Papers I find interesting---mostly, but not solely, in Process Algebra---, and some fun stuff in Mathematics and Computer Science at large and on general issues related to research, teaching and academic life.
Disclaimer: This post might contain imprecisions about the ASN, since I have never worked at an Italian university myself and I have never applied for the Italian ASN. I welcome corrections from whoever reads this post and has experience with this Italian evaluation exercise.Let me state at the outset that what I write pertains to fields such as computer science and mathematics. I do not know what is done in the humanities.
An Italian law dated 30 December 2010 specifies a procedure for academic hirings in Italy at the level of associate and full professor. According to that law, recruiting for those positions should be "based on scientific qualification
criteria. A national commission evaluates and assesses the candidates
scientific qualification." See this outdated web site, which should be compared with the one in Italian. Only candidates that have obtained the so-called Abilitazione Scientifica Nazionale (ASN, National Scientific Qualification) can then apply for a professor position at an Italian university, if and when such positions are advertised.
One can wonder why Italy uses this two-step system for academic hirings, whose need is not felt in any of the countries where I have worked so far. I guess that the first step is meant to filter out potential candidates who do not meet minimum requirements for being a professor at any of the 63 public universities in Italy.
According to the regulations a "national commission evaluates and assesses the candidates
scientific qualification." In fact, there is one national commission for each of the many scientific areas considered in Italy. Many of these commissions have to examine hundreds of applications, and their members play the role of gatekeepers and paladins of quality in the Italian university system. I can only imagine how much work is needed to do a thoughtful job in one of those committees and how easy it is to make enemies regardless of how considerate one is in justifying one's opinions. The evaluation is partly based on bibliometric criteria, which are known beforehand, should simplify the work of the commissions and should give a look of objectivity to their decisions. However, as far as I know, the commissions can also base their decisions on a qualitative analysis of the applicants.
Given the crucial role played by the members of the evaluation committees, one would expect that their members are chosen by taking the candidates' scientific profile and experience carefully into account. As it turns out, however, the qualifications of candidates for the committee are evaluated using only the following three bibliometric criteria:
Number of publications in the period 2006-2016 (threshold 9);
Total number of citations in the period 2001-2015 (threshold 80);
H-index in the last 15 years (threshold 5).
In order to be eligible, one has to meet the thresholds in at least two of the above criteria. This might even seem reasonable. Note, however, that only publications indexed in Web of Science or Scopus count. In particular, journal papers published in outlets that are not indexed by Web of Science/Scopus are not taken into consideration (regardless of their content and impact) and conference papers don't count at all. Books and monographs don't count either, regardless of how influential they might be. Web of Science/Scopus are also used for calculating citations and the h-index. Again, this provides a smaller coverage than the one offered by Google Scholar, say.
By way of example, recently Giovanni Sambin, one of the most famous, currently active Italian logicians and an expert academic one would trust to lead a national evaluation committee for Mathematical Logic, was considered to be ineligible as an evaluator because he met only one of the above-mentioned criteria. His Google Scholar profile is here.
This kind of decisions makes me wonder whether there is an overemphasis on bibliometric evaluations in Italian academia. If experience over a long and distinguished academic career plays second fiddle to fairly arbitrary thresholds calculated using only Web of Science and Scopus, I wonder how reliable the decisions of the evaluation committees will be considered by Italian academics. Most importantly, having so many people spend a lot of time seeking the holy grail of the national qualification and small committees devote endless hours examining their qualifications looks like a huge waste of energy and resources. I cannot help but think that that energy and time would be best used for research, teaching and all the other tasks that make up our work.
Some time ago I stumbled across the video of the panel discussion "IST
Austria: On the Way to the Top: What Makes a Research Institution
Excellent?". (There is also a much shorter, 11-minute version of the video here.) I watched the discussion with great interest, and found it inspirational and thought-provoking.
Here is my quarter-baked summary of some of the contributions, with apologies for not covering the whole discussion, possibly biased reporting and for any error I might have made.
Patrick Aebischer stated that Europe lacks super-brands such as Berkeley, CalTech, CMU, Harvard, MIT
and Stanford. One needs elite universities to
attract talents. The US attracts the best graduate students, the best
young researchers with their tenure-track system and also people in high-ranking management positions. He also mentioned that to foster excellence, it is useful to have some competition between public and
private universities. He said that integration
of research and education is key to achieve excellence, as are attracting and keeping the best faculty, and giving early independence to young individuals.
In order to achieve excellence, funding must be significant. A flexible organizational structure is needed to be able to compete at the highest level.
In this era, one can rise fast, but one can also fall faster than before.
Gruss started by asking a fundamental question: what makes creative research
possible? In his words, it is amazing how easy the answer is and how difficult it is
to achieve it: "Hire the most brilliant minds and give them everything
they need to stay brilliant." That's it.
He referred to the work of the historian Rogers
Hollingsworth who isolated the following ingredients for excellence in research institutions:
in research and leadership. On this point, Gruss said that is critical that one hires top people
because top people hire people who are better than themselves. To get
them, one has to do head hunting plus advertising. One should strike a good
balance between tenured and non-tenured people to maintain flexibility.
Small research settings.
Small group size, but large context.
Multidisciplinary contacts. One has to install interfaces between different disciplines. (Examples: Have only one coffee room.)
as early as possible. Give young people stability for a certain period
of time to allow them to unfold their creativity. Coaching and mentoring of young
researchers must be provided.
Core institutional and flexible funds. There should be a balance
between high-trust and low-trust funding. When handing out high trust funding, an agency must trust the funded institution: Give them the money that you can
afford and let them do what they want with it. Trust them to make the
most of the received funding.
He also mentioned that a study in the US pointed out that 75% of citations in patents are to papers
funded by public money. Of this 75% of papers most of them belong to the
top10% of the papers cited within the scientific community. Hence one should
invest in research, in fact, in top research. Hire the best without compromise. Put a lot of weight on top scientists.
Rolf-Dieter Heuer mentioned the importance of "taking society with you." One has to promote science in society.
research, one needs to continuously develop a vision, which will drive
innovation and technology, partnership with industry and feed back to research. Every
excellent institution must keep this virtuous circle. One must think strategically and long term.
staff needs to have intellectual challenges, including administrative
staff. Excellence can be in individuals, but also in cooperation. Excellence
must allow for failure, for some research that might fail. This is
doing science at the edge. What one can guarantee is that the path will
Olaf Kuebler stated that the strategy to create a leading research institution is deceptively simple: "Search, appoint and retain world-leading scientists. All else will follow."
reputation of a university is made by the people who leave the
university students, graduate students, assistant professors etc.
He also stated that an excellent research institution must:
Make significant contributions to themes of global importance.
Identify and develop new themes of global importance.
Harmonize its portfolio with its funders.
Helga Nowotny said that being
open towards the future is the key aspect of excellence. Invest in
excellent young people, who are competent rebels and understand that
scientific knowledge is always preliminary. One has to bear in mind that excellence is always a multi-dimensional concept.
One should provide
the best possible working conditions. This involves
a space component: space that makes
it almost obligatory to run into each other and discuss, as ideas emerge
by talking to each other, and
a time component: give time for the unexpected, for the
unforeseen, for serendipity.
Jonathan Dorfan mentioned that one should establish
a setting that is conducive for inter-disciplinary research, where
researchers from different fields can cooperate and exchange ideas.
Haim Harari closed the meeting with an articulate and thought-provoking short address. He started by pointing out what he considers to be key ingredients for an excellent research institution.
must be versatile and come from many sources. Only if one is versatile
one can have the right mix. Government funding leads inevitably to
egalitarianism and democracy. However, science is not democratic. Still there
has to be a balance between the power of the president and the faculty.
research institution should be as international as possible and as
national as possible. It should give something back to the taxpayers:
education and touching society. Technology transfer is the other thing
one return to society.
The Weizmann Institute put all the different subjects in the same campus, which leads to inter-disciplinary research that cannot be done by any single subject alone.
Harari also said that the excellence of a research institution should be evaluated according to three different measures:
its best ten people,
the average quality of its professors and
its worst professor.
quality of the worst professor says what the threshold of the
institution is for hiring and is a very important indicator of the
standards of the research institute/university.
In Harari's opinion, the president
of a research institute/university should regularly ask
herself/himself: If I could fire some of my professors, how many would I
fire?" If the number is a non-trivial fraction of the faculty, then the
threshold of the institution is not high enough.
So, in your opinion, what makes a research institution excellent?