Friday, 5 August 2011

Responding to EPSRC's Shaping Capability Agenda

Two weeks ago the EPSRC Fellowship call was published, and it has been restricted to statistics and applied probability as part of the Shaping Capability agenda. This is the first direct consequence of this policy, and the Council for Mathematical Sciences has reacted by arguing that even if one accepts the policy, the post-doctoral fellowships are an inappropriate vehicle for the implementation as it hits the really excellent young researchers in other sub-disciplines who do not have the luxury of being able to mark time until there is an open call. We will see how EPSRC responds.

The fellowship announcement has alerted the community to the potential effects of the policy. Tim Gowers has blogged a detailed critique -- though the gist could have been predicted a while ago (see my earlier blog in January). Whilst I agree with most of what Tim writes, the critical issue is how the mathematics community responds. The difficulty is that there are two alternative approaches. Let me overstate each case:

Alternative 1:
The political direction of mathematical research is wrong, and this is compounded by the fact that it is to be implemented by people who do not have the expertise to assess the value of the research (consultation with the community is restricted to rubber-stamping exercises). The mathematics community has a duty to stand up to this political interference and to point out the contradictions inherent in the policy. Only by doing this forcibly can we expect to persuade EPSRC to reverse this patently absurd course of action, and it is our democratic right and duty to bring about a reversal of the policy.

Alternative 2:
At a time of economic uncertainty, David Delpy has negotiated a level funding for science by promising greater engagement with the needs of UK plc either economically or socially. The Shaping Capability policy is intended to deliver contributions to priority areas (the grand challenges), whilst maintaining our research base, at a time of need. Since the EPSRC does not have the expertise to implement such a policy effectively, the community needs to work with EPSRC to identify the most effective ways of developing mathematical activity within these constraints; and as a group of researchers funded through the public purse we have a democratic responsibility to engage so as to minimize the damage to the research base and maximize new opportunities for mathematics even if we do not agree with the policy.

The debate within the mathematics community is around how to react to events when we are divided between these two equally honourable but contradictory views.

The danger of Alternative 1 is that we are seen as intransigent moaners; maths is not powerful enough to change a global EPSRC policy, and the net effect is that ill-informed policy will be imposed on us. Our involvement will be purely (outraged) reaction.

The danger of Alternative 2 is that we could appear to accept the principle and find ourselves in a position where there is no chance of a future reversal. It would be deeply divisive if some areas were labelled for reduction in resource by the community, and we would effectively be collaborating with the enemy by helping them to implement a flawed policy.

I've oversimplified both stances, but my current feeling is that we need to develop a form of Alternative 2 which does not tinker with the EPSRC implementation around the edges, but provides a unified approach to Shaping Capability, accepting it (though not agreeing with it) as current policy and putting it into the hands of the mathematical sciences. Of course, there's a danger that EPSRC would cherry-pick our plan, but at least we'd have a positive and proactive agenda to push.

Other disciplines have managed to work with and influence EPSRC. Maths struggles to find a unified voice. One of the things I plan to do is find out how the other areas, particularly Theoretical Physics, manage to react in a way that at least appears unified from the outside.

Where's that man Haldane when you need him?

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