Show me the money (or at least where it came from)

By Tarik Aougab and Marissa Loving

Disclaimer: While we planned a Summer@ICERM program with other people, the opinions expressed in this blog post reflect only the views and experiences of the two authors. 

We’re writing this post for two reasons: 

  1. We dedicated several weeks during one of the busiest times of the year (towards the beginning of the Fall 2022 semester) to crafting a carefully written proposal for an undergraduate summer research experience at the Institute for Computational and Experimental Research in Mathematics (ICERM). After initially accepting our proposal, ICERM rescinded their acceptance when we said that we were not comfortable with the program being partially funded by the National Security Agency (NSA). We don’t want others to waste the same valuable time and effort that we did and so we’re writing this as both a public service announcement and a warning.  
  2. We are incredibly frustrated. We feel like we were treated callously by a major mathematics institute that couldn’t care less about our time or the opportunities our program would have provided for historically excluded students and mathematicians. So, to be completely honest, we are writing this because ICERM acted like our concerns about accepting NSA funding (and how that decision would impact both our goals and our integrity) were meaningless and silly, and now we want to be heard. 

After giving a very brief summary of the events as we experienced them, we thought the most effective way to share this story would be with receipts – quotes from the email back-and-forth we had with an ICERM representative. We have chosen not to reveal the identity of the person with whom we corresponded, as we are quite certain that these replies reflect the collective position of the ICERM board, as opposed to the ICERM representative’s personal opinions on the matter. We want to emphasize that the purpose of this blogpost is to highlight how normalized it is to accept funding within mathematics without being critical about where that funding is coming from or how it has been obtained. Thus, this recounting of events is not intended to target any one individual.

We also want to acknowledge that because of how pervasive and unquestioned the use of national security, defense, and military funding in mathematics is, it makes sense that ICERM wasn’t prepared for us to say that we will not accept funding from an agency that proliferates violence, racism, and oppression on a global scale. However, what truly shocked us was how little ICERM was willing to engage with us on this incredibly important topic, or to relinquish any control or authority over the funding process.

We’re led to believe that ICERM’s board was afraid to set a precedent in which organizers have any say whatsoever over major funding decisions, even when the source of the money impacts the capacity of the organizers to carry out the very programming they approved of in the first place. But we’ll let readers decide this for themselves.

After submitting our proposal, we received the good news that ICERM chose it and was ready to move forward with us in planning the Summer’s programming:

ICERM’s Educational Advisory Board (EAB) has recommended we move forward with your proposed Summer@ICERM program for 2024. Congratulations! We look forward to working with you…

…We are considering applying to the NSA for supplemental funding for faculty and student stipends for Summer@ICERM. Would you allow us to share your Summer@ICERM proposal with them as part of a future (October 2023) grant application?

We welcome your suggestions on how best to recruit a diverse cohort of undergraduates!

Please let me know if there are any questions.

We replied to this email and explained that we weren’t comfortable accepting NSA funding for this programming. Both of us have publicly pledged to avoid this sort of support with the Just Mathematics Collective’s campaign “Mathematics Beyond Secrecy and Surveillance”. We asked if there was any leeway when it came to this plan; in response, we were sent a breakdown of ICERM’s budgeting for the program, and the proposal that we (as organizers) could be paid using other moneys but that there was no way to avoid NSA funding for student stipends and other costs:

[ICERM] could avoid paying organizers with NSA funds; what [we] can realistically get from NSA is less than what [we] pay for student stipends, room, and board.

We were disappointed by this and felt that it represented a fundamental misunderstanding of our objection to accepting NSA funding. The point here is not to keep our individual hands clean, but to prevent the NSA from using us and our students to launder its reputation and ingratiate itself with the professional mathematics world (guaranteeing its continued unfettered access to new talent and brainpower). 

Most importantly, the program that we proposed was designed explicitly for students from groups that have been historically excluded from academic mathematics. Our aim was to curate a healthy mathematical space for people who come from the very communities targeted most violently by the cops and the national security state. We would never have been able to facilitate conversations about the systemic barriers in our society (cisheteropatriarchy, white supremacy, xenophobia, etc) and the way they shape the mathematics community without dying inside at the thought of our students unknowingly playing the role of tokens for the NSA’s whitewashing goals. 

So, we replied with some concrete suggestions and some commitments to help ICERM find alternative funding:

Thanks for your prompt response!

We have a few questions, roughly sorted into two categories.

  1. (Other funding sources) We were wondering if there are any other sources/agencies from which we can solicit funding. For example, could ICERM seek supplemental funding from the NSF via an REU grant? Or could ICERM submit an official inquiry with the Sloan foundation or Simons foundation? The Sloan foundation appears to be a particularly suitable funding source, as our central scientific mission for Summer@ICERM 2024 closely aligns with their stated commitment to equity, diversity, and inclusion. We are happy to put together funding proposals, if that would be helpful. 
  1. (Decreasing REU costs) In 2022, the Summer@ICERM program supported 6 TAs. We are confident that we can provide students with the same level of support with 3 TAs alongside the faculty in residence. Additionally, does the program length reduction from 8 weeks to 6 weeks help with the budget in any way? We expect that some costs will remain the same (flights and stipends, for example), but perhaps the shorter time frame reduces the cost of room and board for students, TAs, and faculty. 

At the end of the day, we are not comfortable having our intellectual merit used in a proposal for NSA funding, or having our broader impacts tied to this agency. One of our goals for the program is to coauthor research publications with our REU students, and those papers would need to acknowledge the NSA if any of the authors accepted their support. Bolstering the profile and reputation of the NSA in this way is antithetical to our professional goals and the work we hope to accomplish that summer. 

We appreciate your continued support and flexibility!  

The response we got (a couple weeks later) was curt, frustrating, and did not engage with any of our suggestions:  

[Our] understanding is that your organization of the 2024 Summer@ICERM program is contingent on ICERM pledging not to use funding from the National Security Agency to support any part of the program.  

…[Our] responsibility is to secure funding that allows us to pursue our scientific and educational missions. [We] cannot restrict our funding sources to align with organizers’ convictions. Indeed, the pledges of the “Just Mathematics Collective” are incompatible with our legal responsibilities. The Solomon Amendment requires educational institutions receiving federal funds to permit campus military recruiting.

[We] assume that you’d like to withdraw your Summer@ICERM proposal under these circumstances.

Our next reply was…extensive. It was our final attempt to clearly outline to ICERM our reasons for declining NSA funding. It also reflects the enthusiasm and passion we felt about the program we proposed to run in Summer 2024:

Thanks for the reply and for clarifying where the board stands on this issue. We are disappointed by this response; there appears to be a refusal to address any of the suggestions made in our previous email, including the offers to help ICERM seek funding elsewhere. 

Additionally, we feel confused and blindsided by the shift in tone: in your first email, you communicated that the board approved our proposal and that ICERM was “considering applying” for NSA funding – that is, there was a request to use our proposal as part of an NSA grant. We don’t understand why we were asked at all if the only acceptable answer was yes. Additionally, if agreeing to NSA funding was, in fact, mandatory, perhaps this should have been part of the REU solicitation; we would have appreciated knowing this before taking the time and effort to apply. 

We understand that ICERM has a responsibility to secure funding for programming, but surely there are many ways to go about achieving that goal. We still hope that we can find a way to work together to run an REU in Summer 2024 – however, even if that doesn’t happen, we hope ICERM conceives of its decision to pursue funding for our program from the NSA as a choice, and a choice it could decide not to make. This view of the situation is different from what we took away from your last email: that ICERM’s hands are tied, and that its responsibilities to the law and to its program participants logically and unambiguously force it to work with the NSA to fund our REU program. 

We understand that ICERM is subject to many laws and regulations. Certainly, none of us know firsthand the complexities of running such a large institute. Having said that, we are not asking ICERM to bar all military recruitment on campus, and we suspect ICERM wouldn’t have the authority or the capacity to do this anyway. At least in our understanding, the Solomon Amendment does not force ICERM to seek out funding from military agencies in all of its programming, correct? Surely, there are many grants that ICERM chooses to apply for, and many grants it chooses not to apply for.

Therefore, this response feels like ICERM is framing a choice as a requirement. After consulting with several mathematicians occupying high positions at institutes of a similar size and stature to ICERM, we believe that there are other options for securing the funding the NSA would provide. But if ICERM decides that it absolutely must secure NSA funding for its Summer@ICERM program, then you must rescind your approval of our proposal. We are not withdrawing. We chose to apply to Summer@ICERM because we know from experience that we can run a wonderful, fulfilling, and excellent program there. It is simply that our proposal – which aims to center the experiences of students and mathematicians from groups historically excluded from academic mathematics – would fail on its own terms if, while carrying it out, we were also inadvertently bolstering the reputation of an agency complicit in the criminalization of the communities of those very same students. Therefore, if ICERM chooses the NSA here, it must also choose to reject our proposal.

We want to be 100% clear: we are not asking ICERM to align with or support the Just Mathematics Collective’s aims and ethical principles. We are also not asking ICERM to stop pursuing NSA funding for its other programming. We are merely arguing that if our program is partially funded by the NSA, it will be a weak and ineffectual program, as we would not be in a position to facilitate discussions exploring equity and justice in mathematics with our full hearts and minds. 

Members of our organizing team hold identities that are marginalized within mathematics – our own lived experiences give us a deep understanding that in most academic spaces, many mathematicians have to sever ties between their personal and professional identities. A central piece of our program would be showing our students that, contrary to how they may feel in a conventional mathematics classroom, there exist spaces where they do not have to leave important parts of their identities, cultures, and histories at the door to do research-level mathematics. This includes the realities of criminalization and over-surveillance they and their families may experience at the hands of agencies like the NSA, and the beliefs, convictions, and commitments that come with such experiences. We hope to convey to our students that their mathematics can be truly grounded in their whole personhood. We cannot in good faith ask our students to embark on this journey with us while not practicing what we preach. So, once again, this is about how we can make our program as strong and impactful as possible. We do not need the politics of ICERM to perfectly align with ours. We have merely suggested several cost-saving ideas, ways to pare down the program if necessary, and possibilities for alternative sources of funding so that we can successfully organize the kind of program that you approved. 

Again, it will be very disappointing if we cannot reach an agreement around this, as we know that our program has the potential to have an incredibly positive impact on us, our graduate student TAs, and our undergraduate participants. Moreover, we do sincerely appreciate the pressures that must come with heading up such a big enterprise, especially one with a reputation for such high quality programming. However, if ICERM is unwilling to seriously consider our other suggestions for cost-cutting or look into alternative funding sources, then ICERM should rescind its offer to us to run the 2024 Summer@ICERM program.  

So, there you have it. The only replies we received after this matched the others in their  brevity and failure to engage with any of our concerns. We were told that ICERM reposted its solicitation, and that was the end of our correspondence. 

We hope the email exchanges made clear that we appreciate the challenges that large math institutes face as they navigate a landscape in which funding is hard to come by. This is why we offered to work closely with ICERM to find a mutually agreeable resolution – even to the tune of doing the legwork to find alternative sources of funding, as well as taking on the lion’s share of labor to apply for other grants. We also pointed out extremely small and simple changes ICERM could make to the way it solicits these sorts of proposals which would help ensure it doesn’t find itself in a similar situation in the future. 

We hope this post moves the needle, even a little bit, towards the direction of no longer treating ethical funding questions as irrelevant, outside the scope of our everyday mathematical lives, or answered before asked. The NSA, the Department of Defense, the Institute for Defense Analysis, and the rest of the military industrial complex have colluded with our political leaders to hold the mathematics community hostage. At the same time as legislatures slash public funding for higher education and basic research, military agencies offer what amounts to a minuscule fraction of their ever-increasing budgets to researchers desperate for support. We’re told by our leaders that the only way we can hope to support historically excluded students and their communities is to collaborate with the very institutions responsible for enforcing their oppression. We need to start demanding more from our community and from the people within it who we’ve chosen to represent our interests.

2 responses to “Show me the money (or at least where it came from)”

  1. Thank you so much for writing this article. I am really glad that you are willing to stand up for what’s right even when it’s a unpopular position. I have faced similar reactions when bringing up my discomfort around military involvement in my field of research. I thought this thread might interest you or other readers of this post:

    At the end of this link there is a description of the sort of military technology that is actively being developed using my field of research. I really don’t want to be a part of that sort of thing, so thanks again for helping to normalize this sort of dissent.

  2. I am curious whether the authors of this article thought about the possibility of finding out in advance whether or not ICERM regularly accepted money from the NSA. Was this the first time ICERM took NSA money? If not, then maybe the authors could have done their due diligence, found out in advance, and then re-routed their application to an institition which did not accept NSA money. It would also be nice to get a full disclosure about whether or not the authors have accepted ICERM money in the past.

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