Peace and quiet

In a colleague’s research grant proposal, under a heading about resources and equipment, he wrote something along the lines of:

All a mathematician needs is some paper, some pens, good access to online journals, and most importantly, a quiet place to work.

Of course, we also rely on good coffee, a buzzing environment of enthusiastic colleagues, natural light, and administrative support.

For other disciplines, lab equipment and technicians are extremely important, and not having the best equipment would severely cripple an experimental chemist, for example. So if you needed to find a way to stifle the progress of a group of mathematicians, what changes to their work environment would you make?

  • You could take their blackboards/whiteboards away, but they might be just as happy with their endless supply of foolscap paper.
  • You could take their paper away. This is difficult to do, as paper is easy to buy and very cheap. Mathematicians would bring their own paper, or just write on their desks and other flat surfaces.
  • You could take their pens away. Again, pens are cheap and easy to buy, so it would be difficult to outlaw pens in the workplace. And anyway, where would you draw the line? Pencils, chalk, and crayons would have to be outlawed too.

Perhaps the best way is to create tension within the group, and somehow put in place a situation where the ambient noise in the workplace was disruptive and unpredictable. For those who wear headphones, they would need to be distracted by visible movement in their periphery. How can this be done effectively? Even more insidiously, we could create an environment that would increase the rate of infection due to colds, influenza, or other airborne viruses. Have you tried to solve a difficult mathematics problem whilst your head is congested and your joints feel like jelly?

So I leave the question to you: how can you create a work environment that not even a resource-minimalist mathematician can bear? To summarise:

  1. it needs to organically create tension between colleagues,
  2. it needs to be cost efficient,
  3. it needs to be noisy,
  4. it needs to have visual distractions,
  5. it needs to foster airborne viruses.

I can only think of one solution to this problem. What is your solution?

Research only, hopefully

Last week, I gave my last lecture for the near future. As of December 1, I will be an Australian Research Council Future Fellow, which means I am on essentially a research only position for four years, and I can only use 0.05 of my time to teach; which more-or-less rules me out of teaching our undergraduate courses.

I was expecting to feel relief and joy upon finishing last week, but instead I felt a little sad. I taught a seond year introduction to pure mathematics which does all the cool stuff: from cardinality to the definition of the real numbers. The initial enrolment of the course was around the 50 mark, but it slowly settled to about 35. This year, the cohort was particularly strong, and it was quite a challenge sometimes to have an answer to every question they threw at me. Next year, the course will contain more linear algebra and so some of the cool stuff will have to go; ah well!

Now that I am officially “research only” for another four years, will it mean that I’m really “research only”? The amount of admin that comes up on a daily basis is the main difference I see now than when I started my first research position in 2004. These days, we only have a couple of admin staff to help us, and usually when asking for help, a form is returned which increases the amount of work. For example, to organise a visit of a researcher to UWA, I would like to ask our admin staff for help over searching and booking accommodation. However, I have to fill out a “visitor form” before anything can be done. Then when the visitor arrives, there are more forms to fill out: one for a campus card, another to arrange reimbursement of expenses. But this is nothing compared to the forms that follow a postgraduate student around.

In one of my PhD students’ first year, she needed to:

  1. write a 16 page research proposal (that bounced back and had to be expanded)
    • this included filling out a coversheet
    • a list of tasks that must be completed by the end of first year
  2. fill out an overseas travel request form for the Graduate Research School
  3. write an application for a Graduate Research School Travel Award
  4. … then later fill out a Graduate Research School Travel Report
  5. fill out a travel approval form for the School of Mathematics and Statistics
  6. write an Annual Report including the following
  7. fill out a sickness leave form, including
    • an application for leave form (Graduate Research School)
    • submitting doctor’s certificate to the School of Mathematics and Statistics

All of these items needed to be signed by me and either the Postgraduate Coordinator in our school or the Head of School, and often both! If there were any ethics/intellectual property concerns then there would be more paperwork.

Perhaps we should have used the following form (thanks Gordon!) on each occasion:

ERA 2012 – what does it mean?

It seems that the results of the 2012 ERA research assessment exercise are about to be released, which is causing some people around the University more than a little nervous anticipation.

If you recall, this is an exercise where the fields of research within each Australian university are evaluated, essentially according to various  criteria involving total research output, the numbers of papers in prestigious journals and the numbers in low-ranked journals, all weighted in some opaque fashion. Nobody actually knows what the results will be used for, which accounts for a fair proportion of the nervousness.

So what will the results mean?

Unfortunately, I fear that our old friend, Goodhart’s Law, to which so much university evaluation falls prey has swung into operation so forcefully that the ERA 2012 results will be almost uninterpretable. The original ERA was simply intended to give the government and indeed the universities some measure of the quality of the research that they are funding and producing respectively. Research from each university was allocated to “discipline codes” (Pure Maths, Applied Maths, Stats etc) and each discipline evaluated accordingly. Of course, as soon as the results were released the media, aided and abetted by the universities, compile these into “league tables” allowing universities to brag about how many of their disciplines scored 5 or what proportion of their disciplines were above average or whatever statistic painted them in the best possible light.

And wherever there are “league tables”, manipulation and game-playing take over, and completely dominate whatever erstwhile valuable purpose motivated the collection of the data.

I’m slightly ashamed to recall that after ERA 2010, I was sufficiently pleased that Pure Maths at UWA scored a 5 (in fact, I blogged about it), that I let my normal (hopefully healthy) scepticism about any “ranking” temporarily subside.  However, my scepticism is now back in full, to the extent that I don’t think the ERA 2012 results will be at all meaningful — but I had to say this before the results were announced, because if I say it afterwards, then I would be accused of sour grapes in the event that Pure Maths no longer gets a 5 (which I don’t think it will.)

So, how can this seemingly-simple process of evaluating the research from each discipline be so easily gamed?

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Green, gold or diamond access

There is been much buzz about on the question of the open access model of publishing in academic literature, and in particular, there has been recent excitement in mathematics with the recent announcement of the Forum of Mathematics led by Terry Tao and Tim Gowers. This is touted as “potentially cheap” gold access (in that there is a period of no charge to get it started, with perhaps a lengthening of this period depending on external funding) and thought to many to be the least of all evils. However, with some imagination, perhaps we shouldn’t abandon the “diamond”-hued model?

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A depressing ritual

Suffered through the School’s Examiners Meeting yesterday, in what is becoming a rather depressing bi-annual ritual.

In this meeting, we all get together to look at the marks that are going to be sent to Faculty for ratification by the Faculty’s Board of Examiners. As is frequently the case, the Faculty’s contentious “scaling policy” played more of a role in the final marks for many units than any effort or achievement on the part of the class. For my second-year unit, the required scaling was so extreme that, while I have frequently been  uncomfortable in the past with this requirement, this year I feel for the first time that the practice has crossed the rubicon from “marking on the curve” to outright academic fraud.

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