IRM update: transcript of town meeting AND Science Futures at the Cambridge Science Festival

The EPSRC has posted a transcript of the town meeting held at UCL on 28 January, at which Margaret Wright presented the draft IRM panel report. It’s long, but mostly interesting. One of Margaret Wright’s points jumped out at me:

But despite the enormous importance of the mathematical sciences their role is often invisible or disguised, and this is true in many other countries. Now, what’s a possible reason? Let’s take when you’re trying to convince someone at a high level how important your field is – you use powerful images – right? Ok, astronomy – in the US they just walk in, they show these pictures and everyone says ‘Give them what they want’ – great? We love it… astronomy… look this is from the Hubble space survey – they’re wonderful! Now of course we could argue about the mathematics, it’s leading to the size of data, to detect the things to show this, but people love it. So astronomy gets a cake walk – they just get what they want! Another thing you can do is be really cute – I’m not sure what fields would go with a kitten or a puppy, but people just say ‘Awww!’. We have to say stuff like that – whatever it is. Now I’m not saying, I’m trying to be a mathematician here, I’m not saying that some of my colleagues are not as impressive as a picture of a galaxy or as cute as a kitten or a puppy, it may be that they are and we should find them if that’s the case. But here’s the kind of thing we have – I have never known anyone to show an equation and have people go ‘wow!’ or ‘So cute! What a cute equation’. So this is what we have to offer. So what that means is we need people who understand how important mathematics is to make the case for us.

Two days ago, I attended the Science Futures panel discussion at the Cambridge Science Festival: three interesting, knowledgeable speakers had been asked to talk about the future of science, specifically in the context of public funding that could be justified as economic investment. The presentations and discussion were extremely stimulating, and the speakers were clearly committed to making the case for fundamental science. However, no one mentioned the mathematical sciences. And when I asked them where mathematics fit into their picture, I was disappointed by the answers, which felt perfunctory — along the lines of “of course all scientists need to know mathematics” and “studying mathematics at A-level will raise your lifetime income by 10%” and “who would have guessed that number theory would be critical to cryptography”. I don’t think the problem lies with the Science Futures panel members. Rather, I think it shows that we mathematicians are not making the case, even to the people waiting to hear it, that the future of science is mathematical science. And it is.

I emphasize “people waiting to hear it” above because the panel, in describing the type of science

  • for which public funding is most justified by efficiency arguments: far upstream (so no particular industry should be expected to pursue it but it should be pursued) and
  • has the biggest effect in contributing to national wealth: process improvement (which to me screamed out: operations research, computer science, compressed sensing, high-throughput statistics, all of which are in turn built on more theoretical math)

was talking about mathematical science but they didn’t make the connection. Again, I have to emphasize that I’m not criticizing the panel members. In fact, I think the UK mathematical community (possibly as embodied in the LMS) needs to get together with them and talk about what we have to offer and how best to make our case as one the most efficient drivers of economic growth and scientific progress, not just the passive language of science.

Panel members were: David Cleevely, Jonathan Haskel, Evan Harris. All very stimulating speakers, and all, I believe, good potential friends of mathematics.

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