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Mathematicians slam UK.gov plans to fund statistics only

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Mathematicians across the UK have written to David Cameron protesting that plans to restrict Maths research funding to Statistics and Applied Probability only is a short-sighted approach that will strip the UK of a generation of science leaders.

Twenty-five professors from Cambridge, UCL and York and other major universities are named on the letter, dated yesterday and sent to MPs including David Willetts, the Minister for Science and Universities.

It's not just the cuts that have angered the mathematicians, but how the cuts have fallen. Maths and Science research is funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) and it announced new funding terms in July – stating that maths students can only apply for fellowships in Statistics and Applied Probability. This means that this year's students of pure maths, applied maths, fluid dynamics, number theory, geometry, astronomy and theoretical physics will have to leave the country to continue their research interests.

The normal practice is to award funds to the best candidates as decided by peer review.

"It is a waste of public money not to fund the best research," Burt Totaro, Lowndean Professor of Astronomy and Geometry, University of Cambridge, told The Reg.

"Which subfields of each science are declared to be of 'scientific need' seems to be an arbitrary decision by EPSRC. Very little explanation has been provided. Statistics is an important mathematical science, with many applications, but so are many other parts of mathematics."

The privileging of statistics is part of EPSRC's policy of "Shaping Capability" which is supposed to favour research that meets society's needs – as perceived by the council. The mathematicians said they see it as a kneejerk response to current economic trends, which will prevent the UK from laying down the foundations for the ideas and inventions that could shape our world in a generation's time.

Richard Thomas, Professor of Pure Mathematics, Imperial College puts forward the case for maths research:

EPSRC's exercise is short-termist. Backward looking, even. They've designed a strategy to deal with issues which should have been addressed a decade or two ago. They're responding to current economic landscape, instead of asking what will be the landscape in the next generation.

In the late '80s, would the EPSRC of today have funded Tim Berners-Lee's work on the worldwide web? Probably not, but in response it has now made "digital economy" one of its main focuses for the 2010s...

Industry

In other areas of scientific research, such as bioengineering, industry sponsorship has plugged up funding gaps. This is something that the head of the EPSRC, David Delpy, told the Commons committee on Science and Technology would ease the impact of the cuts on researchers. Professor Thomas told The Reg that what might work for engineering won't necessarily work for maths.

Some applied mathematical research is of course funded by industry, but this is not a long-term solution for mathematics. Much of pure mathematics has no industrial applications in the short or middle term. But even making applied mathematics contingent on industrial funding is misguided. The main purpose of applied mathematics is NOT to help industry with its immediate problems: this, ultimately, is the role of engineering. The main purpose of applied mathematics is to create a platform for future industrial applications, to foster ideas for the next generation.

Professor Totaro gave more details on the extent of industry funding to mathematicians. He said:

There is some industry funding of PhDs in the mathematical sciences, but not much. The number of doctorates in the mathematical sciences awarded each year in the UK is between 400 and 450. Of those, about 40 are partially supported by industry through EPSRC's Collaborative Awards in Science and Engineering (CASE). EPSRC pays most of the money even for those 40: industry's contribution is at least a third in only 10 of those 40, while it is less than a third for the other 30 of those 40.

A website collating the press coverage on the issue and collecting responses to the funding changes has been set up by the mathematicians here. ®

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