Posted tagged ‘policy’

Who do you trust? And why?

March 21, 2011

“In God we trust”, or so they say. Nice, if you truly believe that there is some kind of all-knowing, all-powerful being out there who has your best interests at heart, and who can send you signs telling you what is going on. If you don’t believe any of this (and I don’t), then who can you trust? And where can you go to get information that you know is accurate?

Not this blog, that’s for sure.

Not that I would intentionally lie to you, I want to make that clear. But this blog gives my opinion, and those of others who comment on it. Some of this will be backed up by fact. But if you want real, true, hard facts, a blog is the wrong place to go looking for them.

Ok, so you don’t go to a blog. But maybe you look for the answer on the internet? Use a famous search engine or ask a question in a forum. Maybe you look up the answer in a book, or ask a friend. You could ask a teacher, a doctor, a librarian, a scientist or other expert, depending on what your question is about. You could watch a TV programme about it. Or stop someone on the street and ask them.

What I am trying to get at is that obviously there are very many places you could go to get answers to your question. Some of these are probably more trustworthy that others – would you take the answer given to you by a passer-by over that of a teacher? Probably not. But most people would tend to believe their friend over a random stranger. Even if, unbeknownst to them, the random stranger might actually be a top expert in that very subject, whereas their drinking pal is not. It’s probably human nature, we spend time with people we like, we trust them more. We surround ourselves with people who we like and who have similar backgrounds, training, and beliefs to ourselves. And we trust these people over strangers. Which in the end means we trust our own judgement over that of others.

I’ve had countless conversations about various “non-scientific” groups such as climate change deniers and religious groups. Some members of these groups claim that belief is more important than what you can tell from the evidence. This is an inherently unscientific claim as all good scientists know that your hypothesis must be testable and you arrive at it by making educated guesses (inferences) based on your observations. If there is no evidence there is no  inference and no hypothesis to test. But it is not necessarily wrong – there may be things happening in the world for which we (currently) have no reliable evidence. Personally though, I would tend to regard ideas for which there is evidence as being more likely to be correct than beliefs for which there is no evidence.  

Another important side of this is whether you can or should believe someone when they tell you something. Governments tell their people something and expect them to believe and obey – like the Japanese government right now telling the people it is all safe and not to panic. Advertisers tell you that their product is best. Scientists tell you not to believe in ghosts. Your doctor tells you to cut down on fat. Your friend tells you it’s all a big consipracy and not to believe any of them. So who do you believe, and why?

Some people or agencies have earned our respect previously, by doing good work or by making pronouncements that have subsequently been proven to be truthful (particular charities). Some have a more mixed history (governments). Some we just want to believe because the alternative is too awful (climate change deniers).

As a scientist I want to engender trust in science and other scientists. I believe that, in general, what is peer-reviewed and published represents the best of our knowledge about a subject. (I say in general because, as many of us know, peer review and publication do not guarantee trustworthiness – think cold fusion, etc). I put my trust in the community-based checking mechanisms that ensure that only the truth is put out there. If I see a news story about science, I ask “where has this come from, where are the papers published?” and until I know the answer, I reserve judgement. Well mainly, anyway. As a human, if I see a story I want to believe, and think is likely, I will probably believe it anyway, especially if it comes from a source I trust. Except the BBC on April Fool’s Day.

Chickens and eggs

March 4, 2011

Which comes first, the love of science or the understanding of it? In my opinion this is a bit of a chicken and egg situation. If you do not appreciate and understand how amazing science is, why would you want to learn more about it? And if you do not learn about it, how can you appreciate its true wonders?

I recently had a discussion in which I defended the importance of scientists going into teaching. I’ve also been doing quite a bit more in the way of public engagement type activity, as some of you may have noticed from my last post about the British Science Association event. I started this because I think it is important to ensure scientific literacy and appreciation in everyone, kids and adults alike. My experience and observations doing it have been great, and they have been thought-provoking.

Many of the comments we’ve received during the science-busking events we’ve done have gone along the lines of “Better than science in school”, “I’m really into science and this is great”, “Why don’t we learn about this in school?” Many adults assumed that the event was aimed at their kids and not for them, because “Science is for kids, it’s something you learn in school”, which is a shame because what we are trying to show is how vital science is for everything that you do, it surrounds us and is integral to our lives. Now you can argue that the busking is not the best way to reach the adults, and this may be right, but the attitude still persists and must, I feel, be addressed.

Science teaching is really important because it contains the message about the significance of science in everything. But the way that science is taught in many schools (especially due to over-zealous health and safety concerns) means that the wonder and amazement is difficult to convey. I’m not an expert in education and I don’t have direct answers to this, but I am sure that is would help if impressionable minds could be impressed with amazing things that science can do. It would also help if parents believed that science was important and conveyed this attitude to their children. It might help if science was not just one lesson in a list of english, maths, french, science, PE, etc. Science comes into all of these subjects and could be demonstrated in all of the lessons rather than as a rather abstract thing to be  learned by rote. There have been various attempts to do this and I am sure that some of them are successful. As I said, I’m not an expert. But you can tell by the state of society today and the media in particular, that many people have no interest in or understanding of science. So what’s going wrong?

Instead of targeting the kids, we could start with the people in charge, those with the power to make a difference. Ask them to promote the importance of science, and the importance of having a future generation as well as a current generation of scientifically literate people. They don’t all need to be scientists, but understanding the scientific method will help in so many ways in different parts of society. But if science continues to be taught in a way that makes it difficult to be enthusiastic about it, none of this will have much effect. We will just be imposing dull lessons on our kids, who will probably then hate science forever.

And how do you convince the policymakers etc. of the importance of something that they have hated since childhood and that only a minority wants to study?

As ever I would love to hear what you think – do we aim to start with the chicken or the egg? Or something entirely different? And what is the most effective way for one person to make a difference in this regard – should I write to my MP (who seems most uninterested in scientific questions in general) or go into teaching? (this is not a serious career-change question as I would make a terrible teacher but as a means to make a difference it certainly has potential).

Is Chemistry the Key to Sustainable Living? – A Review

November 28, 2010

This was a debate held by the Royal Society of Chemistry at the flash, newly renovated Chemistry Centre in Burlington House, Piccadilly.

The main speaker was Dr Mike Pitts from the Chemistry Innovation Knowledge Transfer Network, with Professor Tom Welton (Imperial College) and Bob Crawford (Unilever) backing him up in the subsequent debate.

Obviously his answer to the title question was yes, as Pitts admitted straightaway, otherwise the whole thing would have been rather pointless.

Pitts was a striking speaker, perhaps surprisingly for a scientist; he really knows how to communicate in non-scientific terms,which is just as well as this event was billed as a policy event and hoped to attract a broad audience. In the end, though the Chair of the House of Commons Select Committee on Science and Technology was present, there did not seem to be many other notable individuals present, and the audience mainly consisted of RSC staff, interested members and students, and the odd visitor from another learned society. I realise that the RSC deliberately kept the invite list small but the room was half empty in the end and it seemed that the event could have been more widely promoted.

I didn’t learn much new from the talk itself, which went along the lines of “here’s the doom and gloom” then “here are some generic ways in which we can change the way we think about chemistry to solve the doom and gloom”. Pitts focussed on the scarce natural resurces aspect of things; rare earth metals and carbon and other “poorly managed elments”, but also covered water and biodiversity (no explanation of how chemistry can help with the latter, though).

His solution, in general, was an interesting one that will, however require a great deal of change in the way society behaves. He proposed that we should not think so much about individual products and think instead about their overall life cycle. This was not just in terms of those designing them, though he was keen for designers and chemists to collaborate more together, but in terms of what we as society buy. He believes that in the future we will buy a service rather than a product, for example, for the experience of using a washing machine, rather than simply buying and owning a washing machine. This service would then cover “cradle to grave” of the machine rather than the current situation which covers cradle to point of disposal.

Such a way of viewing things would certainly enable and indeed encourage service providers to think more about the way they design products to make them recyclable etc. For the user, such a usage scheme could mean a seamless service even when things go wrong (and encourage longer-lasting products in the first place). But the fundamental tenet of this view is that the users would not be the owners of the “things”, simply the users. It would be like renting your TV in years gone by. As much as I like this idea personally, I am not sure that our highly capitalist, keeping-up-with-the-Joneses society is ready to own less. I’d be interested to see how this could be put to the man on the street in a way that would actually make him buy it.

Chemistry can certainly help to achieve this goal but it is going to take a lot more than chemistry to make it viable. Psychology, marketing, and probably policy decisions in parliament too. Scientists have been trying to change people’s behaviour for years with the dire warnings about global warming etc. It is going to take more than that to get us to alter our comfortable lifestyle in which we own houses, cars, furniture, white goods, etc.

The future of science in parliament – a review

November 20, 2010

I attended the Cambridge Centre for Science and Policy 4th Distinguished Lecture,which was actually a joint presentation between Dr Evan Harris and Dr Julian Huppert. As some of the few scientists in (or previously in, in Harris’ case) parliament, they have a quite unique view of certain things. Some of the events described are almost too shocking to be believeable, and yet you know they are true because of other similar events already well-known and publicised.

A large part of the entertainment value was provided by Harris and Huppert relating stories of how this or that other unfortunate politician (George Bush Jr., Patricia Hewitt, Alan Millburn, and some nameless but doubtless influential politicians) had said something that was quite clearly laughable to anyone with a vaguely scientific background. Paraphrased examples include the following (if you can’t see what’s wrong, you probably aren’t reading this blog):

“By next year all doctors should be performing above average”

“Home childbirth is safe, and we’ve commissioned research to prove it”

“You shouldn’t care about evidence, you should just know what’s right”

“Why would we need a Chief Scientific Advisor?” (from a Treasury official)

Ultimately there was very little content that was new to me but it was interesting to hear Harris and Huppert’s respective points of view on what could be done about the state of things and where to start.

Harris:

  • We need to ensure that politicians understand (or at least respect even if they don’t understand) the need for policy to be made based on evidence that is peer-reviewed and published rather than just commented by an individual.
  • We as scientists should do more “front-foot” campaigning i.e. positively acting on points of mutal concern.
  • Politicians should understand the consequences to them politically in not taking a rational/evidence-based approach (i.e. let your MP know what you think of their actions).

Huppert:

  • Some M.P.s are actively anti-science, but you don’t need a PhD in science in order to get why it is important.
  • Despite the recent cuts, the 4 NHS-funded homeopathic hospitals continue to receive funding.
  • The government are currently having an active “anti-chemist” campaign (the word chemist being associated with one who makes drugs).
  • Science is Vital was successful because everyone worked together – there needs to be more of this from the scientific community. Despite this, until the Sunday before the Spending Review took place, science was still going to be cut.
  • Shortage of science teachers is a real issue.
  • Make sure science is heard, understood, and available.

See also an article by Huppert and George Freeman, M.P., on how science and innovation can save the UK.

In all, the discussion shocked me slightly; it is just hard to believe that there are so many people in the world, especially ones in positison sof power, that understand so little about the world they are in. Science for me is something that is all around and contributes to pretty much anything you care to mention. I just can’tget my head around the Nadine Dorries and David Tredinnicks of this world and their mistaken beliefs, let alone the fact that people actually vote these people into parliament. I mean, I know it is true, but how can it happen?

I did come away feeling a bit more convinced that it is possible to do something to rectify the situation by e.g. speaking to or writing to your M.P. though I still think that the long term answer has to lie in better education for all in this respect. Perhaps science should not be taught as one of an array of subjects that kids learn in school,but rather as an underlying principle running through all of them.

Taking sides – review of debate on science journalism taking sides

September 24, 2010

This was a not-very-well-advertised debate about science journalism,organised by the Times‘ Science Editor Mark Henderson (sorry Mark, due to The Times’ policy of charging for content you don’t get a proper link) at the RI. It was chaired by Fiona Fox of the Science Media Centre and the speakers were Henderson, Ceri Thomas (Editor of the BBC radio 4 Today programme), Prof. Steve Rayner (Oxford, Science and Civilisation) and Ed Yong  (Information Manager at CRUK and famed science writer/blogger).

Enough with the links….down to the content…..

The RI debate format seems pretty constant as it was the same at the last one I attended – each person gets five minutes to state their position, Fox asks some questions then opens the debate up to questions from the floor. Personally I found her method of taking 4 questions from the floor then asking for answers quite irritating as it means most people have forgotten the first question by the time it comes to be answered. Anyhow here are my summaries of the 4 positions of the speakers:

Henderson: The traditional view of impartiality and fairness is impossible to achieve. Correctness/accuracy and transparency are more important than being balanced. It is the journalist’s duty to evaluate competing claims and provide evidence, uncertainties must be acknowledged.

Thomas: Science is no different than any other subject, shouldn’t be treated differently (NB Thomas was the only speaker who was not a specialist science editor/reporter which may have something to do with his position!).  Shouldn’t take sides and it’s ok to put peoplewho are “wrong” on air. Though reporters should take the side of reason and evidence, it is important to remember that these are not the only important things, most peoplemake decisions based on emotions and irrational thoughts so these need to be acknowledged too. It’s important to represent views not “liked” by scientists where these exist to show they are out there and so they can be held to account in public.

Rayner: Mostly thought that the debate was about science policy rather than science. Scientists shouldn’t have the last say in policy debates because the debate is not about the science itself. When scientists are called on to make judgements about subjects outside of their expertise they are no better than any other layperson. Dislikes polarisation such as the portrayal of “climate deniers” as he feels this stifles debate about the real problems and the ability to reach an inbetween position.

Yong: Many reporters are lazy, don’t investigate enough. The term “scientists have claimed…” is a get-out that allows lack of investigation and lack of endorsement. Reporters must provide a context and analysis as if they don’t, in the internet age, someone else will. Shifting the necessity to make the decision onto the reader is tricky because the reader has less resources (and will) to make this decision than the reporter. All choices are subjective including what we choose to write about at all and how it is written. Overuse of quotes and getting others to tell the story for you is a problem. Reporters shouldn’t take sides with a specific scientist, theory, or science, but always take the side of truth. Journalistic practices are not always compatible with this.

This was an interesting debate as ostensibly all of the speakers were on the same side (i.e. take the side of truth) but all had quite different approaches to it. I did disagree with a few of the comments that were thrown out there. For example, Henderson said at one point that if something seems too good to be true it usually is, and it is up to jouralists to get to the bottom of things and find out about this. Which is all well and good but if the work has been peer reviewed (as in the example of the Woo Suk Hwang fraud he used),what makes journalists qualified to discover this when several peer reviewers and trained editors cannot? Because they are not experts in anything, journalists are only as good as their sources. And someone else also made the point that we all know scientists who will say certain things on certain topics, so you can pretty much always find someone who will say what you want to hear.

I also disagreed with Thomas’s position that science should not be treated differently from art or politics. In these cases, opinion and point of view actually shapes the outcome. If enough people think something, this will inform a policy or a perception of quality. But in science, there are specific rules and ways of working that define this and they are not subject to opinion, they just are. Obviously interpretation of results is variable, but  even their interpretation is based on context within science and models etc that non-scientists cannot hope to understand. If you let unscientific minds try and interpret results they won’t know where to start and you end up with the kind of statements that say that you don’t need evidence for something, like God or ghosts or the Holocaust, because you (want to) believe it so it must be true.

Rayner’s insistence through most of the debate that discussions about science in the news are mostly about science policy not science itself was interesting, but I think ultimately wrong-headed. Yes, I agree that this does happen and there is no point only taking a scientists’sviewpoint on whether stem-cell research should continue or what kind of drugs should be legal, because scientists are not equipped to pronounce on the societal concerns and consequences of the science. But they do need to be a part of the debate. If you don’t have a scientist to tell you about their research then how can you hope to anticipate the societal consequences?

There was a long-running point introduced by Fox about what “her Mum” (read non-scientist member of the public) would understand on reading news pieces. Not knowing Fox’s mum, I imaged my equally scientifically illiterate and disinterested Grandma in this position; you can insert your own beloved relative or neighbour for ease of imagination. This person is not interested in investigating something they are told further. They want to be told in words of a few syllables only what the news is, and why it is important, not to be expected to make up their own mind. They need a clear message not a balanced piece as there is a danger they will only read half of a story before boring of it, thus missing the other half of the argument. If they don’t like what they read, they will go somewhere else where they can get what they do like. When faced with this sort of person, “Joe Public”, how realistic is it to publish a balanced piece in which the scientific viewpoint challenges general beliefs, and then expect that the reader can really make up their own mind in an informed way? Discuss.

Another much-discussed point was the differences between different  media. People may expect opinions in blogs and that’s where they go to get opinions; this is where you get communities building up that agree with each other. There may be a place (and I personally think there is) for straight reporting that gives bald facts and doesn’t try to dress it up too much; information rather than propaganda. There may also be a place for the more opinionated commentary on these facts. But it should always be made clear which is which.

For the avoidance of doubt, this blog is a representation of my opinions which I am justifying with facts where possible – if you want pure scientific facts read a journal paper, discard all the interpretation, and hope that the data is not fabricated. Pure facts are pretty hard to come by these days.

Who should be allowed to dictate what research is carried out?

September 2, 2010

Here is an interesting question. If someone gives you money to do research, to what extent do you and they expect to be able to dictate what direction the research goes in, and who owns the results?

When I was doing my PhD it was quite straightforward – I got some money from a CASE award and any publications had to be run past the company first, to ensure they did not want to patent the results. If they didn’t patent the results, the university could choose to do so if it wished. In any case nothing I personally discovered was of any interest to the company or even for the university to patent, so I just got two papers and one thesis out of it. Possibly the company were disappointed but it is impossible to ask them as they now no longer exist. Basically I got just over half of my funding from them, and they had first dibs on my research.

If an academic researcher is given a grant award by an government agency they get it for a specific project, and they have to at least try to do that project with the money they get. There are usually a few projects running for which there is no official funding, and these are sidelines which the researcher personally finds interesting but can’t convince anyone else of, or are at too early a stage to be able to do so. These will be funded by nonspecific grants or money from the university, or simply by using bits of time/resources not required by the formally funded projects. So in that respect academics are basically bound to do what the grant-awarding agency has awarded the grant for, otherwise they won’t get any more cash from that source. Grant proposals are assessed by peer-review (more on that some other time!) and decisions made on the basis of priority and past reputation of the applicant (in some cases). So the decision could be said to be made by the community or by the government of the day and its determining policies (feel free to argue this point!).

In industry, of course, no-one expects that they can just go and work on something “because I find it interesting” – time must be spent on potentially profitable projects for the company who is employing you. Some companies allow more leeway than others in this respect, and probably those with the most leeway have the longest-term view of research. But a justification of some sort of is always needed. In this case, the company clearly owns the research and often employees contracts are such that the company may also have first claim to any inventions that the employee may make in his/her spare time too. We pay for your time, we own your results, we decide what direction those results will go in.

So what happens if the money comes from another source? This may be less likely but there are e.g. large charities that fund research, and there is also the American model of endowments. The likes of Craig Venter, Bill Gates, and a few other millionaires are fortunately interested enough in science to want to support it financially. But what do they expect to get for their money, and what is it fair to allow them to have?

 I ask this question because there have been a discussions about this recently in different places.

For example, (and I have not been able to verify this) it is claimed on Wikipedia and with a reference to a magazine, that the original project to sequence a human genome carried out at the Venter Institute was intended to be an average of several people’s DNA, but that part way through, Venter intervened and substituted his own DNA alone. If this is true, did he really have the right to do this simply because he was funding it? It could be argued that an average would have provided more useful information for the world as a whole, and I am guessing that the researchers doing the science may have felt this way.  Or maybe they were just grateful to have received enough money to be able to finish the genome. From Venter’s perspective, he was paying for it and so if he wants his genome sequencing he can have it. That information is probably more useful to him personally than a more generic solution. Apparently he has changed his lifestyle as a result of several disease markers that showed up in the sequenced DNA. That could have been an investment that prolongs his life.

More recently, I have been speaking with friends at the Adolphe Merkle Institute (AMI) in Fribourg, Switzerland. The erstwhile Director recently left his post (see press release here). Differences of opinion in the definition of autonomy were cited as his reason for departure. Now if you read the blurb on the AMI homepage they claim to be an “independent center of competence” and to aim to “to stimulate innovation, foster industrial competitiveness and more generally, improve the quality of life”. The AMI was set up following a generous donation from Adolphe Merkel himself but researchers working there are also expected to acquire external funding e.g. from industrial partners and from the state. So to what extent do the foundation running the AMI have the right to dictate the direction that research carried out there will take? Without the initial donation, the institute would not exist and the researchers there would not be able to function. However the money for most of the ongoing projects being carried out by the researchers is provided by other sources. Add in to this the fact that most of the researchers there were top people recruited from elsewhere, and you cannot argue that they would not have been able to do their research at all if it were not for the institute. These top scientists did have jobs elsewhere and could easily get jobs somewhere else again with their reputations. But they did choose to go and work at the AMI, so you have to assume that they accepted the conditions, whatever those were. What happens when the direction that the endowment holder wants to go in is different from the direction of potential funders? Who decides which partners will be acceptable to the institute and where to go for funding? One of the reasons for employing an established scientist is usually because they have a good ability to attract new funding. If you have chosen to employ that person, can you then define where they will go for that funding?

This specific example has not yet shaken down but the question as a whole remains over who has the right to decide what research is done by any single scientist. What is clear is that it is not the scientists themselves as individuals who have that right, and nor should it be. Though most scientists will claim to be working for the greater good, and believe themselves to be doing so, allowing many individuals to make that choice for themselves is chaotic and may well result in wasted time and resources. So someone somewhere needs to have an overview. Each funding agency will have its own priorities and thus its own overview, again this is fair as they have to consider what the money they hold on behalf of their stakeholders is being used for (whether these stakeholders are the taxpayers or a private foundation or individual). But most academic researchers don’t get all their funding from one source, and this can introduce problems. What happens when funding sources conflict in their views and priorities? The individual researchers end up caught in the middle.

One thing I am sure of. I respect and admire the ex-Director of the AMI, Peter Schurtenberger. He is not the sort of person to quit a job half-done and he will have tried to resolve the situation. I believe that he was a victim of a conflict bigger than this single institute; put simply, too many people pulling on the purse strings of research and wanting a piece of it. Whether this sort of model can ever work I do not know. This sort of situation can only become more frequent as government cutbacks force researchers to seek funding from new sources with more of a vested interest in the outcomes.  

Chemistry World have also covered the topic of endowment funding recently here (unfortunately as I write this the content is member-only though I believe that older content becomes free). See what they have to say on the subject too.

Bargain basement degree culture

May 18, 2010

This is not intended to be a political commentary. I fully understand that funding for science, as for other research and study, has to come from somewhere. However I was intrigued (and a little irritated) by this BBC news story about the Russell Group’s second submission to the currently ongoing Browne review of Higher Education funding. It seemed to suggest that the Russell Group, which represents 20 of the UK’s top universities, wants to introduce variable fees for students, to be repaid after their course has finished.

On the Russell Group website you can read what they actually submitted to the Browne review. For me, it makes frightening reading.

The Russell Group submission states that “The  inequity  of  a  universal  subsidy.   A  higher  education  system  which is  funded purely through the public purse requires all taxpayers to fund a share in the costs of higher education regardless of whether they or their families receive a direct share of the  benefits.  A  significant majority  of  people  who  currently  benefit  continue  to  be those  from  higher  socio-economic  groups. Better-off  families  therefore  reap  the majority of the benefit from a publicly funded system, without financing the majority of its costs, and therefore the system is regressive.

Hmm. Are they suggesting that asking all tax-payers to contribute to the funding would be wrong? Seems that way to me. They also seem to be saying that only the student who attends university and their direct family benefit from that university education.  Surely, as the people who administrate the university research and teaching, they ought to realise that there are multiple benefits to giving any one student a university education.

Industry benefits because they have bright and trained potential employees, so they have to spend less money on recruitment and training. Big industry must be rubbing its hands in glee over this one. But they are far from the only beneficiaries. Everyone (and yes I mean everyone, all taxpayers, all non-taxpayers, everyone in the country, indeed, everyone in the world to some extent or other) is a winner. More and better education enables more research to be done, more developments to be made, and even more lives to be saved through science. I am not arguing here that all new developments are good (that is an entirely different discussion), but without university graduates you would have no doctors, teachers, rocket scientists, lawyers, no new buildings designed, etc. It is not just the family of a particular graduate that has an interest on their education.

Oh but wait a minute. When I have been talking about graduates, I’ve been thinking primarily about science and engineering graduates, who do all the wonderful and advantageous research and make all the amazing products I referred to. I do respect the right of a student to choose to study for any degree they want to. But there are certainly some degrees that pay back more to society in general than others.

So to their conclusion: “The ability to vary prices  from  institution  to institution, and from subject  to subject,  is  therefore a necessary solution to the problem of appropriately funding very different higher education provision.

Perhaps this is true after all then. Certainly, if your degree course is going to be particularly favourable for society, then it seems fair that you be charged less for the study of it. And there is indeed a section in the submission which describes how it could be possible to pass on less of the costs to the students, as a percentage of total costs for running the course, in the STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering, maths). But isn’t that what already happens now?

This  will  create  a  fairer  system  in  which  the  graduates  who secure  the greatest benefits will make  the greatest contribution“. This sounds fair at first reading. But how do you define a benefit? Benefits are not just financial, they can include enjoyment, freeedom, and facilities. And, more importantly,  it would imply that those who gain less benefit from their degree should pay less towards it. Great – now the UK taxpayer will be funding a generation of students in arts and wooly social sciences, where job prospects are fewer. It is not right to make the most useful courses the more expensive ones to study and it could encourage students to pick the bargain-basement cheaper courses which are not going to be of benefit to them or anyone else in the long run. That’s certainly the message it would send out. Have they thought this through?

The submission then goes on to discuss the fact that graduates from Russell Group universities tend to earn more after their graduation than those from other universities, thus could more easily make up the difference post-graduation. In theory this is true. However it forgets that, by and large, if they are bright enough to get into a top university as opposed to a lower-ranked one, most students will go for the former option. Sensible.  Now they are to be charged more because they are more intelligent, or had better exam grades than their fellow students. This scheme would effectively punish high-achievers. Or turn the top universities into enclaves for the rich, as they used to be a few hundred years ago. It could also lead to a larger proportion of Russell Group graduates going into highly paid  jobs rather than taking on lower paid but more societally beneficial jobs such as teachers or university researchers/lecturers, in order that they can more easily pay back their great debts. This is a retrograde step. Admission to the best universities, with the best facilities, should be determined by the potential of each candidate to achieve, not by how much they will earn.