Monday, 17 March 2014

Back to the iFuture (by J.E.A. Wallace)

Those of you who were around last year may remember iFutures. For those who need a reminder, however, iFutures is a one-day conference for PhD researchers in the information science community, organised by students in the Information School at the University of Sheffield. Last year, the conference was held to mark the 50th anniversary of the founding of the University’s Information Studies department, but this time around, we’re looking into the theme of "Research into Practice".

The plan is to interpret this theme in two ways. The first is to try and provide an opportunity for students to introduce their work and the ways in which it can potentially impact on society; while the second is to offer a forum for discussions about the practical steps young researchers can take to maximise the impact of their work, and to engage effectively with the world beyond academia.

To support this second strand we plan to run two parallel interactive workshops. 
  1. "Research Beyond Academia" (led by Sheila Webber) - will look at how to engage with industry as part of the research process, with a focus on how to identify research questions that are relevant and interesting to non-academic institutions, how to determine appropriate potential non-academic partners for grant proposals, and how to approach them and "sell" your new research ideas. 
  2. "Disseminating your Research to Maximise Impact" (led by Dr. Paul Clough) - will explore interesting and innovative ways in which "new" researchers can disseminate their research beyond academia, and what strategies we can use to maximise the impact of our research on practice. 
I will be focussing on these workshops in the Researcher’s Discussion Group. Their format has not yet been fully decided, and the committee is interested in your views as to the sort of issues you would like to see covered.

As for the rest of the schedule, the programme will include keynote talks by two distinguished speakers - David Bawden (Professor of Information Science, City University) and Mounia Lalmas (Principal Research Scientist, Yahoo! Labs). There will also be papers presented by PhD students, and a lunchtime poster session. Finally the programme includes a repeat of last year's highly successful Pecha Kucha session. While nerve-wracking for presenters (just ask Dan and Simon), we hope the unconventional format (twenty slides each displayed for twenty seconds) will both entertain and stimulate discussion.
We welcome submissions from doctoral students at any stage of their research, and full details of the submissions process can be found on our site,

Wednesday, 5 March 2014

What do we want? Inductive models! When do we want them? When we have an evidence base!

After a researchers' discussion, I usually adjourn to the pub with others from the group.  Following the last meeting however, I rushed off to a talk by the Executive Director of Financial Stability at the Bank of England.

I sat next to a Chinese PhD student who introduced himself and asked my name.  "Andrew" I said. He looked at the ticket he was holding.  "Ah!" he replied, "The same as the speaker.  An important name."

We had come to hear Andrew Haldane in conversation.  The academic conversing with him was introduced as Professor Andrew Gamble.  "No" I observed, "just common".

Andrew Haldane may have a commonplace name, but for someone embedded at the core of the establishment, his views are not commonplace.  He has attracted attention in the past for speaking in favour of the Occupy Movement.  In the course of his conversation with Professor Gamble, he criticized economists' over-reliance on deductive models and expressed the view that greater efforts should be made to develop more pragmatic inductive models.  

Amongst the questions asked by members of the audience was one from an economics student at Sheffield University.  She bemoaned the fact that she was learning the type of model that Haldane had criticized.  What, she asked, should she and her fellow students do about it?  "Protest!" was his succinct response.

Haldane’s objection to many of the standard economic models was that they were devised to evaluate risk rather than to address uncertainties.  The difference, explained Prof Gamble, was the difference between known unknowns and unknown unknowns.  Risk analysis identifies a spectrum of outcomes and assigns probabilities to each, then uses those probabilities to help prioritise actions. So for example, if an unbiased coin is tossed, probabilities can be assigned to whether it will, on coming to earth, be seen to display heads or tails.  If it falls down a crack in the floor, those calculations become invalid.  

Although the probability of a coin disappearing in this way is small, there are numerous other improbable things that could happen to the coin, each of which could affect knowledge of whether it displays heads or tails (or lands on its edge!).  There is a high probability therefore, that at least one improbable event will occur, with an impact that has not been considered in the risk analysis.

Because deductive models tend to focus on known unknowns, these get over-emphasised.  By contrast, pragmatic models based on rules of thumb, implicitly adjust for the accumulated improbables.