Monthly Archives: October 2011

More questions in the House of Lords

In various letters to scientists, David Willetts and Adrian Smith have been deploying the Haldane principle as a reason that the BIS cannot exercise proper governance or intervene to rectify the problems with the EPSRC’s implementation of its Shaping Capability agenda. What should be a shield for independent science has become a weapon used against it.

Lord Lucas is having none of this, and has put the following questions to the Government. They were asked on 26 October, and answers are required by 9 November.

Lord Lucas to ask Her Majesty’s Government, further to the Written Answer by Baroness Verma on 20 October (WA 96), what mechanisms exist to enable scientists to call research councils to account, and what is the role of elected politicians in that process. HL12814

Lord Lucas to ask Her Majesty’s Government, further to the Written Answer by Baroness Verma on 20 October (WA 96), whether the Haldane Principle operates through checks and balances, with the goal of identifying and nurturing the best research for the benefit of the nation. HL12815

Lord Lucas to ask Her Majesty’s Government, further to the statement in The allocation of science and research funding, 2011/12 to 2014/15, published by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills in December 2010, that “It is important that Ministers, where they are involved in making strategic decisions on the funding of research, take account of advice from a wide variety of expert sources including academia and industry, both nationally and internationally”, what is the role that ministers have to play in that process. HL12816

Lord Lucas to ask Her Majesty’s Government, further to the representations from the Royal Society of Chemistry, the Council for Mathematical Sciences, the Royal Academy of Engineering, and the Institute for Engineering and Technology asking the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) to “pause” its Shaping Capability policy, whether there is a mechanism to allow this request to be discussed outwith the administrative machinery of the EPSRC; and if not, why not. HL12817

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Dear Professor Delpy

The following is the response — sent today — from Arieh Iserles, Richard Thomas and me to David Delpy’s letter (6 Oct) about the letter signed by 25 leading UK mathematical scientists to the Prime Minister (20 Sept). Links to these documents can be found on the website EPSRC Funding Crisis: Mathematical Sciences.

24 October 2011

Professor David Delpy FRS FREng FMedSci
Chief Executive
Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council
North Star Avenue
Swindon SN2 1ET

Dear Professor Delpy,

Thank you for your response to our letter to the Prime Minister regarding the future of the Mathematical Sciences in the UK.

We are glad that you would like more communication between EPSRC and the mathematical community. Until now, communication has consisted of EPSRC briefing us on your decisions, rather than letting us have input and establishing a dialogue.

The EPSRC maths team is now visiting UK maths departments to talk about your fellowship decisions and Shaping Capability. We are told at these meetings that we cannot discuss the statistics decision, as it has already been made, and we cannot discuss future decisions about other subjects in the mathematical sciences, because they have not yet been made.

Nevertheless, the first topic that we must discuss with EPSRC is your July decision to limit fellowships in the mathematical sciences to statistics and applied probability. Statistics is an important mathematical science in which UK universities have had trouble maintaining their current strength. Mathematical scientists would like to help EPSRC address this issue. But your restriction on fellowships is the wrong approach. All the UK’s learned societies in the mathematical sciences, as well as the International Review of the Mathematical Sciences panel, have written to you to criticise EPSRC’s fellowship decision.

You say that you have limited fellowships to statistics and applied probability only ‘in the first instance’ and that you have not yet made your final decision. But by delaying further decisions until the end of 2011, you have effectively ruled out fellowships for most of this year’s cohort of young mathematical scientists, since the international mathematics job market closes around that time. Only those left without a position in the rest of the world will be able to apply for EPSRC fellowships. The additional ‘flexibility’ you mention may be useful in the future, but does not solve the problems caused this year.

You mention that EPSRC research grants can be used to fund postdocs, but the truly worldleading people we want to retain and attract for the UK need their independence and their own fellowship to pursue their great ideas. The best young mathematicians do not want to work to someone else’s research plans. They are free to go to the world’s best universities instead. It is essential to the fabric of UK mathematics that we can compete in this market. The lifeblood of mathematics is exceptional individuals, not heavily managed groups.

More generally, our experience with EPSRC has been that the organisation consistently fails to understand how mathematics works, and how it can contribute to society at large. EPSRC cannot grasp the opportunities that mathematics offers unless it listens to mathematicians.

Recent changes at EPSRC have emphasised fewer, bigger grants and more centralised control. Mathematicians have told EPSRC over and over that these approaches do not suit mathematics, but we are told that these are top-down EPSRC-wide policies and therefore not up for discussion. You are converting a science that is, by its very nature, distributed, innovative and highly adaptive into one that is centralised, prescriptive and bureaucratic.

We are glad that you mention the importance of EPSRC’s contacts with ‘potential grant holders’. But EPSRC often measures the quality of an area of mathematical research, or of an individual researcher, by the amount of EPSRC funding it has received. Combined with EPSRC’s preference for large grants, in which EPSRC staff play a major role in early discussions, there is a real risk of unfairly directing funding to those have received EPSRC funding in the past, compared to those who have received funding from the EU, or for that matter those who have done brilliant work without outside funding.

You say that you are not trying to ‘pick winners’. Unfortunately, this is precisely what you are doing. You say that you are ‘focusing the research base around areas where the UK is an acknowledged leader in order to protect our international reputation’. But, as the International Review panel and other organisations have told you, the way to protect the UK’s international reputation in the mathematical sciences is to fund the best research across all the mathematical sciences. It is a waste of public money not to fund the best research.

Your staff, who by EPSRC policy can have no training in mathematics whatsoever, are being forced to decide the level of funding to areas of mathematics whose names they can hardly understand. This farcical and damaging state of affairs is no reflection on them, and indeed must make their working conditions difficult, but rather is an indictment of EPSRC policy.

Our perception is that EPSRC views mathematical scientists as self-interested opportunists who need to be managed centrally and who cannot be trusted to choose strategic priorities and imperatives. In fact, mathematical scientists want what is best for their science. There is considerable evidence that scientists can work effectively to make the best use of the funds available. In the U.S. National Science Foundation, the mathematical sciences programme is run with outstanding success by mathematical scientists who have had an academic career.

We welcome your request to have better communications with mathematical scientists. We want the planning of research funding to draw on the best scientific advice available. EPSRC will naturally draw on other sources of advice, such as the many businesses that rely on mathematical sciences graduates. But EPSRC must allow the UK’s leading mathematical scientists and learned societies to play a central part in planning research funding in the mathematical sciences. If that happens, we can make much better use of public money.

Yours sincerely,

Arieh Iserles, University of Cambridge
Richard Thomas, Imperial College London
Burt Totaro, University of Cambridge

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A written question in the House of Lords

An exciting development: Lord Lucas is interested in how the government is responding to the problems we’ve identifed with EPSRC’s treatment of the mathematical sciences, and he put a written question on 11 October in the House of Lords, answered on 20 October. It seems possible that we have his intervention to thank for the relative promptness of the response.

Unfortunately, David Willett’s response is disappointing and, I must say, baffling in its interpretation of the Haldane principle as a reason that bureaucrats in Swindon must be left unsupervised to do what they will to this country’s research base.

Links to both the original 20 September letter and David Willetts’s 17 October response on behalf of the government are on the webpage EPSRC Funding Crisis: Mathematical Sciences.

From Hansard:

Higher Education: Mathematical Sciences

Asked by Lord Lucas

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what was their response to the letter from the Department of Mathematics of the University of Cambridge, dated 20 September, and headed “the future of the Mathematical Sciences in the UK”. [HL12334]

Baroness Verma: I will arrange for a copy of the Government’s reply to be placed in the Library of the House.

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LMS ballots have been sent; ballots due 10-Nov-2011

If you’re a member of the London Mathematical Society, you should have received your ballot for the 2011 election. Completed ballot papers must be returned to the LMS by Thursday 10 November 2011.

If you haven’t received your ballot, and you think you should have, please get in touch with Fiona Nixon, the LMS executive secretary, at

You can see the list of candidates on the LMS website.

Candidates were allowed 200-word personal statements. These were sent with the ballots, but don’t seem to have been posted anywhere by the LMS. You can see my statement as part of an earlier post on this blog.

If you’re not a member of the LMS, but are a UK-based mathematical scientist, please think about joining. The value of LMS activities is felt by all UK-based mathematicians, members and nonmembers alike, but the LMS needs members if it’s to be most effective.

The small, flexible, low-bureaucracy grants that the LMS provides — to members and nonmembers alike — are becoming especially important as the research councils move towards longer, larger, highly “shaped” funding streams. On the policy front, the LMS — both directly and through the Council for Mathematical Sciences (which the LMS part funds) — has been very active and persistent in questioning EPSRC policy and practice and in putting the views of mathematical scientists to the policymakers. On the educational front, this year the LMS brought Emmanuel Candes to the UK to offer a one-week course on compressed sensing. This course was open to members and nonmembers alike, and drew over 100 young UK scientists from mathematics, statistics, and engineering departments. The lectures are now available on video, so everyone can benefit. Next year, the LMS will bring Alexei Borodin here for lectures on probability and its applications in representation theory.

Isn’t this an organization that you want to be part of?

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“Instead of winning the most promising people for the areas EPSRC wants to support, this policy will drive many of them abroad”: over 375 young mathematicians write to the PM

Over 375 young mathematicians have signed a letter sent to the Prime Minister to express their concern about the recent funding decisions taken by EPSRC regarding the funding of postdoctoral fellowships in mathematics.

The letter, organized by David Holmes, a Ph.D. student at Warwick, is the result of several weeks’ effort, with more Ph.D. students and young researchers signing every day.

The full text of the letter and list of signatories is below. Links to the letter, press release, and related documents can be found on the website EPSRC Funding Crisis: Mathematical Sciences.

On behalf of the UK young researcher community in mathematics: EPSRC funding decisions.

Dear Prime Minister,

On behalf of the UK young researcher community in mathematics, we are writing to express our concern about the recent funding decisions taken by EPSRC regarding the funding of postdoctoral fellowships in mathematics. Consistent with the recommendations of the International Review of Mathematics [1] organised by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), we presume that the aim of EPSRC funding is to maintain diversity within mathematics and to encourage the best researchers in all areas of mathematics to work in the UK.

No doubt you are aware how mathematics of all kinds underpins all of modern technology from medical imaging to internet transactions; as a recent example, algebraic topology is now being applied to analysing complex data [2]. We as a group are embarking on careers which we hope will continue the strong UK tradition of excellence across all fields of mathematics.

We observe that in contrast to this, the EPSRC has resolved that their ‘fellowships will no longer be universally available in all areas … but rather that priorities will be identified’ [3]. In particular, the current round of fellowships will only be available to researchers in the area of statistics and applied probability. This seems incompatible with the intention to attract the best researchers in all fields. It is not plausible that this will encourage the best young researchers to move into the EPSRC’s preferred area; specialisation begins around the second year of an undergraduate degree, so that by the completion of a PhD a young researcher has had around 6-7 years of intensive specialised training in their chosen discipline, and cannot rapidly switch fields to accommodate the desires of the EPSRC. It is furthermore neither desirable nor realistic to expect second year undergraduates to pick their specialities according to the availability of funding (which might change in the course of the next 6 or 7 years anyway). Instead of winning the most promising people for the areas EPSRC wants to support, this policy will drive many of them abroad.

The timing of the fellowships offered by the EPSRC is also not well suited to the aim of attracting outstanding young researchers; decisions are made after those for US fellowships, so that the best candidates are routinely forced to withdraw from the EPSRC competition to accept offers from the US.

Overall, we find the actions of the EPSRC incompatible with its aims; it seems to have little regard for obtaining the best value for (public) money, or for developing mathematics capability in the UK to the greatest benefit of its citizens, as detailed in the EPSRC-organised International Review of Mathematical Sciences.

We see this as a consequence of a failure of the EPSRC to either communicate with mathematicians, or to listen to the recommendations of their own International Review. Further evidence of this is provided by the recent letter from the Review panel to the EPSRC stating that ‘the limitation imposed on fellowship sub-areas is inconsistent with both the emphatic ‘unity’ viewpoint in our report, and with our expressed concerns about weaknesses in the UK mathematical sciences career pipeline.'[4]

We therefore request that you strongly encourage the EPSRC both to consult more actively, and to act in line with the results of these consultations.

[3] Letter from Philippa Hemmings of EPSRC to the heads of UK mathematics departments, explaining EPSRC’s policy of Shaping Capability.
[4] Letter from Margaret Wright of the International Review panel to David Delpy, Chief Executive of EPSRC, protesting against EPSRC’s July 2011 policy on fellowships.

The following 383 cosignatories represent a wide range of research fields including Algebra, Algebraic Geometry, Analysis and PDEs, Category Theory, Combinatorics, Complexity, Differential Geometry, Dynamical Systems, Financial Maths, Fluid Dynamics, Fluid Dynamics, Geometric Analysis, Integrable Systems, Mathematical Biology, Mathematical Logic, Mathematical Physics, Number theory, Numerical Analysis, Probability, Quantum Information & Foundations, Representation Theory, Statistics, Theoretical Physics, Topology.

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EPSRC has written to me. EPSRC Council meets on 19/20 October.

In September 2011, 25 leading UK mathematical scientists wrote to the Prime Minister about the future of the mathematical sciences in the UK, in light of EPSRC’s July 2011 announcement that they would not accept applications for fellowships outside of statistics and applied probability.

I have been told that the Prime Minister’s office will eventually send a detailed reply. David Delpy, Chief Executive of EPSRC, has just written to me about the letter. This response is disappointing. Arieh Iserles, Richard Thomas and I will be working on a careful reply.

We sent our letter on September 20th. Around the same time,
a letter to EPSRC calling for a “pause” in EPSRC’s Shaping Capability policy was signed by the presidents of the Royal Society, Council for Mathematical Sciences, Institute of Physics, Royal Society of Chemistry, Royal Academy of Engineering, and Institute for Engineering and Technology. That letter and related news can be found on the website EPSRC Funding Crisis: Mathematical Sciences.

It remains to be seen how EPSRC Council, which will be meeting on 19/20 October, will respond to this message from all the relevant science and engineering societies.


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Christian Robert on EPSRC decision: “it is close to a disaster”

Christian Robert gives his views on the EPSRC’s decision to accept fellowship applications only in statistics and applied probability until further notice.

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