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Sep 28

Reported by Catherine Crawley, NIMBioS, 23 September 2013.

Mongol horsemen. Intense warfare is the evolutionary driver of large complex societies, according to a new mathematical model whose findings accurately match those of the historical record in the ancient world.

The question of how human societies evolve from small groups to the huge, anonymous and complex societies of today has been answered mathematically, accurately matching the historical record on the emergence of complex states in the ancient world.

Intense warfare is the evolutionary driver of large complex societies, according to new research from a trans-disciplinary team at the University of Connecticut, the University of Exeter in England, and the National Institute for Mathematical and Biological Synthesis (NIMBioS). The study appears this week as an open-access article in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The study’s cultural evolutionary model predicts where and when the largest-scale complex societies arose in human history. Continue reading »

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May 26

Reproduced by Lecturer Site, and originally reported by Harald Zur Hausen, in Science, 25 May, pp. 978-979, [DOI:10.1126/science.336.6084.978], 2012.

The Greek Society and its institutions are going through very difficult times, emanating from several years of severe economic crisis. The gross national product of Greece decreased by almost 7% last year alone, and the unemployment rate exceeded 20%….

Meanwhile, fiscal cutbacks threaten the survival of Greece’s best centers of creative potential. A recent commentary in Physics Today (1) points out that funds are potentially available and can be used to remedy some of the above problems. Such funds, named structural funds, derive from “value-added” (sales) taxes throughout the European Union (EU) and are to be used to support the development of the poorer member-areas of the Union. Greece is entitled, annually, to a fraction of these European structural funds. For several years, Greece has used a sizable fraction of these funds to cover its research and technology budget. The disbursement of these funds requires actions from both sides, the EU and Greece. In the past 2 years, for various reasons, these actions did not come to fruition, resulting in the current crisis of Greek initiatives in education, research, and technology. This is halting the prospects of weathering the current crisis. Now is the time for European leaders to secure the survival and future development of Greece’s most competitive scientifi c and technological institutions by reinitiating these measures.

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Jun 22

Reported by Quirin Schiermeier, in Nature News, 474, 265 (2011), 14 June 2011.

Regulators scramble to recover millions of euros awarded to fake research projects.

Stifling bureaucracy is often blamed for discouraging scientists and businesses from participating in the research programmes of the European Commission (EC). But the commission’s notoriously cumbersome procedures and rigid control mechanisms have apparently not prevented a criminal syndicate from conducting a brazen fraud that has siphoned off millions in EC grant funds.

Italian authorities and the European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF) in Brussels, Belgium, have confirmed that they are prosecuting members of a large network accused of pocketing more than €50 million (US$72 million) in EC grants for fake research projects. In Milan, Italy, the Finance Police last month charged several individuals in relation to the fraud. In Brussels, meanwhile, the EC has terminated four collaborative projects in information technology, and excluded more than 30 grant-winners from participation in around 20 ongoing projects. Investigations are still under way in the United Kingdom, France, Greece, Austria, Sweden, Slovenia and Poland.

“We don’t have any records of [previous] fraud at such a scale,” says David Boublil, the commission’s spokesman for taxation, customs, anti-fraud and audit. While investigations continue, Italian prosecutors and OLAF will not disclose the names of the suspects, or the research projects with which they were involved.

The fraud has been conducted in a “highly sophisticated manner, resembling money laundering”, by means of a cross-border network of fictitious companies and subcontractors, says Pavel Bořkovec, a spokesman for OLAF. Several project coordinators stand accused of having claimed inflated costs, or expenses for non-existent research activities and services, he says.

“The projects were apparently organized with the sole intention to deceive the commission and its control mechanisms,” says Boublil. To make them seem legitimate, grant applications included the names of real scientists, established research institutes and existing companies, he says. But in most cases the alleged project partners were included without their knowing.

Insiders in Brussels say that rare cases of minor financial dishonesty, from inflated invoices to smaller cases of embezzlement, are regarded as unavoidable in large collaborative research projects. But the commission does extensive checks on project partners, including companies, which are meant to catch large-scale fraud. The success of the fraud suggests that those involved were unusually familiar with weaknesses in the EC’s procedures, and adept at forging legal documents.

Boublil insists that the commission has learned lessons from the case. All departments handling research grants — including the EC’s Information Society and Media Directorate General, which oversaw the terminated projects — are now trained to look out for the methods used by the network. Guidelines for evaluating projects and their partners are set to be updated. The EC has already recovered €10 million of the money, and will seek to recover the rest through the courts, Boublil says.

The commission is currently developing a multibillion-dollar ‘Common Strategic Framework’ which, from 2014, will combine its various funding streams into a single channel for all research and innovation funding. Concerned about the burden of Brussels bureaucracy, several thousand European scientists signed a petition this year (www.trust-researchers.eu) calling for the framework to be “based on mutual trust and responsible partnering”. Some now fear that the fraud could hamper efforts to cut red tape.

“I’m worried that some will argue that what has happened proves that we need more rather than less control,” says Herbert Reul, chair of the European Parliament’s committee on industry, research and energy, which supports the simplification of the EC’s funding procedures. “I sincerely hope that this will not happen. Actually, it is a good sign that this worrying attempt at deceiving the commission has been discovered and will be punished.”

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Feb 20

Reported by Chris Mooney in Discover, February 18th 2011.

From the text of John Holdren’s recent congressional testimony on the science budget (also available here):

All told, this Budget proposes $66.8 billion for civilian research and development, an increase of $4.1 billion or 6.5 percent over the 2010 funding level in this category. But the Administration is committed to reducing the deficit even as we prime the pump of discovery and innovation. Accordingly, our proposed investments in R&D, STEM education, and infrastructure fit within an overall non-security discretionary budget that would be frozen at 2010 levels for the second year in a row. The Budget reflects strategic decisions to focus resources on those areas where the payoff for the American people is likely to be highest.

This is similar to what Chris Mooney argued with Meryl Comer in the Los Angeles Times in December–tough economic times are the times to invest in science, not cut it.

Holdren concludes:

Let me reiterate, in closing, the guiding principle underlying this Budget: America’s strength, prosperity, and global leadership depend directly on the investments we’re willing to make in R&D, in STEM education, and in infrastructure.

Investments in these domains are the ultimate act of hope, the source of the most important legacy we can leave. Only by sustaining them can we assure future generations of Americans a society and place in the world worthy of the history of this great Nation, which has been building its prosperity and global leadership on a foundation of science, technology, and innovation since the days of Jefferson and Franklin.

In hard times, you don’t give up on vision. You knuckle down, sure, but you also look ahead. (Meanwhile, Paul Krugman reminds us today that the budget debate is deeply mis-aligned because we’re so focused on cutting the smallest part of the budget, when the real issues are healthcare costs and tax revenue.)

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Oct 19

As reported by Sarah Lyall in The New York Times newspaper in October 15th 2010.

LONDON — For months, Britain’s universities have warned in apocalyptic terms about the devastating cuts they face as part of the government’s grand plan to reduce public-sector costs. Now, with the government poised next week to announce its spending plans, their worst fears seem about to come true.

Prof. Steve Smith, president of Universities U.K., which represents Britain’s higher-learning institutions, said the government was likely to cut about 80 percent of the current $6.2 billion it pays annually for university teaching, and about $1.6 billion from the $6.4 billion it provides for research.

To make up for the shortfall, universities would have to raise tuition to an average of more than $11,000, Professor Smith said, and doing so would require Parliament to lift the cap on such fees, now set at $5,260.

“It’s a savage cut, and it’s unprecedented, and it’s the government moving out of the funding of higher education,” Professor Smith, vice chancellor of the University of Exeter, said in an interview. “We’ve had a big comfort blanket called state funding, and now we’re being thrown out of the nest.”

Education is just one area where the state plans a major retrenchment. With the government aiming to find $130 billion in savings over the next five years, every department has been asked to plan for cuts as high as 40 percent; the government will present the results in its final spending review on Wednesday.

Meanwhile, interest groups representing virtually ever sector — the arts, the military, transportation and the like — have been pleading that they cannot absorb such drastic shocks to their systems.

The pleading, however, has had little effect.

Britain’s universities, heavily subsidized by the state, already feel pared to the bone after a series of cuts in the past year or so. In anticipation of further cuts, many are beginning to lay off instructors, reduce the number of classes and shut down departments. Some instructors and researchers, dismayed by how little money they are being offered and worried about future financing, have abandoned Britain for more lucrative offers at universities abroad.

Adrian Owen, a renowned neuroscientist at the University of Cambridge and an expert on brain injury, announced recently that he and his team of five researchers were moving to the University of Western Ontario in Canada.

“U.K. science is going through a period of uncertainty, and many of my more senior colleagues said this might not be a bad time to be leaving,” The Guardian quoted Dr. Owen as saying. “There’s nobody in the U.K. putting down $20m saying, ‘We think what you’re doing is really cool; come and do it here.’ ”

Middlesex University said last spring that it intended to close its philosophy department. Swansea University in Wales announced proposals to reduce the teaching staff in its modern languages department to 10 people, from 22. King’s College London said it would abolish its chair in paleography, the study of ancient handwriting — the only such post in Britain. (After an international outcry, it proposed creating a new position in “paleography and manuscript studies” that would be “fully funded from philanthropic monies.”)

Saying it would scale back departments not underpinned by “world class” research, the University of Southampton closed its department of sports science and stopped offering undergraduate classes in social work last year.

Britain’s universities currently get about $22.4 billion a year from the government. Until about 10 years ago, they charged no tuition. Tuition since then has been capped by law at $5,260 for students from the European Union. (Students from outside Europe pay much higher tuition that more accurately reflects the actual cost of their schooling.)

A report on higher education financing issued this week by John Browne, the former chairman of British Petroleum, proposed lifting the cap and giving universities the right to set their own tuition. But any institution charging more than $9,500 would have to pay the state a levy on the higher rate.

The proposals in Mr. Browne’s report face a rocky time in Parliament, where many members of the Liberal Democrat party, part of the coalition government, are implacably opposed to higher tuition. But Mr. Smith warned that the increase was the only way universities could fill the gap left by the impending budget cuts.

“If we don’t have them, we’re in a mess,” he said. “There’s no alternative source of funding.”

Mr. Browne’s report also proposes withdrawing government support completely from subjects in the arts and humanities and concentrating it in areas he believes contribute more to the economy, like science and engineering.

“As far as I’m concerned, this is philistinism on a large scale,” said Paul Cottrell, the head of policy at the University and College Union, which represents teachers in higher education. Some universities may have to abolish subjects in the humanities, Mr. Cottrell said. “The alternative is to cut costs,” he said, “but as soon as you do that you get a reputation for poor quality, and you lose your overseas students pretty quickly.”

While institutions like Oxford or Cambridge can easily find students willing to pay, higher tuition would probably create problems for smaller, less respected or less research-intensive universities, or for those with poorer students, Mr. Cottrell said.

“The question is whether all institutions would be able to attract students at that level of tuition,” he said. “We think a lot of students will be put off, so demand will fall. And it’s possible that some of our institutions will fail, if their only source of income is teaching funding and they get very little research funding.”

Professor Smith of Universities U.K. said such drastic cuts in government spending were not necessary. Speaking of Prime Minister David Cameron’s notion of “the big society,” he said, “When they say the big society, they mean the small state.”

He added, “I think they’re cutting the university sector because they can, and I think that’s terribly damaging for the future of the country.”

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: October 19, 2010

An article on Saturday about fears among British universities that the government will severely reduce funding in order to reduce public-sector costs misidentified the university in Wales that has proposed slashing its modern languages teaching staff to 10 instructors from 22 in anticipation of a funding reduction. It is Swansea, not Cardiff.

A version of this article appeared in print on October 16, 2010, on page A4 of the New York edition.
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