The Simons Foundation recently released new eligibility requirements for their Collaboration Grants for Mathematicians. These grants fund five years of collaboration-related expenses for a total of \$8,400 per year. In previous years, the foundation accepted applications from PhDs in tenure-stream jobs at U.S. colleges and universities with “a current record of active research and publication in high-quality journals” who do “not hold any other external grants of over \$3,000 per year that allow for support for travel or visitors during the collaboration grant award period.” This year the requirements are much the same, except that the foundation is only accepting applications from tenure-stream faculty in departments that grant PhDs (if you visit the linked page above, click on “Eligibility” to see this restriction). This does not include me, of course. More importantly, it also excludes at least 18 of this year’s awardees and the majority of faculty members in Mathematics departments at US colleges and universities.[*]
The Simons Foundation’s mission is to “advance the frontiers of research in mathematics and the basic sciences.” The foundation was started in 1994 by Jim and Marilyn Simons. Dr. Jim Simons is a mathematician who started and managed Renaissance Technologies, an extremely well-performing hedge fund. From the foundation’s website:
“The Simons Foundation at its core exists to support basic — or discovery-driven — scientific research, undertaken in pursuit of understanding the phenomena of our world. The foundation’s support of scientists generally takes the form of direct grants to individual investigators, through their academic institutions…. The Simons Foundation seeks to create strong collaborations and foster cross-pollination of ideas between investigators, as these interactions often lead to unexpected breakthroughs and new understanding.”
Simons supports hundreds of mathematicians each year through several different grant programs, and also funds other wonderful stuff, including Math for America, Quanta magazine and MoMath. This foundation does great things, and I am really happy that it exists and does so much to support mathematics. However, I am very disappointed about this change.
I am dedicated to my research, and I also am happy with and proud of my choice to work in a non-PhD-granting institution. Grant funding is hard to come by, from any type of institution. I totally understand that finding support for my research will involve a lot of rejection, especially since I devote quite a bit of time to teaching, so I may not write as many papers as some mathematicians at other kinds of institutions. However, I do publish regularly, have serious research aspirations and accomplishments, and I believe that I can make a compelling case that my ideas and efforts are worth supporting The troubling message of this change is that because of my institutional profile, the collaboration grant proposal I write is less worthy of review. My mathematical insights and interactions seem to have been deemed too unlikely to lead to breakthroughs or new understanding.
This is not just about a discouraging message. Another issue with the change is what it means for women and other underrepresented groups in mathematics. Using the AMS Annual Survey Data, I calculated that the change in eligibility rules excludes about 61% of the former applicant pool. Among PhD-granting institutions, women make up about 16% of the full-time tenure-stream faculty, whereas women make up about 30% of the full-time tenure-stream faculty at Bachelors- and Masters-granting institutions. The 2010 report from the CBMS Survey found that the percentage of faculty members from race/ethnicity groups underrepresented in the mathematical profession was also higher at Bachelors and Masters-granting institutions than at PhD granting institutions.
On the Simons Foundation website, I found that at least 18 of last year’s 164 grants were made to faculty at non-PhD-granting institutions. This does not count the 4 to faculty at non-PhD-granting colleges in the CUNY and Claremont systems, which I left out because of their close affiliation with PhD-granting programs (I’m not sure how Simons classifies these colleges). Among these 18, I was able to ascertain (by Google searches for gender-identifying information, not totally scientific) that at least 6 are women, meaning that approximately 33% of the successful applicants from this pool are women. Among the grantees from PhD-granting institutions, I estimated (through more than an hour of Google searches, again) that 18 are women, meaning approximately 12% of the successful applicants from these institutions are women.
Dr. Louis DeBiasio of Miami University of Ohio and students Bob Krueger and Robert Garrett also looked into past awardees, compiling data from 2012-2016. They compute that 15.6% of the grants were awarded to faculty from Bachelors- and Masters-granting institutions. To me, this is strong evidence that there are a significant number of worthy applications from this pool.
The Simons Foundation is a private entity, and is clearly allowed to fund whomever/whatever it would like. I have a great deal of respect for the foundation’s work. I also respect the work of Yuri Tschinkel, the Director of Mathematics and Physical Sciences at Simons. I wrote to Dr. Tschinkel to confirm my data, also inquiring about the reasons for the change, and asking if the program committee had considered the likely effects of this rule change on the number of grants awarded to women and members of other underrepresented groups in math. Unfortunately, I have not yet received a response.
I also wrote to Francis Su, former president of the MAA, who has posted publicly on Facebook about the rule change. Dr. Su also wrote to Dr. Tschinkel, and received the same response as many others:
“Thank you for bringing this to my attention. The program is becoming better known and more competitive. Last year, we received 665 applications for 140 awards. While there are many active mathematicians at currently ineligible institutions (which include national labs and various research institutes), we cannot open the program to all. “
Dr. Su also agreed to share some of the responses he received to his Facebook post:
“The beauty of Simons used to be that anyone with quality research had a fair shot.”
“That’s really, really rotten. I thought they were better than that.”
“As someone at a PhD-granting institution who has an active Simons Collaboration grant, I am strongly against this change. Feel free to quote me on that.”
“So, it is possible that it’s an attempt to reduce the number of applications, which is something I understand (I know some schools, for example, don’t post on mathjobs, because that means they have to read a ton of applications). But like many things in which you try to ‘focus’ applications, you actually get some problematic results. Like this is pretty close to outright discrimination — this is almost as bad as saying ‘we are not taking applications from women anymore because there are too many applicants, not a lot of women apply anyway, and most of them don’t get the awards in the end’.”
“So, assuming (and knowing) that there are excellent projects/applications out there at PUI’s, we go for a lower average quality because that makes our job of selecting easier.”
“We understand that there are many active mathematicians whose surnames fall in the latter half of the alphabet, but we cannot open the program to all.”
“NSF grants are not tied to being at a PhD granting institution. Why Simons?”
“As someone who is at PhD granting institution, having had a Simons and now having an NSF grant, I oppose this new rule. Quality math from any place and anyone should be supported.”
“I was trying to imagine what would happen if, when hiring a position, a department said “We will only accept applications from Ivy League schools” and how problematic the community would find that. The Simons Foundation is doing the exact same kind of ‘old boy network’ cronyism. Sigh.”
“Ironically, imposing such a requirement may limit the pool of reviewers—many researchers at both PhD and non-PhD granting institutions have expressed dismay about this policy, and some have indicated they will refuse to review proposals because of this change. This will only exacerbate the stated problems the Foundation is having with numbers of applications.”
For himself, Dr. Su says:
“While I have deep admiration for many Simons Foundation initiatives, the problem is that this policy, on its face and by the way it was rolled out, appears to use the existence of a PhD program as a proxy for quality of proposals and research impact.
“Limiting this grant to PhD-granting institutions isn’t based on merit. It will adversely affect research climate for women and under-represented groups who are not represented in great numbers at PhD-granting institutions, not to mention making such funds unavailable to faculty at HBCU’s, women’s colleges, and minority-serving institutions.
“There are better ways of limiting the flow of applications—for instance, imposing requirements that are merit based.”
Mathematical research can be lonely and isolating—there are often only a few people on the planet who are thinking about a given mathematical problem. And there is no way to make mathematical research easy. All the money in the world cannot buy a proof. Support like these collaboration grants can help make mathematical research much easier, though, by allowing mathematicians to connect with those few other people who share their particular world of ideas. Researchers at non-PhD-granting institutions do amazing mathematics every day, and are often even more isolated and have fewer resources than their counterparts in PhD-granting departments. Non-PhD-granting institutions are also home to a higher proportion of mathematicians from underrepresented groups; mathematicians that our students, the profession, and the world really, really needs. I would like to take this opportunity to thank the Simons Foundation for all of the great things they do–I didn’t realize the tremendous extent of their support for mathematical initiatives until I started researching this blog post. I hope that the Simons Foundation will find other ways to limit their application pool, if limiting it is necessary, and return to their tradition of supporting excellence within a more diverse mathematical world.
[*] Data from the 2015 AMS Annual Survey of Mathematics Departments. From Table DF1, PhD-holding, full-time tenure-stream faculty in mathematics departments. Numbers came from adding tenured and pre-tenure faculty. The survey data used binary gender classifications.