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Pressure rises as maths ‘nobellists’ complain to Cameron

The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council’s cuts to fellowships in mathematics will do “irreversible damage” to the future of the discipline, a group of mathematicians has told Prime Minister David Cameron.

The letter, sent on 20 September, is signed by 25 mathematicians, including four Fields medallists. They warn that the EPSRC’s decision to stop funding for all fellowships in mathematics except statistics and applied probability will force UK PhD students abroad.

“If EPSRC continues this policy, British mathematics will face mediocrity in a decade,” reads the letter.

The EPSRC has faced vocal opposition from the research community since publishing its funding portfolio in July. UK chemists, concerned about cuts to synthetic organic chemistry, have sent letters to both Cameron and the science minister, David Willetts.

In an interview with Research Fortnight Today, Burt Totaro, from the University of Cambridge, who organised the 20 September letter, says the letter will probably have to be backed by more campaigning:

“The most likely [outcome] is that [the EPSRC] would sort of pull back in a small way… they would name some other sub-field of mathematics which is also acceptable to them, as well as statistics.

“And that would really not be acceptable to mathematicians: we just want the best research funded regardless of the subject within maths,” he adds. “So if that happens, we’ll just have to keep campaigning—mathematicians are pretty bad political organisers but we’d have to keep going.”

The letter says that the EPSRC is, in fact, currently considering whether it might fund fellowships in some “other  topics of its choosing”. The signatories add that their protest is not just about fellowships but about the EPSRC’s model of “central planning and micro-managing research”.

In particular, they complain about the council’s failure to consult mathematicians when making decisions on its portfolio.

“The whole point here is that they want to pick out sub-fields within the subject somewhat arbitrarily … and that is really, just crazy. At that point it is just bizarre to not consult [the community],” says Totaro.

Both the Institute of Physics and the Royal Society of Chemistry have denied EPSRC claims that they were consulted on the decisions.

An EPSRC spokesperson said, “We are aware of the letter sent to the Prime Minister concerning mathematical sciences and are currently reviewing the points that have been made by the signatories. There are, however, a number of inaccuracies or misconceptions contained in that letter that we would immediately wish to address. For example, the assertion regarding the restriction of fellowships in mathematical sciences to statistics and applied probability is incorrect.

“We have made clear that, before the end of the year, we plan to expand the eligible areas and to do so in line with the development of our strategy of shaping capability that is aimed at ensuring UK research remains internationally competitive.  We are also providing increased flexibility in how individuals can apply for such fellowships.

“We would also specifically note that the statement and figures in the letter regarding reduced resources for mathematics presents only a partial picture of the funding situation. In contrast to the impression in the letter, overall EPSRC funding to mathematics departments has actually increased over the three years to 2009/10 at least reflecting the importance of mathematics to EPSRC’s other programmes for example in physics and engineering,” the spokesman added.