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UK mathematicians protest fellowship cuts

First the chemists — now, the mathematicians. In Britain, both groups of researchers have written to Prime Minister David Cameron to express anger about the policies of their grant-funding agency, the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC).

In a letter sent today (20 September), twenty-five eminent mathematicians — including four Fields Medallists — complain that EPSRC has scrapped fellowships in all but two areas of mathematical sciences, statistics and applied probability. This, they say, will force many PhD students to leave the country to continue their careers and will stop the best postdoctoral students coming to the United Kingdom. “If EPSRC continues this policy, British mathematics will face mediocrity in a decade,” they say. Separately, a group of doctoral and postdoctoral mathematicians are coordinating their own letter to Cameron (they are collecting signatures here). 22 September update: A response from EPSRC has been added to the bottom of this blog.

One young mathematician affected is Rachel Newton, who is studying for a PhD in number theory at the University of Cambridge, and was preparing to apply for an EPSRC fellowship when she heard about the decision. She is applying instead for positions in France, Germany and the United States. “We were expecting cuts, but to have zero fellowships available for pure mathematicians is a big shock,” she says.

The dispute has been simmering since July, when EPSRC made the decision. Since then, letters have flown back and forth, including a 17 August letter to the Prime Minister from Frank Kelly, the chair of the UK Council for Mathematical Sciences. Mathematicians have been openly pondering how best to get EPSRC to change its mind (see, for example, this blog set up by the London Mathematical Society).

The problem may be only temporary. Before December, EPSRC will decide whether a new batch of fellowships could extend to other areas in mathematics.

But a wider issue, the mathematicians point out, is that EPSRC decided to scrap the fellowships “without any meaningful consultation with the UK mathematics community.” That concern echoes the complaints made by chemists when EPSRC in July revealed the research fields for which it would reduce funding as a result of government budget restrictions.

For all researchers’ frustrations, the EPSRC’s chief executive David Delpy last week told the UK House of Commons Science and Technology Committee (a cross-party group of politicians) that, since July, “very little in the way of new evidence” had come forward from scientists unhappy with the decisions the agency had made.

22 September update:

Atti Emecz, director of communications at EPSRC, says that it has always been EPSRC’s intention later in the year to broaden the areas supported by mathematics fellowships. The agency will also allow people to apply for fellowships at any time, not just once a year as in the past. And, he adds, mathematicians should not focus on fellowships as the only funding opportunity: they should be aware that there are other routes to get fellowship-like funding: such as salary support on EPSRC research grants, or opportunities from the Royal Society and the European Research Council.


  1. Report this comment

    Richard Thomas said:

    You comment that “The problem may be only temporary. EPSRC will before December decide whether a new batch of fellowships could extend to other areas in mathematics”.

    This is not the case, as explained in the second letter you refer to. Final fellowship offers need to be made in late January to be competitive with overseas positions. Opening positions at Christmas and then making offers 6 months later will restrict them to mainly weak candidate with no foreign offers.

    For decades mathematicians have asked EPSRC to bring forward their fellowship decisions to make them internationally competitive. We have always been told this is not administratively convenient. EPSRC are putting bureacracy before the good of science and the good use of public money.

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    Joanna Bryson said:

    The fellowships are just literally the tip of the iceberg. The EPSRC’s decision to no longer fund PhD studentships except in isolated “doctoral training centres” means that all PhD students in the UK on a given topic will have a uniform education, and that the vast majority of academics in the UK will have lost the ability to fund students in their laboratories or groups. This is turning universities into schools.

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    Simon Higgins said:

    Delpy displays considerable chutzpah telling the select committee that the hundreds of furious scientists have produced little new ‘evidence’. What ‘evidence’ is EPSRC using to inform their increasingly damaging decisions? The evidence is that EPSRC has made no useful consultation with the science community whatsoever.

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    fuad said:

    actually the problem is everybody is looking for something in return after getting bigger degrees but gaining knowledge which is the main thing is a thought of very few people..

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