Field of Science

Teach yourself how to multi-task more effectively

An interesting post on MindHacks argued against Maggie Jackson‘s recent book Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age. Maggie claims that with the development of many new technologies that enable us to multi-task, we are getting more stressed and less creative. Vaughan Bell on MindHacks says that the argument is short-sighted and that even before the digital-age we were people who multi-tasked. At least now we have the ability of turning off the devices and thus, turn off the interruptions.
I like some of Vaughan’s argument. He starts by giving example of a woman from a poor neighbourhood who needs to tend to her four children, maintain the house (shopping, cleaning) and take care of a business she runs from the household. The majority of the people in the world who are still not part of the digital age are in one way or the other in that woman’s situation. And thus, saying that multi-tasking is a relatively new thing is not done with.
But he misses to counter some important points from Maggie’s argument. According, to Vaughan it’s easy to see that women may have gotten their brains wired to multi-task but exactly the opposite  can then be assumed to be true for men. Men were primarily, hunters and/or gatherers, they had a single objective: feed the family. Thus, they must have got their brains wired to focus on a single task, no?
I’d also like to refute an argument which Maggie makes:

When you’re scattered and diffuse, you’re less creative. When your times of reflection are always punctured, it’s hard to go deeply into problem-solving, into relating, into thinking.
Creativity is the capacity to put together two or more ideas (or things) in a way that no one has before. In that respect, in the digital age I’d say that we have more opportunities to be creative but at the same time, because the same resources are available to a greater audience we have to think much harder and more often about  a ‘new way’. That may translate into more time devoted to thinking about the problem but there it doesn’t mean that that time must be all together. I can think of many instances where punctuated thought has brought me more ideas than hours of contemplation.
Today science has come to a point where one needs to be able to think about many things (and use the many resources/tools) at a time to be able to solve the highly complex (and inter-disciplinary) problems. In this case, I’d say that the better we may get at multi-tasking (with or without the help of the new technology) the better it may be for the scientists.
Even then, I have to agree to a few arguments that Maggie makes:

We are programmed to be interrupted. We get an adrenalin jolt when orienting to new stimuli: Our body actually rewards us for paying attention to the new. So in this very fast-paced world, it’s easy and tempting to always react to the new thing. But when we live in a reactive way, we minimize our capacity to pursue goals.
That makes sense. Yes, the multi-tasking on the internet (email, facebook, twitter) might be reducing our capacity to pursue goals. We should realise this in our browsing habits and avoid those distractions. But  other than those distractions, that very habit of multi-tasking can prove to be a boon for many researchers, writers, readers or anyone who needs to be able to deal with a lot of data (opinions, facts, ideas) that keeps coming their way during their browsing experience.
Maggie’s comment on Vaughan’s article is a good way of summing things up:
The “concentration oasis” is a myth I don’t subscribe to. And yet it’s truly short-sighted to fail to consider the costs of cultivating a culture of distraction and inattention.
A culture of distraction and inattention can breed from multi-tasking only if our multitasking is left unregulated. I think there is value in multi-tasking but one must teach oneself how to multi-task in a sensible way. 
Also posted at the CriticalTwenties blog.

Answer this simple question for me please

I am not the first person asking this question. And you are not the first one to whom I will ask this question. I’ve asked this question even to Nobel laureates (while I was at Lindau) including Sir Harold Kroto and Jean-Marie Lehn but they did not give me a satisfactory answer. I’ve even asked Dr. Evan Harris who said he will email me a reply (which he hasn’t yet).

So here’s the question:

Why is the research funding for science in most countries less than 1% of the GDP?

(US = 0.8%, UK = 0.5%, India = 0.8%)

I can try and make a case for how much scientific research contributes to the GDP but it won’t be as beautiful as Brian Cox’s plea for science funding (which is in fact a TED talk).

In my attempts to try and find an answer to this question, I have come to understand the following:

  1. An obvious point: Publicly-funded research is mainly towards development of basic science with an aim of publishing in peer-reviewed journals.
  2. Surprising fact: More application oriented (profit making) research is carried out in the industries (up to 80% in OECD countries but much lesser share in the developing countries).
  3. Controversial: Some make a case that privately-funded research is more efficient than publicly-funded research. I think that may be the case only in very corrupt countries.
If it is true that such a large chunk of research happens in the industry, it makes me wonder how many secrets are being harbored by the industry and how much good they could do for humanity. But may be that needs to be balanced with the need to keep earning money through licensing patents and selling products to keep innovating.

Leaving the industry aside for the time being, even government funded science amounts to such meager expenses to the state as compared to the impact it has on the economy that today Vince Cable, the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, announced that there will be major cuts in science funding. Some guess that the cuts could be as high has 25%.

I fail to understand why. Can someone help me answer this simple question?

Why is the research funding for science in most countries less than 1% of the GDP?

Bonus question: Even if that is the case, why is the government trying to cut that spending?

My old science articles

Before I started writing here at the Field of Science, I had written a few other science articles. I thought it'll be good to share these links with the readers of this blog and this will also serve to archive them for my science blog. So here are the links and brief descriptions of my old science posts:

My attempts at Polyphasic Sleeping

Polyphasic sleeping: Published at Matters Scientific this article discusses a possible way of reducing the number of hours we sleep by slicing it in to multiple naps.

How much is decided before we are born?

Embroynic Ideas: Published at Matter Scientific this article discusses the impact of stress amongst pregnant mothers on the cognitive abilities of the child.

With Aubrey

Live long & Proper: Published at LabLit this is an interview of Aubrey de Grey, the author of Ending Aging and the chief scientific officer at SENS.

Brilliant Artwork

Homeopathic Understanding: Published at Matters Scientific this article describes the attempt of a homeopath in trying to understand how homeopathy works.

Synthesising Soufflés: Published in Bang!, Oxford University's science magazine is an article that discusses the science of cooking and the work of Hervé This.

Exeter College Chapel

Green Exeter: Published in Exon, Exeter College's magazine is an article that discusses the debate which led to the college having a meat-free day every week in the college hall.

Science Online London

I will be attending Science Online London or #solo10 on September 3-4 at the British Library. The conference theme is How is the web changing science?

This conference promises to be very different from the Science Communication Conference that happened in May. In the words of an attendee of Science Online 2008 & 2009, "It is a conference which is not just about science communicators."

As a matter of fact, the conference has already begun with many participants attending two simultaneous events that took place tonight one was the tour of diamond light source and the other was a pub crawl in London (hard choice!).

I attended the diamond light source tour for two reasons, one :I do small organic molecule crystallography in my department and some of our crystals do end up going to diamond and two: it is located much closer to Oxford than London. Much of what was talked about at a short presentation before the tour can be found here and then followed a tour of the site. As the synchrotron was off, we could go and look at it from the inside and I really enjoyed the tour. 

As for the conference, what I am looking forward to?
  1. Understanding the future of science journalism
  2. How to connect the various scientific resources
  3. The state of science blogging
  4. How to run a successful social media campaign for science
  5. How to get scientists to use Web 2.0 tools
  6. #fringefriv10
And more than that meeting all the wonderful people coming to the conference, especially the mini-Lindau reunion. :)
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