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Researchers should follow their hearts, not fashion - 2014 Fields Medal winner Prof. Martin Hairer

Progress comes when an idea remains at the back of your mind, according to Professor Martin Hairer, an ERC grantee and former award winner at the EU Contest for Young Scientists.
Progress comes when an idea remains at the back of your mind, according to Professor Martin Hairer, an ERC grantee and former award winner at the EU Contest for Young Scientists.

Studying an area of interest rather than chasing fashionable subjects is the best route to success, according to ERC grantee Professor Martin Hairer, winner of the 2014 Fields Medal, the world’s foremost maths prize, for his work on random systems.

The Fields Medal is the highest accolade a mathematician can receive. As someone looking back from a high point in his career, what advice would you give to a young mathematician who was just starting out?

‘The first thing they should honestly asses is what are the things that they like to do. I think they should really work on the things that they actually like and enjoy, and they shouldn’t try to just pick a subject because they have the impression that it is fashionable and that if it is fashionable they might be able to win a big prize.

‘At the end of the day there is a much greater chance that they will make some real progress if they think about something that is interesting to them. If you are generally interested in a problem then you always have it at the back of your mind, and that is the way you make progress on it. Whereas, if you work on it because you think you should work on a fashionable problem you wouldn’t actually always keep it at the back of your mind. Then it’s much less likely that you would make genuine progress on it.’

You are the first Austrian to win the Fields Medal. Did you expect to win?

'Not really. I knew that ... people were talking about me, but there were also quite a few other people on the radar. So no, I certainly didn’t think that it was something that would happen to me.'

What difference will winning make to you?

‘There is one obvious difference, which is that you are much more in the spotlight so you have to be more careful about what you say. Whether you like it or not, you become a sort of spokesman or ambassador for the maths community. There’s not much getting around that, but at the end of the day I’ll just continue doing my research.’

As spokesman for the maths community, is there anything you would like to say?

‘There are some areas of applied mathematics where people need substantial funding, however in most posts of pure mathematics people don’t actually need too much. It seems to be much better for the community as a whole if there is a large base that has access to some sort of small but steady amount of funding that they can draw on to continue maintaining their collaborations. Going to workshops and being active in research requires some level of funding which is very low but not zero.

‘If you are generally interested in a problem then you always have it at the back of your mind, and that is the way you make progress on it.’

Professor Martin Hairer, University of Warwick, UK

‘At the level of the national funding agencies I’m thinking of the Economic and Social Research Council in the UK particularly. It would really make sense for them to have some mechanism with a very low administrative overhead where people could apply for some baseline funding.’

How easy would it be to achieve this?

‘The Simons Foundation is running something similar in the US. They have a scheme where you can apply for these relatively small amounts of money. It is peer-reviewed in a way that makes it reasonably low-effort for the community as a whole. If you manage to get some large grant then you are automatically disqualified as it’s assumed that you can pay for your expenses from the large grant.’

What is your opinion on funding dispersed at the EU level?

‘Certainly one way it could better serve the research community would be to reduce the administrative overheads which seem relatively heavy for the European grants. But, apart from that, my impression is that at the European level they are doing a pretty good job with the ERC. Certainly in the selection of grantees it seems to be well designed.’

In 1991 you won a COMETT Award for an electonics project at the EU Contest for Young Scientists. What was it like?

‘I enjoyed the contact with the other participants a lot. It was a bit like some kind of holiday camp where you could talk to really interesting people. It gave me a glimpse into what it would be like to be a professional researcher.’

Professor Martin Hairer

Austrian-born Professor Martin Hairer, who is based at the University of Warwick, in the UK, works in a field of random systems called stochastic analysis.

He has developed a theory to accurately characterise random systems that change as time passes, for example the breakdown of a magnetic field as a magnet is heated up.

Prof. Hairer has won a Consolidator Grant from the European Research Council to refine his theory and work out how it can be applied to different physical systems.

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