Software Development as mathematician in academia – everyone bites the dust

Is it possible to do software development, mathematical or not, as mathematician in academics? This is a question I was asking myself recently a lot, seeing my own development from logician at a state university getting rid of foreigners to software developer. And then, a friend pointed me to this very depressing document: The origins of SageMath by William Stein, the main developer of SageMath. And I realized that it seems to be a global phenomenon that mathematicians who are interested in software development have to leave academics. What a sad affair.

SageMath has a clear mission:

Creating a viable free open source alternative to Magma, Maple, Mathematica and Matlab.

All the “Ma”-software packages are commercial, and expensive. On the other hand they often have very good algorithms implemented. The Sage developers invested lots of time, energy, and brain power to develop excellent algorithm in an open source project for the mathematical researcher, but this investment wasn’t honored in academic life. To quote from the presentation:

Issues with software dev in academia

  • Hard money for software development is virtually nonexistent: I can’t think of anyone I know who got tenured based on his or her software.
  • Researchers on soft money are systematically discriminated against in favor of tenure-track and tenured faculty.
  • Researchers are increasingly evaluated solely on bibliometric counts rather than an informed assessment of their overall portfolio of papers, code, software, industry engagement, or student supervision.

The origins of SageMath, p.31

I can fully agree to this. Both from my own experience as well as from those around me. The presentation slides are full of other examples, from the developers of NumPy, Jupyter, as well as statements by Stephen Wolfram from Mathematica about this issue. A textbook how to not setup academia.

My assumption was that this hits only on non-tenured staff, the academic precariat. It is shocking to see that even William Stein with a tenure position is leaving academics. It seems the times are not ready 🙁

Every great open source math library is built on the ashes of someone’s academic career.
The origins of SageMath, p.32

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5 Responses

  1. Sami Liedes says:

    I don’t think I disagree with you about how this should be different, but I want to add another perspective.

    The universities have a certain amount of resources (money) to hire academics with, so they cannot employ everybody they would like to. Thus, they need to prioritize.

    Don’t you think that at least a decent argument can be made for universities prioritizing work more oriented on research and somewhat less on developing and especially maintaining software?

    Of course in reality this is driven by getting publications in famous journals, which I think is a rotten metric.

    • Thanks for your comment, but I allow myself to partially disagree. William Stein worked in academics, and that requires teaching, research etc, and I am sure he did this to a sufficient or even more degree, otherwise he wouldn’t have obtained tenure position.

      OTOH, universities and call for posts and evaluations always ask for “impact on the society”, “relevance”, “industrial connections” and all that. So I think that the restricted amount of money is not what is the real problem.

      I believe that here are two factors that influence these kind of decisions: One is that – as you said – impact factor is the new God, which is, as it is by now probably well known, a completely bogus measure. And this God is not interested in activities that don’t worship him, like software development, or social involvement, etc. The other factor is the aversion of mathematicians against software. Together we are left in an unhealthy surrounding.

  1. 2017/07/28

    […] Software Development as mathematician in academia – everyone bites the dust […]

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