Mathematicians' fest that can save money or lives

WHAT do submarines, unhealthy livers, molten metal, mobile phones and pregnancy kits have in common? Absolutely nothing of course, but these topics were brought together at a conference I attended recently: the European Study Group with Industry (ESGI).

This idea of throwing real-world problems at mathematicians is known as "operations research". It began in the Second World War. Faced with terrible losses from U-boat attacks, the admiralty was in a mood to be open-minded. Patrick Blackett, a mathematician and former naval officer, was brought in to see if anything could be done. He put together teams of academics and military experts who made a number of crucial contributions to the war effort.

Blackett’s greatest success was to get the planes used in carpet-bombing reassigned to anti-submarine duty (he lists his greatest failure as not doing so earlier). Using statistics, a few estimates and some simple calculations, he showed that the planes would do far more for the war effort patrolling sea-lanes than bombing German cities. This proposal met fierce resistance from Air Marshal "Bomber" Harris, who demanded of Churchill, "Are we fighting this war with the sword or the slide rule?" Churchill puffed on his cigar. "That’s a good idea," he replied. "Let’s try the slide rule."

This year’s ESGI has us trying to protect submarines rather than sink them. A company wants to cover them in bubble-wrap. This is not to stop them being bashed in shipping (although the embarrassing 2002 incident springs to mind, when HMS Trafalgar bumped into the Isle of Skye), but to protect them from sonar detection. The bubbles should absorb energy from incoming sonar waves, making the submarine harder to detect - but will it work? Other subjects under examination range from understanding obese livers to protecting smelting equipment.

Motorola presents a problem relating to network maintenance, which is where I spend most of my time. The arms manufacturer BAE is present with a problem about wallpapering offices. It’s strongly suspected that this must be a front for something more sinister, but no-one can figure out what.

People wander back and forth between the different problems (and, later, the bar). They discuss ideas, scribble equations and wield laptops. The atmosphere is informal. Many of the participants have been coming for decades, and the meeting has the feel of a gentlemen’s club, complete with strange traditions and eccentric old men. This belies the fact that valuable work is being done. There is a formidable array of talent, including some very eminent and cantankerous professors.

Success is varied. The submarine-wrapping company goes home empty-handed; the problem is too hard for analytic methods, and the firm will just have to run deep-sea experiments. Motorola leaves with not only an answer but a working computer program that happily chews through its examples. I ask the man from Motorola what value the solution will have for his company. He explains that he can only hazard a vague guess (the value of Motorola shares may go down as well as up, etc, etc). His vague guess is from 500,000 to several million pounds.

In spite of there being big money at stake, the conference has a naive, uncommercial air. You might think the companies are exploiting the academics. In fact the event is organised by the academics, who are working purely for the pleasure of the job itself (and pride). Several describe it as a form of holiday. It is a refreshing reminder that work can - and should - be rewarding for its own sake.

This is the opposite of current trends, where universities are being forced onto a more commercial basis. There are excellent aspects to this shift, such as better support for start-up companies. Unfortunately there is also a very real risk of compromised ethics producing compromised science. If you motivate people by money alone, then there will be a cost to pay. To a large extent, academia runs on trust, co-operation and goodwill - all of which could be lost.

Commercial funding often comes with strings attached (such as gag clauses where unwelcome results can be silenced). And departments and academics with their eye on profits are less likely to share work or run potentially negative tests.

There should be a formula that encourages commercial work while protecting the values of academia. Perhaps next year’s ESGI can examine the question. Let x be the profit to pleasure ratio used in motivating academics, and r the value of the work done ...

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