Research funding shortfall hits maths doctorates hard

April 26, 2002

Doctoral-level mathematics research is grinding to a halt as research council budgets are cut, according to the London Mathematical Society.

The LMS is concerned that this year many departments have seen up to 10 per cent slashed from their Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council doctoral training accounts.

At last week's EPSRC annual meeting, chief executive John O'Riley said that 5 per cent had been cut from all council doctoral training budgets because of a change in the accountancy regime. Despite stressing the importance of mathematics in EPSRC research, he admitted that the subject had been hit hard.

Terry Lyons, vice-president of the LMS and professor of pure mathematics at Oxford, said: "It's really quite serious. The cuts are not as visible to non-maths departments as the way their funds are allocated is proportional to their research grants... Our allocations are more stable so it is easier to see the cuts."

He said most mathematics departments had seen a further 4 per cent cut from their doctoral training budgets. His own department at Oxford had seen DPhil places cut from 11 to 10.

Alasdair Rose, EPSRC mathematics programme manager, said departments may have lost further funding due to a £9,000 sanction applied for each doctoral student who failed to complete within four years.

The EPSRC calculates the amount of doctoral training funding in proportion to the number of research grants won by a department. Mathematics is calculated differently. In the past, departments nominated students to a national competition. For this and next year, the EPSRC has used historical data on student numbers to calculate the funding. It then plans to move to a peer-review system.

Professor O'Riley also defended a letter he sent to vice-chancellors asking universities to screen grant applications before they were sent to the research council. He told them that the peer-review system was becoming overloaded by "a well-defined group who apply to us frequently and achieve a depressingly low success rate". He said: "The motive is not to attract less grant applications, but to lighten the load for researchers and prevent peer-review fatigue."

EPSRC statistics showed that a "hyperactive elite" of about 15 per cent of the research community wins almost 50 per cent of the available funding. The council is to pilot a scheme that will see this group receiving five-year block grants.

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