Revenge of the nerds

By Paul Jay, CBCNews.ca. The federal Conservative government has had a few public disagreements with the scientific community in the last year, over things like funding, the closure of the Office of the National Science Advisor, the environment, decisions viewed as overtly political and yes, funding again.

And while researchers from all disciplines have made their voices heard, the loudest voices thus far have been the medical community and environmental scientists.

So it's interesting to note that mathematicians are the driving force behind a letter to the Prime Minister asking the government to revisit funding cuts announced in the January.

Wait a second... mathematicians? You'd be hard pressed to imagine a scientific community less driven to politics and ideology, but yes, it was a group of 18 mathematics professors who spearheaded the letter.

And of the 2,101 researchers (and counting) who have signed the letter, over 240 work in the mathematics departments of their schools.

One of the reasons for the action, said University of Toronto mathematics professor Ed Bierstone, one of the organizers of the letter, is that mathematics research is pure science, primarily curiosity-driven, and it's applied sciences that have tended to receive the bulk of the government's attention.

As well, one of the deciding factors when approving research grant applications is the number of highly qualified personnel who will be trained as part of the project, and in university-speak, that translates to PhD or graduate students. But, said Bierstone, while mathematics programs are found throughout Canada's universities, very few have graduate programs.

The result, said Bierstone, is that mathematics research grants are becoming harder to acquire. In this year's competition, for example, only 64 per cent of applicants received grants from NSERC, while five years ago that number was closer to 90 per cent.

For those who study math, numbers like that have become too hard to ignore.