It started with an unexceptional advertisement buried in the job pages of The Times Higher two weeks ago. A closer inspection revealed something odd about the ad seeking to recruit academics for a new government-sponsored Bristol-based research institute.
A sum of £75,000 a year was being offered for a top pure mathematician to lead the institute, a salary unimaginable for all but a few of the country's most prestigious analytical minds.
The director, who would also be a visiting professor in maths at nearby Bristol University, was to lead a team of 30 high-calibre researchers in pure maths. Applicants had to be British nationals.
Initially, Bristol would say only that it was "a major coup" for the university, adding that it was unable to divulge any details for reasons of national security.
Following extensive research, The Times Higher can reveal that the institute is being established by the electronic surveillance arm of the British intelligence service. The joint initiative between GCHQ, the government communications headquarters based in Cheltenham, and Bristol, will use the UK's best mathematical brains for national security work in coding, cryptography and data encryption.
But it is the number of pure maths researchers the institute will seek to recruit that is raising eyebrows in the maths world. There are fears that it could lead to a brain drain of key talent out of universities to GCHQ.
David Youdan, executive director of the Institute for Mathematics and its Applications, believes there will be only 50 or so academics qualified to join the institute.
A GCHQ spokesman said: "It's an exercise to get some bright minds together to do some mathematical research."
Barry Taylor, Bristol University's communications director, said the project was the latest example of a long relationship between the intelligence community and academia. "This partnership presents the opportunity to broaden theoretical work in mathematics by providing access to the widest possible pool of the best minds to help the UK retain its place at the forefront of mathematical understanding."
Bristol was one of a number of universities that bid for the tender.
Mr Taylor added that the initiative would add to the overall pot of resources available for maths research and teaching in Britain.
Researchers are expected to be required to sign the Official Secrets Act, but Tim Pedley, president of the IMA, hoped that not all the institute's work would be classified. "That would be a loss," he said.
GCHQ mathematicians invented the public-key cryptography used to make web-based transactions secure and are involved in ensuring that electronic voting will be secure and reliable.
The two main areas of work at GCHQ are signals intelligence - to help maintain national security and to prevent terrorism and serious crime - and information assurance - to protect government communication and information systems and critical infrastructure such as electricity and water safe from hackers and other threats.
Information about the director's position should be directed to recruitment agency TMP Worldwide in Bristol.
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