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.