science David Willetts on 15 November. Last week the Research Council Chief Executives also had one of our very useful periodic meetings with the Minister, who remains very keen to promote our agenda.
Amid much debate following the Finch report, I noted an interesting blogged book review of Peter Suber’s eponymous book on Open Access. My personal view is that – as Finch recommends – Gold Open Access is the preferred route, not least since ‘Green’ self-archiving is already available. The obvious issues (keeping costs down, and allowing publishing access to otherwise unfunded researchers) can I think be managed effectively. I also enjoyed an ironic blog post on “words a bioinformatician never wants to hear”, and a useful portal for understanding plant stresses as the basis of sustainable agriculture.
Finally, the banking scandals continue, bringing – among the utter disgust at the prevalent rip-off culture and potential criminality in financial ‘services’ – the occasional moment of light relief; it is 100% obvious that what we are learning in public is the very small tip of a giant and reprehensible iceberg, and it would be nice if things could be regulated fully, swiftly and properly before another crash that bankrupts our country (and others) happens again. It is elementary that the chief problem lies with allowing Institutions that have insufficient money or credit to lend it to (or take it from) folk who have less, and that this is what to regulate. Responsible Capitalism involves investing in the real economy for real growth and sustainability. As T. S. Eliot might have said, “How will the world end? Not with a whim but a banker”. The Hollow Men, indeed.
- Broadhurst D, Kell DB: Statistical strategies for avoiding false discoveries in metabolomics and related experiments. Metabolomics 2006; 2:171-196