Fćrsluflokkur: Vísindi og frćđi

...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.


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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 http://www.gpmls.hi.is/ 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.


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, see http://rannis.is/files/Markáćtlun%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, http://www.dg.dk/), 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 (http://www.dg.dk/strategidefault_eng.htm) 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 http://www.dg.dk/PDF-dokumenter/DG'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.

Fonden
    - 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
 projekter
    - 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
        forskerskoler

    - 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. 
 
 

CadiaPlayer Strikes Again

About a year ago, CADIAPlayer, developed by Yngvi Björnsson and his MSc student Hilmar Finsson within CADIA, our centre for AI research, won the General Game Playing (GPP) competition at AAAI 2007. (The aim of the GGP competitions is to help develop systems that can accept a formal description of an arbitrary game and, without further human interaction, can play the game effectively.)

I am happy to report that, in a repeat of last year's final, CadiaPlayer confirmed its world-champion status in GGP at AAAI 2008 in Chicago by defeating ClunePlayer from the University of California, Los Angeles. (ClunePlayer has now been runner-up for three years in a row, and was the world champion in 2005.)

This is great news for Icelandic Computer Science as a whole and, more specifically, for the School of Computer Science at Reykjavík University. Congrats to Yngvi, Hilmar and Gylfi.

Međ stíl

Frábćrt ađ sjá stóra frćđiráđstefnu haldna hérlendis. Ţćr hafa reyndar veriđ nokkrar á sviđi lćknis,  líffrćđi og jarđfrćđi (sem ég veit um) en fagna ber hverjum fundi af ţessari stćrđargráđu. Međan fólk flykkist til náms í viđskipta og lögfrćđi, eru ţađ grunnfög m.a. raunvísindi og verkfrćđi sem hafa mestan nýsköpunarmátt. Vissulega ţarf viđskiptalega hugsandi fólk til ađ selja ljósaperu, en ţađ ţarf raunvísindamanneskju til ađ finna hana upp.
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Sviđ í öndvegi

Viđ útskrift kandídata frá Háskóla Íslands var tilkynnt ađ háskólinn hygđist stefna á ađ skilgreina og byggja upp svokölluđ öndvegissviđ.

Hugmyndin er áţekk ţeirri sem Rannís er nú međ í framkvćmd og margt í útfćrslu einnig (sjá nánar á vefsíđu HÍ). 

Mikilvćgt er ađ átta sig á ţví ađ ekki er hćgt ađ vera bestur(góđur) í öllu.

Vandamáliđ verđur hins vegar ađ ákveđa, hvađa sviđ innan HÍ eru best á alţjóđavísu? Ákvörđunin veltur ekki eingöngu á umsóknum, heldur skiptir miklu máli hvađa sérfrćđingar lesa umsóknir og hvađa stjórnendur taka ákvörđun. Mikilvćgt er ađ láta ekki glepjast af tískuorđum áratugarins og skilgreina í stćrra samhengi hvađa frćđasviđ hafa veriđ hvađ virkust hérlendis, og horfa til vísindalegra sóknarfćra (hagnýtingarmöguleika má taka međ í reikninginn, en slíkt má aldrei trompa frćđilegu hliđina!).

Fólk hefur tilhneygingu til ađ sjá veröldina međ sínum augum eingöngu, og mun slíkt leiđa til ţess ađ afburđasviđin geti veriđ t.t.l. ţröng skilgreint. Ţađ er bćđi gott og slćmt, ţví ef ţađ ţýđir ađ okkar besta vísindafólk fćr stuđning ţá er ţađ frábćrt. Skilgreining sviđa er mikilvćg, en á endanum eru ţađ einstaklingar sem draga vagninn fram veginn.

 


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The Cost of Appointing Science Ministers Who Have No Clue About Science

 

I recently read this article on The Times On Line. For somebody like me who still feels for the future of British science despite having left Britain in 1994 (and officially in 1996), this article makes for depressing reading. What is even more depressing is that appointing science ministers who have no clue about the importance of science for a modern society is a rather widespread phenomenon.

In the article, Neil Turok is quoted as saying that: “It is ludicrous that Britain’s participation in some of the greatest scientific projects of today such as the search for dark matter, the hunt for the elementary particles like the Higgs Boson and the first detection of gravity waves, is subject to the whims of people with no special competence and little experience of these matters..... What it reflects is the failure of the political establishment to understand just how important science is for Britain’s future. Advanced research drives the quality of higher education, science and technology and generates invaluable spin-offs.” I am afraid that this true for many other countries too, alas. 

What can we do about it? We should definitely do the best we can to make more people interested in science and to make  the general public understand how important science is for our modern society. We should certainly stress the points raised by Turok. However, we should not forget to tell everyone how important the journey of discovery that is part and parcel of any scientific endeavour is. Doing science is a humbling experience and teaches us to be self-critical. As Socrates famously put it, a wise man is one who knows what he does not know. I wonder how many science ministers possess this type of wisdom Wink

For the record, Neil Turok is relocating to the Perimeter Institute in Canada, which he will direct from 1 October 2008. The Perimeter Institute is supported by Ł75m provided by Lazaridis (of Blackberry fame) and his colleagues, and Ł50m invested by the Canadian government and the state of Ontario. Turok gave one of the TED prize talks 2008.


Vindur í seglin

Ţađ er mjög jákvćtt ađ framúrskarandi vísindamenn snúi aftur til Íslands og sinni sínum rannsóknum. Vissulega verđum viđ ađ gćta ţess ađ gefa ţeim meira en fjađrir í hattinn. Eins og vitri mađurinn í hellinum sagđi einu sinni "Mađur prófar ekki tilgátur međ fjađrahatti einum saman."
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