The Long Range Plan committee for mathematics has posted the first draft of the document for consultation and feedback. We were informed that the document is not intended to be circulated beyond the math community at this point; on the other hand, since it is clearly available for download to anyone interested, I assume that I can write about it on my blog (read mostly by the same community anyway).
A few general comments, then. I read the draft fairly quickly when I was first notified of it. I was going to read it again more carefully before writing this post, then decided against it, on the grounds that the document is likely to be read by officials who are just as busy as I am and will not have much time to spend on it, so that quick impressions may be worth recording in any case.
It looks like the “envelope funding” for mathematics institutes and Discovery Grants is practically a done deal. That being given, I’m glad that the committee recommends splitting the envelope according to fixed percentages (19% for institutes, 81% for DGs), so that individual researchers do not have to compete directly against the institutes.
On the other hand, my first impression (and this is one of the things I will want to check again) was that the report paid far more attention to the institutes (what they do, how they are funded, etc) than to DGs. I would have liked the committee to explain to NSERC what our daily work really looks like and what role the DGs play in it. For us, this is just the usual daily routine, nothing special to talk about; but for the intended recipients of the report, this is a completely unfamiliar world that they need to learn more about. From the draft, they could think that we all go in and out of institute doors several times a day, every day, that we just go from one special opportunity to another. That is not true. Most of us interact with institutes occasionally but have little or no contact with them the rest of the time.
I would have liked to see examples of how an individual mathematician or a research group manage their finances over a period of several years, how much it actually costs to hire a postdoc or supervise a student, what additional resources are available (e.g. external scholarships). That might give NSERC a better idea of just how difficult it is to have any training program at all with the level of funding they offer.
This is especially important because NSERC is being run, for the most part, by bureaucrats who have never been researchers themselves and who have no idea of what research and training look like. I’m saying this based on NSERC’s official policies (the head-in-the-clouds rules on 3-year offers to postdocs, the postdoctoral scholarships announced long after most deadlines for job offers) and on my own interactions with NSERC officials regarding said policies (in some ways, the situation is even worse than I had thought).
I’m glad that the committee did not declare explicit “priority areas,” indeed stated several times that this should not be done. Implicitly, though, a different message comes through. Some areas get mentioned repeatedly (number theory), others (harmonic analysis) hardly at all.
There is a long list of connections to industry and innovation, many described in some detail. I suppose that this is necessary, given that this government expects us to justify our work in those terms. I keep thinking, though, that we need a different language to talk about mathematics. My work may turn out to be useful in the industry eventually, but it is not in those terms that I think about it. The problem is that pure mathematics ends up being thought of as, more or less, computations that we set up at random and then “solve.” It is factually correct to say that we cannot predict which part of mathematics will find applications in real life. Unfortunately, this also conveys the impression that investing in mathematics is like playing the lottery. It gives no sense of direction, no assurance that we actually know what we’re doing. I would ask the committee to reconsider that part of the presentation.