A Reflection on Resource Inequity in Mathematical Practice
Dr. Jonathan Kenigson, FRSA
Mathematical researchers experience severe isolation engendered by the constant pursuit of proofs and publications. In the global North, this isolation is frequently compounded by a paucity of tenure-track positions and the increasing adjunctification of the higher-education space. The dearth of academic positions in university mathematics is compounded by a seemingly ubiquitous institutional obsession with the efficiency of academic production. In the undergraduate education space, this production is measured reductionistically in terms of student success and retention metrics. In the research space, the content of the production and its attendant metrics differ. These include impact factors, objective success in facilitating conferences, demonstrated achievements in obtaining grants, and a litany of related pursuits. The punitive nature of these metrics is a precipitating factor in the poor placement of scientific Ph.D. graduates into the “good” tenured positions that provide a scintilla of security after the bitter slog of Ph.D. and postdoctoral specialization. Academic freedom is to be purchased at the price of a battle merely to possess the same. One might say that the hue and cry of academic circumstance prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the price of academic freedom is eternal vigilance, and that the price of the gilded indenture of tenure is to glibly regret that such vigilance was ever necessary.
When observing the broader global context of mathematical research, it becomes apparent that the university is no longer the primary motivator, producer, or consumer of academic work. The Pax Americana was heralded by the collapse of the Soviet Union and the subsequent establishment of comparatively free markets in Eastern Europe. For the mathematician, the ensuing peace was pyrrhic at best. The darkest genius of human intellect is the adaptation of technologies of war from industries of peace. War demands mathematics, and mathematics demands war. Governments demand mathematicians in times of war, and private-sector enterprises demand the same in times of both peace and war. To the Cosmopolitan, there should be no relish in wars of rumors of wars. To the mathematician, at least historically, the same can be said of peace. Archimedes met his end in service to the same god – Sol Invictus – that every herald of the Empire ever fathomed relevant to his own territorial or imperial ambition: Syracuse was never the same after Archimedes’ untimely departure. To stand away from the figure was too radical a command for the politician, and the grim business of war and the panoply of its savage gods have always demanded that the mathematician and the politician pretend to have met only in passing. To carry the King’s coin is to be the King’s man. Nix war, and one loses state sponsorship of science. The Soviets and Washington both showed us this as clearly in the 1990s’ as the trials of Archimedes did in ancient days. War and mathematical achievements go together more than mere serendipity would dictate. It is not mete that intimates should feign mere acquaintance. For the mathematician and the State, to be too brusque in rejecting funding or recognition is to demonstrate remonstrance. To be too familiar, however, is to betray that Cosmopolitanism is not worth as much as Euro, crude, or even human lives. To recognize the broad moral indolence of the institutional mathematical enterprise throughout history is to strike a stark requiem to acquiescence. The mathematician is a beneficiary of the King and is as such the King’s man. He is entreated to the recess of the Empire only to be summoned for the work of “mathematical discovery”, which is predictably useless in precise proportion to the security necessary to dissuade shrewd intellects from rebellion into more applied pursuits.
The most foolish of exiles craft their prisons to look like their homes, and the most prescient of these fools quickly forget the difference between them. Because the mathematician is a creature of the King and his wars, one might say that he is due, in recompense to his servitude, a certain proportionate liberty. The King may forget that the exile is free to craft his own wars and not merely dispose of those banalities deemed prudent by those in prominence. The banished son of the empire can obtain, with brooding introspection, what could never be obtained via mere fear of lese majeste. The mathematician should be first to recognize that there is no justice even in the meager society of his banishment. Not one-tenth of the professional mathematical population can afford access to mathematical journals, but mathematicians in the developing world are rightly required to know the same results in the same depth as any other practitioners.
Paywalls, like other walls, keep the rich content, the poor hungry, and the ignorant loathsomely apathetic. The mathematical profession has never had a systematic commitment to attain knowledge-equity within its own ranks. To suppose that everybody should have everything is not equivalent to asserting that everybody should not have something. For instance, it seems particularly striking that so few in the West cared or understood before the current political zeitgeist that Ukraine’s universities suffered from a chronic lack of funding for conference attendance, textbooks, articles, and research monographs. Few in the Western mathematical community cared about such equity then. Tenure was always too strong a god, even if its price was to subscribe and submit to journals that deprive the poor of any reasonable chance of access. Western mathematicians condemning adjunctification should boldly carry both banners, as both are noble ones. The same crusaders should equally ensure that their colleagues around the world should not have to suffer from the inaccessibility of resources necessary for mathematical progress.
It is pharisaical to bemoan what one claims as injustice when almost none of the aggrieved can afford to read what is written of their plight and not written of their absence. It is an exigent moral imperative to recognize that such inequality demands a concerted war of resolution that begins by making peer-reviewed knowledge freely available to everyone, everywhere, via the expedience of modern technologies. It is high time to forget impact factors and paywalls and bracket mathematical life in terms of the moral essentials of its global prosecution. The epoche prerequisite to such scrutiny has been risibly absent from the exiguous discussions of resource equity in modern mathematical research. Mathematicians as a global scholarly polis must craft a pitched battle against the yawning gap in global resource equity within our own profession. If it is free to speculate on abstract matters, it should also be free to access peer-reviewed work on such matters. But alas, the man most often credited with foolishness is all too often the fool himself. To quote Eliot:
No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be;
Am an attendant lord, one that will do
To swell a progress, start a scene or two,
Advise the prince; no doubt, an easy tool,
Deferential, glad to be of use,
Politic, cautious, and meticulous;
Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse;
At times, indeed, almost ridiculous—
Almost, at times, the Fool.