Despite ground-breaking research still taking place in Scotland, the future of mathematical academia is under threat

MATHS education and research in the UK is under threat due to current policies, according to a leading Scottish academic in the field.

While the UK is currently an international leader in mathematical science education and research, this is in jeopardy because of the way funding is allocated, believes Professor Ken Brown of the University of Glasgow.

Professor Brown, who was recently awarded a CBE for services to the mathematical sciences, says Scotland is particularly vulnerable because not enough PhD students are being funded. Universities are also losing staff to departments in England which are able to expand because of the different funding regimes north and south of the border.

The problem is not just restricted to Scotland, however, as funding for all fundamental sciences is under world-wide strain.

“The problem is that governments are looking for short-term impact and that does not really work very well for subjects like maths where research may not have a pay-off for the economy for many years,” said Professor Brown.

“There is a lot of pressure from governments to support research that shows an economic benefit in the very short term, and that is very damaging for fundamental research generally. 

HeraldScotland:

Professor Ken Brown 

 

“One aspect that specifically concerns us in Scotland is support for PhDs in mathematical science. We really need a flow of good PhDs in maths and statistics not just for the universities but also because they are in demand across industry, the financial sector, AI and in data analysis. 

“There are plenty of students coming through who want to do them but the problem is that it is very difficult to get a grant to do a PhD.”

This is evident from the fact that although the University of Glasgow has a large School of Mathematics and Statistics with around 60 staff, the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (now part of UK Research and Innovation) provides funding for only about three PhDs per year. And a PhD takes about four years of full-time work, so it’s not something a student can typically self-finance.

The problems around support for PhD students are a symptom, Professor Brown argues, of wider pressures affecting the distribution of research support. 

“In the mathematical sciences you typically don’t need lots of people nor a huge amount of kit to produce world-class work,” he said. 

“So, historically in the UK the geographic diversity of our strength in maths and statistics has been a major strength, with key breakthroughs achieved by people in many different places around the country. And that 
is still true in Scotland, with ground-breaking research being produced across the country. But it is certainly under threat.

“There is government pressure on research funding agencies to economise on overheads so they look to give bigger grants to fewer places as this simplifies the process.”

This benefits big science laboratories but does not work well for smaller departments like maths. 

The policy is affecting geographical diversity as it favours the Golden Triangle, the unofficial grouping of research universities located in the cities of Cambridge, London and Oxford in the southeast of England where there are large science laboratories. Brexit is likely to make matters worse as a huge proportion of staff in mathematical sciences in Russell Group universities across the UK are from the EU.

According to the latest Higher Education Statistics Agency data (for 2017-18), 53% of Math Sciences staff at UK universities are from the UK, with 27% from the rest of the EU and 20% from the rest of the world.

“We don’t want these staff to leave but there is a risk they will and an even greater risk that people won’t come in the future so we need to be thinking about the long term and we need to producing more and more of our own PhDs within the UK, for the future health of our universities but also for our economy and society more generally,”  Professor Brown said.

A further threat to Scottish research strength comes from undergraduate fees in England. While Scotland has a different system, Professor Brown said that what happens in England influences what happens here. 

“The big Russell Group universities are expanding their staff and there is a brain drain going down south,” he said. 

“They can take on a large number of undergraduates at £9000 a year so they can really expand the size of their departments and hire staff from universities in Scotland where there is not the same level of cash flowing around.”

Professor Brown does not think fees should be charged in Scotland, however. Instead, he believes there should continue to be a base level of funding given to universities to support research generally without it being applied to specific topics so staff can continue to carry out research as well as teach.

“There are a lot of really good people doing mathematics and statistics but the situation in Scotland is fragile,” he said.  

“Mathematics is international and anyone can move anywhere in the world to do it, so people will leave if funding and research conditions go down. 

“There is still is a lot of strength in mathematics and it is widely dispersed across the UK but that is under threat because of the concentration of funding and lack of PhD funding support.”

 

Global recognition for former school rebel

Despite upsetting his ex- headmaster, Professor Ken Brown quickly rose to prominence as one of the UK’s leading mathematicians 

DESPITE being Dux of Ayr Academy, the parents of Professor Ken Brown were told by his headmaster that he wouldn’t last six months at university.
The erroneous prediction was made after Brown provoked the headmaster’s ire by playing a leading part in a march down Ayr High Street in favour of comprehensive education.

The head teacher was bitterly opposed to comprehensive education and a few months later banned his top student from the prize-giving ceremony on the grounds that his hair, which was just above his ears, was too long.  The event caused a local scandal.

Fifty years later, the Professor not only has a CBE for services to the mathematical sciences but was also recently awarded the prestigious David Crighton Medal.  

HeraldScotland:

BRIGHT BEGINNINGS: Professor Ken Brown was Dux of Ayr Academy, yet was banned from the prize-giving ceremony.

 

This prize is given every two years to a mathematician for services to mathematics and to the mathematical community. The CBE recognises both his research in mathematics but also his decades of advocacy and leadership on behalf of the mathematical sciences with governments, research councils and learned societies. 

He was been a member of the Council of the London Mathematical Society - one of the UK’s leading learned societies for mathematical science – from 1992 to 2001 and again from 2009 to 2017, serving as vice president from 1997 to 1999 and from 2009 to 2017. 

He has played a leading role in advising the UK and Scottish governments and research councils on the development and support of mathematical teaching and research for nearly 25 years. It is an impressive career which began with an undergraduate degree in mathematics from the University of Glasgow followed by a PhD from Warwick University. 

He came back to Glasgow in 1979 and for the last 25 years has mainly studied Hopf algebras, a type of algebraic structure named after Heinz Hopf, a German topologist who defined them in 1941.  
Hopf algebras encode symmetry in a way which generalises both groups and Lie algebras, the two main mathematical tools for studying symmetry in the universe over the last 200 years. 

“Hopf algebras, or quantum groups as they are sometimes nowadays called, were pretty obscure gadgets (even among mathematicians!) for the first 40 years of their existence; but since about 1980 they have become increasingly important in mathematics and physics as we have come to realise that the universe is more ‘noncommutative’ than previously thought,” said Professor Brown. 

He was appointed to panels for mathematical science of the Research Assessment Exercises and Research Excellence Framework in 1996, 2001 and 2008, serving as vice-chair in 2001, and as chair of the pure mathematics panel in 2008. 

He led negotiations between the Scottish academic mathematical sciences community and the Scottish Funding Council in the first decade of this century, focussed on the attempt (eventually stymied by the 2008 economic crisis), to set up a Pooling Agreement for the mathematical sciences in Scotland. 

From 2014 to 2017 Professor Brown was chair of the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council’s Strategic Advisory Team for mathematical science. This body, composed of academics and industrialists, acts as a key link between the mathematical sciences academic and user communities and the council.