I was reading this excellent paper by Alexander Berkovich and Will Jagy.

And at the very bottom of the very first page it says:

The first author was supported in part by NSA grant H98230-09-1-0051.

(The NSA is the US National Security Agency.)

What does this mean? What does a security agency have to do with distributing funds?

  • 4
    I find this question very unclear. I can't tell what you are asking. It seems to me it is clear what that sentence means. What is the nature of your confusion? Please edit the question to include what you are confused about. Please don't just leave clarifications in the comment thread; edit your question. Comments exist only to help you improve your question.
    – D.W.
    Sep 13, 2014 at 22:33
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    Because security is a research discipline.
    – JeffE
    Sep 14, 2014 at 17:25
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    It should go without saying that just because they received NSA funding doesn't mean they are spies. Just as I can receive WWF funding without becoming a panda.
    – RoboKaren
    Sep 14, 2014 at 23:34

2 Answers 2


Let me just add a bit more context as a pure mathematician previously funded by the NSA, and in particular, respond to the question "What does a security agency has to do with distributing funds?" The first point is, they actually farm out most of the decision making to the American Mathematical Society (as described here). That still raises the question of why policy makers think routing the money through the NSA makes sense in the first place. The cynic in me points out that though lots of this research could easily be funded through civilian agencies (for example, NSF), it's a lot easier to pass "defense spending" through congress, and you get fewer questions from ignorant congressmen who like to make fun of grants based on their titles.

On the other hand, that still requires somebody in the NSA thinking that requesting this funding is worthwhile. My reading (this is not based on any detailed knowledge of policy makers' thoughts, just general supposition) is this: the NSA is the largest employer of mathematicians in the world, much larger than any university or scholarly society. You would get an even more impressive number if you included other branches of the US Department of Defense, and contractors like IDA. They thus have a vested interest in making sure more Americans get advanced mathematical training (a lot of their jobs are in practice only open to US citizens, due to security clearances), and keep in mind the possibility of working for the NSA.

Giving grants to mathematicians is probably an inefficient method for this (some of the money goes to graduate students directly as salary or travel funding, some to universities as overhead, encouraging them to keep professors on their staff and run graduate programs), but it's also very cheap in the grand scheme of things. I'm sure they also do occasionally benefit from the mathematical results (while they have a reasonably broad program, they don't give grants in all areas of math).

There's also tons of other grants coming from the DOD: DARPA, the Army, Navy and Air Force all have their own research offices, and the DOD has its own graduate fellowship program. In all cases, some of the research is directly connected to military needs, but quite a bit is just predicated on the idea that a strong a well-trained pool of scientists can be very important for national defense. I think ultimately, this grew out the experience of World War II (and the Cold War) where this was undisputedly the case.


As noted, the NSA is the US National Security Agency. This department issues federal grants in the areas of information security, foreign language training for Americans, and mathematical sciences (algebra, discrete mathematics, number theory, probability and statistics). These grants are highly sought after,and like all federal grants, require rigorous preparation. The authors of the paper which you read were successful applicants for a grant from the NSA.

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