Fionn Murtagh’s Blog

Themes: information economy, intellectual property, research

“Comely Maidens Dancing at the Crossroads”, now sometimes I am with four per week.

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This expression here was considered to be in a St. Patrick’s Day, 17 March, radio address by Éamonn de Valera, Taoiseach, i.e. elected Premier, of Ireland, on 17 March 1943. Many web descriptions of this indicate that this was incorrectly attributed to a speech by him, and even termed a misquotation. However, as follows, I very much like this expression in modern language.

A very funny metaphor for airports is “dancing at the crossroads”. Some airports have very nice seeing of comely maidens who are landing. When going to and from Canada last year, from Europe, it was nice to note the following: I was on three Comely Boeing Maidens and on just one Comely Airbus Maiden. One other time, in a single week, I was on five Comely Maidens.

When not far from an airport, I can watch lovely Comely Maidens above, perhaps about 300 or 400 meters above and seeing them slowly coming lower. Also seeing what are certainly Comely Maidens at about 1000 meters above me, I could then use the app which works online and on iOS and Android mobile phones, to get all details of where those Comely Maidens are coming from and where they are going to. For that, see FlightRadar24, Live AirTraffic, at this website,

All is very nice to be seeing and continuing to look at all these Comely Maidens and then also, when travelling, to be on a nice Comely Maiden. The metaphor for the airport is funny, to be dancing at the crossroads.

When on my flights or arriving to, or departing from airports, and seeing Comely Maidens landing or taking off, and seeing many of them in the sky above me, all of this is lovely to be observing or benefiting from such Comely Maidens.

Written by Fionn Murtagh

2020/03/14 at 18:22

Innovation in Research Publishing and in Funding Proposals, both Quality and Quantifying

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How is this to be assessed: both the quantification of, and the quality of, innovation in research publications, and in research proposals requesting research funding.  This important paper, by me, and Michael Orlov and Boris Mirkin (Michael and Boris in the National Research University Higher School of Economics, Moscow): “Qualitative judgement of research impact: domain taxonomy as a fundamental framework for judgement of the quality of research”. 
This is published in Journal of Classification, vol. 35, pp. 5-28, 2018.   (Published article; preprint of this.)

In this article, Murtagh et al. (2018), we present the case for (i) stratification rather than ranking, (ii) qualitative analytics based on taxonomies of the domain. This work aims to be both monitoring and revealing, in regard to research work, towards decision-making, on the part of publication editors and research funders.

A very important issue raised: Horizon 2020 FET-Open (Future Emerging Technologies) recorded less than 1.4% successful research proposals. Ethically and in all respects, there should be analytics carried out in regard to the more than 98% rejected research funding proposals. This should lead to studying what has been proposed and then rejected, to know all that was proposed in regard to continuing importance to be carried out, and also what entire sets of objectives that had been at issue, and whether such objectives can be pursued in some other way.

When a Director of the main research funding agency in Ireland, this methodology was initially discussed in my Sixth Boole Lecture, April 2008, Boole Lecture Theatre, University College Cork, and published:
F. Murtagh, “The Correspondence Analysis platform for uncovering deep structure in data and information”, Sixth Boole Lecture, Computer Journal, 53 (3), 304-315, 2010.

This continues to be at issue in my most recent book, F. Murtagh, Data Science Foundations: Geometry and Topology of Complex Hierarchic Systems and Big Data Analytics, Chapman and Hall/CRC, 2017. (Publisher’s website.)

I will take this assessment of innovation in research publishing and relate that also to the relevance and the role of rejected journal submissions. That will be so important for the countries that now produce the vast majority of journal submissions. Motivation for this comes also from an outstanding research publication of mine, published in an innovative journal, and the previous submission to a journal where I had published previous work, that had a reviewer report with this statement: “This is not state of the art, it is all new work, therefore it must be rejected.”

Following that, for journal submissions, it may be useful to take such study to the research funding agencies in many countries, that I support in reviewing and recommending or not recommending research funding.

Written by Fionn Murtagh

2018/06/03 at 23:04

The University in the Age of Its Technical Reproducibility

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The University in the Age of Its Technical Reproducibility

To consider our epoch now of the university in the age of its technical reproducibility, this is an insightful article by Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technical Reproducibility” treats ultimately all of art, when reproduction and hence commodification has become the order of the day. These books have versions of this article: Walter Benjamin, Selected Writings, Volume 4, 1938-1940 (pages 251-283), Walter Benjamin, Selected Writings, Volume 3, 1935-1938 (pages 101-133), published by Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, in 2002.

The essence of art can survive but its nature is quite different from what art was before it became part and parcel of our industrial environment. The context is: “It has always been one of the primary tasks of art to create a demand whose hour of satisfaction has not yet come.” And he quotes André Breton with this: “The artwork has value only insofar as it is alive to reverberations of the future.” This too is very insightful: “The technological reproducibility of the artwork changes the relation of the masses to art.” (The point made then is the shift of interest and engagement, for instance from a Picasso painting to, instead, a Chaplin film.)

Here are copies of this article, among others, that are online. Das Kunstwerk im Zeitalter seiner technischen Reproduzierbarkeit ( dieser Artikel).
Ceci est un article par Yannick Maignien intitulé L’oeuvre d’art à l’époque de sa reproduction numérisée (l’article).
An saothar ealaíne i ré a athchruthaithe ar bhonn meicniúil .
Agus anseo anois, Taighde Eolaíochta agus Léann i Ré a n-Athchruthaithe ar Bhonn Meicniúil.
Jetzt, “Wissenschaftliche Forschung und Formation im Zeitalter seinen technischen Reproduzierbarkeit”
Maintenant, La recherche scientifique et l’enseignement à l’époque de leur reproduction mécanisée .
Now, Research and Teaching and Learning in the Age of Their Technical Reproducibility.

Here is a photo of Walter Banjamin’s grave in Portbou, Catalonia, Spain. The grave, to the fore in this photo, has the Mediterranean just visible down in the centre of the photo.


The following are notes relating to how the university as an institution has now become commoditized, such that a university or similar institute can be reproduced at will, of course assuming the resources are made available.

It is not just alone that teaching and learning have become commoditized, nor research.

Teaching and Learning

Employability has become the key issue in teaching and learning, having replaced the concept of career, which now belongs to the distant past. The right hand side advertising of jobs appears in vast numbers, in London and elsewhere. It is pleasant to note that the left hand side advertisement, indicating 130,000 jobs, that dates from early 2016. Now, however, there are 150,000 advertised.  In 2019, there are now 195,00 advertised.








In an article by Chris Havergal in the Times Higher Education, Death of the university greatly exaggerated, says Michael Crow – At THE World Academic Summit, academics and entrepreneurs debate impact of technology on teaching, Entrepreneurs who predict the death of the university have “no idea what they are talking about” – Michael Crow, President of Arizona State University.




The past decade or more has seen the fantastic growth of research output by India, China, and other nations including Iran, Korea and others. China spent more than GBP 100 billion in R&D funding in 2012 alone.

However, the following is all too clear for all of us.

Thomas Estermann, director for governance, funding and public policy development at European University Association, spoke to Times Higher Education about its findings. “Low success rates are a huge issue for Europe,” he says. Not only are they inefficient, as the time spent developing proposals is wasted, but they can demotivate academics and top research ideas and potential groundbreaking discoveries may be rejected, he adds.

From: H. Else, “Billions lost in bids to secure EU research funding. Study highlights the true cost of low success rates in Horizon 2020”, in Times Higher Education, 6 Oct. 2016.

The following is one useful thing to do, and perhaps even ethical: to analyse all that is rejected. A framework that can also include this is at issue in a paper that is in press in Journal of Classification. Authors: Fionn Murtagh, Michael Orlov, Boris Mirkin, and title: “Qualitative Judgement of Research Impact: Domain Taxonomy as a Fundamental Framework for Judgement of the Quality of Research”, and here is a preprint.

Athbheochan nuálaíochta amach romhainn, in Éirinn agus fud fad an domhain – leis an innealtóireacht i gcroí-lár ár dtodhchaí uile

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Alt é seo as: Engineers Journal, iris ag Cumann na nInnealtóirí.   Article from Engineers Journal, 1 Nov. 2016.

Na sleamhnáin den chur i láthair ag Fionnbarra Ó Brolcháin, tá siad le fáil anseo.

Agus an léacht ar YouTube – the lecture and the discussion that followed on YouTube.

Fionn Murtagh looks at the role of engineering in Ireland’s sustainable innovation future in a globalised economy. Murtagh focuses on Finbarr Bradley’s latest book, Gombeens at the Gate, and the lecture delivered by Bradley in Clyde Road, as Gaeilge, on engineering’s impact on educational and economic issues.


Essential role of engineering in Ireland’s sustainable innovation future in a globalised economy

An ethos of broad economic and social innovation requires the central role of engineering. This article is about both the book, Gombeens at the Gate, by Fionnbarra Ó Brolcháin (Finbarr Bradley) and his An Roth lecture, as Gaeilge, in 22 Clyde Road, on Wednesday, October 12, 2016.  See this on YouTube.

Bradley holds that it is not knowledge itself but rather a culture of learning that is the essential ingredient needed in today’s economy and society. Innovation is driven not by the discovery of new knowledge itself but rather by identifying connections between all sources of knowledge to create value. There is a widespread misunderstanding that innovation and competitiveness depend exclusively on the amount of research and development funding. However, research centres on thinking and reflection, while innovation is about doing and valuing. The real need is to develop a learning economy founded on wisdom, understanding and meaning rather than accumulation of knowledge.

By becoming one of the most globalised economies in the world, Ireland has created a placeless view of itself, characterised by standardisation and uniformity, lack of emotional attachment and increasing mobility. To become  both rooted and global requires a renewed emphasis on the development of character and a deep sense of place. This in turn will lead to the development of high-calibre and internationally successful indigenous enterprises.

gombeens-at-the-gateFar from being ancient artefacts and non-economic, Ireland’s traditions, whether in storytelling, poetry, metaphor, folklore or mythology, if integrated properly with policies on science and technology, offer this country enormous advantage on the global scale.

Bradley draws from a clear and most interesting parallel perspective related to Éirí Amach na Cásca [Easter Rising], 1916. He contends that its revival and renaissance  was driven by profound innovation.  Bradley illustrates how Ireland’s economic and social future depends on being both globally engaged, and locally rooted. He also draws inspiration from the life and work of Earnán de Siúnta, also named Ernest Edwin Joynt. He was president of Engineers Ireland back in the 1920s, and was very much involved in the Celtic revival, and in education as a leading faculty member of what is now Dublin Institute of Technology.

Réamhrá anois

Ní féidir le nuálaíocht a chothú sa gheilleagar agus san tsochaí go ginearálta gan ról lárnach don innealtóireacht. Chun an obair atá ag gabháil le gach aon ghné den teicneolaíoch nó den eolaíocht a chur i gcrích, caithfidh an innealtóireacht a bheith i lár báire. Ciallaíonn sé sin go bhfuil géar-ghá ann chun go mbéadh meon na hinnealtóireachta go tiubh, go smior, go domhain, agus go lárnach i ngach uile gné den gheilleagar agus den tsochaí. Bíodh, mar sin, an innealtóireacht i lár an aonaigh againn agus i gcroí-lár na dtodhchaí agus na sochaí ar aon.

An innealtóireacht i gceart-lár nuálaíóchta agus dul chun cinn na hÉireann

Anuraidh, 2015, bhain an aiste seo leanas bua amach i gcomórtas liteartha an Oireachtais, sé sin Oireachtas na Gaeilge. Bhi bua ag an aiste seo sa chomórtas ar théama atá ag gabháil leis an innealtóireacht. Tá an aiste (10 leathanaigh) le feiceáil ar shuíomh An Roth. Údar na h-aiste seo, “Earnán de Siúnta, Innealtóir”, í Rosanna Lyons. Ainm eile ar Earnán de Siúnta ná Ernest Edwin Joynt. Bhí sé mar Uachtarán ar Chumann na nInnealtóírí sna fichidí den chéad seo caite, agus bhí baint aige le Ceardscoil Shráid Bolton, anois Institiúid Teicneolaíochta Bhaile Átha Cliath.

San aiste, tá sé seo le léamh inti: “Níor leor eolas lom teicniúil a thabhairt don innealtóir óg, mar theastaigh tuiscint leathan dhomhain ar an obair agus a feidhm. Ba mhó d’eolaíocht ná d’ealaín anois í.”

Agus seo ráiteas faoi saol Éanna: “Bhí tuiscint dhomhain fhealsúnach aige ar nádúr na hinnealtóireachta féin, agus chreid sé go bhféadfadh sí a bheith páirteach san iarracht Éire a athbheochan mar thír rathúil Ghaelach. Fear aislinge a bhí ann, a rinne a dhícheall innealtóirí na hÉireann a spreagadh chun a gcuid oibre a chur chun cinn mar ghné bheo láidir de shaol na hÉireann. Is fiú d’innealtóirí na hÉireann aird a thabhairt air agus iad ag dul i ngleic le dúshláin an lae inniu.”

Is breá an tuiscint sin a bheith le fáil inniú.  Chomh maith san aiste, tá cur síos ar shaothar de chiud Earnán de Siúnta i leith cúrsaí oideachais a linne.

Nuálaíocht in Éirinn agus fud fad an domhain

Beidh i bhfad níos mó faoi seo uile á phlé ag Fionnbarra Ó Brolcháin ag léacht An Roth aige, ar Dé Céadaoin an 12ú Deireadh Fómhair, ag tosnú ar 18:30. Nó mar a deirtear, beidh i bhfad Éireann níos mó ann! Beidh go leor leor ann sa léacht and sa phlé ina dhiaidh ar nuálaíocht, in Éirinn sa lá inniu, agus na laethanta amach romhainn. Dála an scéil, beidh an léacht seo craolta beo ar an idirlíon, chomh maith.

Sa cur síos ar an léacht seo, tá sé seo leanas ann. Cé go raibh na gluaiseachtaí a mhúnlaigh an Athbheochan cultúrtha agus ó thaobh gach a bhaineann leis an bpolaitíocht (deirimíd ón bhliain 1890 go dtí 1920), agus a spreag Éirí Amach na Cásca 1916 agus bunú an tSaorstáit, neamhspléach óna chéile, bhí siad idirghaolmhar agus bhí saintréithe áirithe lárnach i ngach ceann. San Athbheochan, chonaic siad siúd a bhí páirteach ann acmhainní cultúrtha agus nádúrtha mar ghnéithe rí-thábhachtacha in eitic nuálaíochta de bharr naisc idir féin-tuiscint, féin-mheas, féiniúlacht agus éiteas cruthaitheachta.

Sa lá atá inniú ann, nó go háirithe inniú, is iad na hacmhainní is luachmhaire agus is inbhuanaithí chun nuálaíocht a spreagadh ná iad atá neamhinste, an tsamhlaíocht agus an inspioráid, ach go háirithe. Ní déantán marbh frith-nua-aimseartha agus frith-gheilleagrach é an traidisiún agus cuimhne ach foinse dhinimiciúl agus uathúil, cineál gorlann cruthaitheachta agus fiontraíochta. Dá mbaintear níos mó feidhme as saintréithe mar iad, thiománfadh san núalaíocht inbhuanaithe agus todhchaí sochaí na tíre.

Luíonn gach atá anseo le nuálaíocht agus le hoideachas innealtóirí fud fad na cruinne, agus buntáistí faoi leith a bhaineann linnne in Éirinn nó as Éirinn.

Sin mar a bheidh le plé ag Fionnbarra Ó Brolcháin. Faoi seo uile, tá go leor leor ar fad ag gabháil le cúrsaí oideachais. San aimsir s’againne, nuair atá an-bhéim go deo ar a bheith ag iarraidh rang árd a ghabháil do gach ollscoil, is léir an méid seo leanas: gur chuí agus gur chóir aghaidh a thabhairt ar shaol na sochaí romhainn, agus go bhfuil sé riachtanach meon na hinnealtóieachta a bheith i lár báire mar gheall air sin.

Feicimíd ar cé chomh breá is atá cur síos ag Fionnbarra ina leabhar seo, Gombeens at the Gate, faoi nuálaíocht gur chóir a bheith ann, amach romhainn in Éirinn, agus i saol an domhain mhóir.

Meon na hinnealtóireachta mar bhunús na nuálaíochta romhainn, agus mar a luíonn sé sin go tréan le dea-thionchar uile de chultúr na hÉireann

Le fada an lá, agus ar gach aon slí, tá domhandú an gheilleagair agus na sochaí glactha go huile is go hiomlán ag tír na hÉireann. Le haghaidh an tsaoil amach romhainn anois, ba cheart agus ba chóir an saol domhandaithe a chur le chéile leis an saol fréamhaithe. Is cabhair é sin, cinnte, le haghaidh tionscnaimh nua a chur ar bun agus a chur chun cinn.

Luíonn traidisiúin na hÉireann go mór mór leis seo. Is deiseanna den scoth iad don cur chun cinn anseo. I measc na dtraidisiúin seo, tá scéalaíocht agus filíocht ann, meafair agus miotaseolaíocht, seanchas agus béaloideas. Is cabhair agus cúiteamh atá thar na bearta iad na traidisiúin againn go léir má ligtear dóibh a bheith imeasctha, lánpháirtithe, agus comhtháite le pholasaithe a ghabhann le heolaíocht agus le teicneolaíocht.

I láthair na huaire ní fheictear ach “geilleagar an eolais”, nó an geilleagar ag baint le cur amach. Agus ceaptar gur leor maoiniú le haghaidh taighde. Ach ní leor ábhair mhachnaimh amháin.  Ní foláir gníomhaíocht a bheith i gceist, le nuálaíocht, agus mar aon leis sin, luachanna na nuálaíochta a bheith go soiléir agus go deimhin. Leis sin, séard atá tábhachtach ná “geilleagar na foghlama”. Sé sin, gach a bhaineann le foghlaim san oideachas agus ar feadh an tsaoil go léir, a fheiceáil I gcroí-lár an gheilleagair. Is bunúsach é seo: go bhfoghlamaítear trí ghíomhaíocht. Trí níthe a bheith á dhéanamh, agus tionscnaimh agus mar sin de a bheith curtha i gcrích, sin an tslí chun foghlaim a bheith á dhéanamh. Nuair atáthar gníomhach, ag baint tairbhe as na deiseanna a bhíonn ann, agus spriocanna a bhaint amach, go minic agus fiú go ginearálta, bíonn luachanna ag gabháil le gach gné de sin. Ní hé a bheith ag bailiú nó ag carnú eolais. Ní foláir bheith gníomhach agus lena chois sin,  bheith ag foghlaim fud fad an tsaoil, sa bhaile agus i gcéin.

Is íontach breá an dearcadh faoi leith atá ag Fionnbarra, atá céim aige san innealtóireacht, cé gur sa ghort eacnamaíochta agus oideachais a chaith sé formhór dá shaol gairmiúil. Cúpla bliain ó shin, scríobh sé leabhar dár teideal, Meon Gaelach, Aigne Nuálaíoch.

Sin é é, bunús do hathbheochan nuálaíochta na hÉireann. Nó séard a bheidh romhainn, amach anseo, san athbheochan romhainn, ní hé amháin nuálaíocht ar aon dul le chultúr íontach, agus le chultúr faoi leith, cultúr uathúil na hÉireann, ach lámh le sin, smaointeoireacht agus ábhair mhachnaimh go léir, fréamhaithe i gcultúr an Ghaelachais, le cois a bheith domhandaithe. Agus le cúnamh Dé, nuálaíocht a bheidh mar athbheochan fud fad na cruinne s’againne.

Cé gur cinnte é go bhfuil dúshláin mhóra ann dúinn, ag an am céanna is deas é seo a thabhairt faoi deara: go bhfuil deiseanna atá go breá againn chomh maith. Sa léacht ar an 12ú Deireadh Fómhair, agus tá fáilte roimh chách chun a bheith i láthair, le craoladh beo, agus taifead de chomh maith, mar is gnáth, is breá go mór é go bhfuilimíd ag déanamh gach iarracht chun díriú ar na deiseanna seo.

Tá an t-alt seo le Fionn Ó Muircheartaigh, innealtóir agus matamaiticeoir, Ollamh le hEolaíocht Sonraí, Data Science, agus atá ina Chathaoirleach ar An Roth i gCumann na nInnealtóirí.

Written by Fionn Murtagh

2016/11/06 at 20:29

The Globish World Language: Restricted Thinking

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I comment here on the rise and dominance of Globish English, in science and research, in literature and culture, and with growing mechanization in certain domains.

First, consider science and research publishing, across the board.  To publish new results, the reviewers need to give their nihil obstat and their imprimatur.  Generally too, in research publishing, one is engaged a lot as a reviewer.  Typically, one reviews many hundreds of submitted research papers each year.

Now back to my own research results.  Not for the first time, recently, a reviewer report on work of mine came back with this issue raised: “The paper is written in a way that makes it difficult to read for average non-native English speakers mainly because of the structure and length of the sentences.”

I was upset but this made me reflect.  Why should it be so that simplified English be used in reporting on research?  Let me bypass what “average” means in such a context, since anyone involved with data will know that atypical and skewed (long-tailed) distributions are not summarized by an average.

In any case, that is of course a reviewer’s role.  My paper was, when revised, accepted and published.  It was dealing with Jürgen Habermas’s political consensus in the Twitter social media context (based on Jean-Paul Benzécri and Pierre Bourdieu).  Given that reviewer’s viewpoint, my first reaction was to go and determine the power law distribution of my written sentence lengths.

But standardized English – what are the implications of one speaking and writing in this Globish language, as contrasted with the language of one’s own thinking.  One’s own train of thought may well be superior to a simplified, mechanized Globish.  This really made me reflect.

In reviewing conference submissions, earlier in 2015, I was using one of the major systems used for conference submission.  It is a great system, Easychair. My reviews for this conference were of course carried out.  I was rather pleased though to have to address a question of language in the following terms.  I do admit, that in a world where we all can, and should, speak a number of languages, I cannot understand what “native” – as in “native language” – means.

Here was what was on the review form, which I completed:

QUALITY OF ENGLISH WRITING: from 1 (lowest) to 4 (highest)

4: Native English

3: Readable Globish

2: Many mistakes but easy to correct

1: Very Poor and must be checked by a native

Then I recalled the following, from Der Spiegel, 45/2014, 3.11.2014:

Interview mit  Kenneth Goldsmith,  53, Dichter und Literaturdozent an der  Univerity of Pennsylvania, über sein Seminar “Wasting Time on the Internet”.  “Mein ganzes Oeuvre dreht sich um das Leben im digitalen Zeitalter.  In meinem letzten Buch zum Beispiel benutzte ich viel kürzere Sätzte – als Reaktion auf Twitter.  Die Technik geht voran, wir Künstler folgen ihr.”   Oder sehen Sie mal hier.

Oh my goodness, shorter sentence length and this time a requirement in  Globish literature!

Next, I noted this.  It is from Le Monde Diplomatique, en janvier 2015, dealing with English being the intermediary language for translation between  languages, leading to nonsense, since sense is destroyed.

“Google et  l’impérialisme linguistique – Il pleut des chats et des chiens”, par Frédéric Kaplan et Dana Kianfar.

Le pivot linguistique anglais participe ainsi potentiellement à un phénomène de créolisation … Actuellement, les modifications introduites par la médiation algorithmique constituent une sorte de sabir, langue de contact, potentiellement éphémère, entre deux systèmes linguistiques.  Mais, alors qu’une nouvelle génération est exposée à ces expressions transformées, les innovations risquent de se régulariser sous la forme d’une langue cohérente et autonome, un créole.  … L’impérialisme linguistique de l’anglais produit donc des effets beaucoup plus subtils que ne le laissent penser les approches centrées sur la “guerre des langues”.  

Here is a further noting of how standardized, banalized and trivialized English (I should refer to it as Globish) has such negative implications.

“How  English Ruined Indian Literature”, by Aatish Taseer, March 19, 2015, in Sunday Review, New York Times.

The Russian critic Vissarion Belinsky felt in the 19th century that the slavish imitation of European culture had created “a sort of duality in Russian life, consequently a lack of moral unity.” The Indian situation is worse; the Russians at least had Russian.

In the past, there were many successful Indian writers who were bi- and trilingual.  Rabindranath Tagore, the winner of the 1913 Nobel Prize in Literature, wrote in English and Bengali; Premchand, the short story writer and novelist, wrote in Hindi and Urdu; and Allama Iqbal wrote English prose and Persian and Urdu poetry… 

Arising out of the foregoing, the following needs to be expressed in languages other than Globish or Hochenglisch or whatever it is called.

Ursprung und erweitere Entwicklung des Denkens, klar dass das bedeutet eine breite Reihe von Sprachen und von Sprachenkentnissen.

Pour bien encadrer et progresser nos pensées les plus profondes, il faut pallier l’obstacle de la langue de la robotique.  Ceci est donc aussi un appel à la renaissance de la langue anglaise.

Feachtas, mar sin, a bheith curtha ar bun i dtreo athbheochan an sacs-bhéarla. Ní  eascraíonn fiontar agus fiontraíocht agus nuálaíocht agus chuile shórt mar sin ach ó theangacha atá saor ó chinniúnt agus ó mhí-ádh na teanga sin.  Ar ámharaí an tsaoil tá teangacha fós ann, mar an Ghaeilge, a bhaineann le foinse na smaointeoireachta an tsaoil s’againne.

Aut viam inveniamus aut ipse viam faciamus.  For further reading and insight – Alex HijmansFrédéric Kaplan.

Written by Fionn Murtagh

2015/08/04 at 00:05

Research Funding: Funding for Outputs, Please, and not for Ego

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Chris Horn has written, “Commercial success, at least in IT, is not driven by the size of R&D spend.” This is very true, in Ireland as elsewhere.

There has been concern expressed in Ireland by various sources recently about the lack of commercial impact from university research. A critical reason for this, from my observations, is that the objective of research funding in Ireland has been far too much focused on ego rather than output.

The former, funding for ego, includes the following, quite dysfunctional aspects from the point of view of the whole system of human capital. It takes the form of funding units of activity that are hermetically sealed off from the natural hinterland in the university system. Included here are:

  • the lack of any role in undergraduate teaching or curriculum,
  • separate physical location, and
  • reporting lines that are outside mainstream university structures.

This is a weakness in current research funding in Ireland, i.e. how the funding is spent on highly profiled yet splendidly isolated activity.

Another dysfunctional aspect is that related and complementary disciplines, and vital supply lines of expertise from various disciplines, have all now been ended, in the limited form that these were once present. Mathematics and astronomy come immediately to mind, where there is enormous negativity among public servants.

This has been backed up by views among senior public servants that are disparaging and dismissive of those disciplines and of the higher education system as a whole. A recent example from the Government of Ireland’s Chief Scientific Adviser: “It’s very difficult to herd cats, but I can certainly change the position of their feeding bowl.” Or another Director-General of Science Foundation Ireland: “SFI funding is social welfare for universities”.

How to achieve commercial and social impact based on scholarship and learning is as follows. In measuring outputs the multifaceted forms of all of these need to be considered. Innovative ways to find and achieve impact on the economy are crucial to both the system outputs and the quantification of the system processes. What is needed is a whole system approach, starting with higher education which has come to be the major context for research and scholarship, and its spin-off and launchpad impact. Hence the importance of the roles of all disciplines in the body of knowledge, and understanding outputs rather than the pursuit of an ego-based system.

  • Portfolio management, across all of education, commercialization and business, scholarship, and public leadership are crucial in order to ensure continuity through natural and strategically planned evolution and growth.

  • Integration, firstly into the higher education system and more generally into the commercial and governance fabric, is vital for sustainability too.

Those are my two foremost requirements for a properly functioning research and scholarship system, that will be productive over the long term. They are my own motivation as a researcher and as a research leader, with a long track record in scholarship and research commercialisation with impact which is non-ego driven. Over time, I have observed just how very wasteful and unsustainable the alternative is.

Research and Scholarship: Onwards towards Sustainability, Success and Stardom

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In some ways, the world of scholarship (highly respected) and research (always with ends in view, never in the abstract) were far more healthy, productive and creative back in the ’70s and beyond in the last century.  The norm for undergraduate courses (in engineering) included company formation, statistics was a well established discipline in its own right (but was disbanded in many universities in more recent decades), and mathematics had its rightful role as the most respected of all disciplines.

The world of research was more viable and sustainable insofar as sustaining one’s livelihood was foremost, and then one’s work was always with ambition and with universal problem solving in mind.

Among the many changes to this idyllic picture (of course, I have looked at some aspects only that outshine much of what is the case now) major funding of research came along in the 1990s, in some instances with beneficial results, but also with very dysfunctional results.

By establishing large research centres that were hermetically sealed off from undergraduate teaching and curriculum development, and mostly in different buildings and sometimes off-campus, not only were external keeps and moats built, but – to the misfortune of these research groups and centres in the medium and longer term – they are entirely cut off from their natural hinterland, and dependent on so-called “soft money”.  In a word, they are entirely unstainable.

The Irish context is a clear case in point.

In regard to scientific research, Dick Ahlstrom in the Irish Times notes that Ireland is “effectively without … a strategy [for scientific research] at the moment, without a long-term sense of purpose or direction that makes it clear where we want to be 10 or 20 years down the line. This is not helpful as scientific research is a long-term activity that yields results in a measured way.”

This is very true since the ending of the previous SSTI plan, Strategy for Science, Technology and Innovation 2006-2013, that foresaw the doubling of PhD numbers by 2013 – why is an open question, but my own view always was that the great majority were to take up employment in Irish companies and corporates worldwide. The evidence is there that such has not happened.  As regards strategy, this has been replaced by a content-free framework, that has given carte blanche to significant misdirection of the ways and means used for public funding in this domain.

The upshot too is that in Ireland, “big business is putting its cash into overseas universities“.  This is very evident to those of us who work outside of Ireland.

In a clear and prescient article, Chris Horn has pointed to the looming crisis.  “What now for an Irish strategy for the multinational sector?”  He draws a balance sheet: “Why are there no […] debates on an urgently sought and new industrial strategy, and no visionary articulation from any of our political parties nor leaders? Where are our national industrial strategists and planners?”  This article by Chris Horn needs to be known as a key reference for our immediate future.

As is often the case, Finfacts has its hand on the pulse of what is going on, and calls a spade a spade.  It is super important to be clear about research for what, research of what.  Failing that, there is just the pure spin: “Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) has an audacious or delusional new target: ‘in which Ireland in 2020 is the best country in the world for scientific research excellence and impact.'”

As Finfacts notes, “it’s striking how little policy making has changed since the economic crash.”  It is indeed audacious and delusional to put off to 2020 what needs to be addressed and acted on right now.

I will return to my theme of how research and scholarship can thrive and blossom, and overcome the delusional and dysfunctional nature of (some of) the powers that be – coupled with their wasteful and wanton, even destructive, inability to address our burgeoning challenges.


Written by Fionn Murtagh

2013/08/14 at 00:02