Friday, May 29, 2009

The decline in scientific responsibility - Impact Factor

I have mentioned in another blog the decline in responsibility taken by scientists today, which is encouraged by the introduction of numerical valuation of scientific research.

One hopes, perhaps naively, that such valuation methods as impact factor, are not being used as a weapon in the struggle for funds and prestige by one scientific subject against another. It is perhaps by chance that fields which insist on the importance of "objective" comparisons (like the impact factor) are also those in which the average impact factor of journals is particularly high.

Here is a very interesting article (in Italian) by Alessandro Figà-Talamanca about the use of impact factor in judging scientific production.

I  would like to illustrate the problem with some examples.


Monday, May 25, 2009

Life in Italy 4: Parochialism

Italy is still very much based on independent small towns. There are 8101 comunes with the largest being Rome with 2.7 million inhabitants, and the smallest perhaps being Morterone with 33 inhabitants (and, I heard recently, more candidates for the council elections than residents). Between neighbouring towns there are often longstanding hositilities.

Recently I got involved in such a dispute. Our university (University of Insubria) was born as a "bipolar" university with two seats, one at Varese and the other at Como. It takes an hour by car to travel from one to the other. The university has two science faculties, including two separate courses of Computer Science. This is not completely irrational because, for example, students from Como who would like to do Computer Science would rather go to Milan than Varese if the course did not exist in Como.

Recently because of the reforms being made in the university system the faculty of Science at Como produced scenarios (in the January 2009 minutes of the faculty)  proposing the closure of the Computer Science course (and also Beni Culturali) in Como. As a result 8 computer scientists from Como asked to transfer to the course in Varese.

There is something I need to explain: the Varese Science faculty has three times the number of students as the Science faculty of Como, while having the same number of staff (approximately 80 each). So the transfer of staff to Varese seems quite reasonable.

However an anonymous letter was sent to the local Como press, a letter containing many false statements, but in any case implying that the Como pole was being badly done by. This became a political cause for Como: it was presented that the requests for transferral preceded, and were the cause of, the closure of Computer Science at Como, instead of the consequence. As a result of this campaign we were denied the possibility to transfer. This will probably result in the closure of one of the courses in Computer Science also at Varese.

Who knows what will happen next! As I have explained in an earlier post (Escamotage) the reforms necessitate the closure of many courses. La Sapienza university in Rome has closed 46 courses. There are currently 11 courses in Como Science, which must be reduced to 8. The faculty's choice of courses to close is strange. Computer Science and Beni Culturali are the courses with the largest student enrolments, and closing them will reduce the student intake by 40% in a faculty which already has few students.


Thursday, May 14, 2009

The pyramid scheme for doing scientific research

Consider the following example (not precisely a real example, but close):

A University Department (not in Italy) has 20 tenured staff, 100 research staff (untenured) and 100 graduate students.
Suppose on average a tenured staff member remains in place for 30 years, and a graduate student takes 3 years to complete the degree.

Question: What proportion of students may hope to become tenured staff?

Answer: In 30 years 1000 students graduate, and 20 staff retire. So 1 in 50 students may hope to become tenured staff.

Do students do this calculation (admittedly rough) before commencing their graduate studies?

Do the tenured staff advise clearly students before they commence graduate studies?

Of course in some fields there is a need outside accademia for the skills and knowledge gained in completing a doctorate. But in the unnamed field of my example, though doctorates find work after their degree it almost invariably is quite unrelated to their doctoral studies. There is of course no objection to students doing a doctorate just for interest, while realizing that they must find occupation in a quite unrelated area.

How is it possible that 20 staff can manage so many students? That is what the 100 untenured staff are for. It is a pyramid scheme based on the naivity of students. Of course the untenured staff press the governments for more tenured positions but this annual growth rate is clearly unsustainable (a growth rate of at least 14% per annum at the most favouable interpretation).

I must admit myself to having supervised 8 doctoral students, well in excess of my quota, though in a period in which there was expansion of computer science jobs. Three have found permanent positions in academia and a fourth had the possibility - by choice only two of these are actually in academia now. Three found work in financial institutions, doing work which has nothing to do with their theses.

Exponential growth, with high growth rates, is clearly fundamental in situations like i) the initial growth of an organism or ii) the initial development of a new important, requested area iii) spring. But in the situation described above it is dangerous and dishonest. After spring there is winter, and then another spring.

I just noticed the following related cartoon.


Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Life in Italy 3: The situation is dramatic but not serious

 This is a famous quotaion by Ennio Flaiano, which seems to encapsulate many aspects of Italian life.


Life in Italy 2: Escamotage

I learnt a new Italian word this week escamotage. Of course it is not Italian but is used here for a precise purpose.

The setting is the following. In order once more to reform the universities, the minister has introduced a law, the duesettanta (270), which increases the number of staff needed to support a degree course. Previously a three year degree required 9 staff, now 12. Previously a further two years advanced course required 6 staff, now 8. The faculty of Science in Como had 6 three year courses and 5 two year course which were covered by the 84 staff.

However suddenly now the faculty needs 112 staff.

Naturally there are further complications. We are a bipolar university, with a two science faculties, one in Como (us) and one in Varese. To have a single combined three year course at Como and Varese requires 21 not 24 staff.

In any case we clearly have desparate problems to satisfy the 270. Enter the word escamotage. It sounded to me like it meant an subterfuge, which is clearly evil. However what it seems to mean is "doing something that is not illegal, but gets around the intention of the law", which is something positive.

Actually our faculty has not spoken of escamotage, but it has been discussed in the Como press. The escamotage consists in giving a course which is not a course but a "curriculum".

The current proposal of the science faculty in Como for Computer Science is to devote 6 staff from Como and 6 from Varese to a joint 3 year course thus "saving" 9 staff (one might say "depriving" the students of 9 staff).

Disclaimer: I have only been in Italy 10 years; it is very possible I have misunderstood what is happening.


Life in Italy

I am beginning a new series of posts about life in Italy which would not be perhaps appropriate on the department web site, even if many may refer to University matters.

The first one: Assisi

We just spent the weekend in Assisi (at a conference of Computer Professionals). Assisi is an astonishingly beautiful city. I used to travel the world when I lived in Australia, but now I feel Italy is enough.

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