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Scottish maths deserves higher weight

The Scottish Funding Council is examining how it distributes funding among disciplines, amid pressure from mathematicians demanding a better settlement.

In June, the SFC instructed its Research and Knowledge Exchange Committee to look into its subject weightings—intended to represent the varying cost of carrying out research in different disciplines—for Research Excellence Grants and Research Postgraduate Grants.

Maths is one of five areas funded at a lower rate in Scotland than in England, with a subject weighting of 1.2 rather than 1.6. This also compares unfavourably with other science, technology and engineering subjects in Scotland, the majority of which are weighted at 1.6.

According to the SFC, the disparity stems from the lower costs associated with maths research. But researchers have criticised what they see as a lack of transparency in the process. “Whether it’s intended or not, inevitably the interpretation must be that they place less value on the subject,” said Adrian Smith, chairman of the Council for the Mathematical Sciences.

Smith wrote to the SFC’s interim chief executive John Kemp on 14 August to argue for a chance to make the case to the SFC for higher maths funding, on the grounds that the Scottish council’s “lack of appreciation” for the importance of the mathematical sciences was damaging morale and the recruitment of academic staff.

The UK’s Royal Statistical Society has thrown its weight behind the call for change, but as this article went to press, the funding council had yet to reply to Smith.

The weighting issue is one of “collegiate inequity”, said David McGloin, associate dean for research at the University of Dundee’s School of Science and Engineering. If a statistician at a university in Edinburgh writes a joint paper with one in Birmingham, the Scottish university will receive less funding from the SFC than its English partner will get from the Higher Education Funding Council for England, he said.

According to Ian Strachan, president of the Edinburgh Mathematical Society and head of maths at the University of Glasgow, the SFC’s funding model also puts maths and statistics departments at a disadvantage in the Research Excellence Framework when it comes to staffing levels, and therefore research outputs.

Stuart Fancey, the SFC’s director of research and innovation, said in response that the council valued “the very important contribution” that maths makes to other disciplines and society.

Deliberations on whether to adjust the SFC’s funding structure will continue at a meeting of the committee on 14 September. The council has confirmed, however, that its overall funding budget will stay the same, so if some subjects get more, others will get less.

This article also appeared in Research Fortnight