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The Stupid Country

Welcome to the future. I'm telling you, it's great here. Bowling averages are way up, minigolf scores are way down.

Sadly, with universities opening up "soft" courses, while downgrading or closing, err, shall we call them "traditional" subject areas, it can only be a matter of time before universities offer Bachelor of Recreation, where students can major in areas such as minigolf, ten-pin bowling and even take modules in coffee or beer drinking (I believe the former is available in some humanities courses).

While not the last word on anything, human folklore and knowledge does have some basis. We have all been taught proverbs such as "a stitch in time saves nine" from a very young age. As we get older, we learn about things such as savings and investments. We are encouraged not to spend all our money when we get it, but rather, to save for the future. Sometimes, we will pay for things from money we have. Sometimes we will borrow to pay for things.

In general, it is good to borrow if we can afford to repay on our borrowings (with stuff left over for contingencies and emergencies) and if our investment appreciates in value. Most people (at least the first time) borrow to buy a house. In general, this is a good investment - even if the mortgage payments initially are a little higher than renting a comparable property, over time (for a well structured mortgage), your mortgage payments should go down in real terms, while the comparable rent would go up with inflation. And in the end you end up owning a house. This is without even looking at the psychological benefits.

Borrowing for capital improvements can be a good idea. Borrowing for recurrent expenditure is a bad idea. If you can't pay for it now, it will only get worse later. Still, we instictively know that there are times when saving and investing is a good idea. For some reason, politicians have forgotten this.

It annoys me when I hear politicians boasting about removing all debt from their area of control. Why? Because it means they are not investing in the future. If you wait until you can buy an entire house out of savings, you will never buy it - the money will burn a hole in your pocket and you will spend it. In the case of a Government, they'll spend it every election. Debt is useful if you are using it to pay for the future (and stupid if you are using it to pay for the past).

The smartest investment a Government can make is in education and research. (this is a line which people are welcome to debate and discuss)

Education: Arm all members of society with the skills they will need to live and get by. Teach them a trade (in an area of interest to them and one in which they are competent) so they can be productive members of society. Teach them to learn, so they can acquire new skills if and when their old skills become redundant - either socially or technologically (what are newsagents going to do in twenty years time?). Teach people to think.

Actually, the last one is important, so I will repeat. Teach people to think. To question. To explore. To ask. To doubt. The people who can do so are the people who make the biggest contribution to societal growth.

Now, what not to do: don't treat education as a substitute for either welfare or baby-sitting. Don't see it a chore, something to be done for political reasons only.

Just by the way, education doesn't mean "schools and universities". While schools and unis are supposed to provide this, they do not always do so, it is not always appropriate for the individual, and there are other ways of providing education besides schools and unis for some fields. The TAFE system in Australia works best in two situations: when it is providing adults with a high-school equivalent education enabling a change in career, and when it is providing a true vocational course, helping people get into a job.

I dislike hearing about trying to get diversity at universities, because this will do one of two things (or both): One is favour people who are less qualified by "objective" measures, purely because of externalities, and two is that it will lead to over-crowding in universities, causing a drop in the standard of education. Here's the thing: if students are underachieving their potential so drastically that they need to be artificially allowed into universities, guess what: the school (and possibly social) system has failed. On the other hand, if you are letting people into universities who do not have the competence in the area, you are letting them down and/or you are letting society down. If they don't have the competence, then you either fail them (wasting their time and everyone's money) or you drop the standards (this is a bad thing). Actually, to be honest, failing people at university level is not a bad thing. There is merit in a French-style, bring them all in in first year and then weed them out, but you have to let them weed them out.

So from a teaching point of view, what are universities for? Two things (and only two things). Offering vocational training in high level areas which can only be done by absolute specialists, and enabling people to get a broad generalist education (to be followed by vocational training). Combined degrees in Australia are a great way of enabling people to both get a generalist education in areas which appeal to them while still doing vocational training. There is value in a history degree. There is not really any value churning out lots more historians than society needs. Having someone with both an engineering degree and a history degree can make for an intellectually well-rounded person. Sometimes. (It's ok, she doesn't actually read this)

And in exchange for universities being given money by society to teach and train in certain areas, society reserves the right to dictate what courses are being taught. And this, ladies and gentlemen, dear readers, is exhibit one for the title. With a little bit of effort - maybe a day's work for a bureaucrat in the right department - you could compile a list of what jobs there is a shortage of workers for, and what jobs are over supplied. To some extent we know, or at least we are told: maths and the physical sciences are struggling for numbers. And yet research in these areas is being made to finance teaching. Chemistry and physics departments are being closed down. Gross stupidity (144 times worse than normal stupidity).

A VC is talking to the physics head of department, and he says, "your department is too expensive to run, with your labs and expensive equipment. Why can't you be more like Maths - all they need is paper, pencil and an eraser. Or better still, like philosophy - all they need is pencil and paper."

But seriously, if research isn't financing the teaching (it shouldn't, except for provision of expertise and literature), the labs are expensive to run, expensive to maintain and take up lecture space. It costs far more to run a science course than it does an arts course. So it money gets a little tight, what does the administrator get rid of? That's right. The question is never "what do we need" but rather, "what will save more money?" And so the Government says that we need more people in physical sciences, but lets (or encourages) university administrators to slash these courses. Gross stupidity.

It is difficult setting up a department from scratch. If you close one down, it is gone. So the Government should be stopping universities from closing down departments in areas of strategic importance. There are only so many good people you can recruit from overseas, particularly if you are closing departments. Where does the skill base come from. In my department, chemical engineering is gradually falling away. They are merging courses with those of other disciplines with no apparent thought to whether what they teach is appropriate and whether they are missing out on some of the flavour and depth of the discipline. And it's not like the jobs don't exist for chemical engineers. I was looking through a copy of New Scientist last night, looking at the jobs section, and I have the technical basis to enable me to do 3/4 of the jobs, and could easily get the skills for most of the rest. For half of the jobs, chemical engineering is probably the most appropriate discipline. Why downgrade it? Stupid, bureaucratic incompetence. Letting society down.

I could go on, but I do want to get to research. Education is for providing skills for people for society. Research is about providing knowledge for society. As such, I see research as the more important of the two. While it can't be done without a solid educational framework, there are far more prerequisites than that.

Question: how do you manage research? Actually, before I answer that, I'll limit what I mean by research. Research is finding answers to questions, where the answer isn't known. Research is understanding, and using that understanding to predict. Sometimes the question is just "what happens if...", sometimes it is "why does this happen?" and sometimes it is a "mmm?". There are two cases. The first is if you have a specific question you want answered, and the second is just researching for growth. So, how do you manage research?

If you have questions you want answered, you get the best people you can, and you let them do it. You give them the resources they need, but, whereever possible, you let them do it. And you try to have them face as little distraction as possible.

If you are having people research for growth, i.e. researching to discover new stuff - answering questions you might not even know to ask, this is even harder. How do you manage them? In as hands-off a manner as possible. As an example, if you ask, "how do we stop the effects of global warming", this is a long, detailed, complex series of questions, including "is it real?", "what causes it?", "what will the effects be?", "what are some possible solutions", "how do they work?" and "do they work", with whole branches of sub-questions and side-questions. So what do you do? Well, at the moment they say, "We have some funding available in this area. If anyone wants some, tell us what you are going to do and we'll tell you if it is worthy of funding". This actually isn't as stupid an idea as it sounds - you don't really know the really relevant questions, so you let people tell you what they think you need to know, and then you evaluate that.

Sometimes it is worth just giving people the time and space to do what they want to do though. That's where you get the real rewards of research, but even that notwithstanding. The best ways of getting the best research done is to get good people and let them do what they are good at. Take as many hurdles out of their way as possible.

Here's a horror story for anyone who wants universities to generate good research:

Once upon a time, there were institutions called universities. These were wonderful institutions where all the smartest people in the land went, and they discovered wonderful things and the people's lives were better as a result. The Researchers, which is what the smart people were called, worked in ways which suited them, and were able to work well.

Then, one day, an evil bureaucrat and his friend, the cunning politician, saw the freedom that the researchers had. And they realised that the didn't control them. So the evil bureaucrat got jealous. And he thought long and hard. And he had an idea. An evil idea. The evil bureaucrat went to his cauldron and mixed a potion. And suddenly, *poof* a wicked creature appeared. The evil bureaucrat called the creature Transparency, and set Transparency loose on the smart people.

The wicked Transparency was a curse on the researchers. It got in the way. The researchers spent so much time trying to deal with the problems caused by Transparency, that they didn't have as much time to discover new and wonderful things. Some researchers left the universities to discover wonderful things in companies, but these discoveries were kept secret, and only the final results were available for the people and they were expensive. So the people were sad. They were still paying money to the universities, but they didn't see as many wonderful things coming out of the universities. The people complained.

And the cunning politician heard their complaints, and he asked the evil bureaucrat what he could do. The evil bureaucrat went to his cauldron again and mixed another potion. And, *poof*, another monster appeared. He called this creature Accountability. And the cunning politician told the people, "don't worry - I will send forth Accountability to watch over the researchers, and to make sure that they are only spending money in good ways."

And the researchers, who still wasted a lot of time overcoming the problems of Transparency getting in the way and taking their time, now had to deal with Accountability. Accountability was a wicked monster. Accountability took as much time from the researchers as Transparency did. But the cunning politicial had another cunning plan. He made the universities pay some of their money to his evil minions to work with Accountability. These evil minions, called Accountability Managers, took money from the universities, but they also got in the way. In satisfying Accountability's enormous apetite, they fed him lots and lots of reports. And each report cost money that the researchers could have used to discover wonderful things. And sometimes, when the researcher wanted to buy something that would cost a lot of money, the Accountability Manager made the researcher go and look for lots of other things, and he had to buy the cheapest one, even if it wasn't the best one, or wouldn't work as well as the thing the researcher wanted.

And the researchers were sad. They were stressed. Some researchers left. Some kept working because they wanted to discover new things to make things better for the people. But the people were ungrateful. They complained about how more money was being spent, but less things seemed to be being discovered. And the cunning politician spoke once more to his friend the evil bureaucrat, and he asked him, "what more can we do to the researchers and the universities? How can we enslave them fully?"

The evil bureaucrat smiled, and went to his cauldron a third time. This time, instead of mixing a potion, he poured in a magic fluid, and this let him look over magical plains. He looked over the plains until he found a heard of magical creatures called Corporate Culture. Now Corporate Culture was not an evil creature. Like people, it had good points and had bad points. Corporate Culture could sometimes be good, because it helped people work together in a business to achieve good aims, and because it encouraged efficiency and tried to avoid waste. But it could be bad, because sometimes it had some blind spots, where it forgot what it was trying to do, and spent so much time trying to avoid waste that it got rid of things which were good or important. The evil bureaucrat looked at the herd of Corporate Culture, and at the rear of the herd, he saw a small, mis-shapen, ugly creature, that looked like Corporate Culture, but wasn't really. He summoned this creature, and he set the Mis-shapen Corporate Culture loose on the universities.

And the researchers had trouble. The Mis-shapen Corporate Culture encouraged them to only look at making small changes which were easy, and made things difficult for researchers who wanted to make wonderful discoveries, because if they failed, he devoured them. And the people no longer saw wonderful discoveries being made in the universities, so they complained, "we don't want to pay for universities. We want better hospitals and prisons and lower taxes."

So universities gradually closed down or became smaller. And for a time, the people didn't notice it. They still got wonderful discoveries being made by researchers at universities in other countries. But one day, the discoveries stopped coming through. People noticed, but weren't worried.

Then, one day, a big problem arose. There was a new sickness. The people wanted the doctors to cure them. The doctors went to the researchers for help, but the researchers had all gone. And many people died, and the remaining people were sick and unhappy. And they blamed the universities for not helping them.

And the UK became a 3rd world, backwards, regressive country that got what it deserved.

So, dear readers, where do you think we are up to in the story so far? By the way, the big problem may not be a disease. It may be running out of fuel. Or global warming. Or a meteor strike. Or any one of a number of other things. Why won't science save us? Because society is closing it down. It is sadly ironic that in an era of unprecedented technological advance, we are killing off the founders of that advance.

Knowing the structure of DNA, companies may be prepared to send money investigating detection or sequencing devices (sometimes, but I doubt it), but there is no way a company will spend time on investigating the structure of DNA, which is a necessary prerequisite. If you take away that fundamental knowledge base and development, industry stagnates and then crumbles.

Do you think I'm being overly pessimistic? Perhaps, but the problem is that we may not realise the scale of the problem until we have passed the tipping point, by which point it will be too late. Actually fairly similar warnings to those we are given about global warming.

Have a look here for the views of someone who has far more experience in real research than I do.

The UK isn't alone in this, either. They are just quite well advanced.

Oh well. Be excellent to each other. And Party on, Dudes.

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