The summary below was prepared by Caroline Wallace, LMS Executive Secretary (until July 2022), and approved by Council for publication in the interests of transparency. It was published as an article in issue 502 (September 2022) of the LMS Newsletter.
Since the Bond Report first put forward the idea of a National Academy for the Mathematical Sciences as its number one recommendation, it has been intensely discussed within the Society and wider mathematical science community. If implemented, such an academy will potentially have a great impact on mathematics in the UK. For me, it was therefore important to hear the views of our members before the LMS, as one of the stakeholders and a member of the Council for the Mathematical Sciences, helps to shape the new academy as we move to the implementation stage.
Your numerous and thoughtful responses have been interesting to read, and Council agreed that we should not just share the summary below but also individual comments, the raw data. While it will be some time until there is a fully developed proposal on which the Society can form a definitive view, the results of this survey will help guide the Society’s Council in its deliberations relating to the Academy. It is also good to know what members value most highly in the LMS and we will strive to preserve those aspects also in future.
I want to extend my warm thanks to everyone who responded to the survey.
In December 2021, the Council for Mathematical Sciences (CMS) published a Green Paper outlining a proposal for a National Academy for Mathematical Sciences. The paper suggested that the Academy should embrace academia, education, industry and government agencies, and that its primary focus should be on external advocacy and enhancing connections across the broad mathematical sciences community. Though the CMS would be expected to cease to exist, individual membership based mathematical societies would continue.
The subsequent consultation of the mathematical sciences community by the CMS showed widespread support for such an Academy in principle. A working group set up by the CMS produced a Next Steps paper. This envisaged using time limited funds available through the Isaac Newton Institute (INI) and International Centre for Mathematical Sciences (ICMS), among others, to employ a senior administrator to serve as Executive Director and setting up a focused Executive Committee of a proto-Academy. A go/no go decision for the Academy would be taken at the end of the period (two and a half years). A paper summarising the feedback from the CMS consultation and the recommendations from the working group has been published on the CMS website.
The Society wanted to hear the views of its members on these proposals. A small working group consisting of the President, the Vice-Presidents and the Executive Secretary developed a brief set of questions about the National Academy proposals for Members to consider and the survey was launched in late April 2022. The name of the respondent was requested as part of the survey, to understand whether the views expressed were those of members or non-members, and to ensure that the consultation was robust. Only the Society’s Officers and staff who worked on the survey had access to this personal information, and the results of the survey were anonymised in all other discussions.
The consultation was launched via an ‘all member’ email. Letters were also sent to those members with whom we communicate (at their request) by post, providing them with the link to the consultation. There were 127 responses from the ‘all member’ email and three from the letters to members. We would ideally have liked more responses. However, we noted that there were only about 70 responses from across the mathematical community to the CMS’s consultation on the green paper so this level of engagement from the Society’s membership alone seemed to us to be positive.
Council reviewed the results of the survey at its July meeting along with a draft summary of responses. Council decided that, in the interest of transparency, the summary of responses should be published and that the underlying data should also be published, including any ‘free text’ comments where respondents had opted into the publication of their anonymised data. This underlying anonymised data and free text comments (where respondents opted in) can be found here. It should be borne in mind that the summary of responses below is based on all the responses received, not just those responses included in the file of anonymised data.
Summary of results
Almost all respondents were Members of the Society (more than 97%). Most respondents worked in academia or were retired. Nearly 45% of respondents were Professors.
Around 78% of respondents thought that the impact of the planned National Academy as described in the Green Paper would be positive or very positive, and fewer than 7% thought that it would be negative or very negative.
Amongst the main positive impacts mentioned were:
- Speaking with a unified voice, which should raise the profile of mathematics and make it more influential with government, funding agencies, the public and the media, which in turn will also have positive effects on the economy
- More influence internationally
- Facilitation of cross-fertilisation of ideas between different areas of mathematics and closer links between pure and applied mathematics
- Responding to the Government preference to engage with a small rather than large number of representative bodies
- Ability to attract top mathematicians into the Academy, who will be a model for others to follow
- A clear ambition to be inclusive.
However, concerns were also raised, including:
- The risk that yet another mathematical organisation will make the community less rather than more effective due to the proliferation of institutions
- A National Academy may not necessarily change mathematicians’ behaviour or resolve the differences in view in the community
- The emphasis on ‘impactful’ mathematics — or an expectation of short-term benefits — is misplaced. This cannot be a requirement for supporting pure mathematics, which is important regardless of ‘impact’. Pure mathematics could become drowned out and distinctive perspectives lost
- The same benefits could be achieved by improving the visibility of the Society rather than creating yet another institution. The Society’s members will have little influence on an Academy
- Learned societies could be side-lined more generally
- The value of an Academy over and above the CMS is unclear
- It is not clear where the resources for an Academy are going to come from. The financial basis for the Academy needs to be established. There is a risk that funding for an Academy will reduce funding for other grants and research
- It is not clear how government control of an Academy will be prevented
- A larger organisation might move more slowly.
Respondents expressed a degree of uncertainty about the impact of the Academy on the Society, given that the design of the Academy was at an early stage. It was noted that the Society had a long history and it was hoped that the voice and independence of the Society would not be reduced. Some respondents felt that proper consultation of the Society by, and involvement of the Society in, the Academy, would be critical, and wondered if there was a risk that the Society would be absorbed into the Academy. It was felt that the Society would need to be careful not to become too inward looking and would need to invest effort in discussions and be willing to compromise.
It was noted that an Academy might free the Society’s resources from having to respond to policy matters on its own and allow the Society to focus on its core activities and support for research mathematicians. More generally, there could be reduced duplication between the existing learned societies.
Any improvement in the visibility of mathematics was felt to be of benefit to the Society. On the other hand, the Academy could be a rival to the Society and there was felt to be a risk that Society membership could decline.
The survey asked about potential pitfalls during the set-up phase of the National Academy.
Respondents felt that there must be sufficient communication and consultation with the mathematical community during the Academy set-up phase, not least with the Society’s Members. In addition, respondents commented that the vision for the Academy needed to be the right one, not too narrow, not neglecting education but not with a focus on teaching and applications to the detriment of pure mathematics. Balance across the mathematical community was considered to be vital, along with avoiding in-fighting.
Concern was expressed about choosing a founding President based on mathematical stature rather than political awareness — but also about doing the opposite. The concept of Fellowship was also met with caution — there was felt to be a risk it would be exclusive rather than inclusive and that the Fellowship would lack diversity. More broadly, there was concern that the Academy discussions so far do not prioritise diversity sufficiently.
Respondents noted that it would be critical how disagreements were dealt with and that more could be said on this than was currently included in the Next Steps paper, including around governance/decision-making to ensure that all views were heard and that there was a balanced outcome.
Funding also attracted a number of comments. It was felt that securing funding would be critical, as well as making sure that the Academy was not funded at the expense of other existing activities. It was noted that reliable medium-term funding would not necessarily be secured quickly.
Excessive bureaucracy within the Academy was also identified as a risk.
The survey asked what respondents valued the most about the Society and wanted to see preserved. The most common responses to this question included the following:
- The Society should remain a leading society for academic mathematicians and in particular it should retain its focus on pure mathematics.
- The Society’s small grants are greatly valued, and the lack of bureaucracy in the grant application process.
- The Society’s work to maintain the community of members, even after retirement, including through conferences, events and the Newsletter, should continue.
- The Society’s independence from government and industry should be preserved.
- The Society’s publications should be preserved.
- The Society’s commitment to diversity should be preserved.
Last updated 1 September 2022