Bloggfćrslur mánađarins, febrúar 2008

Iceland Should Fund Centres of Excellence

In a previous post, I promised to elaborate on one of my favourite hobby horses, namely differentiation in the type of funding that is presently available here in Iceland. I have already discussed the Canada Research Chairs programme, and argued that Iceland could do with a similar measure for strategic brain gain. This post is devoted to the funding of centres of excellence, and the importance that these centres have for research in other countries.

So far, Icelandic research funding is essentially based on one measure: the funding of research projects of tiny to medium size. (The so-called excellence grants do not really provide enough money to finance a largish project.) There is, however, no funding I am aware of that allows a sustained research effort to build international visibility in a whole area of research over a 5-10 year time frame.  I am talking about funding a group of researchers who have an excellent track record in research, who work in related areas, and who joined forces to create a critical mass of research activity that is likely to attract international attention, outstanding PhD students and postdoctoral researchers, and top-class visitors from abroad. In other countries, this type of research effort is usually supported via the establishment of centres of excellence.

Rather than discussing this funding measure in the abstract, let me present a concrete example of a funding agency whose mission is to select and fund centres of excellence, namely the Danish National Research Foundation (DNRF). DNRF makes large-scale investment in basic research by establishing and funding centres of excellence. This programme started in 1991 and has committed itself to support Danish research by investing 3.8 billion DKK in the funding of such centres.  Each centre of excellence is funded for a period of 5-10 years at a rate of about 6 million DKK per year.

As you can easily imagine, the availablity of this type of funding makes it possible to create an outstanding environment for research. I was lucky enough to work in Aalborg at the heyday of BRICS, and I can tell you that it was highly enjoyable to be in an environment where one could hire postdocs and PhD students, fund long- or short-term visitors, organize thematic workshops and be able to support the speakers, and basically to be able to do whatever one's research called for without having to worry about every penny one spent---within reasonable limits of course Smile

I understand that the OECD suggested that Iceland establish centres of excellence. So, why is this not done?  Wouldn't it be appropriate to add this item high on our "to lobby for" agenda? What do you say?


The Importance of Being Mobile

A comment on a blog post reads:

....the musical chairs that us academics play in our careers serves to disseminate our knowledge.
I agree that mobility is important in the career of most academics. Indeed, most of us have studied and worked at several institutions.

I was reminded of this comment yesterday, when I was asked to fill in a EU questionnaire on the mobility of researchers. One of the multiple-choice questions on the form read: "How often should a researcher move at different stages in her/his career?" (I was asked to answer this question since I claimed that mobility is important in the career of a researcher.) For instance, how often should one move over a four-year period at the early stages of one's career? I assumed that this question was referring to the first four years after one's PhD, and my answer off the top of my head was 1-2 times. (What I really meant was twice, but I thought 3-5 times was too much; the rationale being that one should be mobile at that crucial time in one's career, but that being overly mobile might cause too much overhead---especially if this involves changing countries. Later I looked back at my movements in the period 1991-1994 and realized that I actually moved 5 times myself.)

What is your opinion? Is mobility important at all stages of one's career? And how often should a researcher be mobile during the first four years of one's career?

Advice for (Prospective) Graduate Students

A topic that is being increasingly covered in TCS blogs is that of giving advice to (prospective) graduate students and beginning researchers. (See, for instance, here, here or here.) This is a welcome development, and a very good way of using the medium for the benefit of an important component of our research community. (After all, young researchers are the future of research, aren't they?) In fact, I have no problem in admitting that I enjoy reading those blog posts or anything similar myself. I feel that I am still learning on the job every day, and that those pieces of advice remind me of things that I should keep in mind, but that I tend (consciously or unconsciously) to "forget". After all,

Advice is what we ask for when we already know the answer but wish we didn’t. (Erica Jong)

The latest few words of advice on research for graduate students I read have been penned down by Fan Chung. She addresses mostly combinatorialists, but what she says applies equally well to (theoretical computer) scientists at large. I like the fact that she stresses the collaborative nature of the research enterprise, and that she embraces one of my favourite hobby horses, viz. the Hardy-Littlewood rule: authors are alphabetically ordered and everyone gets an equal share of credit. She adds:

The one who has worked the most has learned the most and is therefore in the best position to write more papers on the topic.

(I had never thought in these terms myself, but yes that's true.) She also writes:

If you have any bad feeling about sharing the work or the credit, don't collaborate. In mathematics, it is quite okay to do your research independently. (Unlike other areas, you are not obliged to include the person who fund your research.) If the collaboration already has started, the Hardy-Littlewood rule says that it stays a joint work even if the contribution is not of the same proportion. You have a choice of not to collaborate the next time. (If you have many ideas, one paper doesn't matter. If you don't have many ideas, then it really doesn't matter.) You might miss the opportunity for collaboration which can enhance your research and enrich your life. Such opportunity is actually not so easy to cultivate but worth all the efforts involved.

I could not agree more. I will add Fan Chung's advice to the list of links I suggest to all my students and colleagues. Maybe you'd like to do so too.


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