Posted by: Alexandre Borovik | 25/10/2012

Christopher Mulvey: Moving Forwards


Clearing my desk to write this, I shuffled some papers on which I had been working into a battered Ryman file folder, many times recycled. By some strange synchronicity, I noticed that the folder carried an address sticker of Susan Oakes, the Society’s Administrator when it was based at Burlington House, somewhat towards the heavens in the graceful premises of the Royal Astronomical Society. On the cover of the folder is written: Income & Expenditure 1971-75, the records of four financial years, long before I became a member of the Society, all at some time fitting into that slender wallet folder, marked underneath Stuff for Audit. It was a few years later before the financial accounts were computerised for the first time, but even then they could have been listed on a few sheets of paper.


By the time that I became Council and General Secretary, the Society had rather more members than it now has, a single administrator efficiently administering them, and an expenditure on grants rather similar to that now paid out. The question of whether the Society should approach the Privy Council with a request to be granted the title of the Royal Mathematical Society was not pursued after it became evident that it was opposed by certain influential members of the mathematical community. Nevertheless, the influence of the Society politically was significant. With its then President, Christopher Zeeman, I attended a meeting with the Permanent Secretary of the Department of Education asking for our help in what was considered a crisis in the provision of mathematically qualified teachers.


Zeeman also founded the Committee of Heads of Departments of Mathematics, of which I became the first Secretary, and initiated grants to assist women mathematicians through career breaks. The political and policy agendas which have marked the years since then began to be set, with the Society still administered by one woman, on a budget for salaries and premises on which I would not like to cast any particular light. Partly, this was possible because a lot of people gave a lot of their time, possibly to the detriment of their research careers. But much the same can be said nowadays: the Society is served by Officers that give beyond what could even be called freely of their time and efforts. Nevertheless, we now support an administration that provides professional backup in increasing amounts each year for the efforts of the Society’s officers.


This has been made possible, on the one hand, by the increasing income that the Society receives from its publications, and has been necessitated, on the other hand, by the increasing demands in terms of compliance placed upon the Society. But it has to be said that, while expending a comparable figure on grants and the mathematical activities of the Society, albeit with a slightly smaller number of members, the administrative costs incurred by the Society have increased considerably, although so far matched by its increases in income despite an overall decreasing membership. At which point, one begins to look to the future with some concern.


Despite the attempt to widen the membership, in this area we are strictly on catchup. The realities are that we have had a decreasing membership over time, and that we have an ageing demographic. Whether that ageing demographic feels so bonded with the Society that it may make good its demise with endowment may be the case, but should not be relied upon. The more likely scenario is that we may have a membership that is younger but more stretched, both financially and in terms of the amount of time that they can contribute to the Society, just at the time when our administrative costs continue to increase and our income from investments and publications continue to fall.


Our position in terms of investment, despite all efforts of Treasurers to the contrary, is, by the Treasurer’s admission, one that is less than ideal. In real terms, we are less well off than we were, say, ten years ago. We show a surplus of somewhat below £0.5m on our annual accounts, but only that necessary to maintain, but not advance, our position with respect to inflation. This, at least, is progress from the realities of the past few years. That we are in this position, rather than one that is adverse, is due to the increasing profit that we make on publications, a position that is seriously likely to change with the move to open access publication. At a turn, this could destroy much of our income from publications.


The importance of this income to the Society, particularly in the face of increasingly poorly performing investments, is highlighted by a pair of financial figures. The Society’s income from publications is presently around £1.25m, while its expenditure on salaries, and I mean salaries, not the total costs of employment, is around £0.75m. The difference of £0.5m between these figures is roughly what we need to be receiving annually in order to offset losses due to inflation. The outcome is a serious one: unless there is a dramatic increase in investment income, which presently funds the Society’s remaining expenditure on non-salary running costs, which are considerable, and its charitable activities, in terms of grants and political work, the continuing stability of the Society relies on administrative costs falling in line with decreasing income from publications.


In the years ahead, Council has therefore a difficult course to pursue. What is vital is the continuation of the work of the Society in supporting mathematics. It is not just vital, it is what we will do, whatever the circumstances, it is what the Society is there to achieve. Alongside this, we have to work to make our investments more profitable to the Society, a situation which in various ways is already in hand. We also need to take bold and innovative decisions in a changing market, politically and financially, for publications, which we are well placed to do, provided that we are aware of the challenges ahead. But the reality is that we have to examine carefully the ways in which we expend income in pursuing these aims. There has to be an inexorable link between the Society’s income and its expenditure on administration, in particular on administrative salaries.


It is this link that is the main weakness in the Society’s organisation. In theory, and in terms of legal responsibility, the Society’s Council is the body which ensures that this link between income and expenditure is maintained. In practice, while Council may briefly see the papers which approve operational decisions made, it is its executive committee, the Finance and General Purposes Committee, that discusses and actions the progress of Society business, presenting its proposals to Council for approval. Even this is subject to diversion through various delegated powers awarded to officers and committees that were sanctioned at some distant point in the past by decisions of Council now effectively lost and replaced by the touchstone of established practice, leading to a Society administered by practice rather than prudence. Council has to regain effective operational control of the Society, and this will require changes to the way we go about its business.


Now is the time that we have to decide between a Society administered and guided forward by professionals from outside of mathematics, or a Society whose moves and intentions are directed by those from within the community that it serves, aided by an administration that is focused on meeting those directions. We have an administration that can serve us well, and we have officers that can direct that administration in a manner that achieves that. We need a Council that can ensure that we move forward within those guidelines, and perhaps can pause for a moment to think of Income and Expenditure, 1971-75 as having at that time been able to be detailed within a small, battered file folder, brought together with adequate but significantly fewer administrative forces. In that way, the Society will continue to do its good work and to prosper in doing so.

[Reposted from LMS Elections 2012]




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