“Keeping a single rioter in jail is equivalent to what? Two postdocs?”

Here is a very recent exchange between two UK mathematicians. It hit so close to home –riots and all, Hockey or not– that I couldn’t resist! The subject was the recent acts of “dirigisme” at the UK’s “Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council” (EPSRC). The only difference between our story and the one across the Atlantic is in the names of the scientific disciplines who are accepting the “local anaesthetic” treatment.

A.I: “When STFC (The Science and Technology Facilities Council) tried to cut few percent of particle physics and astronomy budget, the outcry in the media would have led you to believe that the end of civilisation is nigh. When the EPSRC Maths Committee budget has been cut (at about the same time) by 45%, there was resounding silence. Occasionally I have the impression that were UK mathematicians to be told by “the authorities” that we need to cut our throats at noon tomorrow, the discussion will be whether we can use serrated knives or are allowed to use local anaesthetic.

EPSRC is driven by what the bureaucrats believe their political masters want, while their political masters are driven in large measure by public opinion (and, let’s not forget, the sums we are talking are ridiculously small: keeping a single rioter in jail is equivalent to what? Two postdocs?). As long as all is quiet except for polite pleading, it will be increasingly worse and worse.”

B.T: “Good! This is what I think too. I was impressed by the blunt letters from the chemists to David Cameron about EPSRC — and also by the press coverage.

I think we mathematicians should organize something similarly blunt as a counterpoint to the politer approaches via CMS. So. A.I, shall we draft such a letter, with the aim of gathering signatures and taking our case to the public?”

For more, you may want to read the rest of the comments on Tim Gowers’ blog! And by the way, the UK Physicists succeeded. As reported earlier,  “the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) has agreed to reassess its membership to make sure the views of academics are adequately represented. The pledge comes in the council’s response to the Commons Science and Technology Committee’s report on astronomy and particle physics. The report, published in May, highlighted academic physicists’ dissatisfaction with the perceived failure of the STFC and its chief executive, Keith Mason, to promote basic science as much as other parts of its remit. The committee suggests that researchers’ trust could be won back by ensuring that at least 50 per cent of STFC council members are practicing academics.”

The UK Chemists are also on the move against the EPSRC’s ambitions to “shape their capability”. It looks like British Synthetic organic chemistry is one of the losers and will see its support cut, while catalysis will get extra money. The Guardian reported that over 100 senior chemists (including  6 Nobel laureates) responded to the EPSRC’s  “dirigisme” with a letter to the Prime Minister.

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One Response to “Keeping a single rioter in jail is equivalent to what? Two postdocs?”

  1. Cutting support for synthetic organic chemistry in the UK got 100 highly-placed and influential chemists to write a letter because 1) it directly harmed their own interests and 2) it was imposed by bureaucratic fiat.

    Here in Canada re-structuring has been managed more subtly. NSERC ensured that the most influential scientists continue to get their gravy by cutting off the rank-and-file members of the community. NSERC has also diluted the effect of their policies by spreading the pain across almost all of the disciplines so that it is harder to rally opposition. Finally, NSERC co-opted the leading members of the community by putting them on the EGs and making EGs implement the cuts required by the Federal Government’s vision of science.

    Mathematics may be the only discipline that has enough disgruntled people to effectively band together, although I do know that the Canadian chemists have had some high-level discussions with Suzanne Fortier and others at NSERC. We have to speak up like the UK chemists did. It may not produce the change we hope to see but if we remain silent we essentially give our consent.

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