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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8 Comments

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8 responses to “Guest post: Michael Singer asks what YOU think about EPSRC

  1. Julius Ross

    Knowing the percentage of mathematics funding that has been awarded through Fellowships while useful will only give part of the picture. What is really relevant is their value which is, of course, much harder to measure. However you might get some idea through anecdotal evidence (from both those who have had Fellowships and those who have been supported on research grants).

    Also it may be worth remembering that mathematics is widely perceived, particularly from the outside, as something driven by young “up-and-coming” mathematicians with novel ideas (whether this is actually true for mathematics over than other disciplines I cannot say). It would be interesting to know if EPSRC has a different view on this, as it is not particularly consistent with supporting research grants over Fellowships.

  2. Two things strike me particularly about the way this saga has unfolded. The first is the unanimity with which the academic community has responded. Is there a single learned society connected with UK mathematics that has not protested strongly at EPSRC’s plans?

    The second is the extraordinary intransigence that EPSRC has displayed. They’re undoubtedly an organization under attack. A year ago, I don’t think very many mathematicians had strong opinions about EPSRC. Now, it’s common to hear the opinion that Delpy should go, or that EPSRC should be dismantled altogether.

    You would think, under the circumstances, that EPSRC would at least want to pretend to respond to criticisms, for the sake of appearances. Maybe they actually are, and they’re very bad at communicating, but the impression I get is one of great arrogance. The THES article suggests that perhaps both are the case: they say they’re keen to correct “misunderstandings” of EPSRC policy, as if that’s all there was to it.

    Take, for example, the way postdoctoral fellowships have been handled. The initial howls of protest were not only about the decision to restrict them (initially) to statistics and applied probability, but also about the secrecy with which this decision was made and the ambiguity of that word “initially”. How might a sensible organization respond? By apologizing , engaging with the community in a meaningful way, and being super-clear about what the next step in the fellowship call was going to be. This is not, to put it mildly, what has happened.

    • jmartinezgarcia

      Just a quick note. So far apart from applied probability and statistics, there are calls only open for New Connections between Mathematical Sciences and Information Communication Technologies and Interdisciplinary Research, which probably means Applied Mathematics so that has not changed much. As far as I know there are no date to open this to more applied subjects, right?

  3. Does anyone know when the reviews will be completed of the areas listed as “under review” (which is everything except statistics and applied probability) on this page?

    http://www.epsrc.ac.uk/ourportfolio/themes/mathematics/Pages/default.aspx

    I thought it was going to be some time in November, but I must have got the wrong end of the stick …

    • Burt Totaro

      A decision was made in November — but leaving most of the mathematical sciences in limbo. It keeps postdoctoral fellowships closed to any subjects other than statistics and applied probability. It broadens later-stage fellowships in ways I find somewhat opaque:
      http://www.epsrc.ac.uk/funding/fellows/Pages/mathematicalsciences.aspx

      I do have some limited optimism about the “intradisciplinary” opportunity. Richard Thomas, Arieh Iserles and I met Philippa Hemmings of EPSRC today (I plan to report more fully on the meeting later). I asked Philippa Hemmings how “intradisciplinary” was being defined (or by whom). She said that it was up to mathematicians applying for these fellowships to make the case that their work would combine two different areas of mathematics in an exciting way, and that EPSRC deliberately did not define what “different areas” means. In particular, she said explicitly that “areas” aren’t determined by any previous division that EPSRC has made of mathematics.

  4. peter

    I doubt that the Government actually listens to learned societies, since they are assumed to be engaged in self-interested pleading. The various mathematics societies need to bring in heavy artillery to support their case – chief executives of major software companies, banks, telecoms companies, etc. Those in charge of the LMS, the RSS and the Royal Society should be calling Microsoft, Barclays, BT, etc, to ask for lobbying support. Government will listen if Bill Gates or Bob Diamond says that maths is needed and current policies place it under threat. Only money talks, sadly.

  5. Lyn

    I am horrified with EPSRC. I don’t like them at all.

    I am a 4th year MMath student currently applying for PhDs, hopefully for Dynamical Systems. Before this academic year I only knew that EPSRC were the people who funded things and very little else about them. Now having looked up a few things and seen the petition from my institution – well, it is not a good first impression in the slightest. The situation seems to be that having had this international review, they have blithely ignored all its recommendations aside from the one that statistics and applied probability needed more support. In actuality, the report repeatedly emphasised the importance of diversity within mathematics. They might have now added one more area, but that doesn’t help me in the slightest, and what about the rest? How long will they leave this in limbo?

    EPSRC have had countless letters from every institution in the UK, from people at every stage of an academic career, from those at the very top of their field, all protesting this policy and begging them to listen and reconsider. I seem to recall EPSRC have even had a letter from those who wrote the review, stating that this was definitely not what they had recommended and that they strongly advised against this policy. The response? “No no, we know better”.

    For me personally, I am very concerned. Should I bother doing a PhD when at the moment it seems very unlikely that anyone will be able to begin an academic career, let alone me. Further to this, why should I stay in the UK? Other countries perhaps support their mathematicians better. This is my future they are playing with, and at the moment it looks distinctly grim. I am only 21 – not old enough to know very much about anything yet, but I can only hope that someone actually manages to get through to them, and that they stop ignoring the community they are supposed to serve.

  6. Ian Strachan

    I will restrict myself to comments on fellowships, as I chaired the 2011-12 PDRF sift and interview panels and also sat on the 2010-11 PDRF sift panel, but this also highlights the relationship between the EPSRC and the community at large.

    I am particularly concerned with Prof. Delpy’s public comment on the lack of fellowships in Statistics in previous years:

    `the consequence of leaving this to the community to decide was that, in the past five years, not one fellowship in mathematics was awarded in the statistics area’.

    This creates a completely inaccurate view on how “the community” decides research funding.

    In particular it raises two points:

    [1] The panels have to operate according to EPSRC rules, and up to now a ranked-order list was drawn up based primarily on research quality. It was not up to panels to decide strategic funding priorities. We could not, therefore, move a proposal up the rankings because of the strategic importance of the area, or if the area required supporting, even if a panel wanted to.

    [2] The number of applications for fellowships in Statistics over these two period was very low indeed.

    I have been impressed over the years on these, and other EPSRC panels I have been on, with the high quality of the scrunity that all proposals receive by panel members. If high quality proposal came forward in the area of statistics I have no doubt whatsoever that they would have been properly ranked and funded (though note, panels only produce rankings: EPSRC decide funding).

    Prof Delpy’s comments seems to suggest that the community is at fault: my obervation is that the community has been faultless in the exercise of EPSRC rules.

    If, after consultation with the community, it was decided that a particular area requires more support, this could have been achieved within the old fellowship scheme.

    For the record, I totally abhor the recent changes to the fellowship schemes: they are detrimental to the mathematical sciences as a whole.

    The over-all standard of the applications I have seen has been incredibly high: I fear for finishing PhD students and the future of mathematics in the UK.

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