Mathematicians: refuse to work for the NSA!

I would go one further than the person who suggested that mathematicians are apolitical, and suggest that some are even politically aligned with the surveillance state. There will always be people stoked on working for the NSA, even if not the most talented. NSA also has deep pockets, and many people have their price.

So why not focus on convincing the public that what the NSA does is generally bad, work hard on explaining the math behind it to lay people? Empowering the public and stirring up their outrage seems like it would be more productive in the long run.

It’s noble, but naive to think that every mathematically talented person could be convinced to turn their back on the NSA. They also form a small fraction of the general population. I’m not saying don’t expend the effort, but remember that education and outreach are equally if not more important.

The NSA research is used to spy, hunt, and kill. If the NSF tried to fund research into a humane lethal injection cocktail or the NEH offered grants to those who perfect political propaganda, then, sure, why not oppose that, too?

He’s trying to convince his colleagues to stop hurting other people, or, if they won’t, make it professionally debilitating to continue. That’s the definition of freedom of association.

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Anyone happen to know the origin of the “On With The Strike On To Victory” photo?

Well it’s not like your grant would be for “creating a surveillance state”. At least in the university setting you’d be researching something like cluster detection on graphs etc and there are plenty of useful applications of such research.

At what point are you allowed to ostracise people for their immoral career choices then? As a society we ostracise people for all sorts of moral corruptness, and indeed that includes morally corrupt career choices. In most cases its the law that dictates this, and we punish them through the courts, unfortunately on this matter the NSA are in bed with the law makers; so we can’t use that option.

If it is not a matter of when we should be allowed to ostracise individuals for moral corruptness perhaps its the how that you have a problem with? Care to offer any other suggestions that fit better with to your beliefs on freedom of association?


OK, then back to the other example. Do you think academic physicists studying explosives should be accepting grant money from weapons manufacturers?

The best part of this post is that one can replace the word “mathematicians” with pretty much any other noun, and it’s still equally valid! My preferred choice is: “Pomeranians”.

Incidentally, the academic job market for mathematicians has been pretty bad this year (and last year and probably will be next year too), so many graduating PhD students have to choose between industry jobs and unemployment. That makes the question “to NSA or not to NSA” significantly more relevant.

According to Cornell’s Kheel Center for Labor-Management Documentation and Archives, it’s the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union in 1958, possibly in Madison Square Garden:

ILGWU leaders address a crowded hall [Madison Square Garden?].


Right thinking will be rewarded. Wrong thinking will be punished.

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“National mathematical societies can stop publishing the agencies’ job adverts, refuse their money, or even expel members who work for agencies of mass surveillance.

Really ? Perhaps the author should produce a list of organisations and companies he thinks it is okay for mathematicians to work for. What if the Royal College of Obstetricians were to decide to exclude doctors who work for family planning groups, or the Society of Biology were to decide to exclude anyone who worked at the Oxford Biomedical Sciences facility?

They can always get a mathemagics job with the NRA or Climate Change Deniers…


Right thinking will be rewarded. Wrong thinking will be punished.

Supporting human rights is being encouraged. Attacking human rights is being resisted.

Get it?


Next, we’ll be saying that doctors shouldn’t assist with torture.

That would be incredibly intolerant. /s


I’m not really trying to get involved in that discussion. My point was just in reply to the following:

“I can’t think of a morally legitimate reason for creating a surveillance state.”

The grants involved are often for more basic science questions that have broad applicability. For example NSA is interested in analysis the meta data it has to predict who may be funneling funds to a terrorist cell; the type of statistical learning tools it needs can for example be used for data mining genomic data.

Grated I’m just a post-doc so I don’t have that much experience with the funding side of things yet but I think math is actually a little less cut-throat than a lot of the other departments simply because the overhead is so low. You can fund a guy for 50k, which is basically just office supplies or pipets or something in a wet lab. If after the NSA stuff came out a mathematics researcher decided to no longer apply for defense grants but apply for a few more NSF grants I don’t think the university higher ups would care that much. Besides if you have tenure the idea is that you’re supposed to have academic freedom. You could just say your interests have shifted and NSF grants are now more appropriate to the direction you want to take your research.

I guess the hardest part of the decision is that a lot of the time people with a lot of students have others depending on their ability to pull in grants. Missing a funding opportunity might not have a huge effect on the lifestyle of a tenured faculty member, but it may very well have a gigantic effect on the lives of his/her students.

This mathematician said no to them a while back and became a great photo-artist

citing a guy killed for having a minority opinion in support of attacking a minority opinion. you are dividing by zero my son.

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Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., was hounded throughout his political career by the FBI, an out-of-control national security agency. Tom Leinster is calling for professional associations of mathematicians to shun mathematicians who choose to work for out-of-control national security agencies.


I have to say I like your version.