The Physics Overview

I found out by accident the other day that the Panels conducting the 2008 Research Assessment Exercise have now published their subject overviews, in which they comment trends within each discipline.

Heading straight for the overview produced by the panel for Physics (which is available together with two other panels here),I found some interesting points, some of which relate to comments posted on my previous items about the RAE results (here and here) until I terminated the discussion.

One issue that concerns many physicists is how the research profiles produced by the RAE panel will translate into funding. I’ve taken the liberty of extracting a couple of paragraphs from the report to show what they think. (For those of you not up with the jargon, UoA19 is the Unit of Assessment 19, which is Physics).

The sub-panel is pleased with how much of the research fell into the 4* category and that this excellence is widely spread so that many smaller departments have their share of work assessed at the highest grade. Every submitted department to UoA19 had at least 70% of their overall quality profile at 2* or above, i.e. internationally recognised or above.

Sub-panel 19 takes the view that the research agenda of any group, or of any individual for that matter, is interspersed with fallow periods during which the next phase of the research is planned and during which outputs may be relatively incremental, even if of high scientific quality. In the normal course of events successful departments with a long term view will have a number of outputs at the 3* and 2* level indicating that the groundwork is being laid for the next set of 4* work. This is most obviously true for those teams involved with very major experiments in the big sciences, but also applies to some degree in small science. Thus the quality profile is a dynamic entity and even among groups of very high international standing there is likely to be cyclic variation in the relative amounts of 3* and 4* work according to the rhythm of their research programmes. Most departments have what we would consider a healthy balance between the perceived quality levels. The subpanel strongly believes that the entire overall profile should be considered when measuring the quality of a department, rather than focussing on the 4* component only.

I think this is very sensible, but for more reasons than are stated. For a start the judgement of what is 4* or 3* must be to some extent subjective and it would be crazy to allocate funding entirely according to the fraction of 4* work. I’ve heard informally that the error in any of the percentages for any assessment is plus or minus 10%, which also argues for a conservative formula. However one might argue about the outcome, the panels clearly spent a lot of time and effort determining the profiles so it would seem to make sense to use all the information they provide rather than just a part.

Curiously, though, the panel made no comment about why it is that physics came out so much worse than chemistry in the 2008 exercise (about one-third of the chemistry departments in the country had a profile-weighted quality mark higher than or equal to the highest-rated physics department). Perhaps they just think UK chemistry is a lot better than UK physics.

Anyway, as I said, the issue most of us are worrying about is how this will translate into cash. I suspect HEFCE hasn’t worked this out at all yet either. The panel clearly thinks that money shouldn’t just follow the 4* research, but the HEFCE managers might differ. If they do wish to follow a drastically selective policy they’ve got a very big problem: most physics departments are rated very close together in score. Any attempt to separate them using the entire profile would be hard to achieve and even harder to justify.

The panel also made a specific comment about Wales and Scotland, which is particularly interesting for me (being here in Cardiff):

Sub-panel 19 regards the Scottish Universities Physics Alliance collaboration between Scottish departments as a highly positive development enhancing the quality of research in Scotland. South of the border other collaborations have also been formed with similar objectives. On the other hand we note with concern the performance of three Welsh departments where strategic management did not seem to have been as effective as elsewhere.

I’m not sure whether the dig about Welsh physics departments is aimed at the Welsh funding agency HEFCW or the individual university groups; SUPA was set up with the strong involvement of SFC and various other physics groupings in England (such as the Midlands Physics Alliance) were actively encouraged by HEFCE. It is true, though, that the 3 active physics departments in Wales (Cardiff, Swansea and Aberystwyth) all did quite poorly in the RAE. In the last RAE, HEFCW did not apply as selective a funding formula as its English counterpart HEFCE with the result that Cardiff didn’t get as much research funding as it would if it had been in England. One might argue that this affected the performance this time around, but I’m not sure about this as it’s not clear how any extra funding coming into Cardiff would have been spent. I doubt if HEFCW will do any different this time either. Welsh politics has a strong North-South issue going on, so HEFCW will probably feel it has to maintain a department in the North. It therefore can’t penalise Aberystwyth too badly for its poor RAE showing. The other two departments are larger and had very similar profiles (Swansea better than Cardiff, in fact) so there’s very little justification for being too selective there either.

The panel remarked on the success of SUPA which received a substantial injection of cash from the Scottish Funding Council (SFC) and which has led to new appointments in strategic areas in several Scottish universities. I’m a little bit skeptical about the long-term benefits of this because the universities themselves will have to pick up the tab for these positions when the initial funding dries up. Although it will have bought them extra points on the RAE score the continuing financial viability of physics departments is far from guaranteed because nobody yet knows whether they will gain as much cash from the outcome as they spent to achieve it. The same goes for other universities, particularly Nottingham, who have massively increased their research activity with cash from various sources and consequently done very well in the RAE. But will they get back as much as they have put in? It remains to be seen.

What I would say about SUPA is that it has definitely given Scottish physics a higher profile, largely from the appointment of Ian Halliday to front it. He is an astute political strategist and respected scientist who performed impressively as Chief Executive of the now-defunct Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council and is also President of the European Science Foundation. Having such a prominent figurehead gives the alliance more muscle than a group of departmental heads would ever hope to have.

So should there be a Welsh version of SUPA? Perhaps WUPA?

Well, Swansea and Cardiff certainly share some research interests in the area of condensed-matter physics but their largest activities (Astronomy in Cardiff, Particle Physics in Swansea) are pretty independent. It seems to me to be to be well worth thinking of some sort of initiative to pool resources and try to make Welsh physics a bit less parochial, but the question is how to do it. At coffee the other day, I suggested an initiative in the area of astroparticle physics could bring in genuinely high quality researchers as well as establishing synergy between Swansea and Cardiff, which are only an hour apart by train. The idea went down like a lead balloon, but I still think it’s a good one. Whether HEFCW has either the resources or the inclination to do something like it is another matter, even if the departments themselves were to come round.

Anyway, I’m sure there will be quite a lot more discussion about our post-RAE strategy if and when we learn more about the funding implications. I personally think we could do with a radical re-think of the way physics in Wales is organized and could do with a champion who has the clout of Scotland’s SUPA-man.

The mystery as far as I am concerned remains why Cardiff did so badly in the ratings. I think the first quote may offer part of the explanation because we have large groups in Astronomical Instrumentation and Gravitational Physics, both of which have very long lead periods. However, I am surprised and saddened by the fact that the fraction rated at 4* is so very low. We need to find out why. Urgently.

7 Responses to “The Physics Overview”

  1. Bryn Jones Says:

    It is interesting that the RAE overview seems to be taking an opinion that discourages the very highest degree of selectivity.

    The difference in RAE results between physics (+ astronomy) and chemistry is indeed rather worrying; not because there are likely to be real differences in research quality between the two disciplines, but because some Treasury civil servants may think there are, which may have an impact on future comprehensive spending review negotiations.

    Yes, collaborations between particle physics and astronomy can be in the form of astroparticle physics, although astroparticle initiatives might have a tendency to be a particle physics “intersection” astronomy (to use mathematical language), rather than particle physics “union” astronomy which might be the preferred option.

    And as for Wales specifically, yes, I agree with a lot of what you say, and some of it very strongly.

    It should be remembered that the Cardiff astrophysics group did establish an initiative with the Swansea particle physics group around 1995 (indeed when Ian Halliday was at Swansea). A joint meeting was held in Swansea consisting of talks by researchers summarising their interests. Later, Warren Perkins, a particle physicist from Swansea, gave a postgraduate lecture course on particle physics in Cardiff, with one lecture per week, running for several months. It sounds from the posting that this initiative has faded from memory.

    There were also some other activities between the three University of Wales physics departments in the mid-1990s. Occasional meetings for lecturing staff, and some postgraduate conferences, were held at Gregynog in Mid Wales. Some postgraduate lectures were arranged using teleconferencing.

    The Scottish Universities Physics Alliance has always looked to me like a model that could be replicated in Wales. I felt that the University of Wales had in place a structure that could be used for inter-institution research cooperation across a broad range of academic subjects, in order to pursue excellence in research. This could have seen something like a University of Wales Faculty of Physics linking the physics departments in Cardiff, Swansea and Aberystyth, plus some medical physics, solid state, geophysics and environmental physics in some other departments. Little like this has been tried, and Cardiff has chosen to become an independent university on its own.

    HEFCW has seen the need for inter-institution collaboration. However, it tried to bring this about by encouraging cooperation between individual universities, and much on a general regional level. Bangor and the North-east Wales Institute in Wrexham were encouraged to share some facilities despite being 50+ miles apart. A merger between Glamorgan and UWIC was encouraged, but negotiations failed to bring this to fruition. There was little HEFCW support for the broad, subject-specific collaboration in research across Wales that was needed, perhaps because HEFCW has not understood the need for broad cooperation to achieve excellence.

    One last note about geography. Although Aberystwyth may look from Cardiff as though it is in North Wales, conversely from North Wales it looks as though Aber is in the South. Despite this, we have to recognise the truth that Aberystwyth is in Mid Wales, and any support for activities in Aber will not satisfy any (often legitimate) North Wales regional lobbies.

  2. telescoper Says:


    I’ve been here 18 months now, but my knowledge of Welsh political geography is still embarrassingly poor. However, there are only 3 surviving research active departments in Wales and Aber is the most northerly. I don’t think it’s a viable option to re-start Bangor.

    There are ongoing joint things going on at Gregynog, which is one idea that could be built on. I’ve been there and it’s a great place for meetings.

    I also didn’t know about the astroparticle initiative which was all long before my time. But you also gave me an idea. I had forgotten that Ian Halliday was formerly in Swansea. Given his experience there and leading SUPA, he would be an ideal person to ask for advice…


  3. Bryn Jones Says:


    Perhaps I should buy you a map of Wales. And I certainly was not advocating restarting a physics department in Bangor: that has gone, and mathematics too (where Thomas Cowling once did important work on solar magnetic fields).

    Good luck with your efforts in trying to take things forward in physics. I hope your colleagues will be supportive.


  4. telescoper Says:

    Don’t hold your breath….

    I am determined to make the effort to travel about in Wales a bit more. I haven’t even been to Swansea yet!

    It always annoys me when people talk about Birmingham being in the North of England, so I imagine my comment about Aber is similarly irritating.

  5. […] of them had come to the meeting, but I was the only representative from Cardiff. There was a strong steer from the RAE panel for physics in terms of closer collaboration so we chatted a bit about […]

  6. […] think I’ve made it clear (here, here, here, here and here) that I think the RAE was a bit of a botch generally and that Physics was particularly badly done […]

  7. […] blogged about the RAE results before: here, there, elsewhere, et cetera and passim. Andy Lawrence (e-astronomer) has now written a blog post about the latest […]

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