The new report follows previous research carried out in 2010 which identified concerns that UK mathematics PhDs are not internationally competitive. It sought firstly to understand why this might be and secondly to identify ways of attracting and retaining mathematical research talent in the UK (particularly as a recent Deloitte report showed maths making a considerable contribution to the economy).
The report noted that the basic UK system of a three year undergraduate directly followed by a three year PhD compared unfavourably with postgraduate study in Europe and the US, where students study for eight years or more. This, however, seems to be changing and in academia particularly, postgraduates are now spending longer periods of training (such as a four year MMath followed by a ‘3+1’ PhD). The taught course centre, Academy for PhD Training in Statistics (APTS), was singled out for particular praise.
The importance of a masters course was agreed universally in consultations and specifically in statistics, a masters was seen as a good way of making a transition from other subjects into a statistics PhD course - as well as into employment in academia and the public sector. This view is shared by the RSS president Peter Diggle. ‘For a statistical science PhD, a stand-alone MSc is much to be preferred,’ he says. ‘New first-degree graduates typically lack the scientific maturity that a bespoke MSc can help to develop.’
The report found a lack of consensus as to whether or not there is a crisis in UK mathematical research. ‘There is a divide amongst those who are fairly confident with the UK’s current competitive edge and those who are more concerned,’ it says. ‘It might be argued that those who do not see the UK mathematical sciences as in crisis are abstracted away from the realities of the UK landscape. Alternatively, those who do perceive an urgent and impending crisis might not be accounting for the more recent diversification of training that has taken place […] that might still be within the early stages of generating impact.’
Some of the points made in the report may apply in broad general terms to the mathematical sciences as a whole but not necessarily to statistics. For example, it noted ‘a lack of academic positions at all levels’ for mathematical science graduates, yet it transpires that many departments struggle to recruit suitable talent in statistics. RSS vice-president for academic affairs, Kevin McConway, points out that the study was not aimed at producing the whole picture. ‘The mathematical sciences are very broad and diverse. Careers work differently in, say, theoretical pure maths and applied statistics. The study used some relatively small surveys and some focus groups, and was simply not in a position to find out all the detail of what goes on.’
Furthermore, while the report acknowledged statistics as ‘the ultimate multi-disciplinary branch of science,’ it was not clear how much of the ‘maths people pipeline’ relates to statistical areas of research within other disciplines (and therefore funded by other research councils such as BBSRC, ESRC, NERC and MRC).