Thursday, 29 June 2006

Peer review and good science

One of the great benefits of the internet, it that it can promote openess and transparency. A good example of this is in the field of scientific publications. It has been a fundamental of scientific practice that peer reviewed papers are an essential part of the process. But numerous questions remain unanswered. In particular, confidential peer review means that someone with ulterior motives can damn a paper, without the author knowing who is blocking it. It also means that plagiarism is possible. I have known of cases of both occurring to colleagues. [Fortunately I am not a scientist, and not bothered by peer reviews]. When I have asked why no one makes a fuss, the response is generally that there is no point. In fact it is slightly worse -- most scientists are scared of making a fuss about anonymous reviewers in case they happen to be more senior acadmemics, who may block promotion, election to the Royal Society or some similar issue.

Initiatives such as the Public Library of Science (PLOS) are to be particularly welcomed, as although still subject to some of the constraints of peer review, certainly promote more transparency. And, more importantly, it allows access to anyone with a computer -- breaking some of the monopolies held by very expensive journals, which make information virtually inaccessible to anyone outside academia in the developed world.

Tuesday, 20 June 2006

Pulling down the Commonwealth Institute

I read in a newspaper that there are proposals to demolish the Commonwealth Institute in London. An outcry has gone up, because it is a Grade 2 Listed Building -- i.e. part of England's heritage.

It is a relatively modern book built after WWII, and I have no real interest in arguing the pros or cons of its preservation. But the building has no real function any more, and its architecture was designed to be modernist and functional. It will doubtless cost hundreds of thousands of pounds to preserve it (if not millions). And this set me thinking. What would be wrong with demolishing it? Plans could be preserved, and if in the future someone really wanted it back, it could be rebuilt. And that's the difference between human artifacts and endangered species.

Even if Michelangelo's statue of David was totally destroyed, there are sufficient numbers of plaster casts and copies for a replica to be made that almost no living person would be able to distinguish from the original. In fact the whole art world is littered with fakes and forgeries that most experts cannot detect. But whereas a man-made piece of art will sell in excess of a million dollars, and thousands of people regularly part with hundreds of thousands of dollars for mere scribbles and scrawls, and some people even pay hundreds of dollars, pound or Euros for a plastic disc simply because it has the signature of a pop star scrawled across it, raising money to save priceless, irreplaceable natural places and endangered species is a different matter.

Somehow, I don't think we have our priorities right. When Van Gogh's painting of irises was last sold, it was for nearly $50 million in 1989 (and would possibly fetch over $100 million now); think how much rainforest could be saved, and how many real species with $100,000,000. Certainly at least a million acres, together with an endowment sufficient to protect them for ever. Probably nearly twice as much. Think of all the tens of thousands of species which will be lost, many of them certainly found nowhere else in the world in a few years time, as the rest of the world's forests disappear to satisfy our all devouring 'civilization' with its burdgeoning populations.

Tuesday, 6 June 2006

Stamp out malaria

I have problems with foreign aid programmes. This is in part, because I have travelled fairly extensively, and see the results. It is also because i have been involved in funding projects all over the world for the past 30 years, and seen how ineffective some programmes are.

When I see adverts for aid programmes I am often extremely cynical about the purported claims being made -- in particular the 'make poverty history' campaign. How are we going to make poverty history? Has anyone actually thought it through? Are there enough resources to bring the world's population up to the minimal standards considered out of poverty in the UK? Is there enough water in Africa, for instance?

And then I saw on the London underground an advert for raising funds to wipe out malaria. Superficially, clearly a good thing. No one wants people to be dying of malaria. But what are the implications of wiping out malaria? And more important what is being done about those implications? Since it was an Oxfam advert, I went to their web site and searched on the following: population, birth control, contraception. I then checked a few other similar sites, but nowhere could I find anything suggesting they were spending significant funds, or raising funds to deal with the implications of an exploding population. Giving aid to much of Africa in this way is like building a pollution treatment plant half way down a river, while allowing an unlimited number of industries to open up further upstream, with no controls on their outputs. It is irresponsible.