Archive for funding

More Cuts to University Funding

Posted in Education, Politics, Science Politics with tags , , , , , , on February 11, 2014 by telescoper

Grim news arrived yesterday with the announcement by the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills of further deep cuts in funding for Higher Education in England. This announcement has been delayed due to internal wrangling over the allocation of funds but in the end the grant letter to HEFCE makes little attempt to sugar the pill:

The settlement will mean reductions in HEFCE funding for higher education institutions in 2014-15 and again in 2015-16 beyond those accounted for by the switch to publicly funded tuition fees. The Government has asked HEFCE to deliver the reductions in ways which protect as far as possible high-cost subjects (including STEM), widening participation (which is funded via the HEFCE Student Opportunity allocation), and small and specialist institutions.

The science budget is, of course, “ring-fenced” which means that recurrent funding for that is maintained at £1,573 million, the same cash levels as 2013-14. This has, for example, translated into the expected flat cash settlement for the Science & Technology Facilities Council (STFC), although there has been some rejigging of the way this money is allocated within STFC, and an apparent increase in funds available for international subscriptions. At least this should unblock the numerous programmes in STFC and elsewhere in the Research Councils that have been on hold pending the final budget allocations.

That said, the overall picture looks very bleak for Higher Education. The really important figure for HEFCE is buried in Annex 2 of the latest grant letter, which reveals that, including the ring-fenced funds, HEFCE will have just £4,091 million to allocate in 2014/15. The corresponding figure for the current year, 2013/14, was £5,014 million. That’s a cut in cash terms of an eye-watering 18.4%.

The scale of the cuts makes it even more likely that if they continue there will be very little money available for HEFCE to allocate as a result of the 2014 Research Excellence Framework, in which case the vast expenditure across the sector preparing for that exercise may will have been wasted too.

For the time being, however, it seems that research has been spared the axe. The bulk of the cuts will therefore fall on teaching grants. HEFCE has been instructed to try to protect STEM subjects as it cuts expenditure on teaching, but will it be able to? The extra funds that have previously supplemented tuition fees have been steadily whittled away anyway, so expensive subjects like Physics only get about £1000 per year more than Arts subjects. There is already a strong incentive in the current funding model for universities to expand cheap subjects. That pressure will only increase with this new settlement.

The last paragraph of the grant letter says:

We recognise that our universities are one of our most valuable national assets. Higher education transforms people’s lives through excellent teaching and transforms society through research and the application of knowledge. The Government’s reforms have laid the foundations for a more securely funded, stronger, more confident and more responsive higher education sector. We will continue to work with the Council and the sector to communicate the enduring value of higher education to potential students and the wider world.

I’m sure readers of this blog will forgive me if I suggest that these words are rendered meaningless by the scale of the cuts announced in the grant letter. If the government really regarded our universities as “valuable national assets” it would be increasing investment in them, not cutting it. What worries me most is that these cuts will never be reversed, whatever the complexion of the next government as there seems to be more enthusiasm across the political spectrum for continued cuts than for investment in the future education of our young people. I’m increasingly ashamed of the legacy being left by my own generation.

Why is Astronomy Important?

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , on November 5, 2013 by telescoper

There’s an interesting and unusual article on the arXiv today entitled Why is Astronomy Important? Here is the abstract:

For a long time astronomers and other scientists believed that the importance of their work was evident to society. But in these difficult days of financial austerity, even the most obvious benefits of science have to undergo careful scrutiny. Eradicating poverty and hunger is a worldwide priority, and activities that do not directly attempt to resolve these issues can be hard to justify and support. However, several studies have told us that investing in science education, research and technology provides a great return not only economically, but culturally and indirectly for the population in general and has helped countries to face and overcome crises. The scientific and technological development of a country or region is closely linked to its human development index a statistic that is a measure of life expectancy, education and income.

The full text of the paper can be found on the IAU website here.

The article focusses on matters relating to the transfer of technology between astronomy and, e.g. industry, aerospace, and medicine, its effect on technology we are familiar with in everyday life, on astronomy as an exemplar of international collaboration and on its wider cultural and philosophical impact. Many of the points made in this article can also be found in the Royal Astronomical Society‘s free publication Beyond the Stars: Why Astronomy Matters which is available for free online here.

I recommend you read the full article and make your own mind up about why astronomy is important. I have just two comments, which are partly questions. The first is that I’ve always had a bit of a problem with the interpretation of correlations like that mentioned in the last sentence of the abstract (between technological development and the human development index). The issue is the basic one that correlation of two phenomena does not necessarily imply that one causes the other. Is it really possible to establish rigorously a causal link between spending money on astronomy and wider societal benefits? I’m not saying that there isn’t such a link, just that it’s difficult to interpret evidence which is dependent on so many factors. Could one not argue instead that more developed countries spend more money on astronomy because they can afford to?

The other thing that troubles me with arguments of the type presented in the paper is that there is a danger that  emphasizing the transfer of knowledge to other disciplines as the rationale for funding astronomy implicitly negates the argument that astronomy has intrinsic worth of its own. In other words, answering the question “Why is Astronomy important?” seems to accept at the outset that it isn’t.  If it is indeed the case that we can only justify astronomy because it has produced spin-offs in, e.g., medicine, why not just spend more money on medicine and forget the astronomy?

I’m not saying that the technology transfer arguments carry no weight, just that they are definitely double-edged and should be used with caution. For the record, I think we should fund Astronomy (and other sciences) primarily because they are an essential part of the fabric of our culture and civilization; all the rest is icing on the cake. In other words, I support state funding for the sciences for very much the same reasons as for the arts.  I’m fully aware, however, that this unlikely to persuade the powers that be as effectively as an appeal to economic benefits; that’s why science funding has fared so much better than arts funding in this age of austerity.

Tuition Fee Caps

Posted in Education, Finance, Politics with tags , , , , , , , on May 27, 2013 by telescoper

I know it’s a Bank Holiday, but I’ve been thinking…

About a week ago I posted an item arguing that the current system of higher education funding is detrimental to the health of STEM disciplines (i.e. Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics). The main reason for this is that present funding arrangements fail to address the real difference in cost of degree courses in various disciplines: the income to a University for a student doing Physics is about £10.5K whereas for a student doing, say, English it is £9K. I would  estimate the extra cost for the former corresponds to at least a factor two and probably more. That’s partly because Physics requires laboratory space and equipment (and related technical support) that English does not, but also because Physics students receive many more contact hours with academic staff.  The issue is just as much about arts students being ripped off (as they undoubtedly are being) as it is a strategic failure to protect the sciences.

The problem is that the Council responsible for distributing funding (HEFCE) is strapped for cash, so is unable to fund STEM disciplines at the higher level of resource that it used to.  Since the government has decided, in its  (finite) wisdom, to transfer most of the cost of higher education to the students, HEFCE can now exert very little influence on how universities plan their portfolio of courses. Since it is a lot cheaper and easier to expand capacity in Arts & Social Sciences faculties than in the more expensive STEM disciplines, this is an incentive for Universities to turn away from the Sciences. Given our economic predicament this policy is simply perverse. We need more scientists and engineers, not fewer.

This morning I read an article in the Times Higher about the present £9K tuition fee cap. Not surprisingly the Russell Group of self-styled “elite” Universities wants it lifted, presumably so its Vice-Chancellors can receive even bigger pay rises. But that’s not the point. The article made me think of a cunning (or perhaps daft) plan, which I’m floating here with the prediction that people will shoot it down through the comments box.

Now before I go on, I just want to make it clear that I’m not – and never have been – in favour of the present funding system. I don’t object to the principle that students who can afford to should contribute to the cost of higher education, but the arrangements we’re stuck with are indefensible and I don’t think they will last long into the next Parliament. It’s telling that, only a decade after introducing tuition fees, Germany is now scrapping them. I’d prefer a hybdrid system in which the taxpayer funds scholarships for STEM disciplines and other strategically important areas, while leaving universities to charge fees for other disciplines.

However, since we’ve been lumbered with a silly system, it’s worth exploring what might be achieved by working within it. There doesn’t seem to be much creative thinking going on in the coalition, and the Labour Party just says it would reduce the fee cap to £6K which would squeeze all academic disciplines equally, without doing anything about the anomalies mentioned above.

My  idea is quite simple. I propose that universities be entitled to lift their fee levels for STEM subjects by an amount X, provide that they reduce the fees for Arts and Social Sciences students by the same amount. The current fee level is £9K for all disciplines, so an example might be for STEM subjects to charge £12K while A&SS (if you pardon the abbreviation) get £6K. That would achieve the factor of two differential I mentioned above.

The advantages of this proposal are that it gives an incentive for universities to promote STEM disciplines and more properly reflects the difference in cost of the different subjects, without increasing the cost to the Treasury. In fact only about 25% of students study in STEM disciplines, at least for the moment, so the cost of fee loans will actually go down

The biggest potential flaw is  that increasing the cost to STEM students would put them off. There’s simply no data on which to base an argument as to whether this would be the case or not. I suspect however that a difference in price would be perceived by many as a difference in value.

Anyway, it’s just an idea. That’s what blogs are for. Thinking out loud as it were. Feel free to object..

Counting for the REF

Posted in Open Access, Science Politics with tags , , , , , , on April 20, 2013 by telescoper

It’s a lovely day in Brighton and I’m once again on campus for an Admissions Event at Sussex University, this time for the Mathematics Department in the School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences.  After all the terrible weather we’ve had since I arrived in February, it’s a delight and a relief to see the campus at its best for today’s crowds. Anyway, now that I’ve finished my talk and the subsequent chats with prospective students and their guests I thought I’d do a quick blogette before heading back home and preparing for this evenings Physics & Astronomy Ball. It’s all go around here.

What I want to do first of all is to draw attention to a very nice blog post by a certain Professor Moriarty who, in case you did not realise it, dragged himself away from his hiding place beneath the Reichenbach Falls and started a new life as Professor of Physics at Nottingham University.  Phil Moriarty’s piece basically argues that the only way to really judge the quality of a scientific publication is not by looking at where it is published, but by peer review (i.e. by getting knowledgeable people to read it). This isn’t a controversial point of view, but it does run counter to the current mania for dubious bibliometric indicators, such as journal impact factors and citation counts.

The forthcoming Research Excellence Framework involves an assessment of the research that has been carried out in UK universities over the past five years or so, and a major part of the REF will be the assessment of up to four “outputs” submitted by research-active members of staff over the relevant period (from 2008 to 2013). reading Phil’s piece might persuade you to be happy that the assessment of the research outputs involved in the REF will be primarily based on peer review. If you are then I suggest you read on because, as I have blogged about before, although peer review is fine in principle, the way that it will be implemented as part of the REF has me deeply worried.

The first problem arises from the scale of the task facing members of the panel undertaking this assessment. Each research active member of staff is requested to submit four research publications (“outputs”) to the panel, and we are told that each of these will be read by at least two panel members. The panel comprises 20 members.

As a rough guess let’s assume that the UK has about 40 Physics departments, and the average number of research-active staff in each is probably about 40. That gives about 1600 individuals for the REF. Actually the number of category A staff submitted to the 2008 RAE was 1,685.57 FTE (Full-Time Equivalent), pretty  close to this figure. At 4 outputs per person that gives 6400 papers to be read. We’re told that each will be read by at least two members of the panel, so that gives an overall job size of 12800 paper-readings. There is some uncertainty in these figures because (a) there is plenty of evidence that departments are going to be more selective in who is entered than was the case in 2008 and (b) some departments have increased their staff numbers significantly since 2008. These two factors work in opposite directions so not knowing the size of either it seems sensible to go with the numbers from the previous round for the purposes of my argument.

There are 20 members of the panel so 6400 papers submitted means that, between 29th November 2013 (the deadline for submissions) and the announcement of the results in December 2014 each member of the panel will have to have read 640 research papers. That’s an average of about two a day…

It is therefore blindingly obvious that whatever the panel does do will not be a thorough peer review of each paper, equivalent to refereeing it for publication in a journal. The panel members simply won’t have the time to do what the REF administrators claim they will do. We will be lucky if they manage a quick skim of each paper before moving on. In other words, it’s a sham.

Now we are also told the panel will use their expert judgment to decide which outputs belong to the following categories:

  • 4*  World Leading
  • 3* Internationally Excellent
  • 2* Internationally Recognized
  • 1* Nationally Recognized
  • U   Unclassified

There is an expectation that the so-called QR  funding allocated as a result of the 2013 REF will be heavily weighted towards 4*, with perhaps a small allocation to 3* and probably nothing at all for lower grades. The word on the street is that the weighting for 4* will be 9 and that for 3* only 1. “Internationally recognized”  will be regarded as worthless in the view of HEFCE. Will the papers belonging to the category “Not really understood by the panel member” suffer the same fate?

The panel members will apparently know enough about every single one of the papers they are going to read in order to place them  into one of the above categories, especially the crucial ones “world-leading” or “internationally excellent”, both of which are obviously defined in a completely transparent and objective manner. Not. The steep increase in weighting between 3* and 4* means that this judgment could mean a drop of funding that could spell closure for a department.

We are told that after forming this judgement based on their expertise the panel members will “check” the citation information for the papers. This will be done using the SCOPUS service provided (no doubt at considerable cost) by   Elsevier, which by sheer coincidence also happens to be a purveyor of ridiculously overpriced academic journals.  No doubt Elsevier are  on a nice little earner peddling meaningless data for the HECFE bean-counters, but I have no confidence that they will add any value to the assessment process.

There have been high-profile statements to the effect that the REF will take no account of where the relevant “outputs”  are published, including a pronouncement by David Willetts. On the face of it, that would suggest that a paper published in the spirit of Open Access in a free archive would not be disadvantaged. However, I very much doubt that will be the case.

I think if you look at the volume of work facing the REF panel members it’s pretty clear that citation statistics will be much more important for the Physics panel than we’ve been led to believe. The panel simply won’t have the time or the breadth of understanding to do an in-depth assessment of every paper, so will inevitably in many cases be led by bibliometric information. The fact that SCOPUS doesn’t cover the arXiv means that citation information will be entirely missing from papers just published there.

The involvement of  a company like Elsevier in this system just demonstrates the extent to which the machinery of research assessment is driven by the academic publishing industry. The REF is now pretty much the only reason why we have to use traditional journals. It would be better for research, better for public accountability and better economically if we all published our research free of charge in open archives. It wouldn’t be good for academic publishing houses, however, so they’re naturally very keen to keep things just the way they are. The saddest thing is that we’re all so cowed by the system that we see no alternative but to participate in this scam.

Incidentally we were told before the 2008 Research Assessment Exercise that citation data would emphatically not be used;  we were also told afterwards that citation data had been used by the Physics panel. That’s just one of the reasons why I’m very sceptical about the veracity of some of the pronouncements coming out from the REF establishment. Who knows what they actually do behind closed doors?  All the documentation is shredded after the results are published. Who can trust such a system?

To put it bluntly, the apparatus of research assessment has done what most bureaucracies eventually do; it has become  entirely self-serving. It is imposing increasingly  ridiculous administrative burdens on researchers, inventing increasingly  arbitrary assessment criteria and wasting increasing amounts of money on red tape which should actually be going to fund research.

And that’s all just about “outputs”. I haven’t even started on “impact”….

Reffing Madness

Posted in Science Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , on June 30, 2012 by telescoper

I’m motivated to make a quick post in order to direct you to a blog post by David Colquhoun that describes the horrendous behaviour of the management at Queen Mary, University of London in response to the Research Excellence Framework. It seems that wholesale sackings are in the pipeline there as a result of a management strategy to improve the institution’s standing in the league tables by “restructuring” some departments.

To call this strategy “flawed” would be the understatement of the year. Idiotic is a far better word.  The main problem being that the criteria being applied to retain or dismiss staff bear no obvious relation to those adopted by the REF panels. To make matters worse, Queen Mary has charged two of its own academics with “gross misconduct” for having the temerity to point out the stupidity of its management’s behaviour. Read on here for more details.

With the deadline for REF submissions fast approaching, it’s probably the case that many UK universities are going into panic mode, attempting to boost their REF score by shedding staff perceived to be insufficiently excellent in research and/or  luring  in research “stars” from elsewhere. Draconian though the QMUL approach may seem, I fear it will be repeated across the sector.  Clueless university managers are trying to guess what the REF panels will think of their submissions by staging mock assessments involving external experts. The problem is that nobody knows what the actual REF panels will do, except that if the last Research Assessment Exercise is anything to go by, what they do will be nothing like what they said they would do.

Nowhere is the situation more absurd than here in Wales. The purported aim of the REF is to allocated the so-called “QR” research funding to universities. However, it is an open secret that in Wales there simply isn’t going to be any QR money at all. Leighton Andrews has stripped the Higher Education budget bare in order to pay for his policy of encouraging Welsh students to study in England by paying their fees there.

So here we have to enter the game, do the mock assessments, write our meaningless “impact” cases, and jump through all manner of pointless hoops, with the inevitable result that even if we do well we’ll get absolutely no QR money at the end of it. The only strategy that makes sense for Welsh HEIs such as Cardiff University, where I work, is to submit only those researchers guaranteed to score highly. That way at least we’ll do better in the league tables. It won’t matter how many staff actually get submitted, as the multiplier is zero.

There’s no logical argument why Welsh universities should be in the REF at all, given that there’s no reward at the end. But we’re told we have to by the powers that be. Everyone’s playing games in which nobody knows the rules but in which the stakes are people’s careers. It’s madness.

I can’t put it better than this quote:

These managers worry me. Too many are modest achievers, retired from their own studies, intoxicated with jargon, delusional about corporate status and forever banging the metrics gong. Crucially, they don’t lead by example.

Any reader of this blog who works in a university will recognize the sentiments expressed there. But let’s not blame it all on the managers. They’re doing stupid things because the government has set up a stupid framework. There isn’t a single politician in either England or Wales with the courage to do the right thing, i.e. to admit the error and call the whole thing off.

The Transparent Dishonesty of the Research Excellence Framework

Posted in Open Access, Science Politics with tags , , , , , , on May 30, 2012 by telescoper

Some of my colleagues in the School of Physics & Astronomy recently attended a briefing session about the  forthcoming Research Excellence Framework. This, together with the post I reblogged earlier this morning, suggested that I should re-hash an article I wrote some time ago about the arithmetic of the REF, and how it will clearly not do what it says on the tin.

The first thing is the scale of the task facing members of the panel undertaking the assessment. Every research active member of staff in every University in the UK is requested to submit four research publications (“outputs”) to the panel, and we are told that each of these will be read by at least two panel members. The Physics panel comprises 20 members.

As a rough guess I’d say that the UK has about 40 Physics departments, and the average number of research-active staff in each is probably about 40. That gives about 1600 individuals for the REF. Actually the number of category A staff submitted to the 2008 RAE was 1,685.57 FTE (Full-Time Equivalent), pretty close to this figure. At 4 outputs per person that gives 6400 papers to be read. We’re told that each will be read by at least two members of the panel, so that gives an overall job size of 12800 paper-readings. There are 20 members of the panel, so that means that between 29th November 2013 (the deadline for submissions) and the announcement of the results in December 2014 each member of the panel will have to have read 640 research papers. That’s an average of about two a day. Every day. Weekends included.

Now we are told the panel will use their expert judgment to decide which outputs belong to the following categories:

  • 4*  World Leading
  • 3* Internationally Excellent
  • 2* Internationally Recognized
  • 1* Nationally Recognized
  • U   Unclassified

There is an expectation that the so-called QR  funding allocated as a result of the 2013 REF will be heavily weighted towards 4*, with perhaps a small allocation to 3* and probably nothing at all for lower grades. In other words “Internationally recognized” research will probably be deemed completely worthless by HEFCE. Will the papers belonging to the category “Not really understood by the panel member” suffer the same fate?

The panel members will apparently know enough about every single one of the papers they are going to read in order to place them  into one of the above categories, especially the crucial ones “world-leading” or “internationally excellent”, both of which are obviously defined in a completely transparent and objective manner. Not.

We are told that after forming this judgement based on their expertise the panel members will “check” the citation information for the papers. This will be done using the SCOPUS service provided (no doubt at considerable cost) by   Elsevier, which by sheer coincidence also happens to be a purveyor of ridiculously overpriced academic journals. No doubt Elsevier are  on a nice little earner peddling meaningless data for the HECFE bean-counters, but I haven’t any confidence that it will add much value to the assessment process.

There have been high-profile statements to the effect that the REF will take no account of where the relevant “outputs”  are published, including a recent pronouncement by David Willetts. On the face of it, that would suggest that a paper published in the spirit of Open Access in a free archive would not be disadvantaged. However, I very much doubt that will be the case.

I think if you look at the volume of work facing the REF panel members it’s pretty clear that citation statistics will be much more important for the Physics panel than we’ve been led to believe. The panel simply won’t have the time or the breadth of understanding to do an in-depth assessment of every paper, so will inevitably in many cases be led by bibliometric information. The fact that SCOPUS doesn’t cover the arXiv means that citation information will be entirely missing from papers just published there.

The involvement of  a company like Elsevier in this system just demonstrates the extent to which the machinery of research assessment is driven by the academic publishing industry. The REF is now pretty much the only reason why we have to use traditional journals. It would be better for research, better for public accountability and better economically if we all published our research free of charge in open archives. It wouldn’t be good for academic publishing houses, however, so they’re naturally very keen to keep things just the way they are. The saddest thing is that we’re all so cowed by the system that we see no alternative but to participate in this scam.

Incidentally we were told before the 2008 Research Assessment Exercise that citation data would emphatically not be used;  we were also told afterwards that citation data had been used by the Physics panel. That’s just one of the reasons why I’m very sceptical about the veracity of some of the pronouncements coming out from the REF establishment. Who knows what they actually do behind closed doors?  All the documentation is shredded after the results are published. Who can trust such a system?

To put it bluntly, the apparatus of research assessment has done what most bureaucracies eventually do; it has become  entirely self-serving. It is imposing increasingly  ridiculous administrative burdens on researchers, inventing increasingly  arbitrary assessment criteria and wasting increasing amounts of money on red tape which should actually be going to fund research.

Come off it, REF!

Posted in Science Politics with tags , , , , , , on October 27, 2011 by telescoper

Yesterday we all trooped off to the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff for a Staff Away Day. We didn’t actually get to play on the pitch of course, which wasn’t even there, as it had been removed to reveal a vast expanse of soil. Instead we were installed in the “Dragon Suite” for a discussion about our preparation for the forthcoming Research Excellence Framework.

Obviously I can’t post anything about our internal deliberations, but I’m sure departments up and down the United Kingdom are doing similar things so I thought I’d mention a few things which are already in the public domain and my personal reactions to them. I should also say that the opinions I express below are my own and not necessarily those of anyone else at Cardiff.

The first thing is the scale of the task facing members of the panel undertaking this assessment. Each research active member of staff is requested to submit four research publications (“outputs”) to the panel, and we are told that each of these will be read by at least two panel members. The panel comprises 20 members.

As a rough guess I’d say that the UK has about 40 Physics departments, and the average number of research-active staff in each is probably about 40. That gives about 1600 individuals for the REF. Actually the number of category A staff submitted to the 2008 RAE was 1,685.57 FTE (Full-Time Equivalent), pretty  close to this figure. At 4 outputs per person that gives 6400 papers to be read. We’re told that each will be read by at least two members of the panel, so that gives an overall job size of 12800 paper-readings. There are 20 members of the panel, so that means that between 29th November 2013 (the deadline for submissions) and the announcement of the results in December 2014 each member of the panel will have to have read 640 research papers. That’s an average of about two a day…

Incidentally, as I’ve mentioned before, the Physics REF panel includes representatives from institutions in England, Scotland and Northern Ireland, but not Wales. The decision to exclude representation from Welsh physics departments was a disgrace, in my view.

Now we are told the panel will use their expert judgment to decide which outputs belong to the following categories:

  • 4*  World Leading
  • 3* Internationally Excellent
  • 2* Internationally Recognized
  • 1* Nationally Recognized
  • U   Unclassified

There is an expectation that the so-called QR  funding allocated as a result of the 2013 REF will be heavily weighted towards 4*, with perhaps a small allocation to 3* and probably nothing at all for lower grades. “Internationally recognized” research is probably worthless in the view of HEFCE, in other words. Will the papers belonging to the category “Not really understood by the panel member” suffer the same fate?

The panel members will apparently know enough about every single one of the papers they are going to read in order to place them  into one of the above categories, especially the crucial ones “world-leading” or “internationally excellent”, both of which are obviously defined in a completely transparent and objective manner. Not.

We are told that after forming this judgement based on their expertise the panel members will “check” the citation information for the papers. This will be done using the SCOPUS service provided (no doubt at considerable cost) by   Elsevier, which by sheer coincidence also happens to be a purveyor of ridiculously overpriced academic journals. I’ve just checked the citation information for some of my papers on SCOPUS, and found an alarming number of errors. No doubt Elsevier are  on a nice little earner peddling meaningless data for the HECFE bean-counters, but I haven’t any confidence that it will add much value to the assessment process.

There have been high-profile statements to the effect that the REF will take no account of where the relevant “outputs”  are published, including a recent pronouncement by David Willetts. On the face of it, that would suggest that a paper published in the spirit of Open Access in a free archive would not be disadvantaged. However, I very much doubt that will be the case.

I think if you look at the volume of work facing the REF panel members it’s pretty clear that citation statistics will be much more important for the Physics panel than we’ve been led to believe. The panel simply won’t have the time or the breadth of understanding to do an in-depth assessment of every paper, so will inevitably in many cases be led by bibliometric information. The fact that SCOPUS doesn’t cover the arXiv means that citation information will be entirely missing from papers just published there.

The involvement of  a company like Elsevier in this system just demonstrates the extent to which the machinery of research assessment is driven by the academic publishing industry. The REF is now pretty much the only reason why we have to use traditional journals. It would be better for research, better for public accountability and better economically if we all published our research free of charge in open archives. It wouldn’t be good for academic publishing houses, however, so they’re naturally very keen to keep things just the way they are. The saddest thing is that we’re all so cowed by the system that we see no alternative but to participate in this scam.

Incidentally we were told before the 2008 Research Assessment Exercise that citation data would emphatically not be used;  we were also told afterwards that citation data had been used by the Physics panel. That’s just one of the reasons why I’m very sceptical about the veracity of some of the pronouncements coming out from the REF establishment. Who knows what they actually do behind closed doors?  All the documentation is shredded after the results are published. Who can trust such a system?

To put it bluntly, the apparatus of research assessment has done what most bureaucracies eventually do; it has become  entirely self-serving. It is imposing increasingly  ridiculous administrative burdens on researchers, inventing increasingly  arbitrary assessment criteria and wasting increasing amounts of money on red tape which should actually be going to fund research.

And that’s all just about “outputs”. I haven’t even started on “impact”….

People vs projects in science funding (via Responsible Innovation)

Posted in Finance, Science Politics with tags , on July 19, 2011 by telescoper

Interesting article about whether funding should go to scientists with reputations, or to excellent projects…

Prompted by a question from Times science correspondent Hannah Devlin on Twitter, some thoughts on whether science funders should concentrate on funding people or funding projects… There appears to be growing interest in the idea of channeling funding through individuals. In the last few years, we’ve seen the Wellcome Trust redirect money towards people. EPSRC and other research councils are interested too. Paul Nurse and other senior scientist … Read More

via Responsible Innovation

Cutting Remarks

Posted in Finance, Politics, Science Politics with tags , , , , , on May 13, 2011 by telescoper

I know you’ve all been waiting with baited breath for news of the outcome of the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee‘s report into Astronomy and Particle Physics in the UK.

Well, it’s out now. You can find the web version of the report here and it’s also available as a PDF file there. There’s also a press release with the headline

MPs warn astronomy and particle physics budgets cuts will hit UK science hard

Journalists have obviously been busy overnight – the report was released at midnight, I believe – and there are stories all over the press this morning, including The Guardian, and the journal Science as well as the BBC. The Royal Astronomical Society and the Institute of Physics have also been quick to respond.

Apart from the savage cuts themselves – which the committee correctly suggest will reduce astronomy and particle physics spending by 2014/15 to about 50% of the level it was at in 2005 – the great tragedy of this story is that it has taken so long to recognize the scale of the disaster. Most of the damage was done way back in 2007 when the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) was first set up. I’d suggest there is an error in the tense of the verb “to hit” in the headline above. It would be more accurate as

MPs warn astronomy and particle physics budgets cuts HAVE ALREADY hit UK science hard, and are getting worse all the time..

Last year’s Comprehensive Spending Review had relatively good news for STFC, with a settlement corresponding to level funding in cash terms. However, the Bank of England has recently stated that it expects inflation to reach 5% this year, which means that science will actually be getting 5% year-on-year real terms cuts on top of what it received in 2007. It’s a pretty dire situation.

The report also raises a doubt over whether the current Chief Executive, Keith Mason, has the “ability to command the confidence of the scientific community”. No shit.

I don’t have time to write much more on this right now as I have lectures to do, but perhaps others out there might feel the urge to start a discussion through the comments box…

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Astronomy Grants: The Harsh Reality

Posted in Science Politics with tags , , , , on May 8, 2011 by telescoper

Time, I think, to return to my role as selfless servant of the astronomical community, with a bit of news about astronomy grants. I was prompted to do this by the following cartoon (from the excellent PhDComics) which I saw this morning:

It’s all completely untrue, of course. *Cough*.

Anyway, as you will probably  know, the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) is introducing a new system of grants this year and the deadline for the first set of applications for the new “consolidated grants” was 4th May, which passed last week while I was away on holiday. Just before leaving I attended a preliminary meeting in London of the Astronomy Grant Panel, of which I am a member. In fact, I delayed my departure specifically in order to attend the meeting. The things I do for science.

At the meeting we discussed a number of issues relating to the new system in order to be ready to get on with the business as quickly as possible when the applications are all in. The timetable is very tight if we’re going to be able to get our recommendations finalised in time for STFC to make announcements in October, as is planned. Thew new system is  going to mean a huge amount of extra work over the summer for the panel members, doing what was always a thankless task in the first place.

Of course I’m not going to write anything on here about the actual process of assessing grants, and certainly not about individual proposals or outcomes. Anything that’s not confidential about the procedure is already explained quite clearly on the STFC website too, so there’s not much point going over that again here. It would also be inappropriate for me to give the impression that anything I put on here is in any way the official AGP (or STFC) line.

What I can do, though, is make a few comments about the current situation using information that is already in the public domain or is otherwise not a breach of confidentiality. The most important observation relates to the following figure, borrowed from the e-astronomer (who also happens to be Chair of the AGP):

The graph shows the number of astronomy postdoctoral research positions funded by STFC (or its forerunner PPARC) as a function of time. The steep decline in recent years has been widely discussed. My own view is that it will be disastrous in the long term if steps are not taken to rectify it soon. The  STFC budget for astronomy grants is fixed for the next few years at a level corresponding to about 60 per year, similar to the number announced in 2010/11.

Now the new consolidated grants will incorporate existing roling grants (which were reviewed on a three-year cycle) and standard grants (which usually lasted three years). A large number of positions announced in 2008 will therefore be hoping for renewal this year. On top of those there will be proposals requesting new positions and other rolling grants coming into this round before their usual renewal date in order to merge with others from the same institution.

I don’t know the actual numbers applied for this year – and couldn’t tell you even if I did – but it’s not unreasonable based on the figures shown in the graph above to estimate that  about 100 PDRA requests will be made, and possibly many more. A significant fraction of these (perhaps 2/3) will be people employed on existing rolling grants hoping to be continued in a new consolidated grant from 2011 onwards.

I probably don’t have to spell it out any further, but it’s clear from the graph that the arithmetic is very tough. Even without any new requests this year, only about 2/3 of the positions funded in 2008 can survive. In reality there may be more than 100 souls standing on deck, but the lifeboats can only hold 60….

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