Testing Understanding in Education

Louise Wells.

Assessment plays a key role in shaping the time we spend in education in the UK.  It begins at the age of two or three, where we are assessed by a health visitor or early years practitioner [1].  It then continues throughout primary and secondary school, where progress is often measured by regular homework as well as in other ways over a longer time scale [2].  If we chose to continue to higher education, assessment remains one of the main focuses.

There are two main types of assessment: formative and summative.  Formative assessment is designed to monitor a student’s progress and give them guidance on how to improve their work.  This may take the form of an essay plan or a problem sheet.  Summative assessment is used to evaluate student learning at the end of a unit by comparison to some form of bench mark.  This often takes the form of an exam or paper for which a final grade is given.  Summative assessment is often high stakes, meaning that the results of the assessment may shape a student’s future [3].

From the age of 16 onwards, assessment in the UK is generally summative, high stake and in the form of written exam papers.  At 16, students sit their GCSE exams and the outcome of these dictates whether they can take their chosen A-level subjects.  Two years later, students take their A-levels.  The predicted outcome of these exams forms part of the basis on which universities make offers, and the actual results will decide if and where a student will attend university.  Once at university, students taking STEM subjects usually sit biannual exams which have an impact on their overall degree classification and ultimately what they will do after graduation.

With so much depending on how well a student is able to perform in exams, it is important to consider if they are truly the best method of assessing and classifying a student’s ability.  In order to do this, one must consider the motivation behind the assessment and what exactly it is measuring [4].  Is the exam looking to find out how much students remember or how well they can apply what they have been taught to different situations?  What is best way of testing how well a student has understood a topic?  In addition, the reliability (or objectivity) and the transparency of the assessment must also be taken into account.

Assessing Physics Undergraduates

For Physics undergraduates, the majority of their overall degree result is based on how they do in exams sat in the second year and onwards.  Aside from experimental and computing work, everything is assessed via an exam at the end of the module.  For students doing a BSc in Physics at the University of Nottingham, this means that at least two thirds of their final grade comes from performance in exams.  This fraction will be higher for students taking Theoretical Physics or students who have not chosen to take computing based modules [5].  Heavy reliance on exams means degree classification is based on students answering the same questions under the same conditions as their peers.  This ensures that no single student has an advantage because they had more help from older students or academics.  It also removes any chance of marking being subjective, as exams are graded based on a careful and thorough mark scheme.  However, a heavy reliance on exams to assess how much a student has learned over the three years leaves little to fall back on if students struggle with this form of assessment.

At the University of Nottingham, the School of Physics exams are all structured in the same way.  Students sit one paper per module in the examination period which falls at the end of the module teaching period.  They choose three questions out of five to answer and have of the order of 30 minutes to answer each question.  Each question is worth 25 marks.  Of those 25 marks, around 15 marks come from bookwork and previously seen examples.  Taking this to be the average across Physics exams, this means that 40% of the marks for a BSc in Physics from the University of Nottingham come from questions examining previously seen work. This favours students who have successfully memorise definitions, derivations and worked examples.  Learning parts of the lecture notes by rote means that earlier parts of questions can be completed more quickly, allowing for more time to be spent on unseen problems.  This then increases the likelihood of a student being able to successfully tackle the later parts of the question, which are typically more challenging.  The large proportion of bookwork also means that it is possible for students to get a good mark without fully processing what they have learned or actually understanding it.  I would argue that this is not a good way of assessing students.  It seems unfair that equally gifted students could get a lower mark simply due to forgetting something due to exam pressure.

Another Way?

There are many alternatives to exams that may be used to assess students in a summative manner.  Options include presentations, miniature projects, essays, articles or vivas.  As with exams, these all have both positive and negative connotations which must be considered.

One of the main advantages of alternative assessment methods is that they can be done continuously throughout the academic year.  Although this means that the students have frequent deadlines and are under more pressure earlier in the term, it also means that they have more incentive to work continuously rather than cramming for exams at the last minute.  Additionally, students are less likely to turn in a piece of work that is not representative of their ability as having a bad day due to illness or personal circumstances will have less of an impact on their work.  Unlike exams, these assessment methods also enable testing of students’ understanding at a deeper level.  Since students have access to books, papers and the internet whilst working on their assessment, it is possible to ask more challenging questions which require more thought and a deeper level of understanding.  In addition, structuring summative assessment in these ways means that students are experiencing a more “real world” approach.  This means they are learning transferrable skills, such as writing and presenting, which will help them when they leave the university bubble.

However, there are also some serious drawbacks with using summative assessments other than exams.  Since alternatives are often either written or aural, this makes the marking more subjective.  Although these styles of assessment are normally graded by more than one person and the marks then moderated, these is still room for bias and the background of the markers to impact results.  Written and aural work also puts pressure on students in a different way to exams.  Since many of them will not be used to presenting their work in these ways, they could lose marks due to nerves or poor writing skills even though they are confident with the material they are covering.  In addition, the questions are often more open to interpretation.  This means that, unless formative assessment is used in the build-up to the submission of the summative assessment, it is more possible for a student to misinterpret the brief than it would be in an exam.  As there is no “right answer” as there is with an exam, it is also harder for students to gain extremely high marks.

To conclude, there is no perfect way of testing understanding of Physics at university.  Heavily weighting overall grades toward performance in exams means that there is a tendency to assess students on how well they can exactly regurgitate information covered in lectures.  On the other hand, assessing students using other methods is more complicated and more subjective.  Assessment methods such as essays, presentations and miniature projects can lead to students not achieving their potential due to needing a wider range of skills and having to produce work of a higher calibre to attain the highest marks.  Overall, I think that basing so much of a student’s degree on exams in their current format is wrong.  I do, however, understand that moving completely away from this tradition method of assessment would pose many problems as it would be harder to assess students individually and would not be what prospective students or employers expect.  Therefore, I think that exams should stay in place, but with a lower weighting than they have currently. This would allow for the introduction of a variety of styles of assessment for each individual module.  This would give students more ways of demonstrating their capabilities, reduce the pressure on each individual assessment and give a more rounded view of each individual’s ability in their subject.


[1] Gov.uk. (2016). Early years foundation stage – GOV.UK. [online] Available at: https://www.gov.uk/early-years-foundation-stage [Accessed 16 Nov. 2016].

[2] Gov.uk. (2016). The national curriculum – GOV.UK. [online] Available at: https://www.gov.uk/national-curriculum/overview [Accessed 14 Nov. 2016].

[3] University, C. (2016). Formative vs Summative Assessment-Teaching Excellence & Educational Innovation – Carnegie Mellon University. [online] Cmu.edu. Available at: https://www.cmu.edu/teaching/assessment/basics/formative-summative.html [Accessed 15 Nov. 2016].

[4] Race, P. (2009). Designing assessment to improve physical sciences learning. 1st ed. Hull: Higher Education Academy.

[5] University of Nottingham, (2016). Physics and Astronomy Courses. [online] Available at: https://www.nottingham.ac.uk/UGstudy/Courses/PhysicsandAstronomy/Physics-and-Astronomy.aspx [Accessed 16 Nov. 2016].




Testing Understanding in Education

Acting for the Planet

Louis Mazurkiewicz.

With the issue of climate change becoming more and more alarming, Louis Mazurkiewicz warns that if no concrete actions are rapidly undertaken this could be a make or break time for the future of our children and grandchildren.

2016 is on course for being the hottest year on Earth since measurements were taken[1], with this century alone providing 10 of these hottest years[2]. In addition, we are faced with alarming situations such as polar ice sheets shrinking with alarming speed[3] and the number of extreme events increasing heavily around the world[4]. Habitats, species and our close environment are being ravaged and decimated due to the actions of Man on this earth. The beautiful scenes that we witness in documentaries, such as on David Attenborough’s Planet Earth II, may one day only become history archives. Considering all this, it seems that we are arriving to a critical point where we can no longer turn a blind eye on making environment protection a priority.

Each year, £3 billions of pounds directly funded by the government are invested by the research councils in the UK[5]. These research councils cover a wide spectrum of different academic disciplines from medicine to physics, economics and arts and humanities. However, is there enough incentive from the government and universities to promote environmental research?

The issue of climate change and insuring a healthy planet for our children and grandchildren is one of the major challenges of our generation and should be given more emphasis in university teaching and research. It is disquieting to see that, due to the lack of concern and general knowledge about this issue, currently less than 4 per cent of grants made by charitable trusts in the UK are directed towards environmental and conservation work[6]. This is an alarmingly low figure given the impact of environmental problems on nature, health and economic prosperity.

It seems that more should be done at university level to alert students about this problem and make them want to be part of the solution. In my personal student experience, I have yet to be given the possibility to study in further detail the possible applications of the physics that I had learned with the issue of climate change. Added to that, more access to the issue of climate change be given to the general public. It is apparent that, although most of us living in developed countries are aware of the fact that our food and energy consumptions are endangering the planet, we are not reminded enough that this issue needs to be acted upon now before it is too late. Instead of this, we are experiencing times when politicians prefer talking how a certain religion or country is better than another and recent voting, such as the Brexit referendum and the US elections, favour divisions between people.

A consensus must be found, at national and international level, between governments, businesses and universities in order to tackle the issues regarding climate change whilst ensuring economic growth and societal well-being for today and tomorrow. We can think of this by making an analogy with Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. The environment would be the top level priority as us humans would essentially not all survive in an unhealthy planet. Human rights, peace and economic prosperity would then successively construct the initial sublevels of the pyramid.

Visionary policies must be implemented where green minded economic growth is prioritised over immediate economic gain. This can be done by boosting the funding in environmental research and accentuating partnerships between universities, NGOs and green inclined businesses. Increasing taxes on energy companies and nature endangering industries, which completely disregard their environmental impact on the planet, should also be reinforced. The income provided by this could then be invested in favour of research and information. Furthermore, advantages should be given to universities, businesses and users who would implement green-minded policies. This would ultimately lead to a paradigm shift where immediate money would no longer be the ultimate priority but the environment would be instead.

Many will argue that finding solutions at an international level for this major issue sounds utopic. Most developed countries face tough economic times which disables them to focus on environmentally friendly policies because of growing social inequalities, lack of concern of a majority of the population and rise of climate scepticism. Similarly, rapidly developing countries face the vigorous task of giving access to energy to their whole population without being able to afford a considerable investment in green energy. As an example, 30 per cent of the Indian population do not have access to energy and need to resort to primary methods in order to have heat and lighting[7]. Subsequently how could developed countries impose restrictions on cheap energy for developing countries when they have taken advantage of it for over a century?

However, as citizens of the world, we need to rise up nationally in order to make a difference on the international stage. We need to build on the dynamic of the COP21 or risk losing the frail agreements that have been agreed upon. The future leaders and academicians of our generation need to step up to increase visionary collaborations between developed and developing countries. This can be done by increasing the relationships and partnerships between foreign universities and students. Ultimately, the more we share our knowledge and work hand in hand, the more we have a chance of making a difference. The future of our planet, children and grandchildren hangs in the balance.


[1] World Meteorological Organisation: “Global Climate Breaks New Records, January to June 2016”.

[2] Nasa Global Climate Change – Evidence: “State of the Climate in 2008”, T.C. Peterson et.al.

[3] Nasa Global Climate Change – Evidence: “NASA’s Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment”.

[4] “Increase of Extreme Events in a Warming World”, S. Rahmstorf & D. Comou.

[5] Research Councils UK.

[6] Environmental Funders Network.

[7]“Before the Flood”, National Geographic.

Acting for the Planet

The problems and solutions of entertainment physics

Lewis Johnson.

Physics, and science as a general, has been a product in the mass media for some time now. Arguably since Carl Sagan’s ‘Cosmos’ or Richard Feynman making science easily explained and approachable, the idea of science being more than just for scientists. Presenting science in an interesting way can capture people’s interest in a variety of ways, and it’s important to know how to use it to further science and people’s understanding.

In the media, I posit that there are three motivations for creating scientific programming, either on television, radio, YouTube or even in pop-cultural books. First, and perhaps the most noble, is to ‘catch up’ the public on what scientists are doing, and to give a glimpse into the progress that their tax money is providing. Secondly, is to ‘hook’ people into science, particularly young people, and to show that it is an interesting subject with good prospects as a potential career. Finally, pure entertainment value with science as the product with no real intention towards teaching or impressing, but to use science to fill TV time with no further interest.

I realise that this may looks like a sliding scale of cynicism, but for the most part science seems to be preached to inspire awe in people, paying no heed to how the day-to-day of science functions. You will often find scientific programming tackling ‘big questions’ with shows titled ‘Wonders of the universe[1] but none talking about theoretical concepts or basics such as the scientific method. We have to wonder if it’s even possible to catch people up on modern physics- explaining how an apple falls from a tree is easy, but we utterly fail at concisely describing quantum physics, leading to people completely missing the point (see quantum woo[2]).

It’s a question as to whether or not we even can catch people up in a reasonable timeframe anymore, let alone can we explain it well. Brian Cox inadvertently hit the nail on the head with this issue in the first episode of ‘Wonders of Life[3] when he attempts to define energy. He states his definition as ‘The length of the spacetime four vector in the time direction’ but dismisses this as a somewhat impenetrable definition to most [4]. This is indicative of a communication problem when explaining to the public- we’re attempting to explain complex concepts which for ease of understanding require complex answers. Instead, we attempt to explain the same concepts using simple language which is an utterly fruitless exercise and will only ever cause confusion if we do not give the full picture.

I propose the solution to this initial problem is rather than explaining everything poorly we should explain what we can completely. Get an actual lecturer with enough on screen presence to be appealing to the public, or a presenter with enough physics knowledge to deliver it convincingly to an audience. Explain concepts as we would to each other, but take advantage of the scripted nature of media to deliver a slower and sleeker lecturing style. The key is not to insult people’s intelligence, and to point them in the right direction if they are people who want to learn more. Rather than covering all bases poorly, I say we need to explain the bases we can, as best we can.

This brings us to the secondary, related, point of using scientific entertainment to attract people into scientific careers. In particular, this means that the programming is aimed at younger people to entice them into the field and get them involved, but ultimately we are being utterly disingenuous to what day-to-day science is. Most presentations use music, swish CGI equations and helicopter shots of grand landscapes asking ‘the big questions’ rather than talking about the scientific process, experimental methods and some theoretical underpinnings of the universe. During 2010, the BBC ran a ‘Year of science’ and these programmes had a lasting impact, increasing the number of children taking GCSE science exams by 36.1%[5]. I worry that if these people go on to do a science subject in university they will quickly discover that they may have been lied about what science is and isn’t.

The solution to this is that we need to be genuine with kids, and much like the case of catching up the public, assume that those who are interested will go on to study the subject further. Seminars, debates and indeed blog posts are filled with interesting information about the scientific scene and can be found all over the shop if people are put in their direction. As opposed to perpetuating a lie of wonder that we teach them at a young age, use entertainment to hook people into physics by being genuine and getting scientists who are passionate about their subject to be honest and explain lecturing; seminars; scientific method; grants; research groups; the Nobel prize and experiments both grand and small.

Such a program would involve explicit attention being paid to an audience under 18, after which there is a much lower uptake of people wanting to actively being involved in science. It could be either TV or more likely an online YouTube series for ease of providing links, access of information at any time and internet being the easiest way to access an under 18’s audience. Various presenters/lecturers would go through scientific institutions and piece by piece through the scientific process from grant applications, to ideas, to collaborations and eventually to publishing and sharing ideas. The whole process is woven with basic physics processes including basic mathematical framework with an emphasis on moving people onto websites and other programmes/books if they are interested further.

We finally come to a great underlying issue throughout all of this in that science is a marketable product in many ways because it inspires curiosity in people. This is far from a bad thing, the ability to engender curiosity in people is what makes science an attractive prospect to many people as a career and why so many people invest in it. Though there is potential for misinformation in the name of entertainment, people tend to be quick in correcting incorrect information. This is shown again by the ubiquitous Brian Cox on Night of the Stars when talking about the Pauli Exclusion Principle and sparking an entire debate as to the validity of what he said7]. Sufficed to say that whenever misinformation is spread, scientists are quick to strike it down, so to combat misinformation in the media we need only keep up the work.

In summary, science in the media has great potential to be used to inform, inspire and entertain people but has its inherent pitfalls in its potential to spread misinformation, both in catching up the public view, inspiring new scientists and presenting science to capture’s people curiosity. Overall, being honest, understanding the limitations of people’s understanding and not patronizing our intended audiences will allow us to make science in the media a more potent presence than ever before.


[1] – http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01117nd Wonders of the Universe by Brian Cox

[2] – http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-2503370/Quantum-physics-proves-IS-afterlife-claims-scientist.html- Quantum Woo article

[3] – http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01rgjt0 – Wonders of life by Brian Cox

[4] – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ovNgkQzj3xA  Defining energy in Wonders of life

[5] – https://www.theguardian.com/science/2013/may/05/brian-cox-science-tv-inspires BBC 2010 Year of Science

[5] – http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-35399658 Internet and TV usage amongst young people

[7] – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ASZWediSfTU – Is Brian Cox wrong? Sixty symbols




The problems and solutions of entertainment physics

How can we reduce the gender imbalance within STEM?

Lara Jayne Cooper.

Any female physics student will tell you that there are more males than females in Physics. A-Level classrooms and lecture theatres across the country have an overwhelming imbalance of male and female participants. Why? How do we change this? Or perhaps, do we need to change it?

It is proven that females are just as, if not more capable in this area than their male counterparts, with females outperforming males in STEM subjects at GCSE, A-Level, and degree level.[1] A report by the Institute of Physics (IoP) showed that between the graduating years of 2005 – 2010 18.6% of males achieved a first class bachelor’s degree, 26% achieved an upper second[2]. Compare this to 23.9%, and 35.3% respectively of women and it is clear that they outperform yet again[2]. So why is it that in 2010, of the universities studied, 1100 males completed bachelor degrees, compared with only 325 females, only just over a quarter. [2] The numbers are imbalanced at A-Level too, for more than 20 years only around 20% of A-Level Physics students have been girls[3]. Shockingly the IoP found that in 2011 46% of secondary schools had no girls taking physics A-Level. In fact, the only level at which the genders are roughly equal is at GCSE, where science is compulsory.

Society stereotypes have a large part to play in this issue. When you think of an aircraft engineer, a male in dirty overalls comes to mind. When you think of a research scientist, a male in a lab coat pops into your head. It is often the case that it is perceived that science and maths are ‘boy’ subjects and the more creative humanities are for girls. I myself was once asked if I was lost whilst waiting for a lecture in the Physics building at university simply because, in the words of my questioner, “you’re a girl, and you’re blonde”. This is the way that society has engineered our thinking, and perhaps why many young girls think a STEM pathway is not for them. The IoP’s report ‘It’s different for girls’ supported the notion that young girls are heavily influenced by gender stereotypes and found that girls that attend single sex secondary schools are twice as likely to take physics than those in co-ed schools[3].

In 2015, Twitter, and the media, blew up over comments made my Sir Tim Hunt, a Nobel Prize winning Professor at UCL. In a speech he gave at a conference in South Korea Sir Tim suggested that women in labs fall in love with their male colleagues and cry when they are criticised[4]. He suggested that having women in the lab took the focus away from the science because ‘it’s terribly important that in a lab people are on the same playing field’[4].  The comments caused outrage among women, and men, across the globe with some level of bemusement and shock that such attitudes still exist. But exist they do, and if highly educated, high profile individuals are sharing these opinions on a global scale, what hope is there for women to become equal in science? Tim Hunt apologised that his comments had caused offence, but not for their content, and subsequently resigned from his position, an action that UCL praised. In a statement issued they said that his decision was ‘compatible with our commitment to gender equality’[4]. Maybe there is some hope after all.

You may wonder why it even matters. Why does it matter that only 8% of qualified engineers in the UK are women[5], if we employ the best people for the job then what does their gender matter? The point is we have already proved that women are just as successful, if not more so than males and therefore it is not through lack of capability that they are not filling roles in STEM related careers. Therefore, steps must be taken to combat this reality and show young women that STEM is for them, and they are just as good as the boys.

Enforcing quotas has been one response to the issue but there has been discussion as to whether this is the right response or not. Quotas are essentially targets that schools, universities, research labs, companies must reach in terms of the number of women that they accept to study/employ. On the one hand quotas achieve exactly what they set out to do, they do get more women involved in STEM.  However, there are several arguments to say quotas are the easy way out, and slightly miss the point. Quotas force institutions and companies into giving women places and jobs because they are women, when the real objective is to get more women to want to be there in the first place.

A number of organisations, including Women in Science and Engineering (WISE) and the IoP, are targeting this issue in a different way. By creating a campaign targeting the first step of gender separation, the number of girls taking A-Levels, the IoP hopes that more girls will choose to follow this pathway. Action plans for teachers and parents to follow, aimed at encouraging young girls to pursue this pathway and combat the stereotypes have been created to engage more girls from a young age. Letting girls know early in their secondary school careers about STEM careers and the path to access them is crucial.

The WISE campaign was set up specifically to combat the gender gap in STEM and is currently running initiatives such as ‘create your future’ workshops for girls, parents, employers and teachers, as well as free training for women engineers about how to inspire other young women to follow in their footsteps. They have key links to multinational corporations including Jaguar Land Rover to offer scholarships to sponsor women through engineering degrees, a summer internship, as well as a mentor to help them through their studies. These resources are invaluable and offer fantastic opportunities and incentives to young women with a passion for STEM.

So I praise the actions of the likes of the Institute of Physics and WISE, and I hope it works. I hope that at some point in the not very distant future that the gender gap is reduced. I hope no more girls are asked if they are lost, and that more girls are choosing to pursue physics and other STEM subjects, not to fulfil quotas, not because anyone told them too, but because they WANT to.

[1] -WISE (2016) WISE has analysed the gender balance and trends at every stage of the STEM classroom to boardroom pipeline. Available at: https://www.wisecampaign.org.uk/resources/2016/11/from-classroom-to-boardroom-the-stem-pipeline (Accessed: 19 November 2016).

[2] – Physics Students in UK Higher Education Institutions (2012) Available at: https://www.iop.org/publications/iop/2012/file_54949.pdf (Accessed: 19 November 2016). [3] – It’s different for girls (2012) Available at: http://www.iop.org/education/teacher/support/girls_physics/file_58196.pdf (Accessed: 19 November 2016).

[4] – BBC (2015) Sir Tim Hunt resigns from university role over girls comment. Available at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-33090022 (Accessed: 19 November 2016).

[5] – WISE (2016b) Ingenious women: Communicating a passion for engineering. Available at: https://www.wisecampaign.org.uk/about-us/wise-projects/past-projects/ingenious-women (Accessed: 19 November 2016).


How can we reduce the gender imbalance within STEM?

Is Extraterrestrial Exploration a Waste of Money?

Kate Smith.

To be a human is to be an explorer and our inquisitive nature has meant that our obsession with discovering the undiscovered is engrained into our lives. Human history is littered with stories of great adventurers uncovering Earth’s secrets. In 1492 Christopher Columbus discovered America, Ferdinand Magellan was the first to circumnavigate the globe from 1519-1522 and the first dinosaur bone was illustrated by Robert Plot in 1674. These are few, but nevertheless important discoveries that have shaped our modern day society. With such interest in increasing our knowledge of Earth, it was inevitable that we focused our attention on the extraterrestrial. The earliest known telescopes were from the Netherlands in 1608, but it wasn’t until 1946 when the first man-made object, the V-2 rocket, went into space to explore cosmic radiation. Since then the budget allowed for this field of research has increased hugely. In 2005 NASA had a budget of $16.2 billion, ESA sported a healthy budget of $3.5 billion and the total global budget of $25 billion meant that the amount spent per person globally was about $3.90[1]. With such high expenditure, questions need to be asked about whether this is a good use of our money or if we are simply feeding our desire for knowledge with no real useful outcome.

There are three different methods for extraterrestrial research: unmanned space crafts, manned space crafts and ground-based research. An unmanned mission is one which requires no people to be on board the spacecraft. In 2004 a £1 billion unmanned mission, Rosetta, was launched to chase, orbit, and land on the comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, located 500 million miles from Earth [2]. Ten years later, a probe called Philae landed on it; however, it unexpectedly landed in the shade, just out of reach of the Suns solar power. Eventually the probes batteries ran down and that was the end of the road for Philae. Rosetta continued to orbit the comet and collect measurements of gas and dust and transmit high resolution photographs back to Earth until a controlled crash into the comet in 2016 ended its mission.  The purpose for this mission was fuelled by the potential for comets to harbour the building blocks of life due to their theorised importance in the creation of the solar system. They are made of ice, dust and rock which is likely to be the origin of the first water delivered to Earth. Missions like this engage the public, but when they go wrong their worth are questioned. It was discovered that the chemical signature of the comets water was unique when compared to Earths[3]; therefore questioning whether Earth’s water originated from comets. This knowledge doesn’t increase the quality of life on Earth so could be seen as a waste of money.

Another example of an unmanned space mission is the Curiosity Mars rover.  This $2.5 billion investigation of Mars has been ongoing since 2012[4] with its primary goals including investigation of the climate and geology, assessment of whether there have ever been favourable conditions for life, and habitability studies to prepare for future human exploration[5]. This mission has been a success with samples being tested by the rover, which then communicates its findings to Earth, and astonishing images of the red planet sparking public interest. However, the same previously mentioned concerns can still be applied to a successful mission with regards to the amount of money being invested into such missions which have no present impact on quality of life.

In the 30 year NASA space shuttle program, $209 billion was spent between 1981 and 2011[6].  Unlike unmanned space missions, for a spacecraft to be suitable for human flight, it needs to allow them to breath, eat, drink, sleep, move around safely and make the return trip to Earth among many other specifications. These extra requirements cause the money needed to shoot upwards. In 1961, Yuri Gagarin became the first human to travel into space [7], which was a huge step forward in the space-race, however, arguably the most recognised astronaut is Neil Armstrong, the first man to land on the Moon in the Apollo 11 landing in 1969 [8]. The Apollo space programme racked up an impressive overall cost of $25.4 billion ($150 billion in today’s money) [8]. Although rock samples were collected, the main reason for the mission was to be the first superpower to land two people on the surface of the Moon. The 1960s saw global friction between the two cold war rivals, the USSR and the US, and it would seem that the US desire to edge ahead in the space race drove the push to reach the moon first. It stands to reason that this wasn’t a mission to increase our knowledge of the Moon, as the samples could have been collected by other means, but more of an egotistical victory. This period in time was very important for future space exploration as technology progressed quickly; however, it seems very irresponsible for such vast quantities of money and resources to be invested these missions when the immediate motives were not clear.

Finally, we can use ground-based research methods to look at distant planets and their potential to host life forms. From Earth we can use telescopes to find planets orbiting distant stars by fluctuations in the stars luminosity as the planet passes in front of it. The Nordic Optical Telescope; off the west coast of Africa, observed a planet twice the size of Earth using this method [9]. Many ground-based telescopes have surpassed the Hubble telescope in spectroscopic measurements as technology has improved since Hubble was sent into space in 1990. By using high resolution spectroscopy scientists can determine the composition of the atmosphere of an exoplanet. By using the knowledge we have from our own planets size and composition, we can then compare this to the exoplanet and conclude the likelihood of life being present. By being able to carry out this research without having to leave the Earth’s atmosphere, the economic impact is much smaller than space missions. There are plans for the California Extremely Large Telescope (CELT) with an expected cost of $700 million[10],which is still a large amount of money, but nothing in comparison to  space crafts. Other benefits of using these telescopes are that there is no risk of damage whilst trying to get the telescope out of our atmosphere and if there were to be any damages in transportation on the ground, they could be fixed. Also, they can be adapted as better materials or techniques are discovered if they remain on the ground. However, there are limitations, for example, adaptive optics today only work at infrared wavelengths due to other wavelengths being inaccessible from Earth [10]. Hubble, on the other hand, is sensitive to all wavelengths from the ultra violet to near infrared [10].

It is clear to see that the emphasis on extraterrestrial life is huge in humans’ exploration of the universe. The thought of there being so much to discover in the universe excites not only academics, but also the imagination of the public. This enthusiasm is an important part in convincing the public that scientific research is necessary, but there needs to be a balance between the money spent and the necessity of the research undertaken. It is estimated that it would take $240 billion to end global poverty[11], and when this figure is compared to the amount that has been spent on space travel it is a wonder that we choose to spend our money in this way. Although there is not much we can take from the universe to enhance our everyday lives, there have been many discoveries along the way while scientist were inventing space technology that are now used in many aspects of our lives.  Firefighting breathing apparatus used to be so heavy that most firefighters chose to do without whilst tackling flames; however, due to NASA’s research for spacesuits, they cut the weight by a third and improved the fit and visibility [12]. Also, by cutting grooves in the runways, NASA discovered that the excess water drains away making it less likely for returning spacecraft to aquaplane. This has now been adopted by airports all around the world [12]. More close to home, the scratch proof coating on glasses and sunglasses was invented to prevent astronauts’ helmets from being scratched by any particles in space when outside a space shuttle [12]. Who knows if or when these inventions along with hand held hoovers, carbon-fibre reinforcements and pill transmitters [12] would have been discovered without NASAs focus on space technology.

To conclude, I believe that society has changed so that nations collaborate more, which means there is less pressure on individual nations to ‘beat’ others. This in turn means that research tends to be more worthwhile so large amounts of money can be justified. However, I think we need to recognise that discoveries will be made eventually and there should be no great rush to explore every corner of the universe as quickly as possible. Extraterrestrial research has gifted us with some great technological discoveries but sometimes it is more beneficial for the money to be used elsewhere in society and for now our curiosity may have to wait.


[1] http://curious.astro.cornell.edu/about-us/150-people-in-astronomy/space-exploration-and-astronauts/general-questions/921-how-much-money-is-spent-on-space-exploration-intermediate

[2] http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/0/rosetta-mission-what-is-it-and-when-will-it-crash-into-a-comet/

[3] https://www.wired.com/2015/01/weirdest-coolest-stuff-weve-learned-rosettas-comet-far/

[4] http://www.investopedia.com/financial-edge/0912/why-curiosity-cost-2.5-billion.aspx

[5] “Overview”. JPL, NASA. Retrieved August 16, 2012.

[6] http://www.space.com/12376-nasa-space-shuttle-program-facts-statistics.html

[7] http://www.space.com/16159-first-man-in-space.html

[8] http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/science/space/5852237/Apollo-11-Moon-landing-ten-facts-about-Armstrong-Aldrin-and-Collins-mission.html

[9] http://www.space.com/27904-super-earth-exoplanets-ground-based-telescopes.html

[10] http://www.aura-astronomy.org/news/archive/hst_vs_ao_2.pdf

[11] http://www.borgenmagazine.com/much-money-end-global-poverty/

[12] http://kearth101.cbslocal.com/2011/07/21/list-stuff-we-use-everyday-that-was-invented-from-the-space-program/



Is Extraterrestrial Exploration a Waste of Money?

The Rise of the Professional Anti-Intellectual

Jonathan Betts

The large-scale societal decisions of 2016 show that academic thinking is going out of fashion. The results of the British referendum on EU membership revealed that despite a leave verdict dominated by the proletariat; a tide of support for remaining in Europe came from amongst the intellectual community.[1] Meanwhile the US presidential elections also saw an electorate divided by their education. Those with a high school diploma or less voted for Donald Trump, whereas graduates voted for the losing Hillary Clinton.[2] Without declaring a direct allegiance to any of the political philosophies involved in the above statistics, it can be observed that in both cases, the winning camp was not backed by academia.

At first glance, this appears to be a relatively new phenomenon. As recently as the 2015 general election in the UK, those members of the electorate with a GCSE or lower agreed with the degree-educated.[3] The Pew Research Centre stated at the end of Janurary 2015 that in America “Citizens are still broadly positive about the place of U.S. scientific achievements and its impact on society, but slightly more are negative than five years ago.”[4] So what is causing this new shift away from expertise; and the rise of populist, evidence-decrying figures such as Deepak Chopra, Donald Trump and Nigel Farage?

Access to the academic world has dwindled over the past few years. The number of students in UK universities has dropped steadily since 2011[5], owing to the large increase in tuition fees implemented in 2012[6], and they are set to rise again in 2018[7]. Despite government safeguards such as student loans and grants, this financial barrier was enough to turn many minds away from the gateway to intellectualism. Whether intended or not, this air of exclusivity only served to damage the standing of the arts and sciences among a public pushed to unskilled vocations by austerity and a fragile economy.[8] Fiscal anxiety can certainly be linked to the meteoric rise of populist public figures such as UKIP’s Nigel Farage. Several of his key policies involved scapegoating and promises of financial security; such as transferring British EU contributions to a cash-strapped NHS despite no evidence that this would even be possible.[9] This brand of flagrant manipulation provides an example of how the general public were not concerned with rational debate or evidence, but were scared into accepting Faustian economics by sheer financial insecurity. With direct access to science financially walled off, the public were left with what popular media they could access.

The representation of scientists and experts in popular media might also play a small part in the ebb and flow of societal opinion. The common trope of the scientist portrayed as a stuffy out of touch old man who is useless in the real world is well documented. However, before the 2015 general election, a cavalcade of highly-grossing films such as Interstellar, The Imitation Game and The Theory of Everything[10] saw scientists depicted as figures not only to be trusted, but as the best society offers. Each of the films took great care to depict the work of each scientific figure as intensely beneficial to not only academia, but to society as a whole. The protagonist of Interstellar begins the picture applying his talents as an engineer to farming, and the title of the Stephen Hawking biopic ‘The Theory of Everything’ speaks for itself. Conversely, the first half of 2016 saw relatively few popular films depicting any sort of science, let alone in a positive narrative light. Whilst this correlation between the image of science in popular narratives does not imply a direct causation of election results, these depictions (or lack thereof) of the scientific world could have wormed their way into the cultural zeitgeist, influencing relationships with the scientific community.

One key global phenomenon linking popular media to recent elections and even policy decisions is the rise of social media platforms. Facebook and Twitter have experienced unprecedented success in recent years but are still struggling to elucidate their intellectual responsibility. Having the ability to share any information whatsoever, no matter the validity, can be a powerful force, for good or for ill. Suddenly in the space of a few years, everyone has a voice, no matter their qualifications. Whilst this empowerment of the masses has contributed to such blossoms as the Arab Spring[11], this newfound freedom has its costs. The arena of social media is one dominated by the vociferous and the scathing. Critical vitriol, from the political left or right, tends to drown out more moderate views; to the point where many stories are simply faked to generate interest[12].  A feature of most social media platforms that has come under scrutiny is the use of algorithms to tailor the news and opinions that a user views. These so called ‘filter bubbles’[13] use the information that a user has expressed interest in to provide more of the same content, the rationale being that this will keep the user engaged. However, when applied to the quagmire of political opinions, the filter bubble system ensures that users only encounter stories and information that agree with their existing beliefs and prejudices, leading to intellectual stagnation and confirmation bias. With sixty-two percent of Americans getting their news from social media[14], what their platforms choose to show them could be the difference between winning or losing an election.

Many polarising figures have exploited the social media revolution. The work of scientists like Alan Sokal[15] illustrates that pseudoscience and nonsense permeates the scientific world. Whilst homeopaths have been doing this for years[16],  one figure in particular who exploits anti-intellectual semantics to a fault is Deepak Chopra. Flaunting such statements as; “everyday reality is dependent on state of awareness and a human construct,”[17] and interpretations of quantum mechanics that border on the insane, it is clear that even a rudimentary study of his work would reveal it to be fraudulent. Whilst Sokal would inevitably say to him; “anyone who believes that the laws of physics are mere social conventions is invited to try transgressing those conventions from the windows of my apartment,”[18]  as of November 2016 Chopra has three million Twitter followers. Figures such as Chopra damage the credibility of real science among a significant portion of the population when they champion a model of the universe based upon subjective reality.

The academic world is not entirely blameless in the rise of anti-intellectualism. As Sokal stated in 1996, “some fashionable sectors of the academic left have been getting intellectually lazy.”[18] Though most academics tend to be left-leaning[19], poor cognitive processes infect the entire political spectrum; and the dismissal of evidence and fact in modern academic institutions is only adding fuel to the fire of socio-political hyperbole. This trend was showcased during the controversial Occidental College sexual assault case[20], in which a student was dismissed from the college on the basis of accusations that were not even upheld by the local police department. When the academic community does not uphold the virtues of truth and fact that it preaches, what sort of example does that set for the rest of society? Perhaps this self-righteous view, that the rest of the world needs academics to set intellectual examples from their ivory towers, is also contributing to the divide.

By way of a conclusion, all the above factors play into an emerging culture of anti-intellectualism, and not always independently of one another. Social media in particular has a role in fanning the flames of the semantic hyperbole employed by the pseudo-scientist and politician alike. Nevertheless all is not lost. British judges decreed in November 2016 that leaving the European Union without the more sober consent of Parliament would be unlawful[21]. There are many public figures who still stand for rationalism, such as Brian Cox, Neil DeGrasse Tyson and Bill Nye. The next step is to take their message and increase engagement with the academic world; by ensuring everyone has access, no matter their socio-political background. Removing financial barriers to education, shedding light on resources like arXiv.org (a massive repository of free scientific papers), safeguarding research funding and – most importantly – persevering with the collaborative and honest spirit that personifies most of the academic world. As Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice proclaims: “at the length the truth will out.”



[1] https://www.theguardian.com/politics/ng-interactive/2016/jun/23/eu-referendum-live-results-and-analysis Date accessed: 18/11/16

[2] https://www.washingtonpost.com/page/2010-2019/WashingtonPost/2016/09/25/National-Politics/Polling/release_446.xml

[3] https://yougov.co.uk/news/2015/06/08/general-election-2015-how-britain-really-voted Date accessed: 18/11/16

[4] http://www.pewinternet.org/2015/01/29/public-and-scientists-views-on-science-and-society/ Date accessed: 18/11/16

[5] https://www.hesa.ac.uk/data-and-analysis/students Date accessed: 18/11/16

[6] http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-11677862 Date accessed: 21/11/16

[7] http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-37510744 Date accessed: 19/11/16

[8] http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-21193525 Date accessed: 18/11/16

[9] https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2016/sep/10/brexit-camp-abandons-350-million-pound-nhs-pledge Date accessed: 18/11/16

[10]http://www.boxofficemojo.com/intl/uk/yearly/?yr=2014&sort=gross&order=DESC&pagenum=1&p=.htm Date accessed: 18/11/16

[11] Howard, Philip N. and Duffy, Aiden and Freelon, Deen and Hussain, Muzammil M. and Mari, Will and Maziad, Marwa, Opening Closed Regimes: What Was the Role of Social Media During the Arab Spring? (2011). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2595096 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2595096

[12] http://www.snopes.com/1998-trump-people-quote/ Date accessed: 21/11/16

[13] https://www.newscientist.com/article/2113246-how-can-facebook-and-its-users-burst-the-filter-bubble Date accessed: 19/11/16

[14] http://www.journalism.org/2016/05/26/news-use-across-social-media-platforms-2016/ Date accessed: 18/11/16

[15] Sokal A. (1996). “Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity”. Social Text. 46/47 (46/47): 217–252

[16] https://www.mja.com.au/system/files/issues/192_08_190410/ern11179_fm.pdf

[17] https://twitter.com/DeepakChopra/status/799645373136601093 Date accessed: 19/11/16

[18] Sokal A. (1996). “A Physicist Experiments with Cultural Studies” (PDF). Lingua Franca: 62–64.

[19] http://www.people-press.org/2016/04/26/a-wider-ideological-gap-between-more-and-less-educated-adults/ Date accessed: 19/11/16

[20] http://www.esquire.com/news-politics/a33751/occidental-justice-case/ Date accessed: 19/11/16

[21] http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-37857785 Date accessed: 21/11/16

The Rise of the Professional Anti-Intellectual

The future of peer review

Joel Kingsman.

The peer review system has been the dominant method of moderating scientific research for the last half century or so. Much major work and innovative progress has been made during this time yet now a point has been reached where the peer review system itself is becoming an obstruction to the work of scientists. Modifying the peer review process from its 20th century origins to suit 21st century science is certainly achievable. The research itself is not and indeed never has been the issue. It is the system of publishing and disseminating it that needs fresh consideration.

The current situation sees a scientific paper written, submitted to a journal, scrutinized by several other scientists in the same field, then either rejected to be modified and resubmitted or published. On the surface it certainly appears to be a reasonable process for ensuring the quality and accuracy of published science. Indeed it has been practised for many years with success. But digging a little deeper reveals several troubling issues.

The first problem is to do with the reputations of the publishers themselves – not all journals are created equal. Big name publishers such as Science and Nature with their reputations for high profile research and their high impact factors give a paper and its author a high level of prestige. Whether these impact factors are truly a good indication of the value of the research is something worthy of debate in itself. Safe to say they are not the be all and end all and perhaps not even that. Regardless of content however, if a scientist has work published in Science, Nature or certain other journals it will likely be seen as worth more than work published elsewhere. These journals have higher rejection rates from 80 to 98 percent which of course means that they reject plenty of important work which later surfaces in supposedly less prestigious journals. It is a great shame that scientists are often judged not on the basis of their actual research but rather on where it was published. Moreover these judgements can make or break a career. The difference between someone remaining in a somewhat precarious academic position or heading towards university tenure may simply be the name of a publisher on their resume. Given that science is a sector underpinned by the testing of theories based on evidence it is both surprising and somewhat shocking to discover how much influence such a loose method of judgement can have.

Despite all this papers that get published are generally of good quality. However if science performed for the progression of human knowledge then this may not be good enough. New discoveries replacing and updating previous theories is one thing. In fact that is good and exciting science. Still there have been cases when peer reviewed papers have been accepted by journals and then later shown to be clearly erroneous. One example of this is case of Jan Hendrik Schön who rose to prominence for publishing fraudulent results whilst researching semiconductors at Bell Labs. In the year 2000 alone, Schön published eight papers in Science and Nature and received multiple awards too. Graphs showing identical noise for some experiments on single molecule semiconductors he conducted at different temperatures were actually noticed only to be dismissed by the editors after Schön claimed he had simply submitted the same graphs by mistake. He was exposed in the end but the fact that it was not the biggest name journals but rather individuals who brought this work to account is worrying. Schön’s works were later revoked by the journals. This was just one case that demonstrated the flaws of the peer review process and raised many questions about the responsibilities of both reviewers and editors in permitting the publication of bad science.

For the editor of a journal reviewers can be hard to find. Scientific fields can be very specialized and niche so the pool of willing reviewers can be small. The reviewers are in a tough position too. They are scientists in their own right most likely bogged down with administrative and teaching duties let alone their own research. They are not paid to conduct peer review of the papers sent to them and the reward awaiting a good reviewer is often even more requests to perform reviews and so even less time for their other duties. Doubtless their when reviewing instincts are to maintain the integrity of their field. However one can easily imagine how reviewing slips down an academic’s priorities and how papers may not be given the time their thorough examination demands. Furthermore reviewing is difficult work. It depends on the reviewers being up to date on the latest developments in their field and it is not uncommon for reviewers to disagree especially considering that they are often scrutinizing novel studies. A cautious editor will probably reject a paper in such cases and therefore what may turn out to be excellent research is forced to await publication elsewhere.

In this modern interconnected age there is in principle no reason why the peer review process cannot be updated. A promising idea is using an open source framework alongside of traditional journals. Currently editors are solely accountable for the work they publish even though many simply do not have the time to double check the comments of their anonymous reviewers. Open source peer review allows other scientists to read and critique the comments of the reviewers. Removing anonymity may make it harder than ever to attract reviewers but this is not strictly necessary. If just their comments are shown then the thinking which led to the paper being published is clear. This all works to aid the reader in making informed decisions concerning the article. Although peer reviewed, it need not be accepted so readily by an individual. The reader now also shares responsibility for how they view the paper.

Several open access repositories already exist. A notable example is Academia.edu which is a social networking platform for academics. In 2013 the site received a notice from Elsevier to remove thousands of papers published by the journal. This was understandable as essentially the journal wanted to defend its profits. After all why would anyone pay a subscription fee to Elsevier in order to access a resource freely available elsewhere? However this led to a backlash and boycott of Elsevier by many scientists who see open access as the future and Elsevier as somewhat behind the times. A great example demonstrating the potential for open access is the Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics journal. This uses a multi stage open peer review process and is successful. It has rejection rates of just 15% yet also remains one of the highest ranked journals in its field. A further advantage of open access is that the long embargoes from submission to publication are removed. These embargoes have been shown to lead to fewer people accessing a paper and of course can slow the progress of research.

Mistakes will always happen. However in science the mistakes permitted by the current peer review system can be costly. It can drastically affect career prospects and establish bad science such that it is difficult to overturn. To only accept work that has been published in journals is an outdated format which is simply no longer necessary. Open source publishing is the future and can help to redress the balance from the often unmerited dominance of high prestige journals. Peer review will always be necessary as the vital unseen ingredient in ensuring good quality science. However now that better methods are available the traditional peer review process must be updated. Otherwise scientific progress will continue to be hampered. There will remain a place for the traditional journals so that certain research is correctly recognised and promoted. However there is nothing to prevent scientists from simultaneously sharing their research with the wider scientific community. Trained scientists are intelligent people. By opening up peer review we can allow them to weigh up the work of their peers for themselves.











The future of peer review