Tag Archives: climate

What have the Romans, sorry Researchers, ever done for us?

Another day another paean to applied science… well, a thinly disguised call for more money to go to engineering. Coz, they make stuff y’know, not like basic researchers or heaven help us AHSS (arts, humanities and social sciences) dabblers. After all, what have the romans, sorry, researchers ever given society…This applied-basic dichotomy (and shouldn’t it be a tricothomy, as whatever happened to translation research?) is not just false its ignorant. And people who peddle it, whether they be retired deans of engineering schools, science funders or politicians who wouldn’t know a quern from a quark are ignorant of their ignorance. It’s a rumsfeldian ignorance in not knowing that they don’t know.

One cannot apply scientific concepts blindly. Well, one can but don’t expect anything much more than a blowup. Take finance (not even a science but hey…) for an example. One could argue that two equations helped blow up the financial system (aided and abetted by a range of human behavior stretching from outright criminality to buck ignorance via political sleevenism). See for discussions on copulas Zimmer, Lee, jones, and for the BS model Hartford, Pollack and Lo (the latter emphasizing the human-ware element)

The two are the BlackScholes (which can be abbreviated correctly to BS) equation for the valuation of options and its lesser-known cousin the Gaussian Copula. Most people have heard of the first and fewer of the latter. The GC describes how series move together, a multivariate version of a correlation function.

BS models and their derivatives underlay many derivative models while the GC model was commonly used to model the likely behavior of the elements of risk in collateralized debt and mortgage obligations.  And we know how well that worked.

Here is the thing: these basic science models are old. And flawed. They are theoretical constructs, incredibly useful as theories, easy to teach to undergraduates, but ones whose n-th grandchildren are being worked on to slowly, gradually, painstakingly improve the fit of the theoretical model to the real world. The application of these towards products was I contend fatally flawed by a lack of understanding by regulators and some practitioners of how the basic science was moving.

Funding into basic science improves how we apply these. Funding into translational science (which steps between applied and basic) helps improve the feedback. Funding into applied science gives the raw material for the feedback. None is more important than the other. And for a country such as Ireland where it is both impossible to outcompete in basic science with the military-industrial complexes of the world and where there is a need for high value added jobs, this gives an unpalatable policy prescription. We need to keep funding basic research to ensure that those teaching applied and translational science are at the forefront (or at least aware of where it is). If we don’t, we end up with the production of tinkerers capable of making minor adjustments to a preset form but with little understanding of the fundamentals. Worse, we end up with state funding displacing commercial R&D via that being outsourced to the third and fourth level.  R&D is high risk and so it makes perfect sense for companies to get it done outside, especially when they can then also complain that the R&D isn’t producing marketable products fast enough.

This policy isn’t sexy – it doesn’t generate lots of quick jobs and doesn’t allow politicians to open factories and ct ribbons at call centers. But then neither did the decision by Donagh O’Malley (made against the advice of the bureaucrats) to open up second level education to all. Slow burns last longer. SFI and the government science apparatchiks need to step back, take a long view and put in place structures that support a decent basic science budget, that encourages

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Richard Tol, academic freedom and the ESRI.

The ESRI-Richard Tol brouhaha has been strangely ignored by many academic blogs. I guess its because we are all on holidays…

To summarize; in May 2012 Richard, who had left the ESRI under rather strained circumstances earlier this year uploaded a working paper on the welfare-work wedge, whether and under what circumstances it is “better” to be on the welfare than to work. A part of the findings were that for some cohorts there was a significant wedge.

The paper was, according to the details on IDEAS (along with SSRN one of the larger repositories of working papers) uploaded in May.

It appears to me, but maybe I misunderstood, from the various statements that staff in the ESRI may be able to upload papers without any formal checking, but then again they are seasoned academics and researchers who will not generally issue working papers that are manifestly flawed as that will rebound on their reputation.

In any case, the newspapers picked up the findings, and it was widely reported. Here we must note that it was generally reported as “ESRI report” finding something. It was not. To describe it as such is to misunderstand the nature of the research process and to disregard the clear statement on each ESRI working paper that it is not official and should not be treated as such. Why the newspapers and other media choose to so mislead is a source of concern for another day.

In any case, yesterday the ESRI took what it described as the unprecedented step of withdrawing the (unofficial) working paper, declaring it to be in effect shoddy and error prone. It is now no longer on the ESRI working paper site, but the ever reliable Michael Taft has an extensive summary of it here and the entire paper can be downloaded here. Why it felt the need to create a precedent where none existed is unclear. This is worrying for those of us concerned with academic freedom. The ESRI press release states the ostensible reason for withdrawal as

“it has emerged that the underlying analysis requires major revision and that the paper’s estimates overstate the numbers of people who would be better off on the dole than in work.”

This seems to me to fly in the face of how research works. The ESRI working paper series is like any other. Papers start as ideas, then go to drafts then to working papers and then after informal and formal critiquing at seminars and conferences may be submitted for publication where extensive peer review suggests major revisions and then perhaps eventual publication. If the ESRI are now to require all working papers to be error free then they should set up a journal. As a journal editor the only time I would countenance the withdrawal of a paper from any series or publication is if it becomes clear that there is plagiarism, fraud or unethical behavior. None are alleged here. What is clear is that the public debate spooked the ESRI.

When the ESRI next publish a working paper on any area of controversy (and as a social science research institute that is going to happen on a regular basis) we now can no longer be sure that the publication is the thoughts of the author pure and unsullied, but is instead the outcome of internal editing. Nat O’Connor notes that the whole point of working papers is to gain comments from a wide range of people prior to further work ongoing. Editing, as we now seem to see will be the norm at the ESRI, implies control, and control is manifested in a power relationship. The role of an editor or a research institute director, in my view, is not and should not be to ensure that material which might confuse the public is not published. The role should be to ensure that the abstract and press release make clear the main finding, the strengths and weaknesses of the paper, and its role as merely one stage in academic research.

A more reasoned response from the ESRI might have been to note the unofficial, working paper nature, stress that it was part of an ongoing process, and to suggest that (as is always the case in social science) we cannot be sure and must weigh countervailing evidence. What has happened now is frank censorship – and that is not a good outcome. Nor is it feasible in the wired world.

I am neither a labour or tax economist, and so have no clue about the academic quality of the work. It seems methodologically sound, but the data are weak, and that is acknowledged in the paper. Do we wait for perfect data to investigate social phenomena, or press on, carefully, with poor data and the inevitable extra hedging of our conclusions that that will bring? I do know that Tol is a most prolific researcher who well understands the nature of the research process and who is imho unlikely to have put out knowingly flawed work. Although best known as an environment.energy economist, he has published in many areas, including tax policy. The ESRI director, Frances Ruane, is also a seasoned, well regarded researcher . When the paper, as it almost certainly will, appears in a peer reviewed academic journal with the main thrust of its findings unaltered as seems to be the case, the ESRI will stand as having for publicity or politic reasons withdrawn a working paper. That mars its reputation and the reputation of Irish academia.