EPSRC Funding Crisis: Mathematical Sciences
Good news from EPSRC
On 28 March 2012, the Engineering and Physical Sciences Council
announced its decisions
on whether to "increase", "maintain", or "reduce" its total funding
of each of 12 subareas of the mathematical sciences. EPSRC decided
to maintain funding for 10 areas, to increase funding
of statistics and applied probability, and to reduce funding
of mathematical physics. It will be important to make sure that EPSRC
continues to fund the best mathematical physics, a subject where the UK
is among the world leaders. Nonetheless, EPSRC's decision is closer
than I expected to the goal of funding the best research across all subjects.
That decision refers to all types of research funding, including
grants (for a specific research project) as well as fellowships.
On fellowships, EPSRC has recovered from its highly
restrictive policy of July 2011, when fellowships were only
available in one of the 12 subareas of the mathematical sciences.
Namely, in May 2012, EPSRC announced that fellowships would
be available at all levels (Postdoctoral, Early Career,
and Established) for mathematical scientists
who do "Intradisciplinary Research". That means any research
which brings together techniques from different areas of mathematics.
The best mathematical research does exactly that, and so I strongly
advise mathematicians in the UK (or mathematicians interested
in coming to the UK) to apply for these fellowships.
A statement on the EPSRC "Shaping Capability" announcement
of July 2011 and
how it affects the mathematical sciences is below.
In July 2011, EPSRC decided that it would not accept applications
for research fellowships in any area of the mathematical sciences
except statistics and applied probability, until further notice.
This will force many of the UK's best PhD students to leave the country
to get their first academic job, and will prevent us from attracting
the best foreign postdoctoral researchers. Postdoctoral fellowships
are an essential part of the pipeline that allows some PhDs
to become leading scientists. If EPSRC continues
this policy, British mathematics will face mediocrity
in a decade.
UK mathematics is under-resourced already. In 2009/10, EPSRC slashed
its funding of research grants in the mathematical sciences
(the other main type of research funding besides fellowships)
to £12 million, from £24.2 million
only two years before. The UK's competitors would find that
decision hard to understand.
The US is increasing its research grants in the
despite the recession, because of the prospect of long-term growth
founded on research.
The UK's small investment in mathematics must be used wisely.
This page is intended as a source of information about the EPSRC
funding crisis for the mathematical sciences community. It includes
briefing material that can be used in lobbying, letters written to MPs,
press releases, press coverage and links to other parallel campaigns.
If you have anything you'd like to be included on this page - additional
press, lobbying material etc. - then please send it to
(b.totaro AT dpmms.cam.ac.uk). You can also leave a comment
on my blog.
- 15 May 2012 letter
from 9 Nobel laureates to the Daily Telegraph, calling for
reform of EPSRC.
- 11 January 2012 letter
from 88 leading UK scientists to the Daily Telegraph.
"EPSRC should be restructured with an
unfaltering focus on scientific excellence, or be replaced."
- 20 December 2011 letter
from the presidents of the UK's five learned societies in the mathematical
sciences to David Delpy of EPSRC. They state their major and continuing
concerns about EPSRC fellowships in the mathematical sciences.
They also analyse Delpy's
statement on fellowships to the House of Lords science and technology
- 9 December 2011 letter from Frank Kelly to the UK's five
learned societies in the mathematical sciences, summarizing
EPSRC's recent policies and how the CMS is
responding to them.
- 25 November 2011 letter from Alessio Corti to the House of Lords science and technology
committee. "I write to tell you how upset I am by the introduction
of National Importance as a primary assessment criterion of EPSRC grants.
I am so upset in fact that I am considering refusing to peer-review."
- 24 October 2011 letter from Arieh Iserles, Richard Thomas and Burt Totaro
to David Delpy of EPSRC.
- 17 October 2011 reply from David Willetts, Minister for Universities and Science,
to the letter from twenty-five
leading mathematical scientists about EPSRC's July restriction
- 11 October 2011 letter from over 300 young mathematical scientists to the Prime Minister,
protesting against EPSRC's July restriction on fellowships. There is
an accompanying press
- 6 October 2011 reply from David Delpy of EPSRC to the letter from twenty-five
leading mathematical scientists.
- 28 September 2011 letter from Michael Singer of the University of Edinburgh
to David Willetts (Minister for Universities and Science)
on EPSRC's relationship with the UK science community.
- 20 September 2011 letter
from twenty-five leading UK mathematical scientists, including
four Fields Medallists, to Prime Minister David Cameron, protesting
against EPSRC's July 2011 policy on fellowships. There is an
- 19 September 2011 letter from the presidents of the Royal Society,
Council for the Mathematical Sciences,
Institute of Physics, Royal Society of Chemistry,
Royal Academy of Engineering, and Institute for Engineering
and Technology to David Delpy of EPSRC, calling for a pause
in EPSRC's Shaping Capability policy.
- 8 September 2011 letter
from Margaret Wright on behalf of the International Review panel
to David Delpy,
Chief Executive of EPSRC, protesting against
EPSRC's July 2011 policy on fellowships.
- 25 August 2011 reply
from Angus MacIntyre of the London Mathematical Society to Philippa
Hemmings, head of Mathematical Sciences at EPSRC, questioning
EPSRC's policy of Shaping Capability.
- 17 August 2011 letter
from Frank Kelly of the Council for Mathematical Sciences to the Prime Minister, protesting against
EPSRC's July 2011 policy on fellowships. There is an accompanying
- 12 August 2011 letter from Philippa Hemmings of EPSRC
to heads of UK mathematics departments, explaining EPSRC's policy
of Shaping Capability.
- 12 August 2011 reply from David Delpy, Chief Executive
of EPSRC, to Frank Kelly, chair of the CMS.
5 August 2011
letter from David Arrowsmith, Chair of HoDoMs (Heads of Departments
of Mathematics), to Philippa Hemmings of EPSRC, questioning EPSRC's
restriction on fellowships.
- 2 August 2011 letter
from the Council for Mathematical Sciences to EPSRC, protesting against
EPSRC's July 2011 policy on fellowships.
Press Coverage - most recent first
- "Whitehall `threat' to future of science"- Daily Telegraph - 11 January
"The future of British science is under serious threat
because its funding body
is making `disastrous errors', more than 70 senior academics have warned.
In a letter to The Daily Telegraph, they claim changes introduced by the
Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council are `damaging scientific
discovery in Britain' because civil servants have taken on new powers to
dictate what type of science is given money."
- "Scientists call for recall of `deluded' EPSRC measures"-
THE - 5 January 2012.
- "Research intelligence - Oh Lords, please don't let me be misunderstood"- THE -
15 December 2011. "Meanwhile, mathematicians have continued
to protest against the confinement of postdoctoral fellowships
in maths to applicants working in statistics and applied probability.
Professor Delpy said this area had consistently been identified as weak,
but `the consequence of leaving this to the community to decide was that,
in the past five years, not one fellowship in mathematics was awarded
in the statistics area'. He told the committee that the call
for the next round of fellowships would include
two additional subject areas.
But an internal briefing note produced for the Council
for Mathematical Sciences says that postdoctoral fellowships - the subject
of the Lords' questioning - would still be confined to statistics.
It urges the EPSRC to `urgently reconsider' that decision.
The note also describes as `misleading' Professor Delpy's claim
to the committee that the EPSRC was `not a major player'
in maths research because it funded just 10 of at least 370
postdoctoral fellowships available in the subject each year.
It calls the EPSRC's analysis flawed and says that, in reality,
it funded about 40 per cent of awards."
- "EPSRC: `Hope you like our new direction (but if not
we don't care)'"- Acoustics etc. - 30 November 2011.
"Sustainable energy is a priority area,
one of the least contentious ones by common consent.... But EPSRC
have determined that onshore wind does not count as the kind of sustainable
energy they want to prioritize research into, though offshore wind does."
- "EPSRC funding changes court controversy"- TCE Today - 23 November 2011. "From 15 November
onward, anyone applying for an EPSRC grant will have to explain the
`national importance' of their work over a timeframe of 10-50 years.
`This should be articulated in relation to other research in the area,
explaining how it aligns to national UK priorities, responds
to user/stakeholder pull or underpins priority areas for other research
councils,' the EPSRC says on its website. Reviewers checking
the proposals will take the national importance of the research
into account along with the research quality, EPSRC says."
- "`Absurd' EPSRC grant metric turns scientists into
String Theory - 19 November 2011. "Assessment based on national importance
will certainly help civil servants justify science spend
to the government when the next Spending Review comes around
(which is almost certainly why it's being done). But it won't
necessarily help the state of UK science - and may wholly backfire,
stifling discovery and innovation just when we need them
for economic recovery."
- "Physical sciences: Research council will support excellence"- Nature - 17 November 2011, by David Delpy and John Armitt of EPSRC.
- "No EPSRC remedy yet for maths PhD failures"- Research Fortnight - 16 November 2011. "An action plan
by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council
has promised to try to better understand issues in PhD quality
and training but makes no commitments to improve provision."
- "Assessing impact at proposal stage `absurd'"- THE -
9 November 2011. "The Astronomer Royal [Sir Martin Rees] has called
for a system of scientific research funding which puts far less stress
on `improving efficiency in the "office management" sense' and sets
out to `maximize the chance of landmark achievements'."
- "EPSRC won't shelve `shaping capabilities', but will consult more"- THE - 28 October 2011.
"The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council has declined
to mothball its controversial Shaping Capability policy, but agreed
to work more closely with learned societies on implementing it."
- "`National importance' becomes critical in EPSRC peer review"- Research Fortnight - 27 October 2011.
"The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council has announced details
of the changes to peer review under its Shaping Capability scheme.
Under the plans, `national importance' will become a primary
assessment criterion, alongside research quality, from 15 November."
- "EPSRC under fire again as maths students complain to Cameron"- Research Fortnight - 12 October 2011.
- "EPSRC fails to placate critics of its effort to `shape'
research capability"- THE - 6 October 2011.
"The EPSRC Council will this month [19/20 October] consider a call from
leading national academies, including the Royal Society,
for the postponement of the introduction of Shaping Capability."
- "Vagueness reigns as UK science agency defends cuts"- Nature - 26 September 2011.
"Andrew Bourne, presenting EPSRC's strategy,
said the agency wouldn't present its full physical sciences decisions
until November, and wouldn't get to the nitty-gritty of winnowing
out grant applications in particular areas until April 2012 - and that
it was still wondering how best to do it.
`They gave the impression that they had started on a journey,
didn't know where they were going to end up, and were just hopeful
they were going to get there,' says the Royal Society
of Chemistry's Neville Reed."
- "Pressure on EPSRC mounts over `shaping capabilities' program"- THE - 23 September 2011.
- "Press the pause button, Societies urge Delpy"- Research Fortnight - 22 September 2011. "The Royal Society
has organised a letter - signed by the heads of six learned societies -
urging the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council to
`pause' the implementation of its funding strategy, Shaping
- "Pressure rises as maths `nobellists' complain to Cameron"- Research Fortnight - 21 September 2011.
- "Mathematicians slam UK.gov plans to fund statistics only"- Register - 21 September 2011.
- "Mathematicians warn of damage to economy from maths funding
cuts"- Guardian - 20 September 2011.
- "UK mathematicians protest fellowship cuts"- Nature - 20 September 2011.
"First the chemists: now, the mathematicians. In Britain,
both groups of researchers have written to Prime Minister David Cameron,
to express anger about the policies of their grant-funding agency,
the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC).
In a letter sent today (20 September), twenty-five eminent mathematicians
- including four Fields Medallists - complain that EPSRC
has scrapped fellowships in all but two areas of mathematical sciences,
statistics and applied probability. This, they say,
will force many PhD students to leave the country
to continue their careers and will stop the best postdoctoral students
coming to the UK. `If EPSRC continues this policy, British mathematics
will face mediocrity in a decade,' they say. Separately,
a group of doctoral and postdoctoral mathematicians
are coordinating their own letter to Cameron (they are collecting
- "We should have avoided the word `consultation'"- Research Fortnight - 9 September 2011.
"David Delpy, chief executive of the Engineering and Physical Sciences
Research Council, says he regrets having used the term `consultation'
when referring to discussions with a number of organizations
on possible cuts to the council's research portfolio.
The portfolio has faced vocal opposition from the research community
since its publication in July. Both the Institute of Physics
and the Royal Society of Chemistry have denied the EPSRC's claims
that they were consulted on the plans, saying they were merely
`We should have avoided the word "consultation" and gone out
to describe specifically the process we were going through
and perhaps issued an open call for evidence,' Delpy
told Research Fortnight."
- "PM warned of toxic results if funding bonds
are broken" - THE - 1 September 2011.
"Frank Kelly, chair of the Council for the Mathematical Sciences,
has written to [David] Cameron to protest against [EPSRC's] restriction
of mathematics applications to researchers working in statistics
and applied probability.
Professor Kelly, who is also professor of the mathematics of systems
and master of Christ's College, Cambridge, says the changes
have been introduced `with no warning' and would cut off
one of the few sources of postdoctoral support in maths.
`Fellowships at the postdoctoral level provide a rare opportunity
for the future leaders of the discipline to develop independently,
and the loss of these fellowships to the general area
of mathematical sciences will hit the best young mathematicians
disproportionately,' he writes."
- 29 November 2011: The House of Lords science and technology committee
questioned David Delpy
and John Armitt of EPSRC for one hour. You can see the
or the transcript.
The hearing was on EPSRC's recent change
to peer review, making National Importance an assessment criterion
separate from research excellence. Several committee members asked what
National Importance meant, and how mathematics in particular would be affected.
- 26 October 2011: Question,
two sharp questions
in the Lords by Lord Lucas, on what mechanisms exist for scientists
to call research councils to account, and what is the role of elected officials
in this process. He emphasizes the call by the Royal Society and the other
UK learned societies for a "pause" in EPSRC's Shaping Capability policy.
14 November 2011: Response from Baroness Wilcox, the Parliamentary
Under-Secretary of State,
Department for Business, Innovation and Skills.
- 20 October 2011: Question in the Lords by Lord Lucas,
on the government's
response to the letter from twenty-five leading mathematical scientists.
He was given the letter from David Willetts, above.
- Transcription of David Delpy's testimony
to the Commons science and technology committee.
- 14 September 2011: The Commons science
and technology committee hearing
questioned David Delpy on EPSRC's policy of Shaping Capability.
You can hear the recording.
The MPs start their tough questioning at 9:42, and turn
specifically to the mathematical sciences from 10:00 to 10:22.
The MPs emphasize the letters from Frank Kelly and Margaret Wright
which question EPSRC's decision to scrap fellowships
in most of the mathematical sciences until further notice. (See links
Later, David Willetts (Minister for Universities and Science)
is questioned hard on EPSRC's policy of Shaping Capability
from 10:46 to 10:53.
- EPSRC published its 2010-11 annual report on 24 November 2011.
The Council for Mathematical Sciences submission to Parliament's Science and Technology
Committee in April 2011 has excellent arguments and numbers
on the strength and importance of UK mathematics and on EPSRC's low level of
research funding in the mathematical sciences. Anyone who wants
to organize in defence of UK mathematics should look at this.
- EPSRC: the Engineering
and Physical Sciences Research Council. The main conduit for UK government
funding of research grants, fellowships, and graduate students
in the mathematical sciences.
- CMS: the Council
for the Mathematical Sciences. An umbrella body for the main
UK learned societies in the mathematical sciences: the London
Mathematical Society (LMS), the Institute for Mathematics
and its Applications (IMA), the Royal Statistical Society (RSS),
the Edinburgh Mathematical Society (EMS), and the Operational
Research Society (ORS).
International Review of Mathematical Sciences 2010. This is a panel
of leading international mathematicians who were invited by EPSRC
to visit the UK and report on the strengths and weaknesses
of the UK's research in mathematical sciences and how it is funded.
Their report makes an excellent case for the strength of UK
mathematics and the importance of keeping it strong across
a wide range of universities.
- SAT: EPSRC's Strategic Advisory Team in the mathematical
sciences consists of academics who are supposed to be consulted
about relevant policies.
Some Relevant Blogs
- 18 August 2011: The London Mathematical Society has a blog with
comments on EPSRC's policy of Shaping Capability.
- 26 July 2011: The blog by Fields Medallist Tim Gowers analysed
EPSRC's justification for its July 2011 fellowship decision. This
led to a long series of comments by mathematicians.