Phil Scadden

Senior Scientist at GNS Science (New Zealand equivalent of USGS more or less). Programmer, modeller, dabbling in physics, geology, geophysics. Back-roomer and like it that way.


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New Zealand government research sort of does that. In 90s, the public research was reorganised into institutes - private companies but owned by government (government of day appoints the board members as position falls vacant). Initially, all government funding of these institutes was contestable - vaguely like the PI model. The cost and inefficiency of this system led to this be abandoned. Instead, the institutes get "Core" funding to support their core area (eg earth science in my case). Essentially the institutes propose very broad-brush programmes (so peer-driven) about how this will be spent. External panels (researchers from similar institutions overseas mostly, or possibly unis) critique it and a government bureaucracy evaluates against performance and alignment with government goals. Essentially it’s a negotiation process that sets a contract of around 5 years (from memory) which get tweaked as required. A similar model provides research funding (as opposed to teaching funding) to the universities. There are also several contestable funds, open to the whole research community. 

Does it work? I doubt any system is perfect and this one has a number of downsides. It is certainly a much more efficient system (less scientist-hours spent chasing money, and less bureaucracy evaluating bids) than what preceded it. There are advantages to the individual scientist though in pursuing contestable funding, though most will involve teams of scientists, often across multiple institutes/universities.  Core funding is tied to agreed programmes and the programme manager controls it. You can’t just do your thing on Core funding. Winning contestable funding means the team that won it is in control. Enough funding for your pet project and you can thumb your nose at institute management. 

The downsides as I see them: The % of government funding going to each institute is very static. It is hard to convince the government that your discipline is now hotter and more important than the discipline of another institute. The opposite was true of the contestable model - uncertainty of future funding made investment in research infrastructure (eg vessels) uncertain. Scrapping between institutes over money turned to scrapping within institutes over money. Perhaps this is actually a major upside - at least the scrappers know what they are talking about unlike the bureaucrats. The accountability model is everyone’s bugbear. It's public money so asking for accountability is obviously reasonable, but it generally feels like time-consuming paperwork to clueless bureaucrats. There must be a better way.

It should be noted that the institutes total funding thus consists of Core funding, contestable funding but also commercial research contracts. Depending on the Institute, this can be pretty high. Ours has been up 50% commercial. Others even higher.

Well here (NZ), reclaimed land is often a very problematic climate and tectonic risk.  Lots of discussion about managed retreat. Ok, plenty of 19th C stuff was done badly, but engineering for sealevel rise, earthquake (liquifaction), tsunami and storm exposure isnt cheap. Also, we have had too much finding-out-the-hard-way that coastal wetland was performing valuable environmental services that are not easily replaced. I am happy to have strong regulations around that. To make it work and be economic to maintain over very long term, then I think you need to have large area of land created compared to length of your seawall (the Dutch situation) and yes, the easy ones have been taken.

There are other things on with playgrounds I think. Here (NZ), there has been a big movement toward making playgrounds safer - which has made them a great deal less fun. Since children still want adventure and a challenge, they use playgrounds in ways not intended (eg on top of frames holding swings etc). 

Apparently our kids were "feral". As far as I can tell, this was for being allowed in the bush unsupervised. They got by on one broken leg, 4 pulled elbows, one concussion plus usual scrapes and bruises which help teach limits. All but the concussion (on a school playground during break) happened while supervised. Maybe we werent paying enough attention.

But my own upbringing had far more freedom. Only 1km to beach and the rule was no going into water without an adult, no digging in sand dunes, and "careful on the road" walking to and fro. Oh and tell an adult where you were going. The environment did not seem as safe to us when our own children came along. Perception? Reality? Lot more cars for one thing.

Oh, and lets hear it for the scout movement. Getting really dirty, proper physical challenges. My son did sea scouts where supervision amounted mostly to ensuring they were wearing life jackets and fishing them out of water if required. They raced in, rigged their boats and got onto water as fast as possible with no direction at all. Water fights, boardings, and races all ensued. On the way, some pretty good water/boat skills developed mostly by osmosis. 

I would give this a very low probability of it happening. The political risks are enormous. I don't think people react very well to having their toys taken away - including the people in your security apparatus that rulers would depend on to stifle revolt. Way worse than taking radios. I would also be extremely surprised if Russian commerce did not also depend on internet for marketing and sales now. Going back would be very hard.

But what it gets wrong is also interesting. It has an incoherent model of the world (which is probably what you would expect) and that messes with the writing.

Sorry for late reply. I meant that Contact begins with Eleanor listening to the sounds being picked up the radio telescopes and then suddenly hears the gutteral throbbing of the alien message.

Read a little more - the geologist inside me screaming "wrong,wrong, wrong" at every turn. Doesnt invite the suspension of disbelief necessary to enjoy scifi.

Opening is a massive steal from "Contact" (Sagan) in my opinion. "The low thrum of the spectrometer"!!!! This is straight steal from listening to radio telescope. Spectometers dont do that. I'm with Richard Kennaway on this. (and only read chapter 1 and 35.

Such much to agree with. I couldn't care less about long hair or stylishness but care a lot of about sense of humour and having things in common to do. But, hey, I have only really had one relationship, 30+ years and counting. Shape sadly does matter - I dont find very overweight attractive. Also wouldnt consider anyone not close to my age, probably +/- 2

Answer by Phil ScaddenDec 06, 202210

First off, I am not in the USA (from NZ). I dont look back on my school years fondly (and I went to a lot of different schools thanks to family circumstance), but that was mainly due to bullying being incapable of sport, too bright and socially inept. However, the actually schooling part was something I very much enjoyed. Many teachers that inspired and effectively taught things I really wanted to know. I hated programming (we are talking punch card fortran) but was forced to learn it and hey, have been programming (writing models) for decades. Sometimes (often) teachers are right about forcing you to learn things (add propositional calculus to list) . Two of us skipped class for physics in final year as teacher said better off with textbook but please turn up for labs. Similarly learnt geography by visiting teacher after school for assignments as couldn't timetable it. From my own kids, Year 1-8 schooling here leaves somewhat to be desired but both kids thrived at high school and we were happy with how taught. Sciences and maths are very hierarchical in learning. What bothers me about the home schooling is tendency to drop the "boring" or difficult bits which then struggle later because fundamentals missing.

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