A message from our sponsors

The main national funding body for science and engineering in the UK is The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, or EPSRC. Recently there have been some important changes announced via their website. (Whether there was any other warning about these changes I do not know — I confess to having rather taken EPSRC for granted.) Rather than giving my opinion about the changes, which will be obvious, I thought I’d let EPSRC speak for itself: I think that what they are doing should be widely publicized, and in this post I shall restrict myself as much as I can to quoting from their website, with a few words of explanation here and there to make the context clear. If you have time, I recommend visiting and exploring the website itself, and seeing what you can deduce about EPSRC’s attitude to mathematics.

A quick disclaimer: though I imagine that my implied opinions are widely shared, I am writing this in a personal capacity and without the endorsement of anybody else.

To give an idea of the kind of language to be found throughout the website, here is the most prominent paragraph from the main page:

Shaping Capability: EPSRC’s Research Portfolio 2011

EPSRC released a map of its full research portfolio alongside further information on how it will implement the Shaping Capability strand of its delivery plan for 2011 onwards.

What is the EPSRC? The answer can be found on its “About us” page:

EPSRC is the main UK government agency for funding research and training in engineering and the physical sciences, investing more than £850 million a year in a broad range of subjects – from mathematics to materials science, and from information technology to structural engineering.

For more information about what we do, our priorities and how we implement our strategy, please read through our Implementing the Delivery Plan section.

Now, if you look at that section you find that they have published a timeline. This seems a good way of finding out what “Implementing the Delivery Plan” means. The first item (or rather, the top left-hand item — the items are displayed two-dimensionally) is this, for June 2011.

Publish Shaping Capability Landscape by July, describing current and future shape of investments.

It’s starting to look as though we need to understand what “Shaping Capability” is all about. There isn’t a handy link to follow, but after a small search I find something like a definition on their Executive Summary page. This page is, by the way, a subpage of their Delivery plan page.

Shaping Capability: Ensuring we have the right people, with the right resources, in the right places to deliver the highest quality long-term research in areas where the UK leads internationally and where there is current or future national need.

Maybe it’s also worth looking the introduction page. It’s nice and short, so here’s the lot.

Our vision and commitment

Driven by visionary leaders, the research we sponsor will both be internationally excellent and deliver long-term impact for the health, prosperity and sustainability of the nation and the world.

Our strategic priorities

Our 2010 Strategic Plan, endorsed by leading members of our research and business communities, is driving and accelerating our change agenda as we take a more proactive role in shaping research and training to meet national need.

The EPSRC approach: from funder to sponsor

We will work closely with our university and business partners, and with other stakeholders and sectors, as we further align the engineering and science base for the good of the UK as a whole.

OK, a message is beginning to emerge pretty clearly. Stripped of the jargon, it’s this: the EPSRC plans to think harder about what research the country actually needs, and therefore what it should be supporting.

Since the EPSRC’s job is to decide how to spend the money that the government gives it, and since that will clearly involve evaluating research proposals before deciding which ones to support, it isn’t immediately obvious what has changed. What is the “change agenda” they mention? Let’s try to find out by clicking on Our Strategic Priorities.

That takes us to a page that helpfully gives us an overview by telling us what the three “high-level priorities” are. And they are

  • Delivering Impact
  • Shaping Capability
  • Developing Leaders
  • This is starting to feel like reading a maths textbook, because I’ve forgotten the definition of Shaping Capability. But at least I know I can look it up. What about Delivering Impact? There doesn’t seem to be a concise definition, so here are a couple of paragraphs about it, selected from several more (which can be found on the Strategic Priorities page linked to above).

    Help researchers target impact – by actively emphasising priorities against national needs, stating expectations, requirements and responsibilities.

    Encourage our key university, business and government partners to align their strategies to a national agenda and priorities, and to create spaces for researchers and users to work together as normal business within that strategic framework.

    Develop enduring relationships between ourselves, business and the research community, by bringing companies together on a sector basis, agreeing important national research challenges and aligning the research we fund and the people we sponsor to meet those challenges.

    So, broadly speaking, the idea is to identify certain national priorities and to channel research funding into research that directly advances those priorities. Or at least, that’s what I think the idea is.

    I’d also like to quote a passage from the Developing Leaders section, since it is directly relevant to what actually provoked me to write this post.

    In this Delivery Plan period we will develop the next generation of scientists and engineers, ensuring that early career researchers with the greatest potential are well-supported.

    To understand this point better there are two things I want to know. First, how does EPSRC support those future research leaders that it identifies, and second, how does it identify them? And as a mathematician, I have a particular interest in how EPSRC identifies the future leaders in mathematical research. More generally, in the light of much of the rest of the EPSRC web page, I want to know where mathematics fits in to the EPSRC’s assessment of research priorities and national need.

    Before I get on to that, here is a section from their page on Maintaining the flow of skilled researchers.

    Our vision is to support the most talented and forward-thinking researchers, investing in the next generation of scientists and engineers. This Delivery Plan builds on our successful approach to training, instigated in 2008, which focused on the £300 million investment in Centres for Doctoral Training.

    These centres support students in four-year cohorts in highly innovative, research-excellent environments where both depth and breadth are championed. Students trained in this way are much sought-after by business and academia for their quality, productivity, and employability. More broadly, we will develop the next generation of scientists and engineers, ensuring the highest potential early career researchers have access to the support they need.

    Now 300 million pounds is a lot of money. Is that all going on supporting PhD students in science and engineering? And what is a Centre for Doctoral Training? How does it differ from, say, a university department? I ought to be able to answer that since we’ve got a mathematical one in Cambridge. But I think my answer would be less good than you will get by looking it up on Wikipedia. Just to add my pennyworth, the Doctoral Training Centre here in the Cambridge mathematics department now takes a large proportion of all the mathematics PhD students here (I’m afraid I don’t know the exact numbers), and focuses on analysis, and in particular applied analysis. What’s in it for our department? The short answer is money: a large amount of money from EPSRC. It’s not quite as simple as that though, since EPSRC doesn’t fund the Centre for Doctoral Training in its entirety. So the department had to divert some of its own resources into the CDT in order to get the external money. Here “resources” mainly means people and posts. Again I don’t know the details.

    I’ve gone off at a slight tangent here but I want to draw attention to the main point: that the policy has been to identify a certain area, in this case applied analysis, and try to encourage lots of people to come together to work in that area.

    Incidentally, something I don’t quite understand is how they know that “Students trained in this way are much sought-after by business and academia for their quality, productivity, and employability” when they are in “four-year cohorts” and their “successful approach to training” was “instigated in 2008”. Doubtless there is a rational explanation.

    OK, back to the main question: how does the new “change agenda” affect mathematicians in the UK?

    From a page on Global, economic and societal challenge themes:

    We will set a balance between national capability and challenge themes of approximately 60:40.

    We cannot afford to invest in everything, so we are focusing our resources on supporting four main themes: Manufacturing the Future, Energy (an RCUK cross-Council initiative), the Digital Economy (an RCUK cross-Council initiative), and Healthcare Technologies.

    I don’t know, but I hope that mathematics counts as “national capability”, since it doesn’t seem to fit very well into any of the above themes. (Of course we have our contributions to make to the digital economy, but if you look at the page on that you see that they seem to have other things in mind.)

    OK, what does the EPSRC think of maths? Let’s go to a page called Our portfolio. On that page, we find a diagram entitled Research Infrastructure, on which there is a circle with Mathematical Sciences written inside it. That looks promising, but before I click on it (which I can, it turns out), let me give another quote about the general plans. It comes from a page called Developing the shape of the portfolio.

    We are now assessing research areas within the portfolio and taking decisions about the relative scale of our investment in these areas. These decisions will state whether we intend to ‘grow’, ‘maintain’ or ‘reduce’ a research area as a proportion of the total EPSRC portfolio, indicating the overall trend we would like to see.

    Grow – this research area will be grown relative to other areas in the portfolio

    Maintain – this research area will be maintained relative to other areas in the portfolio

    Reduce – this research area will be reduced relative to other areas in the portfolio

    Aha. We seem to be getting down to nuts and bolts here. It will be interesting to see which areas of mathematics are to be grown, which maintained and which reduced. OK, time to click on mathematical sciences, which brings us to a diagram of interrelationships between areas of mathematics.

    The various areas are represented by blue circles of differing sizes, with the exception of Statistics and Applied Probability, which has a dark green circle. And a little key on the left tells us that dark green means “grow” and blue means “under review”. If you click on a circle, you can find out what proportion of mathematical funding goes to that area. For instance, I find that Logic and Combinatorics gets 3.4%, Mathematical Analysis 10.4%, Algebra, Geometry, Topology and Number Theory (quite an area that) 17.1%, and so on. Statistics and Applied Probability is currently on 14.1%.

    OK, how does EPSRC support mathematicians, other than through its Doctoral Training Centres? One very important aspect of its support has always been fellowships. Some of these have been postdocs, helping to keep people in academia when they have finished their PhDs but do not yet have an academic job. Some have been to enable researchers to take time out from their teaching and concentrate just on research for a few years. All have been very valuable to mathematics in Britain. So let’s see what the website tells us about fellowships now.

    From the page entitled Fellowships we get the following clues.

    EPSRC Fellowships – a new approach

    EPSRC’s Strategic Plan committed us to providing greater support to the world-leading individuals who are delivering the highest quality research to meet UK and global priorities.

    Areas in which fellowships are available

    EPSRC’s Capability and Challenge Themes have gone through an initial exercise of prioritising the areas in which fellowships will be offered. This will be an ongoing process and will be updated on a regular basis throughout the Delivery Plan period.

    Clicking on Areas in which fellowships are available takes us to a very informative table: it does exactly what it promises and tells us in which areas fellowships are available. And we find that in mathematical sciences the only fellowships on offer are in Statistics and Applied Probability. This is quite a shock, since they used to be available throughout the mathematical sciences. It also appears to contradict the following statement, which can be found at the bottom of their page called Our portfolio.

    Any changes in the portfolio will take place gradually over time. We will regularly review the shape of the portfolio and the scale of investment in different areas as it evolves.

    Putting it together with the paragraph quoted earlier,

    In this Delivery Plan period we will develop the next generation of scientists and engineers, ensuring that early career researchers with the greatest potential are well-supported.

    it would appear that they have judged that the next generation of leaders in mathematics will all be statisticians and applied probabilists.

    That’s basically the punchline of this post. But while writing it, I came to think that maybe my shock was premature. After all, they do say that they have gone through “an initial exercise” and that it is “an ongoing process” and that “priority areas will be updated on a regular basis”. So perhaps once they have finished reviewing the other areas of mathematics we will find that fellowships become available in those as well. If so, it would be nice if they could say so in clear unambiguous terms. Here’s another statement that may possibly back up that interpretation.

    In the first instance, we expect the below areas to be valid for a year. Where priorities are removed we will give advance notice.

    If the optimistic interpretation is correct, it is still a bit strange. Suppose you are a bright mathematician just finishing your PhD and you work in an area currently under review. It may be that that area will end up as one of the lucky dark green growth areas, but until EPSRC actually decides this, you cannot apply for a postdoctoral fellowship. And even if your area is earmarked for shrinking, should it be shrunk to zero? That too seems a bit odd. And suppose that the objective of EPSRC is to encourage people into certain areas. Wouldn’t it be better to let people know this before they decided on their PhD subject so as to attract the best people you can?

    The rationale for what EPSRC is doing seems to be that there are economies of scale: if you herd lots of people into one area, then they can benefit from each other and operate more efficiently. I don’t know, but I’m prepared to believe that this may be true for several areas of science and engineering. But for mathematics it is much less clear. (I do of course believe strongly that mathematical cooperation can lead to substantial gains in efficiency. But there’s something called the internet that means that we don’t have to be in the same place to cooperate.)

    Anyhow, watch this space. The timeline tells us that “new investment decisions in line with Landscape begin” in October. Perhaps then we’ll find out whether Logic and Combinatorics is going to get an increase on its current 3.6%, and even a fellowship or two.

    Enough for now. I’d better get back to implementing my enhanced evidence-based strategic thematic impact capability landscape delivery outcomes plan agenda work.

    [Addendum: I’ve recently come across this interesting and relevant article in the Times Higher Education Supplement.]

    63 Responses to “A message from our sponsors”

    1. Burt Totaro Says:

      Thanks for taking the time to lay all this out. It’s important for mathematicians (and everyone who relies on advances in mathematical research) to make their views on this development known.

    2. Paul Goldberg Says:

      On the subject of “the next generation of scientists and engineers”, I’m pretty sure the above is not the best motivational material for aspiring scientists!

    3. Richard Séguin Says:

      Much of the language in your quotes reads like the kind of mindless blather found in “mission statements” and “business plans” written by those just out of a two year business college. Be afraid!

    4. Toby Says:

      @Burt are there any further ways that mathematicians in the UK can make their views on this known? As far as I can tell this seems to have come as a surprise to everyone, including the LMS.

      • Burt Totaro Says:

        Yes, this EPSRC move was a surprise to the LMS, as it was, I gather, to the RSS and the IMA. From what I’m hearing now, the IRM panel (related to mathematics specifically) and some people at the Royal Society (related to science more generally) might have had a inkling that there was trouble coming, but could not have predicted its extreme speed and simplicity. I don’t know what the situation is in the other sciences, but guess it’s similar.

        The Council for the Mathematical Sciences, which is a coordinating body for the UK mathematical societies, is working on a strong response itself; and we are urging the Royal Society to weigh in, too. It’s not straightforward because a fight with the EPSRC can’t be beneficial for mathematics. Nevertheless, in the short term we have to make clear that this action will be damaging to the research base that the EPSRC is responsible for developing, and in the medium term I think we have to persuade people like MPs that the whole EPSRC attitude to science and scientists is counterproductive. Coming from the US, and having dealt with the NSF (and knowing some people at the NSF well), I was astounded at the EPSRC’s attitude toward what should be its mission. Even DARPA, which does undertake highly directed programs of research, has a much more positive attitude toward basic science.

        What can we do right now? I guess Tim’s blog is as good a place as any to discuss this publicly. And also, talk to your colleagues, especially those in statistics and applied probability. The last thing we want is for this to become a matter of divide-and-conquer. I trust that in a week or two, more structured opportunities to contribute to a response will become available.

    5. Anonymous Says:

      A brilliant deconstruction of the EPSRC’s newspeak — thanks! And regarding Toby’s comment — it looks indeed that “this seems to have come as a surprise to everyone, including the LMS”, although there were some early warning signs.

    6. A message from our sponsors « Mathematics under the Microscope Says:

      […] Gowers’ brilliant deconstruction of EPSRC’s Newspeak — a must read for every mathematician in […]

    7. Tom Leinster Says:

      Thanks for this. I hope someone from EPSRC will join this conversation.

    8. Peter Says:

      I second Toby’s question.

      There’s been quite a bit of criticizing about not-so-recent developments in assessing research. But what are people actually trying to do about it?

      It’s hardly news that (pure) mathematics is under pressure but I don’t see anyone even trying to come up with ideas to counter this development.

      Some links:

      • gowers Says:

        Thanks for those links: clearly EPSRC’s recent decision is just one example of a world-wide phenomenon. I don’t know how easy it would be to get them to change their minds, which made me wonder whether the right approach is to try to persuade private donors to finance fellowships that would replace the ones that have been lost and be free of government interference. Privatization is not a road I’m particularly keen to go down, but there may come a point where it’s the lesser of two evils.

    9. Peter Krautzberger Says:

      Wouldn’t it help if there was a discussion about how to assess the work of mathematical researchers across all fields? The diagram you linked looks like a divide-and-conquer strategy.

      For example, Peter Cameron recently discussed impact factors and citation indices in mathematics. I also think the “impact” of teaching is a value of mathematical researchers that we’re completely forgetting (In Germany, the unemployment rate for people with a mathematics degree is under 3%).

      Compare this to the scientific blogosphere where there were a couple of big discussions recently:

    10. Paul Levy Says:

      I attended an EPSRC early careers workshop last year in which they floated this “Shaping Capability” jargon – I tried to tie them down on what exactly that meant, but I didn’t get a clear answer.

      There are some vague hints about the international review – maybe they really are just waiting for further discussions to take place before deciding on funding priorities for other subjects? On the page entitled “Our approach”, it does say:

      “Initial discussions with the Strategic Advisory Team focussed on the key relationships and interdependencies of the different mathematical sciences research areas. After recent discussions with the SAT, we have agreed that there is a clear rationale for action on Statistics, but we need to gather more evidence before making decisions in other research areas. Representatives form [sic] the Council for Mathematical Sciences also took part in the recent SAT discussions.”

      Incidentally, I have also seen DTCs up close and I’m far from convinced that they are the best way to produce high quality researchers in any field, let alone in (pure) maths. It’s essentially throwing money at a small number of people, with the pot controlled by an even smaller number.

    11. EPSRC dirigisme | Geometry Bulletin Board Says:

      […] only in statistics and applied probability. Tim Gowers has an extended blog post about this: here. (One fact Tim unearthed is that last year, statistics and probability accounted for 14% of […]

    12. Jeroen Lamb Says:

      In “Research Professional” EPSRC CEO David Delpy is quoted saying that the council did not carry out an open consultation [on research priorities] with researchers in order to avoid biased viewpoints.

      “I can’t see how you can hold an open consultation where you ask people to make comments about areas outside their specific discipline,” he says. “I would argue that the only people who have that whole picture are the EPSRC…our expertise is knowing the whole portfolio.”

    13. gowers Says:

      A point I didn’t make in the post but now think worth making is that it’s not just mathematicians who are affected by the new EPSRC policy of focusing support in certain areas. For example, even if you are working in one of their grand themes, energy, you may not be able to apply for fellowships: if you have a brilliant idea for a better way of making solar cells, then that’s tough, because solar energy isn’t one of the areas in which fellowships are available. But I see that solar energy is one of the areas under review, so maybe this is a temporary state of affairs.

    14. Ian Strachan Says:

      I chaired this year’s post-doctoral fellowship sift and interview panels, and can testify to the extremely high standard of the over 60 applications we initially considered. We would have been happy – if there had been the money available – to fund far more than the 9 that were finally awarded. At the end of the meetings we told the EPSRC staff how valuable the scheme was to the mathematical community.

      When the changes to the fellowship scheme first appeared on their web site (this was a few months ago – a sort of “watch this space” announcement for the bombshell that recently appeared) I wrote to the EPSRC Mathematics Programme on behalf of the committee to reiterate both how important the scheme was, and to the high scientific standard of the applicants. No reply was received to this letter.

      I await the CMS letter with interest – when it appears could an online petition be started to show the weight of support for the views it (I hope) contains?

    15. Mihai Says:

      I think I am stating the obvious, but I think the main priority of EPSRC at the moment is to maintain a decent slice of an austere budget. So it’s quite likely that whatever they’re writing is for the folks above (the ruling politicians), not below.

    16. Peter Cameron Says:

      I don’t know whether I am telling tales out of school here. But I believe that Angus Macintyre (who just happens to be president of the London Mathematical Society) was barred from the meeting at which this stuff was agreed. Perhaps they were scared that he would have spoken out for logic and combinatorics. (I think it is more likely that he would have spoken out for mathematics.)

      We should indeed be afraid.

      • David Corfield Says:

        But they wouldn’t have listened to Angus MacIntyre on mathematics as a whole in any case. As Delby observes

        “If I go to a department of chemistry, they tell me about chemistry. What could they tell me about the relative importance of chemistry? Our unique strength is in understanding the whole landscape.”

        Presumably ditto for mathematics.

        I hope Delby devotes his retirement to the preparation of a multi-volume treatise explaining his understanding of the “whole landscape”.

    17. Our future in their hands? « Peter Cameron's Blog Says:

      […] strongly urge you to look at these documents and others on the EPSRC webpage, as well as Tim Gowers’ commentary on […]

    18. Yiftach Says:

      The hit on fellowships is quite bad, but I do think that there are ways to deal with it, e.g. move to something similar to the American system of visiting assistant professorships. However, the real worry in my view is the knockout effect it is going to have on hiring in general and maybe even firing.

      Following the EPSRC’s approach, universities are going to try to concentrate their hiring on statistics and applied probability. Worse than this is what happens in my own university, some people in some areas of research (not math for now) are made redundant so the university can hire in other areas.

      Following the News of the World scandal and the changes in the NHS it seems to me that the only way to convince the government to do anything is to create a lot of noise in the media. For that we need to act together, we need to be quite radical so that the media will pay attention and we need to use all the connections we have in the media.

      I think the first thing to do is for the LMS to form a clear opinion against these changes and then to seek the collaboration of other professional academic bodies. It would be particularly helpful if we can actually bring opinions of people who are going to “gain” from this, but still object to it, for example statisticians.

    19. Harry Percival Says:

      “Doubtless there is a rational explanation” – LOL. Classic British turn of phrase.

    20. Dirigisme: Research prioritization and funds reallocation … by staff | Piece of Mind Says:

      […] the “Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council” (EPSRC). Now that I read the latest blog post by my old friend Fields medalist and Cambridge Professor, Timothy Gowers, I see that Martin may […]

    21. jamescranch Says:

      Thanks for this, Tim.

      If only you had a book lying around your house which you could send to EPSRC, which might instruct them in the writing of plain English.

      Perhaps, for example, if you had inherited such a book from an ancestor, then that would be particularly convenient.

    22. Dan Lawson Says:

      As a potential beneficiary of these changes, a post-doctoral researcher in statistics, I would like to add my voice to the concerns raised here. We can’t have the best young researchers in any field finding themselves with nowhere to go between PhD and lectureship because they are working in the wrong field the moment their PhD ends.

      People simply cannot retool quickly enough to match the EPSRC’s requirements. Therefore, such dramatic political interference of the direction of research is likely to lose talent from unfavoured fields, either into industry or abroad. An additional concern is that it may maintain mediocrity in the beneficiary field.

      As hinted in the blog post, these are issues that can be addressed scientifically, and I would be very interested in any research attempting to measure the trade off. I don’t think it is unreasonable for us to expect the EPSRC to take such considerations into account. They may find that a more moderate approach to”strategic priorities” is prudent (and I see no evidence yet that the impact of the current approach have been evaluated).

    23. Weekly Picks « Mathblogging.org — the Blog Says:

      […] research funding, Tim Gowers dissected the EPSRC’s attitude towards mathematics –  which was picked up by Peter Cameron and Nassif Ghoussoub (who also estimated the changes […]

    24. JPP Says:


    25. David Says:

      EPSRC sets out its approach and strategy to shaping capability in the Mathematical Sciences here http://bit.ly/o70vUY. This section includes information on the key sources of information and advice used and who EPSRC engaged with in developing the approach, which included representatives form the Council for Mathematical Sciences.

      • gowers Says:

        From that page:

        After recent discussions with the SAT, we have agreed that there is a clear rationale for action on Statistics, but we need to gather more evidence before making decisions in other research areas.

        It would be very interesting to know what kind of further evidence is sought, from whom it will be sought, when those decisions are to be made, whether detailed justifications for the decisions will be made public, and whether the representatives from the Council for Mathematical Sciences are happy with the conclusions. I haven’t found any clues on the EPSRC website, (except that the timeline suggests that we may possibly hear more in October).

    26. Frank Kelly Says:

      This post is longer than ideal, but a reasonable interest has been expressed in the position of the Council for the Mathematical Sciences, and some background is needed.

      Recommendation 2 of the International Review of Mathematical Sciences (IRMS)

      Click to access InternationalReviewOfMathematicalSciences.pdf

      was that “Open, frank and timely communication between EPSRC and the mathematical sciences community is extremely important. In light of Finding F-6, the Panel strongly recommends the establishment, as soon as possible, of a new structure for communication between EPSRC and the mathematical sciences community. A joint effort between EPSRC and leadership of the learned societies is an obvious way to begin to define such a structure.” This Recommendation is emphasised in Section 12 of the IRMS: “The Panel therefore strongly recommends (Recommendation R-2, Section 2) creation of a new structure, designed together by EPSRC and the mathematical sciences research community, that will allow communication, in advance rather than after the fact, about the most effective structures for funding, the nature of initiatives and other key issues. We regard this as an essential recommendation.”

      At the annual CMS-EPSRC meeting held on 7 March 2011, initial discussions on the joint effort the IRMS recommended took place- http://www.cms.ac.uk/summaries/CMS_EPSRC_mins_Mar11.pdf .
      A further meeting was held on 23 May 2011, of CMS with EPSRC and the Mathematical Sciences Strategic Advisory Team (SAT) – http://www.cms.ac.uk/summaries/11.05_CMS_SAT.pdf .
      EPSRC kindly invited two CMS representatives to the next two SAT meetings, held on 24 June and 21 July 2011. The CMS representatives took part in their personal capacity, with formal involvement on behalf of CMS limited to comments on process and evidence. As far as CMS is aware, the Fellowship announcement of 22 July 2011

      Click to access EPSRCFellowships%E2%80%93ANewApproach.pdf

      was news to SAT members as well as to CMS. CMS has begun its response with its letter of 2 August 2011 –
      http://www.cms.ac.uk/reports/2011/epsrc_fellowships.pdf .

      Communication between EPSRC and the mathematical sciences community remains after, rather than in advance, of EPSRC’s decisions. The Council for the Mathematical Sciences is eager to encourage more open, frank and timely communication, but there is a long way to go.

    27. Mark Bennet Says:

      I think that great mathematics is supported by backing the best people, not the supposedly best research areas. What would have happened for example if Gauss or Einstein (or Gowers) had spent a career confined to a narrowly identified priority area … ?Mathematicians don’t work like that, well I don’t think so. Even those with narrow obsessions want their small area to affect what everyone else should be thinking about. The model is wrong.

    28. Anonymous Says:

      I suspect the EPSRC knows the views expressed in this post, and rejects them on ideological grounds. Indeed, the EPSRC’s website abjures curiosity-driven research in the Neoliberal Newspeak of Big Society, and treats science and mathematics as servants of commerce. Ironically, perhaps, even Soviet authorities refrained from meddling in Soviet mathematics on ideological grounds.

      • Sasha Says:

        Soviet authorities listened to the Academy of Sciences and understood quite well that fundamental research shapes everything in the long run. I think the EPSRC could learn a great deal from the NSF.

    29. Paul Glendinning Says:

      I agree with most of your analysis of the policy — though in many ways it was predictable since December, so should not come as a complete surprise (see http://pondmaths.blogspot.com/2011/01/hermione-granger-on-epsrc-delivery-plan.html, though my wife says I was too oblique!). What you do not address is how the community should react. This is really tricky (as I know from being part of the CMS group trying to agree responses) — and I’ve blogged a brief summary at http://pondmaths.blogspot.com/2011/08/responding-to-epsrcs-shaping-capability.html

      It would be interesting to know the views of people here — refuse to engage a risk being side-lined and ignored, or engage and risk giving EPSRC greater credibility whilst achieving little positive change?

      Take your pick — it’s a political judgement in the end.

    30. Tom Leinster Says:

      The letter from the Council for Mathematical Sciences to EPSRC is now available at the CMS website: http://www.cms.ac.uk/reports/2011/epsrc_fellowships.pdf

    31. David Corfield Says:

      Once the pain to one’s sensibility subsides after reading this EPSRC material, perhaps a little self-reflection is not amiss. What gave rise to the vacuum that allowed this ghastly verbiage to flood in unresisted?

      Have mathematicians done their best to foster discussion of the internal and external goods of their discipline and to describe the outcomes of such discussions to those outside it? Closer to home for me, what of philosophy’s role? It’s understandable that no individual today could reasonably attempt to produce, as did Charles Peirce, an architectonic of all human knowledge and to explain the place of mathematics within it. But should we have so completely turned away from any discussion of the shape of intellectual enquiry as a whole and from providing a language which might facilitate discussion of the internal and external goods of disciplines in relation to one another?

      No doubt they would have found ways to ignore us, but we might have prevented funders reaching unopposed for terms developed in human resources and financial management, such as ‘capability landscapes’ and ‘portfolios’.

    32. Tom Leinster Says:

      Philippa Hemmings, Theme Leader for EPSRC’s Mathematical Sciences Capability, has written a public letter about the future of fellowships. It appears that the pressure brought to bear by the community might be having some effect.

    33. Ralph Says:

      Obviously, being a leader in one of few active maths research areas is a great award in itself. Considering how many friends wishing you well this brings you, why worry so much?

      • gowers Says:

        I’m not in the slightest bit worried for myself, if that’s what you’re trying to suggest. But, oddly enough, I care about the effect on other people. In case that sounds pious, it isn’t entirely unselfish: I’m heavily committed to a career in British mathematics so it’s in my interests that British mathematics should be in a healthy state.

        I feel a bit odd writing this, since it’s so obvious.

    34. Walking Randomly » 80th Carnival of Mathematics Says:

      […] funding research and training in engineering and the physical sciences) including Timothy Gowers (A message from our sponsors), Burt Totaro (EPSRC dirigisme) and Paul Glendinning (Responding to EPSRC’s Shaping […]

    35. Burt Totaro Says:

      This week, over 100 senior chemists and business leaders
      responded to the EPSRC “prioritisation” scheme
      to cut funding for synthetic organic
      chemistry. They wrote to the Prime Minister to criticize the scheme and, in particular, the lack of consultation that preceded its announcement. The Guardian has the story:
      That story links to the full text of the letter.

      EPSRC has just defended its chemistry decision:

      • Ralph Says:

        Is there any logic in the below?

        “If we are to maintain the UK’s global research standing in light of increasing international competition, and with limited funding available to us, we must focus our investments in areas that are not only internationally leading, but are also of long-term strategic importance to the UK.”

    36. Sam Howison Says:

      Am I the only one to find the subject areas in EPSRC’s diagram very strange? They list 10 fields; some are odd linkages (logic and combinatorics?), while other big fields are missing entirely (eg mathematical biology). In fact, looking at this web page you might be forgiven for thinking that mathematics is a completely isolated subject with no connections to other disciplines. The same classifications are being used for EPSRC’s so-called Knowledge Maps (another tool they are using to shape our capability).

      I appreciate that it is helpful to have some sort of subject focus to aid decisions about funding, and that it is not easy to devise such a classification. But the EPSRC diagram seems particularly inept. The IRM report uses 13 subject areas, plus 5 areas of application, and although one might quibble with the choices it offers a much more balanced perspective of both fundamental mathematics and its many links and connections.

    37. Arieh Iserles Says:

      When STFC tried to cut few percent of particle physics and astronomy budget few years ago, the outcry in the media would have led you to believe that the end of civilisation is nigh. When the EPSRC Maths Committee budget has been cut (at about the same time) by 45%, there was resounding silence. Occasionally I have the impression that were UK mathematicians to be told by “the authorities” that we need to cut our throats at noon tomorrow, the discussion will be whether we can use serrated knives or are allowed to use local anaesthetic.

      EPSRC is driven by what the bureaucrats believe their political masters want, while their political masters are driven in large measure by public opinion (and, let’s not forget, the sums we are talking are ridiculously small: keeping a single rioter in jail is equivalent to what? Two postdocs?). As long as all is quiet except for polite pleading, it will be increasingly worse and worse.

      • Burt Totaro Says:

        Good! This is what I think too. I was impressed by the blunt letters from the chemists to David Cameron about EPSRC — and also by the press coverage.

        I think we mathematicians should organize something similarly blunt as a counterpoint to the politer approaches via CMS. So. Arieh, shall we draft such a letter, with the aim of gathering signatures and taking our case to the public?

    38. “Keeping a single rioter in jail is equivalent to what? Two postdocs?” | Piece of Mind Says:

      […] more, you may want to read the rest of the comments on Tim Gowers’ blog! And by the way, the UK Physicists succeeded. As reported earlier,  “the Science and Technology […]

    39. Arieh Iserles Says:

      Burt: I am in Oberwolfach just now (even mathematicians are allowed in the paradise, as long as EPSRC doesn’t pay for it), next week in Stockholm, but will be definitely willing once back at CMS.

    40. Dirigisme — aka Shaping Capability — update | Geometry Bulletin Board Says:

      […] The LMS has started a blog for comments on the EPSRC Shaping Capability scheme. There are already several solid contibutions. (Comments also continue on Tim Gowers’s blog.) […]

    41. Much to learn from the Chemists … of the UK | Piece of Mind Says:

      […] funding for synthetic organic chemistry, but will increase funding to the area of catalysis. Mathematics’ share from the EPSRC was an edict stating that “applied probability” will be “grown” and […]

    42. Burt Totaro Says:

      The Times Higher Education Supplement has a
      on the response by mathematicians and chemists
      to EPSRC’s “prioritisation” plans.

      The chemists have another good
      in the Guardian. “EPSRC …. admitted that their use
      of the word `consultation’ was perhaps
      different from the norm.”

    43. Davd Holmes Says:

      Deal all,
      apologies in advance for the overly-long comment.

      I am confused; perhaps you can help. I have read (some of ) the EPSRC’s `International Review of Mathematical Sciences’, and I like what I read. There is a lot of emphasis on the importance of diversity to UK mathematics, and on how all areas are inter-related, so you cannot cherry-pick. For example, from (the chair of the Report panel) Margaret Wright’s report: `it is essential
      for research funding structures to honour diversity and distributedness subject to the
      principle of only funding excellent research. ‘
      There is quite a lot about the problem of internationals competetiveness of UK PhDs, which (as a current UK PhD student) I care a lot about.

      There is also a (1.5 pages out of 77) section towards the end entitled `Structural Issues Specific to Statistics’ in which they say `the UK statistics research
      community is of serious concern, even though its
      members are doing outstanding research. The reasons
      for this are primarily structural, involving the age
      profile of statistics researchers, the unanticipated
      effects of large Science and Innovation Awards in
      statistics, and the position of statistics in school
      curricula.’ They also mention the importance of statistics postdocs.

      On the topic of top-down management of research, we read on page 15 that
      `Similar views about the high importance of research
      base funding in encouraging adventurous research
      were expressed by the two most recent international
      reviews conducted under the auspices of EPSRC. For
      both fields under review (materials and chemistry),
      International Review of Mathematical Science
      the panels were unhappy, more than a year ago, with
      strategies that might reduce community-initiated
      proposals in favour of top-down management of

      My confusion is about how the EPSRC read from this that they should (hopefully temporarily) cut fellowships outside statistics and applied probability. Of course I have nothing against these areas, but the whole direction of the International Review is about diversity and inter-relations, so how is singling out one area the right way to proceed? This is a genuine question, as I may well have missed something in the report, and would be curious in any regard to know what the logic is.

      Though this can be found above, for convenience the link to the report is at:

      Thanks in advance,

      David Holmes

    44. Burt Totaro Says:

      You’re not missing anything, David. There is very little relation
      between the International Review of Mathematics report
      and EPSRC’s current policy. I understand that EPSRC was very
      unhappy with the IRM report.

    45. Travels through Flatland Says:

      […] from Thermodynamics. To be honest I understood little, but in times where mathematicians have to fight to show the ‘impact’ of their work, it ocurred to me that it wouldn’t be crazy to […]

    46. UK mathematicians unload on intransigent patronizing bureaucracy | Piece of Mind Says:

      […] alarm bells rang first in July via a hilarious and must-read blog post by Tim Gowers, where he “let EPSRC speak for itself” by simply quoting from their […]

    47. Davd Holmes Says:

      Apologies in advance for the advert; if it is not appropriate please delete it.

      We have written a letter to the prime minister on behalf of young mathematicians in the UK to protest about the funding changes described in this blog post.

      If any UK young mathematicians reading this would like to sign it, the link is here:

    48. ein paar Links zum Thema „The future of the MATHEMATICAL SCIENCES in the UK“ « mathematik, bücher & meer Says:

      […] Gowers’s Weblog: A message from our sponsors […]

    49. randform » Blog Archive Says:

      […] Or may be lets say it sounds a bit strange in the view that even fields medallists for example in Great Britain or France try to politely point out that there is something structurally at odds with the whole […]

    50. A brief EPSRC update « Gowers's Weblog Says:

      […] summer I wrote a post about EPSRC’s plans to direct their funding towards certain areas and not others, and in particular on its effect on mathematicians, the most dramatic of which was to restrict […]

    51. Tenth Linkfest Says:

      […] Timothy Gowers: A message from our sponsors (decoding the newspeak in the announcements of the UK’s Engineerin… […]

    52. Chau Says:

      Some devices can have the cherry bonus while others will have the
      multiplier benefit.

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