Will an independent Scotland support science? Just look at my office

In the debate over Scottish Independence, one topic of particular interest to me and my colleagues is how funding for science and research will fare (see my previous post). It was in the news again today, with some academics voicing "grave concerns that the country does not sleepwalk into a situation that jeopardises its present success in the highly-competitive arena of biomedical research". Not that the current situation is rosy. Other academics in the same article observe
"The Campaign for Science and Engineering (CaSE) has noted 'the cumulative erosion' of the science budget of 'over £1.1billion' and CaSE director, Dr Sarah Main, has commented that 'the last four years of a flat cash science budget is biting scientists and engineers and squeezing universities'.
One question one might ask is which government shows stronger appreciation of the value of science?  The coalition planned to slash science funding as part of its austerity programme, with a reprieve at the last moment leading to only a mild cut. The UK as a whole tends to elect governments that cut education and maintain science funding only when pressed.

In contrast, time and again, the Scottish people elect governments that understand the value of education and science. Why else is Scotland home to more top universities per head than anywhere else in the world?

As one concrete example, consider my office. The award-winning Informatics Forum (pictured above) would not exist without direct support from the Scottish Government. Read this press release from 2005:
Scottish Enterprise Edinburgh and Lothian has secured an additional £14 million from the Scottish Executive towards the £42 million construction costs of the University of Edinburgh's Informatics Forum. ...

A further £5 million has been awarded by Scottish Enterprise Edinburgh and Lothian towards a strategy which will maximise engagement with local and international industry, ensuring Scotland reaps the economic benefits the Forum will generate. ...

Tim O’Shea, Principal of the University of Edinburgh, says: ‘Scotland is already a world-leader in a number of areas of Informatics and with the vision and support of the Scottish Executive and Scottish Enterprise Edinburgh and Lothian it will become even stronger.’

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The Funding Gap

One ongoing debate regards the 'funding gap' that might be faced by Scottish science in event of independence. I've been trying to track down numbers. Not surprisingly, it depends on what assumptions you make.

The Royal Society of Edinburgh sponsored a series of discussions, now available in print and online, Enlightening the Constitutional Debate.  The following appears on page 182:
To maintain the international quality of our research base, Professor Paterson added, we must maintain our access to international funding and maintain our international standards. To do so, it has been calculated that an independent Scotland would need to find an extra £300 million in funds per annum – double the amount currently distributed by the Scottish Funding Council.
Lindsay Paterson is my colleague at the University of Edinburgh, so I wrote to him asking the source of his figures. He referred me to his detailed notes, where he explains (footnote 35) that
Public expenditure on research in Scotland is about 0.95% of GDP, whereas the average in the comparison developed countries noted in that footnote is 0.7%. The difference, 0.25%, is £325 million in a GDP of £130 billion.
So the RSEs summary above is inaccurate: £300 million is not the difference between what Scotland spends now and what it would need to spend to fund science at the same level as currently, it is the difference between what Scotland spends now and what it would spend if it spent the same amount as a typical developed country.

So what is the actual 'funding gap'? Michael Danson at Heritot-Watt University has written a note that explains the numbers. Scotland wins 10-11% of the funding from UK Research Council, but pays only around 9% of taxes. In addition, there is funding from the remainder of the UK government and from UK charities. Adding it all up, he puts the shortfall between £97 and £143 million, where the latter figure makes the assumption that no UK charity will contribute a pence to Scotland. On more reasonable assumptions, a figure of around £100 million seems more likely. As he notes, that's less than the rise in science funding the Scottish Government has already approved over the last decade.

That's two estimates. What figures have you seen for the funding gap?

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Enemy of the People

George Monbiot's column captures my feelings exactly. I wasn't previously familiar with Ibsen's play An Enemy of the People, which Monbiot summarises and relates to attitudes about climate change.
Thomas Stockmann is a doctor in a small Norwegian town, and medical officer at the public baths whose construction has been overseen by his brother, the mayor. The baths, the mayor boasts, "will become the focus of our municipal life! … Houses and landed property are rising in value every day."
But Stockmann discovers that the pipes have been built in the wrong place, and the water feeding the baths is contaminated. "The source is poisoned … We are making our living by retailing filth and corruption! The whole of our flourishing municipal life derives its sustenance from a lie!" People bathing in the water to improve their health are instead falling ill.
Stockmann expects to be treated as a hero for exposing this deadly threat. After the mayor discovers that re-laying the pipes would cost a fortune and probably sink the whole project, he decides that his brother's report "has not convinced me that the condition of the water at the baths is as bad as you represent it to be".
The mayor proposes to ignore the problem, make some cosmetic adjustments and carry on as before. After all, "the matter in hand is not simply a scientific one. It is a complicated matter, and has its economic as well as its technical side." The local paper, the baths committee and the business people side with the mayor against the doctor's "unreliable and exaggerated accounts".
Astonished and enraged, Stockmann lashes out madly at everyone. He attacks the town as a nest of imbeciles, and finds himself, in turn, denounced as an enemy of the people. His windows are broken, his clothes are torn, he's evicted and ruined.
Today's editorial in the Daily Telegraph, which was by no means the worst of the recent commentary on this issue, follows the first three acts of the play. Marking the new assessment by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the Telegraph sides with the mayor. First it suggests that the panel cannot be trusted, partly because its accounts are unreliable and exaggerated and partly because it uses "model-driven assumptions" to forecast future trends. (What would the Telegraph prefer? Tea leaves? Entrails?). Then it suggests that trying to stop manmade climate change would be too expensive. Then it proposes making some cosmetic adjustments and carrying on as before. ("Perhaps instead of continued doom-mongering, however, greater thought needs to be given to how mankind might adapt to the climatic realities.")
(Image above shows Marilyn Monroe reading her husband, Arthur Miller's, translation of Ibsen's play.)

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The Greens, UKIP, and D'Hondt: Update

Immediately after my preceding post, I spotted the above which makes the same point far more graphically. Via @Gary Dunion and Conor McBride/@pigworker.

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The Greens, UKIP, and D'Hondt

EU elections use the D'Hondt system, which means that if, say, your goal is to keep UKIP from electing a MEP from Scotland, your vote is, in a sense, three times more effective if you vote for Green then if you vote for the SNP or Labour—watch the video or follow the links (Wikipedia, European Parliament) to understand why.

If you wish to vote tactically, you need to know how the parties stand in the polls. Below is data for Scotland from two polls on 13--15 May, spotted via UK Polling Report. I'm voting my heart, with the Greens, but it's nice to know that it is also a tactically wise vote in opposition to UKIP.

YouGov ComRes
Labour 31 16
SNP 30 40
Green 12 7
Conservative 10 21
UKIP 9 8
Lib Dem 7 5
Other 0 1

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Elm's time-travelling debugger

The Elm language now supports interactive debugging and hot swapping.
So what does a debugger look like for a high-level language like Elm? What is possible when you have purity, FRP, and hot-swapping? At Elm Workshop 2013, Laszlo Pandy presented the Elm Debugger. Inspired by talks like Bret Victor’s Inventing on Principle, Laszlo implemented a debugger that lets you travel backwards and forwards in time. It lets you change history. On a deeper level, it lets you visualize and interact with a program’s meaning. It lets you see how a program changes over time.
Evan Czaplicki, Elm's inventor, explains why the features of Elm make this surprisingly easy.
It is possible to change a program so much that it is no longer compatible with previous versions. If we try to hot-swap with incompatible code, it will lead to runtime errors. The programmer will be left wondering if their new code introduced a bug or if it was just a case of bad hot-swapping. Perhaps they start hunting for a bug that does not exist. Perhaps they ignore a bug that does exist. This is not Interactive Programming, this is a buggy IDE.
To make hot-swapping reliable, we must know when programs are incompatible. The more precise we can be, the more reliable hot-swapping can be. There are two major categories of incompatibilies:
  • The API has changed. If the types of the arguments to a function change, it is no longer compatible with the rest of the program.
  • It is not possible to copy the old state into the new program. Perhaps there are now many more values and it is unclear how they relate to our new program. Perhaps functions are tightly coupled with state, making it hard to change either independently.
The ability to diagnose and respond to these issues depends on the language you are working with. We will now see how both cases can be addressed with features like static types, immutability and purity, and predictable structure.
 Previously: Bret Victor's Inventing on Principle.

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A student's case

A student's letter in The Saint makes the case for Independence concisely and eloquently. Thank you, Ashley Husband Powton.
Regardless of which party is elected in 2015, Labour and Tories alike are thirled to a destructive neo-liberal agenda and committed to a merciless programme of greater austerity which punishes the poor and most vulnerable in society.

For supporters of independence, a yes-vote is about rejecting the indefensible and reprehensible status quo and opting for a different future.

It is a rejection of the hostile and increasingly right-wing policies of Westminster governments.

It is about creating a more equal and just society, reversing the trend of an ever increasing gap between the richest and the poorest.

It is demanding an alternative to rule by a rich and privileged elite.

It is about ensuring that Scotland is never again subject to the damaging policies of governments it did not vote for.

It is about planning our own positive and constructive role on the European and international stages, free from xenophobia and military aggression.

The real independence debate can be summed up by asking the following: ‘What sort of society do we want in Scotland, and who is more likely to deliver it, Westminster or an independent Holyrood?’.
The letter was one of two in The Saint, published in response to an article by an academic on the 'No' side. If you want a case for No, the other letter makes it concisely (and far better than the original article).

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The EFF, Oracle, Google, and me: A Dangerous Decision

Previously, I wrote of an amicus brief filed by the EFF in a case between Oracle and Google, of which I am a co-signatory. The decision is out, and it is worrying.
When programmers can freely reimplement or reverse engineer an API without the need to negotiate a costly license or risk a lawsuit, they can create compatible software that the interface’s original creator might never have envisioned or had the resources to create. Moreover, compatible APIs enable people to switch platforms and services freely, and to find software that meets their needs regardless of what browser or operating system they use. The freedom to reimplement APIs also helps rescue “orphan” software or data—systems whose creators have either gone out of business or abandoned their product in the marketplace.
Today's decision puts all of that at risk, potentially handing Oracle and others veto power over any developer who wants to create a compatible program. What is worse, if today's decision is taken as a green light to API litigation, large and small software tech companies are going to have to divert more and more resources away from development, and toward litigation. That will be good for the legal profession—but not so good for everyone else.
The case is far from over. Google may seek a hearing from the full court, or appeal to the Supreme Court. Alternatively, Google can focus on asserting its fair use defense, and hope that fair use can once again bear the increasing burden of ensuring that copyright spurs, rather than impedes, innovation.  We're confident that it can, but it shouldn't have to.

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I'll be voting Green in the European elections – and here's why

Alex Andreou writes in The Guardian:
I hear results of straw polls showing that a majority of people in this country feel "uncomfortable" with immigration. ... I am disappointed by both the Conservatives and Labour's stance on immigration. It seems to me they are trying to address multiple audiences; on the one hand they want to comfort the uncomfortable, on the other there seems to be a nudge-nudge, wink-wink message between the lines intended for people like me that says "don't worry". By doing that, they legitimise Ukip's highly dangerous message, because they allow Farage to point to imitators and boost the brand validity of his "original" snake oil.

I don't think I can bring myself to vote for the Liberal Democrats again. Tuition fees, austerity, bedroom tax, welfare cap, Atos, Royal Mail – the list goes on. This left me looking at the Green party, as the default remaining choice. The surprise was that the more I looked at them, the more I liked them. Their policies appear to me eminently sensible and unabashedly progressive, in most areas. They are the only party which has refused to be drawn into the immigrant-bashing competition with the others, and the only which proposes a vote in the general elections for EU citizens based on residency, rather than nationality. Their commitment to minority rights, including LGBT, is second to none. They alone seem to understand that discussion and collaboration, rather than confrontation, is the way to reform the EU. Their candidates seem passionate and compassionate. My scrutiny left me thinking: why wasn't I planning to vote for them in the first place, especially when there is proportional representation?




Reset the Net

If you don't like that GCHQ and the NSA can listen in on all your network activity, here is your chance to Reset the Net.
Today, a coalition of thousands of Internet users, companies and organizations launched a campaign for a day of action to “Reset The Net” on June 5th, 2014, the anniversary of the first NSA surveillance story revealed by whistleblower Edward Snowden. Tens of thousands of internet activists, companies and organizations committed to preserving free speech and basic rights on the Internet by taking steps to shutting off the government’s mass surveillance capabilities.
Watch the campaign video and see a full list of participants here: http://ResetTheNet.org
More than 20 organizations and companies support the launch of the campaign including Fight For The Future (who initiated the campaign) along with reddit, CREDO Mobile, Imgur, Greenpeace, Libertarian Party, FireDogLake, Thunderclap, DuckDuckGo, Disconnect.Me, Demand Progress,  Access, Free Press, Restore the Fourth, AIDS Policy Project, PolitiHacks, OpenMedia, Free Software Foundation, Bill of Rights Defense Committee, Code Pink, Popular Resistance, Participatory Politics Foundation, BoingBoing, Public Knowledge, Amicus, New America Foundation’s Open Technology Institute, Progressive Change Campaign Committee, Student Net Alliance, and the Center for Democracy and Technology.
Internet users are invited to join in on the day of Reset The Net to install privacy and encryption tools and secure their personal digital footprint against intrusive surveillance.
Technical information here and press release here.

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Net Neutrality, R.I.P.

Brian McFadden nails it in The Nib. If you want to do something about it, look to Fight for the Future.

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