Archive for Queen Mary

The South-East Physics Network – The Sequel

Posted in Education, Science Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 18, 2013 by telescoper

Every now and again I’m at a loss for something to blog about when a nice press release comes to the rescue. This announcement has just gone live, and I make no apology for repeating it here!


UPDATE: You can now read the University of Sussex take on this announcement here.



New Investment in Physics Teaching and Research in South East England

The South East Physics network (SEPnet) and HEFCE are delighted to announce their plans to invest £13.1 million pounds to sustain physics undergraduate and postgraduate teaching provision, and world class research facilities, staff and doctoral training over the 5 years up to 2018. HEFCE will provide £2.75 million to maintain and expand the network, to establish a dedicated regional graduate training programme for physics postgraduate students and address physics specific issues of student participation and diversity. On top of the HEFCE contribution, each SEPnet partner will support and fund programmes of Outreach, Employability and Research.

The South East Physics Network (SEPnet) was formed after receiving a £12.5 million grant from HEFCE in 2008 as a network of six Physics departments in South East England at the Universities of Kent, Queen Mary University of London, Royal Holloway University of London, Southampton, Surrey and Sussex. The Science and Technology Facilities Council and Rutherford Appleton Laboratory provided additional funds and resources for collaborations in particle physics and astrophysics. The University of Portsmouth joined in 2010. The Open University and the University of Hertfordshire will join the network effective the 1st August 2013.

SEPnet Phase One has been tremendously successful for the partners in SEPnet and for physics in the region. The Outreach programme, regarded as an exemplar for collaborative outreach, uses the combined knowledge and resources of each partner to provide greater impact and reach and demonstrates that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. It has succeeded in effectively exploiting the growing national interest in physics through its wide range of public engagement and schools activities. There has been a substantial increase in applications and intake for physics undergraduate courses and undergraduate numbers are now 90% higher in the SEPnet physics departments compared with 2007 and applications up approximately 115% – well above national trends.

Announcing the investment, SEPnet’s Independent Chair Professor Sir William Wakeham said “This is a major success for physics both in the region and nationally. HEFCE’s contribution via SEPnet has enabled the partners in the consortium to grow and develop their physics departments for the long term. Before SEPnet, physics departments had falling student numbers and lacked research diversity. Now they are robust and sustainable and the SEPnet consortium is an exemplar of collaboration in Higher Education.”

David Sweeney, Director of Research, Innovation and Skills, HEFCE said: “We are delighted to see the fruits of a very successful intervention to support what was once a vulnerable subject. HEFCE are pleased to provide funding for a new phase, particularly to address new challenges in the field of postgraduate training and widening participation. The expansion to include new physics departments is a testament to the success of the network and can only act to strengthen and diversify the collaboration.”

Sir Peter Knight, President of the Institute of Physics, expressed strong support for the government’s continued investments in the sciences generally and in physics specifically. “SEPnet has been an undoubted success in sustaining physics in the South East region and has strongly participated in contributing to its beneficial effects nationally. It is an exemplar of collaborative best practice in outreach, employability and research and we now look forward to collaborating in the critical areas of graduate training, public engagement and diversity.”

The specific programmes already being developed by the network include:

  1. a regional Graduate Network built on the strength of current SEPnet research collaborations and graduate training whose  primary objectives  will be to:
  • develop and deliver an exemplar programme of PhD transferable and leadership skills training delivered flexibly to create employment-ready physics doctoral graduates for the economic benefit of the UK;
  • increase employer engagement with HEIs including PhD internships,  industrially-sponsored  studentships and Knowledge Transfer fellowships;
  • enhance the impact  of SEPnet’s research via a clear, collaborative impact strategy;
  • enhance research environment diversity through engagement with Athena SWAN and the IoP’s Project Juno.
  1. Expansion of its employer engagement and internship programmes, widening the range of work experiences available to enhance undergraduate (UG) and postgraduate (PG) employability and progress to research degrees.
  2. Enhancement of its Outreach Programme  to deliver and disseminate  best practice in schools and public engagement and  increase diversity in  physics education.

The inclusion of new partners The Open University and University of Hertfordshire broadens the range of teaching and postgraduate research in the network. The University of Reading, about to introduce an undergraduate programme in Environmental Physics (Department of Meteorology), will join as an associate partner.

A key part of the contributions from each partner is the provision of “SEPnet PhD Studentships”, a programme to attract the brightest and best physics graduates to engage in a programme of collaborative research within the network, of joint supervision and with a broad technical and professional graduate training programme within the SEPnet Graduate Network.

The network will be led by the University of Southampton. Its Vice-Chancellor, Professor Don Nutbeam: “I am delighted that the University of Southampton, in partnership with nine other universities in the region, is able to build on the success of the SEPnet initiative to reinvigorate the university physics teaching and research and take it to a new level in the turbulent period ahead for the higher education sector. The SEPnet training programme brings novelty, quality and diversity to the regions physics postgraduates that we expect to be a model for other regions and subjects.”

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.

Old School

Posted in Biographical, Education with tags , , on June 29, 2011 by telescoper

Yesterday was a busy day, involving me travelling to London in order to carry out my duties as external examiner for the MSc in Astrophysics in the School of Mathematical Sciences at Queen Mary, University of London. Every time I go to my old stomping ground on Mile End Road,  the East End something seems to have changed, whether in the college or in the environs. This time was no exception, as they’ve finally finished the new entrance to the Mathematical Sciences Building:

You can’t see it all that well, but it’s decorated with Penrose Tiling (although it’s not specified who did the grouting). Inside there’s a spacious new foyer area – devoid of any possible teaching use, but probably a nice area for students to gather informally. Inside has a sort of 1960s retro feel, with bright yellow plastic floors and modernist soft furnishings. Austin Powers would probably feel at home there. The large lecture theatre has also been comprehensively refurbished and looks very nice, although its capacity has been reduced. Less emphasis on teaching facilities, more on “the student experience” I suppose.

I used to work at Queen Mary, in the Astronomy Unit; in this very building, in fact. I can’t help being a bit cynical about the new front entrance. There are so many other things wrong with the building – grubby concrete exterior, badly fitting windows and lavatories that don’t work, to name but a few – that I can’t really understand what made someone decide that what it really needed was a new garish plastic foyer. It’s up to Queen Mary to decide where to spend its money, of course, but I think it’s strange.

Other, bigger, news about the Astronomy Unit which I learned yesterday is that this summer, at long last, it’s moving from the School of Mathematical Sciences to merge with the Physics department in order to form a new School of Physics & Astronomy. In fact, when I was there there were astronomers in Physics (mainly instrumental and observational) and in Mathematical Sciences (mainly theoretical, including myself). Some years ago most of the instrumentation people moved from the School of Physics here to Cardiff, where they are still. The remaining astronomers moved to Mathematical Sciences. Now they’re moving back to Physics along with those currently in Maths. Oh what a tangled web.

For the time being the Astronomy Unit will stay in their existing offices but will eventually move in with Physics once that building is refurbished. I guess the main thing that will change immediately is that various astronomers will have new letterheads and will have to start teaching physics courses instead of mathematics.

Feelings about the move among the staff appear to be rather mixed, but I wish them well in their new School and with their plans to build up Physics & Astronomy in the future.

150 Years of Fish and Chips

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , on August 26, 2010 by telescoper

This is definitely off the beaten track as far as my blog posts go, but I think it’s Quite Interesting so I thought I’d share it with you. I was wondering the other day where and when the traditional “British” dish of fish and chips originated. The answer is fascinating, and a little bit controversial too.

The practice of eating fried fish in batter started to appear in England during the fifteenth century; it was derived from the  Pescado Frito cooked by Portuguese Sephardic Jews – Marranos – who had moved to Britain to escape persecution in their homeland. By the Victorian era “Fish Fried in the Jewish Fashion” was extremely popular in the working class districts of London, particularly in the East End. Dickens refers to a “fried fish warehouse” in Oliver Twist, which was first published in 1837. It seems to have become available in large quantities with the rapid development of trawler fishing in the mid 19th century.

Incidentally, there is a prominent relic  of the Spanish and Portuguese Jews who settled in the East End right next to Queen Mary, University of London in Mile End (see left). The burial ground has, I think, recently been moved but it neverthless provides a timely reminder that immigration is by no means a new phenomenon as far as the East End is concerned.

The traditional way of frying the fish involved oil and I don’t know precisely when the practice of using lard – which is what is used in many modern shops – came on the scene, but it clearly would not have met with Jewish approval and must have been a more recent development.

The origin of chips is more controversial. The first occurence of this usage of the word chip in the Oxford English Dictionary appears in Dickens’ novel A Tale of Two Cities, dated 1859, in the phrase

Husky chips of potatoes, fried with some reluctant drops of oil

Some say the practice of frying potatoes like this originated in Belgium or France, and that chips are a British version of pommes frites or french fries. This style of cooking potatoes could have been brought to London by the Huguenots (French Protestants who settled in the East End of London after being forced out of their homeland). However, there is some controversy about how and why chips became so popular throughout Britain. Some claim the practice of eating fried potatoes was already established in the North of England before 1859. It also seems that fried chipped potatoes were served in working class eating establishments throughout Victorian London. Many working people – especially single men living in lodging houses – lacked the facilities or the ability to cook anything substantial at home, so preferred to buy their food ready made. At an Irish Ordinary you could get a filling meal of beer, meat and fried potatoes for about tuppence (in old money). Such establishments proliferated all over London during the 19th Century as the number of navvies and other itinerant Irish labourers  grew in response to the demand for manual workers across the country.

I think it was most likely the presence of a nearby Irish Ordinary that led a Jewish londoner called Joseph Malin to hit upon the idea of combining fried fish with chipped potatoes. At any rate it’s reasonably well established that the very first commercial Fish-and-Chip Shop was opened by him in 1860 in Cleveland Street and business was so good that it was followed by many others across the East End of London and beyond.

There’s something rather inspiring about rediscovering that Britain is nation whose traditions and institutions have always been so reliant on foreign immigrants. Even Fish and Chips turns out to be from somewhere else. Makes you proud to be British.


All in a day’s work

Posted in Art, Biographical, Education, Science Politics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , on June 30, 2010 by telescoper

I got back from yesterday’s trip to a very muggy London with a raging sore throat and a brain as sluggish as an England defender on an action replay. Come to think of it, I must be as sick as a parrot. I’m sweating like a pig too, although I don’t know whether that’s a symptom of anything nasty or just because it’s still so warm and humid. Anyway, in view of my likely incoherence I thought I’d keep it brief (again) and just mention a few salient points from the last day or two.

I went to London as part of my duties as External Examiner for the MSc Course in Astrophysics at Queen Mary, University of London. Of course all the proceedings are confidential so I’m not going to comment on anything in detail, except that I spent a bit of time going through the exam scripts before the Examiners’ Meeting in a room that did a very passable impersonation of a heat bath. When I was later joined by the rest of the Exam Board the temperature soared still further. Fortunately the business went relatively smoothly so nobody got too hot under the collar and after concluding the formal business, a few of us cooled off with a beer or two in the Senior Common Room.The students spend the next couple of months writing their dissertations now that the written exams are over, so we have to reconvene in October to determine the final results. I hope it’s a bit cooler by then.

I couldn’t stay long at Queen Mary, however, as I had a working dinner to get to. Regular readers of this blog (both of them) may remember that I’m involved in project called Beyond Entropy which is organized by the Architectural Association School of Architecture. I’ve been working on this occasionally over the months that have passed since I first blogged about it, but deadlines are now looming and we need to accelerate our activity. Last night I met with the ever-enthusiastic Stefano Rabolli Pansera at the house of Eyal Weizman by Victoria Park in the East End, handily close to Queen Mary’s Mile End campus. Assisted by food and wine we managed to crystallise our ideas into something much more tangible than we had managed to do before on our theme of Gravitational Energy. The School has offered us expert practical assistance in making prototypes and  I’m now much more optimistic about our exhibit coming together, not to mention excited at the prospect of seeing it on display at the Venice Architecture Biennale. I won’t say what we’re planning just yet, though. I’d rather wait until it’s done before unveiling it.

Incidentally, here’s a link to a  lecture by Eyal Weizman where he gives some interesting perspectives on architectural history.

Finally, and nothing to do with my trip to the Big Smoke, I noticed today on the Research Fortnight Blog that the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales (HEFCW) is planning to reduce the number of universities in Wales “significantly” from its current level of 12. This is an interesting development and one that I’ve actually argued for here. Quoting Leighton Andrews, Welsh Assembly Minister responsible for higher education, the piece says

“This target does not mean fewer students,” he said in a statement. “But it is likely to mean fewer vice chancellors. We will have significantly fewer HE institutions in Wales but they will be larger and stronger.”

How these reductions will be achieved remains to be seen, but it seems obvious that quite a few  feathers will be ruffled among the management’s plumage in some institutions and it looks like some vice chancellors will be totally plucked!


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