Monthly Archives: April 2014

What medieval cosmology tells us about the value of Arts and Humanities in universities

Cosmology: Unearthing a 13th-century metaverse | The Economist

Here is a really interesting post on medieval cosmology : Cosmology: Unearthing a 13th-century metaverse | The Economist. which shows that really, the two sides of modern universities cant work in Iisolation.

In essence the project which is reported took the work of a 13C philosopher and applied modern mathematical concepts. What they found was rather startling. The medieval model gave rise to a metaverse, universes existing parallel to each other.

How is all this related to the STEM debate? To succeed, the Ordered Universe Project needed a team spanning both science and the humanities: physics, Latin studies, philosophy, cosmology, philology, medieval studies, paleography, history of science, psychophysics and linguistics. The humanities scholars uncovered insights into Grosseteste’s work that scientists alone might have missed; the scientists helped identify mathematical, physical and geometrical thinking in De Luce that their peers in the humanities might have overlooked. Professor McLeish says that without its interdisciplinary approach—an apparent novelty that has made funding a challenge—the project would not have been possible: “If you’d let the scientists loose on their own, we’d have come up with nonsense.

Makes you think when we see the cuts in relative funding for AHSS versus STEM ; what else are we missing?

Do we need a European Spring ?- Book Launch

So, there is a launch of the great new book by Philippe Legrain around the need for a European Spring. The launch will be by Professor Senator Sean Barrett, in the Long Room TCD at 6pm on 6 May.

esplEurope is in a mess. Our economies are failing to deliver higher living standards for most people – and many have lost faith in politicians’ ability to deliver a brighter future, with support for extremist parties soaring. After the longest and deepest recession since the 1930s, the recovery is the flimsiest on record. Many countries remain lumbered with broken banks and crushing debts. Most suffer from record-low investment and feeble productivity growth. All are ageing fast. Depressingly, most Europeans think their children will have a worse life than they do. Social tensions within countries are multiplying, as are political frictions between them. Support for the EU is at an all-time low, with the euro increasingly unpopular too. Anti-EU, anti-establishment and often anti-foreigner parties are likely to do exceptionally well in the upcoming European elections.

Why have things gone so wrong? How do we put them right?

As a critically acclaimed author who was until recently independent economic adviser to the President of the European Commission and head of the team that provides President Barroso with strategic policy advice, Philippe Legrain has a unique combination of insider knowledge, intellectual authority and independent perspective that makes him ideally placed to shed light on these issues.

Please join us for the Dublin launch of “European Spring: Why Our Economies and Politics are in a Mess – and How to Put Them Right” on Tuesday 6 May at 1800h, the launch to be by Senator Sean Barrett at the Long Room Trinity College. Please pass this information on to anyone whom you consider may be interested

For a flavour of Philippe’s book, read his article on the eurozone’s flawed crisis response in the international edition of the New York Times

The Independent has also published an exclusive extract from the book:

European Spring is available on Kindle for £2.99 and for £10.16 in paperback from


The danger of corporate thinking in higher education

“The lesson of the Dubai bubble is that business schools need to get back to being students and critics of the corporate world, not participants in it”

via The danger of corporate thinking in higher education –

This is a really interesting piece. Its behind a paywall but in essence it says the following. Over the last few decades business schools, and universities in general have inverted. What were bottom up organizations became top down, hierarchical, bureaucratic organizations. Corporate thinking and aping of corporate speak and thought led what should be skeptical and conservative organizations to the same follies as corporates.

Given that Irish universities are infected with this disease, and are actively pursuing bubbles in chinese students and innovation academies, its well worth standing back and thinking hard. Its also worth considering if we should heed the wisdom of organizational studies around how to structure knowledge organizations, as we are going about it the exactly wrong way. Will anyone call stop?


Can we really measure research supervisory quality?

Research metrics are fraught with danger. Usually they are dangerous when they are abused. We can measure the citation history of a paper but that tells us little beyond its citation history. We can measure raw output but that tells us simply how busy someone is. We can measure lots of things but they are all limited in some way. Measurement limitation does not prevent university administration from seizing on metrics and using them appallingly. I recently was informed of an Irish academic unit where papers published in journals that are not in the ISI Web of Science are not allowed to be used as part of any promotion or other college activity. They are un-papers. This is stark raving lunacy, but it shows how dangerous a simple metric can be in the hands of the ignorant.

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The ECB experiment

This is a version of my column in the Irish Examiner of 26 April 2014. Macroeconomics is hard. Its hard because there are actually few coherent theories, such internally coherent theories as we have oftent tend to be at odds with reality, data are of fairly low frequency (monthly usually) and we cant run experiments usually. Those of us who are not practicing macroeconomists thus tend to fall back on fairly simple rules of thumb when assessing policies and outcomes, often by reference to the past. Thus in Europe the ECB has in fact run an experiment against the Federal reserve board. While the Fed has taken the lessons of the 1930s on board and expanded its balance sheet, the ECB has taken the lessons of the 1920 on board and done so reluctantly and is now unwinding them. While the USA engages in quantitative easing, the ECB has engaged in quantitative squeezing. And the results are in; look at the comparative unemployment, performance of the two regions which is really the key metric any sentient or ethical policymakers should concern themselves with. Yes, the USA has an advantage in that they cleaned the banks earlier than did the Eurozone, and thus the monetary transmission system, such as it is in the modern world, was able to work. But that aside it is striking how in recent years the two banks have diverged.  It is reasonable to infer that the experiments have had different outcomes.

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Sean Barrett and University Reform

Occasionally I post guest posts from friends. This is one, from Senator Sean Barrett on his recent universities bill.

Prof. Stephen Hedley of the UCC Law School has written the following comments on my bill, the Higher Education and Research (Consolidation and Improvement) Bill 2014. The following is a response to the comments made by Prof. Hedley. The debate on the bill can be found here and The bill itself can be found here with the Explanatory Memorandum here:

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The Future of Third Level Education in Ireland – 5. Innovation

Excellent post by Greg Foley on the growth of administrators in university commercialisation
“But the problem with this spend on administration is that vital resources are being sucked out of what is essentially an education budget and diverted into what is essentially a job/product creation budget. Perhaps this will turn out to be a good investment for the university and, ultimately for the state. Perhaps financial rewards will be reaped in terms of the overheads from large international research grants or income from licensing etc., benefiting the education mission in the process. But this is an annual cost that comes with no guarantees and leaves in its wake academic departments whose slice of the budget is diminished every time another piece of research and innovation infrastructure is put in place.”


This is the last post in this series before I take a mini-break!

Universities are now expected to be hubs of industrial/business innovation. And, this recent contribution has shown that universities do indeed produce start-ups and patents but whether they do so in a cost-effective manner is not obvious. A useful benchmark to keep in mind is that a single PhD project in the sciences and engineering will typically cost considerably in excess of €100K. If this is state-funded research, as it mainly is, it may well turn out that the cost per job created by university start-ups is unsustainably high. But that’s a discussion for those more qualified in these things than me.

What I want to focus on is the other costs associated with university-led innovation. When a university establishes an innovation or enterprise ethos, or even a very ‘planned’ approach to research, it inevitably incurs extra costs…

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