The Ethics Of Mathematicians

Amid controversy about the NSA’s surveillance program, Edward Frenkel urges his fellow mathematicians to consider the political uses – and abuses – of their work:

I think it’s very similar to the dilemma that physicists faced when they realized the power of the nuclear bomb. We are talking about a group of physicists who were just trying to understand the structure of the universe, the structure of matter, and inadvertently discovered this incredible power. I would not tell any scientist to stop his or her research because it might have some possible evil applications. But once you discover that it does have these applications, I think it’s also your responsibility to do whatever you can to prevent the discovery from being used for evil purposes. … Mathematical power is not the power of a bomb. You cannot see its effect as immediately as Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But a formula can be just as powerful in terms of controlling our lives. It can alter the course of history.

Ann Finkbeiner says notably few mathematicians have spoken out against NSA surveillance:

NSA-supported mathematicians and computer scientists have remained mostly quiet, to the growing frustration of others in similar fields. “Most have never met a funding source they do not like,” says Phillip Rogaway, a computer scientist at the University of California, Davis, who has sworn not to accept NSA funding and is critical of other researchers’ silence. “And most of us have little sense of social responsibility.”

Mathematicians and the NSA are certainly interdependent. The agency declares that it is the United States’ largest maths employer, and Samuel Rankin, director of the Washington DC office of the American Mathematical Society, estimates that the agency hires 30 to 40 mathematicians every year. The NSA routinely holds job fairs on university campuses, and academic researchers can work at the agency on sabbaticals. In 2013, the agency’s mathematical sciences program offered more than $3.3 million in research grants.