Archive for Institute of Physics

Diversity, Inclusion, Rain and Brexit

Posted in Biographical, Politics with tags , , , , on October 11, 2019 by telescoper

So here I am in a very rainy London. I arrived yesterday for a meeting of the IOP Diversity and Inclusion Committee, which was an interesting occasion with many new things about to unfold, tempered by a bit of sadness that the wonderful Head of Diversity at the IOP, Jenni Dyer, is leaving shortly to take up a new job. However will we manage?

Anyway, instead of flying back to Ireland last night after the meeting, I stayed in London last night because today there is an ordinary meeting of the Royal Astronomical Society at Burlington House, to be followed by a Club Dinner. I’ll be going home to Ireland tomorrow.

Unfortunately the weather has put a dampener on my plans to spend a bit of time wandering around London because it is raining quite heavily and is forecast to do so for the rest of the day. Still, at least the hotel I’m in has WIFI so I can get a few things done this morning before venturing out into the inclement conditions.

Meanwhile the pound is rising against the euro on optimism that there may be a Brexit deal on the horizon after yesterday’s meeting between Boris Johnson and Leo Varadkar. Nobody knows the details but it seems likely that it’s basically the same as Theresa May’s `deal’ except that the `backstop’ is to be replaced by what is effectively a  customs border in the Irish Sea.  My personal preference would be Boris Johnson thrown in the Irish Sea.

I doubt the Democratic Unionists will be happy with this, but Johnson is probably gambling that enough Labour quitlings will vote for it that he no longer needs their support. Of course, that all depends on whether what was discussed yesterday turns into a concrete legally-binding agreement signed off by the EU.

P.S. Bookies’ odds on a No-Deal Brexit on October 31st have drifted out from 4/1 to 5/1.

 

Exploring the workplace for LGBT+ Physical Scientists

Posted in LGBT with tags , , , , , on June 26, 2019 by telescoper

Had things gone to plan, today I would have been at the premises of the Royal Society of Chemistry in Burlington House in London for the launch of Exploring the workplace for LGBT+ physical scientists a report by the Institute of Physics, Royal Astronomical Society and the Royal Society of Chemistry resulting from a survey that I blogged about last year. Unfortunately I’ve been too busy here in Maynooth to fly to London and back for the launch so I’ll have to restrict myself to thanking these organizations for undertaking this project and pointing out that you can download, and perhaps even read, the resulting report here.

This report demonstrates that, while we have come a long way, we still have to do a lot more to make sure that LBGT+ people feel welcome and valued in the physical sciences.

A majority (70%) of the survey respondents believed that the working environment was improving for LBGT+ members of the physical science community but as many as 25% had at some point considered leaving the physical sciences due to discrimination.

I have also taken the liberty of including below a few infographics summarizing some of the main findings of the report.

One of the responses to the survey reads

I doubt this view is uncommon among heterosexual scientists but I disagree with it. The idea that no scientist has any identity at all in the workplace other than `scientist’ is quite ridiculous. Scientists are human beings, and humans are extremely diverse. I doubt if anyone likes to be defined by a single characteristic – we are all complex individuals subject to a whole host of different influences – but, to create an inclusive environment where the best scientists can flourish and the best science can be done, we need to make sure everyone feels comfortable. If we can do that it won’t just benefit our LGBT+ colleagues, but everyone in our workplaces.

Do read the report!

The New IOP Physics Technician Award

Posted in Education, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , on May 8, 2019 by telescoper

Picture Credit: Cardiff University School of Physics & Astronomy

I remember a few years ago one of my colleagues when I worked in the School of Physics & Astronomy at Cardiff University, Steven Baker, won an award for being the best STEM Technician in the category of Physical Sciences in the whole country! At the time this was a new award set up by the Higher Education Academy, so Steven was the inaugural winner of it.

Now there’s another new award, this time from the Institute of Physics and dedicated to Physics technicians (not necessarily in universities). I quote:

The IOP Technician Award enables the community to recognise and celebrate the skills and experience of technicians and their contribution to physics.

You can find full details of how to nominate an awardee here. The deadline is 14th June 2019. The prize is worth £1000, but more importantly it serves to encourage Physics departments to reflect on the vital role played by technicians. I feel very strongly that the contribution made by support staff in university departments is drastically undervalued.  No Physics department can run without a dedicated technical support team who apply their skills and expertise in both teaching and research laboratories. Even a department like mine dedicated purely to Theoretical Physics needs computing support, and there are many more people – including clerical staff, library staff, etc – without whom many of our activities would grind to a halt. None of these support staff gets the recognition they deserve; they are often poorly paid and lack an appropriate career structure that reflects the importance of the work they do.

As well as being a nice award this is an opportunity to remind us academics that we couldn’t do what we do without others doing all the difficult stuff!

So please get your nominations in!

LGBT+ STEMinar – Notes on my Keynote

Posted in Biographical, LGBT, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , on January 12, 2019 by telescoper

I’m in a hotel near King’s Cross having had my Full English and with an hour or so before I have to check out and trek to Heathrow for my flight back to Dublin.

First things first. I promised a few people yesterday at the LGBT STEMinar that I would post the slides I used in my Keynote talk yesterday so here you go:

And here are a few pictures of me in action. I got all these from Twitter so apologize for not giving due credit to the photographers. My timeline was very crowded yesterday!

What I tried to do in the talk was to discuss the theme of progress over the last thirty years, both in my area of research (cosmology, specifically the large-scale structure of the Universe) and in the area of LGBT+ rights.

I started with my time as a graduate student at Sussex. One of the first things I did during `Freshers Week’ at when I started there was to join the GaySoc (as it was called) and I gradually became more involved in it as time went on. Over the five years I was at Sussex, `Gaysoc’ became `Lesbian and Gay Soc’ but a move to recognize bisexual people in the title was voted down, by quite a large margin. Inclusivity was (and still isn’t) a given even among marginalized groups. Biphobia and transphobia are still very much around.

Initially I kept my sexual orientation separate from my academic life and wasn’t really all that open in the Department in which I worked. My decision to change that was largely because of things going on in the outside world that convinced me that there was a need to stand up and be counted.

One of these was the AIDS `panic’ exacerbated by the Thatcher Government’s awful advertising campaign, an example of which you can see above. It was a very frightening time to be gay, not only because of the fear of contracting AIDS oneself but also because of the hostility that arose as a reaction to the `gay plague’. I’m convinced that this campaign led directly to a great deal of the violence that was inflicted on gay people during this time, including myself.

The second thing that made me want to come out was the Local Government Act (1988), which included the now infamous Section 28 (above). This was the subject of the first political demonstrations I ever attended. We failed to stop it becoming law, which was what we had wanted to do, but one positive that came out of this was that it did galvanize a lot of people into action, and the law was eventually repealed.

Anyway, I just got fed up of hearing people making ill-informed generalisations during this time. Rather than make a big public statement about being gay, I just resolved to not let such comments pass. I think it only took a few intercessions in the tea room or Falmer Bar for it to become widely known in the Department that I was gay. That was how I came out in astrophysics, and thereafter almost everyone just seemed to know.

So that was the eighties. If somebody had told me then that in thirty years the United Kingdom would have legalized same-sex marriage I would just have laughed. That wasn’t even really being discussed by the LGBT+ community then.

Anyway, back to the talk. What I then tried to do – actually for most of the presentation – was to outline the progress that has been made over the last thirty years in cosmology. When I started in 1985 there was hardly any data. There were some small redshift surveys of the order of a thousand galaxies, but my thesis was supposed to be about the pattern of fluctuations in the cosmic microwave background and there were no relevant measurements back then. I had to rely on simulations, as I mentioned here a few days ago.

Over the years there has been tremendous progress, especially with the accumulation of data enabled by improvements in observational technology. Theory has moved on to the extent that we now have a standard model of cosmology that accounts for most of this data (at least in a broad-brush sense) with just six free parameters. That’s a great success.

This rapid progress has led some to suggest that cosmology is now basically over in the sense that we have done virtually everything that we’ll ever do. I disagree with this entirely. The standard model contains a number of assumptions (general relativity, cold dark matter, a cosmological constant, and so on) all of which should be questioned. In science every answer leads to new questions and all progress to new challenges. If we ever rest on our laurels the field will stagnate and die. Success should never lead to complacency.

So then in the talk I returned to LGBT+ rights. Some (straight) people have said to me that now that we have equal marriage then it’s basically all done, isn’t it? There’s now no discrimination. You can stop talking about LGBT+ matters and `just be a scientist’.

That, I’m afraid, is bollocks. We have equal marriage but, though welcome, by no means represents some sort of utopia. Society is still basically a patriarchy, configured in a way that is profoundly unfair to many groups of people, so there are still many challenges to be fought. Unless we keep pushing for a truly inclusive society there is a real danger that the rights we have won could easily be rolled back. This is no more over than cosmology is over. In fact, you could really say that it’s really just the start.

The 2019 LGBT+STEMinar

Posted in Biographical, LGBT, The Universe and Stuff with tags , on January 11, 2019 by telescoper

I’m just back in my hotel after an evening at the Royal Astronomical Society Club Dinner which I went to straight from today’s LGBT+STEMinar at the very nice new Institute of Physics building on Caledonian Road near King’s Cross. This is what it looked like when I arrived this morning:

I enjoyed the LGBT+ STEMinar very much indeed. There was a huge range of talks by a wonderfully diverse crowd of speakers, on topics ranging from nuclear waste, parasites in wood mice, glaciology, quantum optics, the evolution of island finches, bacterial pathogenesis, gamma-ray bursts and machine learning in astrophysics.

I particular enjoyed the talk by Niamh Kavanagh from the Tyndall Institute in Cork who handed out home-made filters to give herself a rainbow effect:

I was delighted and relieved that my keynote talk and the end of the day seemed to go down quite well, at least judging by the comments I found in my Twitter feed just now. Here’s a picture I found there!

I’ll post the slides from my talk and perhaps a few other comments about it tomorrow, after I’ve had a good night’s sleep. But I won’t delay in thanking the organisers, especially Angela Townsend, for making this such a special day.

Learned Societies and Open Access

Posted in Open Access with tags , , , , , on November 8, 2018 by telescoper

Tuesday’s quick post about a letter of opposition to Plan S generated some comments from academics about the role of “Learned Societies” in academic publishing.  I therefore think it’s relevant to raise some points about the extent that these organizations (including, in my field,  the Royal Astronomical Society and the Institute of Physics) rely for their financial security upon the revenues generated by publishing traditional journals.

Take IOP Publishing, for example. This is a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Institute of Physics that has an annual turnover of around £60M generated from books and journals. This revenue is the largest contribution to the income that the IoP needs to run its numerous activities relating to the promotion of physics.  A similar situation pertains to the Royal Astronomical Society, although on a smaller scale, as it relies for much of its income from Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, in which as a matter of fact I have published quite a few papers.

Not surprisingly, these and other learned societies are keen to protect their main source of cash. When I criticized the exploitative behaviour of IoP Publishing some time ago in a recent blog post, I drew a stern response from the Chief Executive of the Institute of Physics, Paul Hardaker. That comment seems to admit that the high prices charged by IOP Publishing for access to  its journals is nothing to do with the real cost of disseminating scientific knowledge but is instead a means of generating income to allow the IoP to pursue its noble aim of  “promoting Physics”.

This is the case for other learned societies too, and it explains why such organizations have lobbied very hard for the “Gold” Open Access some authorities are attempting to foist on the research community, rather than the far more sensible and sustainable “Green” Open Access model and its variants.

Some time ago I came across another blog post, pointing out that other learned societies around the world are also opposing Green Open Access:

There is also great incentive for the people who manage and run these organisations to defend their cartel. For example, the American Chemical Society, a huge opponent to open access, pays many of its employees, as reported in their 990 tax return, over six figures. These salaries ranged from $304,528 to $1,084,417 in 2010.

The problem with the learned societies behaving this way is twofold.

First, I consider it to be inevitable that the traditional journal industry will very soon be completely bypassed in favour of some form of green (or at least not gold) Open Access. The internet has changed the entire landscape of scientific publication. It’s now so cheap and so easy to disseminate knowledge that traditional journals are already virtually redundant, especially in my field of astrophysics where we have been using the arXiv for so long that many of us hardly ever look at journals.

The comfortable income stream that has been used by the IoP to “promote Physics”, as well as to furnish its brand new building in King’s Cross, will dry up unless these organizations find a way of defending it. The “Gold” OA favoured by such organizations their attempt to stem the tide. I think this move into Gold `Open Access’, paid for by ruinously expensive Article Processing charges paid by authors (or their organizations) is unsustainable because the research community will see through it and refuse to pay.

The other problematic aspect of the approach of these learned societies is that I think it is fundamentally dishonest. University and institutional libraries are provided with funds to provide access to published research, not to provide a backdoor subsidy for a range of extraneous activities that have nothing to do with that purpose. The learned societies do many good things – and some are indeed outstandingly good – but that does not give them the right to siphon off funds from their constituents in this way.  Institutional affiliation, paid for by fee, would be a much fairer way of funding these activities.

I should point out that, as a FRAS and a FInstP, I pay annual subscriptions to both the RAS and the IoP. I am happy to do so, as I feel comfortable spending some of my own money supporting astronomy and physics. What I don’t agree with is my department having to fork out huge amounts of money from an ever-dwindling budget for access to scientific research that should be in the public domain because it has already been funded by the taxpayer.

Some time ago I had occasion to visit the London offices of a well-known charitable organization which shall remain nameless. The property they occupied was glitzy, palatial, and obviously very expensive. I couldn’t help wondering how they could square the opulence of their headquarters with the quoted desire to spend as much as possible on their good works. Being old and cynical, I came to the conclusion that, although charities might start out with the noblest intentions, there is a grave danger that they simply become self-serving, viewing their own existence in itself as more important than what they do for others.

The commercial academic publishing industry has definitely gone that way. It arose because of the need to review, edit, collate, publish and disseminate the fruits of academic labour. Then the ease with which profits could be made led it astray. It now fulfills little or no useful purpose, but simply consumes financial resources that could be put to much better effect actually doing science. Fortunately, I think the scientific community knows this and the parasite will die a natural death.

The question for learned societies is whether they can find a sustainable funding model that isn’t reliant upon effectively purloining funds from university library budgets. If their revenue from publishing does fall, can they replace it? And, if not, in what form can they survive?

The LGBT+ Physical Sciences Climate Survey – Final Reminder!

Posted in LGBT with tags , , , on April 27, 2018 by telescoper

This morning, a tweet from the Institute of Physics containing the above image reminded me to remind you all to participate (if you are so minded) in the LGBT+ Physical Sciences climate survey, which was launched amid the snows of 1st March this year. The deadline is coming up so if you want to complete the survey form and haven’t yet done so, please get on with it!

The survey is open to anyone (whether a member of a professional organisations or not) who identifies as LGBT+ or an ally and who may be working, teaching or studying in a physical sciences field. Respondents will need to be at least 16 years of age and above. The Institute of Physics (IOP), Royal Astronomical Society (RAS) and Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC) are managing this survey on behalf of the LGBT+ Physical Sciences Network. Its aim is to collect evidence for what the working and studying climate is like for LGBT+ physical scientists in the UK and Ireland.

You can complete the survey here.

The survey is open until Monday 30th April, which is very close so why not do it right away?