Maths science research needs a level playing field in Scotland

Written by Ian Strachan and Guy Nason on . Posted in Features

Statisticians researching in Scottish universities are getting a raw deal compared to those in the rest of the UK, because of discrepencies in the way research funding is handed out. Ian Strachan, President of the Edinburgh Mathematical Society, and Guy Nason, Vice-President for academic affairs at the Royal Statistical Society, explain what is causing this and why it needs to change.

Consider a collaboration between two statisticians, one in England and one in Scotland, which results in a prestigious 4* (ie deemed ‘world leading’) paper. From such an equal collaboration, one would expect that the respective research councils, the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) and the Scottish Funding Council (SFC), would fund the respective departments in the same way.

Not so.

Research money given to universities from the respective English, Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish funding bodies are subject to Research Cost Weightings (RCW)*, a multiplier which is meant to be a reflection of how much it costs to do research in different areas. Owing to the difference in these weightings (1.2 in Scotland and 1.6 in England) the research collaboration above currently generates more income for the English University than for the Scottish University. The cost weight of 1.6 is also used by Wales and Northern Ireland, so the same would be true if we replaced our English statistician by one from Wales or Northern Ireland. So, Scotland is the anomaly here.

But this imbalance goes further. Consider collaboration between a statistician and a computer scientist - both in Scotland. While different funding mechanisms are in place on different sides of the border, surely one would expect that this research would be funded in the same way across two disciplines, both within Scotland?

Not so.

Within Scotland, the Mathematical Sciences have a lower Research Cost Weighting compared with Computer Science and Informatics and also lower than all other STEM subjects within Scotland.

The SFC is responsible for these allocations and despite numerous attempts to influence their decisions made over several years, no explanation has ever been forthcoming as to why these differences occur. The SFC is now re-examining these multipliers (PDF). If the weightings changed so that Mathematical Sciences was on a par with the other STEM subjects, the total amount of money going into the system would remain the same, but the Mathematical Sciences would receive a larger and more equitable share.

Indeed, one of the concerns is that current lower Scottish weights might imply that the subject is less highly valued in Scotland, and discourage researchers coming North of the border. The low multiplier for the mathematical sciences seems even stranger given the increasingly crucial role that mathematics and statistics play in the modern digital economy and economic growth of the future.

Professor Sir Adrian Smith has written to the SFC on behalf of the Council for Mathematical Sciences, pointing out the importance of the discipline and pressing for a fairer deal for the mathematical sciences in Scotland.

Let us hope that they will listen to the representations that are being made by the mathematical sciences community and change the multipliers so as to not disadvantage mathematics and statistics within Scotland.

*The way RCW is calculated by HEFCE is detailed on its website.

Research Research Excellence Framework (REF)