International Review of Mathematics

The International Review panel presented its draft report at a meeting in London last month. I meant to say something about it before; but better late than never, maybe. As well as commentary, I will quote various bits of the report. Margaret Wright, the panel chair, stood up and talked for an hour, and commanded our complete attention.

The panel have done a remarkable job, and their report is extremely positive about British mathematics. They say,

The mathematical sciences form an essential part of science, engineering, medicine, industry and technology, and serve as one of the pillars of education at all levels. Major contributions to the health and prosperity of society arise from insights, results and algorithms created by the entire sweep of the mathematical sciences, ranging across the purest of the pure, theory inspired by applications, hands-on applications, statistics of every form and the blend of theory and practice embodied in operational research.

The report talks of the unity of mathematical sciences, urging the community to adopt “united we stand” as the most appropriate perspective. But this is combined with diversity in subject matter, geographical distribution, and size of research groups, which they stress is vital and must be preserved: “a significant fraction of excellent research in the mathematical sciences is carried out by individuals or small groups”. They say,

… it is essential to honour diversity in all three senses [research area, size of group, and size of institution], as well as [geographical] distributedness, when defining the structures available for support of UK mathematical sciences research.

At risk of repetition I quote their first two findings. These could hardly be clearer.

  1. Overall, mathematical sciences research in the UK is excellent on an international scale, with world-leading researchers in every subfield and closely connected application area considered by the panel.
  2. The high quality of UK mathematical sciences research depends critically on the diverse and distributed research community …

Funders, are you listening?

I’ll mention three further matters which they discuss.

First, they say very positive words about support of mathematics from EPSRC since the last international review in 2003. But there is a definite undercurrent in their report indicating that not all EPSRC’s interventions have been benign. Especially this refers to the concentration of research into centres of expertise, or doctoral training centres, which explicitly contradicts their second finding. This comment also refers specifically to statistics (see the next point).

Second, they spend a lot of space on statistics. The argument crudely put is this: statistics teaching at school is inadequate, so it is crucial that university students in any discipline have good statistics teaching available to them; so every university should have a viable statistics group; but, for various reasons, small statistics groups are even more fragile and vulnerable than they were in 2003. This must be addressed.

Third, one point on which I don’t completely agree with the panel. They draw attention to the fact that the proportion of women in mathematics is lamentably low and not increasing. Indeed, this is true, and cause for serious concern. But surely a time of economic hardship is not one where this situation can be rectified. Academic jobs and postdocs are in very short supply, and even if we gave them all to women it would not change the figures very much. Also, is the LMS series of “women in mathematics” meetings helpful? Because they can’t find a topic on which several women work, these meetings are very unfocussed, and give the impression that “women in mathematics” really means networking. If there were such a meeting for “men in mathematics”, it would justifiably create outrage.

I will end by giving myself a little pat on the back. In the subject-specific part of the report, my department was commended for work on three topics (finite groups, synchronization, and statistical designs), all of which I had highlighted in my presentation to a sub-panel of the review panel in December. So I think I earned my pay that day.

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About Peter Cameron

I count all the things that need to be counted.
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18 Responses to International Review of Mathematics

  1. Colin Reid says:

    I’m a bit puzzled by your comment about the lack of women in mathematics and its relative priority as a cause for concern. Of course there is no quick fix, as the issues are demographic and at least partly cultural. But that means it’s something that needs a continuous effort over many years to make progress on, not something that can be picked up on in an economic boom and then forgotten about in a recession. Also, it’s not just about the raw supply of jobs – the situation is that a woman is far less likely to even consider a career in mathematics than a man on average, even among those who’ve decided to study it at university (even among PhD students, I imagine), and we have to wonder why that is the case. Part of the solution may indeed be to make women already in mathematics visible and well-known, out of proportion to their true numbers if necessary. I assume this kind of social effect is precisely the point of ‘Women in Mathematics’ meetings.

    • I agree with what you say. But much of the thrust of the review was actually “Here we see a problem, but we are not going to prescribe what to do about it”. I was left with the feeling that the only thing they were telling us to do is to worry about the problem, which will achieve nothing.

      And in fact picking it up in an economic boom would have a lasting effect. Once there are many women in academic jobs, these women (just like any other academics) will fight the battles academics have to fight, make their way as we all do, and in short be as visible as the men.

  2. Peter says:

    I’m as puzzled as Colin. There were two interesting discussions on gender and mathematics at quomodocumque recently.

    If, on the one hand, it’s a good idea to get more women and minorities into mathematical research (not for some quota but because we’re missing out on too many brilliant minds) then, well, it is a good idea. Why is it better to wait before making people more aware of this? This seems less an issue of the job market but rather an issue of the mindset of the people on hiring committees. It feels (too) optimistic to say: if we start now we might see a difference when the job market is better.

    On the other hand, the question about “men in mathematics” meetings seems like a straw man argument to me. The point (made at large at quomodocumque) is that right now *all* conferences are “men in mathematics” meetings. From what I hear when I talked to friends, the conscious and unconscious bias against women (and minorities) is still massive. So “the fight” might turn out to be inappropriately harder for some of us.

  3. Robert says:

    Thanks for the summary. Is the report itself available anywhere (I wasn’t able to attend the meeting and I can’t find a copy on the EPSRC webpage)?

  4. Peter: I am obviously not making myself clear. Here is a report of an international review: the mathematical community (and EPSRC) will be judged, at the time of the next review, by how well we are doing on the panel recommendations. And bureaucrats, of course, like quantifiable objectives. How many small departments have closed, or small groups disappeared? How many UK PhDs are getting academic jobs abroad? Has the proportion of women in academic or postdoctoral positions increased? They are not going to look at whether attitudes have changed. So I am saying, we shouldn’t be saddled with a battle we can’t win.

    I repeat, I am *absolutely not* arguing against changing attitudes to gender balance in the profession. As it happens, I don’t totally agree with you; but that is not relevant to my point.

    Robert: Everyone at the town meeting was given a copy of the draft report. But I too have failed to find it on the EPSRC website. I am not sure what is happening.

  5. Peter says:

    Peter, I understand the dilemma (and since we’re in some disagreement I’d love to read about your thoughts on the issues if you can find the time for such a post).

    I recently went to a talk by Ivelisse Rubio. In the second half she described successful projects that were designed to attract women and minorities, most prominently undergraduate level conferences with such a focus. According to her these projects are a great success.

    Implementing something similar in the UK could also show the next review some long term investment in this direction — and might just identify some really talented people.

    • OK, I will try to be as clear as possible. I believe that gender and ethnicity are profoundly unimportant to the doing of mathematics. I am entirely unconcerned about the gender and ethnicity of my students.

      Surely no evidence is required that mathematics is a universal human pursuit. If it is, consider the following. In 1732, ibn Muhammad, a Fulani mathematician from northern Nigeria, wrote a book giving new constructions for magic squares of order up to 11. He wrote,

      Do not give up, for that is ignorance and not according to the rules of this art … Like the lover, you cannot hope to achieve success without infinite perseverance.

      • Peter says:

        I absolutely agree. I would say that mathematical ability is just as universal as linguistic ability. Some have more, some less, but we all have it.

        But I see practical problems of a scientific community that has exclusive tendencies. (And, from a German perspective, that of an education system that has a bias against supporting scientific interests of women and minorities.)

        One of the comments at quomodocumque said “I find that math is often not worth the people you have to deal with”. From what I hear this is an unfortunately accurate description of the problem — and it horrifies me.

    • I think where we differ is that I see much less evidence of prejudice. Maybe I have been walking round blind for most of my life … but I don’t actually think so. I think the pressures on people as a result of their gender or ethnicity are far more the result of society than of the academic profession. This being so, I think that the IRM panel lecturing the profession on this is not helpful.

  6. Pingback: Draft findings of the International Review of (UK) Mathematics 2010 | Geometry Bulletin Board

  7. Gordon Royle says:

    While the lack of women in mathematics may be a problem for mathematics, it is far from certain that it is a problem for women.

    Although US-focussed and talking about science in general rather than mathematics, II recently read an interesting article http://philip.greenspun.com/careers/women-in-science that makes a pretty persuasive argument that an academic career in science simply doesn’t make economic sense if you analyse it carefully and rationally.

    Of course many mathematicians cannot conceive of NOT doing mathematics, but perhaps there is a substantial group who simply evaluate “academic mathematician” among a variety of other options, and it comes up short.

  8. In the LMS Council Diary from 11 February, Rob Wilson reports under the heading “External relations and policy”: “First, we discussed the report of the EPSRC International Review of Mathematics. While there was general support for the overall tone and recommendations of the report, it was felt that EPSRC was likely to ignore most of the really important recommendations, as they fly in the face of current EPSRC policy. The Research Policy Committee will doubtless keep the situation under review…”

    Quite so. To give just one instance (arguably the most important): EPSRC would like to concentrate research and research training in a few large centres, while the IRM report said very strongly that the current diversity (in terms of research area, size of group, and geographical location) must be preserved.

  9. The final report of the review panel is now available from EPSRC:
    http://www.epsrc.ac.uk/research/intrevs/2010maths/Pages/default.aspx
    Let’s hold our breath waiting for them to implement its recommendations!
    (Only joking.)

  10. I have just discovered that this link no longer works. EPSRC have replaced the report by a trailer for their forthcoming response to it. Does anyone know where the actual report is?

    If you are interested in these issues, take a look at what is happening at the University of Western Australia: see http://symomega.wordpress.com/2012/02/17/science-without-stats/
    I don’t think that the IRM panel anticipated this kind of threat to statistics teaching in universities…

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