Go back

No EPSRC remedy yet for maths PhD failures

An action plan by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council has promised to try to better understand issues in PhD quality and training but makes no commitments to improve provision.

The plan was created in response to warnings by the International Review of Mathematics earlier this year that training given to mathematics PhDs in the UK was not meeting international standards and could lead to gaps in the skills base.

However, in the EPSRC plan published on 15 November the council said the issue was not unique to mathematics and needed broader consideration.

“EPSRC will draw on advice from a range of stakeholders with a view to encouraging a joined up and collaborative approach to any changes which it is agreed are needed,” reads the action plan. This would help inform future provision “in the context of the roles and responsibilities of others,” it adds.

The international review also suggested adding a new training system to programmes, through which graduates would take a one-year research master’s course followed by a three-year PhD. But the council’s action plan did not include commitments to add such a system.

The plan committed the council to investigating the “people pipeline” in statistics, in collaboration with the Royal Statistical Society, and to setting up a cross-council task force to coordinate support for statistics.

The EPSRC would also encourage universities to address concerns about participation of women in mathematical sciences and ensure funding allowed researchers to collaborate between institutions and with industry, it said.

The council said it would increase its communication with researchers, learned societies and groups such as the Heads of Departments of Mathematical Sciences.

The plan follows criticisms of the council’s decision to cut maths fellowships, made in its “Shaping Capability” strategy, published in July.

The council said it would stop funding for all fellowships in maths except statistics and applied probability, although a spokesperson has since told Research Fortnight Today that the EPSRC intends to expand fellowship areas by the end of the year.

In a letter to Prime Minister David Cameron last month, 383 PhD maths students complained that cuts were a consequence of the council’s failure to communicate with mathematicians and to listen to the international review. However, council said the review was used in shaping its decisions.

The action plan has been shared with the Council for Mathematical Sciences, the International Review panel and the Mathematical Sciences Strategic Advisory Team, but the EPSRC has called for additional comments by 21 December 2011.