Archive for the Maynooth Category

Funding ‘Blue Skies’ Research in Ireland

Posted in Maynooth, Politics, Science Politics with tags , , , on January 4, 2021 by telescoper

Before Christmas, Ireland’s new Department for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science embarked on a consultation about its strategy for 2021-23. Like most other departments, the Department of Theoretical Physics at Maynooth made a collective submission to this consultation and we await further developments. This blog post is not that submission. What follows here is my own rant personal view and not that of my colleagues. And before you accuse me of some kind of sour grapes I’ll point out that the Department of Theoretical Physics is actually doing very well in securing grant funding despite the difficult environment.

It has been very clear to me since arriving in Ireland that funding for basic or fundamental research – especially in the sciences – is extremely poor. This is not a new thing, but the current situation is largely the result of a high-level report published in 2012. This identified 14 priority areas of research that are most likely to give demonstrable economic and societal return, and where Ireland should focus the majority of competitive funding. Four criteria were used in selecting the 14 priority areas for future, competitively-awarded investment for economic objectives:

  1. the area is associated with a large global market or markets in which Irish-based enterprises already compete or can realistically compete;
  2. publicly performed R&D in Ireland is required to exploit the area and will complement private sector research and innovation in Ireland;
  3. Ireland has built or is building (objectively measured) strengths in research disciplines relevant to the area; and,
  4. the area represents an appropriate approach to a recognized national challenge and/or a global challenge to which Ireland should respond.

The `vast majority’ of SFI’s funding is directed towards the 14 areas so defined, leaving virtually nothing for anything else, an outcome which has dire implications for `blue skies’ research.

I think this is a deeply misguided short-term policy, which will have a strongly negative effect on science in Ireland in the medium to long term, especially because Ireland spends so little of its GDP on research in the first place. On top of that it will mean that Ireland will miss out on a golden opportunity to capitalise on Brexit, by encouraging European scientists disaffected by the hostile environment that has been created in Britain by its government’s xenophobic policies to relocate to Ireland. There’s simply no point in trying to persuade world-leading researchers to come to Ireland if insufficient funds are available to enable them to establish here; the politicians’ welcoming platitudes will never be enough.

I hope the Irish government can be persuaded to reverse this situation by investing more in basic research.
In the meantime I thought I’d re-iterate the argument I made a while ago, in response to a funding crisis in the UK, about using taxpayer’s money to fund research in universities:

For what it’s worth I’ll repeat my own view that “commercially useful” research should not be funded by the taxpayer through research grants. If it’s going to pay off in the short term it should be funded by private investors, venture capitalists of some sort or perhaps through some form of National Investment Bank. When the public purse is so heavily constrained, it should only be asked to fund those things that can’t in practice be funded any other way. That means long-term, speculative, curiosity driven research.

This is pretty much the opposite of what Irish government thinks. It wants to concentrate public funds in projects that can demonstrate immediate commercial potential. Taxpayer’s money used in this way ends up in the pockets of entrepreneurs if the research succeeds and, if it doesn’t, the grant has not fulfilled its stated objectives and the funding has therefore, by its own standards, been wasted.

My proposal, therefore, is to phase out research grants for groups that want to concentrate on commercially motivated research and replace them with research loans. If the claims they make to secure the advance are justified, they should have no problem repaying the funds from the profits they make from patent income or other forms of exploitation. If not, then they will have to pay back the loan from their own funds (as well as being exposed as bullshit merchants). In the current economic situation the loans could be made at very low interest rates and still save a huge amount of the current research budget for higher education. I suggest these loans should be repayable in 3-5 years, so in the long term this scheme would be self-financing. I think a large fraction of research in the applied sciences and engineering should be funded in this way.

The money saved by replacing grants to commercially driven research groups with loans could be re-invested in those areas where public investment is really needed, such as purely curiosity-driven science. Here grants are needed because the motivation for the research is different. Much of it does, in fact, lead to commercial spin-offs, and when that happens it is a very good thing, but these are likely to appear only in the very long term. But just because this research does not have an immediate commercial benefit does not mean that it has no benefit. For one thing, it is subjects like Astronomy and Particle Physics that inspire young people to get interested in science in the first place. That such fields are apparently held in so low regard by the Government can only encourage Ireland’s brightest young minds to pursue careers abroad.

Last Day Off

Posted in Biographical, Covid-19, Education, Maynooth on January 3, 2021 by telescoper

Tomorrow is officially my first day back at work after the Christmas break. Not that I’ll be going back to my office on campus in the morning. Thanks to the state of the Covid-19 pandemic I will be working from home for the foreseeable future. It’s looking pretty grim at the moment, and I think it’s going to get a lot worse before it gets better:


I know I’m not alone in thinking that it was a big mistake to relax the Covid-19 restrictions so soon before Christmas with cases at such a high level. What has happened since then in terms of new cases and hospitalizations is even worse than the experts predicted; today almost 5000 cases were reported, taking the total past 100,000. I hope the current Government is properly held to account for the way it bowed to pressure from vested interests (especially the so-called “hospitality industry”) the way it did.

I haven’t read my work emails since the end of last term (December 18th 2020). I do hope I don’t have to work through a mountain of them when I finally open my inbox tomorrow morning. No doubt as  we get back to work there will be detailed instructions on what we can and can’t do. Semester Two of teaching in Maynooth doesn’t start until February 1st so we have a bit of time to see how things progress, but I honestly can’t see any prospect of a return to on-campus classes for the rest of the academic year. I do hope we’re not going to be required to make yet another set of elaborate plans that will never be put into practice…

At least this term I will be “working from home” in better conditions than previously, in my own house with a good internet connection and a proper study that I can close the door on when I need a break. I’ll be teaching three modules next Semester, including one (Advanced Electromagnetism) that I’ve never taught before. Teaching isn’t the only thing, but the other important matters to be dealt with this month are not things I can really write anything about at this stage.

The January examination period starts on Friday (8th) and ends two weeks later (Friday 22nd) so getting through that and getting the examinations marked is going to be the first priority. As in May all these examinations will be in the form of online assessments. We have done this sort of examination before, which makes it a bit easier than last year, but they still cause a lot of stress for staff and students alike. I will have about 100 scripts to mark and will have to do all of them on screen. I’m not looking forward to that at all, but it has to be done. In between those we will be running our first Astrophysics & Cosmology Master Class, which I am looking forward to enormously. It seems to have generated a lot of interest, but we won’t know precisely how many will tune in until the day arrives. It might be a lot if the Schools are closed, which they may be.

I was tempted at this point to make a list of all the things I have to do tomorrow, but that would be breaking my resolution to take a complete break so I will leave that until the morning and instead go and have a nap.

End of Year Thoughts

Posted in Biographical, Covid-19, Maynooth, Poetry on December 31, 2020 by telescoper

The Royal Canal, Maynooth, looking towards the Railway Station; the harbour is on the right.

The last morning of 2020 found Maynooth covered in a light dusting of snow. Since then the snow has turned to sleet and rain and the town looks a bit less picturesque as a consequence, not least because we haven’t really seen any proper daylight. My trip out this morning was a rare excursion from my house, but I’m glad I was able to get a bit of fresh (though freezing) air without there being lots of people around. I’ll be sitting cosily at home for the rest of the day (and, probability, tomorrow).

It’s extraordinary to think that this time last year there wasn’t an inkling of what was to come in terms of the Coronavirus pandemic. The first cases had been detected in China in December 2019 but I don’t think anyone seriously thought it would go global in the way it did. A year on and we’re still not out of it. Not by a long way. I think this are going to get a lot worse before they get better, but at least there are vaccines on the way.

Looking back over some of my posts from early in the year I’m reminded of two  events in particular- the 200th Anniversary Dinner of the RAS Club in January and the Irish General Election in February, both of which seem now to have happened at least a decade ago. I went to London again in mid-February, but had to cancel my planned trip back to the UK in March because FlyBe went bust. After that I made a couple of trips to Dublin (including a performance of Fidelio)  but since then I haven’t left Maynooth. It’s extremely likely that by March 2021 I will have spent an entire year without leaving the boundaries of Maynooth.

It’s almost a whole year since I posted a list of things I wanted to do in 2020. The first three were:

    1. Go to more live concerts.
    2. See more of Ireland.
    3. No more working weekends

That went well then! I don’t think I’ll bother making a list for next year, or perhaps I’ll just carry over this year’s. Obviously the Covid-19 restrictions and vastly increased workload involved in switching teaching to online put paid to most of my plans for 2020. Although I did manage to buy a house in Maynooth, I will have to wait until the Third Wave is over before I can retrieve the rest of my belongings from Wales and relocate fully.

Although I didn’t make an impact in this year’s Beard of the Year (finishing in last place in the final poll), at least I have the honour of being St Patrick’s Day Beard of Ireland for 2020.

You have to take what positives you can but I’m sure I’m not the only person to think, on balance, this has been a spectacularly awful year. I haven’t myself had Covid-19 but I know people who have and some of them are still struggling with the after-effects. I know many have also lost loved ones to the Coronavirus; condolences to everyone so affected. Although nothing to do with Covid-19, I still feel a very deep sadness that my former thesis supervisor John Barrow is no more. I hope after the pandemic there can be some form of proper tribute to him.

Anyway, to end with, here are a few verses from In Memoriam, by Alfred Lord Tennyson:

Ring out the old, ring in the new,
Ring, happy bells, across the snow:
The year is going, let him go;
Ring out the false, ring in the true.

Ring out the grief that saps the mind,
For those that here we see no more;
Ring out the feud of rich and poor,
Ring in redress to all mankind.

Ring out false pride in place and blood,
The civic slander and the spite;
Ring in the love of truth and right,
Ring in the common love of good.

Ring out old shapes of foul disease;
Ring out the narrowing lust of gold;
Ring out the thousand wars of old,
Ring in the thousand years of peace.

Level 5 New Year

Posted in Biographical, Covid-19, Maynooth with tags , on December 30, 2020 by telescoper

To nobody’s surprise the Taioseach this evening announced that the whole of Ireland would go immediately into full Level 5 Covid-19 restrictions. Officially these will apply until January 31st, but nobody thinks they will end then. Nor should they. The past few days have seen the number of cases and hospitalizations skyrocket and the current positivity rate of tests is 10.5% (7-day average) with a figure of 18% recorded yesterday.

Here are the latest plots of 7-day averages. First, logarithmic:

Second, linear:

I’m not alone in thinking that it was a very big mistake to relax the restrictions in early December, but that’s done now and we have to deal with the situation as it is now. Unfortunately the Christmas wave hasn’t really hit these figures yet so I think thinks are going to get a lot worse before they get better. The current exponential phase with a R number of around 1.6-1.8 means the cases will probably double by this time next week.

Anyway, looks like a quiet night in for New Year’s Eve (not that I mind that) and my horizon for January is back down to a 5km radius, although its centre has shifted a little as I have moved house since last time!

Yule Blog

Posted in Biographical, Maynooth on December 24, 2020 by telescoper

It’s Christmas Eve at last. This morning I ventured out briefly to buy a newspaper. That was more problematic than I’d anticipated as most newsagents in Maynooth had sold out of the Irish Times. There won’t be an edition until next Monday so people had got theirs early. I did eventually manage to find a copy however and did the Christmas Crosaire crossword when I got back home.

With that errand out of the way it is now my plane to stay at home alone until Sunday 27th at the earliest. The reason for that is the very dangerous Covid-19 situation, with another 922 cases reported today. Cases in Ireland aren’t as high as in many other European countries but are going quicker than any at this time. The official advice is to minimize social interactions over the Christmas period, so I’m doing that. Zero is the minimum in my case.

In case you think I’ll be miserable here on my own, I assure you that I won’t. I’ve got plenty of things to do, and plenty to eat and drink. I’m quite proud of the fact that I bought six bottles of wine last weekend and managed not to drink any until today!

I’m not myself of that faith (or indeed any) but I understand it is a Catholic tradition to eat fish the day before a Feast Day. This evening I’ll be cooking Sea Bass with a lemon and dill sauce and Mediterranean roast vegetables. That’s not because I’m becoming a Catholic but because of balance for the next two days. To go with the fish I’ll be drinking a nice Pouilly-Fumé. I’ll bore you with the menu for the next two days when I get to them (assuming no culinary disasters).


I know it doesn’t look great – the fish didn’t want to come out in one piece – but it tasted delicious!

Incidentally, it is interesting that almost nobody here uses “Boxing Day” to refer to the day after Christmas Day. It’s “St Stephen’s Day” or just “Stephens Day”.

I realized this morning that this will be the very first Christmas I’ve ever spent outside the United Kingdom. The vast majority of Christmases Past I’ve been in Newcastle, but I have also over the years been in Brighton, London, Nottingham and Cardiff at this time of year.

I’ll end with the official Christmas greetings from Maynooth University!

Lecture Summary

Posted in Biographical, Education, Maynooth with tags on December 16, 2020 by telescoper

Yesterday I gave my last full lectures of the term. The picture shows a summary of my final lecture on Mechanics & Special Relativity for first-year students. It may look a bit thin on content but I’m very tired. How I managed to pad it out to 50 minutes I have no idea.

Today we have presentations by project students via Microsoft Teams which I can watch from home while I await the delivery of a blackboard which I’m going to put in my study at home. (UPDATE: Predictably, the Courier didn’t show up.)

Later today I have my last lecture slot which I will use to pass on some information about the examination online timed assessment in January.

And that will be the end of my teaching for the (calendar) year, which seems to have lasted at least a decade. Let’s hope next year is better.

Vaccination Priorities

Posted in Covid-19, Education, Maynooth on December 15, 2020 by telescoper

In the news today is the fact that the Irish Government “rolled out” (I hate that expression) its Covid-19 vaccination plans. These are summarised here:

I’m not at all surprised to see that I’m in a low priority category, although I beat some of my colleagues in the University sector by one notch by virtue of being over 54 years of age!

It seems likely that they won’t get around to the likes of me until well into the summer, but at least there’s a plan.

The lack of imminent vaccination for staff or students and the strong likelihood of a post-Christmas spike of Covid-19 cases means that there is no realistic prospect of a significant increase in on-campus teaching in this academic year. We have therefore taken the decision to keep our teaching entirely online next Semester. Hopefully things will start to improve from September 2021.

The Advent of Covid

Posted in Biographical, Covid-19, Maynooth on December 10, 2020 by telescoper

I witnessed this disturbing scene last night as I walked home through Courthouse Square in Maynooth. Look at them – not a single one wearing a mask!

Perhaps however they have formed a social bubble so we can forgive that, and the lack of social distancing?

Nevertheless I was confused as to what was going on until I worked it out. The child in the front has obviously fallen asleep with its head on a Frisbee and the others are waiting for it to wake up so they can get it back.

With this Mystery solved, continued my journey to Supervalu, where they were sadly out of Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh so I bought a bottle of wine instead.

Time for Resilience?

Posted in Education, Maynooth with tags , on December 8, 2020 by telescoper

I’ve just received an invitation to a two-hour seminar on Resilience for Heads of Department. I post the description here:

Sadly I don’t have time to attend this, as it is right in the middle of a teaching day in the last week of an absurdly busy term and it clashes with a previous commitment. I can’t see yet another two hour meeting on Zoom doing much for my wellbeing anyway, especially when I’ve already been running on empty for weeks.

I will be “taking the time to renew and refresh” after December 18th, when I’ll have the first proper holiday I’ve been able to take since March. I’ll probably spend most of that asleep. Or maybe “resilience” is all about adapting to life without any time off?

“We know we’re working you into the ground, but if you learn how to be *resilient* we might might get a few more months out of you before you crack.”

Sharpening the Saw seems like an interesting book. I wonder what the sequel is,  Wielding the Axe?


Another Week Ending

Posted in Biographical, Covid-19, Education, GAA, Maynooth, The Universe and Stuff on December 4, 2020 by telescoper

As this term staggers on I once again arrive at a weekend in a state of exhaustion. Still there are just two teaching weeks left for this term so soon it will be the Christmas break. At least there won’t be any teaching then, though there will be other things to do before the examinations start in January.

I’ve managed to keep a reasonable pace up in both sets of lectures. The last one due this term is for Vector Calculus and Fourier Series, on Friday 18th December, but I think I may be able to complete the module content on the Tuesday lecture which means the students will be able to have a bit more time to relax before Christmas or, alternatively, a bit more time for revision. I hope it’s the former, as I imagine the students are at least as tired as we staff are. This has been a difficult year for everyone.

At Maynooth University, lectures for Semester 2 start on February 1st 2020. That will give us a bit of time to see how the Covid-19 pandemic progresses before deciding exactly how we’re going to approach teaching. Other universities that resume earlier have less time to make this decisions. I fear that the number of cases may rise rapidly over the three weeks remaining before Christmas, even before the Christmas break itself, and we therefore might have to go fully online next term. What I don’t want to happen is what happened in September, namely that we made elaborate plans for lecture rotations and tutorial groups that were then ditched because the Coronavirus situation changed. That was quite demoralizing because it involved a great deal of effort that was wasted.

Being a Department of Theoretical Physics we don’t have the problems facing the more experimental subjects that require extensive laboratory classes which are difficult to do under social distancing. Next term however we do have Computational Physics, which has laboratory classes, so I’ll have to decide how much of that we can do in person and how much students will have to do online using their laptops. I hope we can return to full in-person lab sessions, but we can’t be that will be possible right now. In any case computer labs are far easier to run online that practical chemistry or physics labs, so I think we will be able to do a reasonable job whatever the circumstances.

For added fun, next term I’ll be teaching a new module; 4th Year Advanced Electromagnetism. Although there’s always a lot of work required to teach a module for the first time, I am actually looking forward to doing this one as there’s some interesting physics in it (especially relativistic electrodynamics). I may try to squeeze a bit of plasma physics in too. But will it be online or on campus, or a mixture of both? Time alone will tell.

Anyway I’m looking forward to this weekend being as stress-free as possible. There’s a good start tonight, as Newcastle’s game against Aston Villa has been postponed due to Covid-19 so no anxious looking at the score this evening. The rest of the weekend will be dominated, for me, by the two semi-finals of the All Ireland Gaelic Football Championship (Cavan versus Dublin tomorrow and Mayo versus Tipperary on Sunday). It seems to be written in the stars that the final should be Dublin versus Tipperary, the two teams that played on Bloody Sunday, but time will tell on that one too.

Update: Dublin did indeed comfortably beat Cavan on Saturday but Mayo beat Tipperary in a high scoring game in a foggy Croke Park on Sunday (Mayo 5-20 Tipperary 3-13). The final will therefore not be a rerun of the 1920 final.

That’s enough rambling. Have a good weekend.