Getting it all down to a science

 

LUKE DRURY:Director, School of Cosmic Physics, DIAS; president, Royal Irish Academy

HOLY THURSDAY

A beautiful sunny day and, thankfully, a bit milder; a very pleasant walk from Grand Canal Dock Dart station and the impressive new Google building to Burlington Road. My life is a bit complicated, because I have to juggle two jobs. My principal job is as a theoretical astrophysicist and director of the School of Cosmic Physics at the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies (DIAS), but I have also been elected as president of the Royal Irish Academy for 2011-2013. The presidency, like all the officer positions in the academy, is purely honorary, but it is very rewarding in other ways. I find it a real pleasure to have a chance to contribute to such a broad range of projects and disciplines.

Had a short meeting with the registrar of the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, then crossed the canal to my office on Fitzwilliam Place. Discussed a joint computational project on magnetic-field amplification in shock waves with Dr Turlough Downes (DCU and DIAS) which is looking very promising. Much of our work in astrophysics today relies on large-scale numerical simulations, and we are fortunate to have, in the Irish Centre for High-End Computing (ICHEC, which DIAS helped to establish), a world-class facility to support this work as well as a broad range of other scientific disciplines. It is now an essential part of the national research infrastructure. Reviewed the first draft of DIAS’s next revision of its strategy statement and sent off my comments to my fellow directors and the registrar. In the afternoon went with the registrar to a meeting in DCU to discuss increased collaboration with the local third-level sector and then called into the academy to sign a few letters.

GOOD FRIDAY

I have set aside time over the long weekend to review a series of proposals for the European Research Council. I sit on one of the assessment panels, and we have each been given a set of proposals to review in depth and comment on. The European Research Council is a relatively new creation and is refreshingly original and straightforward in its approach. It funds outstanding research ideas from anyone in any academic discipline (including the humanities and social sciences), as long as the work is carried out within the European Union. The idea is to attract the most gifted and original researchers and support them to work in European institutions of their choice, thereby increasing the stock of human capital and skills in the European Research Area. This is in marked contrast to our own national research funding, which is now effectively restricted to the narrow areas defined in the recent research-prioritisation exercise, and where the economic impact of the proposed research is given great (and most would say undue) weight. Of course, the State has a perfect right to prioritise areas that it thinks are important, but it is vital to keep some funding available for really innovative and interesting ideas across all disciplines if the research landscape is not to become like those depressing monoculture forestry plantations.

In the evening went to the Carmichael centre charity concert at St Patrick’s Cathedral – a fine performance by the Goethe Institute choir in a great setting with surprisingly good acoustics. Two of my colleagues from the academy sing in the choir, and the concert began with an interesting piece that one of them composed in his student days. But the highlight was the performance of the Mozart requiem. Nice to see the cathedral packed, even if it did mean that parking was a nightmare.

HOLY SATURDAY

Reviewed more proposals. The standard is extremely high, as it should be, and this does not make it any easier. The final stage will consist of oral presentations and interviews at the end of the month in Brussels. It is good that we get to question the proposers in person, even if it means a very tiring week’s work, because, just as in evaluating PhD theses, there is no substitute for a viva-voce examination to assess a candidate.

It is sad to think that these excellent proposals would stand little or no chance in our current national funding system. Until last year Science Foundation Ireland ran the Research Frontiers programme, which at least offered some funding for good ideas in any area of science; whether any of this will survive is doubtful. How can we starve major and important academic disciplines, for example pure mathematics or geology, of local research support and at the same time aspire to have world-class universities where the teaching in all subjects is informed by active research? And how can we expect to do world-class applied research without a solid and broad foundation of basic research?

EASTER SUNDAY

My daughter and her boyfriend are visiting from London for Easter, and my wife has invited her brother’s family over for dinner, so quite a lot of preparation in the kitchen. I enjoy cooking, but a large festive meal is always a bit nerve-racking. In the end all goes well apart from a minor panic when we realise that we do not have enough vegetables. Fortunately we found one shop that was open. Judging by the business it was doing, we were not the only ones to run short.

EASTER MONDAY

Finished inputting all my marks and comments to the online ERC review system and signed off one day before the deadline. Spent part of the evening reconfiguring my home Wi-Fi computer network in a way that should have improved performance but in the end didn’t seem to make a great deal of difference.

TUESDAY

A relatively quiet day in my DIAS office.Cleared out a lot of old paperwork and spring-cleaned my desk. Exchanged emails and a phone call with the science secretary of the academy and chair of the science education working group, who is concerned about the possible impact of the proposed reduction in the number of subjects that can be taken in the Junior Certificate on the number of students taking science. The academy’s modern-language committee similarly expressed concerns last year about the poor uptake of modern languages at all levels of the educational system. Drawing attention to these high-level educational issues is something that the academy, covering as it does all areas of the sciences, arts and humanities on an independent, all-island basis, is well – and perhaps uniquely – positioned to do.

Downloaded and started to read a very interesting paper by two people I used to work with in Germany but have not seen for many years. In my field all publication is now electronic, and we have largely abandoned the physical library; anything of significance gets posted on the ArXiV preprint service, and we all use Nasa’s Astrophysical Data System as our virtual library. (It offers far better searching facilities than any physical library ever could.) Other fields are not quite there yet, but we are close to a tipping point in academic publishing.

WEDNESDAY

Called into the academy to check my post and to sit in on a meeting between one of our major research projects, the Digital Repository of Ireland (funded by the HEA under the fifth cycle of the Programme for Research in Third-Level Institutions), together with our publications department, and a representative from Apple to discuss putting some of our digital content up on iTunes U. The academy is one of the leading players in Ireland in the exciting field of digital humanities, essentially doing what we have always done in conserving, studying and disseminating knowledge of Ireland’s history and culture, but using modern computer technology to do so. A good example is the hyperstack of St Patrick’s Confessio, confessio.ie, where anyone with web access can study all the surviving manuscript copies of the confessio, together with the complete critical apparatus, modern translations and accompanying essays. This was funded by the HEA as part of the Digital Humanities Observatory project.

Another interesting digital-humanities project, which the School of Celtic Studies at DIAS is leading in partnership with the academy, is Irish Script on Screen, isos.dias.ie. This makes available high-quality scanned images of priceless early Irish manuscripts, many from the academy’s collection (the largest in the world). The enormous advantage is that these can now be studied by any scholar anywhere without the necessity of travelling to Dublin and without subjecting the irreplaceable original to the inevitable wear and tear of physical reading.

Took one of the excellent Dublinbikes and cycled to Fitzwilliam Place. Discussed plans for thesis submission with one of our students. DIAS is not a teaching institution and does not grant degrees, but we do train students in advanced research. Normally such students register in one of the Irish universities, although we have also had students registered in foreign universities. We have an extensive network of research collaborations with partners in Ireland and overseas which facilitates such arrangements.

Walked across to our administrative headquarters, on Burlington Road, for a meeting with Graham Love of SFI and the registrar to discuss our public outreach activities and in particular plans for increased use of Dunsink Observatory (which is run by the School of Cosmic Physics).

This week I was . . .

READING

The Man Who Smiled by Henning Mankell, the fourth in the series with Inspector Wallander, played on television by Kenneth Branagh.

WATCHING

I do not watch much TV, apart from the news.

LISTENING

Mainly to Baroque Around the Clock, a Dutch internet radio station that does exactly what it says on the tin: plays baroque music 24/7.