back to article Mathematicians slam plans to fund statistics only

Mathematicians across the UK have written to David Cameron protesting that plans to restrict Maths research funding to Statistics and Applied Probability only is a short-sighted approach that will strip the UK of a generation of science leaders. Twenty-five professors from Cambridge, UCL and York and other major universities …


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  1. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Hardly surprising

    The so-called "scientific-proof" bit behind all government lies. It's the mathematical equivalent of smoke-and-mirrors.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      It's not even as bad as the social sciences research funding body.

      The ESRC shocked people a month or two ago by demanding that all research projects subscribe to the Big Society ideology.

      Don't get me wrong, it's just one of these arbitrary restylings; it means you reformulate your (mostly finished**) research to fit within the requirements --- that's business as usual, it has no effect on actual research done only on the writeup afterwards plus a few days wasted rewriting beforehand.

      It's unprecedented in a democracy to have government spell this out; it's bizarrely stalinist.

      [**Why mostly finished? Because you need to know and suggest what you will find out, otherwise it's too risky/speculative to fund.]

  2. Brewster's Angle Grinder Silver badge

    Hear, hear!

  3. Michael H.F. Wilkinson Silver badge

    What are the odds of politicians making sense of pure maths?

    Apparently vanishingly small. If you look at many of the current innovative technologies, so many derive from other fields of mathematics than statistics and applied probability the mind boggles at the sheer stupidity of this policy. We are currently working (amongst other things) on diffusion tensor imaging. Tensor maths are quite hard to get your mind around, but of outstanding use in e.g. finding out how the brain is wired (cheap shot: politician's brains contain serious wiring defects), apart from being of use in general relativity (hands up who does not use GPS).

    Shortsighted policy? Willfully blind more likely.

  4. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Don't they know that ...

    only 43% of mathematics research has a greater than 1:4 chance of being at least 67% applicable to UK industry? In real terms, that is.

  5. Barry Tabrah

    Statistically it makes sense

    Why do I get the feeling that the Government will have no problems in obtaining statistics that this is the best use of funds?

  6. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Is this going to help government and media get a clue about statistics? I suspect not.

  7. John Rose

    This coalition are often short-termist and/or blinkered in their approach to many important matters. This can be seen in for example: their tripling of tuition fees, probable delay of ring fencing / disengagement of retail & investment banking, attempts to sell off nationally owned forests.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      And Labour weren't short-term at all.

      Well I suppose they did play the long game in getting us tangled up in ground wars, though the whole borrowing and spending during the boom years instead of saving was a pretty short term venture.

      But olol, statistics, that's not real maths.

      1. JohnMurray


        you want an example of long-termism in politics I suggest you look at the Private Finance initiative, started by the government just pre-1997.....and wrapped-up in contracts.

        The cost is massive...and definitely not short term some £215 billion, and counting.

        1. RegGuy

          Pensions and social care?

          What about pension reform and social care funding?

          Those are pretty long term issues that affect us all, yet if we are going to (re-)elect someone in three years or less why should they do anything unpopular about those?

          Pensions -- if you live 30 years rather than 15 (ie to 95 rather than to 80) how is that to be paid for? Pensions are currently paid out of the NI contributions of *today's* workers. So if you have fewer workers, and -- ipso facto due to extended life expectancy -- more retired so a bigger demand on this pot, how do you square that circle?

          Social care -- same sort of argument. That is funded from local authorities, whose budget's are frozen. Social care is a labour-intensive activity, and hence very costly. (Unless you pay peanuts then you either get monkeys, or foreign workers who can't speak-a de Inglsih.)

          This is not about Labour or Tory (let's ignore the LDs, as everyone else is.) This is about *YOU*. If you want better pensions and social care, you have to tell your politician. Meaning you have to make it clear YOU are prepared to pay more for these services.

          But if we have fewer people skilled in maths (NOT math!) then we have fewer people who can see the argument above, hence fewer people who could articulate it, hence...

          Oh I see! That's why they are doing it...

    2. Thomas 4

      Probability analysis

      ....suggests a highly likely outcome that you are correct.

      Meanwhile the geometrists are telling the government to get bent, the fluid dynamanic analysists are watching their funding dry up and the astronomers are beseeching the heavens for answers.

    3. Velv Silver badge

      Almost ALL politicians are short-termist and blinkered, mostly only seeing as far as the next election. As the old joke goes, "make your MP work, don't re-elect them"

  8. blindjustis


    So, the government thinks that the only use for mathematics is in the banking and insurance industries... I guess actuaries and option pricing quants is the intended destination of these researchers...


  9. mudskipper

    Let someone else run the country

    Governments appears increasingly incapable of making sound decisions about the running of the state. Although the idea is at odds with my politics the idea of letting large corporations run the country (completely) seems increasingly attractive.

    Put IBM in charge, and completely get rid of every aspect of the current state, even the idea of it. Is this treasonous?

    1. Loyal Commenter Silver badge


      ...a law should be passed that means you can only stand for parliament, if you have scientific or technical expertise. In other words, a science, engineering or maths degree, equivalent professional qualification, or sufficient weight of professional experience. I've had enough of arseholes with politics degrees trying to re-write the way the universe works to suit their own agendas, time to cut them off from the trough!

      1. Pperson

        Re: Maybe

        > a law should be passed that means you can only stand for parliament, if you have scientific or

        > technical expertise

        That's called a 'technocracy', which China is (supposedly) the closest equivalent to at the moment since much of the CCP leadership holds engineering or natural science degrees. Unfortunately, having a degree doesn't automatically make you less of a greedy grasper, it just means your lies are put together structurally sound. Which in politics probably makes it *worse* since it's harder to prove the lies.

        1. Loyal Commenter Silver badge

          Oddly Enough...

          Take a quick look at which country seems to be having the best economic run at the moment. Rhymes whith tryner? Not that this proves anything at all, being probably just pure coincidence, but then, human rights and environmental issues aside, the Chinese Government doesn't seem to be making as much of a balls up of things as successive British ones. (Not just the current lot, but their predecessors and ancestors too).

          1. Anonymous Coward
            Anonymous Coward

            well when you put it that way ..

            "human rights and environmental issues aside"

            Trivial stuff you mean ? like the right to speak freely, travel freely, not be poisoned, education, not work long hours for a pittance or go hungry, not have your homeland flattened by the latest dam.

            If you put all that aside, then yes they are doing better than our governments.

            Personally I would prefer balls-up to plain nasty any time.

            1. Dave 15

              mmm, like UK

              If you are not a banker/politician you will see your wages fall, your cost of living soar.

              You will be able to watch the rich 0.01% pay less tax than you while wiping their arses on 50 quid notes just because they can

              You can get shot or beaten to death by the police for being in the wrong place and looking wrong

              You can get locked up without trial

              Can be sent to America on any trumped up charge they feel like

              Or locked up here for daring to disagree.

              Not sure that I would really count our bunch of incompetant hypocritical nutters as any nicer/better than the Chinese.

        2. James Micallef Silver badge

          I like the "Starship troopers" model

          You can only be active in politics (including voting, not just getting elected) if you have proved your willingness to serve society. Sure, maybe with some refinements so risking being bitten in half by an alien bug isn't a pre-requisite.

          1. Tony S

            Me too!

            It actually does make a lot of sense as far as I am concerned. There are a lot of people that can talk the talk - but would they be willing to stand up for their principles.

            Why should someone that has never worked a day in their life, has lived on benefits and basically done bugger all for the rest of society have the same vote as someone that is prepared to risk their life to make sure that others live in safety?

          2. TimeMaster T

            By the book, not the movie

            In the original book you could get your vote by several different paths, military was just one of them for the masses. General public service or exceptional skill in various fields would also qualify someone for the right to vote.

            When you hand something to someone on a silver platter they tend to take it for granted.

            I would also say to anyone who has only seen the movie: read the book, it is so much better than the hack job they released in theaters.

          3. mhenriday

            «Serve society» ?

            Hopefully not by displaying one's willingness to murder people in foreign lands at the behest of people like Messrs, Bush Cheney, Blair, Brown, Cameron, Hague, et al ! But yes, if persons with expertise in pure mathematics, the natural sciences, health care, musicians, etc qualify, while stockbrokers, MBAs (my younger daughter will hate me for this !), and industry lobbyists do not. Reg bloggers who post on matters pertaining to natural science could only qualify if they demonstrate a familiarity with the basic concepts of the disciplines concerned ; alas, that would prove to be an insurmountable barrier for certain of our favourite rag's most prolific «contributors»....


          4. Dave 15

            Could possibly just go for a test in the entrance to the polling booth.

            If you (a) have a brain and (b) have an idea what any of the MP's have promissed/done/taken a stand on then you can pass.

            We could then make some more interesting things...

            If you get less than 10% you are shot on the spot as a blight on mankind

            Less than 25% and you have to go back for compulsory education (you are too stupid to realise you are too stupid to vote)

            Less than 50% and you get a chance to vote tomorrow if you go and do your homework

            >75% you are obviously worth something and get two votes just for the hell of it.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      The Nazis had IBM helping them to manage the Jews, perhaps you should rethink your plans of a delightful purely fascist utopia before big blue wants your metrics for their new cloud based Hollerith system.

      The politicians are just ugly actors, mere sock puppets for the hidden hand of the shadow government which actually runs the country and most of the globe. Have a good hard think and see if you can remember any new government repealing reams of faulty legislation from the previous party which were in before. Doesn't happen and it never will. While their actions might seem preposterous you can rest assured they have been carefully crafted by the finest think tanks, NGO's and private corporations.

      Doesn't matter who you vote for you will get the same agenda because there is only one agenda. They let you vote the muppets out every 4 years because it stops the proles from revolting. Democracy is a clever scam, we allready live in a fascist dictatorship coated with the thin veneer of choice, obfuscated by smoke and mirrors.

  10. CD001

    They have to bribe you

    They have to bribe you to study statistics obviously - pure maths and theoretical physics can be fun - something which can never, ever be said of statistics...

  11. Loyal Commenter Silver badge

    What Utter Fuckwits!

    If we knew what the 'scientific needs' of the future were, it wouldn't, by definition, be research. The history of science is chock-full of examples of massive advancements made from spin-offs of other, seemingly unrelated research, from the discovery of penicillin being the product of curiosity about mould, to most of modern technology being a product of quantum mechanics, and the complicated mathematics that underlies it.

    The whole point of research is that you don't know what the pay-off will be at the time. To limit the funding for projects on such broad criteria, rather than a sensible assessment based upon whether it is likely to contribute to the greater knowledge of the human race is both short sighted and idiotic. In other words, absolutely the typical behaviour that one comes to expect from politicians.

    1. Yes Me Silver badge

      Utter indeed

      Yes, it's fuckwitted. Wasn't it someone considerably to the right of Cameron who mentioned "unknown unknowns" a few years ago, in a different context? We need pure mathematicians and theoretical physicists to look for those things. That's how all major economic advances in human history have come about - by finding truly unknown facts. The trouble is, you need a sense of history to understand this. We are beset by philistines.

      Could we have an icon for "let's party, all hope is lost" please?

  12. Mark 65


    "This means that this year's students of pure maths, applied maths, fluid dynamics, number theory, geometry, astronomy and theoretical physics will have to leave the country to continue their research interests."

    Let's fund the bullshit/marketing side of mathematics and let other countries gain the benefit of some of our smartest minds.

    1. Vic

      > Let's fund the bullshit/marketing side of mathematics and let other countries

      > gain the benefit of some of our smartest minds.



  13. deains

    No-one from York

    Was kinda hoping in some weirdo fashion to see some of my old professors on the list - but no-one from York has signed the letter. You can replace it with Warwick, Oxford or ICL, to fit in the "major universities" category.

  14. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    I love Statistics

    Just noticed that the hand cleaning dispensers at work say that they "Kill 99.999% of most common germs".

    How many is that then - 99.999% sound quite impressive, but "Most" could apply to 50.001%, but only of common ones, not the rare ones, so maybe even less than that.

    These must be the types of stats that Governments want to fund.

    1. JohnMurray

      What it does not say

      is that while killing "99.9999% of the most common germs" it only kills 0.0000% of the most lethal germs, and probably the same of most virus.

  15. J.G.Harston Silver badge

    Only fund research into known future needs. That's Communist central state planning, isn't it. Is there something Cameron isn't telling us?

    1. JohnMurray


      No point in the UK funding anything.

      Let our EU masters do that.

      We'll just fund the stuff that wins elections.

  16. Britt Johnston

    Statistics research would be an interesting field to support, a lot of the methods are old (Fisher's cornfields) and simplistic (expecting the real world to be normal). I understand from statsmen that there has been real progress in the last 20 years.

    But other areas are still real topics. As are whether universities will become a privatised privelege in Britain within a decade, or whether twens should study, repatriate or go straight on the dole.

    1. Michael H.F. Wilkinson Silver badge

      I always expect the world to be abnormal

      mine is the one with the nonparametric statistics book in the pocket

  17. Ken Hagan Gold badge


    A generation ago, Mrs Thatcher decided that government couldn't pick winners and therefore shouldn't try to. Today, people claiming to be her political heirs are now demonstrating that the premise is still terrifyingly true. Sadly, they've forgotten the conclusion. Perhaps Mrs T would like to go to the conference this year and hand-bag a few of them.

  18. Mike Richards

    I suppose we should be glad that there are no economic uses for pure and applied mathematics or fluid dynamics. I mean apart from the uses that underpin many of the high value industries we supposedly need to grow the economy.

  19. Bluenose

    Am I the only one not surprised by this decision?

    Of course they are supporting Statistics and Applied Probability. These are probably the two most important subjects of interest to politicians. As politicians there concerns are "how do I best support my lies with dubious numbers and what is the likelihood of my being caught". Statistics and applied probability are the perfect sciences for determining the answers to these two major questions.

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  21. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    A request for clarification.

    I see that many commentards have declared this proposition to be shortsighted. But, I wonder if this declaration is simply a short term proposal that will be revisited every year or two. It does seem somewhat reasonable to decide to focus funding on specific areas if only for short periods of time as a means of bringing those areas up to speed more quickly--albeit at a overall loss of reesearch productivity. However, if this is meant to be their position for the next decade or two, then it seems thoroughly absurd.

    Note: I'm not British, so please excuse my ignorance on the subject.

    1. Ken Hagan Gold badge

      "I wonder if this declaration is simply a short term proposal that will be revisited every year or two."

      Almost certainly, if only because politicians have no attention span. However, as the article notes, non-statisticians aren't going to sit on the dole for a few years. They'll emigrate, and that's a big enough decision for them that *they* won't be reversing it two years later. The net effect, then, is to drive away (expensively trained) talent permanently.

      If you *wanted* to turn the UK into a basket case country, systematically expelling anyone with a clue might well be part of your Master Plan.

  22. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    it is not anymore about funding the best.

    instead it is about subsidising the financial sector.

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