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.
- 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.
- 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.