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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2 Comments

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

  1. Artie Prendergast-Smith

    Dear Burt,

    Can you comment on the figures Delpy gives in the letter regarding the proportion of UK postdocs supported by EPSRC fellowships? He says:

    “…at any given time EPSRC is funding 250–300 postdoctoral researchers, with fellowships providing less than 20% of these.”

    This claim seems to be rather at odds with the general tone (as I have perceived it) of reaction so far: namely, that EPSRC is planning to eliminate all support for postdocs outside its chosen fields. Whatever way you slice it, the proposals seem wrongheaded and harmful, but it seems important to know whether figures like those quoted can be taken at face value, or are designed to cover up the true (even worse) state of affairs.

    • Burt Totaro

      David Delpy must be using EPSRC’s internal records for his figures of “19 Postdoctoral Fellows and 74 postdoctoral researchers on grants” funded in 2009/10. EPSRC’s web page does not seem to give detailed enough information about grants to understand the precise meaning of these figures.

      One striking thing in EPSRC’s Annual Report 2009/10 (p. 48) is that EPSRC cut in half its funding of research grants in the mathematical sciences around 2008, while the number of research grants stayed about the same:

      EPSRC Math. Sci. research grants considered and funded, in pounds; number of grants funded
      2007/08  24m ;  93
      2008/09  15.3m ;  89
      2009/10  12m ;  91

      Delpy seems to be saying that 74 of the 91 research grants in 2009/10 were (primarily) to hire a postdoc. That is not much money for each grant, since a large part of each grant is given to the researcher’s university, as required by “Full Economic Costing”. What must be happening is that many research grants in the mathematical sciences are only funding a postdoc for a year or two, rather than three years as in the past.

      There is something particularly valuable about fellowships, because of their flexibility: they can go to the best mathematical scientists across all fields. These should be 3-year fellowships, as EPSRC Postdoctoral Fellowships have been.

      Funding of postdocs through research grants is important, too.
      But mathematics progresses through young people with brilliant new ideas, which may or may not fit into this year’s research grants. At meetings with EPSRC, I have heard mathematical scientists from all fields argue this point passionately.

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