Tomorrow the winner(s) of the Fields medal(s) for 2014 will be announced at the Seoul ICM and we’ll be eagerly awaiting the outcome.
Although he is only an outside chance (at least according to http://poll.pollcode.com/p6es9_result) one of the mathematicians “in the mix” is the UWA graduate Akshay Venkatesh. Actually Akshay went through Uni at the same time as Michael, although he’s 5 or 6 years younger than Michael. I remember first meeting them when I was chairing a seminar by Jack Koolen, and Akshay and Michael turned up. I must admit that on seeing this fresh-faced youngster (Michael) with someone barely of high-school age (Akshay), I assumed they were strays from some high-school visit and enquired whether they knew what sort of talk they were coming to!
Anyway, while I wish Akshay all the best, this post is really about the consequences of a possible award to him. Our university is obsessed by rankings and while the official goal “Top 50 by 2050” doesn’t specify which ranking system it is referring to, it is widely understood to be the Shanghai Jiao-Tong ranking of world universities. Personally, I don’t find this goal at all motivating – firstly it is totally unachievable without either a truly massive increase in resources or by such a severe distortion of university activities to focus only on the ranking criteria that it would no longer be recognisable as a university.
The problem is that the SJT criteria are incredibly narrowly focussed on extreme events such as Fields Medals and Nobel Prizes. For each university, 10% of the score is based on alumni with Nobel prizes/Fields Medals, while a further 20% is based on Faculty with Nobel prizes/Fields Medals. Another 20% is based on highly-cited researchers, of which UWA has a handful (including Cheryl). So 50% of the ranking is based on a tiny number of individuals. Of course universities devious enough about the rankings can appoint a few Nobel prize winners on reasearch-only positions and move up a few slots, whether or not the Nobel prize winner ever meets a student, or indeed ever steps on campus.
Despite this, I’m willing to accept that a university with 20 Nobel prize winners is statistically different from a university with one, like UWA. But is there really a difference between a university with one Nobel prize winner and two, or zero? If Akshay wins tomorrow, then UWA will score some points in the 10% and move up the rankings, and be deemed a better university than it was before.
But does this make sense?
Akshay was at UWA nearly 20 years ago, and by all accounts he was prodigiously talented when he arrived at UWA and prodigiously talented when he left. It’s not clear to me that this reflects on UWA today in any particular way.
Nevertheless, a win for Akshay still might have some direct benefit for us in the publicity that follows a high profile win. Since Akshay’s day, the Maths department has dramatically shrunk due to being the main target of relentless rounds of budget cuts, staff sackings, more budget cuts and so on. Although we pride ourselves on being a member of Australia’s “Group of 8” universites, we now have by far the weakest Mathematics course, with fewer than half the options of any of the others. Meanwhile, competitors like Monash are investing heavily in Maths with 15 new positions currently advertised. So if Akshay wins and the light of publicity shines on us, it might be a nice time to point out at the highest level that there aren’t any Top 50 universities with an emaciated Maths department.
So, one way or the other – good luck and Go Akshay!
PS Another candidate “in the mix” is our old friend Harald Helfgott who has visited a couple of times and tried to teach us the mysterious properties of the sizes of triple products in groups. When we first invited him, we were told that he was of “Fields medal” quaility, but since he’s proven the ternary Goldbach conjecture, his odds are rapidly shortening. So good luck Harald!