Communication at the LMS

This is a cross posting of an article I have just put up on the Future of the LMS blog. I am posting it here as well as I think that the issues raised are of braoder interest. Especially the first paragraphs on the power of the web for mathematics.  To put it in context I have previously written about the LMS’s future and the importance of commication to mathematics.

One of the recurring themes in comments on this blog is the importance of communication, normally in the context of communication between members and the executive. Developments in this area are an essential part of taking the society forward, however we should also be considering communication in a wider setting.

Firstly communication as a whole is a rapidly changing area. In particular the internet is opening up opportunities that simply could not have been dreamt about even a few years ago. When this is mentioned in LMS discussions it is normally with a voice of doom as one of the effects is a potential reduction in money from publishing. Mathematics, however has a lot to gain from embracing this and it would be exciting to see the LMS taking a leading role. There are (at least) three different ways that mathematics communication can benefit:

  1. Communication between mathematicians and how mathematics takes place. A great example of this is the polymath projects started by Tim Gowers. These aim (already with success) to actually solve mathematical problems through massive collaboration. Another example is the often brilliant expository writing on wikipedia. This leads me naturally to…
  2. Making mathematics accessible. This is not just writing up on wikipedia, but videos on YouTube, photos, fractal art, the list goes on. As a simple example this YouTube video on Mobius transforms has been viewed over 1,500,000 times. Even if a small number of those communicated some understanding that is a significant increase in the number of people who know what a Mobius transform is!
  3. Finally the internet allows mathematicians to engage with a wider audience. The classic example here is Terry Tao, on his way to becoming a public intellectual through his blog, What’s New. The readership is very large, but he certainly does not achieve this by dumbing down. Many of his blog posts are incredibly technical. He also deals with questions of maths communication.

Therefore, can the LMS go beyond simply improving its website to play a role in leading how mathematics adapts to use these exciting new technologies and opportunities. Yes I am afraid that it will involve money! Though perhaps by getting ahead of the game potential new sources of revenue might reveal themselves.

Both the second and third points above are about public engagement with mathematics. There is excellent work taking place in mathematics public engagement. From school visits of students in the Undergraduate ambassador scheme to the Television programs of Marcus du Sautoy, to Science fairs like Bath Taps. The effort, however, is rather disparate. Consider, for example, large science festivals such as the Royal Society Summer exhibition. Last year there was no mathematics focussed exhibit. This year there was, but not through any planning, simply because I had an idea. I phoned several colleagues as was easily able to put together the team needed, including three other mathematicians (the exhibit “How do shapes fill space?” looked at topics in geometry and the theory of tilings). Similarly for next year’s Big Bang festival the LMS and IMA were contacted to arrange for a large mathematics stand but had to change plans after they were unable to fill it. The approach from the Big Bang shows the demand for mathematics at these events, and I can also say from the RSSE experience that the organisers were excited to be able to include mathematics. We therefore have the demand and the ability, all that is left is the organisation to provide the sparks.

I am not saying that the LMS is not already involved in engagement and education. There is excellent work being done. It is, however, rather limited. Let us compare briefly with the IoP. The IoP has a massive commitment to outreach, from school projects and teacher days, through grants for schools and outreach to innovative engagement activities like the recent “Lab in a Lorry” exhibits that travel round schools and events. In 2007 they provided 119 schools grants and a further 21 public engagment grants*. In contrast, last year the LMS gave out the tiny sum of £3,570 in education grants, with a further £1,000 by council for a discussion dinner**, out of a total grant spending of £234,000 ***. The IoP is obviously a far larger organisation than the LMS, however their annual spend on “Impact” which comprises education and public engagement is about £3,500,000 from an annual expenditure (not including publishing) of about £10,000,000 – £11,000,000. Even in terms of proportion, however, the entire LMS spending on education and engagement is small, about £125,000 of £750,000****. These are the numbers for promotion of mathematics, not just public engagement and so includes all money spent on interaction with government and research councils as well.

I have raised a variety of topic here without giving specific ideas about how they might be pursued. There are many things I would love to try, but mathematics needs more than that. We need to get a multiplicity of different voices. The difficult mathematics and technical detail of Terry Tao’s blog will reach a different audience to Marcus du Sautoy’s television programs, the blogs being set up by maths undergrads can reach different people still. There is no single path to public engagement, and so it needs to be opened as wide as possible. The best way to do this? Take something about the LMS that few would argue is not its greatest strength: the grants program, and add a significant amount for public engagement. Use the same philosophy as the main programs, plenty of small, easy to access grants aimed at filling the gaps in the standard funding sources. Open up grants to set off ambitious ideas that might fall flat, but could start working and then get big funding from EPSRC and elsewhere. Such a move into the work of public engagement would also show that the LMS is serious about this and enable it to take (with the IMA) a central role at the heart of UK outreach.

One final comment. This is not a zero sum game. Relatively small investments in these sorts of activities could help to pull other money into mathematics. Public engagement money is a natural example, but serious online projects could also attract funding from schemes like the EPSRC “Digital Britain” stream. (Claiming back some of the money lost from the Mathematics pool!). In the long term public engagement also helps to spread the message that mathematics is an essential part of a healthy society and economy. This public awareness is essential to obtain greater government funding for mathematics and even in the current climate defend the present funding. Unfortunately it is true that a small funding change from EPSRC makes far more difference than the entire LMS budget.

* ( P0 and P6)

** ( P31-32)

*** ( P21)

**** A note on the numbers, it is hard to get a close comparison as the accounting differs between the reports of the two organisations. The figures for the IoP were calculated by adding the three major expenditure streams (Opportunities, Members and Impact, P17). For the LMS the totals come from the total expenditure for Advancing Mathematics, Enabling research, Conference programmes and Promoting Mathematics, compared to the total spend on Promoting mathematics, P21.