Our future in their hands?

The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC in what follows) are the source of most of the funding for mathematics research in the United Kingdom.

They have just released a document which shows how mathematical sciences will be actively shaped. This is a big step down the road away from responsive mode funding towards micromanagement. In particular, probability and statistics will be “grown”, and all remaining areas of mathematics are claimed to be “under review”. And if you hoped that this means that other areas might also be grown, take a look at their document on eligibility for postdoctoral fellowships, according to which no mathematics researchers outside probability and statistics will be eligible for these fellowships. If this does not represent a prejudgment of such a review, it is difficult to imagine what does.

I strongly urge you to look at these documents and others on the EPSRC webpage, as well as Tim Gowers’ commentary on them.

These should be read in conjunction with report of the International Review of Mathematics. This report, as I described here earlier, was commissioned by EPSRC themselves, and urged them to maintain the diversity of British mathematics, in all three senses (geographical, by subject area, and by type of institution). The current document reads like a kick in the teeth to Margaret Wright and her panel. (Even the “growth” in probability and statistics will be done by concentration of resources rather than preservation of diversity.)

I must come clean here with a bit of history. The British research councils were reorganised some time in the 1990s. Before then, there were subject committees which dealt, not only with allocation of research funding to specific projects, but also with strategic issues related to the health of their subjects. I believe that these committees did, by and large, enjoy the confidence of the communities they served. I was on the Mathematics Committee of (then) SERC for three years. It was during my time on the committee that we devised the rough and ready division of mathematics into the areas which now appear in the coloured circles on the diagram.

But there was a difference. We did this so that we could monitor applications for funding from different parts of mathematics, and if necessary provide behind-the-scenes encouragement for parts of the community to think about putting in more applications. We never imagined they were more than a temporary expedient. Now that research funding is allocated, not by mathematicians using their skill and judgment, but by civil servants using keywords, the numbers associated with the circles have a clear role in managing research which was never intended.

It is useful to recall why the change was made. Mathematicians may have trusted the committee to work on their behalf, but our political bosses judged us as if we were simply on the make, diverting funds to our friends so that they would return the favour. The incoming research council boss said so quite explicitly. The recent British scandal about MPs’ expenses suggests that they really were judging us by their own standards.

I am grateful to Tim Gowers, Angus Macintyre, and Olof Sisask for pointing me to the EPSRC policy documents. Personally, I would put much more trust in mathematicians like these three to make strategic decisions about the subject than in people who can produce the management-speak which appears on the EPSRC website.

About Peter Cameron

I count all the things that need to be counted.
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5 Responses to Our future in their hands?

  1. Pingback: Weekly Picks « Mathblogging.org — the Blog

  2. Irene says:

    Well, it’s pretty clear that UK doesn’t need pure mathematics. Now that can be a good and a bad thing, mind you, considering how much pure mathematical bloatware there is all over the place. And while the matter can be energetically debated, unless pure mathematicians have influential contacts who are willing to represent their viewpoints in decision-making circles, all the debating in the world isn’t going to be useful.
    My personal conclusions from this are:
    a) beef up on statistics, which isn’t difficult because my sister regularly unloads her work projects on me;
    b) look into immigrating to Canada after PhD.

  3. The Council for the Mathematical Sciences has written to EPSRC about the issues raised by EPSRC’s decision: their letter is at http://www.cms.ac.uk/reports/2011/epsrc_fellowships.pdf

  4. See also this Guardian article: http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/2011/sep/20/mathematicians-uk-maths-funding-cuts

    An EPSRC spokesperson says that it is incorrect that only PDF applications in statistics and applied probability are accepted. This, I am afraid, flatly contradicts what it says about eligibility on the EPSRC website.

    May we dare to hope for a change in the near future?

  5. Pingback: Screens in the Wild: The Digital Memory Bank | Dawn of the Unread

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