Combinatorics at Strathclyde

This is copied from my blog, but the issue is of interest to all discrete mathematicians in Britain and elsewhere, so I am copying it here – Peter Cameron.


Two years ago, we enjoyed a successful British Combinatorial Conference at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow. For me it was memorable for several reasons: the appearance of my book “Notes on Counting”, my fall to the floor during the ceilidh, the booksale, and (more seriously) some fine lectures including Graham Farr’s lecture commemorating Bill Tutte’s centenary.

Now the Combinatorics group at Strathclyde (David Bevan, Sergey Kitaev and Einar Steingrímsson) is under threat.

I have received two documents; one on reshaping the Department of Computer and Information Sciences, signed by the Head of Department; and a response from the three members of the Combinatorics group.

The first document is pretty much what you might expect, with lots of fine words about “emerging vision”, “imperative”, “resources … aligned with opportunities for future growth”. Mathematics finds no place in this emerging vision.
I quote:

Combinatorics is not considered to be of fundamental importance to UG-teaching. More broadly speaking, discrete mathematics is of fundamental importance but this can be covered by many staff (eg MSP, Data Analytics and Cybersecurity staff) in the Department.

And more along the same lines. In particular, the group is castigated for not getting “grants around a million pounds or more”. [How many mathematicians anywhere hold such grants?]

The response is a much better written and argued document. (Mathematicians, after all, have to be clear – it is an important part of the job – so I am not at all surprised by this.)

They point out that the three-member group is one of the very strongest research groups in the department, having produced 35% of the department’s four-star papers in the current REF and earning REF and grant funding of close to a million pounds in the last four years. Moreover, discrete mathematics underpins computer science, and the group (being the departments only experts in the area) have developed courses for this. Members of the group have had important administrative roles in the department, having greatly improved systems for interacting with PhD students (criticised in an earlier report).

Moreover, combinatorics, or discrete mathematics (the terms are closer in meaning than the Head of Department seems to think, and if there is a difference, the group’s expertise is broader than “just combinatorics”) is perhaps the most applicable part of mathematics in the information age.

Last year, the Bond report, titled “The era of mathematics”, highlighted the importance of knowledge exchange in mathematics, argued (with many examples) that all parts of mathematics can have application, and pushed for a big increase in funding for mathematics, especially the training of PhD students and postdocs. The Council for the Mathematical Sciences has set up two committees to push forward with this, one to prioritise the recommendations in the Bond Report, and the other to convince policymakers of their importance. I would have thought that Strathclyde would be well-placed to benefit from this, if it is successful. (But not of course under the current reshaping plan.)

There have, sad to say, been several instances in Britain of universities closing down mathematics or getting rid of mathematicians in other ways. One incident that sticks in my mind, in a case where I was involved, occurred when the head of another department, at the start of an interview with the committee, said “I couldn’t hold up my head to be in a University with no mathematics department”. In another case, mathematics was closed down so that computer science could expand; this computer science department now finds that its main job consists of teaching arts students how to switch on the computer. (I exaggerate, but not too much.)

It seems to me that the Strathclyde proposal is a very short-sighted move, and unlikely to be in the department’s long-term interest. Moreover, there is plenty of evidence that collaboration between mathematicians (either a department of them, or a group in a computer science department) and informaticians can be of enormous benefit to both.

If you feel as I do, you may wish to know that the head of Computer and Information Sciences at Strathclyde is Professor Neil Ghani. I am sure you can find his address; you can probably even guess it. You may also wish to contact higher authorities in the University. These are our friends and colleagues; please help if you can.

About Peter Cameron

I count all the things that need to be counted.
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