Atom molecule power in your hand

Showing the physics landscape with heads of physics and IOP group officers

Atom molecule power in your hand
Image: Shutterstock/ioat

Fun fact: the largest RCUK-funded research programme over the past 10 years has been the UK Magnetic Fusion Research Programme, receiving £231 m since 2006. This shows a strong national focus on renewable energy – as scientists are trying to replicate on Earth the processes that power the Sun.

It’s been six months since we first began exploring the possibilities of creating a landscape to map physics activity across the UK. In that time we’ve made significant progress.

We’ve identified and pulled in data from multiple sources. We’ve built a series of test visualisations, and hired a developer to assist in converting these into web content – allowing us to create a functioning online prototype, working on real data, within a matter of weeks. We’ve engaged with our members and the community to increase our understanding of how we identify and describe UK physics, and how a data tool might be used. And we’ve built up the underlying data infrastructure which will allow for the continued and growing demand for high-quality data within the IOP.

Considering that a few months ago we didn’t have data to analyse it’s been a quick turnaround. We’ve used this time to show the art of the possible and make initial explorations of the landscape.

The landscaping work is part of the IOP’s Physics2020 programme

Most importantly, we’ve given stakeholders the opportunity to explore and interrogate the work we’ve done so far. This is exactly what we did at the end of 2016 when we presented at the Heads of Physics Forum, and again at the Group Officers Forum a few weeks later. We asked our members to complete a short workshop, inviting criticism of the work to date and suggestions for the future.

As you might expect, our members were keen to delve into our work so far. When shown the physics thesaurus they raised a number of interesting points that have given us more insight into how we can use it to classify data from various sources. More importantly they highlighted some limitations, which we must be constantly aware of – the sensitivity of the data we’re analysing means there is potential for it to be used in the wrong way.

They also brought up the need for full and complete data validation. With millions of rows of data being sewn together from different sources, the data cleaning and validation process will be a major undertaking, an iterative process that can take months (in fact it never ends), but it’s crucial to ensuring that the physics landscape is of value to our members.

When we asked our heads of physics and group officers to discuss whether the physics landscape programme would be useful to them the entire cohort showed interest and support, with 61% saying they would use the prototype visualisations once the data had been validated. We gained insights into how we can improve these initial prototypes, but also how the overall process will serve our community more widely.

With the new knowledge we’ve gained we’re looking forward to revising our existing prototypes and releasing a useable visualisation in the near future. But Physics 2020 goes beyond that: rather than have database where people can access raw data, we’re developing the skills, knowledge and processes required to support UK physics with rigorous data as physicists face new challenges.

By building up an overview of available data sources, nurturing partnerships, devising analytical methods, increasing our knowledge of the landscape, and designing the infrastructure, our physics landscape will be able to respond to these challenges over the next five years and beyond.

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Irene Kalkanis

Irene Kalkanis

Irene is a data analyst in the IOP’s Science & Innovation team. She has an MSci in physics from King’s College London and previously worked as a physics teacher and a digital analyst for the BBC.
Irene Kalkanis

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