An Interview with Alistair Fitt, the New IMA President

An Interview with Alistair Fitt, the New IMA President


Professor Alistair Fitt CMath CSci FIMA is Vice-Chancellor of Oxford Brookes University and President of the IMA for 2018 and 2019. He has served the IMA in many roles, including on Council, Conferences Committee, Research Committee and the Journals Board of Management. I interviewed Alistair at Oxford Brookes in August 2017.

Congratulations on being chosen as the IMA President for 2018–2019. What are your plans for your term as President?

I’ve got lots of plans but I think that they probably divide into three main areas, and they’re membership, influence and advocacy, and more long-term strategy. So, let me take each one in turn.

First of all, membership; everybody will know that the IMA essentially makes the money it needs for sustainability from two things: journals and membership fees. So, membership (and the influence that it brings) will continue to be a priority, and I’ve got some ideas about how we could get more members and more younger members. But what do I know? The IMA has recently made a very wise investment in getting some expert professional advice on how to increase the membership of a Learned Society. I am sure that this will prove very valuable to us in the long term.

Influence and advocacy; the IMA could, and already does to some extent, wield significant influence with politicians, with the Treasury, with BEIS (the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy), and with all sorts of people. One of the advantages that I have as Vice-Chancellor is good access to ministers, politicians, and all these people, and so I would really like to increase the influence of the IMA as an advocate for mathematics in the UK, and maybe wider as well.

Finally, long-term strategy; it may not be the right time to do it at the moment but the long-term solution has to be to have only one maths society. If we don’t do that, we won’t be able to get the influence that we want. So, it’s still, for me, a long-term goal to have one Unified Mathematical Society. I’m not saying that we’ll be able to do that during my term as president but we can certainly put some things in place that might help that to happen at a later date.

When you say mathematics, do you include statistics and OR?

Well, that’s another question. I think to have one society for maths, statistics and OR would perhaps be a step too far at the moment, but you can see that if the IMA and the LMS were able to join into a Unified Mathematical Society, that might be the first step in uniting statistics and operational research, and just think what a strong body that would be if we were able to join all four of those institutions.

You are an IMA Councillor and a very active IMA member, who has had many positions, including Vice-President – Learned Society. Having been involved with the IMA for many years, what do you think is the most important role of the Institute?

I think the IMA has many important roles but one thing I should say is that I’m a great fan of the British system where learned and professional societies have a big role to play. It is good at creating influence and has worked well for many years.

So, what does the IMA need to be in my opinion, and what’s its most important role? Well, if we could get ourselves into a position where the IMA was the go-to organisation for anybody that wants to talk about mathematics or be informed about mathematical issues, then all the stakeholders would come to the IMA whenever they wanted to know about anything related to mathematics; they would know that we’re always there for them and that we’ll always give them wise advice and sensible counsel. I think that’s the most important role that the IMA can play long-term.

The IMA has welcomed the Smith Review of Post-16 Mathematics. How important do you think this report is?

I think it says a lot of important things. I too welcome the Smith Report and I like the fact that the things it said were not only important, they were sensible too and a great many of them are things that the IMA can easily sign up to [see http://tinyurl.com/IMA-Smith-Review].

I think one of the most interesting things was that the report specifically covered the 16–18 age range and included a lot of interesting discussion about the possibility of all children studying mathematics up to the age of 18. Now, as you know, this is not happening at the moment and we’re rather an exception of nations, but the report does make a clear and persuasive case for both the personal and societal benefits of mathematics study up to the age of 18.

Actually, coincidentally, the report has 18 recommendations in total and it really struck me how many of them involve funding. There are things that we would have to fund to make work, and the report does argue that the root cause of all our difficulties is the lack of qualified mathematics teachers. Of course the IMA Mathematics Teacher Training Scholarship Scheme has just had its most successful year ever and is really living proof of the fact that funding works. You can throw money at a problem and really solve it.

So, I think the real question for me from the Smith Report is: will the people that run mathematics ever get the funding that’s suggested to do some of the clearly very sensible and necessary things that are in the report?

As Vice-Chancellor of a UK university, do you have any concerns about our international image after the EU referendum? And what do you think the effects of Brexit will be on university teaching and research?

I mean whatever we think of it, many people will tell you that we are inevitably committed to Brexit. So, we have to make the best of it and look for as many opportunities as we can. When we’re dealing with politicians and ministers, it’s no good whinging about it and it’s no good trying to suggest things that really make it look as though we’re just leaving in name and staying in really, but of course it’s a threat. The UK does very well out of Horizon 2020. It’s the only EU program that we take more out of than we put in. Just at Oxford Brookes, we have about 1,000 EU students and about 200 EU staff, so the threats are obvious. I can’t deny there are real dangers and our global reputation will inevitably suffer.

As I say, we have to make the best of it and see the upsides, but UK universities are, by their nature, international institutions doing international research so anything that makes us look as if we’re putting the borders up and not welcoming international people is bad and we have to do everything that we can to try not to give that impression.

I had just one final thought on this from recent conversations that I’ve had with various politicians. With the result of the June 2017 election in mind, is it really a 100% done deal that we have to leave the EU? Might we yet save the situation? Has anybody really started a serious ‘let’s not leave after all’ movement? I’m just saying that it might happen.

Stern’s review recommends many changes to the Research Excellence Framework (REF) and the new rules are due soon, how do you think maths with be affected in REF 2021?

I think that probably there’ll be a lot of talking and a lot of effort expended but actually for mathematics, it will largely be business as usual. We don’t know of course what the final Stern recommendations will be yet but I personally don’t think the changes will be that great. Really, there’s a tension here between the minister who essentially wants to embrace all of the Stern recommendations and the sector who really know how to do it under the REF 2014 rules and wouldn’t like an increased burden and don’t want much to change. I think, in the end, the changes for this REF will not be that great. Although, I wouldn’t be surprised if some things are piloted for the REF after the next one. [See www.ref.ac.uk for the latest – since this interview of course we now know essentially what the REF rules will be.]

I would make one other point about the REF. One thing that mathematics has always agitated for is a new definition of impact that includes impact on other university subjects, and the argument has always been that mathematics could indeed have a great influence on other university subjects but the current definition of impact ignored that influence. I don’t really agree with that argument because I think that it’s a distraction. Mathematics has a huge number of great impact stories to tell. So, I do not agree that we need a special definition just for us.

Mathematics can make its case for impact perfectly well along with everybody else.

As the chair of the sub-committee that developed the proposal for the IMA’s first open access journal, how important do you think open access is? And is journal publishing changing for the better?

Yes, I’m really excited by the new IMA open access journal, and the thing that excites me most is the quality that this journal would bring. Open access publishing has had a quite stormy and difficult ride since the Finch Report in 2012. You will remember that the report essentially suggested that the UK should move to a gold open access, i.e. an author pays publishing model, and I think, at the time, we all felt our hearts were with this but our heads had to say no to this plan.

Sure enough, gold open access in general has not really happened. It’s not happening in the rest of the world and it’s not happening here. For example, the rules for open access in the forthcoming REF don’t mandate gold open access. Instead, a so-called green model is mandated where pre-prints are published on institutional repositories. Apart from the funding issue, the big problem with gold open access is exemplified by the biggest journal in the world, PLOS ONE which is a gold open access journal that was publishing, up until recently, 85 papers a day, tens of thousands of papers a year. There is a key problem with that though which is if the authors are paying, why would the journal ever reject a paper. They’re just denying themselves income.

For the new IMA gold open access journal, the answer to this is really clear because it’s all based around quality. Quality in mathematics is the byword for the journal, so I think it’s a really exciting development and it’ll be a huge success. Is journal publishing changing for the better? Well, I don’t think that’s happened yet. Of course, the IMA publishes its journals with Oxford University Press, which is a charity, and that’s fine but there are still publishers around which have shareholders and they essentially make money for their shareholders by exploiting free toil and labour from academics.

The other problem we have is that open access of any kind, whether gold or green, is far from sorted out for books and monographs, and the business model for that really has not been successfully developed yet. So, I think publishing is changing, it’s definitely been disrupted by the internet, but we’ve still got a very long way to go before all its problems are solved.

What do you think the impact of maths will be on the world’s biggest challenges, for example, health, food, water, climate?

It’s hard to predict the future but one thing is pretty clear to me; if mathematics does not have a really big impact on all of these problems then a) it will have failed and b) it will be pretty much impossible to come up with practical solutions.

I have spent a lifetime working on the mathematics of practical and industrially related problems and I’ve seen that mathematics really is at the core of every major problem. Mathematics alone will not solve these, often called, wicked problems. We need the politicians and the economists, and the engineers, and the physicists, and the social scientists, and everybody else, but the one thing that will always be there is the mathematics really at the root and the heart of everything.

So, yes, certainly the impact of mathematics on all of these key problems will be crucially important and we have to do everything that we can to be in on the game as far as we can possibly be. That means lots of collaborative working, lots of multi-disciplinary, and lots of inter-disciplinary working.

You were the expert for the IMA Mathematics Matters case study about holey optical fibres (reproduced on the next page). Could you tell us a bit about the recent applications of this exciting area of research?

Oh dear. This is where I get found out. This field, holey fibres, microstructured fibres, is a field that combines physics with mathematics and it moves incredibly fast. If you blink for a second, you risk being behind the game and as a Vice-Chancellor, it’s not really practical to keep right on top of the literature. So, to be honest, I’m not as clued up in this as I could be. However, having said that, there are a couple of the latest developments that I know about.

First of all, there’s a great new market developing for holey fibres that are used as sensors. A good example of that is if you have a holey fibre with a single hole down the middle, which is filled with various kinds of smart fluid, you can sense properties of things with extraordinary accuracy, and that’s something that’s really just being developed right at the moment.

Also, the second thing is there are still lots of developments going on in the field that rely on the fact that holey fibres can be set up to be, what we call, endlessly single mode. What that means is they can transmit a single mode across all wavelengths, and the possibilities for telecommunications alone are still seemingly unlimited for endlessly single mode fibres.

So, the sensor applications and the telecoms applications are the ones that I try to keep in touch with.

[The Mathematics Matters case studies can be found under Publications on the IMA homepage, ima.org.uk]

Your research also focuses on the flow and deformation of human eyes. Could you tell us about its application in treating conditions like cataracts?

Actually we haven’t done very much work on cataracts. A cataract is a fairly simple eye condition. It’s just clumps of protein or pigment stuck in the lens that cloud a patient’s vision. In fact, the Romans knew about cataracts and even tried to cure them by pushing the lens that was affected out of the way, hence the phrase ‘better than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick’. You might not want to think about the consequences of that.

We’re really much more interested in conditions that affect the front part of the eye, the anterior chamber, and probably the most important of these is primary open-angle glaucoma (POAG), which is essentially caused by the aqueous humour in your anterior chamber not being able to leave the anterior chamber fast enough or efficiently enough. So, much of our work has concerned the fluid flow in this part of the eye which is driven in the anterior chamber largely by buoyancy, but once that aqueous humour has flown around, it has to exit and it does this via a porous body called the trabecular meshwork, which then drains into a canal called the canal of Schlemm. Most of the things that we’ve looked at have really concerned how the intraocular pressure can build up if aqueous humour can’t drain efficiently enough.

Another thing that we’ve considered is how blinking works. It turns out that it’s a very clever process and the way that you blink and the fluid that you blink with is actually very clever. If you want to know what function blinking fulfils then what I always say to people is, ‘Try not blinking deliberately for a minute, say’, and you’ll find it really hurts. This is what the millions of people with dry eye have to put up with and we’d like to understand how to help.

You also write about betting, for example ‘The Mathematics of Sports Gambling’ in the IMA’s anniversary book, 50 Visions of Mathematics. Do you have any advice for punters?

Well, of course giving people advice on betting can be a bit of a controversial area. When I used to have the time to do this, I always used to try and be very clear that we were betting but we weren’t gambling. We were arbitraging so we never used to bet unless we knew that we would win no matter what the outcome of the event and also, we never had any bets live as the event began. All business was done before the event started. So, it’s betting but it’s not gambling.

If you’re a punter then unless you’re arbitraging, it will be quite hard to win overall, although it’s not impossible, and the first piece of advice that you have to understand is you shouldn’t bet on the horse that you think will win. Now, this may seem like strange advice but it’s much better to bet on a horse that’s incorrectly priced. For example, if a horse is priced at 20/1 but actually wins 7% of the time then actually you’ll lose nearly every bet that you make but you’ll come out on top overall because that horse is incorrectly priced. If you keep on betting on it, you’ll win in the end.

Probably my most single important piece of advice would be; watch your utility function. In other words, why are you betting and what price are you prepared to pay. If you like the excitement and you’re prepared to lose a bit in the long run to get that excitement then that’s fine, but if you really want to do this to make money then you’re going to need to think very hard about how to do this to win in the long run.

You are a self-confessed cricket addict. What draws you to the sport?

I have been hopelessly in love with cricket ever since I was a very small boy. I have never been exactly sure what the appeal is but the artistic beauty of some of the shots, the details and mathematics of the game, and the length of a test match are all things that have helped to make it addictive to me. The fact that so many things can change during the five days of a test match; the weather, the conditions, the make-up of the teams just seems to me to make it a sport that’s so much more multi-dimensional than almost every other sport.

I should say though that I’ve given up playing cricket now as I’m too old, and like a lot of retired cricketers, I’m now completely obsessed by golf, which I do play. So, if you want to spend a whole evening talking about spin rates and smash factors, urethane compression and big data for handicaps then I’m definitely your man.

Rebecca Waters
Editorial Officer

Reproduced from Mathematics Today, February 2018

Download the article, An Interview with Alistair Fitt, the New IMA President (pdf)

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