Archive for July, 2015

The England Cricket Team – Another Apology

Posted in Cricket on July 31, 2015 by telescoper

Some time I wrote a post on this blog about the 1st Ashes Test between England and Australia at Cardiff which resulted in an England victory. In that piece I celebrated the team spirit of England’s cricketers and some memorable performances with both bat and ball. I also suggested that England had a realistic prospect of regaining the Ashes.

More recently, however, in the light of Australia’s comprehensive victory in the 2nd Ashes Test at Lord’s during which the England bowlers were ineffectual, their batsmen inept and the team spirit non-existent, I accepted  that my earlier post was misleading and that England actually had absolutely no chance of regaining the Ashes.

Today England breezed to an emphatic 8-wicket victory over Australia in the 3rd Ashes Test at Edgbaston in the Midlands. The manner of this victory, inside three days, and bouncing back from the crushing defeat in the previous Test, makes it clear that my previous post was wrong and England’s bowlers are far from ineffectual, their batsmen highly capable, and the team not at all lacking in team spirit.

Moreover, with England now leading 2-1 with two matches to play, I now accept that England do indeed have a realistic prospect of regaining the Ashes.

I apologize for my earlier apology and for any inconvenience caused.

I hope this clarifies the situation.

P.S. Geoffrey Boycott is 74 not out.

Half Term Blue Moon

Posted in Biographical, Music, The Universe and Stuff with tags , on July 31, 2015 by telescoper

Tonight’s a Blue Moon, which happens whenever there are two full moons in a calendar month, although the phrase used to mean the third full moon of a season in which there are four in a quarter-year (or season). A Blue Moon isn’t all that rare an occurence actually. In fact there’s one every two or three years on average. But it does at least provide an excuse to post this again…

Incidentally, today marks the half-way mark in my five-year term as Head of the School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences at the University of Sussex. I started on 1st February 2013, so it’s now been exactly two years and six months. It’s all downhill from here!

Planning for the Future

Posted in Brighton, Education with tags , , on July 30, 2015 by telescoper

Some great news arrived this morning. The Planning Inspectorate has given approval to the University of Sussex’s Campus Masterplan, which paves the way for some much-needed new developments on the Falmer Campus and a potential £500 million investment in the local economy. As a scientist working at the University I’m particularly delighted with this decision as it will involve much-needed new science buildings which should ease the pressure on our existing estate. The planned developments include new state-of-the-art academic and research facilities, the creation of an estimated 2400 new jobs in the local community and 2500 new student rooms on the campus, while still preserving the famous listed buildings designed by architect Sir Basil Spence when the University was founded back in the 1960s. We’re in for an exciting few years as these new developments take shape, especially a new building for Life Sciences and redevelopment of the East Slope site. The expansion of residential accommodation on campus will take some of the pressure off the housing stock in central Brighton while the other new buildings will provide much-needed replacements and extensions for some older ones that are at the end of their useful life.

Here’s a video fly-through that illustrates the general scale of the development – although the individual buildings shown are just indicative, as detailed designs are still being drawn up and each new building will need further planning permission.

But it is not just as an employee of the University that I am delighted by this news. I also live in Brighton and I honestly believe that the expansion of the University is an extremely good thing for the City, which is already turning into a thriving high-tech economy owing to the presence of so many skilled graduates and spin-out enterprises. There’s a huge amount of work to do in order to turn these plans into reality, but within a couple of years I think we’ll start to see the dividend.

Mathematics at Sussex – The Video!

Posted in Education with tags , on July 29, 2015 by telescoper

Here’s a nice little promotional video about the Department of Mathematics at the University of Sussex, featuring some of our lovely staff and students along with some nice views of the campus and the city of Brighton. Above all, I think it captures what a friendly place this is to work and study. Enjoy!

The Small Window

Posted in Poetry with tags , , on July 28, 2015 by telescoper

In Wales there are jewels
To gather, but with the eye
Only. A hill lights up
Suddenly; a field trembles
With colour and goes out
In its turn; in one day
You can witness the extent
Of the spectrum and grow rich
With looking. Have a care;
The wealth is for the few
And chosen. Those who crowd
A small window dirty it
With their breathing, though sublime
And inexhaustible the view.

by R.S. Thomas (1913-2000)

inflation, evidence and falsifiability

Posted in Uncategorized on July 27, 2015 by telescoper

At the risk of labouring the point here’s another critque of the Gubitosi et al, paper I posted about a couple of days ago…

Xi'an's Og

[Ewan Cameron pointed this paper to me and blogged about his impressions a few weeks ago. And then Peter Coles wrote a (properly) critical blog entry yesterday. Here are my quick impressions, as an add-on.]

“As the cosmological data continues to improve with its inevitable twists, it has become evident that whatever the observations turn out to be they will be lauded as proof of inflation”.”G. Gubitosi et al.

In an arXive with the above title, Gubitosi et al. embark upon a generic and critical [and astrostatistical] evaluation of Bayesian evidence and the Bayesian paradigm. Perfect topic and material for another blog post!

“Part of the problem stems from the widespread use of the concept of Bayesian evidence and the Bayes factor (…) The limitations of the existing formalism emerge, however, as soon as we insist on falsifiability as a pre-requisite for a scientific theory (….) the…

View original post 677 more words

The Renewed Threat to STEM

Posted in Education, Finance, Science Politics with tags , , , , , , on July 26, 2015 by telescoper

A couple of years ago, soon after taking over as Head of the School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences (MPS) at the University of Sussex, I wrote a blog post called The Threat to STEM from HEFCE’s Funding Policies about how the funding policies of the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) were extremely biased against STEM disciplines. The main complaint I raised then was that the income per student for science subjects does not adequately reflect the huge expense of teaching these subjects compared to disciplines in the arts and humanities. The point is that universities now charge the same tuition fee for all subjects (usually £9K per annum) while the cost varies hugely across disciplines: science disciplines can cost as much as £16K per annum per student whereas arts subjects can cost as little as £6K. HEFCE makes a small gesture towards addressing this imbalance by providing an additional grant for “high cost” subjects, but that is only just over £1K per annum per student, not enough to make such courses financially viable on their own. And even that paltry contribution has been steadily dwindling.  In effect, fees paid by arts students are heavily subsidising the sciences across the Higher Education sector.

The situation was bad enough before last week’s announcement of an immediate £150M cut in HEFCE’s budget. Once again the axe has fallen hardest on STEM disciplines. Worst of all, a large part of the savings will be made retrospectively, i.e. by clawing back money that had already been allocated and which institutions had assumed in order to plan their budgets. To be fair, HEFCE had warned institutions that cuts were coming in 2015/16:

This means that any subsequent changes to the funding available to us from Government for 2015-16, or that we have assumed for 2016-17, are likely to affect the funding we are able to distribute to institutions in the 2015-16 academic year. This may include revising allocations after they have already been announced. Accordingly, institutions should plan their budgets prudently.

However, this warning does not mention the possibility of cuts to the current year (i.e. 2014-15). No amount of prudent planning of budgets will help when funding is taken away retrospectively, as it is now to the case. I should perhaps explain that funding allocations are made by HEFCE in a lagged fashion, based on actual student numbers, so that income for the academic year 2014-15 is received by institutions during 15/16. In fact my institution, in common with most others, operates a financial year that runs from August 1st to July 31st and I’ve just been through a lengthy process of setting the budget from August 1st 2015 onward; budgets are what I do most of the time these days, if I’m honest. I thought I had finished that job for the time being, but look:

In October 2015, we will notify institutions of changes to the adjusted 2014-15 teaching grants we announced in March 20158. These revised grant tables will incorporate the pro rata reduction of 2.4 per cent. This reduction, and any other changes for individual institutions to 2014-15 grant, will be implemented through our grant payments from November 2015. We do not intend to reissue 2014-15 grant tables to institutions before October 2015, but institutions will need to reflect any changes relating to 2014-15 in their accounts for that year (i.e. the current academic year). Any cash repayments due will be confirmed as part of the October announcements.

On top of this, any extra students recruited as as  result of the government scrapping student number controls won’t attract any support at all from HEFCE, so we wll only get the tuition fee.And the government says it wants the number of STEM students to increase? Someone tell me how that makes sense.

What a mess! It’s going to be back to the drawing board for me and my budget. And if a 2.4 per cent cut doesn’t sound much to you then you need to understand it in terms of how University budgets work. It is my job – as the budget holder for MPS – to ensure that the funding that comes in to my School is spent as efficiently and effectively on what the School is meant to do, i.e. teaching and research. To that end I have to match income and expenditure as closely as possible. It is emphatically not the job of the School to make a profit: the target I am given is to return a small surplus (actually 4 per cent of our turnover) to contribute to longer-term investments. I’ve set a budget that does this, but now I’ll have to wait until October to find out how much I have to find in terms of savings to absorb the grant cut. It’s exasperating when people keep moving the goalposts like this. One would almost think the government doesn’t care about the consequences of its decisions, as long as it satisfies its fixation with cuts.

And it’s not only teaching that is going to suffer. Another big slice of savings (£52M) is coming from scrapping the so-called “transitional relief” for STEM departments who lost out as a result of the last Research Excellence Framework. This again is a policy that singles out STEM disciplines for cuts. You can find the previous allocations of transitional relief in an excel spreadsheet here. The cash cuts are largest in large universities with big activities in STEM disciplines – e.g. Imperial College will lose £10.9M previous allocated, UCL about £4.3M, and Cambridge about £4M. These are quite wealthy institutions of course, and they will no doubt cope, but that doesn’t make it any more acceptable for HEFCE to break a promise.

This cut in fact won’t alter my School’s budget either. Although we were disappointed with the REF outcome in terms of league table position, we actually increased our QR income. As an institution the University of Sussex only attracted £237,174 in transitional relief so this cut is small potatoes for us, but that doesn’t make this clawback any more palatable from the point of view of the general state of health of STEM disciplines in the United Kingdom.

These cuts are also directly contrary to the claim that the UK research budget is “ring-fenced”. It clearly isn’t, and with a Comprehensive Spending Review coming up many of us are nervous that these cuts are just a foretaste of much worse things to come. Research Councils are being asked to come up with plans based on a 40% cut in cash.

Be afraid. Be very afraid.