Why Fund Math Research?

Over on her awesome blog, mathbabe, Cathy O’Neil has begun a conversation exploring how the mathematical community can justify continued public funding. As she’s says:

I’d like to argue for math research as a public good which deserves to be publicly funded. But although I’m sure that we need to make that case, the more I think about it the less sure I am how to make that case. I’d like your help.

Trying to focus the debate around why they public should continue to fund mathematics Cathy O’Neil suggest we begin the discussion by trying to complete the sentence, “Continuing math research is important because…”.  In this direction she provides here own answers to these questions, and does a beautiful job looking at these critically. Make sure to read her piece it is a great jumping off place for this conversation.

That said when it comes to trying to argue that mathematics should be publicly funded I do not think we should necessarily begin by answering, “Why is math research important?” Instead I believe we must begin by asking a slightly different albeit related question:

Question 1: Why should the public fund math research?

However, this question is best approached by first considering a more general question:

Question 2: Why does the public decide to fund anything?

For example, why do most local communities fund fire and police departments? Especially considering that most of the time these institutions have relatively little direct impact upon peoples lives. The answer, I believe, is that people generally support the funding of something because it reinforces a commonly held value.

Continuing with the example of police and fire departments, people support funding these services not because they understand and appreciate the details of what each does  — I for one have no real idea what police officers and firefighters do on a daily basis — but because they value the security, or the sense of security, they provide. That is while the police and fire departments tend to have relatively little direct impact on people’s everyday lives they enjoy knowing that if in the future they need these services they exist.

Thus, to answer Question 1 we must ask ourselves if math research reinforces some value we hold as a culture. To which I believe that as a culture we generally do value the pursuit and collection of knowledge. Maybe I am being optimistic when I say this, but I do believe that while many people may not express such sentiments frequently they appreciate the fact that somewhere people are expanding our understanding of the world around us.

Consider for example the case of public libraries. Surveys suggest people tend to overwhelmingly support public libraries — 94% of those surveyed believed their local library improved the quality of the community, and 90% believe the closing of their local library would impact their community. Despite this massive support most individuals do not understand or even use their local libraries. Surveys have suggested that 77% of the adult US population is at most only somewhat what familiar with the services provided by their local library, and barely more than half, 54%, have been to the library once in the last year. Thus, support for libraries is not because people understand or use them, but in my opinion because people value the fact that libraries serve as a trove of knowledge that helps us understand our world.

With this in mind I believe the way to convince the general public that mathematics research is worthy of funding is not to necessarily explain to them what math research is or what has come from it, but instead to play to people’s value of the pursuit of knowledge; reminding them of their own desire to further understand the world around them. Right or wrong people tend to be swayed by appeals to their values not necessarily informative arguments. E.g. If you want people to support an increase in funding for the fire department don’t explain to them the details of how the new equipment works. Instead remind them the fire department helps provide them security they  value.

Of course this approach is not unique to math, but applies to essentially all academic pursuits. Thus, it does not address how society should distribute funds between academic disciplines — e.g. Should physics research receive more funding than math research? — but I feel this is a secondary debate.

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Addendum 1: All of this does lead naturally to the question of how such appeals are in fact effectively made. So maybe I’ll try to touch on that sometime in the near future. If you have thoughts on this do please share them in the comments!

Addendum 2: I realize at times throughout this post I made claims regarding how people make certain political decisions — i.e. emotional/value appeals being effective — if you want to read some of the research supporting this some good general references on this include: News That Matters by Iyenger and Kinder and Campaigning for Hearts and Minds by Ted Brader.