Archive for February, 2012

Posted in Open Access with tags , , on February 29, 2012 by telescoper

telescoper:

Just a quick reblogged post to update an old post of mine and passing on the news that racketeering publishing giant Elsevier have withdrawn their support for the Research Works Act.

 

Originally posted on Sauropod Vertebra Picture of the Week:

Well, I’ve had most of the day now to digest the news that Elsevier have withdrawn their support of the Research Works Act; and a few hours to get used to the idea that the Act itself is now dead.  I’ve had some time to think about what it all means.

My first reaction was to be really delighted: the banner headline suggested a genuine change of direction from Elsevier, such as I had challenged them about a few weeks ago.  I hoped that this was the first step on a path towards real change, leading to reconciliation with all the authors, editors and reviewers that they’d alienated.

Unfortunately, a close reading of Elsevier’s statement [cached copy] doesn’t support that interpretation.  It’s apparent that this is a strategic manoeuvre rather than a a fundamental shift.  That’s clear from language like the following:

While we continue…

View original 967 more words

Petition: VAT on e-publications

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , on February 28, 2012 by telescoper

I’ve been asked by Prof. Monica Grady to pass on the following message and urge you to sign the petition to which it refers. I am happy to do so, for reasons which should be obvious. I’ve even signed it myself!

–0–

Universities and colleges are currently obliged to pay VAT at the full standard rate, currently 20%, on their subscriptions to electronic academic journals, books, newspapers and magazines. Printed versions of these resources are zero-rated in the UK; in the rest of the EU VAT is applied at the reduced rate, currently 5%.

E-publications are greener, save valuable storage space and offer increased availability for the majority of users. They should be treated in the same way for VAT as printed publications. This VAT burden means that libraries have less to spend on electronic publications and makes it very difficult for them to move towards e-provision.

We urge our government to do one of two things:

1. Introduce zero-rated VAT on electronic academic publications or

2. If it is not feasible to add electronic publications to the list of zero-rated goods then to follow other European countries and apply VAT at the reduced rate now and consider reducing this to 0% as soon as possible.

A minimum 100,000 signatures are needed for the topic to be considered for debate in the House of Commons. Any British Citizen or UK resident can sign: you will need to provide your name, address and email address.

Sign by clicking  here. The full link in case you wish to copy it and send it to friends or colleagues is:

http://epetitions.direct.gov.uk/petitions/28226

You can follow the campaign on Twitter #fairVAT4epubs

STFC Team Selection

Posted in Football, Science Politics with tags , on February 27, 2012 by telescoper

It’s been such a busy day today I almost missed a seemingly unimportant message on Twitter from the Science and Technology Facilities Council about its new management structure. Only when I got home this evening did I read it carefully and discover that it’s not really as innocuous as I’d assumed. In fact it looks like the Chief Executive has been busy during the recent transfer window.

The new team at STFC will line up like this

It doesn’t look all that different from the old one, except it’s a slightly more compact  formation with less width in the wide areas, and perhaps fewer clichés in the final third.

The controversy however comes with ashen-faced manager Ron John Womersley’s team selection. As per the announcement:

Following staff input, and Council approval, I have conducted an internal selection process to fill the new senior positions in the structure and can now announce the following appointments from 1 April 2012:

    • Executive Director National Laboratories: Dr Andrew Taylor
    • Executive Director Business and Innovation: Dr Tim Bestwick
    • Executive Director Corporate Services: Mr Gordon Stewart
    • Executive Director Strategy, Performance and Communications: Dr Sharon Cosgrove

In addition, Mrs Jane Tirard will continue in her role with the new title of Executive Director Finance, and Dr Janet Seed will extend her acting stewardship of the programmes area as Acting Executive Director Programmes pending an open recruitment exercise for the position.

So three prominent members of the previous line-up are no longer part of the team:

For example, out goes hard-tackling wide man and own-goal specialist, Richard Wade, who apparently leaves on a free transfer. Or is he just on the subs’ bench for the time being?  According to the diagram, Tim Bestwick stays but will move from a central position to the right side, roughly changing position with Gordon Stewart who also keeps his place in the team. Andrew Taylor, formerly in midfield, moves to an inside forward role where, as Director of the National Laboratories, he will sometimes be “in the hole” (i.e. Didcot).

Most pundits reckon the new-look STFC will deploy a Diamond-Light Source shaped midfield aimed at closing down the opposition, as opposed to the old team which concentrated more on closing down its own facilities. It looks like the reorganization was made with  one eye on European challenges, but Womersley remains committed to the national game, as last week’s scouting trip to the University of Neasden makes clear.

The STFC supporters’ club  (Sid and Doris Bonkers) expressed delight with the team changes, but former manager Keith Mason remains bound and gagged in the basement of UKSA was unavailable for comment.

Harry Redknapp is 97.

P.S. The STFC statement describes the staff departures thus:

STFC has benefited from the very significant personal contributions of the existing senior management team. They have helped develop STFC into a successful workplace as recognised by the recent Investor in People accreditation (Silver status), and our positive Comprehensive Spending Round outcome. However, the changing dynamics of STFC mean that it is time for a change and not all senior managers will continue with the organisation.

Do I detect a note of insincerity?

 

Cambridge Entrance Examination – Physics (1981)

Posted in Biographical, Education with tags , , , on February 27, 2012 by telescoper

In response to a request to a while ago when I posted the Mathematics paper, here is the Physics paper I took as part of the Cambridge Entrance  Examinations way back in 1981.

I’ve decided to try out Qu. 13 on my third-year students doing Nuclear and Particle Physics this year just for fun. Other comments on the content and/or difficulty are welcome through the box below!

Setters and Solvers

Posted in Crosswords with tags , , , , , , on February 26, 2012 by telescoper

I realise that yesterday I said I only had time for a quick post, and then proceeded to write >1000 words on the subject of Masters degrees. Today I really only have time for a quick post, as I have to finish writing my examination paper (amongst other things).

Anyway, I haven’t blogged about crosswords for a while so I just thought mention a few things. Some time ago I switched from the Guardian to the Independent on Saturdays. The Guardian is a sad case. As its circulation falls, the price continues to rise. It is now getting more expensive virtually by the week. It comes with stacks of tedious supplements which go straight into the recycling bin anyway. There’s much less of the Independent and it’s both higher quality and cheaper. There’s a lesson there for the Grauniad, I think.

More importantly (for me) the Guardian’s crosswords have gone rapidly downhill and I much prefer the Independent’s setters nowadays. I do occasionally do the Grauniad prize one by downloading it from the net, especially if it’s Araucaria, but most of the other setters are nowhere near as good. Since I started doing the Indy crossword last year I’ve won the prize, a rather splendid dictionary, three times. I’ve got one in my study at home and one in my office. The other I gave to my mum. If I win any more I’m not sure how I’ll dispose of them. Perhaps I could open a shop?

The magazine bit of the Independent has a more difficult crossword called Inquisitor. I’m not sure about these at all. Sometimes they’re really good, but too often they require so many modifications to be made to each solution before entry into the grid that they become completely tedious, and the completed puzzle just looks like a random jumble of letters. Call me old-fashioned, but I like my crosswords to have words in them. Last week’s (Inquisitor 1217) was an extreme example, with “thematic modifications” all over the place and some parts of the puzzle completely unclued. It turned out that you had to remove every third letter of each solution before entering it into the grid, the theme being an obscure and entirely unclued reference to the Rime of the Ancient Mariner “And he stoppeth one of three”. I got there in the end – I find I can’t leave a puzzle incomplete once I’ve started – but I didn’t post it off in protest at how unsatisfying it was.  I don’t mind difficult puzzles, but they have to be fair: leaving huge parts of the puzzle unclued means that it’s just guesswork rather than logic.

My favourite crossword is still Azed in the Observer. I got off to a good start in this year’s clue setting competition with a run of VHCs (“Very Highly Commended”). However, I didn’t have time to do the Christmas Azed and have therefore slipped down the league table a bit.

I got an HC in the last competition, No. 2070, in which the word to be clued was MISTREATMENT. My clue was

Kinky “Master” welcoming one into pain or wanting abuse

i.e. anagram of MASTER including I running into TORMENT with OR missing (wanting); abuse is the definition. It’s OK I suppose but admittedly not as good as the prize-winning entries.

This word is tailor-made for an &lit type of clue, which Azed seems to like. The winning entry for this one was of this type

Abuse T. Emin’s art met?

So you can read this as “abuse” (an anagram indicator) of the subsequent letters to make MISTREATMENT or the whole clue itself as a definition. Azed seems to allow a lot of slack in the definition part of such clues, but I’m not at all convinced that “T. Emin’s art” has ever been actually mistreated so I don’t like this as much as some of the other clues. It’s not my decision, however, and I have to say some of the clues in the list are really superb, much better than my mundane effort.

I love solving crossword puzzles, but I find setting the clues extremely difficult. I think I’m the same way with physics too. I like solving – or trying to solve – problems of various kinds, but I find setting them very hard work. That’s why it takes me so long to write examination papers, and why I consequently have to go into the office on a lovely spring sunday. It would be much easier to set exactly the same paper as last year, but of course no self-respecting university teacher would ever even dream of doing that….

A Little Respect

Posted in Biographical, Music with tags , on February 25, 2012 by telescoper

And if I should falter
Would you open your arms out to me?

What’s the Difference between a Masters and a Masters?

Posted in Education with tags , , , , , , on February 25, 2012 by telescoper

After a day in London away from the department for the “Kick-off” meeting of this year’s Astronomy Grants Panel I find myself back in lovely sunny Cardiff with a mountain of things to catch up on: exams to set, forms to fill in, postgraduate interviews to arrange, forms to fill in, references to write, forms to fill in, lectures to prepare, oh and some forms to fill in. I’ll therefore keep this brief before grabbing a bite to eat and heading off to the department for an afternoon in the office.

Quite a few times recently, current and prospective students (or parents thereof) have asked me what the difference is between an MSc and an MSci or equivalent (which, at least in Cardiff, exists in various flavours according to the specialism, i.e. MPhys, MChem, etc). I have to admit that it’s all very confusing so here’s my attempt to explain.

The main distinction is that the MSc “Master of Science” is a (taught) postgraduate (PG) degree, usually of one year’s duration, whereas the MPhys etc are undergraduate (UG) degrees usually lasting 4 years. This means that students wanting to do an MSc must already have completed a degree programme (and usually have been awarded at least Second Class Honours)  before starting an MSc.

Undergraduate students wanting to do Physics in the School of Physics & Astronomy at Cardiff University, for example, can opt for either the 3-year BSc or the 4-year MPhys programmes. However, choosing the 4-year option does not lead to the award of a BSc degree and then a subsequent Masters qualification;  graduating students get a single qualification.

It is possible for a student to take a BSc and then do a taught MSc programme afterwards, perhaps at a different university, but there are relatively few MSC programmes for Physics  in the UK because the vast majority of students who are interested in postgraduate study will already have registered for 4-year undergraduate programmes. That’s not to say there are none, however. There are notable MSc programmes dotted around, but they tend to be rather specialist; examples related to my own area include Astronomy and Cosmology at Sussex and Astrophysics at Queen Mary. The only MSc programme we have in my department is in Biophotonics. To a large extent these courses survive by recruiting students from outside the UK because the market from home students is so small. No department can afford to put on an entire MSc programme for the benefit of just one or two students.

So why does it matter whether one Masters is PG while the other is UG? One difference is that the MSc lasts a calendar year (rather than an academic year). In terms of material covered, this means it contains 180 credits compared to the 120 credits of an undergraduate programme. Typically the MSc will have 120 credits of courses, examined in June as with UG programmes, followed by 60 credits worth of project work over the summer, handed in in September.

The reason why this question comes up so frequently nowadays is that the current generation of applicants to university (and their parents) are facing up to fees of £9K per annum. The cost of doing a 3-year BSc is then about £27K compared to £36K for an MPhys. When rushing through the legislation to allow universities to charge this amount, the Powers That Be completely forgot about PG programmes, which have accordingly maintained their fees at a similar level. For example, the MSc Astronomy at Sussex attracts a fee of about £5K for home students and about £15K for overseas students. These levels are roughly consistent with the UG fees paid by existing home students (approx £3.5K per annum, bearing in mind that you get 1.5 times as much teaching on an MSc compared to a year of an MPhys).

Being intelligent people, prospective physicists look at the extra £9K they have to pay for the 4th year of an MPhys and compare it with the current rate for an entire MSc and come to the conclusion that they should just do a BSc then switch. This seems to be not an unreasonable calculation to make.

However, there are some important things to bear in mind. Firstly, unlike UG programmes, the fee for PG programmes is basically unregulated. Universities can charge whatever they like and can increase them in the future if they decide to. See, for example, the list at Cardiff University which shows that MSc fees already vary by more than a factorof four from one school to another. Incidentally, that in itself shows the absurdity of charging the same fee for UG degrees regardless of subject…

Now the point is that if one academic year of UG teaching is going cost £9K for future students, there is no way any department can justify putting on an entire calendar of advanced courses (i.e. 50% more teaching at an extremely specialist level) for half tthe  income per student. The logical fee level for MSc programmes must rise to a mininum of about 1.5 times the UG fee, which is a whopping £13.5K (similar to the current whopping amount already paid by overseas students). It’s therefore clear that you cannot take the current MSc fee levels as a guide to what they will be in three years’ time, when you will qualify to enter a taught PG programme. Prices will certainly have risen by then.

Moreover, it’s much harder to get financial support for postgraduate than undergraduate study.  MSc students do not qualify for student loans as undergraduates do, for example. Also the MSc fee usually has to be paid in full, up front, not collected later when your income exceeds some level. Some PG courses do run their own bursary schemes, but generally speaking students on taught PG programmes have to find their own funding.

In summary I’d say that, contrary to what many people seem to think,  if you take into the full up-front fee and the lack of student loans etc, the cost of a BSc + MSc is  already significantly greater than doing an MPhys, and in future the cost of the former route will inevitably increase. I therefore don’t think this is a sensible path for most Physics undergraduates to take, assuming that they want their MSc to qualify them for a career in Physics research, either in a university or a commercial organization, perhaps via the PhD degree, and they’re not so immensely rich that money is no consideration.

The exception to this conclusion is for the student who wishes to switch to another field at Masters level,  to do a specialist MSc in a more applied discipline such as medical physics or engineering. Then it might make sense, as long as you can find a way to deal with the increased cost.

In conclusion, though, I have to say that, like many other aspects of Higher Education in the Disunited Kingdom, this system is a mess. I’d prefer to see the unified system of 3 year UG Bachelor degrees, 2-year Masters, and 3-year PhD that pertains throughout most of contintental Europe. To colleagues there our two types of Masters degree and the funding anomalies arising from them look like a complete mess. Which is what they are.

P.S. In the interest of full disclosure, I should point out an even worse anomaly. I did a 3-year Honours degree in Natural Science at Cambridge University for which I was awarded not a BSc but a BA (Bachelor of Arts). A year or so later this – miraculously and with no effort on my part – turned into an MA. Work that one out if you can.

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