Billionaire money in mathematics
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.