Monthly Archives: September 2011

Singer to Willetts: “the undesirable position you warn against … has already been reached in relation to EPSRC”

Michael Singer, former head of the School of Mathematics at the University of Edinburgh, has written to David Willetts, government minister for Universities and Science, to express his grave concerns about recent developments at EPSRC.

It’s an impressive letter. I’m embarrassed to say that I didn’t know about the selection process for the “Dream Fellowships”; it is indeed a scandal. Read the letter for yourself below. Links to David Willett’s testimony to Parliament and the IRMS report are here.


September 28, 2011

Dear Mr Willetts,

EPSRC’s relationship with the UK science community

I am writing, following the initiative of my colleagues in the mathematical sciences in the UK, to express my grave concerns about recent developments at the EPSRC.

This is not about the cuts. Nor is it just about the mathematical sciences, though as a mathematician and former head of school at the University of Edinburgh, EPSRC’s approach to the mathematical sciences is what I know the most about.

I understand that in giving evidence to the Science and Technology Committee on 14 September 2011 you stated:

‘I do agree that Research Councils are institutions which emerge from research communities. They are servants of the research community in the same way as I see myself as a servant of the science and research community. I would not like us to get into a position where it was thought that there was a kind of bureaucracy in Swindon detached from the concerns of the mainstream science community.’

The first two sentences are an admirable statement of how the research councils should be working with the research community and government. My clear view, however, is that the undesirable position you warn against in the third sentence has already been reached in relation to EPSRC. This applies both at the day-to-day operational level, where funding decisions are being made without robust scienti c advice, and also at the strategic level in the development of overall funding policy.

Let me provide some evidence for this.

Continue reading

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What the papers say (about EPSRC)

This week the letter from 25 mathematical scientists to David Cameron (organized by Arieh Iserles, Richard Thomas, and me) and the letter from the six UK physical scientific societies to David Delpy at EPSRC (organized by the Royal Society) have attracted coverage in the press and on various blogs. Links to the letters and the press coverage are here.

I’ve collected below some of my favorite comments. Of course, my selection is biased, so I’ve provided links to the sources in case you’d like to read all the comments made.

Nature Newsblog (the full comment stream is here):

I talked to this journalist, Richard Van Noorden, on the phone and was impressed. He wanted to know if he could talk to an actual young mathematician who, as we were claiming, would be harmed by EPSRC’s policy. Then he tracked one down and interviewed her. I’m grateful to all the journalists who covered our letter, but I think this piece is my favorite. It goes well beyond the letter and press release.

Not too many comments, but what there are are all supportive (as you’d expect from Nature):

Delpy displays considerable chutzpah telling the select committee that the hundreds of furious scientists have produced little new ‘evidence’. What ‘evidence’ is EPSRC using to inform their increasingly damaging decisions? The evidence is that EPSRC has made no useful consultation with the science community whatsoever.

Posted by: Simon Higgins

The Register (the full comment stream is here):

The Register is a lively, relentlessly irreverent tech news site. The story got great comments. I am becoming accustomed to thinking of myself as a boffin.

One commenter suggests what is also the EPSRC spokesman’s uniform response to criticism of the new fellowship policy in mathematical sciences:

Anonymous Coward
A request for clarification.

I see that many commentards have declared this proposition to be shortsighted. But, I wonder if this declaration is simply a short term proposal that will be revisited every year or two. It does seem somewhat reasonable to decide to focus funding on specific areas if only for short periods of time as a means of bringing those areas up to speed more quickly–albeit at a overall loss of reesearch productivity. However, if this is meant to be their position for the next decade or two, then it seems thoroughly absurd.

Note: I’m not British, so please excuse my ignorance on the subject.

Another commenter replies:

Ken Hagan
“I wonder if this declaration is simply a short term proposal that will be revisited every year or two.”

Almost certainly, if only because politicians have no attention span. However, as the article notes, non-statisticians aren’t going to sit on the dole for a few years. They’ll emigrate, and that’s a big enough decision for them that *they* won’t be reversing it two years later. The net effect, then, is to drive away (expensively trained) talent permanently.

If you *wanted* to turn the UK into a basket case country, systematically expelling anyone with a clue might well be part of your Master Plan.

The Guardian (the full comment stream is here):

A little irritatingly, the Guardian headline said that we were complaining about cuts, when the second line of our letter started, “The issue here is not cuts.” This wrong-footed some commenters who were so keen to comment that they didn’t read the letter, or maybe even the story.

But happily there were also knowledgeable commenters:

“Mobile phone companies have got shed loads of money, won’t their R&D depts cover this?”

because often research is done decades before someone works out what it can be used for – thats just the way science works.

No private company will fund this research because of shareholders and managers demanding short-term profit.

Times Higher Education (the full comment stream is here):

This story is primarily about the Royal Society letter but mentions the letter to the PM from mathematicians at the end. The comment stream took an excursion through a slanging match between theoretical physicists(?) and applied mathematicians(?).

I found the following comment interesting partly because I agree with the general point, and partly because it alludes to the funding behind the discovery of graphene but doesn’t connect enough of the dots that I can tell what it means.

Think again

The EPSRC shaping the capability programme is as an initiative by the EPSRC personnel (who are not researchers or scientists) to decide who should be successful and do the research. This favours hierarchical structures, large investments, grandiose biuldings and planned research without creativity. Just remember how last Physics Nobel Prize research was done…

Research Fortnight (the story is here):

This newsletter on research funding doesn’t support comments, so the main thing to observe here is that the journalist, Miriam Frankel, faithfully captured my sputtering outrage in our interview: “The whole point here is that they want to pick out sub-fields within the subject somewhat arbitrarily … and that is really, just crazy. At that point it is just bizarre to not consult [the community],” says Totaro.

They have also covered the Royal Society letter.

Blog coverage
New-cleckit dominie, a mathematician working in Scotland
Piece of mind, N. Ghoussoub, a mathematician working in Canada
Sheer lunacy, a chemist working in the UK
spoxbrain, a particle physicist (maybe?)
Math Digest, from the American Mathematical Society
Blogs covering recent EPSRC activity
Quantum chaotic thoughts, Mason Porter, mathematician at Oxford
A scientist and the web, a chemist at Cambridge
Research Fundermentals, Phil Ward, research funding manager at Kent

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EPSRC funding crisis: mathematical sciences

NEWS: 22 Sept 2011. The presidents of the Royal Society, Council for Mathematical Sciences, Royal Society of Chemistry, Institute of Physics, Royal Academy of Engineering, and Institute for Engineering and Technology have written to David Delpy, chief executive of EPSRC, urging that he pause “Shaping Capability” and properly consult the scientific community. Link to the letter is here.

NEWS: 20 Sept 2011. Twenty-five leading UK mathematicians — including four Fields Medallists — have written to David Cameron warning of the consequences of EPRSC’s determination to micro-manage scientific research. Link to the letter and press coverage is here.

NEWS: 14 Sept 2011. Update: The transcript is now available. The Chief Executive of EPSRC, David Delpy, has given evidence before the House of Commons select committee on Science and Technology. You can listen on Parliament TV. The first question about Shaping Capability is at 9:42. Questioning focuses specifically on the mathematical sciences — including the recently announced fellowship policy — starting at 10:00. (These numbers are times, not mm:ss. The committee meeting started at 9:15.)

NEWS: 8 Sept 2011. The IRM panel has written to the EPSRC (letter dated 8 Sept 2011; released to public 13 Sept 2011 — linked on the funding crisis page).

ORIGINAL POST: Lots more is going to happen in the wake of the EPSRC’s July 2011 announcement that, in the mathematical sciences, they will take fellowship applications only in statistics and applied probability. It’s not just about the fellowships: these have been the trigger — not least because the decision harms young mathematicians the most — but the problems with EPSRC have been longer in the making and go a lot deeper than the recent round of funding roulette.

I’ve created a webpage, EPSRC Funding Crisis: Mathematical Sciences, where I’ve gathered, and want to keep up to date, links to news, documents and resources. (It’s inspired by a similar page created for particle physics. Thanks to Mark Lancaster for allowing me to copy the html.)

Comments are welcome below; the page itself doesn’t support comments. And please let me know if there is anything you’d like to have included on this page.


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I’m running for LMS Council again — last time

LMS Council members are allowed to serve for at most six consecutive years. I am now running for re-election for years five and six of my maximum term of service. LMS members should be getting their ballots soon. You can see the slate of candidates: here.

Please vote. In recent elections, I don’t think even 20% of the membership has voted. Yet, I know that many more members than this care about the society, its activities, and the contribution it can make to UK mathematics and mathematical research more broadly.

If my goals for the LMS are close enough to yours, please vote for me, Burt Totaro. This year, in addition to the standardized list of facts about each candidate, the LMS has asked for short personal election statements. My submitted statement follows. The LMS has limited statements to 200 words, so I didn’t have room to say that I also think it’s important for the LMS to have a serious drive to attract more members, to broaden its membership criteria, and to make the mechanics of joining the LMS less bothersome.

Burt Totaro: Election Statement 2011, LMS Council
According to the LMS’s 2011 survey, the UK maths community thinks that the most important purposes of the LMS are: influencing national policy on mathematics; improving university mathematics, both teaching and research; and awarding grants to support mathematics. I agree. It is the LMS’s responsibility to promote and defend research mathematics. I want LMS Council to focus on this priority and avoid distractions, however worthy or well intentioned. Of course it is desirable for UK school mathematics to improve, for example, but the LMS should play a supporting role to other organizations such as the Mathematical Association.

In July 2011, EPSRC announced that in the mathematical sciences, it would fund fellowships only in statistics and applied probability. I am helping to organize opposition to EPSRC’s move. EPSRC’s decision did not come out of nowhere, however. Mathematics is central to science and the modern economy, but mathematicians have not succeeded in getting that message across to politicians and the public. The LMS does not have the luxury of shifting its focus away from its responsibility to promote research mathematics.

Burt Totaro: List of facts
Burt James Totaro, Lowndean Professor of Astronomy and Geometry, University of Cambridge.
Home page:
PhD: University of California, Berkeley 1989.
Previous appointments: Member, Mathematical Sciences Research Institute, Berkeley 1989-90; Dickson Instructor, University of Chicago 1990-93; Member, Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton 1994-95; Assistant Professor, University of Chicago 1993-98; University Lecturer, University of Cambridge, 1999-2000; Eisenbud Professor, Mathematical Sciences Research Institute, Berkeley, 2009.
Research interests: Algebraic Geometry, Topology, Lie Groups.
LMS service: Council, 2008-; Programme Committee, 2008-; Editor, Proceedings of the London Mathematical Society, 2003-2008; Editorial advisory board member, 2001-03.
Additional relevant information: FRS 2009; Prix Franco-Britannique, British Council 2001; Whitehead Prize 2000; Editor, Compositio Mathematica, 2008-.


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