Friday, 5 August 2011

Responding to EPSRC's Shaping Capability Agenda

Two weeks ago the EPSRC Fellowship call was published, and it has been restricted to statistics and applied probability as part of the Shaping Capability agenda. This is the first direct consequence of this policy, and the Council for Mathematical Sciences has reacted by arguing that even if one accepts the policy, the post-doctoral fellowships are an inappropriate vehicle for the implementation as it hits the really excellent young researchers in other sub-disciplines who do not have the luxury of being able to mark time until there is an open call. We will see how EPSRC responds.

The fellowship announcement has alerted the community to the potential effects of the policy. Tim Gowers has blogged a detailed critique -- though the gist could have been predicted a while ago (see my earlier blog in January). Whilst I agree with most of what Tim writes, the critical issue is how the mathematics community responds. The difficulty is that there are two alternative approaches. Let me overstate each case:

Alternative 1:
The political direction of mathematical research is wrong, and this is compounded by the fact that it is to be implemented by people who do not have the expertise to assess the value of the research (consultation with the community is restricted to rubber-stamping exercises). The mathematics community has a duty to stand up to this political interference and to point out the contradictions inherent in the policy. Only by doing this forcibly can we expect to persuade EPSRC to reverse this patently absurd course of action, and it is our democratic right and duty to bring about a reversal of the policy.

Alternative 2:
At a time of economic uncertainty, David Delpy has negotiated a level funding for science by promising greater engagement with the needs of UK plc either economically or socially. The Shaping Capability policy is intended to deliver contributions to priority areas (the grand challenges), whilst maintaining our research base, at a time of need. Since the EPSRC does not have the expertise to implement such a policy effectively, the community needs to work with EPSRC to identify the most effective ways of developing mathematical activity within these constraints; and as a group of researchers funded through the public purse we have a democratic responsibility to engage so as to minimize the damage to the research base and maximize new opportunities for mathematics even if we do not agree with the policy.

The debate within the mathematics community is around how to react to events when we are divided between these two equally honourable but contradictory views.

The danger of Alternative 1 is that we are seen as intransigent moaners; maths is not powerful enough to change a global EPSRC policy, and the net effect is that ill-informed policy will be imposed on us. Our involvement will be purely (outraged) reaction.

The danger of Alternative 2 is that we could appear to accept the principle and find ourselves in a position where there is no chance of a future reversal. It would be deeply divisive if some areas were labelled for reduction in resource by the community, and we would effectively be collaborating with the enemy by helping them to implement a flawed policy.

I've oversimplified both stances, but my current feeling is that we need to develop a form of Alternative 2 which does not tinker with the EPSRC implementation around the edges, but provides a unified approach to Shaping Capability, accepting it (though not agreeing with it) as current policy and putting it into the hands of the mathematical sciences. Of course, there's a danger that EPSRC would cherry-pick our plan, but at least we'd have a positive and proactive agenda to push.

Other disciplines have managed to work with and influence EPSRC. Maths struggles to find a unified voice. One of the things I plan to do is find out how the other areas, particularly Theoretical Physics, manage to react in a way that at least appears unified from the outside.

Where's that man Haldane when you need him?

Saturday, 30 July 2011

Changing of the guards

I haven't seen any of the chasers for the last two weeks. Last year, after clashes over the pond it was clear that there was only room for one male broad-bodied chaser, (an example of the male the Libellula Depressa is pictured above).  This year we have had two apparently content to occupy different parts of the bank.

This may be due to the higher levels of the vegetation at the edge of the pond, meaning that there are more perches to choose from, or because there are more females in the neighbourhood -- I have seen several in the long grass behind the pond (home-grown like the one that died and which was the subject of a blog last month).

Whatever the reason, it was wonderful to see them back.

This week saw the return of the hawkers. The girls swear an emperor has visited, but all I've seen is this rather small but beautiful common sympetrum (at least, that's what I assume it is, it's the first I've seen).

Tuesday, 5 July 2011

Newton's Cradle Revisited

The next View from the Pennines looks at some fairly recent work on visco-elastic collisions based on Newton's cradle. This is an executive toy with five (or so) ball-bearings hanging from a frame so that they line up perfectly when hanging down. If one of the end balls is lifted back and released it makes a pendulum swing, strikes the line and an impulse is instantaneously propagated along the line to the other end, and that ball swings up and the cycle repeats.

That is the standard physics textbook explanation anyway, and of course it is wrong! Experiments show that all the balls move a little and there is a complicated long term evolution of the behaviour.

As part of the article I made a simple model to deal with the three halves power law of the (Hertzian) interactions of the balls whilst in contact, with a simplifying assumption that the time of interaction is constant (I had to beg an extra day from the IMAs patient editor, Rebecca Waters to make the calculation). Of course, no sooner had I sent off the final version than I realized that -- almost certainly (I haven't checked the details) -- my analysis is much more accurate than I had thought and the 'assumption' is in fact completely justified.

I'll have to go through it more carefully, but if true it provides a nice example of a hybrid system for which it is possible to obtain an exact return map without being able to solve for the full details. One unknown parameter is introduced, but the quantitative details are pretty much independent of this parameter anyway!

This peachy version of Newton's Cradle is from Caroline Savva's website:

It makes me smile.

Thursday, 30 June 2011

Just answer the question (But don't expect me to tell you what it is!)

The Government has expressed surprise that many universities have opted to charge the maximum (£9K p.a.) fees to students to cover their costs and to maintain their reputations as serious institutions. (There's a hint as to the reason at the end of the last sentence.) This was clearly not the answer the Government wanted from the universites, so the new initiatives announced by David Willetts on Tuesday (28th June) seem designed to give Vice-Chancellors a clue about the 'correct' response to the charging issue. There will be no Government imposed cap on the recruitment of high quality students (AAB) to any institution, and 20000 supported places for students at universties charging fees at the lower end. Is that clearer? To benefit, institutions need either to be able to recruit very good students (e.g. Russell Group universities) or have taken the risk of charging lower fees.

Does that make more sense about what a 'correct' response might be?

On Newsnight, Willetts insisted that there was no hidden agenda; the Government simply wants to allow market forces to work their magic to restructure the higher education sector. This might be more believeable if the Government did not keep changing the rules under which these forces are operating. One could be forgiven for thinking they were pushing towards an unstated outcome!

There are lots of good arguments to be had about the role of learning versus training, and the effect of large departments and small departments (plenty of choice of courses, but fewer opportunities to get to know teachers and vice versa) but this is not being encouraged. It would be much more honest if the Government simply said what it wanted to achieve and get on with implementing its vision. At least then we could have a rational argument rather than the current system of university reactions to artificially imposed  sequences of financial constraints.

Or maybe it is all about money.

Sunday, 12 June 2011

Dragonfly life dragonfly death

I found this wonderfully complete exuvia on a patch of bird's foot trefoil near the pond yesterday. I'm almost certain it was a Libellula Depressa -- possibly the one in difficulties at the edge of the pond, clinging on to some grass stalks but with wings and abdomen dipped in the water. I suspect she got caught in a downpour and then couldn't open her wings. I did move her out of the water, but she died overnight.

One more photo: can anyone identify these eggs? Laid (I think) on an elastic sheet that holds them together. What a beautiful geometric configuration they form!

Tuesday, 22 March 2011

Great Expectations

Most academic mathematicians love mathematics, and in their teaching they try to pass on their wonder at the beauty, subtlety, ubiquity, relevance and <add your preferred adjective here> of the subject. Once upon a time, when only 7% of the population went to univerisity, they might have expected their students to share this vision and appreciate the technical minutiae that so tickle them. Below is an example of how not to do this.

At the IMA Strategy Review Meeting last weekend I had a fascinating conversation (OK, I'm a mathematician!) with Neil Challis of Sheffield Hallam who has been surveying students about their attitude to mathematics and their degree. The students came from both Russell Group and post-1992 universities, and Neil concluded that whilst they were a diverse lot, certain common themes came through:
  • Their prime motivation was to get a good degree so as to get a good job (with a minimum of study).
  • They chose mathematics because they were good at it (or couldn't get onto a Business Studies course) and thought it would be the easiest path to a degree.
  • They were more concerned about passing exams than learning mathematics.
Of course, there are still examples of geek chic, but this was the majority opinion. These attitudes pose questions about how and what we teach, and how this connects with student expectations. I have two observations.

1. In the light of changing funding mechanisms, how long can the disjunction between what academics think they are doing when they are teaching and what most students actually want from their teachers continue to exist? And who will blink first?

2. What does it mean for the discipline if the vast majority of students who graduate in mathematics do so having been told (albeit subliminally) by many of their teachers that they are not good mathematicians because they do not care about mathematics in the way their teachers expect them to care about it.

I worry particularly about the second point. If we want mathematics to be as influential as it ought to be we need advocates within society. The natural advocates are maths graduates, and if we alienate and belittle them then what does it say about us as mathematics teachers, and what chance do we have of gaining our graduates' support when we need it?

Neil has promised to send me a copy of his report -- I look forward to reading it in more detail.

Friday, 4 March 2011

Dream-on Fellowships

The EPSRC has established a new fellowship scheme: Dream Fellowships, to support innovative researchers across their remit. As they say:
The prestigious Dream Fellowship award enables talented researchers to take time out from their every day activities, to give them the freedom to gain new knowledge of novel creative problem solving techniques, explore new radical ideas and develop new ambitious research directions that enable discovery.

These awards fit the developing EPSRC strategy in two ways: funding people (leaders) rather than projects, and having innovative reviewing mechanisms. Thus
EPSRC programme teams identify a list of potential candidates. This list is validated using independent assessors. Candidates on the validated list are invited to apply to EPSRC for a Dream Fellowship by filling in a short application form. These applicants are interviewed by an independent selection panel which includes international representation and the relevant Head of Programme.
Only a select few awards – 2 or 3 each programme - will be made to the top calibre candidates.

I know two of the mathematicians approached. Both are great people and great researchers, though it is likely that they were identified by the size of their grant holdings rather than their international reputations (as there are many others in the community who would have fitted the latter definition) and both have records of cross-disciplinary research (though this is only hinted at in the announcement through the word impact).

But though 2 or 3 awards are expected from each programme, I gather (though not confirmed yet) that none will be awarded in mathematics. Is this a reflection of the health of mathematics in the country or does this mean that even the most EPSRC-engaged mathematicians struggle to meet the short-term impact (unspoken) criteria for support?

I leave that delicate question as an exercise for the reader. Use your....

Friday, 18 February 2011

There's life in the old pond yet

After a couple of months covered in ice, the pond sprang back into life last week. As well as some old familiars, the boatmen for example, the lack of larger bugs meant I was aware of some of the smaller (about 1mm) creatures on the surface of the pond. I think the photos here are copepods -- small crustaceans -- at the limit of what my camera can do.
The mustachioed animal on the right is probably Diaptomus castor, whilst the smaller fellow below may be Canthocampus staphylinus. If you think you know better let me know! Both are described as common in pools over the winter, and they move in a series of little jumps, which means that just as I focus the camera to take a picture they disappear from the view-finder.
 There ought to be a nice dimensional analysis argument to determine how light you have to be (and what size shoes you wear) before you can jump from the water surface. Too heavy and your foot would go through the surface. Presumably the surface is either solid or like a trampoline to these little fellas. Isn't surface tension wonderful!

Other denizens are more familiar. I think the bug on the right is a very young dragonfly larva, it was really small, about 2-3mm. Given the squat body and the dragonflies that laid eggs last autumn my guess would be that it is Libellula depressa, the broad bodied chaser, but that is only a guess.

The bug below is a lesser water boatman, Corixa; a very small specimen again but looking fine.

Note added later: I take back my first thought about the possible dragonfly larva -- no idea what it is!!

Friday, 11 February 2011

I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each

I have been asked to give the after-dinner speech at this year's BAMC in Birmingham (11th - 13th April). I suspect that this is proof that (a) I am growing old; and (b) at least some people think I have retained a sense of humour. I've been thinking about what can be said that is amusing and topical and short. To paraphrase the Player in Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead:
GLENDINNING: ... well, I can do you maths and humour without the politics, and I can do you maths and politics without the humour, and I can do you all three concurrent or consecutive, but I can't do you humour and politics without the maths. Maths is compulsory, it's all maths.
BAMC: Is that what the people want?
GLENDINNING: It's what I do.
Does anyone know any good and topical jokes? Fiona says there's nothing funny about politics at the moment.

I could only think of one picture of after-dinner speaking, and since I've done TS Eliot and Tom Stoppard already in this very erudite blog, why not use Leonardo for divine inspiration? There is a connection between R&G and Prufrock -- easy to guess?!

Here's the full Stoppard quote (from the actors who will perform in front of Claudius and Gertrude, the head player explains what they can do):
PLAYER: They're hardly divisible, sir – well, I can do you blood and love without the rhetoric, and I can do you blood and rhetoric without the love, and I can do you all three concurrent or consecutive, but I can't do you love and rhetoric without the blood. Blood is compulsory – they're all blood, you see.
GUIL: Is that what the people want?
PLAYER: It's what we do. 

Friday, 4 February 2011

IRM, Town Hall Meeting, 28 January 2011

A draft of the International Review of Mathematics was made available last week, though I can't link to it until the final version is published. It contains many sound observations and suggestions, particularly
  • the state of mathematics in the UK is good, with excellence distributed over the whole country;
  • there is a danger that the increased concentration of funding to larger instiutions could damage excellence outside these centres;
  • communication between EPSRC and the grassroots mathematics community is poor; and
  • the representation of women in mathematics is lamentable, and needs to be addressed far more vigorously.
At the EPSRC Town Hall meeting at the Senate House in London on 28th January (shown in this wonderful drawing by Raymond Myerscough Walker), the chair of the international panel, Margaret Wright, presented the findings and answered questions. I was worried that having talked of the unity of mathematics, they then divided it by addressing Mathematical Science, Applications and Industrial Maths as though they were separate, and Margaret agreed to dispell that impression, particularly in the evidential trail. The lack of detailed assessments of landscape documents in some areas was also addressed; apparently this is due to lack of expertise within the panel, and at the very least this should be stated explicitly.

The mood turned a little less positive when David Delpy (Chief Exec of EPSRC) responded. He seemed to suggest that EPSRC was unlikely to pay any attention to the regional distribution of excellence and will continue to encourage centralization (since this is stated policy it is not a surprise, but his insistence that this was for academic reasons was a bit galling and I made a rather clumsy and irritated intervention and had to be helped out by Malcolm MacCallum of the Heilbronn Institute). He also made very dismissive comments about the mathematics learned societies -- emphasizing that they are plural!

Oh well, some of these things (representation of women for example) should be taken up by the community anyway, but I'm not holding my breath waiting for action on the support of excellence across the discipline and wherever it may be.

The implications for funding are still confused.

Tuesday, 25 January 2011

The future of the Universities: Professor Trelawney predicts...

Prof Trelawney's 3 Predictions for the New Year:

1. (See Statement of the bleedin' obvious #148, blogged in December 2010) Universities will stop awarding degree classifications and move to grade point averages. This makes it possible not to fail someone who has paid a university £27k, but achieves 12% in their final exams without recourse to excessive grade inflation.

2. Some smaller universities will move to two year degrees (making them cheaper to fee-paying students and free to students eligible for two years of free tuition due to family circumstances).

3. There will be greater distiction between learning (flexibility, critical thinking) and training (need to know) between some (old?) universities and other (post-1992?) universities. This will allow the latter to exploit some grants for higher rather than further education.

All predictions are based on expectations of reactions to funding implications, but could there be a hidden agenda? Any comments?

I must get away from the HP source!

Saturday, 22 January 2011

Repeatability in Mathematical Biology

The next View from the Pennines comes out in Mathematics Today at the beginning of next month. It illustrates the dangers of changing your mind when writing to a deadline! The theme is repeatability in mathematical biology, and in particular the way in which the biological journals prevent authors from fully specifying mathematical models (only new terms can be published, `old' systems and parameter values are simply referenced. This creates a chinese whispers trail when trying to recreate the models used, and in the two cases I have tried to follow up, the actual system was NOT the system as specified through the references and I needed to contact the authors to get a full description.

So far so interesting (at least to me!), my problem came when I decided, 48 hours before the final deadline for Maths Today, that I did not want to name the culprits, as the problem is instiutional inside the biological community rather than particular to those two groups, and of course I only pursued the problem because their work was so fascinating (and I want to be able to keep corresponding with them!). However, that did rather blow a hole in the article, turning it into an opinion piece rather than a fully argued article. Such is the problem of journalism.

Anyway, here's an excerpt...

[I]t is perfectly reasonable to redefine what is meant by repeatability in biology. The clockwork of physics is not expected and so one might simply demand some sort of repeatability-on-average (cf. chaos in the deterministic world). Alternatively, and this seems to be more and more the case in systems biology, one can move away from the living world (experiments in vivo) and work in culture (in vitrio) or even through numerical simulations (in silica) where cleaner results are more likely to be obtained. But however well biological mechanisms and chemical pathways are understood in isolation, their behaviour, and even their function, may be different in the more holistic and unpredictable environment of real life (as is, of course, understood by the biologists).
Given this obvious tension in biology it would not be surprising if the biological community was more rigorous about repeatability than most science. I am not in a position to comment on the experimental aspects of biology, except to note that in any discipline which is reliant on significant competitive funding there must be pressure to maintain any advantage by being economical with the details of new experimental techniques. However, there does seem to be an institutionalized undervaluation of repeatability in mathematical modelling. I call this institutional because it appears to be driven by the insistence of journals that models and equations should not be written down if they are already published elsewhere. This leads at best to the necessity for`supplementary material' available from the publisher (with all the access limitations for researchers in less well supported institutions or countries) or, a painful game of Chinese whispers through back-numbers of journals (again, creating all sorts of access problems). Because these models are relegated to supporting materials it also means that the value assigned to accurate reporting is diminished and creates a real issue about how biologists using mathematical models can be educated to supply sufficient detail of their models. There is a related issue around `black box' computational modelling, though I have not looked at this in any detail. The obvious danger is that everyone will agree about results using a given `black box', but that the results will be misleading or downright wrong!

Monday, 3 January 2011

Hermione Granger on the EPSRC Delivery Plan

On 21 December 2010 the EPSRC published its Delivery Plan for the next four years, available from the EPSRC website. Headline figures include
  • a decrease in research grant support from the current £433M pa (new projects) to £409M in 2011/12 a decrease (not taking inflation into account) of 5.5%, with further cuts to a total of 14% by 2014/15;
  • support for new fellowships will decrease immediately by 13.7%;
  • modest rises in support of studentships and knowledge transfer;
  • overall reduction of spending of 6% by 2014/15.
Whilst the bottom line is in keeping with expectations and the recognized value of science research, the numbers mask a major philosophical shift in the role of research councils. The three core goals are delivering impact, creating leaders and sharing capability; and whilst these are all laudable goals the first 'strategic decision' is to
[d]eliver a programme of transformational change. We will move from being a funder to a sponsor of research, where our investments act as a national resource focused on outcomes for the UK good and where we more proactively partner with the researchers we support.
This is echoed in statements further on in their document with statements such as
[EPSRC will, i]n concert with our partners in business, academia and government, co-define more explicitly the landscape of research we wish to support.
The fact that the science research budget has been to some extent protected is positive, but there is a real danger that, whatever the rhetoric, short term potential outcomes are going to drive the research agenda of the UK. Concerns about the Haldane Principle, due to be 'clarified' in the next few months, are more valid as a result of this document.

After Dolores Umbridge's first speech on educational matters to Hogwarts' students leaves Harry and Ron confused, it is left to Hermione Granger, the smartest witch in her generation, to explain what is going on (and Emma Watson does a wonderful job of expressing both frustration at the boys' stupidity and outrage at the Ministry's actions in one short sentence):
It means that the Ministry is interfering in Hogwarts.
 (Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, film version)

Of course, this was always the case. The issue is not whether it interferes, but how and with what impact. And with what level of consideration of consequences other than that of meeting the obvious short-term and partly self-imposed fiscal goals?