The limits of writing for free

Earlier this year, and to the disgust of much of the science writing community, Jonah Lehrer gave a speech at the Knight Foundation in which he apologized for his misdeeds. He was paid 20K for the appearance. Lehrer, you might recall, is the bestselling science writer who recycled old articles for pay, plagiarized stuff, and fabricated Dylan quotes he used in one of his books.

That’s the first data point. The second one is more recent. Last month, Nate Thayer started a lively debate on the future of journalism by publishing an email exchange between himself and an Atlantic editor who asked for an article for free. See for instance this analysis by Felix Salmon and a must-read response from Alexis Madrigal. But the article I’d like to highlight is Ezra Klein’s “Revenge of the sources”:

The salaries of professional journalists are built upon our success in convincing experts of all kinds working for exposure rather than pay. Now those experts have found a way to work for exposure without going through professional journalists, creating a vast expansion in the quantity and quality of content editors can get for free. […]

Now, the people who were once sources can write their own blogs, or they send op-ed submissions or even feature articles to editors looking for vastly more content. Think about Brad DeLong’s blog, Marginal Revolution, or the Monkey Cage. This work often doesn’t pay — at least not at first — but it offers a much more reliable, predictable and controllable form of exposure. It’s a direct relationship with an audience rather than one mediated by a professional journalist.

Time for the third and last data point. The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, the “main UK government agency for funding research and training in engineering and the physical sciences”, declares in its funding guide (page 32) that:

Investigators are expected to participate in activities that seek to engage the public with engineering and science. Results from individual research projects may provide opportunities to engage the public through various forms of media communication.

In official terminology, this is Public Engagement, part of something called Pathways to Impact which is a mandatory component of a grant application. This guide advises the researchers – among other things – to plan a public engagement strategy, develop “an activity timeline or Gantt chart” (?), and “[t]hink about [their] public engagement role as one that is ongoing”. (On paper at least, this seems to go quite a bit beyond NSF’s “broad impact”. While “public engagement” is listed as only one way of fulfilling the “impact” requirements, in practice many researchers might not have other options available.)

In other words, academics are told to practice journalism for free – the same thing to which Nate Thayer and others reacted so strongly.

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LRP update

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.

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Steve Jobs on curiosity and intuition

Via Jim Colliander, here’s the latest opinion piece on innovation from Dean Roger Martin of the Rotman School of Business at U of T:

In the wake of the tragically premature demise of Steve Jobs, it seems appropriate to ask: What can Canada learn about innovation from the career of Steve Jobs? I think there are two important lessons that we could take away.

The first lesson is that commercial success and impact is more about innovation than about invention. Invention is the creation of some new-to-the-world technology, molecule, material, or formula. It is typically the product of the curiosity of a scientist. It can be pretty earth-shattering when it is electricity or insulin. But it can be pretty irrelevant when it is a technology in search of a user.

Rotman’s recommendation, then, is to overhaul the traditional K-12 curriculum and “become the first nation on the planet to have universal education in innovation by explicitly and clearly teaching innovation in the primary and secondary school system.”

Well… let’s hear from Mr. Jobs himself, shall we? From the Stanford commencement address (emphasis mine):

And 17 years later I did go to college. […] And much of what I stumbled into by following my curiosity and intuition turned out to be priceless later on.

Let me give you one example. Reed College at that time offered perhaps the best calligraphy instruction in the country. Throughout the campus every poster, every label on every drawer, was beautifully hand calligraphed. Because I had dropped out and didn’t have to take the normal classes, I decided to take a calligraphy class to learn how to do this. I learned about serif and san serif typefaces, about varying the amount of space between different letter combinations, about what makes great typography great. It was beautiful, historical, artistically subtle in a way that science can’t capture, and I found it fascinating.

None of this had even a hope of any practical application in my life. But ten years later, when we were designing the first Macintosh computer, it all came back to me. And we designed it all into the Mac. It was the first computer with beautiful typography. If I had never dropped in on that single course in college, the Mac would have never had multiple typefaces or proportionally spaced fonts. And since Windows just copied the Mac, it’s likely that no personal computer would have them. If I had never dropped out, I would have never dropped in on this calligraphy class, and personal computers might not have the wonderful typography that they do. Of course it was impossible to connect the dots looking forward when I was in college. But it was very, very clear looking backwards ten years later.

Again, you can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something — your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.

(Full transcript here in comments.)

I guess there are all kinds of important lessons to be learned from this.

My objective is my methodology

I’m in the middle of applying to have my NSERC Discovery Grant renewed. I’d almost forgotten how much time and energy the process can consume. I’m not really in a position to take it lightly, either, given that the funding for my graduate students depends on the outcome of the competition. (Yes, this is one of the reasons for the slow blogging rate. That, and I’m feeling a bit burnt out.)

This is the first year that the new formatting requirements for Form 101 are in place. According to the NSERC instructions (we also received an email confirming this), we have to divide our 5-page proposal into sections, using the following headings:

Recent Progress

Describe your recent progress in research activities related to the proposal and, in addition for renewals, the progress attributable to your previous Discovery Grant.


Define the short- and long-term objectives of your research program.

Literature Review

Discuss the literature pertinent to the proposal, placing the proposed research in the context of the state-of-the-art.


Describe the methods and proposed approach, providing sufficient details to allow the reviewers to assess the feasibility of the research activities.


Explain the anticipated significance of the work.

This has me wondering: is it really just a formatting change? Or does it signify a change in NSERC’s policy on research funding, a shift from funding research programs to research projects?

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PIMS Collaborative Research Groups

(Edited below, 09/06/2011)

PIMS Collaborative Research Groups are groups of

[…] researchers with a common research interest and with a common desire to collaboratively develop some aspects of their research programs. The groups may already exist, organizing joint seminars and workshops, making joint PDF appointments, or developing joint graduate training programs, but will have the potential to do much more, given resources and organizational structure through PIMS.

A CRG must have a “critical mass” of participating researchers from PIMS member universities, that is, the major universities in western Canada plus the University of Washington. The smallest group that I can recall had 8 faculty, but usually there are many more, in the 20-30 range, and the numbers only seem to keep getting larger. (Once in a while a CRG includes a few participants from other institutions, but this is not common, and in any case it is a very small fraction of the group.) Each CRG has one or several “leaders” who develop the proposal and coordinate the project.

The PIMS 2010 Annual Report (link to PDF) tells us that PIMS spent $220,846 on CRGs in 2010. This figure is for the calendar year, which does not coincide with the fiscal year, and presumably does not include major items such as postdocs or summer schools, which are reported separately in their own categories. There were 4 CRGs ending in 2010, 2 ongoing, and 2 starting in 2010. Between all that and what I’ve gleaned in the past, the actual total CRG budget might be about 100-130K per year, per group. (If anyone here has better information, please correct me.) The money is parcelled out into amounts designated for specific purposes, i.e. this much for each of this many postdocs, this much for each distinguished visitor (one per year), etc.; the rest of the funding for each item comes from the Discovery Grants of the participants. Additionally, each CRG gets about one BIRS workshop per year, again from a separate budget (this time BIRS).

According to the program webpage, the CRGs “create new research opportunities,” “enhance training programs,” “generate new ways of having its [PIMS’s?] scientific programs driven by its member scientists,” integrate, facilitate, create a context, as well as foster a variety of things.

What could possibly go wrong?

I’ve said before that this is not my favourite funding program, basically because too much of it revolves around politics rather than scientific merit. Well, whatever. Not every research support program has to please me. But I’m concerned about the ongoing trend to support “big science,” as represented by large groups or major new initiatives and of which CRGs are a good example, at the expense of individual funding.

The Discovery Grants budget in mathematics took the first large cut in 2007 and has been decreasing ever since, culminating in this year’s mess. The appropriate response from NSERC would be to raise our DG budget by 70% or more, bringing it in line with other disciplines of science and resolving pretty much all of our financial problems. Instead, we get the long-range planning exercise where, I suspect, we’ll be asked to devise ways to do more with less. Between that and the upcoming renewal of institute funding, which will require a new framework again as the institutes are being removed from the MRS program, I’m worried that more money will get shifted away from individual grants and towards the institutes or other forms of collective funding.

There are plenty of political arguments for such a move: the PR value of large initiatives, the matching funds, the money doesn’t look spread so thin when it’s handed out in large chunks. But from the point of view of science, it would be catastrophic. I’ve written posts already on why thematic institute programs can’t replace stable individual funding. PIMS CRGs, on the other hand, support many of the same activities (postdocs, visitors) that are normally funded by Discovery Grants, but are awarded to groups rather than individuals. Let’s talk about how that works.

(Sorry about the length. I wanted to write this out in enough detail so that a non-mathematician could understand the problem, and didn’t want to run a whole series of CRG posts.)

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Submission to the LRP steering committee

Below (under the cut) is the text of the submission I am about to send to the Long Range Plan steering committee. I missed the April 18 deadline for submission of discussion papers, basically because I was too busy and exhausted at the end of the semester, but the committee web page states that “comments and ideas are welcome at any time”, so here are mine. There’s very little here that I haven’t already said on this blog in much more detail (the relevant posts are linked below) and it’s possible that some of the committee members have seen those posts already; this is just a short summary. (A PDF version is also available.)

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NSERC peer review system: broken and unreliable

Jim Colliander has a post on the results of the 2011 NSERC Discovery Grants competition in mathematics. The official results have not yet been announced publicly, but the data that Jim has collected in his department does not bode well for mathematics in Canada. Judging by the outcomes, the new peer review system is dysfunctional, unreliable and unstable.

Please read Jim’s post – based on the information currently available, I agree 100% with his conclusions.

I would like to join him in asking NSERC officials and the Evaluation Committee members to step up and explain how this happened.

I also would like to ask NSERC to explain how they could possibly expect this system to function in terms of graduate and postgraduate training. Many senior researchers have seen their 40-50K grants cut to 15-18K per year, a pitiful amount that’s just about enough to pay for 1 graduate student at a bare subsistence level (8K at UBC), incidentals such as books and computer equipment, plus 2-3 conferences and research visits, maybe 4 if they plan carefully. If that’s how they spend the money – and you can’t really cut the travel and collaboration expenses any further without serious damage to your career – their meagre record of graduate training might not get them ranked highly enough next time around to maintain even that level of funding. A Catch-22 situation if there ever was one.

I’d like to know how this is consistent with NSERC’s own estimation (along with SSHRC and CIHR) of how much money our top graduate students and postdocs should be making. Vanier Graduate Scholarships are valued at 50K per year. Banting Postdoctoral Fellowships are valued at 70K per year. At that rate, it would take 10 mathematics faculty with 15-18K grants (with the travel and collaboration allowance subtracted) to fund a single postdoctoral fellow, and 7 or 8 such faculty to fund a graduate student.

A couple more things from my own experience of being isolated research-wise in my department for a long time (2000-06) and then having a very small group of 2 (2006-08):

Instability favours large groups. No, take that back – it doesn’t favour anyone, really – but it’s easier for large groups to survive it. One person might get cut, but then someone else might get an increase, and the total amount of money available to the group is much more likely to be stable. Of course, this only works if the group members share enough research interests to be able to work with the same postdocs for example.

Emphasis on HQP training favours large groups. A large group is likely to have a steady flow of graduate students and postdocs in the pipeline. It is likely to have regular graduate course offerings in place, making it easier to bring new students up to speed. It is able to make competitive postdoc offers to top candidates. And at the end of the day, all 4 or 5 or 7 group members can boost their HQP scores by listing every postdoc associated with the group on their application. Meanwhile, a lone supervisor has to start from scratch. Graduate course offerings have no relevance to her research program, so she tutors her graduate students one-on-one right from the basics. Aside from maybe a handful of mathematicians across Canada with the top 50-60K grants, it is very hard for a single faculty member to find the money for any postdoctoral offer at all, let alone one sufficiently competitive (in terms of salary and duration) to attract a candidate who’s actually good enough to have other choices. (NSERC’s Use of Funds restrictions on 3-year offers don’t make it any easier, either, but that’s another story.)

Can isolated researchers ever reach the top tiers of funding, regardless of their actual research excellence? Or are we going to reward success in hiring shuffles instead? Should we focus on our research and training programs, or should we fight tooth and nail to get some more faculty hired in our area because that’s the only way for us to stay afloat? How is this going to affect our research environment in the long run?

Various and sundry

In no particular order:

♦ The Harmonic Analysis group at UBC has a new website. We’re still adding content and working out the kinks, but that’s basically what it’s going to look like. The website was created by Tom Hollai and Krista Pravetz of eMarketing Vancouver. We’ve enjoyed working with them and would recommend them to anyone needing to upgrade their web presence.

♦ The Erwin Schrödinger Institute, recently threatened with extinction, has been granted a reprieve:

The ESI will continue operation in its present form until May 31, 2011. Thereafter it will form a ‘Research Platform’ of the University of Vienna with the (unchanged) name ‘Erwin Schrödinger Institute for Mathematical Physics’.

Funding of the ESI research programmes and workshops in 2011 and 2012 seems assured. Unfortunately the Junior Research Programme of the ESI has to be suspended until further notice due to lack of financial support. This suspension does not affect current Junior Research Fellowships.

The Directors of the ESI would like to take this opportunity to express their gratitude to the scientific community for their overwhelming support of the ESI during these difficult negotiations.

♦ NSERC long range plan: I ended up not attending the information session at the CMS meeting. I’d been planning to go, but then other activities got in the way. Turns out, if you invite 20+ people from all over the continent to come and speak in your session, it’s hard to tell them once they’re here that you won’t hang out with them because you have a policy meeting to catch – and an information session at that, as opposed to a committee meeting where decisions are actually made.

It’s not clear how much I really missed, though. The steering committee has posted the slides from the presentation along with some FAQ answers. Compared to the expanded terms of reference, there’s some additional information about the procedure but (as far as I can tell) not about the substance of what they’re doing. All the substantive information is phrased in frustratingly general terms, for instance “How is research in mathematics and statistics impacting science.” Really? Where do we even start?

The FAQ answers look like so:

“Why isn’t there representation from ______ on the steering committee?”

• It was important to keep the committee small enough to function effectively, and there are many different aspects to try to balance. Everyone on the committee wears several hats!

• Because the committee is limited in size, it is very important that we get input from ________, ideally in the form of discussion papers, but comments to the committee via the website are also welcome.

While I’m sitting here and waiting for someone to ask me for a discussion paper, I’ve spent some time browsing the committee website, and (in case any committee members are reading this) I’d like to suggest a few improvements to its interactive functionality. Right now, the page setup does not encourage discussion of any of the specific issues on the agenda. The only places where comments can be posted are the three lonely blog entries (look under “recent posts”), so that if I wanted for example to submit feedback on the mathematics institutes – which I do – I’d have to post it under some completely unrelated article where no one would know to look for it. Now, I happen to have a reasonably popular (by math standards) blog where I can post whatever I like and there is a good chance that people will see it. But in terms of engaging the community, having designated comment threads for specific topics on the committee website would work much better.

Good to know

The NSERC “long range plan” mathematics and statistics committee has just posted a clarification:

Comments from several people indicated that the first point, in particular [“Current and future scientific priorities”], suggested that the plan would include some ranking of research areas. This was not intended, and we have changed this element to “current and future scientific context”, which we hope is clearer.

It’s not, but then the committee does clarify it somewhat:

  • How are current scientific developments affecting research in mathematics and statistics
  • How is research in mathematics and statistics impacting science
  • How does/should research in mathematics and statistics contribute to national science policy discussions

Well, this is a welcome development.

I can’t tell whether the committee is just clarifying its mandate or has actually revised its goals. Both the NSERC newsletter announcing the exercise and the letter from NSERC Vice-President Isabelle Blain in this issue of CMS Notes refer clearly to “priorities” and “areas of strength”; I’d heard that language before, from some of the same people who are involved in the current exercise, and I remember well enough what it meant. Other than that, the information blackout was almost complete. There was some sort of a consultation process when the committee was being formed, or so I’ve heard second-hand. The rest of us were just told not to worry because wise people were taking care of us.

Anyway, this is good. There will be a meeting with the steering committee members at the upcoming CMS meeting this weekend. Perhaps we can finally get some straight answers?

The Erwin Schrödinger Institute needs help

The Austrian government has announced plans to terminate the funding for the Erwin Schrödinger Institute:

The Austrian Ministry of Science informed the ESI officially on November 8, 2010, that the Institute’s funding will be terminated with effect from January 1, 2011.

This decision comes just in time for the 50th anniversary of Schrödinger’s death on January 4, 2011.

News of the funding cut quickly spread among the scientific community and sparked off a large number of messages to Dr. Beatrix Karl, the Austrian Minister of Science and Research, in support of the ESI.

Currently discussions between the Ministry of Science, the University of Vienna and the Erwin Schrödinger Institute concerning the possible continuation of the ESI under the umbrella of the University of Vienna. The outcome of these discussion is unclear at this stage, but we hope for clarification by the end of November.

In its early days, the institute was located in the apartment building on Pasteurgasse where Erwin Schrödinger actually used to live. The institute headquarters were on the first and third floors, with the second floor private residence in between. We all loved the place and didn’t mind zipping up and down the stairs, although there was also an old-fashioned elevator if I remember correctly; but soon enough the two apartments became too cramped for the increasing number of visitors. In 1996, the institute moved to its current location at Boltzmanngasse 9.

(Photo courtesy of Michael Lacey.)

I visited the Schrödinger Institute three times, in 1994, 1998 and 2003. In 1994, the institute had a program on Schrödinger operators with emphasis on magnetic fields, and quantum scattering theory for the multiparticle Schrödinger equation with a constant magnetic field was my first serious research area, so there you go. That’s where I met most of the major players in the field. There was another program on magnetic Schrödinger operators in 1998. By then, I and my long-term and long-distance collaborator Christian Gérard had already started writing our book, and the program gave us a chance to get together and discuss some of that work in person.

A couple of years later, Thomas Hoffmann-Ostenhof asked if I would want to organize a program “on the Kakeya problem”. I did. I pointed out that it wouldn’t be exactly math physics, but the institute didn’t mind expanding its range of activities. What they ended up getting, in Spring 2003, was probably the first institute program in the area that was soon to be known as additive combinatorics. Alex Iosevich and Detlef Müller were the co-organizers. We invited researchers who worked in several different areas – harmonic analysis, number theory, combinatorics – but were interested in closely related problems. It worked out very well. Collaborations were struck, contacts were made. In my case, this was where I first met Malabika Pramanik (now my colleague at UBC) and Imre Ruzsa, among others.

I can’t really imagine that the institute might no longer exist in just a few weeks.

If you would like to help, write to the Austrian Minister of Science and Research, Dr. Beatrix Karl, beatrix.karl “at” (information courtesy of the AMS).