Archive for SEPNET

SEPnet Awayday

Posted in Education with tags , , , on April 20, 2015 by telescoper

Here I am in Easthampstead Park Conference Centre after a hard day being away at an awayday. In fact we’ve been so busy that I’ve only just checked into my room (actually it’s a suite) and shall very soon be attempting to find the bar so I can have a drink. I’m parched.

The place is very nice. Here’s a picture from outside:


I’m told it is very close to Broadmoor, the famous high-security psychiatric hospital, although I’m sure that wasn’t one of the reasons for choice of venue.

I have to attend quite a few of these things for one reason or another. This one is on the Future and Sustainability of the South East Physics Network, known as SEPnet for short, which is a consortium of physics departments across the South East of England working together to deliver excellence in both teaching and research. I am here deputising for a Pro Vice Chancellor who can’t be here. I’ve enjoyed pretending to be important, but I’m sure nobody has been taken in.

Although it’s been quite tiring, it has been an interesting day. Lots of ideas and discussion, but we do have to distil all  that down into some more specific detail over dinner tonight and during the course of tomorrow morning.  Anyway, better begin the search for the bar so I can refresh the old brain cells.



The Stifling Effect of REF Impact

Posted in Education, Politics with tags , , , on April 22, 2014 by telescoper

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.



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.”

Critical Masses

Posted in Education, Science Politics with tags , , , , , , , on January 26, 2013 by telescoper

One of the interesting bits of news floating around academia at the moment is the announcement that my current employer (until the end of next week), Cardiff University is to join forces with the Universities of Bath, Exeter and Bristol in an alliance intended to create a ‘critical mass of knowledge’ and help Cardiff  ‘better compete for more research income’ (apparently by pretending to be in England rather than in Wales).  How successful this will be – or even what form this alliance will take – remains to be seen.

There’s been a lot of gossip about what inspired this move, but it’s not the first attempt to create a collaborative bloc of this kind. Last year five universities from the Midlands announced plans to do something similar. The “M5” group of   Birmingham, Leicester, Loughborough, Nottingham and Warwick got together primarily to share infrastructure in order to help them win grants, which is probably what also lies behind the Cardiff-Bath-Exeter-Bristol deal.

Of course there are also a myriad  alliances at the level of individual Schools and Departments. I’ll shortly be joining the University of Sussex, which is a major player in SEPNET – the South-East Physics Physics Network which was set up with help from HEFCE There are other such networks in England, as well as SUPA in Scotland, funded by the devolved Scottish Funding Council. Attempts to form a similar arrangement for Physics in Wales were given short shrift by the Welsh Funding Agency, HEFCW. The inability or unwillingness of HEFCW to properly engage with research in Wales is no doubt behind Cardiff’s decision to seek alliances with English universities but I wonder how it will translate into funding. Surely HEFCE wouldn’t be allowed to fund a Welsh University, so presumably this is more aimed at funding from the research councils or further afield, perhaps in Europe. Or perhaps the idea is that if GW4 can persuade HEFCE to fund Bath, Bristol and Exeter, HEFCW will be shamed into stumping up something for Cardiff? Sneaky.

Anyway, good luck to the new “GW4” alliance. Although I’m moving to pastures new I’ll certainly keep an eye on any developments, and hope that they’re positive. The only thing that really disturbs me is that the name “Great Western Four” is apparently inspired by the Great Western Railway, now run by an outfit called First Great Western. My recent experiences of travelling on that have left a lot to be desired and I’m sure the name will have negative connotations in the minds of many who are fed up of their unreliable, overcrowded, overpriced and poorly managed services. They say a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, but so far this is only a name – and one with a distinctly questionable odour.