Monday, 27 February 2012

The Difficulty with Interdisciplinarity

Tim Harford, the self-styled Undercover Economist, wrote an interesting piece on his blog about the need to break out of disciplinary silos. He quoted Andrew Exum, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security in Washington DC, talking about military intervention in Syria. 'Regional specialists rarely understand military capabilities and options well enough to make an argument for or against, and those who understand military capabilities and options rarely understand the regional dynamics well enough to make an argument for or against.'

This is a neat encapsulation of the argument for interdisciplinary working. A similar line of argument was followed by Prof Rick Rylance, CEO of the AHRC, when he visited the University a couple of weeks back. However, Rylance was frank in his acceptance of the problems that those working in the disciplinary borderlands face. He gave an example from his own work: he's an English scholar by trade, and has worked with a neuroscientist to analyse brain patterns when people read poetry. Interesting stuff, but they had problems getting it published: humanities journals that thought that it was too scientific, and science journals that thought it was a bit too 'kooky.'

I think this won't be solved until the silos that Harford talks about are permanently dismantled, and that's not going to happen any time soon. Part of the problem is the REF (it's becoming a bit of theme today, isn't it?) which reinforces a need to focus strictly on comparing yourself with others in a narrowly defined field. If and when the silos do tumble, there's still the problem of identifying early which areas should be collaborating with which other areas. Harford recognises that it's difficult to have in place the necessary links for problems that cannot be predicted, such as Syria or the Lehman Brothers. However, he seems to be suggesting that cross-silo communication will help to pre-empt this, but I'm not so sure. After all, there's a lot of silos out there, and how do you know you've got on the line to the right one?

Which brings me quite neatly on to the question of Research Council thematic priorities. The Research Councils, as you know, have fully embraced the interdisciplinary agenda. Barely a week goes by without another call for interdisciplinary research. One academic joked with me recently that he imagined a large machine in Death Star House which automatically produced random pairs of abstract nouns, linked by a conjunction, to create the latest priority. 'Health and Wellbeing', 'Culture and Society', 'Science and Justice' etc etc.

But in all seriousness, how are such interdisciplinary areas identified? And what happens to the collaborations that blossom under the RCUK interdisciplinary sun when the weather changes? I think, too, that there is a question of critical mass. Kent was founded on the principles of interdisciplinarity, deliberately avoiding a departmental structure so that cross-disciplinary dialogue would happen in colleges, along corridors where philosophers would be housed next to astrophysicists. However, it had to bow to the inevitable and put all the philosophers together and all the astrophysicists together in separate departments. There is something to be said in having people in the same or similar disciplines together to concentrate their resources, their knowledge, their brain power on solving the issues pertinent to them.

So where does that leave us? Interdisciplinarity is good, but I don't think it's something that can be forced. I'm a little sceptical about calls to encourage collaboration in specific areas. Instead, there should be a broader willingness to accept interdisciplinary work in the mainstream academy, and thus in highly rated journals. In fact, when you think about it, these two concepts may go hand in hand: once the funders stop pushing specific (political?) areas then the scepticism amongst academics might abate, and we might well be left with a more open acceptance of the concept of interdisciplinarity.

The REF and Edited Books

There was an interesting piece by Prof Andy Miah on the Guardian Higher Education Network blog last week, which looked at what academics should be doing at this late stage to bolster their outputs for the REF.

Prof Miah started by recognising two points: firstly, time is short, so there's a limit to what you can still publish; and secondly, there is wide variance between disciplines as to what is regarded as prestigious or good. Journal articles are regarded much more favourably in the STEM subjects, for instance, than they are in the Humanities, where there is more of a tradition of monographs.

The focus of his piece, however, was edited books, which he described as 'the biggest loser' in RAE2008, when very few were submitted. This was because editing does not equate to research, but also because there was some ambiguity over the peer review of book chapters, and the difficulty in getting book chapters cited. But these volumes are not without worth: they offer a useful way for early career researchers (ECRs) to be published, as the process is often more flexible and supportive.

Will this mean, therefore, that there is a certain amount of discrimination against ECRs in REF2014? On balance I think not: whilst this is the implication of Miah's argument, most ECRs worth their salt will have been able to publish up to 3 outputs within the time, without having to factor in a book chapter. From the preparatory REF meetings I've been part of it's certainly not been to big an issue. However, it is worth highlighting it: the more entrenched these assessment processes become, the more they will affect behaviour, and the more likely that a time will come when edited volumes are a thing of the past.

That's fine if that's what everyone wants, but we shouldn't stumble into it blindly. If the academic community and the publishing industry see the worth of edited books then they need to make sure that some allowance is made for them in the REF. Otherwise academics will continue to prioritise journals and monographs, and edited books will wither on the vine.

Monday, 20 February 2012

Notes from Rick Rylance Visit

Prof Rick Rylance, CEO of the AHRC, provided some insights into his current thinking when he visited the University on Friday. He started by outlining the environment in which the Council was operating. After the flat settlement in the Comprehensive Spending Review, it was clear that:
  1. there should be no duplicate funding. There should be no duplication between, say, the AHRC, the ESRC or the BA, but also that there shouldn't be duplication between the funding that came through QR and that that came through RCUK;
  2. there was a need to focus on excellence. Essentially, this meant concentration. The AHRC funds 85 institutions, but 75% of its funding goes to just 30 of these, and 39% to just 10. In this climate how do you ensure that you provide broad support? By encouraging collaboration. He gave the example of Russian. There were 18 Depts of Russian in the UK, but all but 3 of them have less than 4 staff. It would make sense for these to collaborate more.
  3. there was a need to demonstrate results. Rylance made clear that they were 'methodologically impoverished' in terms of identifying and collating information on the impact that AHRC-funded research was having. The sector needed to 'thicken out' and develop a robust methodology for collecting and demonstrating impact.
  4. there was a need for 'efficiency gains'. In other words, RCUK were being asked to do more with less, both through the Wakeham Report, but also through demand management. Rylance himself was not keen on quotas and penalties, as he thought that this led to conservatism, but that institutions should be encouraged to proactively review and develop excellent applications, and that best practice needed to be shared.
Following on from this, Rylance outlined a series of issues that were occupying his thoughts. These included:
  1. Interdisciplinarity. The distinctions between pure and applied, between responsive and strategic, would disappear over time, suggested Rylance. Both HEIs and funders would be collaborating more and more.
  2. 'Second Generation Problem.' He voiced some concern over the succession and sustainability of the sector. There were currently a lot of early career researchers, but he was worried about bringing on the next generation when there's less capacity in the sector as senior colleagues no longer needed to retire.
  3. 'Partnership World'. He recognised that a 'partnership world' was emerging, and that we were all feeling our way in this. There needed to be new ways of working, new structures and new provision for the way that research and education would be undertaken in the future. We all needed to think of the opportunities that this provided, rather than getting anxious about the change.
There was a full and frank question and answer session that followed, and a number of issues were raised, including open access, how collaborations should be facilitated, and the future of separate Research Councils.

Thanks both to Prof Rylance for coming over to talk to the University, and for Lynne Bennett for organising the event.

Thursday, 16 February 2012

Not with a Bang but a Whimper

Well, there was I, popcorn in hand, ready to watch it all kick off after the EPSRC's announcement of the latest runners and riders in the 'Shaping Capability' sweepstakes. Imagine my disappointment at the muted response from the sector. What, no angry letters to The Times? No resignations? Surely some mistake?

The response could, of course, be because the EPSRC has effectively dodged the bullet by (a) only looking at a relatively small number of areas, (b) saying that only two of these will be cut. They had learnt, I think, from their experience with the first tranche of disciplines, when there was a strong backlash against the Council's actions. This time both Research Fortnight and The Times Higher were struggling to find dissidents to rail against the EPSRC. Prof Neal Skipper from UCL suggested that one of the areas to be cut, Hydrogen Storage, was not at a mature stage of development, as the EPSRC Chief David 'Derek Smalls' Delpy seemed to suggest. But that was pretty much it.

The rest seemed to shrug and move on. Even Twitter, the medium of choice for hysterics, was relatively subdued about it. Which is all very disappointing. I'll put my popcorn away until the main feature later in the year, when a decision on the remaining 51 areas (out of a total 111) will be made. There's sure to be fireworks then.

Wednesday, 15 February 2012

Everything's ROS-y at NERC

NERC has decided to join AHRC, BBSRC, EPSRC and ESRC and join the Research Outcomes System (ROS). This will take over from its Research Outputs Database (ROD), which they've been using for nearly a decade.

The Council make the case that this will:
  • Reduce the reporting burden by reducing the number of equivalent systems;
  • Simplify submission by moving to a more standardised questionnaire;
  • Improve how publications are handled;
  • Share information better between systems, reducing data entry and reducing transcription errors; and
  • Improve the quality of performance information available to support the case for public investment in the environmental sciences.
What's not to like? Well, as reported here a few months back, the new system isn't without glitches. However, NERC isn't adopting it immediately. Oh no. As in the Life of Brian, this calls for immediate...discussion. NERC will bound into action by:
  • Completing the current collection exercise on the existing system;
  • Establishing a project to manage the process of adopting ROS for future years collection with Centre participation;
  • Engaging with users through the project to ensure that user requirements are identified and met;
  • Adapting ROS where necessary to address NERC requirements, including coverage of grants and Centre programmes; and
  • To migrate, as necessary, historic data.
I love this, the snail-like progress of bureaucracy in motion. It is a thing of beauty. Now if you want more information as to where we are in the programme of NERC migration to ROS - and who doesn't? - it can be found here.

Tuesday, 14 February 2012

The End is Nigh

And now, the end is near....yes, we're in to the final stretch of FP7, and we're beginning to get notification of the last of the deadlines. Dry your tears, and start preparing those applications. Here are the provisional details of the last round of Marie Curie grants:
  • Initial Training Networks: 22 November 2012
  • Researchers' Night: 10 January 2013
  • International Research Staff Exchange Scheme: 17 January 2013
  • COFUND: 5 December 2012
  • Career Integration Grants: 7 March 2013 and 5 September 2013
  • Industry-Academia Partnerships and Pathways: 15 January 2013
  • Intra-European Fellowships: 14 August 2013
  • International Incoming Fellowships: 14 August 2013
  • International Outgoing Fellowships: 14 August 2013

Monday, 13 February 2012

AHRC's Rick Rylance to Visit this Friday

Prof Rick Rylance (Chief Executive of the AHRC and Chair of RCUK Executive Group) will be visiting the University on Friday 17 February. Rick will be speaking to staff at an open meeting in the Darwin Conference Suite at 1.30 pm about the AHRC’s Delivery Plan and strategic direction.

There will be plenty of time for questions so if you have a question about plans for longer and larger grants, the new Fellowship schemes, demand management or the influence of government policy on the Council’s strategy, please come along and ask.

Please let my colleague Lynne Bennett know if you are planning to come along so that she can get an idea of numbers.

Friday, 10 February 2012

Profoundly in Love with Pandora

The Guardian reported last week on the squall that has blown up around Elsevier because of its support for the retrograde legislation that is currently making its way through the US Congress. The Research Works Act, in the words of Wikipedia, 'contains provisions to prohibit open access mandates for federally funded research [and] would also severely restrict the sharing of scientific data.'


3000 academics have already signed a petition pledging to boycott Elsevier. They are objecting not only to Elsevier's support for the legislation, but also to the business model that the company uses, which is based around charging 'exorbitantly high' subscription bundles, which include titles that many libraries don't want.


This isn't an issue confined to America. Open access has slowly been making inroads in the UK. Wellcome now expects all funded investigators to make their outputs freely accessible, and the Research Councils have a similar expectation.


This week Prof Stephen Curry of Imperial added to the storm by refusing to review an article for Elsevier. Interestingly Elsevier themselves commented on his blog post, and one can understand their point of view: 'putting an article online for free has economic consequences for the publisher because it effectively takes away returns that a publisher earns from all the value it has added and the investment it has made. So it does have the potential to make a journal unsustainable, and thus negatively impact the research community that relies on it.'


However, in this information age I'm not sure this Pandora's Box can be repacked. Maybe Pandora's Box is the wrong analogy; it suggests the release of evil, whereas Open Access is, I think, the release of good. Like the internet it offers unparalleled openness and freedom, a potential for knowledge and advances that would have been the stuff of dreams for previous generations. Of course, there will be losers as well as winners in this, victims as well as beneficiaries. But it doesn't make sense for Elsevier or the US Congress to try and stand in the way of this and - to use another analogy - act like Cnuts and hold back the tide.