Well, I’m back to civilization (more or less) and with my plan to watch a day of cricket at Sophia Gardens thwarted by the rain I decided to pop into an internet café and do a quick post about one of the rants that has been simmering on the back burner while I’ve been taking a break.
Just before the Easter vacation I had lunch with some colleagues from the Department of Physics & Astronomy at the University of Sussex. One of the things that came up was the changing fortunes of the department. After years of under-investment from the University administration, it was at one time at such a low ebb that it was in real danger of being closed down (despite its undoubted strengths in research and teaching). Fortunately help came in the form of SEPnet, which provided funds to support new initiatives in Physics not only in Sussex but across the South East. Moreover, the University administration had belatedly realized that a huge part of the institutional standing in tables of international research rankings was being generated by the Department of Physics & Astronomy. In the nick of time, the necessary resources were invested and the tide was turned and there has been steady growth in staff and student numbers since.
As Head of the School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences I have had to deal with the budget for the Department of Physics & Astronomy. Just a decade ago very few physics departments in the UK were financially solvent and most had to rely on generous subsidies from University funds to stay open. Those that did not receive such support were closed down, a fate which Sussex narrowly avoided but which befell, for example, the physics departments at Reading and Newcastle.
As I blogged about previously, the renaissance of Sussex physics seems not to be unique. Admissions to physics departments across the country are growing at a healthy rate, to the extent that new departments are being formed at, e.g. Lincoln and Portsmouth. None of this could have been imagined just ten years ago.
So will this new-found optimism be reflected in the founding of even more new physics departments? One would hope so, as I think it’s a scandal that there are only around 40 UK universities with physics departments. Call me old-fashioned but I think a university without a physics department is not a university at all. Thinking about this over the weekend however I realized that any new physics department is going to have grave problems under the system of allocating research funding known as the Research Excellence Framework.
A large slice (20%) of the funding allocated by the 2014 REF will be based on “Impact” which, roughly speaking, means the effect the research can be demonstrated to have had outside the world of academic research. This isn’t the largest component – 65% is allocated on the basic of the quality of “Outputs” (research papers etc) – but is a big chunk and will probably be very important in determining league table positions. It is probably going to be even larger in future versions of the REF.
Now here’s the rub. When an academic changes institution (as I have recently done, for example) he/she can take his/her outputs to the new institution. Thus, papers I wrote while at Cardiff could be submitted to the REF from Sussex. This is not the case with “impact”. The official guidance on submissions states:
Impact: The sub-panels will assess the ‘reach and significance’ of impacts on the economy, society and/or culture that were underpinned by excellent research conducted in the submitted unit, as well as the submitted unit’s approach to enabling impact from its research. This element will carry a weighting of 20 per cent.
The emphasis is mine.
The period during which the underpinning research must have been published is quite generous in length: 1 January 1993 to 31 December 2013. This is clearly intended to recognize the fact that some research take a long time to generate measurable impact. The problem is that the underpinning research must have been done within the submitting unit; it can’t be brought in from elsewhere. If the unit is new and did not exist for most of this period,then it is much harder to generate impact no matter how brilliant the staff it recruits. Any new departments in physics, or any other subject for that matter, will have to focus on research that can generate impact very rapidly indeed if it is to compete in the next REF, expected in 2018 or thereabouts. That is a powerful disincentive for universities to invest in research that may take many years to come to fruition. Five years is a particularly short time in experimental physics.