Theoretical physics and mathematics are much cheaper to fund than experimental particle physics. I don’t know yet what the implications of the FY 2008 budget are for these fields, but it appears that they are not facing large cuts like Fermilab. In other funding-related news:
DARPA, a Defense Department division responsible for funding research that might lead to new technology with military applications, is soliciting applications for grants to fund pure mathematical research. In the past they have funded work on the geometric Langlands program, now they have put out a list of 23 Mathematical Challenges, illustrating what they would like to fund. These include some conventional Clay Millennium Prize problems like the Riemann Hypothesis and Hodge Conjecture, and some less conventional ones like
Biological Quantum Field Theory
Quantum and statistical methods have had great success modeling virus evolution. Can such techniques be used to model more complex systems such as bacteria? Can these techniques be used to control pathogen evolution?
There’s even one I find extremely tempting:
Geometric Langlands and Quantum Physics
How does the Langlands program, which originated in number theory and representation theory, explain the fundamental symmetries of physics? And vice versa?
Benjamin Mann, the program officer, explains the rationale here.
On the question of grants, there are some interesting comments by Tom Banks in the comment section of this posting at Cosmic Variance. The posting quotes Harvard president Faust as warning lesser schools that they should get out of the business of scientific research, since Harvard is going to be vigorously and successfully competing for increasingly scarce government funding for such research. Banks describes how when he and others were trying to build up the string theory group at Rutgers
…we never got the kind of government funding that the elite institutions have (I’m counting dollars per person). This was at a time when certain elite institutions were at a low ebb and were getting scandalously large amounts per person in return for mediocre research. And of course, in the end, two of our most successful researchers got stolen away by elite institutions.
I guess he’s referring to Seiberg, who went to the IAS, and Shenker, who went to Stanford. I don’t know which are the “certain elite institutions” that were doing “mediocre research” that he is referring to.
The Rutgers string theory group was originally built up when the university spent large amounts of money to bring in several prominent string theorists. One version of this story that I heard was that a Rutgers official called up Dan Friedan one day in his office, and asked him what it would take to get him and several other well-known string theorists to move there. Friedan had no interest in going to Rutgers, so made up what he considered an absurd list of demands (huge salaries, lots of postdocs, new building, little or no teaching, etc., etc…). The official thanked him and then hung up, with Friedan convinced he’d never hear any more about this. A couple hours later though, the phone rang again. It was the same official, telling Friedan that they would be more than happy to meet all his demands.
Another institution that I hear is trying to compete with the elite by starting up a new, well-funded institute for research in math and physics is Stony Brook. The money is coming from Jim Simons, as part of a donation announced last year. Some other information about donations from Simons to other institutions is available at the Simons Foundation website. This foundation is largely devoted to funding research on autism, but also describes donations to the Math for America program to recruit math teachers, as well as to Brookhaven, Stony Brook, the IAS, IHES and MSRI. Simons has been funding summer workshops at Stony Brook for several years that are largely devoted to string theory. The math department has an NSF-funded RTG program in geometry and physics, and the web-site there includes links to write-ups of some of the expository talks that are part of the program.