Archive for September, 2009

Alarm Bells at STFC

Posted in Science Politics with tags , , on September 30, 2009 by telescoper

The  financial catastrophe engulfing the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) has suddenly reared its (very ugly) head again.

Here is a statement posted yesterday on their webpage.

STFC Council policy on grants

STFC Council examined progress of its current science and technology prioritisation exercise at a strategy session on 21 and 22 September. Without prejudging the outcome of the prioritisation, Council agreed that prudent financial management required a re-examination of upcoming grants.

Council therefore agreed that new grants will be issued only to October 2010 in the first instance. This temporary policy is in place pending the outcome of the prioritisation exercise, expected in the New Year.

According to the e-astronomer the  STFC  has written to all Vice-chancellors and Principals of UK universities to tell them about this move. I gather the intention is that this measure will be temporary, but it looks deeply ominous to me. Those of us whose rolling grant requests for  5 years from April 2010 are currently being assessed face the possibility of receiving grants for only 6 months of funding. On the other hand, I’m told that what is more likely is that our grant won’t be announced until January or February, after the hitlist prioritisation exercise has been completed in the New Year. Hardest hit will be the particle physicists whose rolling grants start on 1st October 2009 (tomorrow), which will have only a year’s funding on them…

It seems that STFC has finally realised the scale of its budgetary problems and payback time is looming. I honestly think we could be doomed…

Blue Horizon

Posted in Jazz with tags , , , , on September 30, 2009 by telescoper

I just noticed that somebody put this on Youtube and I couldn’t resist putting it on here. This slow blues features an extended clarinet solo by the great Sidney Bechet. I’ve loved Blue Horizon ever since I was a kid, and think it has a good claim to be the finest instrumental blues ever recorded.  I also heard it more recently at the funeral of one of my Dad’s old jazz friends. Listening to it then it struck me that it’s not just one of the greatest blues, but must also be one of the greatest laments that has ever been produced in music of any kind. It’s absolutely pure sadness – there’s no bitterness, anger or resentment about it – and it develops through the stately choruses into a sense of great pride and even, ultimately, of triumph.

A few posts ago I blogged about the thrill of high-speed jazz. This perfomance is at the other end of the scale in terms of tempo, but you can still feel pull of the harmonic progression underlying the tune. In this case it’s  the chords of a standard 12-bar blues with that irresistible  cadence of perfect fourths leading back to the root at the end of each chorus. Bechet builds quite simply on this structure, but makes frequent telling use of searing  blue notes of heart-rending emotional power. If you don’t know what a blue note is then listen, from about 2.08 onwards, to a chorus that always makes the hairs stand up on the back of my neck.

I should also mention that the fine piano accompaniment on this all-time classic piece (recorded in December 1944) is provided by Art Hodes. Bechet’s raw power and very broad vibrato probably won’t suit scholars of the classical clarinet, but I think this is absolutely wonderful.

Index Rerum

Posted in Biographical, Science Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , on September 29, 2009 by telescoper

Following on from yesterday’s post about the forthcoming Research Excellence Framework that plans to use citations as a measure of research quality, I thought I would have a little rant on the subject of bibliometrics.

Recently one particular measure of scientific productivity has established itself as the norm for assessing job applications, grant proposals and for other related tasks. This is called the h-index, named after the physicist Jorge Hirsch, who introduced it in a paper in 2005. This is quite a simple index to define and to calculate (given an appropriately accurate bibliographic database). The definition  is that an individual has an h-index of  h if that individual has published h papers with at least h citations. If the author has published N papers in total then the other N-h must have no more than h citations. This is a bit like the Eddington number.  A citation, as if you didn’t know,  is basically an occurrence of that paper in the reference list of another paper.

To calculate it is easy. You just go to the appropriate database – such as the NASA ADS system – search for all papers with a given author and request the results to be returned sorted by decreasing citation count. You scan down the list until the number of citations falls below the position in the ordered list.

Incidentally, one of the issues here is whether to count only refereed journal publications or all articles (including books and conference proceedings). The argument in favour of the former is that the latter are often of lower quality. I think that is in illogical argument because good papers will get cited wherever they are published. Related to this is the fact that some people would like to count “high-impact” journals only, but if you’ve chosen citations as your measure of quality the choice of journal is irrelevant. Indeed a paper that is highly cited despite being in a lesser journal should if anything be given a higher weight than one with the same number of citations published  in, e.g., Nature. Of course it’s just a matter of time before the hideously overpriced academic journals run by the publishing mafia go out of business anyway so before long this question will simply vanish.

The h-index has some advantages over more obvious measures, such as the average number of citations, as it is not skewed by one or two publications with enormous numbers of hits. It also, at least to some extent, represents both quantity and quality in a single number. For whatever reasons in recent times h has undoubtedly become common currency (at least in physics and astronomy) as being a quick and easy measure of a person’s scientific oomph.

Incidentally, it has been claimed that this index can be fitted well by a formula h ~ sqrt(T)/2 where T is the total number of citations. This works in my case. If it works for everyone, doesn’t  it mean that h is actually of no more use than T in assessing research productivity?

Typical values of h vary enormously from field to field – even within each discipline – and vary a lot between observational and theoretical researchers. In extragalactic astronomy, for example, you might expect a good established observer to have an h-index around 40 or more whereas some other branches of astronomy have much lower citation rates. The top dogs in the field of cosmology are all theorists, though. People like Carlos Frenk, George Efstathiou, and Martin Rees all have very high h-indices.  At the extreme end of the scale, string theorist Ed Witten is in the citation stratosphere with an h-index well over a hundred.

I was tempted to put up examples of individuals’ h-numbers but decided instead just to illustrate things with my own. That way the only person to get embarrased is me. My own index value is modest – to say the least – at a meagre 27 (according to ADS).   Does that mean Ed Witten is four times the scientist I am? Of course not. He’s much better than that. So how exactly should one use h as an actual metric,  for allocating funds or prioritising job applications,  and what are the likely pitfalls? I don’t know the answer to the first one, but I have some suggestions for other metrics that avoid some of its shortcomings.

One of these addresses an obvious deficiency of h. Suppose we have an individual who writes one brilliant paper that gets 100 citations and another who is one author amongst 100 on another paper that has the same impact. In terms of total citations, both papers register the same value, but there’s no question in my mind that the first case deserves more credit. One remedy is to normalise the citations of each paper by the number of authors, essentially sharing citations equally between all those that contributed to the paper. This is quite easy to do on ADS also, and in my case it gives  a value of 19. Trying the same thing on various other astronomers, astrophysicists and cosmologists reveals that the h index of an observer is likely to reduce by a factor of 3-4 when calculated in this way – whereas theorists (who generally work in smaller groups) suffer less. I imagine Ed Witten’s index doesn’t change much when calculated on a normalized basis, although I haven’t calculated it myself.

Observers  complain that this normalized measure is unfair to them, but I’ve yet to hear a reasoned argument as to why this is so. I don’t see why 100 people should get the same credit for a single piece of work:  it seems  like obvious overcounting to me.

Another possibility – if you want to measure leadership too – is to calculate the h index using only those papers on which the individual concerned is the first author. This is  a bit more of a fiddle to do but mine comes out as 20 when done in this way.  This is considerably higher than most of my professorial colleagues even though my raw h value is smaller. Using first author papers only is also probably a good way of identifying lurkers: people who add themselves to any paper they can get their hands on but never take the lead. Mentioning no names of  course.  I propose using the ratio of  unnormalized to normalized h-indices as an appropriate lurker detector…

Finally in this list of bibliometrica is the so-called g-index. This is defined in a slightly more complicated way than h: given a set of articles ranked in decreasing order of citation numbers, g is defined to be the largest number such that the top g articles altogether received at least g2 citations. This is a bit like h but takes extra account of the average citations of the top papers. My own g-index is about 47. Obviously I like this one because my number looks bigger, but I’m pretty confident others go up even more than mine!

Of course you can play with these things to your heart’s content, combining ideas from each definition: the normalized g-factor, for example. The message is, though, that although h definitely contains some information, any attempt to condense such complicated information into a single number is never going to be entirely successful.

Comments, particularly with suggestions of alternative metrics are welcome via the box. Even from lurkers.


Posted in Science Politics with tags , , , on September 28, 2009 by telescoper

No sooner has the dust settled on the  2008 Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) when the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) has tabled its proposals for a new system called the Research Excellence Framework (REF) in a 56-page consultation document that you can download and peruse at your leisure.

I won’t try to give a complete account of the new system except to say that apart from the change of acronym there won’t be much different. Many of us hoped that the new framework would involve a lighter touch than the RAE, so we could actually get on with research instead of filling in forms all our lives. Fat chance. You can call me cynical if you like, but I think it’s obvious that once you set up a monstrous bureaucratical nightmare like the RAE it is almost impossible to kill it off. Things like this gather their own momentum and become completely self-serving. The apparatus of research assessment no longer exists to fulfil a particular purpose. It exists because it exists.

It might be useful however to summarise the main changes:

  1. The number of Units of Assessment and sub-panels is to be reduced from 67 to 30 and the number of main assessment panels from 15 to 4. This move is bound to prove controversial as it will clearly reduce the number of specialists involved in the quality appraisal side of things. However, the last RAE produced clear anomalies in the assessment carried out by different panels: physics overall did very poorly compared to other disciplines, for example. Having fewer panels might make it easier to calibrate different subjects. Might.
  2. In REF the overall assessments are going to be based on three elements: research output (60%); impact (25%); and environment (15%). In the last RAE each panel was free to vary the relative contribution of different components to the overall score. Although the “research output” category is similar to the last RAE, it is now proposed to include citation measures in the overall assessment. Officially, that is. It’s an open secret that panel members did look at citations last time anyway.  Citation impact will however be used only for certain science and engineering subjects.  “Impact” is a new element and its introduction is  in line with the government’s agenda to pump research funds into things which will generate wealth, so this measure will probably shaft fundamental physics. “Environment” includes things like postgraduate numbers, research funding and the like; this is also similar to the RAE.
  3. A roughly similar number of experts will be involved as in RAE 2008 – so it will be similarly expensive to run.
  4. The consultation document asks whether the number of outputs submitted per person should be reduced from four to three, and also whether “substantive outputs” (whatever they are) should be “double-weighted”.
  5. The results will be presented in terms of “profiles” as in 2008, with the percentage of activity at each level being given.
  6. The consultation also suggests honing the description of “world-leading” (4*) and “internationally excellent” (3*) to achieve greater discrimination at the top end of the scale. This is deeply worrying, as well as completely absurd. The last RAE applied a steeply rising funding formula to the scores so that 4*:3*:2*:1* was weighted 7:3:1:0. However the fraction of  work in each category is subject to considerable uncertainty, amplified by the strong weighting.  If the categories are divided further then I can see an even steeper weighting emerging, with the likely outcome that small variations in the (subjective) assessment will lead to drastic variations in funding. Among the inevitable consequences of this will be that  some excellent research will lose out.

No doubt university administrators across the United Kingdom will already be plotting how best to play the new system. I think we need to remember, though, that deep cuts in public spending have been promised by both major political parties and there is a general election due next year. I can see the overall  budget for university research being slashed so we’ll be fighting for shares of a shrinking pot. Killing off the bureaucracy would save money, but somehow I doubt that will be on the agenda.

Madam Butterfly

Posted in Opera with tags , on September 27, 2009 by telescoper

Apparently the production of Giacomo Puccini‘s Madam Butterfly I saw last night is now over thirty years old , but the current revival by Welsh National Opera still managed to fill the Wales Millennium Centre. The critics might carp that a season of three operas that includes both this one and La Traviata isn’t exactly radical scheduling, but WNO has to cope with economic realities and they need to put bums on seats in order to survive. Recycling old productions like this is one way of maximising revenue that they can spend on future productions. Fortunately, although I have seen Butterfly several times, I haven’t seen this particular staging so have no reason to complain that it’s doing the rounds yet again.

The story must be familiar enough. Cio-Cio-San – the Madam Butterfly of the title – a 15 year old Geisha, is betrothed to Lieutenant BF Pinkerton of the United States Navy who has come to Japan with his ship. Pinkerton is contemptuous of all things Japanese, and shows his true nature by explaining that he has paid just 100 Yen  for his new wife via a marriage broker. She, however, is devoted to her new husband; so much so that she renounces her religion in favour of that of her man (although I doubt Pinkerton ever goes to church). Act I culminates with their wedding and a gorgeous love duet with the kind of ravishing music that only Puccini can supply.

Act II is set three years later. Pinkerton has gone back to the States, but Butterfly waits patiently for his return, singing the beautiful aria Un bel di vedremo, or One Fine Day as it is usually translated. Her maid Suzuki thinks that he will never come back – she never liked Pinkerton anyway – and points out that they’re running out of money, but Butterfly refuses to contemplate giving up on him and marrying again. She  has had a son by Pinkerton and intends to remain faithful. At the end of Scene 1 we find that Pinkerton’s ship has arrived and Butterfly waits all night to greet him. The exquisitely poignant cora a bocca chiusa (humming chorus) accompanies her vigil.

After this intermezzo, Scene 2 finds  us at dawn the following day. Butterfly is asleep. Pinkerton shows up, but he has brought with him a new American wife who offers to rescue Butterfly from poverty by adopting her son and taking him to America. Butterfly awakes, finds out what has happened. Pinkerton has left money for her but she refuses to take it, having already decided to kill herself.  She says goodbye to her son with the heartbreaking aria  Tu, tu piccolo iddio, binds his eyes so he can’t see, then kills herself. Pinkerton and his wife arrive to see her bloody corpse.

In this production the principals were Amanda Roocroft, an excellent singer and a fine actress but a bit miscast as Butterfly. Tenor Russell Thomas on the other hand was exactly right as Pinkerton: brash burly and arrogant but with a superb tenor voice. Pinkerton is a complete bastard, of course, but he has to have enough charisma for you to imagine that it’s possible Butterfly to fall for him. Their singing together at the end of Act I was rapturous, dispelling any doubts about the reality of the mutual desire.

The staging is quite simple: a traditional Japanese house with sliding screens surrounded by stylised trees and gardens. The costumes were less colourful than I had expected, dominated by browns and beiges rather than brightly coloured pattern silks. Thankfully they resisted the temptation to plaster on the make-up to try make the characters look Japanese; all that ever achieves is to make all concerned look ridiculous.

The original production of Madam Butterfly was staged in 1904 (although it took several revisions before the two-act version we saw last night emerged). It therefore dates from a time when Europeans (including Puccini) were quite ignorant about Japanese culture. Modern audiences probably find some of the stereotypes rather uncomfortable. I would say, however, that the only two characters in the Opera to show any moral integrity and nobility of spirit are the maid Suzuki and Butterfly herself. The rest are unpleasant in some way or other, especially Pinkerton who is completely odious. So the Opera is not nasty about Japan, although its attitudes are a bit dated.

Madam Butterfly is worth it for the music alone – call me a softy but I love Puccini’s music. The score was handled beautifully in this performance by Carlo Rizzi. He’s a master storyteller too and it’s a beautifully crafted piece of musical theatre.

Overall I’d probably give this production about 7/10: enjoyable and professionally done, but perhaps with just a hint that it is nearing the end of its shelf-life. Although at times it was wonderfully impassioned, at other times I had the feeling that the cast were just going through the motions.

I have been dithering about mentioning one unfortunate thing about the production, which did have people around us sniggering. Butterfly’s son is blond with blue eyes –  she sings about this,  in case there is any doubt. Russell Thomas (Pinkerton)  is an African-American. The plot involves a scene in which questions are asked about whether Pinkerton really is the boy’s father. That is not supposed to be funny, but it was glaringly obvious that the son of  black man and a Japanese woman is not going to have blond hair and blue eyes…

You always have to suspend your disbelief a bit in the opera theatre, but this was going a bit far. There’s no reason at all not to cast a black singer as Pinkerton, especially when he has such a fine voice. He looked the part as a naval officer, but surely something could have been done to avoid this obvious absurdity?

Anyway, I don’t want to end on a blemish so here’s a short clip of the humming chorus taken from a production with staging not dissimilar to what we saw last night, complete with authentic coughing from the audience.

The Cat in the Box

Posted in Columbo with tags , on September 25, 2009 by telescoper

Today my cat Columbo was due for a trip to the Vets. I have to take him every six months or so for a blood test to check on how his diabetes is progressing. He seemed to be doing fine through the summer so I didn’t anticipate any particular problems when I got up in good time to get him sorted for his 9.10 appointment.

However, the trip didn’t go quite according to plan. For a start, it was a lovely sunny day and, after breakfast, Columbo decided to go out into the garden. Ready to get going, I brought his travel box out after him so I could get him into it. He made it quite clear he’d rather be basking in the morning sunshine than clambering into the box and it took me quite a while to (a) catch him and (b) squeeze him into the necessary receptacle.

At first he growled and hissed with indignation but he seemed settle down once we were under way. Little did I know he was plotting revenge. When I got to the clinic, I realised that a terrible pong was emanating from the cat box. When I opened it up inside the consulting room I realised he’d done a very large and smelly poo.

Sending the box away to be cleaned up by an assistant, the vet prodded and poked the moggy and weighed him, pronouncing him drastically overweight. I do weigh his food out every day but he’s still put on about 500g over the summer. The vet recommended I cut his rations by half until he lost a bit of flab.

Anyway, when the assistant returned from shit-scraping duty she and the vet proceeded to try taking a blood sample. Normally this is done from the neck where the appropriate blood vessels are relatively easy to reach. Columbo has never enjoyed this, but is not normally too hard to handle. This time, however, he wasn’t having any of it. It was impossible for them to hold him still enough long enough to do the necessary so they beat a hasty retreat, regrouped and planned a counter-offensive.

Plan B involved taking the blood from his leg instead. After several attempts and, I have to say, considerable loss of blood on both sides, the vet managed to get a full sample. Columbo went back in the box and would have licked his wounds had both his forelegs not been covered in bandages.

But even that wasn’t the end of it. I went out into reception with the cat safely in his portable house. I waited to pay my bill. As I did so, a lady came in with a young, highly energetic and extremely inquisitive boxer puppy. This little dog had clearly never seen a cat before and went sniffing around Columbo’s box. Said cat sat there quietly until the puppy presented a large, wet and obviously very inviting nose against the front grille whereupon Columbo gave it a straight jab with full claw deployment sending the puppy yelping across the reception.

I apologized profusely to the vets and to the owner of the maimed puppy dog and left as quickly as I could after paying. When I got home Columbo went straight upstairs and under the bed in a sulk. I wonder how much worse he’ll get when he finds out he’s on a diet?

I think his grumpiness may stem from relationship difficulties. A week or so ago he caught a mouse in the garden and was playing with it on the lawn – it was dead by this point. The little lady cat that appears to have befriended Columbo came to investigate. She sat watching him for a while. Then he put the mouse down. Quick as a flash, she darted in, grabbed the mouse, and did off over the fence with it. I haven’t seen her since.

Maybe I should have warned him what women are like.

The Evidence

Posted in Biographical, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , on September 25, 2009 by telescoper

Further to my recent post about the evidence for a low-density Universe, I thought I’d embarrass all concerned with this image, taken in Leiden in 1995.

Various shady characters masquerading as “experts” were asked by the audience of graduate students at a summer school to give their favoured values for the cosmological parameters (from top to bottom: the Hubble constant, density parameter, cosmological constant, curvature parameter and age of the Universe).

From left to right we have Alain Blanchard (AB), Bernard Jones (BJ, standing), John Peacock (JP), me (yes, with a beard and a pony tail – the shame of it), Vincent Icke (VI), Rien van de Weygaert (RW) and Peter Katgert (PK, standing). You can see on the blackboard that the only one to get anywhere close to correctly predicting the parameters of what would become the standard cosmological model was, in fact, Rien van de Weygaert.

The Word Game

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , on September 24, 2009 by telescoper

I don’t know why, but something just reminded me of a silly game I invented to make lectures more interesting. Probably it’s because the students have started coming back after the summer break. I started playing this game at one of the Erice schools run by Norma Sanchez, but it’s a long time since then and I can’t remember which one in particular it was. I never told Professor Sanchez this was going on in case she thought it was too flippant. I’ve always been scared of her since she loomed towards me and scribbled all over my transparencies at the end of one of my lectures because she disagreed with my use of the word “theory” (instead of model).

The thing about this and other schools of its ilk is that there are a bunch of invited experts giving short courses of lectures (maybe 4-6) to an audience of graduate students and young postdoctoral researchers. It’s quite intensive and I felt that it needed something to take away some of the strain.

The Word Game is played by one lecturer at a time. The other lecturers give the nominated individual a word which he/she must weave into his/her next lecture. There is no restriction on the word, and generally the more obscure it is the better. In the advanced version of the game the word is given to the lecturer immediately before the lecture (in a sealed envelope). However, for beginners I recommend giving the word at least a few hours beforehand to let them think a bit how to get the target word into their talk.

The audience have been told that the lecturer is going to include a target word and their job is to spot which word it is. If they succeed then the lecturer loses and has to pay a forfeit (perhaps a round of drinks for the successful spotters). If the students don’t get the right word then the lecturer wins and he gets a reward (probably also of alcoholic form). If the lecturer fails to include the word at all they to buy drinks for the lecturers as well as living out the rest of their days in shame. A league table is kept as the school goes on and the lecturer with the most successful word insertions at the end is declared the winner.

Choice of target word is tricky. If you make it too mundane then it is impossible to spot and if it’s too bizarre then it’s too easy. However, the former case can be avoided to some extent by insisting that the word occurs only once in the lecture. In the latter case the lecturer can use the device of introducing sundry other random complicated words to throw the audience off the scent of a tricky word. I generally award bonus marks if the word is embedded elegantly in the talk rather than hidden in a cloud of other words.

Not all lecturers want to play the game of course and some are more successful than others. I’d like to single out Brian Schmidt for his outstanding performance at one school, smoothly interpolating the word AUTOCLAVE into a lecture on Type Ia Supernovae in such a way that it went completely unnoticed by the students. On the other hand, I have also to mention that Rocky Kolb, misguidedly going for the advanced option during his first ever attempt at the game, completely failing to get the word AARDVARK into his lecture. In fact he insisted on being given the word in a sealed envelope after he arrived at the lecturer’s podium, starting his lecture with the words “May I have the envelope please?” That’s what you get for being cocky, Rocky.

I’ve always managed to get the words in myself, and did once successfully conceal ONOMATOPOEIA in a talk about galaxy formation. On the other hand, my attempt to get CANDELABRA into a talk about higher-order correlation functions was easily – and expensively – rumbled.

Cranks Anonymous

Posted in Biographical, Books, Talks and Reviews, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , on September 22, 2009 by telescoper

Sean Carroll, blogger-in-chief at Cosmic Variance, has ventured abroad from his palatial Californian residence and is currently slumming it in a little town called Oxford where he is attending a small conference in celebration of the 70th birthday of George Ellis. In fact he’s been posting regular live commentaries on the proceedings which I’ve been following with great interest. It looks an interesting and unusual meeting because it involves both physicists and philosophers and it is based around a series of debates on topics of current interest. See Sean’s posts here, here and here for expert summaries of the three days of the meeting.

Today’s dispatches included an account of George’s own talk which appears to have involved delivering a polemic against the multiverse, something he has been known to do from time to time. I posted something on it myself, in fact. I don’t think I’m as fundamentally opposed as Geroge to the idea that we might live in a bit of space-time that may belong to some sort of larger collection in which other bits have different properties, but it does bother me how many physicists talk about the multiverse as if it were an established fact. There certainly isn’t any observational evidence that this is true and the theoretical arguments usually advanced are far from rigorous.The multiverse certainly is  a fun thing to think about, I just don’t think it’s really needed.

There is one red herring that regularly floats into arguments about the multiverse, and that concerns testability. Different bits of the multiverse can’t be observed directly by an observer in a particular place, so it is often said that the idea isn’t testable. I don’t think that’s the right way to look at it. If there is a compelling physical theory that can account convincingly for a realised multiverse then that theory really should have other necessary consequences that are testable, otherwise there’s no point. Test the theory in some other way and you test whether the  multiverse emanating from it is sound too.

However, that fairly obvious statement isn’t really the point of this piece. As I was reading Sean’s blog post for today you could have knocked me down with a feather when I saw my name crop up:

Orthodoxy is based on the beliefs held by elites. Consider the story of Peter Coles, who tried to claim back in the 1990’s that the matter density was only 30% of the critical density. He was threatened by a cosmological bigwig, who told him he’d be regarded as a crank if he kept it up. On a related note, we have to admit that even scientists base beliefs on philosophical agendas and rationalize after the fact. That’s often what’s going on when scientists invoke “beauty” as a criterion.

George was actually talking about a paper we co-wrote for Nature in which we went through the different arguments that had been used to estimate the average density of matter in the Universe, tried to weigh up which were the more reliable, and came to the conclusion that the answer was in the range 20 to 40 percent of the critical density. There was a considerable theoretical prejudice at the time, especially from adherents of  inflation, that the density should be very close to the critical value, so we were running against the crowd to some extent. I remember we got quite a lot of press coverage at the time and I was invited to go on Radio 4 to talk about it, so it was an interesting period for me. Working with George was a tremendous experience too.

I won’t name the “bigwig” George referred to, although I will say it was a theorist; it’s more fun for those working in the field to guess for themselves! Opinions among other astronomers and physicists were divided. One prominent observational cosmologist was furious that we had criticized his work (which had yielded a high value of the density). On the other hand, Martin Rees (now “Lord” but then just plain “Sir”) said that he thought we were pushing at an open door and was surprised at the fuss.

Later on, in 1996, we expanded the article into a book in which we covered the ground more deeply but came to the same conclusion as before.  The book and the article it was based on are now both very dated because of the huge advances in observational cosmology over the last decade. However, the intervening years have shown that we were right in our assessment: the standard cosmology has about 30% of the critical density.

Of course there was one major thing we didn’t anticipate which was the discovery in the late 1990s of dark energy which, to be fair, had been suggested by others more prescient than us as early as 1990. You can’t win ’em all.

So that’s the story of my emergence as a crank, a title to which I’ve tried my utmost to do justice since then. Actually, I would have liked to have had the chance to go to George’s meeting in Oxford, primarily to greet my ertswhile collaborator whom I haven’t seen for ages. But it was invitation-only. I can’t work out whether these days I’m too cranky or not cranky enough to get to go to such things. Looking at the reports of the talks, I rather think it could be the latter.

Now, anyone care to risk the libel laws and guess who Professor BigWig was?

Future Fees

Posted in Science Politics with tags , , , on September 21, 2009 by telescoper

There’s been a lot of news coverage today arising from a new report by the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) which argues that students should in future pay higher tuition fees to go to British universities. As you can probably imagine this has generated quite a lot of comment, but since some of the remarks I’ve heard are based on misunderstandings I thought I’d give my angle on  is happening and what the implications are.

For a start, the tuition fees paid by students at present are not the sole (or even the largest part) of the income paid to universities for undergraduate education. The way the funding councils work is to pay each university directly an amount for teaching each student (called the recurrent grant). This amount depends on the course. There is a basic level (which for 2009/10 is £3,947), but this is increased for subjects which require experimental work. The result is that there are four funding bands: A (which is clinical medicine, the most expensive); B (which includes science subjects such as physics); C (which includes subjects with laboratory or fieldwork element); and D (everything else).

The level of funding for an individual student in each price band in 2009/10 is

  • band A – £15,788
  • band B – £6,710
  • band C – £5,131
  • band D – £3,947

Physics (and Astronomy) is in band B, so the department receives £6,710 directly from the government for each student doing a course in these subjects.

Brought in in 2006, the “top-up” fee (currently £3225) is in addition to this, although it does not have to be paid immediately by the students. They can borrow the money at an advantageous interest rate and only have to pay it back when  they have left their University and started to earn money at a level sufficient to trigger the repayment. Here in Wales the situation is a little bit more complicated because the students don’t pay the full “top-up” fee payable in England. Instead they pay a lower rate (currently £1285) and the Welsh Assembly Government makes good the shortfall to the University. In Scotland there are no tuition fees payable by the students.

Anyway, for Physics at least, the tuition fee is only about one-third the total income for each student. It looks, then, like the government does actually pay the lion’s share of the cost of higher education, especially in science and medicine. However, it is worth remarking that if the UK devoted the same share of its GDP as the OECD mean (1.1%) then students would not have to pay top-up fees at all in order to fund the entire University system at an adequate level. Clearly a political decision was made that funding Trident, ID cards,  and wars in Iraq and Afghanistan was a much better use for taxpayers’ money than providing universal free higher education.

I don’t actually object to the principle that students should make a contribution to the cost of their university education but I think the fairest way to do that is via the taxation system. There are many problems with the system we have, which is an attempt at a British compromise that actually gives us the worst of all worlds. The Labour party was scared to allow fees to be set too high for fear of alienating its traditionalists by discouraging those from poorer background from going to university. On the other hand, it didn’t want to set them too low because that wouldn’t bring in sufficient extra money. In the end they settled at an in-between level, i.e. one that achieved very little and alienated people anyway.

For a start the level of top-up income is not really high enough to pay for the investment that is needed. Many leading universities are in fact making redundancies because the additional revenue  realised by top-up fees was not enough to meet the rising pay bill resulting from a generous salary settlement last year. Moreover, the idea that top-up fees would satisfy the right-wingers by introducing some kind of “market” was a complete delusion. All universities (big and small, old and new, good and less good) charged the same level of fee.

I went to university in the 1980s when the system was very different. There were no top-up fees and, because I wasn’t from a wealthy family, I received a full maintenance grant to cover the cost of living and studying during the three years of my degree. That’s the big difference nowadays: nobody gets a full maintenance grant. Universities do use some of their tuition fee money to provide contributions to poorer students but they generally amount to a few thousand pounds a year. That’s not enough to live on, so most students either rely on their parents to help them or have to work during term-time. I never had to do either of those.

Anyway the CBI report says that the level of tuition fees should increase to around £5000, the student loan interest rate should increase and there should be fewer bursaries. Even within its own terms I don’t think this makes much sense. In fact, I could understand them better if they had argued to remove the cap altogether. The posh places – Oxbridge and perhaps a few others – which can probably fill their places  charging whatever they like could actually afford a fairly generous bursary scheme that might encourage a few talented working class kinds to go there to ease these institutions’ consciences.  Other universities would be forced to set their own fee levels according to the demands of income and recruitment.  The system would be increasingly differentiated by cost and quality, but students from poorer backgrounds would  be excluded to an even greater extent than they are now. I wouldn’t like a university system built along those lines but it seems to me that it would suit the mentality of the CBI.

The big issue about today’s debate, however, is that neither the Labour nor the Conservative Party is going to say what they’re going to do about university funding until after the general election next year. Certainly  neither of them will say whether the fee will go up to £5000. For once, I agree with Sally Hunt  (general secretary of the Universities and Colleges Union) who has urged them both to come clean. Keeping silent about this when other public sector cuts are clearly on the table is both spineless and dishonest. Just what you’d expect from politicians, in fact.

For what it’s worth I predict that after the next election higher education will suffer a classic double-whammy. Whichever party takes power, the resulting government will be forced to make large-scale cuts in public spending to keep the country’s finances under control. I think what they’ll do is cut the unit of resource (probably by a large amount, say 25%) at the same time as increasing the tuition fee element. They can then claim that University funding has been protected while at the same time cutting the cost of the system to the public purse. Students will end up paying more for less. But, hey, at least it will keep the bankers happy and that’s what we’re here for after all.