Old-School Physics

As I’ve suggested previously (https://muircheartblog.wordpress.com/2018/12/16/when-i-were-a-lad/ ), I get rather irritated by that especially tiresome brand of yapping on the theme of how “back in my day…” everything was so very much tougher and that “snowflake students these days” don’t know they’re born. The usual irksome, evidence-free claim is that syllabi and exams have been dumbed down to the point where it takes no intellectual effort at all to do well.

I’m reblogging Peter Coles’ post as a rather powerful rebuttal to that type of reactionary whining. “…they’re not too different from what you might find in the examinations for the early stages of contemporary physics programmes.”

In the Dark

The recent circulation to his staff of daft (and in some cases erroneous) rules to be used when writing documents has led to much hilarity on the media we call social. Among the obvious errors are that the correct abbreviation for `Member of Parliament’ is `MP’ not ‘M.P.’ and that `full stop’ is actually two words (not `fullstop’). On top of those his insistence that civil servants use Imperial units for everything actually may be unlawful as the official system of units for the United Kingdom is the metric system.

The latter exhortation has caused a particular outcry among people under the age of about 50 (who have never been taught Imperial units), and especially scientists (who understand the obvious superiority of the SI system).

Anyway, all this reminded me that many years ago when at Cardiff there came into my possession a book of very old school and university…

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At sixes and sevens about 3* and 4*

The post below appears in today’s Times Higher Education under the title “The REF’s star system leaves a black hole in fairness.” My original draft was improved immensely by Paul Jump‘s edits (but I am slightly miffed that my choice of title (above) was rejected by the sub-editors.) I’m posting the article here for those who don’t have a subscription to the THE. (I should note that the interview panel scenario described below actually happened. The question I asked was suggested in the interview pack supplied by the “University of True Excellence”.)


“In your field of study, Professor Aspire, just how does one distinguish a 3* from a 4* paper in the research excellence framework?”

The interviewee for a senior position at the University of True Excellence – names have been changed to protect the guilty – shuffled in his seat. I leaned slightly forward after posing the question, keen to hear his response to this perennial puzzler that has exercised some of the UK’s great and not-so-great academic minds.

He coughed. The panel – on which I was the external reviewer – waited expectantly.

“Well, a 4* paper is a 3* paper except that your mate is one of the REF panel members,” he answered.

I smiled and suppressed a giggle.

Other members of the panel were less amused. After all, the rating and ranking of academics’ outputs is serious stuff. Careers – indeed, the viability of entire departments, schools, institutes and universities – depend critically on the judgements made by peers on the REF panels.

Not only do the ratings directly influence the intangible benefits arising from the prestige of a high REF ranking, they also translate into cold, hard cash. An analysis by the University of Sheffield suggests that in my subject area, physics, the average annual value of a 3* paper for REF 2021 is likely to be roughly £4,300, whereas that of a 4* paper is £17,100. In other words, the formula for allocating “quality-related” research funding is such that a paper deemed 4* is worth four times one judged to be 3*; as for 2* (“internationally recognised”) or 1* (“nationally recognised”) papers, they are literally worthless.

We might have hoped that before divvying up more than £1 billion of public funds a year, the objectivity, reliability and robustness of the ranking process would be established beyond question. But, without wanting to cast any aspersions on the integrity of REF panels, I’ve got to admit that, from where I was sitting, Professor Aspire’s tongue-in-cheek answer regarding the difference between 3* and 4* papers seemed about as good as any – apart from, perhaps, “I don’t know”.

The solution certainly isn’t to reach for simplistic bibliometric numerology such as impact factors or SNIP indicators; anyone making that suggestion is not displaying even the level of critical thinking we expect of our undergraduates. But every academic also knows, deep in their studious soul, that peer review is far from wholly objective. Nevertheless, university senior managers – many of them practising or former academics themselves – are often all too willing, as part of their REF preparations, to credulously accept internal assessors’ star ratings at face value, with sometimes worrying consequences for the researcher in question (especially if the verdict is 2* or less).

Fortunately, my institution, the University of Nottingham, is a little more enlightened – last year it had the good sense to check the consistency of the internal verdicts on potential REF 2021 submissions via the use of independent reviewers for each paper. The results were sobering. Across seven scientific units of assessment, the level of full agreement between reviewers varied from 50 per cent to 75 per cent. In other words, in the worst cases, reviewers agreed on the star rating for no more than half of the papers they reviewed.

Granted, the vast majority of the disagreement was at the 1* level; very few pairs of reviewers were “out” by two stars, and none disagreed by more. But this is cold comfort. The REF’s credibility is based on an assumption that reviewers can quantitatively assess the quality of a paper with a precision better than one star. As our exercise shows, the effective error bar is actually ± 1*.

That would be worrying enough if there were a linear scaling of financial reward. But the problem is exacerbated dramatically by both the 4x multiplier for 4* papers and the total lack of financial reward for anything deemed to be below 3*.

The Nottingham analysis also examined the extent to which reviewers’ ratings agreed with authors’ self-scoring (let’s leave aside any disagreement between co-authors on that). The level of full agreement here was similarly patchy, varying between 47 per cent and 71 per cent. Unsurprisingly, there was an overall tendency for authors to “overscore” their papers, although underscoring was also common.

Some argue that what’s important is the aggregate REF score for a department, rather than the ratings of individual papers, because, according to the central limit theorem, any wayward ratings will “wash out” at the macro level. I disagree entirely. Individual academics across the UK continue to be coaxed and cajoled into producing 4* papers; there are even dedicated funding schemes to help them do so. And the repercussions arising from failure can be severe.

It is vital in any game of consequence that participants be able to agree when a goal has been scored or a boundary hit. Yet, in the case of research quality, there are far too many cases in which we just can’t. So the question must be asked: why are we still playing?

Concrete Reasons for the Abstract

I’ve just finished my last set of undergraduate lab report marking for this year and breathed a huge sigh of relief. Overall, however, the quality of the students’ reports has improved considerably over the year, with some producing work of a very high standard. (I get a little frustrated at times with the frustrating Daily Mail-esque whining about “students these days” that infects certain academics of a certain vintage.) Nonetheless, there remain some perennial issues with report writing…

My colleague James O’Shea sent the following missive/ cri de coeur to all of our 1st year undergrad lab class yesterday. I’m posting it here — with James’ permission, of course — because I thought it was a wonderful rationale for the importance of the abstract. (And I feel James’ pain.) Over to you, James.


 

You have written your last formal report for the first year but you will write many more in the coming years and possibly throughout your career. It seems that the purpose of abstracts and figure captions has not quite sunk in yet. This will come as you read more scientific papers (please read more scientific papers). What you want is to give a complete picture of why the experiment was needed, what the hypothesis was, how it was explored, what the result was, and what the significance of that result is. You should read your abstract back as if it is the only thing people will read. In most cases, it really is the only thing they will read. If the abstract does not provide all these things, the likely outcome is that they won’t bother reading the rest – your boss included – and all the work you put in doing the research will be for nothing.

If a researcher (or your boss) does decide – based on the abstract – that they are interested in your report or paper, they might if they are short of time first just look at the figures. The figure caption is therefore vital. Again, look at the figure and read the caption back to yourself as if this (in conjunction with the abstract) is the only thing they will read. It has to be understandable in isolation from the main body of the text. The figure represents the work that was done. The caption needs to explain that work.

If your boss did read the abstract and decided to look at the figures, they will then most likely skip to the conclusions. From this they will want to get an overview of what new knowledge now exists and what impact it will have on their company or research program. They might then recommend that others in the organisation read your report in detail to find out how robust the research is, or they might give you the go ahead to do more research, or let you lead your own team. But if your abstract did not tell the interesting story in the first place, or your figure captions did not convey what work was done, your report might not even get read in the real world.

Best regards

James O’Shea

 

 

Pressure vessels: the epidemic of poor mental health among academics

This post takes its title from a talk that will be given by Liz Morrish here at UoN next week. (5:00 pm on May 21 in The Hemsley.) Here’s the outline:

Liz Morrish will present findings that show how staff employed at Higher Education Institutions/ Universities are accessing counselling and occupational health services at an increasing rate. Between 2009 and 2015, counselling referrals have risen by 77 per cent, while staff referrals to Occupational Health services during the same period have risen by 64 per cent. This attests to an escalating epidemic of poor mental health among the sector’s employees. I will consider some of the factors which weigh on the mental health of academic staff: escalating and excessive workloads; the imposition of metric surveillance; outcomes-based performance management; increasing precarity and insecure contracts. Universities have been characterised as ‘anxiety machines’ which purposefully flout legal requirements to prevent stress in the workplace. Given the urgency of the situation, I will propose some recommendations which if institutions were to follow, might alleviate some of the pressures.

…and here’s Liz’s bio:

Liz Morrish is an independent scholar and activist for resistance to managerial appropriation of the university. She is a visiting fellow at York St John University. She was principal lecturer and subject leader of linguistics at Nottingham Trent University until speaking out and writing about the mental health of academics brought about her resignation in 2016. She is completing a co-authored book on managerial discourse in the neoliberal academy, entitled Academic Irregularities (Routledge forthcoming) and she also writes a blog with the same name: https://academicirregularities.wordpress.com/. Having exited the academy, Liz now has more time for other activities, and she now spends time as a marathon swim observer.

I met Liz a number of years ago, when she was principal lecturer at Nottingham Trent University. Not so long after we met, NTU disgracefully brought disciplinary proceedings against Liz when she spoke out about the mental health of academics, ultimately causing her to resign. For the full story on NTU’s shocking behaviour — driven, of course, by its metrics-and-league-table-infected management ‘strategy’ — an exceptionally important article written for the Times Higher Education shortly after Liz’s resignation is a must-read. Here’s a taster, but you should read the entire article for deep insights into just how low a university will go in its attempts to protect its reputation and pressure its staff:

In March last year [2016], Times Higher Education republished a blog piece that I wrote on the causes of stress and threats to mental health in academic life. The piece recounted how, on University Mental Health Day, I opened up to students about some of the pressures their lecturers were under. Many readers were kind enough to retweet the link, respond under the line or email me personally to let me know that my article resonated for colleagues around the world. But after it had received 10,000 hits on my own blog and spent four days trending on THE’s website, my previous employer objected to it and I was obliged to ask for it to be taken down. This inaugurated a disciplinary process that I felt curbed my ability to write further on the topic, or to have a frank dialogue with students on mental health in universities.

I feel very fortunate indeed that I am employed by the “other” university in Nottingham. Although I have had, and continue to have, my spats with senior management here, they have not once asked me to constrain or curtail my criticism of university (and University) culture; there’s been not so much as a quiet word in my ear following even rather scathing public critiques. Thank you, UoN, for your commitment to academic freedom.

I’d very much appreciate it if those of you who are Twitter-enabled UoN academics could spread the word about Liz’s talk. (I’ve forgone that particular form of communication.)  I hope to see you there on May 21.

 

The wit and wisdom of Associate Deans

There are very, very, very few things I miss about Twitter but the brilliantly incisive @ass_deans is certainly one…

 

The New IOP Physics Technician Award

I received an e-mail from the Institute of Physics a couple of days ago on the new IOP Technician Award and was planning to blog about it. Peter Coles beat me to it, however. His post below highlights the essential contributions of support and technical staff to universities; they are the lifeblood of everything we do. And that’s especially true for physicists of the experimental stripe like myself.

I’ve got to say that while I have the occasional moan about some aspects of my own university, Nottingham (where Peter was a colleague some time ago), when it comes to recognising the contributions of technicians, UoN has a pretty good track record. For one, it was a founding signatory of the Technician Commitment.

In the Dark

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…

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Lightning Strikes Again: Spring Into Science 2019

I was delighted when a link to this video popped into my Outlook inbox a few days ago…

A big thank you to the video-maker, Tony Martin, who did such a wonderful job of capturing the enthusiasm, energy, and exuberance of the three hundred or so Year 8 students crowded into our largest lecture theatre for this year’s Spring Into Science. It’s the third year in a row that we’ve run this event, after it was inspired by my friend and colleague Ed Copeland during a Brian Cox lecture here in Nottingham in late 2016. As described in a University of Nottingham blog post covering the inaugural Spring Into Science,

Professor Copeland joined him on stage and spoke about the need for more young people to get involved in science: “Getting more young people enthusiastic about science is vital both to ensure progression and growth in the subject but also because science plays such an important role in society. We designed the content to be interactive and engaging, with the aim of showing how exciting science can be and to hopefully inspire the audience to consider it as a subject to pursue.”

I look forward eagerly to Spring Into Science every year. It’s a huge amount of fun to give the lecture because of the students’ reactions to the demonstrations and their willingness to engage with the science. But I’ve got the easy job — I just turn up and talk. There’s a heck of a lot more hard work involved for those who put in the effort (both behind the scenes and “up front” during the lecture) to organise everything and to ensure that the many demos not only work but grab the students’ attention year in, year out. There’s nothing quite like that “ohhhh” that echoes across the theatre each year as the Tesla coil is fired up…

As ever, it’s the unsung heroes of universities — the technical and support staff — who make events like Spring Into Science such a success. So a very big thank-you indeed to Ian Taylor, Denise Watt, Matt Young, and Paul Munday for their dedication and commitment in developing, testing, and supporting all of the demos we use (for not only Spring Into Science but the very many other outreach, public engagement, and schools events with which the School of Physics and Astronomy is involved.) I’ve also got to very gratefully acknowledge the hard work of Ed, Chris Staddon (our outreach coordinator), Aggie Gasiorowska (who liaises with all of the schools and has the unenviable task of ensuring that hundreds of thirteen year olds end up in the right places in the lecture theatre), and our colleagues involved in secondary education across Nottingham: Nadia Hussain, Frances Rowland, John Dexter, and Mick Evans, in particular, who make sure the word gets out to Notts schools. And, of course, I have to highlight the immense hard work, dedication, and enthusiasm of all of the Year 8 teachers who attended. (If I’ve forgotten anyone, it is most definitely not a deliberate slight. My memory ain’t what it once was…(and it’s never been that great.))

Hot on the heels of the Spring Into Science lecture there’s a Q&A session, with a panel comprising students and researchers in physics and astronomy at pretty much all career stages: undergrads, postgrads, postdoctoral researchers, lecturers, and professors. (Another big thank you, of course, to all those who contributed to the panel discussion.) It’s always fascinating (and instructive) to listen to the Year 8 audience quiz my colleagues. This year, in addition to the traditional questions about the origin of the Earth/universe (or is it multiverse…?), we had students keen to know about that incredible black hole image, whether the Earth is the only planet with four seasons (a great question), and what our panel thought about the flat Earth “controversy”. Dr. Meghan Gray’s answer to the latter question was a model of restraint, clarity, and compelling scientific argument: “There is no controversy. Here’s why…”

At about the 1:40 mark in the video above, one of the students explains that “We got to explore our imaginations a little more and figure out what we wanted to do when we’re older.” I was very pleased to hear this, as one message I try to get across during the Spring Into Science lecture is the importance of breaking down that irksome “Two Cultures” divide that continues to exist between STEM and the arts and humanities. Too often (particularly at secondary school level), science is viewed as a staid, static body of facts and techniques that need to be learned so as to “get the right answer”. The more we can highlight just how much creativity, imagination, and, indeed, artistry are involved in science, the better.