Senior Scientists Oppose Funding Cuts to Maths Fellowships

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Senior scientists have written to David Cameron outlining the potential impact of funding cuts to mathematical sciences. They claim that the future budget cuts by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council will “force many of our best PhD students to leave the country” and prevent research work needed to support a modern economy.

Burt Totaro, a professor of astronomy and geometry at the University of Cambridge, organised the letter to David Cameron. He explained the decision to send the letter: “to say large parts of biomedical sciences will have no funding for fellowships at all would be very extreme.” Consequently, he felt that “mathematicians simply had to make some noise about that.”

In July 2011 the EPSRC announced that only researchers working in statistics and applied probability can apply for fellowships. This is a move which the 25 academics argue will damage a subject on which resides “science, engineering and technology, finance and economics, the study of weather and the environment, and much of the modern economy.”

These changes to the fellowship schemes are the latest in a series of restrictions introduced by the EPSRC as part of their Strategic Plan, which was released to the public in 2010. The EPSRC explained that this “will focus research on the needs of the nation and commit greater support to those scientists and engineers who are world leading.”

They added that “in order to maintain the UK’s global research standing in light of increasing international competition, and with limited funding available to us, we must focus our investments to remain internationally leading in areas that are of long-term strategic importance to the UK.”

However Alex Bramham, a 2nd year maths student at Waham College, was disappointed to hear about the proposed restrictions. He believes that the government only sees mathematics as a “means of gaining statistics,” while students like himself view it as a “pleasurable art form.” Therefore “for the same reasons they shouldn’t cut funding towards areas of humanities research, they shouldn’t cut funding to maths.”

Jack Webb, fellow maths Wadhamite, also appreciates the subject as an art form. He said “maths is incredible as a subject just to be able to learn,” and identified that “if you’re quantifying something then easier to say that statistics are a lot more useful, but then again it’s the statisticians who do that anyway, so they’re biast.”

Other maths students shred this concern. One commented that the cuts seemed “short sighted as anything other than a temporary measure,” since “they don’t fully take into account developments that could come from other branches of maths.”

Rosie Pearce


Comment by Matthew Rattley

Senior mathematicians have spoken out against cuts outlined by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) to many areas of their field, describing them as “a bureaucratic fiat” and leaving mathematics in Britain to “face mediocrity in a decade”.

The EPRSC funds doctoral and post-doctoral students across mathematics and the physical sciences, with some £850 million invested each year to academics nationwide. However, like many government agencies, they are having to tighten their belts, to the tune of 15% of their total funding – and tough decisions have been made about which areas should continue to be maintained, and which must be reduced. In mathematics, they have so far identified just two key areas – statistics, and applied probability – which will receive the largest slice of the pie over the coming years.

It is this process that the mathematicians have expressed concerns about. Whilst the EPSRC’s planning stages did involve consultation with a team formed predominantly of academic mathematicians and computer scientists, there is a feeling within the mathematics community as a whole that they were not consulted. The mathematicians’ concerns were outlined in a letter to the Prime Minister and senior government officials last month, signed by a number of our own academics here at Oxford, as well as four Fields Medallists (the mathematics equivalent of the Nobel Prize) and even an ex-government advisor on science.

Mathematics is integral to all of the sciences in one way or another; but, it has wider implications beyond pure research. The letter talks of “surprising and unpredictable sources” within mathematics which find applications – for example, the security with which bank transfers can be processed has only been made possible by thorough research into number theory, which is among the most theoretical mathematics studied. Running the economy and financial markets undoubtedly benefits from core mathematical research – and few would argue that a more informed approach in these areas will do plenty to aid our recovery.

Mathematics has already borne a large brunt of the cuts, with research grants being halved over the last few years to £12 million; given the fundamental position it occupies, as well as Britain’s strong standing in mathematics, a reckless approach to reducing funding would purportedly cause “irreversible damage”. The letter also talks of “top UK talent” being lured away by better funding in Europe and the US – a reality that will become increasingly apparent over the coming years, that can only do harm to research in this country.

Clearly the mathematicians have done their sums, and there is no question that funding must be cut in some way. “Making the most effective use of limited resources” is the key message in the letter – cutting sensitively and with an awareness of the full consequences, which the mathematicians suggest hasn’t happened. They talk of “micro-managing” by “unaccountable quangos”, as part of the EPSRC’s ‘Shaping Capability’ programme to restructure its funding; they argue, these are not the people to be deciding who gets resources and who doesn’t.

This is the second time in a month that the EPSRC’s funding cuts have come under attack. A similar letter was sent by the chemistry community over cuts to funding for organic synthesis – another area with key real-world applications. Cutting funds is a necessary evil at the moment, and mathematics must take its share, but the only way to limit its impact is “in a dialogue with UK mathematicians” – those that are best placed to judge the quality, applicability and potential of mathematical research.