Cathy blogs today about the enthusiasm for billionaires displayed at the AMS public face of math panel, and her misgivings about it. Cathy points out that, while gifts from big donors obviously accomplish real, useful, worthwhile goals for mathematics, they have a way of crowding out the public support we might otherwise have gotten, and sapping our will to fight for that support.
I think there’s an even deeper problem. When we’re talking about putting up buildings or paying people’s salaries, we’re talking about things that require many millions of dollars, and asking: who’s going to pay for them? It’s not crazy that the answer “a rich person” is one of the things that comes to mind.
But when we talk about improving the public image of mathematics, we are not talking about something that automatically costs lots of money. We’re talking about something that we can do on social media, something we can do in the newspaper, something we can — and frankly, should — do in the classroom. Cathy describes the conversation as centering on “How can we get someone to hire a high-priced PR agent for mathematics?” That means that the billionaire solution isn’t just crowding out other sources of money, it’s crowding out the very idea that there are ways to solve problems besides spending money.