Better late than never?

I found this story about recommendations for reducing the number of universities in Iceland interesting.  The recommendations from the Icelandic committee are here.  While I disagree with many of the points (in both reports) I basically agree with it being desirable to reduce the number of universities.  But I suspect that the obstacles to doing so are greater than they seem.  It is, for example, not clear to me that the standards employed by the different universities in hiring faculty are at all comparable.  So in effect, 'mergers' would result in our best universities becoming worse.  And these are potentially not one off costs because of the way hiring works in academia - bad departments tend to hire lower quality candidates.  One reason is that it is harder for weak departments to attract good candidates but also because bad departments are less able to tell which candidates are the best.  I'm sure my comments will be controversial (after all, it is worth the effort if only to bring this blog back to life) but it strikes me that actually thinking about how different universities (or departments) compare in terms of quality and how transparency can be increased is an important issue.  I consider competition between universities healthy but it only works if there are ways of telling what the score is.  At any rate, in my opinion simply closing down universities that shouldn't have been established in the first place rather than attempting `mergers' strikes me as a more reasonable strategy, which could be accompanied by increases in the budgets of the two survivors who could then compete for the faculty of the unfortunate universities. An added benefit of that approach is that the universites aren't forced to adopt whole departments whose talents/specialization may largely overlap existing faculty's specialization. Mćla međ tveggja háskóla kerfi
Tilkynna um óviđeigandi tengingu viđ frétt

Rannis frustrations pt. 1

I just finished reviewing some applications for student funding for Rannis.  Of course, as soon as I took on the task I was reminded why I had sworn not to do more reviews for Rannis: Reviews aren't anonymous.  Now, personally, I don't really care too much about potentially upsetting people but, then again, I'm a few thousand kilometers away and I feel fairly safe that I won't run into any of them anytime soon.  But in general I think this policy is little short of insane.  It is simply unreasonable to expect people to give their honest assessment of their colleagues (i.e., you are asked to assess the research activity/output of the advisor as well) when, at best, it may result in some awkward moments at work and, at worst, have real implications when it comes to promotions etc.  Of course, one would hope that everyone was able to rise above such things or chalk them down to academic differences but I think it is a very optimistic view to assume that is the case.


At any rate, for the second year in row, I made a note of this when turning in my reviews.  If you agree that this policy is idiotic (or just not that good) I encourage you to do the same.

Critical Notes on the Abuse of Bibliometric Data

I have recently been informed by Catuscia Palamidessi that the editorial board of the journal Mathematical Structures in Computer Science has put together a critical note on the (ab)use of bibliometric data, which will appear in the issue 19.1 of that journal. The note has been written by the editor in chief, Giuseppe Longo, and subscribed by all the members of the editorial board of that journal.

The note expresses the worries of the scientists in the board about


  • the way the evaluation of research activity is evolving in many countries,
  • the general trend to use criteria purely based on numbers and citation indexes in judging the quality of researchers and
  • the fact that the management of the data used in the numerical evaluations is entrusted to private agencies, whose methodologies and software might be rather dubious or cannot be subjected to scrutiny by the research community.
Did you know that

“The first journal according to ISI (...) is the 195th according to CiteSeer; the 2nd according to ISI does not appear in CiteSeer; the 6th for ISI is 958th for CiteSeer... Conversely, the 1st for CiteSeer (...) is 26th for ISI; the 4th for CiteSeer (...) is 122nd for ISI”
(See this document, in French.) I did not, and the fluctuation in the data is worrying, to say the least.

What is the situation regarding the use of citation indexes and impact factors in Iceland? Are we already abusing them?


Similar concerns have been raised by others. See, e.g., the talk "Bibliometric Evaluation of Computer Science - Problems and Pitfalls" by Friedemann Mattern (Institute for Pervasive Computing, Department of Computer Science, ETH Zurich).

There is also a very interesting joint report from three mathematical boards, which is definitely worth reading.

Finally, the "Sector Overview Report from the Computer Science and Informatics Sub-Panel (UoA 23)" after the British nationwide "Research Assessment Exercise 2008" (available at includes the following passage:

We frequently found that citation counts were poorly correlated with the sub-panel’s assessment of the impact of the work examined. Citations also varied widely between research areas. For instance, much of the highly significant theoretical research, in which the UK is world leading, typically attracts low citation counts. Despite these low citations, the work is often found to have profound long-term impact on practical aspects of the field.

(The emphasis is mine and is not present in the original text.)

I hope that some of you will find these contributions interesting. I thank Catuscia Palamidessi and Vladimiro Sassone for pointing them out to me. Feel free to distribute this post as widely as you see fit.

...falliđ verđur frá framlögum í rannsókna- og tćkjasjóđi...

Kćru vísindamenn.

Ef ţetta gengur eftir getum viđ pakkađ saman og flutt til útlanda eđa fariđ ađ ţvo tyggjó af götum bćjarins í sjálfbođaliđastarfi (af nćgu er ađ taka ţar!).

Atvinnustefna á Íslandi gengur nefnilega út á malbik, steypu og möl.

Höfum viđ ekki lćrt nokkurn skapađan hlut af bankahruninu, steypumusterin eru tálsýn.

Finnum leiđir til ađ beina kröftum ţeirra sem missa vinnuna í frumkvöđlastarf, í sprotafyrirtćkjum eđa í samstarfi viđ rannsóknastofnanir og háskóla. Kostnađurinn yrđi ađallega í formi launa, en ekki í rekstri stórvirkra vinnuvéla, bora og kostnađi viđ stál og steinsteypu. Tekjuskattur og útsvar hćkka
Tilkynna um óviđeigandi tengingu viđ frétt

...falliđ verđur frá framlögum í rannsókna- og tćkjasjóđi...

Kćru vísindamenn.

Ef ţetta gengur eftir getum viđ pakkađ saman og flutt til útlanda eđa fariđ ađ ţvo tyggjó af götum bćjarins í sjálfbođaliđastarfi (af nćgu er ađ taka ţar!).

Atvinnustefna á Íslandi gengur nefnilega út á malbik, steypu og möl.

Höfum viđ ekki lćrt nokkurn skapađan hlut af bankahruninu, steypumusterin eru tálsýn.

Finnum leiđir til ađ beina kröftum ţeirra sem missa vinnuna í frumkvöđlastarf, í sprotafyrirtćkjum eđa í samstarfi viđ rannsóknastofnanir og háskóla. Kostnađurinn yrđi ađallega í formi launa, en ekki í rekstri stórvirkra vinnuvéla, bora og kostnađi viđ stál og steinsteypu.


Leiđin út

Ţađ er alltaf ánćgjulegt ađ sjá ungt íslenskt vísindafólk standa sig vel. Páll Ţórđarson lauk prófi frá HÍ en hefur síđan numiđ ytra og nú starfađ ytra. Fólk sem leggur stund á raunvísindi viđ HÍ hafa lönguđ stađiđ sig vel í framhaldsnámi ytra, komist í góđar stöđur og lagt mikiđ af mörkunum í ţekkingarleit okkar. Viđ leggjum áherslu á ţađ viđ nemendur okkar í líffrćđi, ađ góđar einkunnir séu ađgöngumiđi ađ útlöndum og öđru lífi. Ţađ á sérstaklega vel viđ í núverandi efnahagsţreningum.

Ţađ er góđur kostur ađ leggja meiri áherslu á grundvallar vísindi í menntun ţjóđarinnar, sem skila sér í talnalćsi, sköpunarkrafti, gagnrýni og sjálfstćđri hugusun. Íslenskur efnafrćđingur hlýtur hvatningarverđlaun
Tilkynna um óviđeigandi tengingu viđ frétt

Support for Basic Research from Private Foundations

I recently learnt about the existence of a new centre of excellence in Denmark devoted to topics close to me research area. Anna and I know basically all the consortium members very well. These people have been collecting centre-of-excellence funding from Danish governmental funding bodies before and on a regular basis. A very interesting aspect of this CoE is that this time around the 25 million DKK (roughly 458 million ISK at today's exchange rate) are being provided by a private foundation, The Villum Kann Rasmussen Foundation. (See also this page to find out what other things they fund.)

Wouldn't it be good to have a similar foundation in Iceland supported by a consortium of Icelanders who made it big and want to support the scientific development of their country? This is daydreaming, I know....

Graduate program in molecular life sciences

Yesterday we saw a new program established at the University of Iceland. Scientists working on biological, biochemical and medical research have joined forces, as a grassroot organization, to found a new program aimed at recruiting and training graduate students, foster collaborations, and enrich the academic environment as a whole.

The program is outlined on the website and is summarized as:

"The international Graduate Program in Molecular Life Sciences, GPMLS, is a joint effort of biomedical research groups in the different faculties and research organisations of the University of Iceland to create a dynamic interdisciplinary education program in molecular life sciences. The main objective of the Graduate Program in Molecular Life Sciences is to advance education and research in this field. The program enhances cooperation of scientists and students in the field of molecular life sciences. "

Currently the main obstacle to the success of the program is funding. Though the University of Iceland has celebrated the program, and supported its initial phase with 1 million kr, no further funds have been provided by that source. Which does not reflect well on the stated objectives of the University of Iceland to boost basic research.

Rannis - Research Fund announcement

I just criticized Rannis in the comments of the previous post but Rannis should be given credit when it does things correctly.  The announcement for applications to the Icelandic Research Funds contains this paragraph:

"Allar umsóknir og umsóknagögn skulu vera á ensku, svo ađ mögulegt sé ađ senda umsóknir í mat erlendis. Undanţágur eru veittar frá ţessari meginreglu ef birtingar á viđkomandi frćđasviđi einskorđast viđ íslenska útgáfu. Í ţeim tilvikum skal umsćkjandi fá leiđbeiningar hjá starfsmönnum Rannís. Allar umsóknir um öndvegisstyrki skulu vera á ensku, enda eru öndvegisverkefni ávallt metin af erlendum sérfrćđingum."

To the best my knowledge this is the first time applications must be submitted in English and the first suggestion that Rannis is moving towards having foreign scholars review applications.  I think this is a tremendously important step.  Iceland has a small research community, which meant that applications were more often than not reviewed by non-specialists in the applicant's subfield.   Then there was, of course, the problem of everyone knowing the other two people that might review their application - meaning that the anonymity of the referee was pretty much guaranteed not to exist.  Great news!

Markáćtlun 2009–2015

As most readers of this blog know already, the 10 proposals that will get to submit full applications for the Markáćtlun 2009–2015 (centres of excellence and research clusters) were selected on June 24, seeáćtlun%20fréttatiltkynning%201juli08%202utg_879420156.pdf for the list. 

Let me start by congratulating the colleagues who won the first round of the lottery, some of whom are within my own school and whose research standing definitely deserves the funding that the establishment of a centre of excellence might give them. 

When the decision was made, I was busy with some summer-term teaching and helping put the finishing touches to the organization of ICALP 2008 and its 12 satellite events. I was therefore unable to comment on the decision on this blog. (This was probably for the best since I was not overly happy at that time Devil.) I was also quite sure that others would post comments on the selection on this blog as well as on others. It now seems that I was wrong; so, even if this is by now a "cold case" (to paraphrase the title of a TV series), it might be worthwhile for me to pen down a couple of considerations as "community service".

Let me start by saying that it would be useful to compare what went on here in Iceland with the structures and methods for the establishment of centres of excellence elsewhere in the Nordic countries. To my mind, an outstanding example of best practice is given by the Danish National Research Foundation (DNRF,, which has been active in supporting centres of excellence since 1991 and has recently started high-profile visiting professor programmes. (I may be wrong, but I believe that this is the oldest such institution in the Nordic countries.) Anna Ingólfsdóttir and I were lucky to be members of one DNRF centre, which was funded from 1994 till 2006 and turned Denmark into a hotbed for research and doctoral education in theoretical computer science.

The short strategy statement for DNRF ( describes in a nutshell what a foundation promoting centres of excellence should focus on:

Denmark needs excellent researchers and research leaders who can inspire the Danish research environments with regards to succeeding in the international research community. The Foundation's Centre Leaders belong to the vanguard within their respective fields and have the necessary international clout to play this part. 

The Foundation supports the elite within Danish research. The strategy of the Foundation is to invest in long-term research endeavours, mainly Centres of Excellence that run for 5-10 year periods.

The Foundation has employed this strategy since the beginning of the 1990's and it has been very successful: The Centres of Excellence have given Danish research an invaluable boost and the Foundation Centre of Excellence model is emulated many places – not least by the European Research Council, ERC.

In its work at lifting Danish research, the Board focuses on a variety of intermediate aims, among others to find and promote outstanding young researchers, and to further the internationalisation of the Danish research environments.

The complete strategy document (in Danish) has more detail and is available at's%20strategi.pdf for those who want to peruse it.  

Here is an excerpt that highlights what they do right (at least IMHO), and what might have been overlooked here (the emphasis is mine):
Fondens formĺl er, jf. lovgrundlaget, at styrke Danmarks forskningsmćssige udviklingsevne ved at finansiere enestĺende grundforskning pĺ internationalt niveau.

    - střtter eliten i dansk grundforskning med langsigtede satsninger ved dannelse af centres of excellence
    - opfanger vćkstlagene i dansk forskning med vćgt pĺ ambitiřse og grćnseoverskridende
    - střtter forskningsprogrammer med multidisciplinćr tilgang til lřsning af komplekse problemer
    - fremmer internationalisering af danske forskningsmiljřer
    - skaber grupperinger af hřj international kvalitet, der kan tjene som grundlag for internationale

    - gřr grundforskning synlig og anerkendt

Fonden har for de kommende ĺr valgt at vćgte fřlgende dimensioner i sit arbejde:
    a) Fokus pĺ grundforskning med hřjt ambitionsniveau og risikovillighed, bl.a. som grundlag for
        stćrke forskeruddannelser
    b) Internationalisering af danske forskningsmiljřer
    c) Internationalt samarbejde baseret pĺ bilaterale aftaler med stćrke forskningsnationer
    d) Intensiveret samspil med andre nationale offentlige rĺd, institutioner, fonde eller virksomheder
    e) Kvalitetssikring i bedřmmelsesprocessen
    f) Synliggřrelse og formidling


Ad e) Kvalitetssikring i bedřmmelsesprocessen

Fondens kvalitetskrav er primćrt defineret ud fra kvalitetskriterier som problemvalg, metode og ansřger(e)s meritter (cv og publikationsliste). Sekundćre kriterier inddrages, nĺr den videnskabelige kvalitet er bedřmt. Sĺdanne kriterier er organisatoriske og ledelsesmćssige aspekter, miljřskabende dimensioner samt řkonomiske, formidlings- og uddannelsesmćssige aspekter foruden bredere samfundsmćssig relevans.

Det er fondens opfattelse, at videnskabelig excellence mĺlt med international mĺlestok fortsat vil vćre grundlćggende for sikring af god og trovćrdig ny vidensproduktion. .......

Fonden anvender i udstrakt grad internationalt peer review ved evaluering af ansřgninger. Peer review har sine svagheder – men er fortsat den mindst dĺrlige metode. Fonden vil i de kommende ĺr aktivt fřlge og deltage i den internationale debat om, hvordan peer reviews kan styrkes.

As the above text makes clear, the selection criteria are scientific, rely on peer-review and measure the quality of the applications/applicants by using the standards of the international scientific community. Internationalization of the local research environment is also an important keyword. This is what Rannis is doing when handing out research grants, and I sincerely hope that this is what was done and will be done for the substantially larger amounts of funding that will be handed out to centres of excellence. I believe that anything else ought to be considered simply unacceptable by society at large. 
I wish good luck to the colleagues who are busy preparing the full applications for centres of excellence that they will have to deliver in two months' time. To those who are wondering what level of scientific activity they will have to exhibit in order to justify the funding they might receive, let me point out the third annual report of ICE-TCS. Our centre has no specific centre-building funding, but it operates at a standard that I am sure the new richly-funded centres of excellence will want to emulate. (Several ICALP 2008 participants asked us what we will do when the funding for ICE-TCS runs out. They were taken aback by our answer to the effect that we operate without funding Smile.)
I wish the new centres the best of luck, and I am looking forward to seeing the scientific results of Iceland's investment in them. 

« Fyrri síđa | Nćsta síđa »


Ath. Vinsamlegast kveikiđ á Javascript til ađ hefja innskráningu.

Hafđu samband