Apparently the NSF is considering changing the name of the DMS (Division of Mathematical Sciences) to DMSS (Division of Mathematical and Statistical Sciences.) There is some unease — surely at least partially related to the recent decision by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, the NSF’s rough British analogue, to restrict their math postdoctoral program to cover applied probability and statistics only. I can attest from personal experience that pure mathematicians are very excited about the rise of data science — but also concerned about it choking out K-theory and functional analysis and geometric group theory and etc and etc.

Here’s the letter from Eric Friedlander, current AMS president:

October 10, 2011

Dear Colleagues,

I write to encourage discussion and comments among members of the AMS about the proposal under consideration by the National Science Foundation (NSF) that NSF’s Division of Mathematical Sciences (DMS) be renamed the Division of Mathematical and Statistical Sciences. At the request of the NSF, I attach a letter from DMS Division Director Sastry Pantula advocating this name change; I also attach a particularly cogent response from a member of the AMS leadership.

Please send your views and comments to

dmsname@ams.org

(The process to summarize comments is described below.)

Many of us strongly oppose this name change. Such a name change could create an unnecessary and unfortunate divide in the mathematical sciences community. We question whether this portends a shift within DMS away from support of basic research toward mission-oriented research. This could bring the less mathematical aspects of Statistics into the same funding pool as basic research in Mathematical Sciences, thereby negatively impacting resources available for basic research in the Mathematical Sciences, including basic research in Statistics.

While waiting for NSF approval to consult the broad mathematical community, I have discussed this personally with many mathematical scientists, including the leadership of the AMS. The responses I have received have been near-unanimous in their opposition to such a name change. It is significant that three previous DMS Division Directors Peter March, William Rundell, and Philippe Tondeur have written to express their opposition to this name change.

Permit me to give some reasons why such a name change is much more important than “just a name.”

1.) The mission of the NSF is to fund basic research. Much of

mission-oriented Statistics is funded by other federal agencies,

hospitals, industry, etc. This name change suggests a move within

DMS to relax its focus on basic research.

2.) The suggestion of “new resources to all core programs” is far

different from any commitment to seek new resources to support the

basic research of these programs.

3.) The current name (Division of Mathematical Sciences) was crafted to

be inclusive. The inclusiveness of DMS has resulted in increased

funding for many programs including Statistics. The Mathematical

Sciences should work together, emphasizing commonality and presenting

the best case for the importance of the Mathematical Sciences.

4.) Statistics is only one of 10 programs supported by DMS. In 2010, of

the 2978 proposals submitted to DMS core programs, 242 were submitted

to the Statistics program. It is natural to ask why Statistics

appears to be uniquely selected by DMS for special emphasis.

5.) The analysis of big data is indeed important, and the Mathematical

Sciences will play an important role in developing fundamental concepts

and approaches to manage the “data deluge” and extract useful content.

That said, National Science Foundation support of the Mathematical

Sciences should energetically embrace basic research in all aspects

of the Mathematical Sciences to advance fundamental knowledge and

initiate unexpected revolutionary applications.

I encourage you to send your views and comments to

dmsname@ams.org

Our plan is to have a small AMS committee review comments received, prepare a summary of comments (names of responders would be suppressed), give this summary to the NSF, and post this summary on the AMS web page. We are asked to provide the NSF with an initial summary by mid-December, so please respond by December 1 if possible. We also expect to have one or more forums at the Joint Mathematics Meeting in Boston in early January at which this name change will be discussed with NSF leaders.

best,

Eric

Eric M. Friedlander

(President, AMS)

This afternoon I followed the link in your post, looked at it briefly, and decided to read it later. Tonight I’m being denied access to that page with the typical Apache “Forbidden — You don’t have permission to access …” message. I do remember discussion of this in Gower’s blog though, and when I got the AMS email I wondered about the possible association.

The name change proposal makes me a little nervous. I’m sure that this proposal was not merely someone’s whim. Has the NSF provided any explanation for this yet? Is this the result of lobbying by outside private interest groups who stand to profit from government funded research?

Nip emergent diseases in the bud.

I have some thoughts on this but I’m not sure that they rise yet to the level of an opinion, and I’d be very interested in hearing what others thing. I’m surprised that after a day there have been so few comments.

Here’s my understanding about how DMS’s budget might typically achieve growth (which I believe is reasonably informed, but of course could still very easily contain some amount of misunderstanding, and corrections are welcome). The platonic ideal is that the Division Director would make a persuasive case to the Mathematical and Physical Sciences directorate that DMS’s core programs deserve additional funds, and then DMS would get additional funds. But the political reality is that that isn’t how it works; for one thing, all of the other MPS divisions are simultaneously all making similarly persuasive, deserving cases. A much larger factor is this: DMS tries to capitalize on new or temporary NSF priorities, getting a share of new pots of money in order to bring wholly new lines of funding into DMS. (If you peruse the DMS website you can easily make guesses about currently ongoing examples of this.) Eventually the priorities end but the funding streams may stay in the DMS budget, and you can redistribute them to core DMS programs.

Director Pantula sort of alludes to this in his letter to Fred Roberts, and so those parts of his letter ring true to me. If you think about DMS as an organism trying to maximize the resources it takes in, and if Pantula is betting that large pots of money are going to be made available soon for new priorities in data sciences, it makes sense to position DMS to hoover up as much of that money as possible.

Now, if the goal really is a larger Division in which the core mathematics programs are only a part, there’s no doubt that that’s a sufficiently major change that input from the mathematical community should be sought out (as it appears is being done). One possible outcome is that the core programs could benefit, but as the EPSRC experience makes clear, that’s not the only possible outcome. So at a minimum one would like some affirmative reason to be confident that there will be no harm done to the current core mission.

At this point I have a few questions — I’m not sure that they’re the right questions but they’re the first ones that come to my mind.

(1) Is something as dramatic as a name change really necessary to position DMS in the way the Director talks about positioning it? (If, for example, there were a competing proposal for the creation of a new Division of Statistics, I suspect that’s something we would want to avoid since it might limit future opportunities for DMS. But I haven’t heard any such suggestion.)

(2) Contra the first question, is a name change on its own sufficient to re-position DMS? I imagine some change to DMS’s mission statement would also be necessary, and this would be at least as delicate as changing the name. See e.g. the anonymous “cogent response” that was attached to Friedlander’s email, which perceptively highlights two sentences from Pantula’s letter that I imagine would be highly controversial if part of a draft of a new mission statement for the Division.

(3) Most concerning of all, to me, is that former DMS Directors March, Rundell, and Tondeur have expressed opposition to the change, since they have collectively lived the political realities of DMS. I would be very interested to hear the basis of their opposition. Is their sense that the goal of the proposal is as I’ve described, but that the means (and/or the goal itself) are unwise? Or is their sense that the true goal is perhaps something different?

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