Wakeham weirdness

This evening I have been drafting our submission to the Wakeham review – both the Departmental submission, and the Vice Chancellor’s submission, which of course I have the honour of having been asked to draft … The questions are quite striking. After Q1=”name please” (oooo der hard ones first eh…) we go straight into

Q2 Please list and describe five examples of non-academic impact that have stemmed from research carried out by members of your department …

Wow. It takes until Q9 before we get to the expected “so, is STFC crap or what ?” question. (Of course many of my colleagues are looking for the “so is EPSRC crap or what ?” question … you can stare at EPSRC documents all day trying to decide whether your grant application should fit into “digital economy” or “securing the future”…

Over at the VC questionnaire this looks like a key question :

Q3 : Has the focus of research in your Department had to be adjusted to attract students and ensure long term viability ?

Of course ! We hire nothing except astronomers, because this gets thousands of punters in. We tell them at interview they are almost certain to meet Heather Cooper at some point, or possibly just Chris Lintott. Meanwhile, every one of these astronomers demands a personal eight metre telescope.

My favourite though is Q12 on the Departmental submission :

Q12 : Please detail the number of staff in your Department that have received senior management training.


19 Responses to Wakeham weirdness

  1. Dave Carter says:

    Andy, I think the questions are quite well tailored to address the published terms of reference (as opposed to what we would like the terms of reference to be). Well maybe apart from Q12.

  2. Dave Carter says:

    Looking again, I suspect that whoever drew up this form (not a scientist) looked at bullet point 3 of the terms of reference (strengthening research leadership) and interpreted this as senior management training. So even Q12 could almost be relevant.

  3. andyxl says:

    Dave – you are correct I am sure that the Qs are a natural civil-servant interpretation of the remit. Even so, going straight in at Q2 with “prove your worth to society !!!” is a tad scary. But we should feed them exactly what they wish … I am sure this review is our main chance of any extra money in some kind of backdoor shuffle..

  4. Michael Merrifield says:

    I would be a bit nervous about feeding this review what it wants, Andy: it is clear that Wakeham has a rather strong prior as to what he thinks the problem is, and if we are not careful then we will simply end up re-enforcing that prior by telling him what he wants to hear. Fortunately, I think that there is enough open-endedness in some of the later questions that we can get across our concerns about the way STFC is set up and the need to support blue-skies science.

  5. andyxl says:

    Mike – I only meant feed them what they want in the factual sense. See if you can make input to your VC’s submission. This has more general questions, including an invitation to say whats wrong with funding policy. Here is the draft I agreed with our VC this morning :

    (1) EPSRC funding is now, like EU funding, categorised in broad applied and/or social themes. This is for good reason, but the underlying disciplines and core knowledge base are in danger of being eroded with time. For example, while our soft condensed matter physicists are well poised to work on biological materials and medical problems, this is the case because for a decade research on colloids and non-equilibrium systems has been supported; but now there is no obvious “bucket” that holds funds for this work.

    (2) The structure of STFC mixes policy, funding, and delivery in a very disturbing way, giving rise to a conflict of interest for the in-house laboratories. The laboratories should become independent and compete with Universities for funding of delivery on an equal footing. (This includes the possibility of Universities operating such laboratories under contract).

    (3) Physics research is well supported by facilities and/or subscriptions such as Diamond, ISIS, ESO, CERN, and ESA. However these are so large, and carry such inescapeable commitments, that exploitation grants, where the science is finally done, can suffer enormously from changes in such commitments. Some method must be found to prevent this recurring problem.

  6. Michael Merrifield says:

    The VC thing is in hand, I hope. Worth noting, though, that Q9 (“Do you feel the current funding structure for UK Physics is effective in supporting the discipline as a whole and in fostering interdisciplinarity? If not how could it be improved?”) and Q10 (“Are you satisfied with the support that you receive from each council?”) on the Departmental questionnaire provide quite broad invitations to comment. The Review’s clarifications to the IoP make it clear that “support” should be interpreted more broadly than just “do they give you enough cash,” so give a channel for reiterating concerns about peer review, etc.

  7. Michael Merrifield says:

    hmmm… needless to say, Wakeham questionnaires are not fully of smiley faces: I think your blog is editorializing, Andy!

  8. andyxl says:

    err… thats strange !

  9. KOMbat17 says:

    Very interesting to see your take on the in-house laboratories, Andy. Not the first time I’ve heard senior university staff express this kind of smug, self-serving opinion. First, some of STFC;s in-house laboratories operate under very different rules from the behemoth in Oxfordshire. Second, it is naive to think that some universities do not also have massive conflicts of interest. STFC’s most powerful committees are occupied almost exclusively by senior university staff and some of those staff make Machiavelli look like a pussy cat. I know few in-house laboratory managers that “operate” as effectively as most senior university professors. Having said that, I’d like to thank you for explaining Wakeham to us morons.

  10. andyxl says:

    Oooo !!! Back in the knife box Miss Sharp ! (i) I don’t think anybody called anybody a moron. (ii) Perhaps you might explain what was smug … (iii) I am perfectly well aware that SOME senior University staff can be Machievellian. People are people. This is why we need to avoid structures that make it worse. (iv) I am not accusing any lab managers of inappropriate behaviour : I am talking about structures that make their lives harder.

    I have no problems with the labs or their staff. They are top-notch world class institutions. RAL and Daresbury should have Directors as well as the ATC, and they should continue a proud independent activity that depends less on political fortune.

    Specially for my ATC chums : this doesn’t necessarily mean I think the University should do what the ATC does instead. Legal ownership is almost irrelevant. The ATC already runs as a quasi-autonomous entity, and we are all rather proud of it.

    K17 : you do of course have the advantage of me…

  11. KOMbat17 says:

    Indeed I do. And I continually forget to insert 🙂 to soften what must seem harsh.
    A(i): moron was self-depracating. I don’t suppose you come across that trait very often 🙂
    A(ii) You ALWAYS seem smug! 😉
    A(iii) PPARC was as bad as STFC in this regard
    A(iv) Indeed – in-house lab managers have no time for inappropriate behaviour – they spend all their time hiding overspends 🙂

  12. andyxl says:

    K17 : (i) You ain’t foolin’ anybody (ii) Oh. Ah. Terribly Sorry. Oh dear that was worse. (iii) Re University side yes, re Lab side you jest. (iv) Like it.

    How do you do those smiley things ? Mike M did it by accident, but you seem to have done it by cunning design .. ?

  13. Michael Merrifield says:

    I could tell you, but then I’d have to kill you… 🙂

  14. Michael Merrifield says:

    I have just been reading the RAS’ submission to Wakeham (http://www.ras.org.uk/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=1474&Itemid=1); what a mess!

    Here was an opportunity to address Wakeham’s prior head-on by spelling out in supported quantitative terms the benefits of astronomy to the economy in £/yr, the career destinations of Physics-w-Astronomy undergraduates, etc. Not to mention making the case for pure science as a cultural activity. Instead, the RAS has submitted a fairly random collection of anecdotes, cheaply held together by bullet points. No value added. No synthesis. Not even a whiff of the word “culture.”

    Even where there is an objective figure, they manage to undersell it. Apparently, over his/her entire career, a physics graduate is worth £134K in extra tax revenue to the Exchequer. Whoopee! Why not multiple that by the 3000-odd physics students to point out that physics graduates are producing a steady-state value added of £400M per annum, which is rather more impressive? And then point to the percentage of these students attracted to physics in the first place by astronomy to arrive at a figure for what we are worth to the nation through even this most basic of routes.

    Then there are deeply alarming sections, like the part on “leveraging,” which, through a further random assortment of anecdotal bullet points, seems to be making the argument that the UK’s astronomers are very good at getting things for free from NASA, which doesn’t seem like a particularly good line to take if you are trying to make a case for maintaining or increasing UK astronomy funding.

    They can’t even make up their mind about the long-running saga of how closely facility and exploitation funding should be tied together. On the one hand, “It is sensible that the funding of facilities (telescopes etc) be within the same Council as the funding of the grants to use those facilities.” On the other, “The grants line which funds this effort, together with the use of the facilities, needs to be protected from the large fluctuations in financial pressure that often occur due to overruns etc in the large facilities.”

    As usual, the IoP have put in a rather professional and convincing job. Apart from anything else, it actually addresses the questions Wakeham had asked in the order in which they were asked! Sadly, however, the IoP mostly steers clear of astronomy, and makes a strong case for supporting mainstream physics. In a cash-limited World, that isn’t likely to do us any favours either.

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  17. andyxl says:

    Free Celebrity Wallpapers ? Just about the weirdest spam I have had a for a while, and WordPress didn’t spot it.

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