The Sound of Science

A great reworking of Paul Simon's 'The Sounds of Silence', now featuring Darwin and the scientific method …

The Sound of Science, courtesy of Youtube.

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'Unfunded' Pensions for Teachers

Lord Hutton has triggered a furious response from the unions in recommending the end of the final salary* pension schemes enjoyed by public sector workers. (* Also known as unfunded gold-plated pensions)

The pejorative term 'unfunded' when applied to public sector pensions suggests that the taxpayer picks up the entire bill, when in fact it just means that the pension contributions are spent by the government as a cheap loan, instead on being invested in a pension fund. Of course, when the employee eventually retires there is no pot of money, so the treasury must spend from government funds.

Teacher pensions were reformed some years ago, and do not need to be radically reworked in the current final salary pension witch-hunt. Teachers contribute 6.1% of salary, with employers putting in a further 14.4%, making a total of 20.5%. For a main scale teacher paying in for 40 years, this could produce a pension pot of £500 000 to £600 000, if it was invested and averaged returns of 3% above inflation, as the FTSE has managed routinely. A half million quid could easily buy an index linked annuity paying half the final salary - without needing a penny of taxpayer money to subsidise.

The problem comes from the higher earners - the senior management and others who get significant promotions near the ends of their careers. Since these people earn much more than their career average, each pound they pay in to a pension scheme pays out more that a pound from a classroom teacher whose salary is stable for the final 25 years of their career.

In the light of this, Lord Hutton's report, calling for pensions to be based on career average earnings and for the investment risk to be moved from taxpayers to the individuals, seems reasonable. The unions will make a great deal of fuss, but for most teachers, there is nothing to fear from a move away from an 'unfunded' or even 'final salary' pension model.

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'My RSS reader is a Journalist'

The BBC's reporting is going backwards. For years it was my go-to news site as it always sidebar links to all the websites of the source material for a news story. Even if the reporting was poor, I could always read the original papers or quotes. But a recent revamp of their site has dropped all the external links! Was it too hard for the journalists to a keep a track of where they got their material?

OK, I'm being a little unfair, since their main source has been press releases for some years - it is amazing the similarity of the wording when you can read the original press releases on AlphaGalileo. They have been republishing company and university press officer propaganda with barely a change for years.

Don't just take my word for it: if you want a pithy and knowledgeable statement of all that is wrong with science journalism, you can't do much better than read this, by The Lay Scientist blog at the Guardian. 

That post is a great parody of most of the British media's science output, fitting all research into a bland identikit structure that neither educates the masses nor informs those who already know something about the subject. The masses do not benefit from the patronisingly shallow overview that is so simplistic that even the basic principles are left out as potentially too confusing. The educated do not benefit as there is not even a useful link to the research abstract , the researcher's homepage or even the organisation involved.

And all the “important” words are put in “scare” quotes, so the “journalist” does not even have to take responsibility for the words they have “written”. 

The parody is great, and the writer has now followed that up with an inside, in-depth analysis of why the mainstream media, the BBC included, sadly, has allowed itself to abandon the honourable traditions of scientific journalism.

Depressingly, a lack of money to do the job properly is not on the hit list, but the journalists themselves are. A picture is painted of aimless journos wandering around conferences being distracted by all the unpublished PhD poster work in foyer, and not understanding a word of what they are told.

A great comment from the piece repeats and comment from Ed Yong sums it up:
“If you are not actually providing any analysis, if you're not effectively 'taking a side', then you are just a messenger, a middleman, a megaphone with ears. If that's your idea of journalism, then my RSS reader is a journalist.”
Thanks to Toby Marshan for drawing my attention to this blog.

Edit 2010-10-10: The BBC has just updated its online linking policy to repair some of the damage mentioned above, described in this Guardian blog post.

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