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?