Research Excellence Framework 2021

The Scottish Informatics and Computer Science Alliance (SICSA) welcomes the publication of the 2021 Research Excellence Framework results.  The THE world university rankings table for the UK has also been recalculated on the basis of the 2021 REF and is published today.  For SICSA institutions:

  • 45% of research was world-leading (4*) and 43% internationally excellent (3*).
  • Over 90% of impact is judged outstanding or very considerable.
  • Overall SICSA departments were responsible for over 15% of high-quality research in the UK.
  • Over 70% of Scottish-based researchers entered in REF 2021 are working in Departments that have improved their THE ranking in a competitive and active discipline.

Stuart Anderson (SICSA Director) said:

“The REF 2021 results confirm the strength of Informatics and Computer Science in Scotland with a significant majority of researchers working in departments that have improved their overall ranking.  That SICSA departments contribute 15% of the high-quality research in the UK clearly demonstrates again that Scotland punches far above its weight in the discipline. Scotland has great strengths in this key area for our economy and society. 

This is a tremendous achievement on the part of the staff across all our Scottish departments, my congratulations to all involved in the continuing success of Informatics and Computer Science research in Scotland”.

 

SICSA Education Learning & Teaching Scholars announced

10 May 2022

by Matthew Barr, SICSA Director of Education

Congratulations to our newly-selected SICSA Education Learning & Teaching Scholars!

We received a lot of applications, and, inevitably, we couldn’t accommodate everyone. However, we hope to be able to run the programme again next year, if funding allows.

Our 16 Scholars will now embark on a programme of meet-ups, mentoring, and networking, designed to develop new scholarship ideas and explore innovative teaching practice.

This year’s successful Scholars are as follows:

Areti Manataki University of St Andrews
Alistair McConnell Heriot-Watt University
Aurora Constantin University of Edinburgh
Charlotte Desvages University of Edinburgh
Chris McCaig University of Glasgow
Cristina Adriana Alexandru University of Edinburgh
Isla Jean Elizabeth Ross University of Strathclyde
Jamie O’Hare Abertay University
Konstantinos Liaskos University of Strathclyde
Martin Goodfellow University of Strathclyde
Mireilla Bikanga Ada University of Glasgow
Mun See Chang University of St Andrews
Nur Syibrah Binti Muhamad Naim University of Strathclyde
Oana Andrei University of Glasgow
Peter Chapman Edinburgh Napier University
Tiffany Young Robert Gordon University

 

SICSA Education Distinguished Speaker Seminar at The University of Glasgow: Dr Lauren Margulieux

6 May 2022

by Dr Mireilla Bikanga Ada, SICSA Education Champion and SICSA Education Distinguished Speaker Seminar organiser at UofG.

The School of Computing Science at the University of Glasgow held a SICSA Education Distinguished Speaker Seminar on 30th March 2022. The event was organised by the University’s SICSA Education Champion, Dr Mireilla Bikanga Ada.

The Centre for Computing Science Education (CCSE) team in the School of Computing Science, led by Professor Quintin Cutts, were very pleased to receive an international expert, Dr Lauren Margulieux, a professor of Learning Sciences at Georgia State University. Dr Margulieux received her PhD from Georgia Tech in Engineering Psychology, the study of how humans interact with technology. Her research interests are in educational technology and online learning, particularly for computing education. She also coordinates an initiative in Georgia State’s teacher preparation programs to integrate computing into pre-service teacher training in all disciplines and directs a computer science endorsement to certify in-service teachers to offer computing courses. She focuses on spreading computational literacy and the use of computing to achieve personal and professional goals.

Dr Margulieux gave two great talks on the following topics:

Title: Building Theory in STEM Education Research: Multiple Conceptions Theory
Abstract: The computing education research field frequently calls for theory-building work to better explain the mechanisms of how people learn computer science. This talk discusses a theory that has been developed based on a synthesis of work across multiple fields to explain phenomena frequently seen in computing education. Multiple Conceptions theory proposes a mechanism to explain how both direct instruction and constructivist instructional approaches can be designed to guarantee successful results. It draws upon instructional approaches from various STEM fields and educational psychology.

Title: Computing Education Research Methods and Design
Abstract: Computing education research draws from methodology in the social sciences, like education, psychology, and learning sciences, to conduct research with learners. Learners aren’t like molecules in a beaker or mice in a cage; they bring a lot of variability to the research environment, both from learner to learner and within learners from context to context. Social sciences have developed methods to deal with this variability, which we will discuss in this talk. We will also discuss other features of research design related to reliability, validity, and generalizability of results. The talk will focus on methods and designs particularly relevant in computing education.

The hybrid event generated interest from and was attended by members (n = 36) of various Scottish universities and beyond, including The University of Glasgow, University of Strathclyde, University of St Andrews, Edinburgh Napier University, The University of Edinburgh, Robert Gordon University, University of California San Diego, Georgia State University.

Delegates learned about variation and the application of theory in our practice. It was also an opportunity to reconnect with others and increase the opportunities for collaborative work within the SICSA community in Scottish universities and beyond, focusing on Computing Science Education Research. We are looking forward to holding a similar event again.

 

 

SICSA PECE Award – Visit to MIT

23 March 2022

by Theodoros Stouraitis, University of Edinburgh

I’m Theo, a research associate at the Statistical Machine Learning and Motor Control (SLMC) group at the University of Edinburgh and I am about to complete a three-month research visit at Interactive Robotics Group (IRG), at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Cambridge, MA, USA. During my research visit, Prof. Julie A. Shah who leads the IRG, Shen Li, a PhD student at IRG, and I jointly worked on a project that we started remotely during the pandemic.

Our joint project is focused on modelling the uncertainty of humans’ behaviours when interacting with robots. Equipping robots with the ability to estimate the uncertain state of the human and predict the uncertain motion of the human is key to guaranteeing human safety during interaction. We work on methods that describe the uncertainty with sets and we develop uncertainty-aware algorithms for estimation and prediction of the human behaviour as well as robot motion generation.

As an example, let’s consider a robot helping a human getting dressed. During dressing the robot cannot directly see the position of the human’s elbow due to the cloth, neither can predict where the human arm will be next. This in turn complicates the robot motion generation as the robot might be overconfident in an erroneous human state that might render the robot’s behaviour unsafe. Modelling uncertain human behaviour allows robots to decide when to move conservatively and when efficiently such that the human partner is always safe.

My three-month visit started in January 2022, and it will be completed at the end of March 2022. In late December 2021 and during the Omicron wave I packed my suitcase and left cold Edinburgh for the even colder Boston. The first couple of weeks were about adjustment to the new town and weather, hunting for a room and getting familiar with MIT and the IRG, while the following weeks were full of focused work, meeting students, academics and fellow roboticists at MIT, as well as exploring the particularly cold (for a Greek) and vibrant Boston. My visit has been extremely stimulating and productive and I would definitely recommend it to any researcher, especially if the visit takes place in another continent. After the completion of my visit, our collaboration between the IRG, the SLMC group, and the Honda Research Institute Europe will continue towards developing further human uncertainty models.

Finally, I would like to thank SICSA for funding this research visit via the SICSA Postdoctoral and Early Career Researcher Exchanges (PECE) award, which greatly supported me during this fruitful research visit!

25th Scottish Networking Event (SCONE)

23 March 2022

by Jeremy Singer, University of Glasgow

The 25th Scottish Networking Event (SCONE) was held at the University of Glasgow on Friday 25th February 2022. This was the first in-person event for the SICSA Networking & Systems theme for two years. We convened a hybrid meeting, with around 15 people at Glasgow and a similar number joining via Zoom.

Several Scottish-based researchers presented their work on a range of topics including adversarial ML, multi-modal edge security and internet video stability.

We enjoyed a virtual visit from Prof Richard Mortier of Cambridge University, who participated in a panel discussion about interdisciplinary research. This is particularly important given the anticipated changes to the funding landscape. The panel highlighted the need to engage real-world users in co-creation, considering social, economic and technical impacts of our research. We discussed issues like privacy and data protection. We explored a range of means to discover possible collaborators, including topical workshops, problem-based sandpits, and mining personal contact lists.

One key risk with interdisciplinary research for networks/systems people is the problem of avoiding becoming a software engineer for someone else’s problem. We need to enable interesting research for ourselves, as well as solving a meaningful problem for our collaborators.

We discussed the benefits of starting small, applying for seedcorn funding to do risk mitigation before engaging in larger scale development work. In summary, interdisciplinary projects can be more interesting, more fun, and more rewarding but they come with higher risk.

After the panel discussion, the closing keynote talk was from Rui Li of Samsung AI. She presented several innovations in applying machine learning tools to solve communications and networking problems, with a focus on the notion of meta-learning.

Once the formal workshop event was completed, the in-person attendees kept up the SCONE tradition of post-workshop drinks. We continued our discussions (on topic and off topic) in a nearby bar, long into the evening.

Link: https://scone.cs.st-andrews.ac.uk/meetings/scone-meeting-25-02-2022/

 

Capture The Flag (CTF): What to expect and how to get involved in an event

15 March 2022

by Christopher McDermott, Robert Gordon University

On Tuesday 1st March, we ran our SICSA sponsored workshop during Cyber Scotland Week 2022. The purpose of the workshop was to increase student interest, and ultimately, participation in CTF events. Evidence has shown that introducing technical concepts to students with little or no technical background can be a challenging task for any teacher. However, research has also shown that CTF style competitions can be a successful way to introduce students to a variety of technical concepts within the standard computer science curriculum and have proven to be a popular means of engaging students with the world of cybersecurity. In addition, CTF events can provide cybersecurity students with an opportunity to test the knowledge and skills they have acquired on their course against a series of challenges in a safe environment.

Despite the obvious benefits of CTFs many students do not engage in such events due to the fear of the unknown. Specifically, many students feel they lack the necessary skills or knowledge to take part. The aim of the workshop was to remove the ‘fear factor’ and provide students with a clear understanding of what to expect when attending a CTF for the first time.

The workshop began with a warm welcome and introduction from Christopher McDermott. This was followed by a well received talk by Kieran Roberts – head of Penetration testing at Bulletproof. Kieran spoke about imposter syndrome within the industry and how in a highly technical field it is commonplace for people to feel they do not belong or are not good enough to work in the industry. He went on to explain that despite these feelings most people do indeed belong and go on to have very successful careers within Cybersecurity. Kieran also offered insightful tips and advice for graduates entering the market and how to get ahead.

The next speaker was Paul Ritchie from Pentest Ltd. Paul’s talk complimented Kieran’s talk nicely and further put the participants fears at ease. He went on to provide some excellent tips and strategies for getting involved with, and being successful at, capture the flag events.

Following the two excellent talks we engaged in a period of question and answers. Both speakers had clearly sparked interest amongst the participants, evidenced by the depth and breadth of questions offered. The session proved to be very fruitful and left all participants more confident of their ability to join in a CTF event.

The last agenda item was a demonstration of a mini CTF competition, created by students on our BSc (Hons) Cybersecurity course. Robert Paisley and Laura McKell walked participants through a live CTF, explaining the type of tasks someone could face, and how best to prepare for them. They both demonstrated excellent perseverance when faced with a few technical difficulties. Although not planned, the technical hitches actually galvanised the participants, with many offering help and advice for our two students. In a strange way it perfectly demonstrated how everyone works together in CTFs to overcome problems and capture the necessary flags.

Finally, the workshop was closed by Christopher McDermott who thanked everyone for attending and challenged participants to take part in a soon to go live CTF.

The workshop was well attended with over 75 participants from not only SICSA institutions, but universities and the general public. We are grateful to both SICSA and Cyber Scotland Week for their sponsorship and support for this event.

SICSA and EIT Digital Boost Scottish European Student Exchange Programme

    

SICSA and EIT Digital partner to deliver Scottish Funding Council Saltire Scheme

Scotland & Brussels, March 2nd, 2022:

The Scottish Informatics and Computer Science Alliance (SICSA) have partnered with EIT Digital to deliver on a £75k SFC investment in renewing and strengthening Scottish – European research collaborations.

The “Saltire Emerging Researcher Scheme” is part of a £6.75m Programme funded by the Scottish Government to support international and EU activity and collaboration including boosting support for international research collaboration and talent attraction, increase scholarship offering to include EU students and support the effective use of alumni globally.

SICSA, in partnership with EIT Digital, has been awarded funding within the Saltire Scheme to reinforce and build new research partnerships while developing individual researchers’ networks with European partners across the Computer Science discipline. The scheme will fully fund incoming and outgoing exchanges of up to six months to both enhance the training experience for PhD Students and support Early Career Researchers in developing their networks and collaborations across Scotland and Europe.  The partnership leverages the reach of EIT Digital’s extensive network across Europe in research intensive institutions and SICSA’s strong network of partnerships across Scottish Computing Science.

Professor Stuart Anderson, Director of SICSA said “Informatics and Computer Science researchers in SICSA do have strong and vibrant links with researchers across Europe.  However, BREXIT has had a severe cooling effect on funding channels because of complex and protracted negotiations on funding.  The Saltire awards give our PhD students and Early Career Researchers an immediate boost in reinforcing existing and building new collaborations.  These will form the foundations of new long-term collaborative research across the EU.”

Jamie Hepburn, Minister for Higher and Further Education said: “I am delighted to see funding under the Saltire Emerging Research Scheme has enabled this partnership between SICSA and EIT Digital. This partnership has increased the reach and opportunities for exchange and collaboration for both Scottish and European researchers, to help them deliver a better digital future.”

Morgan Gillis, EIT Digital’s UK director, commented that: “EIT Digital is very pleased with the take-up of its programs in Scotland and delighted to be deeply involved in the international development of Scotland’s digital economy across a range of sectors. We much appreciate our close collaboration with Scottish Enterprise and the Scottish Funding Council as strategic partners in making this success possible.”

Stuart Fancey, Director of Research and Innovation at the Scottish Funding Council, said: “Forging strong international links is a crucial part of maintaining and enhancing Scotland’s world-class reputation for research and innovation. The Saltire Emerging Researcher Scheme is therefore an incredibly important investment in the future. The partnership between SICSA and EIT Digital demonstrates the energy and commitment that will make the scheme a success for everyone involved. I am sure all those taking part in the SICSA/EIT Digital exchanges will benefit considerably from the experience.”    

EIT Digital in Scotland is funded by our partners Scottish Enterprise and the Scottish Funding Council. We are also supported by Highlands & Islands Enterprise, FinTech Scotland, Edinburgh Innovations and University of Edinburgh.

Press notes

EIT Digital’s Satellite Office, opened in Edinburgh in April 2019 by Minister for Trade, Investment and Innovation Ivan McKee, has maintained strong progress within its remit to deliver impact to Scotland’s national digital economy with €6m of new investment to commercialise innovative new digital  products and the launch of three Scottish doctoral programs focussed on Fintech, Privacy and 5G/Future Wireless Communication – all domains of national strategic importance.

SICSA is a Research Pool, funded by the Scottish Funding Council and 14 partner Universities to promote collaboration in research, teaching and knowledge exchange across its partner Universities.  It is part of Research and Innovation Scotland that brings together all of the Scottish Research Pools and Innovation Centres to cooperate on multi-disciplinary challenges.

Contact details for:

EIT Digital: martin.beaton@eitdigital.eu
https://www.eitdigital.eu/

SICSA: Tiffany.Babey@glasgow.ac.uk
https://www.sicsa.ac.uk/

2-1 for Edinburgh vs Glasgow in the SICSA Programming Challenges!

23 February 2022

by Hans-Wolfgang Loidl, Heriot-Watt University

The most recent instance of the SICSA Programming Challenge finished with a clean sweep of the first three places by students from the University of Glasgow. This makes it 2-1 for Edinburgh vs Glasgow in this series of SICSA wide programming challenges.

The series of SICSA Programming Challenges was started during lock-down in June 2020 and is bringing us full circle to a setup where we can hopefully all return to a more familiar mode of operation. On reflection, the first instance, still early in the lock-down period, attracted the highest number of students, with more than 100 students from across Scotland. While numbers have declined – the most recent challenge in January 2022 was attended by 23 students – we now have a good coverage across Scotland, with participants from at least six SICSA institutions.

We are continuing to use the OpenKattis platform which provides a huge repository of online problems, and performs automatic scoring of programming challenges submitted by students. As many of these platforms, it markets itself as a tool for preparing for technical interviews and honing programming skills, thus it is highly relevant for computer science students, who will be entering the job market soon.

After running three SICSA-wide challenges, we now have an organising team from six different Scottish universities in place. We encourage other academics to get in touch in order to grow the effort and expand the base of potential participants. We plan to build on the success of this challenge and run more SICSA-wide instances of this programming competition. Our thanks go to SICSA for funding the prize money for the winners of the event and for promoting this event.

More information on the programming challenge is available on the web site.

 

SICSA Education: RISCS / SICSA sponsored workshop on Secure Development Practices education

17 February 2022

by Shamal Faily, Robert Gordon University

On Wednesday, December 8th, we ran a half-day joint RISCS / SICSA sponsored workshop on Secure Development Practices education.  Practices for secure software development entail more than writing code. They encompass the broader design and engineering practices that produce usable and secure software.  We already know the transfer of know-how from Secure Development Practice research to practice is slow, but we wanted to explore why it is equally slow from research to education too.

The workshop began with an introduction to the workshop topic by Shamal Faily, followed by a talk by Helen L — the head of NCSC’s Technology Assurance Group — on principles based assurance, and what this means for Secure Development Practices.

The next item on the agenda was a panel on challenges and opportunities associated with Secure Development Practices education.  The panellists were Ivan Fléchais (University of Oxford), Nancy Mead (Carnegie Mellon University, USA), Martin Jaatun (SINTEF, Norway), and Tim Storer (University of Glasgow).  Topics discussed during the panel included addressing the Secure Development Practices skill shortage, occupational hazards faced by practitioners responsible for delivering secure software, and how Secure Development Practices should be promoted.

After a short break, participants joined one of two breakout group discussions on challenges and opportunities related to software security and knowledge transfer.  During the breakout groups, several interesting challenges were identified.  For example, how should we teach developers to rate the security ‘health’ of their code? How, in a packed undergraduate or post-graduate curriculum, do we teach security to developers without sacrificing other quality concerns like usability, performance, and maintainability? Finally, how should educators assess the ‘readiness level’ of some piece of security development practice research they wish to incorporate into the curriculum – particularly if their background is in software engineering or cybersecurity, but not both?

The workshop was well attended with over 40 participants from not only SICSA institutions, but universities and companies across the UK.  We are grateful to both SICSA and RISCS for their sponsorship and support for this event.

SICSA PECE Funding

2 February 2022

by Gavin Abercrombie, Heriot Watt University

In late October 2021, I packed my suitcase and left dark, damp, dreich Edinburgh for, well, dark, damp, dreich Milan. Okay, maybe the days are a little longer, but the climate in winter is pretty familiar to the vitamin D-starved Scotland-based postdoctoral researcher – oh, and they have ‘alien’ winter-proof mosquitos well into November.
Thanks to the award of a Postdoctoral and Early Career Researcher Exchanges (PECE) award, in Autumn/Winter 2021/22, I was to spend almost three months as a visiting researcher at the MilaNLP natural language processing group (NLP) at Bocconi University in
Italy.
Unfortunately, the second half of my visit was somewhat marred by the emergence of the Omicron COVID variant, resulting in two periods of enforced self-isolation, and limited opportunity for in-person working with other people. Nevertheless, I was able to begin work on two projects in collaboration with researchers at Bocconi and an industry partner. These focused on the human side of AI, the labels given to texts used to train machine learning systems, the people who create them, and the possible subjectivity they bring to these tasks. In short, we want to examine how consistent people are, to what extent they agree with each other, how their languages and bilingualism may affect their responses, and how reliable the datasets that AI systems are based on them are. While these studies are still works in progress, we hope to submit papers based on them for publication later this year.
After almost two years of working from home, the highlight of the visit was undoubtedly being able to work in-person with other researchers, as, for most of my stay, life in Milan went on as normal, at least for those with the vaccination ‘green pass’. I was therefore able to discuss my work and give in-person presentations, both at Bocconi and the University of Turin.
I met a lot of great people, both at and outwith Bocconi, several of whom I have begun collaborations with. Hopefully this will be the start of a long running, two-way relationship between the Scottish and Italian NLP research communities. Although next time I’ll try to time my visit in between the freezing-fog and killer-mosquito seasons.

1.Negri et al. (2021) Evidence for the spread of the alien species Aedes koricus in the Lombardy region, Italy. Parasites Vectors 14, 534 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1186/s13071-021-05031-7