Tag Archives: science

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?

Managing “People Risk” – A seminar series


So, along with some UK colleagues the Finance group in TCD have gotten a grant from the ESRC for a seminar series on managing people risk.  All to often we get concerned about structuring systems that cant fail to find that they do because someone somewhere messed up. The software and hardware do not matter if the wetware is deficient.  The plan is as below… more details will emerge later.

1. Existing knowledge, contested approaches and future developments Nov 2013, Nottingham (University of Nottingham) Aims to map the terrain of existing research across different disciplines, identify consensus and conceptual tensions whilst building on an academic agenda for cross disciplinary research.

2. The place of ‘Key employees’ in health and aviation: theory and practice Feb 2014, Glasgow (Glasgow Caledonian University) Aims to examine the challenges for research and practice in ‘people risk’ within the domains of aviation and the health sector.

3. Financial services, financial markets and ‘people risk’ regulation Jul 2014, Dublin (Trinity College, Republic of Ireland) Aims to critically analyse the internal and external controls frameworks in the financial services environment.

4. The role of ‘people risk’ measurement: applied behavioural economics & HRM Sept 2014, Berlin (WZB University, Germany) Aims to examine the potential for engagement from human resource management research and applied behavioural economics as controls and measures of ‘people risk’ within the firm.

5.Human factors & best practice: Cross-fertlisation in research & industry Feb 2015, Nottingham (University of Nottingham) Aims to examine the theoretical underpinnings of human factors analysis and its reserach applications to the marine and rail industries.

6.Strategies for advocacy, knowledge transfer and tangible research networking Aug 2015, Nis (University of Nis, Serbia) Aims to explore the barriers to awareness of, and mobilisation of, cross-disciplinary ‘people risk’ research

Good news is no news for Irish universities it seems

This week was a busy one for news, what with the ongoing Boston marathon manhunt, the CP2 disagreement etc. But, in the university area at least one good news story was broken. The Leiden rankings (yes, yes, rankings, we know…) emerged and TCD (and to a lesser extent UCD and UCC ) did well indeed. In fact, TCD was ranked in the top 50 universities in terms of its research impact, worldwide. the Leiden rankings are one of the few that are objective in total, simply measuring research impact under a variety of methods. While this has advantages and disadvantages, its clean.

The CWTS Leiden Ranking 2013 measures the scientific performance of 500 major universities worldwide. Using a sophisticated set of bibliometric indicators, the ranking aims to provide highly accurate measurements of the scientific impact of universities and of universities’ involvement in scientific collaboration. The CWTS Leiden Ranking 2013 is based on Web of Science indexed publications from the period 2008–2011.

When we think of it thats quite astonishing. How many private companies in Ireland would be ranked in the top 50 worldwide? Indeed, given that there are about 18000 universities worldwide, how many Irish institutions public, or private in any area of activity are ranked in the top half of a percent? So, one might imagine that this was noted? Right…?

Wrong.  I cant find a single report on it (using Lexis-Nexis) in any Irish publication. Not a word. Compare this to the annual orgy of blame and breast beating when Irish universities dont get into the THES world top 100, or the Shanghai rankings, both tremendous but in large part subjective measures. More baffling is that theres no press release or communication on TCD’s website celebrating this.

Subjective bad news > objective good news it seems. Its almost like there was some sort of agenda about Irish higher education….



Behavioural Economics and the recession

This is a version of an opinion piece in the Irish Examiner 9 March 2013

One of the features of the recession, or depression or whatever it is we are going through is that the role of economists and economics has become more in focus. Seen from the inside however what is stark is how lopsided this has been and how this throws up some questions on policy formation. Much of the economic talk has, perhaps perforce, been dominated by discussions on macroeconomic and macrofinancial issues with real estate economics coming close on their heels.  This is all very exciting stuff but suggests to the lay listener or reader that that is what economics is all about – budget deficits, banking balance sheets, house price dynamics and bubble analytics. The reality is of course massively different; economics is first and foremost about the relative cost and benefit of choices. Different actors make different sets of choices ; firms about employment and production, workers about work and leisure, consumers about goods and services and so on.  And people make decisions based on a combination of rational and other reasons.  economists work in areas around health, education, financial decision making, trade, family issues, anywhere that there are costs and benefits.

Recently, say in the last ten years or so, behavioural aspects have begun to reenter into the core of (most) economic models.  In part this “respectability” reflects and is reflected in the awarding of the 2003 Nobel to Daniel Khaneman and Amos Tversky. Again it may seem strange but for much of the last 50 years the rational calculation of tradeoffs was THE only way to model much of economics, only in the sense of being accepted by the academy.  Despite the seminal work of Keynes, and others, on “animal spirits”, man as a social and psychologically complex animal disappeared from the economic model to be replaced by a bloodless calculator. The last decade has seen this challenged. Models and policy now, with the glaring exception of “high macro” are comfortable with incorporating into their model the notion that people matter in terms of how they decide their choices and that these choices are not always a cold rational decision. What is rather startling however is how relatively little these behavioural approaches are evident in the media debate, which perhaps reflects the relative paucity of related researchers in this area in Ireland. Few economists or finance researchers take a behavioural approach and most of those are in the areas of health, education and related. Some of the very best have left, unable to progress in their careers and so benefit the (in particular) Australian and Scottish academic and policy formulation scene to the detriment of here. So what can behavioural approaches tell us about recent events?

One of the main planks of this approach is that of loss aversion, arising from the Khaneman and Tverskey refined Prospect theory. This in essence says that we feel the pain of a given loss far more than we feel the gain of the same amount won. Consider the imposition of the household and house taxes. The amounts are small but the pain large. Similarly with the changes in the child benefit. It has relatively little to do with people being unable to pay (although some will be in such position) and everything to do with deep human nature. Thus there is little point in government trying to sugar that pill. It wont be swallowed easily. Expecting people to be rational about losing money is futile.

A further major plank is what is called hyperbolic discounting. Recall the recent discussion of the “win” in the restructuring of the promissory notes ; much of the putative gain emerges from delaying any repayments, in the knowledge that from todays perspective a billion euro in twenty years time is seen as much less than a billion. That time value of money approach simply however is not how people see things.  More realistic discounting would suggest that the value of that billion (for reasonable interest rates) is still “less” than a billion but is significantly greater than the traditional time value of money would suggest.  Thus those that sell the time value of money approach to the notes are , willfully or not, ignoring the deep preferences of people. Worse, they missell to themselves and to others the real benefits, over egging the pudding whether they know it or not.

Beyond this we find in behavioural economics that we need to understand the biases and shortcuts (heuristics in the jargon) that people take when faced with decisions under (especially monetary related) choices. For example we tend, as people, to anchor prices and wages and other monetary amounts to recent levels regardless of what “fundamentals” tell us. This is part of the explanation for the growth of bubbles : its not that people are feckless or greedy just that they are people and they look back over a short horizon and anchor expectations at recentl levels.  Decrying the unrealistic nature of these expectations is fine but calumnising people for being people is both futile and dangerous.  Anchoring is everywhere …And then when we cut wages (such as say in the public sector) this combines with the loss aversion to cause deep disquiet, over and above the “warranted” levels of disquiet.

We tend to disregard evidence from the past over evidence from the more recent times, and we engage in what is called “base rate neglect”, wherein we in effect assign events to representative categories. A deeper analysis of this involves Bayes Rule, and most people are not intuitive bayesians… Thus we find statements that “this time is different”, based on the last five years and the fact that full information about the past 50 years is not being used. There is a danger that we assume for example that there will be a neverending recession – there wont. This too shall pass, and we will eventually have another credit or related bubble and shall make similar mistakes. Finally, consider overconfidence, something we seem to have little of at present. Overconfidence is again something we have hardwired. But it is more prevelant in men than in women and success breeds not just confidence but overconfidence. Then look at the ECB – hard though it may seem to us here they have had success, in that they have kept the euro together, dampened the fires of speculation, reduced bond yields and kept inflation low. These are pretty much all it has been tasked to do. So, the male dominated ECB must be feeling confident, and the longer the run of success goes on the more overconfidence will be bred. Overconfidence breeds  failure. We must therefore be prepared for the inevitable crisis that will happen when the overconfident ECB, sometime in the next decade, drops the ball. With our luck that will happen just as the next bubble pops, but then we are human after all, even the members of the executive board of the ECB!

STEM and HSS journal cuts in Irish University Libraries

Universities are research and teaching institutions, and at the core of research lies the ability of the researcher to discover what is and what is not known about an area. This in effect involves as comprehensive review of the literature as possible and if the library holdings of journals are not as complete as possible then research will be misdirected or delayed. If a library has not got a journal then one faces either paying for it oneself (usually of the order of $30-50 per journal article) or scrounging it from a colleague in more favoured institution.
Irish university libraries have, as I have noted, been hollowed out by staff cuts. We can now show the further hollowing out. Peter Mathews via a PQ sourced these data and we should be grateful to Peter for his ongoing interest in the education issues. First, we can see the relative spend on STEM and HSS (Humanities and Social Sciences) on journals. For the most part these journals were sourced on a national consortium basis under the rubric of IRel. Spending, since 2006 has increased 11% on STEM journals while it has fallen 3% on HSS; the ratio of spending on STEM versus HSS journals (2007-12) has bobbled around but on average stands at close to 2:1. Some of this spend is outside the control of IReL as it is a price taker but the relative spend is still extraordinary. Bear in mind: the greater proportion of graduates hired are from HSS disciplines, and while the present thrust is to STEM the value of the (A)HSS sector cannot and is not underplayed. It would be nice if the government and HEA were to honour the fine words of the 2010 report on the value of that sector

As resources have fallen so to have journals have been withdrawn. They number over 400, and what is astounding is that all these journals lie in the STEM (Science, technology engineering and mathematics) domain, the very domain that we are told will be the foundation of the Smart Economy. The data show the journals, the year cancelled, and some notes. The notes should be read as follows ; 7 – was available in the 7 universities ; 7 RCSI – was available in the RCSI and the 7 universities ; 7 Irel DCU NUIM – was available in the 7 universities and is now being subscribed by a mini-consortium of DCU and NUIM

Some issues emerge from this data.
First, it is almost certain that a mini-consortium of two midsized universities will not get as avourable terms as a national consortium.
Second, what on earth went wrong in negotiations in Taylor and Francis?
Third, while some readers may look at any individual journal and say “sure what use is that” , the simple answer is that unless one is a researcher in that domain you cant say. As I noted a comprehensive literature study requires comprehensive library resources. There is no point in spending time and money studying an area that is already done to death AND which you did not know about as the journals were not available. As an editor of a journal it is disheartening to desk reject papers which assert primacy or novelty when one knows that this is an illusion caused by poor or inadequate literature searching.

here is the list in Excel format….i would appreciate comments  from STEM researchers and librarians in particular.

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Downgrading Irish University Libraries

I have noted previously the hollowing out of the academic sector in the non replacement of professors who have left the Irish univeristies.  Now we also see this in action in the university library sectors.

Courtsey of Deputy Peter Mathews who solicited these data via a PQ we see in the first table the number of persons by grade by university who have left that university library since 2009. The second table shows the replacements. What do we learn from this?

First, there are a bewildering array of grades in the irish university library system. I understand that there is a table of equivalencies somewhere.  Some rationality might be usefully brought to bear on this. Even within the old NUI system there are clear differences as to grade nomenclature. This may seem petty but the more opaqueness there is the easier it is to hide change.

Second, we see a tendancy for little replacement in the larger university libraries. These are the larger but then they are also the ones that support Irelands research intensive universities. But that support must now be creaking.

University libraries are not in general the physical books at this stage. They are the core nodes for the organisation and distribution of research knowledge. In a very real sense a university is its library, its information holdings that are accessible for knowledge creation and dissemination  If we do not have  sufficient, or sufficient qualified professional staff to assist in the collation, organisation, dissemination and retrival of information we cannot do research. There is another story to be told on the holdings of journals and databases in Irish universities  but for now we are pretty well situated. But if we cant find them or the students cant find them, or researchers cant find them, then they are no use. There is little point in Sean Sherlock unveiling hundreds of millions of research grants, no matter how welcome they are, if over the course of the grant the ability of the researchers to access the frontier of knowledge is degraded.

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Why we should keep and abolish the Seanad ; Sean(s), Science and Senators

Sometimes a debate comes along in the upper house that is worth listening to. Usually, and this is I think, down to the (limited) franchise, this comes from the university senators.

Last week Senator Sean Barrett (TCD) moved a series of amendments to the Industrial Development (Science Foundation Ireland)(Amendment) Bill 2012. This bill is in essence to extend the remit of Science Foundation Ireland to allow it to fund not just basic but also applied research. Now, lets leave aside the research on how hard it is for government to “pick winners” (actually, lets not…see this very balanced research paper) the bill like all bills goes through the process of the Seanad reviewing it. Bear in mind that the bill is for a multibillion euro process which will convey enormous power and clout on a quango. No matter how good a quango or how optimal its solutions may emerge as being, its surely a good idea to have many views on the design.

Sean Barret proposed a series of amendments. They are as below. Not one got to be incorporated in the bill. Not one. In many cases (See the debate here)  the minister , Sean Sherlock, agreed with the spirit or the wording of the amendment but in essence told the upper house to trust him/his advisors/SFI. Apart from Sean of the total 60 senators only three others spoke, all to praise Sean B, but not to actually offer any insight or views.

Sean asked for nothing wild : to have SFI take on the views of external professional bodies, to have SFI grant holders not be allowed to buy out of teaching students, to ensure that a value for money element was enshrined into the grant review, to make provision for new areas to be brought into the ambit of SFI if science dictated, to curtail the power of the minister to overrule science in favour of politics.  Mention was made of the exclusion of botany and mathematics from the priorities. His remarks were learned, witty, historically informed and cogent. They were exactly what you would expect from a member of an upper house, agree with them or no, and were there more like this then there would be a case solid as a rock for keeping the Seanad.

This set of amendments is hardly scientific Jacobism, but as these amendments were “not invented here” Sean Sherlock didnt take them on board.   Mathematicians can jolly well find some project to support, as can botanists. Teaching is not his concern its an SEP (someone elses problem).  Everything we do is subject to the ruthless rapier scrutiny of ….the Department of Finance…We have a priority list and that is a list of priorities we chose as priorities. We cant ask the Chartered Engineers for their views on a scientific project as then we would have to ask the divil and all, maybe even the Irish Texts Society. And so on. By turns dismissive, patronising  supportive without actioning, Sean S did his duty which was to steer the bill through.

If we are to have an upper house then both the members of same and the government must respect it. That means that they dont automatically not accept amendments from uppity outsiders, and that when the future of the scientific underpinnings of the state are being discussed people bother to turn up and debate the issues (even if like Sean B they know that the government will not bother their barney with paying the blindest bit of attention). If the government wont take on even motions that they agree with and if senators cant be bothered, then we should dispense with the pretence and drop the Seanad.  In the meantime, trust Sean.


Basic or Applied Science?

Is this applied or basic science? Theres a growing perception, at least from some quarters, that the SFI focus now is almost entirely on applied science. The best route to scientific success now would, I suggest, be to hire a PR company and somehow persuade the funders that this was worthy of prioritization. Its government is chasing winners….good luck there

The overwhelming desire of government seems to be to somehow stumble across a new <insert techy MNC here> and get loads of jobs.

Aint. gonna. happen.

Meanwhile here is the list of funded projects for this year. To my mildly scientific eye they all seem quite applied. Although the word novel appears a lot in the titles of the project this comes in almost  each case in conjunction with therapeutic or applied. There seems to me to be little of what one might call basic science

A further point – If someone is given 200k of taxpayers money to do something, I would have hoped that the funder would require a short paragraph in laymans terms outlining what the project is  and why it is good science. Transparency is always a good idea.


Hollowing Out

So, thanks to Pearse Doherty ( although sent on 6 Nov this seems to have only hit my mailbox now…) we now have a clarity on the reduction in staffing from the top levels of Irish universities. In particular, TCD and Maynooth and Limerick …..

In response to a question he obtained from the Dept Education the following information.


So of the 67 professors who have left some 40 have been replaced, a cut of 40% ; of the 20 Associate Professors some 14 have been replaced at lower levels.

What is interesting is the university by university variation : 100% of posts lost in UCD have been replaced while 0% of Maynooth is replaced. Of course there are I am sure discipline specific variations here which need to be surfaced, but it does prompt questions. In particular, why is only 1 out of 15 TCD professors replaced ? In every metric TCD is a leading university in Ireland, and this seems to be destroying the seedcorn.