Last 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 their fellowships, which had previously been available throughout mathematics, to statistics and applied probability. The strongest argument I could see in favour of EPSRC’s position was that they were reviewing the various subareas of mathematics before deciding which should be grown, which maintained and which shrunk, and that so far only statistics and applied probability had been reviewed (with a decision that it should be grown).
It was of course a bizarre decision to remove fellowships entirely from areas that have not yet been reviewed — the obvious thing to do would surely have been to maintain the status quo in an area until the review was complete — but they promised that the reviews would be completed in November, so at least one could hope that this decision would represent no more than a brief hiatus.
The November deadline came and went, and EPSRC eventually explained that because of the protests by many scientists and mathematicians, they wanted more time in order to make sure that they got the decisions right. I think they finally finished in late March, but it’s taken me until now to comment on the results.
For mathematics, there is good news and bad news, with, it seems to me, the latter cancelling out the former. The good news is that the conclusion of the review seems to be that mathematics should be kept roughly as it is: statistics and applied probability are to be grown, mathematical physics reduced (it would be interesting to have an explanation of that decision — when I describe all this as good news I mean merely that it could have been a lot worse), and all other areas maintained. The chart that shows this is here.
The bad news, at least if I understand EPSRC’s website properly (which tends to be quite a challenge), is that these decisions don’t seem to be reflected in the availability of fellowships. If you look at their page about areas in which fellowships are available and scroll down to the mathematical sciences, you’ll find that postdoctoral fellowships are still not available except in statistics and applied probability. For early career fellowships, they have added “intradisciplinary research” (which I imagine will in a lot of cases mean normal research where applicants greatly exaggerate the connections between different areas) and “New connections between mathematical sciences and information communication technologies”. For established career fellowships it’s statistics and applied probability or intradisciplinary research.
So if, for example, you are working in number theory and your work happens not to be intradisciplinary, then there are no EPSRC fellowships available. Given that some excellent research in number theory is purely number theoretic, it’s not quite clear to me in what sense number theory is being “maintained”.
In general, the whole policy of directing research in this way is misguided. It is true that mathematicians particularly value research that cuts across subject boundaries: there are many examples where ideas from one area have been brought into another area and hugely benefited it. But this intradisciplinarity (if that is the right word) is surely a means to an end rather than an end in itself. Well, perhaps it’s a little bit of both, since establishing unexpected connections is certainly one way of advancing mathematics. It would be legitimate, I think, to say that intradisciplinary research is particularly encouraged, but to make it the only form of research that is supported is going much too far. And of course, if you’re unlucky enough to be a postdoc, then you can be as intradisciplinary as you like and you won’t get a fellowship unless you’re doing statistics or applied probability.
So it looks as though the “bizarre decision” I referred to earlier was not that bizarre after all, and that EPSRC more or less knew back then that they were not going to be offering fellowships except in a couple of areas. I don’t know whether their decisions have reached their final form. If an EPSRC representative is reading this and can offer any clarification, then I’d be very grateful: this is an occasion where I’d be particularly delighted to have misunderstood what is going on.