Addendum on “priority areas”

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.

Author: Izabella Laba

Mathematics professor at UBC. My opinions are, obviously, my own.

8 thoughts on “Addendum on “priority areas””

  1. Maybe I am just a cynic, but I see some irony here.

    Government-funded entities, being subject to the whims of taxpayers and lawmakers, must be palatable to as many people as possible. The main accomplishment of funding X ought not to be an arbitrary transfer of wealth from taxpayers to workers in X. This is especially important in “basic research”, i.e., research in subjects largely unknown to outsiders and without immediate application. In such areas, nobody who isn’t a potential recipient of funding can spot a boondoggle. So that is the fundamental political problem: to fight the perception, if not the reality, that funding basic research _is_ one gigantic boondoggle.

    I think things like “prioritized research areas” are at least in part responses to this political situation. Instead of saying “we need this much money to fund mathematicians,” one can say, “we need this much money to fund priority areas X, Y, and Z.” It’s less personal— it almost sounds like the money would skip the middle step of going to actual people, and go directly to solving problems. It’s an easier sell. (If my job depended on the success of making either one pitch or the other, anyway, I know which one I’d choose.)

    I suspect, as you do, that the end result of such “targeting” is just the creation or reinforcement of factions, fads, and inertia— a net minus for the research community and the taxpayer alike. In short, to avoid the perception of a boondoggle, one creates a situation in which boondoggles are more likely. That’s the irony I was talking about.

  2. Thanks, CJ! I can see how this could be a possible line of thinking. I’m not sure, though, whether the general taxpaying public is really willing to buy the “priority areas” line without questioning. Why is it supposed to be more palatable to fund the priority area of topology as opposed to mathematics in general? Does anyone out there even know what topology is?

    The worse danger is that we could lose public trust as scientists by acting too much like politicians. Our work may be esoteric or whatever to John D. Taxpayer, but on the other hand people largely trust us to be objective and independent of political or financial influences. At the very least, that’s expected of university faculty – witness the negative reaction to the story of the BP “research contracts”. That credibility might be our most important asset. We could lose it very easily if we remodel our community based on what’s politically expedient and start using politspeak in public relations. And what would we get in return? Increased funding for specific targeted projects, even as the basic research funding keeps getting cut? I don’t see how that could possibly be a good bargain.

  3. Two more thoughts—

    The term “priority areas” is a tad propagandistic. I do not accuse anyone of having sinister motives— I’m just noting how the term frames the discussion. On a subconscious level, an objection to “priority areas” is going to sound a lot like an objection to the very idea of prioritization. This is what I was trying to get at earlier in my guesses about the political viability of “priority areas.” _Especially_ to those who do not know mathematics, and to those who do not know how math has been funded in the past (and do not therefore know the extent of the change represented by “priority areas”), the term can have only positive connotations— suggesting, maybe, extra levels of oversight or accountability that no reasonable person could object to.

    About losing whatever amount of public trust math still has… I know a few people who work in life sciences, in academia, on topics of interest to medicine— and, well, if you want to see how completely a discipline can be counterproductively fragmented into camps by the way money has come to be allocated in it, look no further. I do not think math will ever get that bad, but it is certainly better off following its own example, which historically has emphasized the individual to an extent that other fields generally haven’t. We won’t get medicine levels of money by adopting a medical model of organizing ourselves around government cash. We shouldn’t try.

  4. “Areas of strength” are where established knowledge exists. Research is about creating knowledge, not using it regularly as a basis (as in everyday professions). If politicians understand, that first we have to create something before using it, they may give scientists more freedom. Though they are the people who do not know intellectual freedom, “y’ know, i’m in this party, i have to say this-and-that, not what I want”. But, as you also mentioned, credibility may be a good point in convincing them, as they know a smattering of it, or at least heard its name.

    Thank you for indicating that the phrase “fostering excellence” is only a buzzword. It has been used recently here and for a moment I thought that it was truly meant.

  5. Instead of prioritizing particular areas, perhaps emphasis should be placed on interactions among different fields of mathematics. We have created artificial distinctions and are now exacerbating the problem by pushing some loosely defined “areas” ahead of others. To put it another way, if anything should be emphasized, it is important questions, not “areas”. Who knew that the finite field Kakeya conjecture would be proved by an application of the polynomial method? And there is not shortage of other examples of this type.

  6. In my experience, “priority areas” isn’t really about what’s interesting in mathematics today. It’s code for prioritizing certain specific groups of people for access to money and resources. I would worry that prioritizing “questions” instead of “areas” will amount to similar code. Is there a reason why grant applications can’t just be judged on their own merit, rather than on political considerations?

  7. There is absolutely no reason, in principle, why grant applications cannot be judged on their own merits. My statement was conditional. If we are going to target areas at all, we may as well target actual problems. The best to do, in my view, is to “target” the best proposals, with emphasis on previous work in order to avoid funding science fiction.

    There is a side problem, however. The formula for putting together grant panels is, at best, unclear. Without “prioritizing” areas or problems, how does one make sure that panels do not simply apply random biases to the process?

    In summary, I agree that if the evaluation process were tightened up, there would be no need for gimmicks like “prioritization”. But in the current climate, I am not sure what the best “maintenance” regime is…

  8. But the problem is that the prioritization is based on politics, not on mathematics. I have a lot less trust in that process than I would in a random grant panel.

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