Archive for December, 2014

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!

Anthem for Doomed Academics

Posted in Poetry, Science Politics with tags , , on December 17, 2014 by telescoper

Well, not long now until the announcement of the results of the 2014 Research Excellence Framework are known publicly. I’ll post something in the way of a personal reflection tomorrow, as long as I haven’t thrown myself off Brighton Pier by then. In the meantime, I couldn’t resist sharing this brilliant parody of Wilfred Owen I found via Twitter…

Stumbling with Confidence

(This has been written as the momentous results of the Research Excellence Framework, known to all and sundry as the dreaded REF, are about to be announced, and as careers hang in the balance depending on who are the winners and losers.)

Anthem for Doomed Academics

(with apologies to Wilfred Owen)

What lasting hell for these who try as authors?
Only the monstrous anger of the dons.
Only the stuttering academic’s crippled cursor
Can patter out career horizons.
No metrics now for them; no citations nor reviews;
Nor any voice of warning save the choirs, –
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing peers;
And lost opportunities calling them from sad HEIs.
What meetings may be held to speed them all?
Not in the hand of managers but in their eyes
Shall shine the unholy glimmers of goodbyes.
The cost of student fees shall be their pall;
Their inheritance the frustrations…

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Contact

Posted in Art with tags , , , on December 16, 2014 by telescoper

As I mentioned in my previous post, yesterday evening  I attended the opening of a new show at the Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris. The first thing to say is that the Fondation Louis Vuitton building, designed by Frank Gehry, is an absolutely amazing structure. It was dark and rainy when I arrived there yesterday and I failed to get any decent pictures of the outside but if you google around you will see what I mean. The interior of the building is an extraordinary as the outside; indeed, it’s such a complex topology that the distinction between inside and outside gets completely lost. It’s definitely a work of art in its own right and enormous fun to wander around, although some of the terraces and balconies are not suitable for those of us who are afraid of heights especially since the only barriers are transparent.

Anyway, the installation I mainly went to see, by Olafur Eliasson,  called Contact, is built around two large spaces on the lower ground floor of the Fondation Louis Vuitton building. The first room is semi-circular in shape and darkened. Along what would be the diameter were it a full circle there is a mirror, just in front of the centre of which there is a bright light surrounded by metallic structure in the form of a mesh. The light illuminates a strip of the circular wall, with darkness above and below, and not only casts a shadow of the mesh against the curved wall but also does the same for the people in the room. The radius of the semicircle is about 25 metres so the room can accommodate many people.

First impressions entering this space are quite strange. First, the room seems to be exactly circular. Then you realise there is a mirror and the mixture of geometrical and human shadows on the circular section of wall. Once you have taken in the true geometry, however, there is stull the fun of watching how people behave within it. Like many of Olafur’s works, this one is as much created by the people who enter the room as it is by the artist.

My phone wasn’t really up to taking pictures of this – and in any case it’s something to be experience rather than seen in a photograph, but here are some attempts. In this one,  very large shadow in the middle is mine:

contact_4

contact_5

contact_6

The second room is a quadrant rather than a semicircle, with mirrors along the two straight edges creating the impression of a complete circle. This time, instead of a single point of light in the centre there is a horizontal illuminated stripe of an intense orange-red which, in the mirrors, creates in the viewer the impression of being in the middle of a ring of light.

My first impression when I entered this part of the installation was to recall some of the lighting effects near the end of the film Close Encounters of the Third Kind:

contact_1

contact_2

This is evocative of attempts that have been made from time to time to construct cosmological models with a compact topology, such as a finite flat space with its edges identified to form a torus.

In between these two large spaces there are a number of smaller pieces involving curved mirrors devices that invert and otherwise distort the images of people moving around inside the exhibition, one in particular producing an amazing holographic effect. Knowing how these things work does not diminish their power to amaze and to make you want to reach out and try to touch what is not really there..

contact_3

Anyway, that’s all just a taster. You really have to see it to appreciate it. It’s a show that asks very interesting questions about we use light in order to perceive space and indeed how we construct space itself through our own imagination.

Arrivé à Paris

Posted in Art with tags , , , on December 15, 2014 by telescoper

Well, here I am in a misty and murky and rather cold Paris. My first trip on the Eurostar from St Pancras as it happens. I’ve used the train to get to Paris before, but the last time was a long time ago when it departed from a temporary station at Waterloo. Anyway, there’s a direct train from Brighton to St Pancras International. Although it was about half an hour late, I still had time for a bite to eat before boarding. The train was pretty full, but ran on time and I got into Gare du Nord just before 4pm local time. A short (and inexpensive) trip on the Metro brought me to the hotel where I’ll be staying the night.

There is a conference going on in Paris this week about Planck but that’s not why I’m here. In fact I’m attending the opening of “Contact”, an exhibition by Olafur Eliasson at the Fondation Louis Vuitton.

olafur

I was toying with the idea of combining this event with the Planck meeting, but (a) I’ve got too much to do to stay for the whole week and (b) I don’t think there’ll be much new at the Planck meeting anyway.

Anyway, Olafur very kindly asked me to write something for the  catalogue, as the exhibition has something of an astronomical theme and I guess that’s why I got the VIP invitation. There’s something called a cocktail dinatoire afterwards which I presume involves large amounts of alcohol. That may fortify me for the impending REF results, which are due out later this week..

Anyway, I’ll post about the exhibition if I get time tomorrow morning before the  journey home. It doesn’t open for the general public until Wednesday 17th December, by the way, in case you’re in Paris and thinking of taking a look for yourself.

Parisian Thoroughfare

Posted in Jazz with tags , on December 14, 2014 by telescoper

Ahead of my short trip to Paris tomorrow, of which more anon, I thought I’d post this wonderful performance by quintessential bebop pianist Bud Powell of his own composition, Parisian Thoroughfare. This track comes from the same B;ue Note album The Amazing Bud Powell as the version of Over The Rainbow I posted recently, which is one of the most played on my iPod. I hope you like this,

Art Quiz

Posted in Art with tags , on December 14, 2014 by telescoper

image

I have acquired (for safe keeping) the plaster-cast portrait bust shown in the above image. Anyone care to guess (a) who it is and (b) which artist made it? Hint: there is a physics theme….

Answers through the comments box please!

Campaigners back Beard Baubles for Christmas

Posted in Uncategorized on December 13, 2014 by telescoper

Oh! You’re supposed to wear these in your beard….!

Kmflett's Blog

  • Beard Liberation Front

    Press release

    10th December                                                                                                  07803 167266

    CAMPAIGNERS BACK BEARD BAUBLES FOR CHRISTMAS

    The Beard Liberation Front, the informal network of beard wearers, has backed the new Christmas trend for Beard Baubles.

    The Baubles, Christmas decorations which will hang in organic or hipster beards, are in aid of a men’s health charity.

    The BLF says that unlike the absurd false bearded Santas to be seen in High Streets at this time of year, the Beard Baubles demand a genuine beard and are seasonal fun.

    The campaigners caution however that the traditional practice of placing a sprig of mistletoe in the beard should not be ignored

    BLF Organiser Keith Flett said, Beard Baubles emphasise how important facial hair has become in modern society and Beard Baubles are a bit of Xmas fun in aid of an important health charity. We say, if it feels good, do it.

    The…

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The Submarines of Burlington House

Posted in Art, Biographical on December 12, 2014 by telescoper

image

I’m in London for the Monthly Open Meeting of the Royal Astronomical Society, followed by dinner with the Club. I just popped into the courtyard of Burlington House in front of the Royal Academy of Arts to see what was going on, and I found this giant fish tank full of tiny rusty submarines. Not sure what it represents but at least It makes a change! It’s part of an exhibition by Anselm Kiefer, apparently.

Planck Talks Online!

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , on December 11, 2014 by telescoper

After yesterday’s frivolity, I return to community service mode today with a short post before a series of end-of-term meetings.

You may recall that not long ago  I posted an item about a meeting in Ferrara which started on 1st December and which  concerned results from the Planck satellite. Well, although the number of new results was disappointingly limited, all the talks given at that meeting are now available online here. Not all of the talks are about new Planck results, and some of those that do are merely tasters of things that will be more completely divulged in due course, but there is still a lot of interesting material there so I recommend cosmology types have a good look through. Any comments would be welcome through the usual channel below.

I’ll take this opportunity to pass on another couple of related items. First is that there is another meeting on Planck, in Paris next week. Coincidentally, I will be in Paris on Monday and Tuesday for a completely unrelated matter (of which more anon) but I will try to keep up with the cosmology business via Twitter etc and pass on whatever I can pick up.

The other bit of news is that there is to be a press conference on December 22nd at which I’m led to believe the outcome of the joint analysis of CMB polarization by Planck and BICEP2 will be unveiled. Now that will be interesting, so stay tuned!

Oh, and my poll on this subject is still open:

 

 

Head of School’s Christmas Message to MPS

Posted in Uncategorized on December 10, 2014 by telescoper

Since today is the occasion of Yuletide  prandial celebrations for both the Department of Mathematics and the Department of Physics & Astronomy, I wonder if I might crave the momentary indulgence of all staff within the School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences, of which said Departments are constituents, in order to discharge a by no means disagreeable obligation which has, over the years, become more or less established practice in the University as we approach the terminal period of the year — calendar, of course, not financial, nor indeed academic — in fact, not to put too fine a point on it, the interregnum between the First Teaching Block and the First Assessment Period — and submit to you, with all appropriate deference, for your consideration at a convenient juncture, a sincere and sanguine expectation — indeed confidence — indeed one might go so far as to say hope — that the aforementioned period may be, at the end of the day, when all relevant factors have been taken into consideration, susceptible to being deemed to be such as to merit a final verdict of having been by no means unsatisfactory in its overall outcome and, in the final analysis, to give grounds for being judged, on mature reflection, to have been conducive to generating a degree of gratification which will be seen in retrospect to have been significantly higher than the general average.

In other words, Happy Christmas!

 

P.S.  This message is adapated from the television series Yes, Professor Minister...