Archive for research

That Was The REF That Was..

Posted in Finance, Science Politics with tags , , , , , , on December 18, 2014 by telescoper

I feel obliged to comment on the results of the 2014 Research Excellence Framework (REF) that were announced today. Actually, I knew about them yesterday but the news was under embargo until one minute past midnight by which time I was tucked up in bed.

The results for the two Units of Assessment relevant to the School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences are available online here for Mathematical Sciences and here for Physics and Astronomy.

To give some background: the overall REF score for a Department is obtained by adding three different components: outputs (quality of research papers); impact (referrring to the impact beyond academia); and environment (which measures such things as grant income, numbers of PhD students and general infrastructure). These are weighted at 65%, 20% and 15% respectively.

Scores are assigned to these categories, e.g. for submitted outputs (usually four per staff member) on a scale of 4* (world-leading), 3* (internationally excellent), 2* (internationally recognised), 1* (nationally recognised) and unclassified and impact on a scale 4* (outstanding), 3* (very considerable), 2* (considerable), 1* (recognised but modest) and unclassified. Impact cases had to be submitted based on the number of staff submitted: two up to 15 staff, three between 15 and 25 and increasing in a like manner with increasing numbers.

The REF will control the allocation of funding in a manner yet to be decided in detail, but it is generally thought that anything scoring 2* or less will attract no funding (so the phrase “internationally recognised” really means “worthless” in the REF, as does “considerable” when applied to impact). It is also thought likely that funding will be heavily weighted towards 4* , perhaps with a ratio of 9:1 between 4* and 3*.

We knew that this REF would be difficult for the School and our fears were born out for both the Department of Mathematics or the Department of Physics and Astronomy because both departments grew considerably (by about 50%) during the course of 2013, largely in response to increased student numbers. New staff can bring outputs from elsewhere, but not impact. The research underpinning the impact has to have been done by staff working in the institution in question. And therein lies the rub for Sussex…

To take the Department of Physics and Astronomy, as an example, last year we increased staff numbers from about 23 to about 38. But the 15 new staff members could not bring any impact with them. Lacking sufficient impact cases to submit more, we were obliged to restrict our submission to fewer than 25. To make matters worse our impact cases were not graded very highly, with only 13.3% of the submission graded 4* and 13.4% graded 3*.

The outputs from Physics & Astronomy at Sussex were very good, with 93% graded 3* or 4*. That’s a higher fraction than Oxford, Cambridge, Imperial College and UCL in fact, and with a Grade Point Average of 3.10. Most other departments also submitted very good outputs – not surprisingly because the UK is actually pretty good at Physics – so the output scores are very highly bunched and a small difference in GPA means a large number of places in the rankings. The impact scores, however, have a much wider dispersion, with the result that despite the relatively small percentage contribution they have a large effect on overall rankings. As a consequence, overall, Sussex Physics & Astronomy slipped down from 14th in the RAE to 34th place in the REF (based on a Grade Point Average). Disappointing to say the least, but we’re not the only fallers. In the 2008 RAE the top-rated physics department was Lancaster; this time round they are 27th.

I now find myself in a situation eerily reminiscent of that I found myself facing in Cardiff after the 2008 Research Assessment Exercise, the forerunner of the REF. Having been through that experience I’m a hardened to disappointments and at least can take heart from Cardiff’s performance this time round. Spirits were very low there after the RAE, but a thorough post-mortem, astute investment in new research areas, and determined preparations for this REF have paid dividends: they have climbed to 6th place this time round. That gives me the chance not only to congratulate my former colleagues there for their excellent result but also to use them as an example for what we at Sussex have to do for next time. An even more remarkable success story is Strathclyde, 34th in the last RAE and now top of the REF table. Congratulations to them too!

Fortunately our strategy is already in hand. The new staff have already started working towards the next REF (widely thought to be likely to happen in 2020) and we are about to start a brand new research activity in experimental physics next year. We will be in a much better position to generate research impact as we diversify our portfolio so that it is not as strongly dominated by “blue skies” research, such as particle physics and astronomy, for which it is much harder to demonstrate economic impact.

I was fully aware of the challenges facing Physics & Astronomy at Sussex when I moved here in February 2013, but with the REF submission made later the same year there was little I could do to alter the situation. Fortunately the University of Sussex management realises that we have to play a long game in Physics and has been very supportive of our continued strategic growth. The result of the 2014 REF result is a setback but it does demonstrate that the stategy we have already embarked upon is the right one.

Roll on 2020!

Graphic Display

Posted in Art, Biographical with tags , , , , on November 29, 2014 by telescoper

Two days ago, on Thursday, I had the pleasure of spending all day at an “Awayday” trying to work out how to implement the University of Sussex Strategic Plan, Making the Future. My main contribution was this beautifully clear diagram summarising a lengthy discussion on research strategy:
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Obviously the diagram needs no further explanation, but members of the audience were so impressed with it as a piece of graphic art that the end of the day I was asked to sign it.

Research Strategy

Now, who’s going to nominate me for the Turner Prize?

Athena SWAN Bronze for Physics & Astronomy at Sussex

Posted in Education with tags , , , , , , on September 25, 2014 by telescoper

Athena Swan

Only  time for the quickest of quickies today, but I have some very good news to pass on so, without further ado, here we go. Today we learned that the Department of Physics & Astronomy at the University of Sussex has received a the Athena SWAN Bronze Award in recognition of our commitment to advancing women’s careers in science, technology, engineering, maths and medicine (STEMM) employment in higher education and research. The Athena SWAN charter has been running since 2005, recognising the commitment of the higher education sector to address gender inequalities, tackle the unequal representation of women in science and to improve career progression for female academics.

This award has been the result of a huge effort led by Dr Kathy Romer but also involving many other members of staff in the Department and across entire  the School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences generally. The Department scored at or above the national average in all key areas: student intake (UG, PGT, PGR), research staff, academic staff, REF submissions and so on. That said, the Athena SWAN process has highlighted several areas where improvements can be made, such as in the mentoring of female postdoctoral researchers, and enhanced levels of training in equality and diversity matters such as the influence of unconscious bias. We are very pleased to have received the bronze award, but there is still a very great deal to do. Many other institutions and departments have already progressed to the Silver or even Gold award, but our Bronze is at least a start!

 

 

Life, Work and Postgraduate Research

Posted in Biographical, Crosswords, Education with tags , , , , on September 21, 2014 by telescoper

A very busy Freshers’ Week at the University of Sussex is now behind us and lectures proper start tomorrow morning. As far as I was concerned all the Freshers’ events were superimposed on a week that was already filled with other things, some good (of which more anon), and some not so good (of which I will say nothing further).

After welcome receptions at the weekend, Freshers’ Week for me began with an induction lecture with all the new students in the School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences (MPS) or at least as many as could rouse themselves for a 10am start the day after a big welcome party. In the event, the turnout was good. I then gave another little speech at a much less formal event in the Creativity Zone (which is situated in the building occupied by MPS. I then had to dash off to a couple of meetings but when I returned a couple of hours later the party was still going, so I helped myself to a beer and rejoined the socializing.

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Welcome to the new students in MPS!

And so it was for the rest of the week, dominated by meetings of one sort or another including one in London, until Friday and my last formal induction task in the form of a session for new postgraduate students in MPS. Since this happened at the end of Induction Week there wasn’t much of a practical nature say to the students that they hadn’t already heard during the School-based induction sessions that preceded it, so I decided to scrap the Powerpoint I had planned to use and just give a general pep talk. Doing so was quite an interesting experience because it reminded me of the time I started my own postgraduate education, here at Sussex.

As a matter of fact it was on the corresponding day in 1985 (Sunday 22nd September) that I moved down to Brighton in advance of starting my DPhil (as Sussex doctorates were called in those days). It’s hard to believe that was 29 years ago. As it turned out, I finished my thesis within three years and stayed on here at Sussex as a postdoctoral research fellow in the Astronomy Centre until 1990, whereupon I left to take up a teaching and research position at what is now Queen Mary, University of London. That was the start of a mini-tour of UK universities that ended up with me returning to Sussex last year as Head of the same school in which I started my research career.

This morning I noticed a story in the Times Higher about the loneliness and sense of isolation often faced by postgraduate research students which often leads to a crisis of confidence. I can certainly attest to that, for reasons I will try to explain below, so tried to reassure the students about it in the induction session on Friday.

The point is that a postgraduate research degree is very different from a programme of undergraduate study. For one thing, as a research student you are expected to work on your own a great deal of the time. That’s because nobody else will be doing precisely the same project so, although other students will help you out with some things, you’re not trying to solve the same problems as your peers as is the case with an undergraduate. Your supervisor will help you of course and make suggestions (of varying degrees of helpfulness), but a PhD is still a challenge that you have to meet on your own. I don’t think it is good supervisory practice to look over a research student’s shoulder all the time. It’s part of the purpose of a PhD that the student learns to go it alone. There is a balance of course, but my own supervisor was rather “hands off” and I regard that as the right way to supervise. I’ve always encouraged my own students to do things their own way rather than try to direct them too much.

That loneliness is tough in itself, but there’s also the scary fact that you do not usually know whether your problem has a solution, let alone whether you yourself can find it. There is no answer at the back of the book; if there were you would not be doing research. A good supervisor will suggest a project that he or she thinks is both interesting and feasible, but the expectation is that you will very quickly be in a position where you know more about that topic than your supervisor.

I think almost every research student goes through a phase in which they feel out of their depth. There are times when you get thoroughly stuck and you begin to think you will never crack it. Self-doubt, crisis of confidence, call it what you will, I think everyone who has done a postgraduate degree has experienced it. I certainly did. A year into my PhD I felt I was getting nowhere with the first problem I had been given to solve. All the other research students seemed much cleverer and more confident than me. Had I made a big mistake thinking I could this? I started to panic and began to think about what kind of job I should go into if I abandoned the idea of pursuing a career in research.

So why didn’t I quit? There were a number of factors, including the support and encouragement of my supervisor, staff and fellow students in the Astronomy Centre, and the fact that I loved living in Brighton, but above all it was because I knew that I would feel frustrated for the rest of my life if I didn’t see it through. I’m a bit obsessive about things like that. I can never leave a crossword unfinished either.

What happened was that after some discussion with my supervisor I shelved that first troublesome problem and tried another, much easier one. I cracked that fairly quickly and it became my first proper publication. Moreover, thinking about that other problem revealed that there was a way to finesse the difficulty I had failed to overcome in the first project. I returned to the first project and this time saw it through to completion. With my supervisor’s help that became my second paper, published in 1987.

I know it’s wrong to draw inferences about other people from one’s own particular experiences, but I do feel that there are general lessons. One is that if you are going to complete a research degree you have to have a sense of determination that borders on obsession. I was talking to a well-known physicist at a meeting not long ago and he told me that when he interviews prospective physics students he asks them “Can you live without physics?”. If the answer is “yes” then he tells them not to do a PhD. It’s not just a take-it-or-leave-it kind of job being a scientist. You have to immerse yourself in it and be prepared to put long hours in. When things are going well you will be so excited that you will find it as hard to stop as it is when you’re struggling. I’d imagine it is the just same for other disciplines.

The other, equally important, lesson to be learned is that it is essential to do other things as well. Being “stuck” on a problem is part-and-parcel of mathematics or physics research, but sometimes battering your head against the same thing for days on end just makes it less and less likely you will crack it. The human brain is a wonderful thing, but it can get stuck in a rut. One way to avoid this happening is to have more than one thing to think about.

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been stuck on the last clue in a crossword. What I always do in that situation is put it down and do something else for a bit. It could even be something as trivial as making a cup of tea, just as long as I don’t think about the clue at all while I’m doing it. Nearly always when I come back to it and look at it afresh I can solve it. I have a large stack of prize dictionaries to prove that this works!

It can be difficult to force yourself to pause in this way. I’m sure that I’m not the only physicist who has been unable to sleep for thinking about their research. I do think however that it is essential to learn how to effect your own mental reboot. In the context of my PhD research this involved simply turning to a different research problem, but I think the same purpose can be served in many other ways: taking a break, going for a walk, playing sport, listening to or playing music, reading poetry, doing a crossword, or even just taking time out to socialize with your friends. Time spent sitting at your desk isn’t guaranteed to be productive.

So, for what it’s worth here is my advice to new postgraduate students. Work hard. Enjoy the challenge. Listen to advice from your supervisor, but remember that the PhD is your opportunity to establish your own identity as a researcher. Above all, in the words of the Desiderata:

Beyond a wholesome discipline,
be gentle with yourself.

Never feel guilty about establishing a proper work-life balance. Having more than one dimension to your life is will not only improve your well-being but also make you a better researcher.

Talking About Undergraduate Physics Research…

Posted in Education, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , , on July 2, 2014 by telescoper

One of the courses we offer in the School of Physics & Astronomy here at the University of Sussex is the integrated Masters in Physics with a Research Placement. Aimed at high-flying students with ambitions to become research physicists, this programme includes a paid research placement as a Junior Research Associate each summer vacation for the duration of the course; that means between Years 1 & 2, Years 2 & 3 and Years 3 & 4 . This course has proved extremely attractive to a large number of very talented students and it exemplifies the way the Department of Physics & Astronomy integrates world-class research with its teaching in a uniquely successful and imaginative way.

Some time ago I blogged about  some very good news about one of our undergraduate researchers, Talitha Bromwich, who is about to graduate from her MPhys degree, after which she will be heading to Oxford to start her PhD DPhil; she is pictured below with her supervisor Dr Simon Peeters:

Talitha Bromwich with her JRA supervisor Dr Simon Peeters at 'Posters in Parliament' event 25 Feb 14

Talitha spent last summer working on the DEAP3600 dark-matter detector after being selected for the University’s Junior Research Associate scheme. Her project won first prize at the University’s JRA poster exhibition last October, and she was then chosen to present her findings – alongside undergraduate researchers from 22 other universities – in Westminster yesterday as part of the annual Posters in Parliament exhibition, organized under the auspices of the British Conference of Undergraduate Research (BCUR).

A judging panel – consisting of Ben Wallace MP, Conservative MP for Wyre and Preston North; Sean Coughlan, Education Correspondent for the BBC; and Professor Julio Rivera, President of the US Council of Undergraduate Research; and Katherine Harrington of the Higher Education Academy – decided to award Talitha’s project First Prize in this extremely prestigious competition.

We held a small drinks party in the School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences to congratulate Talitha on her success. Here are a couple of pictures of that occasion:

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From left to right you see Simon Peeters, myself, Talitha and Prof. Michael Farthing (the Vice Chancellor of the University of Sussex); the winning poster is in the background. Here’s me presenting a little gift:

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More recently still, the MPS Elves have made a little video featuring Talitha talking about her research placement:

We take undergraduate research very seriously here at the University of Sussex, and are now extending the Research Placement scheme to Mathematics. Many Departments talk about how important it is that their teaching is based on state-of-the-art research, but here at Sussex we don’t just talk about research to undergraduates – we let them do it!

 

Sussex University – the Place for Undergraduate Physics Research!

Posted in The Universe and Stuff, Education with tags , , , , , , , on February 27, 2014 by telescoper

One of the courses we offer in the School of Physics & Astronomy here at the University of Sussex is the integrated Masters in Physics with a Research Placement. Aimed at high-flying students with ambitions to become research physicists, this programme includes a paid research placement as a Junior Research Associate each summer vacation for the duration of the course; that means between Years 1 & 2, Years 2 & 3 and Years 3 & 4 . This course has proved extremely attractive to a large number of very talented students and it exemplifies the way the Department of Physics & Astronomy integrates world-class research with its teaching in a uniquely successful and imaginative way.

Here’s a little video made by the University that features Sophie Williamson, who is currently in her second year (and who also in the class to whom I’m currently teaching a module on Theoretical Physics:

This week we had some very good news about another of our undergraduate researchers, Talitha Bromwich, who is now in the final year of her MPhys degree, and is pictured below with her supervisor Dr Simon Peeters:

Talitha Bromwich with her JRA supervisor Dr Simon Peeters at 'Posters in Parliament' event 25 Feb 14

Talitha spent last summer working on the DEAP3600 dark-matter detector after being selected for the University’s Junior Research Associate scheme. Her project won first prize at the University’s JRA poster exhibition last October, and she was then chosen to present her findings – alongside undergraduate researchers from 22 other universities – in Westminster yesterday as part of the annual Posters in Parliament exhibition, organized under the auspices of the British Conference of Undergraduate Research (BCUR).

A judging panel – consisting of Ben Wallace MP, Conservative MP for Wyre and Preston North; Sean Coughlan, Education Correspondent for the BBC; and Professor Julio Rivera, President of the US Council of Undergraduate Research; and Katherine Harrington of the Higher Education Academy – decided to award Talitha’s project First Prize in this extremely prestigious competition.

Congratulations to Talitha for her prizewinning project! I’m sure her outstanding success will inspire future generations of Sussex undergraduates too!

The Dark Side of the REF

Posted in Finance, Science Politics with tags , , , , , , , , on August 8, 2013 by telescoper

There’s a disturbing story in the latest Times Higher which argues that the University of Leicester has apparently reneged on a promise that non-submission to the forthcoming (2014)  Research Excellence Framework (REF) would not have negative career consequences. They have now said that except in exceptional circumstances, non-submitted academics will either be moved to a teaching-only contract (where there is a vacancy and they can demonstrate teaching excellence), or have their performance “managed”, with the threat of sacking if they don’t meet the specified targets.  I’d heard rumours of this on the grapevine (i.e. Twitter) before the Times Higher story was published. It’s very worrying to have it confirmed, as it raises all kinds of questions about what might happen in departments that turn out to have disappointing REF results .

There are (at least) two possible reasons for non-inclusion of the outputs of a researcher and it is important to distinguish between them. One is that the researcher hasn’t enough high-quality outputs to submit. In the absence of individual extenuating circumstances, researchers are expected to submit four “outputs” (in my discipline that means “research papers”) for assessment. That’s a pretty minimal level of productivity, actually;  such a number per year is a reasonable average for an active researcher in my field.  A person employed on a contract that specifies their duties as Teaching and Research may therefore be under-performing  if they can’t produce four papers over the period 2008-2013. I think some form of performance management  may be justifiable in this case, but the primary aim should be to help the individual rather than show them the door. We all have fallow periods in research, and it’s not appropriate to rush to sack anyone who experiences a lean time.   Andrew Wiles would have been considered `inactive’ had there been a REF in 1992 as he hadn’t published anything for years. Then he produced a proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem. Some things just take time.

A second reason for excluding researcher from the REF is that the institution concerned may be making a tactical submission. As the Times Higher article explains:

The memo suggests that academics would be spared repercussions if, among other reasons, the number of individuals submitted is “constrained” by the volume of case studies their department intends to enter to demonstrate research impact.

Institutions must submit one case study for every 10 scholars entered.

Maria Nedeva, professor of science and innovation dynamics and policy at Manchester Business School, said the tactic of deciding how many academics to submit based on impact case study numbers was “rife”.

(Incidentally, the second paragraph is not quite right. The number of case studies required depends on the number of staff submitted as follows: for fewer than 15 staff , TWO case studies;  for 15-24.99 staff it is THREE case studies – and then for each additional ten members of staff entered a further case study is required.)

e case study for every scholars included plus one, i.e. forThe statement at the end of the quote there is in line with my experience too.  The point is that the REF is not just a means of allocating relatively small amounts of so-called `QR’ research funding . Indeed, it remains entirely possible that no funding at all will be allocated following the 2014 exercise. The thinking then is that the number of staff submitted is largely irrelevant; all that will count is league table position.

This by no means the only example of the dangers that lurk when you take league tables too seriously.

If a department is required to submit, say, four impact cases if all staff are included in the REF submission, but only has three viable ones, it would not be unreasonable to submit fewer staff because their overall would be dragged down by a poor impact case even if the output quality of all staff is high.  There will certainly be highly active researchers in UK institutions, including many who hold sizable external research grants, whose outputs are not submitted to the REF. As the article points out, it would be very wrong for managers to penalize scholars who have been excluded because of this sort of game-playing. That’s certainly not going to happen in the School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences at Sussex University.  Not while I’m Head of School, anyway.

Moreover, even researchers whose “outputs” are not selected may still contribute to the “Environment” and/or “Impact” sections so they still, in a very real sense, do participate in their department’s REF submission.

My opinion? All this silliness could easily have been avoided by requiring all staff in all units of assessment to be submitted by all departments. You know, like would have happened if the system were actually designed to identify and reward research excellence. Instead, it’s yet another example of a bureaucratic machine that’s become entirely self-serving. It exists simply because it exists.  Research would be much better off without it.

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