Challenges for UK mathematical scientists in HE

This invitation for a dialogue is written by Professor Ken Brown, Vice-president of the LMS and  is published on the  LMS Members Blog.

Some current developments in UK Higher Education Institutions raise serious concerns for mathematicians. The issues involve complex changes in the relationships between career development, the impact agenda, and external funding. While many of these changes affect academics in other fields, I will concentrate here on their particular effects on those working in the mathematical sciences. These effects are, broadly speaking, of two sorts: changes in our working conditions as individual mathematical scientists, and changes in the overall structure of academic mathematical science in the UK. Here are some examples of the sort of thing I have in mind: the first 6 predominantly concern individuals, at least initially, while the remainder are more structural.

  1. award of sabbatical leave only to those winning Research Council (RC) grants;
  2. allocation of PhD students only to those winning RC grants;
  3. supervision of research student(s) a necessary condition for promotion;
  4. substantial external research income a necessary condition for promotion;
  5. move to “tenured” status dependent on winning external income and/or PhD supervision;
  6. non-submission of an individual’s outputs to the REF, despite availability of a full set of internationally-published outputs;
  7. departmental decisions on number of outputs submitted to the REF influenced by the number of sufficiently strong Impact Statements;
  8. decisions on research fields to support or appointments to make dependent on likelihood of future Impact Statements being generated;
  9. loss of service teaching leading to reduced student FTE numbers and reductions in staffing.

The purpose here is not to provide a detailed analysis of each of the above issues—rather, I want to open a dialogue, letting others develop topics which they feel are of particular concern, whether from the above list or not. Instead, I’ll simply comment briefly below on a couple of the points.

Of course, not everyone will think that each of these developments is by definition “a bad thing”. Regarding point 8, for instance, areas of research focus and consequently of appointments must change over time if our subject is to remain vital. The increased focus on Impact in the UK is part of a world-wide trend which we as mathematical scientists cannot and should not try to oppose—rather we must continue with and redouble our efforts to make funders’ definitions of and ways of measuring impact more in tune with the full range of our activities. We must also continue to emphasise the huge long-term impact of the mathematical sciences, as catalogued for example in the Deloitte report; and we should develop a portfolio of examples of the profound influence of the mathematical sciences on all aspects of our lives—one excellent example is the USA’s National Research Council report “The Mathematical Sciences in 2025”. (This is available as a free download at http://www.nap.edu/catalog.php?record_id=15269.)

On point 4, we all know that RC grant income in the mathematical sciences is very low compared to many other STEM subjects. This is in part because the main costs of much of most of the research in the mathematical sciences has been for people and for time, costs which, though very significant, have in the past been adequately covered for many of us in the UK by the dual support system of funding.  Perhaps also it is the case that what we do has historically been undervalued, thanks to long lag times for impact, but also—let’s be honest—thanks to our sometimes relaxed attitude in the past to the need to make the case for more funding. The LMS, both on its own and in conjunction with the Council for the Mathematical Sciences, has been working hard to make these cases and to assemble relevant data, for grant income and more broadly: for example, the Deloitte report, produced with CMS backing last year, has generated a lot of publicity, and the LMS is producing data documents on UK HEI staffing in the mathematical sciences (November 2013 http://www.lms.ac.uk/policy/statistics-mathematics), and on UK research funding in the mathematical sciences (to be published July 2014).  A CMS report on the “people pipeline” in the mathematical sciences will come out later this year.

I should also briefly explain what I have in mind with the point 5. At least two Russell Group universities have recently introduced contracts for newly-appointed lecturers, which lead the appointee through a career path set up to complete probation in 2-3 years, with an expectation of promotion to Senior Lecturer or Reader (possibly called something different),  within 5-7 years of initial appointment. All to the good, you might think—except that milestones expected to be passed en route to promotion include winning substantial RC grant income, and supervising a PhD student to completion. The consequences of failing to achieve these targets in the specified time frame are left unclear.

So, why am I writing this article? The first and very important reason is to gather information. At the moment our community has no way of knowing how widespread are these and similar changes. Those of us directly affected can feel isolated, powerless and undervalued. I’m therefore inviting two sorts of response. First, I will very much welcome information about particular cases along the lines of those listed above. It will be equally valuable to learn of examples of good practice with regard to these issues. Naturally, I’ll treat all such communications in the utmost confidence, but will hope to share what global data I can gather, in due course. More generally, it will be good to hear other views on the issues raised here: perhaps, for example, some of these changes should be welcomed? Most importantly, we need to consider what we as a community should be doing in the face of these developments. What should the LMS be doing?

Comments can be placed at the blog, sent to newsletter@lms.ac.uk for inclusion in the Newsletter, or, in the case of more confidential material, sent to me atKen.Brown@glasgow.ac.uk.

Ken Brown

Vice President, LMS