Who should pay for mathematics? Part 2: ITAA (Is There An Alternative?)

A few of my colleagues were arguing today about Ernest Davis’s review of the book in SIAM News.  To the constant and legitimate concern that spilling the beans about the basically pleasurable nature of our activity might lead to funding cuts, one of them added what you might call the real world argument:  students, especially undergraduates, really want to get jobs after they graduate; economics is the most popular major and we need to keep in mind our responsibility to prepare our students for the real world.  I’m reconstructing the last part from fragments; when I arrived the argument was nearly over and I was too busy picking up my daily ration of fresh fruit to pay attention to details.   Moreover, I was tongue-tied as usual (even when my mouth was not full of fruit) and couldn’t really participate in the discussion, so my colleague will have to forgive me if I misrepresent his position.

In this view, mathematicians, and university professors more generally, are a category of service workers, like the fast food workers in the terrific film that I just saw tonight, but with much much better working conditions.  You won’t find me complaining about my working conditions on this blog!  But attention to conditions in the real world compels us to recognize, as Davis pointed out last month, that

In practical terms, arguing that mathematics without clear direct practical applications (essentially all of pure math and much of so-called applied math) should be funded on the basis that it is a creative pleasure rather than a golden goose of practical applications is pretty much tantamount to saying that it should be funded at the level of the National Endowment for the Humanities, rather than at the level of the National Science Foundation. Whether Harris would be content with this outcome is not clear to me.

Of course Davis is right, as is the colleague who was concerned about our obligations as a service industry, but only if one agrees with Margaret Thatcher that There Is No Alternative to the real world as it is presently constituted.  When I’m ready to tangle with the real world I will write a very different kind of book.  In this one I tried to reproduce the ethos of the world of real mathematicians.  As I see it, this ethos is not necessarily comfortable with the trade-off whereby we provide a marketable service or proclaim our fidelity to the entrepreneurial mindset in exchange for the freedom to participate in the relaxed field of pure research.  It seems to me that this situation is at the root of a very real sense of alienation that manifests itself as a fear of loss of funding — or at least a reduction to the level of the National Endowment for the Humanities — if our true motivations are ever disclosed.

I would say that the greatest service we can provide our students is to demonstrate by example that there are still a few islands within the larger society that are not alienated in the sense of being thoroughly subordinated to the entrepreneurial mindset.  That’s what this bit from the first dialogue is about:


The risk, such as it is, is that some of our students will conclude from this lesson that the real world is not an insuperable obstacle.


7 thoughts on “Who should pay for mathematics? Part 2: ITAA (Is There An Alternative?)

  1. voloch

    The reasons people choose to do mathematics don’t have to align with the reasons society chooses to support mathematics. These are two different questions.


    1. mathematicswithoutapologies Post author

      I absolutely agree. Leaving aside the very interesting question of whether “society” and the elected officials who actually make the choices have the same interest, and the even more interesting question of whether the power relations within society might change (or whether indeed There Is No Alternative), both of which are beyond the scope of the book, a number of questions treated in the book are still of some interest. For example, European decision-makers seem committed to supporting the pure sciences in order to “reinforce the innovation ecosystem” in order to increase European competitiveness on world markets. At the meeting I attended in 2009 (pp 296-300; there is a more complete account at this address), policymakers wondered aloud whether it would take the prospect of earning tens of millions of euros to convince researchers to quit their labs and put their skills to work creating startups, or whether millions would be enough. I think this way of thinking reflects a misunderstanding of the motivations of pure researchers in any discipline, and its persistence doesn’t bode well for supporting pure mathematics.

      Then there’s the question of whether it’s a good thing for mathematicians to be forced to provide misleading reports about our intentions to decision-makers. I don’t see how it could be good for the decision-makers, but it doesn’t look particularly good for the hypocrites, either.

      Just this week I attended two public events in New York at which Steven Strogatz, Ian Stewart, and John Allen Paulos all talked about why readers who are not specialists — “society,” in other words — choose to read books about mathematics. They all agreed that their readers are looking, not for jobs or startups or economic competitiveness, but for understanding. Questions from the audience confirmed this impression. “Understanding” is a word that comes up constantly when mathematicians talk about what constitutes success. I don’t like to use the word too often, because I only have the fuzziest idea of what it means, but the search for understanding is perhaps the prime example of what the book calls a relaxed field.


      1. voloch

        Even if it’s not one’s primary motivation, it’s not necessarily wrong to point out potential applications of one’s research. NSF funds research partly in the hopes of applications but for several other reasons, one of which being it’s one of the few ways the federal government can fund universities. The requirement of broader impact statement on NSF grants comes from Congress. Congressmen want to see this because some of their constituents are worried about federal funding for “useless” research (and that is never mathematics, it’s climate change, evolution, population studies on poverty,…). Compared to my representative in Congress, I don’t feel like a hypocrite at all.


  2. mathematicswithoutapologies Post author

    Again, I agree; at the same time, I would like to believe it’s not wrong to say that the research is aimed at “understanding,” whatever that is. “Hypocrisy” is obviously too strong a word; but I think it’s a sign that the state of public dialogue is unhealthy when the argument for understanding is unacceptable. A much smaller sign, admittedly, than denial of climate change or evolution.

    Given that I believe that student debt is unsustainable but teach at an expensive private university, I’m hardly in a position to call anyone else a hypocrite.


  3. Pingback: Who should fund the humanities? | Mathematics without Apologies, by Michael Harris

  4. Pingback: Who should pay for mathematics, Part 3: Nobody? | Mathematics without Apologies, by Michael Harris

  5. Pingback: How to Brand Mathematics? | Mathematics without Apologies, by Michael Harris

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