Monthly Archives: December 2011

Guest post: Michael Singer asks what YOU think about EPSRC

The following post has been contributed by Michael Singer. We’re keen to find out what the broad community of mathematicians in the UK (and beyond) think about recent EPSRC actions, recent reactions, and the whole situation more generally. Please comment below, and if you’d like to contribute a guest post, get in touch: b.totaro@dpmms.cam.ac.uk.

As visitors to these web-pages will be aware, some voices in the mathematical sciences community have publicly taken issue with various aspects of EPSRC’s current policies. I would like to invite more people to comment on the current situation, as I am well aware that formal letters of protest are not for everyone. In what follows, I wanted to pick up on some matters that continue to concern me. Although my views are probably pretty clear, I aim to describe things in fairly neutral terms and I invite people simply to add their comments as they see fit.

Although this blog has no formal role in communications between EPSRC and the mathematical sciences community, comments posted here could be useful for the Mathematics Strategic Advisory Team (SAT) which meets next in February 2012.

1. Fellowships

This has been a major focus of concern following the decision of EPSRC to confine applications initially to Statistics and Applied Probability. At the end of November the call was widened to include ‘Intradisciplinary Fellowships’ and Fellowships for ‘New connections between the mathematical sciences and ICT’.

Note that it remains the case that the only opportunity for researchers just out of their PhD is in statistics and applied probability.

At the same time, EPSRC has defended its decisions about these more directed calls for fellowships in two ways. First, it supports early-career researchers in reasonably large numbers as ‘researchers’ on standard research grants, and the number of fellowships is relatively small compared with the number of researchers on grants. Second, postdoctoral research fellowships are available from many other sources (such as ERC, EU-funded Marie Curie Fellowships, Leverhulme, Newton Fellowships, Royal Society, Universities and Colleges,…). EPSRC has also changed the ‘Doctoral Prize Scheme’ to allow EPSRC-funded PhD students to stay on for up to 2 years beyond the end of their PhD. The administration of these schemes is in the hands of Universities (it is wrapped up with the Doctoral Training Account (DTA)) and for the moment it remains unclear how many post-doctoral positions this will open up in the mathematical sciences.

I would have liked to provide precise data about the number of early-career researchers in the mathematical sciences currently enjoying different types of EPSRC funding, but this information is hard to obtain. It does appear, however, that in recent years, the maths programme has awarded around 25 standard research grants per year while 10 fellowships have gone to mathematicians. This might suggest that around 25–30% of EPSRC-funded researchers in mathematics come from the now-defunct fellowship programmes. (A technical remark here is that the postdoctoral research fellowship scheme, while it ran, was owned by the mathematics programme, whereas the Career Acceleration and Leadership Fellowships were run EPSRC-wide.)

2. Relations with the community

The 2010 International Review of Mathematical Sciences
reported that EPSRC had done many good things for the mathematical sciences since the previous review in 2006. It also pointed out that relations between EPSRC and the community were poor at the time of the report and that urgent steps needed to be taken to address this issue. (This was the Review’s second recommendation.) Various items on this webpage have picked up this theme including Frank Kelly’s letter of 9 December 2011. EPSRC published a response to the IRMS in November 2011, which starts to address the issue of communication. It also invites feedback by 21 December 2011.

3. Shaping Capability versus the IRMS recommendations

It seems to me that a major issue is that the 2010 IRMS report gave a very clear account of the strengths of the mathematical sciences in the UK and the actions required to keep the discipline vibrant and healthy. EPSRC has published its response to the IRMS (see above link) but in the meantime has taken some other decisions based on its ‘shaping capability’ goal.

I have expressed the view elsewhere that the shaping capability goal appears to have led to initiatives and other policy developments that are adversely affecting the mathematical sciences — not only that, they run counter to the IRMS’s broad recommendations. OK, that part was not entirely neutral. But what do you think?

Michael Singer
School of Mathematics
University of Edinburgh

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