Saturday, 31 July 2010

An academic's view of the cloud?

I was recently interviewed by Computer Weekly during the Beyond the Cloud conference organised by BT and Computer WeeklyThe interview is available online.

Sunday, 18 July 2010

Barcelona, Interdisciplinary Research and the REF

Blogging has been light - a combination of loads of work to do and then much needed leave to recover!

Right now I'm in Barcelona attending the WCCI 2010 conference where I'm presenting a rather nice algorithm for fuzzy-rough set reduct optimisation. I'll also be working on a journal paper with my collaborators.

What's this to do with information leadership? Well, first of all I like good science and I enjoy working with my co-authors from Aberystwyth University. I also like to get my geek on, once in a while...:-)

The other is more pragmatic. A large chunk of HEFCE income to UK universities (about 20% of a £7476m spend in 2008, see here), is allocated according to a periodic research evaluation process (the one coming up is called the Research Excellence Framework - REF). It also ends up acting as a (contested) measure of relative prestige and appears in some league tables.

Needless to say a >> £1Bn incentive will affect behaviour. Given that teaching is not funded (incentivised) by HEFCE on a 'quality' basis (in fact by student numbers and subject price group), some believe that teaching has suffered - the arguments are well-rehearsed in the HE management literature. The effect of the National Student Survey is at present on reputation (its also worth looking at recent press reports on student contact hours in some research intensive universities).

The problem for setting up a research programme to support information leaders is that something that doesn't neatly fit in a disciplinary silo can suffer. For example, the computer science panel naturally likes its logic, code and algorithms and possibly won't be cognizant of the (intellectual) challenges that information leaders and policy makers face. Other panels will have their own issues, no matter who much they try to be objective (and they do try).

Doubtless high quality mainstream work in business, law etc that the Centre for Information Leadership can stimulate will be recognised. But other core activity of the centre may not necessarily generate results (no matter how high the quality is) that there is a prestigious forum to publish in, or that any single REF panel will fully appreciate. This is a well-known problem for interdisciplinary research, especially those that attempt to look at something new and engage with professions, business and civil society. But such activity is IMHO necessary if universities are to re-energise their relationships with the outside world.

I expect the Centre for Information Leadership to be a game-changer on how universities work with the IT industry, but there's a natural annoyance that we are working in a system that actively incentivises the status quo. The rules of the REF game are fluid and subject to change as the details are argued over. But if you are happy to focus in a core discipline then the fora in which to get quality work recognised by any reasonable version of the REF rules are clear (i.e one knows what they need to do in this game, so a paper in Nature is always good!). Anything else, has to work harder and second guess. A case if one is needed as to how the state can construct unintended dysfunctional systems.

One thing we will do in the Centre for Information Leadership is to find a way of making the research that information leaders need get recognised and funded (its part of my mission - perhaps later blogposts?), but it is prudent to make sure I have good 'core-CS' publications portfolio for the time being. So I'll be publishing good papers on AI algorithms and attending conferences for a while yet.