Category Archives: Universities

Urgent news from Leicester

Tim Gowers has once again done the university community a great service by using his blog to publicize the impending decimation of the University of Leicester’s mathematics department.  More like a double decimation:  of the department’s 23 full-time staff, 5 are slated to lose their jobs, with the research staff shrinking by close to 30%.  Rather than repeat the details, which you can find presented with Gowers’s customary clarity on his blog, I am using this space to encourage readers and their friends to sign the protest petition.  The petition already has over 2500 signatures, many of them alerted to the situation (as I was) by reading Gowers’s account.

Leicester is being cut back across the board, but the cuts in mathematics are particularly severe.  For a crash course in the neo-liberal conception of the university, you can read the relevant chapter in Wendy Brown’s Undoing the Demos, featured in an entry on this blog last year.

This blog has been suspended but it will be revived occasionally for urgent news items like this one.

UPDATE:  Vladimir Tasić points out that this sort of thing is happening with increasing frequency in Canada as well.

 

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Four scientific societies react to the resignation of French experts

I am told that the previous post on the resignation of the ANR evaluation committee for mathematics and computer science was widely shared on Facebook, notably by researchers in the social sciences.  Today the Société Mathématique de France published a joint statement signed by the presidents of four professional organizations, as well as the text of a motion in support of the resignation, voted by the SMF at their national meeting last week.

The joint statement is reproduced below (in French).

Déclaration des sociétés savantes françaises de mathématiques et d’informatique

Société Française de Statistique (SFdS),

Société de Mathématiques Appliquées et Industrielles (SMAI),

Société Mathématique de France (SMF),

Société Informatique de France (SIF).

Mise  en  garde  sur  l’inadéquation  du  modèle  de  sélection  de  l’ANR  pour  les mathématiques et l’informatique.

Les sociétés savantes de mathématiques, statistique et informatique (SFdS, SMAI, SMF, SIF) alertent  les  pouvoirs  publics,  l’Agence  Nationale de  la  Recherche  (ANR)  et  la  communauté scientifique  sur  la  démobilisation  massive  des  mathématiciens  et  informaticiens  constaté  ces dernières années dans les appels à projets de l’ANR.

Cette démobilisation  apparaît comme une conséquence  du choix de l’ANR de ne pas tenir  compte  des  spécificités  disciplinaires  et  de  ne  pas  impulser  une  dynamique  qui soit réellement au service du développement de la science et de l’innovation en France.

Les  mathématiques,  les  statistiques  et  l’informatique  sont  fortement  moteurs  et  vont l’être  de  plus  en  plus  de  façon  directe,  transversale  et  interdisciplinaire  dans  tous  les changements  en  cours  concernant  le  développement  technologique,  les  enjeux  du numérique  et  la  capacité  d’innovation  en  France  et  à  l’international.  Pourtant,  le conseil  de  prospective  de  l’ANR  n’intègre  aucun  mathématicien  ni  informaticien  en son sein.

Le  Comité  d’Evaluation  Scientifique  de  l’ANR  en  mathématiques  et  informatique (CES 40) a  constaté  une  forte  baisse  du  nombre  de  projets  soumis  en  2016, conséquence immédiate d’une perte de la motivation des  collègues face au très faible  taux  d’acceptation  des  années  précédentes.  Il  souligne    également  la difficulté  de  mobiliser  les  collègues  pour  expertiser  des  projets  trop  souvent rejetés.

Or le nombre de projets soutenus est calculé par l’ANR proportionnellement au nombre de projets soumis. Cette année, nos deux disciplines auront donc encore moins  de  projets  acceptés,  amorçant  un cercle  vicieux  qui  met  en  danger  la vitalité de nos communautés.

En outre, les modalités d’élaboration du taux d’acceptation de l’ANR ne sont pas discutées  de  façon  ouverte  ni  diffusées  à  la  communauté  scientifique  (toutes disciplines  confondues).  Ce  taux est  déterminé  par  l’ANR,  de  façon  opaque  et  sans   aucune   concertation   avec   les   comités   après   leur   travail   d’évaluation scientifique. Il est fixé pour chaque défi, sans aucune considération disciplinaire qui permettrait  de  dégager  une  vision  pour  le  développement  de  la  science  et leur impact économique et sociétal. Les comités doivent aujourd’hui travailler en «aveugle», sans aucune information sur la politique de répartition des moyens, et sans prise en compte des critères scientifiques pour le classement final.

Les quatre sociétés savantes signataires  demandent donc que les comités scientifiques soient pleinement associés aux modalités d’élaboration des taux d’acceptation, qu’une enveloppe budgétaire soit décidée en amont du travail des comités et que le conseil de prospective de l’ANR soit plus représentatif pour les mathématiques et l’informatique. Porteuses  des  attentes  de  leur  communauté,  elles  souhaitent  rencontrer  le  ministère dans les plus brefs délais.

GÉRARD    BIAU,    Président    de    la    SFdS,

FATIHA    ALABAU,    Présidente    de    la    SMAI,

MARC    PEIGNE,    Président    de    la    SMF,

JEAN-­MARC    PETIT,    Président    de    la    SIF.

French expert committee resigns in protest

The members of the French Scientific Evaluation Committee in mathematics and computer science (CES 40) resigned unanimously on June 1 to protest “the confiscation of scientific choices by a purely administrative [i.e., bureaucratic] management.”

The role of the CES 40, and of similar committees in other disciplines, is to evaluate research proposals submitted to the Agence Nationale de la Recherche (ANR), which then decides which projects to fund.  The ANR (not to be confused with absolute neighborhood retract) was created in 2005 in emulation of the NSF, in order to shift priorities from long-term funding of laboratories and research teams to short-term funding of specific projects, “in a context of budgetary constraints [i.e. austerity],” according to Wikipedia.  Former French President Nicolas Sarkozy (currently under investigation for illegal campaign funding) explained the motivations of the move with his characteristic disdain for the scientific community:

Je souhaite qu’à cette nouvelle génération soit inculqué non plus le réflexe du financement récurrent mais la culture du financement sur projet, la culture de l’excellence, la culture de l’évaluation.

The text of the protest letter is copied below, and can also be read here, with comments, as well as on the website of the Société Mathématique de France.

Le Comité d’Evaluation Scientifique en mathématiques et en informatique de l’Agence Nationale de la Recherche démissionne en bloc pour protester contre la confiscation des choix scientifiques par une gestion entièrement administrative

Le 1er juin, à l’issue de trois jours d’évaluation scientifique, le comité en mathématiques et en informatique (CES 40) a décidé unanimement de ne pas transmettre ses conclusions à l’ANR. Ses membres refusent de servir de caution scientifique et déclineront toute sollicitation ultérieure de l’ANR dans les conditions actuelles.

Le comité conteste l’opacité du processus de sélection. A ce jour, le nombre de projets financés est déterminé en proportion du nombre de projets soumis, sans que les comités aient la maîtrise du seuil d’acceptation, ou la connaissance de l’enveloppe budgétaire attribuée. Or, loin d’être uniquement des informations financières ou administratives, ce sont des éléments scientifiques essentiels sans lesquels les comités ne peuvent élaborer une proposition cohérente.

L’addition des contraintes budgétaire et administrative conduit mécaniquement à un taux d’acceptation trop faible pour être incitatif. Or, la constitution d’un dossier de qualité exige un temps important, que de moins en moins de collègues accepteront d’investir au vu du taux de succès qui a cours. Cela s’est traduit par une diminution de plus de 20% du nombre de projets soumis dans le CES 40 qui entraîne à son tour une baisse du nombre de projets financés. L’ANR manque donc l’occasion de soutenir un nombre important de projets à fort impact.

Le comité s’inquiète aussi de la perte annoncée de son indépendance, puisque son président sera désormais employé par l’ANR.

Les membres du comité demandent à la direction générale de l’ANR la mise en place un nouveau mode de fonctionnement. Ils souhaitent un meilleur contrôle du processus de sélection, de manière à mettre en œuvre une politique scientifique cohérente qui respecte les spécificités de chaque discipline, au service de la stratégie nationale de la recherche.

Les membres du CES 40, unanimes :
– Christophe BESSE, Président du CES 40, Professeur de Mathématiques, Université Toulouse 3
– Marie-Claude ARNAUD, Vice-Présidente du CES 40, Professeur de Mathématiques, Université d’Avignon
– Max DAUCHET, Vice-Président du CES 40, Professeur émérite d’Informatique, Université Lille 1
– Mourad BELLASSOUED,  Professeur de Mathématiques, Université de Tunis El Manar
– Oliver BOURNEZ, Professeur d’Informatique, Ecole Polytechnique
– Frédéric CHAZAL, Directeur de Recherche en Informatique, INRIA Saclay
– Johanne COHEN,  Chargée de Recherches en Informatique, CNRS, Université Paris Sud
– François DENIS, Professeur d’Informatique, Université Aix-Marseille
– Bruno DESPRES, Professeur de Mathématiques, Université Paris 6
– Arnaud DURAND, Professeur de Mathématiques, Université Paris Diderot
– Alessandra FRABETTI, Maître de Conférence en Mathématiques, Université Lyon 1
– Jin Kao HAO, Professeur d’Informatique, Université d’Angers
– Tony LELIEVRE, Professeur de Mathématiques, Ecole des Ponts ParisTech
– Mathieu LEWIN, Directeur de Recherche en Mathématiques, CNRS, Université Paris Dauphine
– Gaël MEIGNIEZ, Professeur de Mathématiques, Université Bretagne Sud
– Sophie MERCIER, Professeur de Mathématiques, Université de Pau et des Pays de l’Adour
– Johannes NICAISE, Professeur de Mathématiques, Imperial College Londres
– Lhouari NOURINE, Professeur d’Informatique, Université Blaise Pascal
– Jean-Michel ROQUEJOFFRE,  Professeur de Mathématiques, Université Toulouse 3
– Alessandra SARTI,  Professeur de Mathématiques, Université de Poitiers

Leçon inaugurale

Leçon_inaugurale

Few of the 420 seats of the magnificent Amphithéâtre Marguerite de Navarre were empty when Claire Voisin performed the ceremony marking her entry to the “most prestigious institution of the French university” system, the 486-year old Collège de France.  Jean-Pierre Serre, whose work was amply cited by Voisin in her hour-long account of the branches of complex geometry — analytic, Kähler, and algebraic — sat in the middle of the front row, together with past and present Professors of the Collège.  The talk was systematic, organized, and comprehensive, like Voisin’s introductory two-part book on Hodge Theory and Complex Algebraic Geometry:  not a dinner party explanation by any means, it was “a rather complete tour of the subject from the beginning to the present” in the words of the review in the Bulletin of the AMS by Herbert Clemens, who noted “the break-neck pace of Voisin’s clear, complete, but ‘take no prisoners’ exposition.” Serre, who turns 90 (!) this September, was alert as always; colleagues to my left and right in the tenth row were happy with the pace and the content but speculated that the distinguished medieval historians and classicists in Serre’s row were already dozing off by the time Voisin defined complex structures in her second slide (my apologies for the blurry photos)

nombres complexes

and in any case long before she concluded her lecture with an allusion to her work on the generalized Hodge conjecture.

lastslide - 1

Readers of MWA will not be surprised to learn that the lecture was followed by a sumptuous champagne reception.  The new Professor has so many friends and admirers that the petits fours ran out well ahead of schedule, but there was (just barely) enough champagne for the jubilant crowd.  For Paris mathematics, the inauguration was undoubtedly the social event of this (very rainy) season.

I was wondering who would replace Don Zagier when he vacated his Chair in Number Theory a few years ago, so — as always in these situations — I consulted the best-informed of my colleagues.  He told me that no one had yet been named, but that it had been decided to create a Chair in Algebraic Geometry.  It was obvious for whom such a Chair was intended, but the formal announcement took some time to appear, and I was surprised to see that the press took no notice of what in the English-speaking world would certainly be considered an event of historic magnitude:  the naming of the first woman professor of mathematics to the most prestigious position in the French academy.  Journalists had no doubt chosen to heed Voisin’s own preemptive and scathing critique of this approach to “diversity”:

L’idée qu’augmenter le nombre de femmes à l’Académie des sciences aurait un impact sur la désaffection des femmes pour certains domaines des sciences est tout simplement grotesque. D’abord parce que l’Académie des sciences n’intéresse personne et ensuite parce que le choix de faire une carrière scientifique ne repose que sur les aspirations intellectuelles et le talent, et non sur des considérations mondaines. Personnellement, je supporte de moins en moins d’être passée en quelques années du statut de mathématicienne à celui de femme-mathématicienne, et de subir l’oppression grandissante de l’obsession paritaire, transportée à grand bruit par les médias.

Je souhaite que mon statut de femme, qui me plaît beaucoup, reste du domaine privé, et que l’évaluation et la reconnaissance de mon travail ne se trouvent pas polluées par la prise en compte de ce statut (ce qui est insultant en général : être une femme n’est pas un handicap !).

Je souhaite aussi ne jamais devenir Madame Quota, et surtout que cela n’arrive pas à mes filles. A supposer qu’on ne puisse pas parler d’autre chose que de la fameuse parité, serait-il possible de mentionner que les quotas sont à différents égards (dont certains non mentionnés ci-dessus) une menace pour les femmes scientifiques ?

Voisin’s point of view is rarely expressed so forcefully, but it is widely shared in France.  When I arrived from the United States in the early 1990s, it was disorienting, to say the least, to hear male mathematicians routinely making comments about the physical appearance of their female colleagues, behind their backs; but I also heard female mathematicians commenting (appreciatively or not) about the looks of their male colleagues.  There’s much more to be said, but I learned quickly enough that if I opened my mouth on this (or any other) subject I would be accused of being an “anglo-saxon” — and it was futile to brandish my Beowulf and point out that this status would be denied me in any actual English-speaking country.

After an hour of catching up with long-lost acquaintances I managed to push my way through the crowd of well-wishers to congratulate the newly-named Professor.  I hope she will not hold it against me that I have briefly extracted her “status of woman” from the private sphere.  She told me that she has a copy of MWA but that she hadn’t yet found the time to read it.  I advised her to skip ahead to Part II, and maybe chapter 4, which is where she would find the best jokes, and by all means avoid reading the boring chapter 3!  That’s the advice I give everyone, but after taking a look yesterday at his comment on David Roberts’s Google+ blog I feel I ought to make an exception for Urs Schreiber, who is specifically advised to reread the discussion of tradition-based practices on pp. 74-77 and to decide whether that discussion didn’t anticipate his objections.  I will have more to say on this topic when I comment on Roberts’s review for the Australian Mathematical Society.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Economics as theology, as viewed by Chinese astrologers

 

Armillary_sphere_in_Ming_Dynasty

Chinese armillary sphere, Ming Dynasty, from Wikimedia Commons

Readers who recall Joseph Stiglitz’s quip that “economics is really a religion” will not be surprised to find a scholar of Chinese religion drawing parallels between the dismal science’s contemporary prestige and that of imperial Chinese astrology, on the basis of the common dependence of the two disciplinary practices on sophisticated mathematical models.  Not that imperial China had a monopoly on astrological economics:

…take the extraordinary success of Evangeline Adams, a turn-of-the-20th-century astrologer whose clients included the president of Prudential Insurance, two presidents of the New York Stock Exchange, the steel magnate Charles M Schwab, and the banker J P Morgan. … when Adams was arrested in 1914 for violating a New York law against astrology, it was mathematics that eventually exonerated her. During the trial, her lawyer Clark L Jordan emphasised mathematics in order to distinguish his client’s practice from superstition, calling astrology ‘a mathematical or exact science’. Adams herself demonstrated this ‘scientific’ method by reading the astrological chart of the judge’s son. The judge was impressed: the plaintiff, he observed, went through a ‘mathematical process to get at her conclusions… I am satisfied that the element of fraud… is absent here.’

I’m quoting from an article by Alan Jay Levinovitz on the website aeon.co (one of whose senior editors owes me a letter, if I’m not mistaken).   The common origins of mathematics and astrology are addressed at some length in Chapter 8 of MWA, but not to make a point about superstition.  The deference granted economics on the grounds of its sophisticated mathematical models, in spite of its “unearned empirical authority,” deserves sustained analysis as well as critique.   I refer you to the references in Levinovitz’s article.  Here are a few choice quotations:

The historian Caley Horan at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology described to me how computing technology made financial astrology explode in the 1970s and ’80s. ‘Within the world of finance, there’s always a superstitious, quasi-spiritual trend to find meaning in markets,’ said Horan. ‘Technical analysts at big banks, they’re trying to find patterns in past market behaviour, so it’s not a leap for them to go to astrology.’ In 2000, USA Today quoted Robin Griffiths, the chief technical analyst at HSBC, the world’s third largest bank, saying that ‘most astrology stuff doesn’t check out, but some of it does’.

Modern governments, universities and businesses underwrite the production of economic theory with huge amounts of capital. The same was true for li production in ancient China. The emperor – the ‘Son of Heaven’ – spent astronomical sums refining mathematical models of the stars. Take the armillary sphere, such as the two-metre cage of graduated bronze rings in Nanjing, made to represent the celestial sphere and used to visualise data in three-dimensions. As Morgan emphasises, the sphere was literally made of money. Bronze being the basis of the currency, governments were smelting cash by the metric ton to pour it into li. A divine, mathematical world-engine, built of cash, sanctifying the powers that be.

‘I’ve come to the position that there should be a stronger bias against the use of math,’ [NYU economist] Romer explained to me. ‘If somebody came and said: “Look, I have this Earth-changing insight about economics, but the only way I can express it is by making use of the quirks of the Latin language”, we’d say go to hell, unless they could convince us it was really essential. The burden of proof is on them.’

and a reminder that Stiglitz’s joke was already the title of a book long before the 2008 crash:

Romer is not the first to elaborate the mathiness critique. In 1886, an article in Science accused economics of misusing the language of the physical sciences to conceal ‘emptiness behind a breastwork of mathematical formulas’. More recently, Deirdre N McCloskey’s The Rhetoric of Economics (1998) and Robert H Nelson’s Economics as Religion (2001) both argued that mathematics in economic theory serves, in McCloskey’s words, primarily to deliver the message ‘Look at how very scientific I am.’

 

One of my brilliant colleagues is “like the Judith Butler or Jeffrey Sachs in math or something”

Found on the Columbia Underground Listing of Professor Ability (CULPA):

Much of what I have to say about Wei has been written in someone else’s review. Thank you for having such a good review of Wei Zhang! People like Wei are really an asset to Columbia University and to the math world. I am writing this review to let more people know Wei, who is without a doubt the best professor I have ever encountered in my years in Columbia and is indisputably one of the academic superstars in the 21st century, at least in the realm of math. He is like the Judith Butler or Jeffrey Sachs in math or something.

I originally took this class rather unwillingly to fulfill my ECON credit, but it turns out to be the best class of my life! Wei is so inspirational! When he talks, you feel like you are transported to the world of mathematics. His class is fun even for people who are not interested in math or science, like me. During his class, you suspend all your disbelief about math. You just buckle your seat belts and get ready for the wondrous journey that Wei takes you! I probably won’t pursue math major in the end because Wei Zhang only teaches Cal 3. If he teaches more math classes, I will seriously consider majoring in math!!

Def take his class even if you are a history or English major. This class totally changes my perception of math and science. It’s a treasure for all!

Workload:

Very light. Who cares about the workload when Wei is so brilliant?

Trigger warnings and stacks

After publishing my last post, I remembered that some colleagues actually used to issue what were effectively trigger warnings when they talked about stacks, especially to audiences of number theorists.  Here is a quotation from the book Degenerations of Abelian Varieties by Faltings and Chai [my emphasis]:

Because their definition [of stacks] is somewhat technical, many people seem to be afraid of and do not like them.  But speaking from experience, the difficulty is purely psychological and can be overcome with time.

I believe the theory of trigger warnings presupposes that one is never completely free of the anxiety provoked by the trigger.   This would not be good news for number theorists, because stacks are now popping up all over the field, from Ngô’s proof of the fundamental lemma to the Emerton-Gee paper that I covered in my graduate course last year.  Fortunately, there are now many articles and a few celebrated websites that specialize in stack-anxiety therapy, and it has been years since I heard a trigger warning about stacks in a seminar talk.