OK, if anyone reading this disagrees with my last post, I really would be interested to know why you disagree and how you would make a case for prioritizing research areas in mathematics. Neither NSERC nor anyone else has even tried to make an argument – the decision that the “long range planning exercise” would take place was presented to us as a fait accompli, with nary a hint of a rationale. So, go for it if you wish, but please try to keep a few things in mind.
- The case for “priority areas” is usually made in the form of testimonials from scientists whose own research areas have been prioritized, especially from those who were awarded huge grants and/or gained considerable political power as a result of the exercise. I suppose that this can be convincing enough to a politician who just needs a photo op with grateful scientists, doesn’t matter which ones. Others might find it political, partisan and divisive instead. Then again, if you’d like to fund something like this in harmonic analysis, I just might change my mind.
- The other usual argument is that since our resources are limited, we should focus them on “areas of strength” where success is most likely. There are several problems with it, at least where it concerns mathematics. The first one is that it treats people as “resources” that can be moved at will wherever they’re needed. Sorry, but that’s not how it works. Research at its highest levels requires a much greater intellectual and emotional commitment than what is required from, say, bank accountants or other white-collar employees who are routinely moved from one task to another in the course of their work. Our commitment is to a specific research area, often to a specific set of problems that resonates with us in highly personal and idiosyncratic ways. Try telling a mystery writer, for instance, that she should switch to chick-lit because the publisher has made chick-lit a top priority. See how she responds to that. And you thought it would work with us?
Second, this argument also assumes that Canadian mathematics is a world unto itself, isolated and self-contained, and that our success depends only on the collective strengths of the Canadian mathematical community and not on external developments. As someone who for many years had no collaborators in Canada, but many outside of it, I will have to disagree.
Third, in practice such policies take us deep into the diminishing returns territory. A department that already has 7 faculty working in Exciting Area 1 might not need another one – it might benefit more from hiring someone in Exciting Area 2 which is currently represented by only one person. Logically, that makes sense. But if you go to the faculty meeting where the vote is taken, you only need to see the seven Area 1 faculty sitting around you to know which way the vote is going to go. “Critical mass” translates into excessive and unstoppable inertia. The smaller groups get steamrolled and the large groups lose their ability to respond to external developments.
- Please try to use normal, plain English. The jargon of “catalysts”, “creating opportunities”, “enhancing and facilitating collaborations”, “fostering excellence” and “scientific cross-pollination” holds no interest for me. If you use this language to disguise lack of content, you might not make it past moderation.