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Billionaire money in mathematics

January 19, 2014

During the recent JMM AMS panel I was on, where the topic was the Public Face of Math, the issue came up repeatedly that we mathematicians might want to find a billionaire who could solve all our PR problems (although we didn’t quite seem to agree on what these PR problems are).

Indeed billionaire money seemed to represent a panacea even though it originated with a slightly facetious suggestion of a super PAC for mathematics from Congressman Jerry McNerney. The idea was taken quite seriously and repeated by at least 3 audience members.

I think this happened for a few reasons. First, mathematicians are mostly apolitical and don’t think of politics or PR as part of their job. They also don’t think they’re good at that stuff, and they are happy for someone else to do it. Who else but a rich guy interested in that stuff and who “has people” who are good at it.

Second, Jim Simons has been doing good stuff for math lately and people trust him. I totally get that, and I don’t entirely disagree, although invitation-only conferences in the Virgin Islands is not my idea of easy and transparent access to ideas that many mathematicians strive for. I hear his Quanta Magazine is awesome.

Here’s the thing. We lose something when we consistently take money from rich people, which has nothing to with any specific rich person who might have great ideas and great intentions.

The first thing we lose is power, and specifically control over our own image. That might seem like a fair deal now, since at least someone is working on it, but it’s not obvious that it would always be.

It means, for example, that one person has a huge amount of influence about, say, how the math community deals with the NSA. As we know this is an recent and ongoing discussion, but it came up pretty suddenly, as issues do, and it might be weird to all of a sudden need to know what some rich guy thinks of a specific issue.

Another example of why taking money from a few super rich people might not be a great idea requires the idea of a funding feedback loop, which well articulated by Benjamin Soskis and Felix Salmon with respect to the public parks in New York City.

The basic idea is that, as public funding dries up for something like public parks (or from the NSF) and as a community gets desperate for basic operating funds, money from rich individuals seems like a godsend. But over time two things happen.

First, the public funding never ever comes back. Because, after all, why should it? It looks like everything is well-funded. And the individuals who are part of that community are not agitating for the return of that funding since they have jobs.

Second, it’s not clear that the new money will be distributed in a good governance type of way. It might be distributed based on where rich people live, in the case of parks, or what their preferred mathematical subjects are, in the case of math. And the community has no recourse on those decisions, because the entire system depends on the generosity of someone who could change his mind at any moment.

And I’m not saying NSF doesn’t have weird rubriks for which fields (and which people!) get funded as well, but at least we can have a public discussion about that and make noise. And the decisions are made by different groups of mathematicians every year.

My suggestion is that we should think about representing ourselves in this PR campaign, if we have one to wage, and we should focus efforts on things that would improve NSF funding instead of getting us addicted to private funding. And it should be a community conversation where everyone participates who cares enough.

What are the chances that will ever happen? In terms of whether typical mathematicians will ever be willing to become politically active, my vote is on “yes” and “very soon,” and the reason I say this is that I believe mathematics research is being hugely (if quietly) threatened by the oncoming Calculus MOOC Revolution, which I plan to write about very soon.


Categories: math
  1. January 19, 2014 at 7:25 am

    Great article – really interested to see your take on the Calculus MOOCs.

    I remember a lot of folks in math departments getting pretty scared in the mid-90s when Rochester (? pretty sure ?) decided to get rid of their math department. I think that most university math departments gets their internal funding allocations based on the number of students they have. If calculus goes away (whether through MOOCs, by the Engineering departments deciding to teach their own version, or for some other reason) there’s going to be quite a funding crunch.

    As for privately funding ventures in math,I know nothing at all about what’s going on at the university level, but at the k-12 / public level things like Art of Problem Solving and the Museum of Math in NYC are things that I’ve been really happy to see. In both cases I think the private money is being put to good use.


    • KCd
      January 19, 2014 at 6:29 pm

      What examples do people know where engineering schools took over the teaching of calculus and differential equations from math departments, and what were the effects were on those math departments?

      I know one university in the 1990s where the engineering school submitted proposals to the provost’s office to start teaching its own calculus courses, but a mathematician was a vice-provost and did not approve the proposals when they crossed her desk. I also heard about another school where the engineers did manage to wrest control of calculus or differential equations from the math department, but a few years later they gave it back because they realized that they did not want to be teaching math classes.


      • January 19, 2014 at 6:57 pm

        I don’t know any specific examples – I left academia 1999. There seemed to be a lot of concern about it in the 90s though. Particularly in relation to what would happen to department funding if it did happen.


  2. David Backus
    January 19, 2014 at 8:52 am

    Good idea, but I’d phrase it more symmetrically. In general, the source of money matters, as you say. But that’s no less true of government money. Think about the NEA. And on rich people, you could go back to the Medicis or the Pharaohs.


  3. suevanhattum
    January 19, 2014 at 10:43 am

    If you’ve been following what’s happening to K12 education, under the influence of Gates’ money, you’d never suggest accepting money from the super-rich. Yes, it’s enticing, and sometimes leads to good. But …


  4. Jason Starr
    January 19, 2014 at 11:02 am

    I think there are a few different issues here. The first issue is the PR problem in mathematics: mathematicians do a poor job of explaining to the public what we do, we do a poor job of policing how mathematics gets used / misused, we (generally) do a poor job of advocating in an organized manner. The second issue is sources of funding. Regarding that, do you really have a bigger problem with accepting money from philanthropists — who usually allocate money to a foundation that then distributes the money using the same review process as used by government organizations — than you have with accepting money from the DOE or the NSA? The third issue, which is only implicitly touched on, is whether mathematics should continue to be funded (at close to current levels) by the state. If we hope for continued support, then we must make our case, both to the public and to policy-makers, and we must continue making our case so long as that support is threatened. Personally, I think our failure to advocate for our discipline is far more threatening than any danger related to money from philanthropists.


  5. Bobito
    January 19, 2014 at 1:18 pm

    The empirically absurd idea that private charity can substitute for public funding is at the root of many of the current problems in the US with respect to the financing of education and medical care.

    We could depend on rich donors to provide us with libraries, but then they would not be our libraries, rather we would be reading the books provided to us, chosen by someone else.


    • Jason Starr
      January 19, 2014 at 2:04 pm

      I assume that you are familiar with Carnegie libraries (or perhaps your comment was meant to be ironic).


  6. January 19, 2014 at 2:51 pm

    A historical example of the funding feedback loop can be seen in public universities themselves: as their needs are not met, or even their support cut, by state government budgets, many of them have become completely reliant on the “rich person” of collegiate athletics, with well-known consequences for the functioning of these institutions.


  7. January 19, 2014 at 9:31 pm

    Oh I am excited for the dust-up. MIT’s current calculus offerings are eminently MOOC-able (and in fact MIT is working with edX to do just that). What is the value of having students in a room together, with a professor or postdoc or two? Is it answering questions in real-time, is it discussing problems with your peers, is it something Socratic, is it merely that it makes you put in some time? Technology lets you experimentally separate components of the standard class experience which were historically inextricable. (e.g. when notes were copied down from slate to paper because there were no printed books!) It’s hard for me to pinpoint when/how I learned what I know…but I picked up something somewhere. I’m excited to see where this goes, just for curiosity’s sake. But the financial issues will accelerate things along nicely.


    • Cynicism
      January 21, 2014 at 7:47 am

      Perhaps at MIT this is the case, but MOOCs tend to not work so well for many lower-division courses. Learning from a MOOC seems to require a self-sufficiency as a student that many people lack when entering college.


  8. s2h0a1d3e
    January 29, 2014 at 6:24 pm

    I’ve been working in one small engineering company, but now it’s almost dead. Do you know why? Engineers and management spoke different languages there. The founder wanted work to be done according to his whims, engineers went crazy that it was not correct from technical point of view. Why do I write about it here. Even in business if you totally rely on a “rich person” to fund you, you are likely to fail one day. The article explaining more than just a negative aspects of private funding versus government budgets. Very little of rich people are smart enough to trust experts of other spheres, they often think their rules can rule everywhere.


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