Who finances pure mathematics research?

Why fund pure math research?

I do not believe that there is "no choice" but to be funded by public organizations. I think what you were saying is that it is difficult to make a profit in a reasonable time frame.

However, many private organizations, including MIT, CalTech, Harvard, etc., do math research. Private universities can easily do pure research on any desired topic, tempered by the demands of academics, students, and donors.

Furthermore, there is no reason why other organizations could not donate to pure math research as well. This can be anything from a Kickstarter campaign to a company (maybe a tech company?) Looking for creative ways to market yourself. It could also be some billionaires looking to invest in something new, innovative, and nerdy - just as so many of them have put money into space and energy purposes. Charities could also be set up to obtain grants for mathematicians (like a much larger Fields Medal or a MacArthur grant exclusively for mathematicians).

If anything, the government is least apt and least interested in funding mathematics. The only difference is that a government has one source of funding. But the politicians who spend money are not particularly interested in funding mathematicians because that won't win a significant number of votes - but wasteful spending loses votes, as are cuts in welfare, nutrition programs, education, etc. Math kicks in with government spending into the background because this is not a very popular priority with voters.

I don't think the problem is that it just has to be done by the public. The problem is, most people think that there are much more pressing priorities for money. Millionaire nerds and freaks focus on things like space travel. Charities focus on disease and nutrition. Countless activists work in the environment, energy, microfinance, and other non-profit areas.

The lack of support for pure mathematical research is not a failure of the institutions to plan ahead. It is the success of institutions to obey the aggregated decisions of the public. If only a small number of people are interested in a particular social goal, it makes sense that that social goal should only receive a small amount of funding. It is up to mathematicians and other groups in a similar situation to convince people that their social goal (i.e. pure math) makes sense enough to be funded. If I were, I would focus on getting a big foundation from someone like Zuckerberg or Musk, rather than from Congress.

Sebastien Palcoux

Thank you for your reply. About public / private I see the confusion: I'm French and in France all universities are public (with the exception of very few religious universities, but I don't think there are pure math institutes there). When I wrote "public organization" I mainly thought of "universities" and you are right, there are private universities (outside of France) with a high level of pure mathematics. Institutes. I will improve the post about it. Anyway, my question is not "Who can fund?" but "why finance" and I look for detailed arguments.

Sebastien Palcoux

Note that in France there is a separate public research organization from universities called CNRS.

Chris Mueller

Research at all of the institutions you mentioned is still largely funded by government research grants (NSF, NIH, DOE). Private funds at these institutions are typically used to pay for facilities and grants.