Opinion-06 April 2009


Peter Hall:  Mathematics, Learning and Survival


Peter Hall is developing classification tools for use with very small samples of very large vectors, arising in contexts ranging from genomics to the detection of covert signals.

    The renowned quality control expert and American statistician W. Edwards Deming is reputed to have said, when frustrated by the slowness of others to appreciate that learning new skills was essential for the future, that "Learning isn't compulsory, but neither is survival". This remark came quickly to mind when I thought of the education challenges we face in Australia, on reading of the latest round of proposals for US National Science Foundation mathematics institutes (Science 323, p. 1548).

Australian mathematical scientists are still battling to convince federal politicians that Commonwealth funding awarded to universities for teaching mathematics should actually be spent on that task, rather than siphoned off for quite different purposes. The Australian Mathematical Sciences Institute, which is supported precariously from the budgets of cash-strapped university departments around the country, is struggling to find the money it needs just to survive. It is presently directorless, and seeks enough continuity to be able to appoint, and pay, a director over the next few years.

By way of contrast, the NSF currently funds seven mathematics research centres in the US --- the older IAS (the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton), MSRI (Mathematical Sciences Research Institute), the IMA (Institute for Mathematics and its Applications), and IPAM (Institute For Pure and Applied Mathematics); and three newer centres announced in mid 2002: the MBI (Mathematical Biosciences Institute), SAMSI (Statistical and Applied Mathematical Sciences Institute), and AIM (the American Institute of Mathematics). The fact that the missions of these centres cover a wide variety of fields of the mathematical sciences, encompassing pure mathematics, applied mathematics, statistics, and specific areas of application, reflects the critical role that the mathematical sciences play across science, technology and culture today, and the leadership that they will provide in the future.

A year ago the NSF issued a request for proposals for up to six centres. Four of these opportunities might reasonably be expected to go to the four centres whose funding would otherwise end in 2010: MSRI, the IMA, IPAM and the MBI. The other two centres (assuming that the maximum number is supported) might respond to new initiatives in the mathematical sciences, such as the "mathematical institute devoted to the identification and development of mathematical talent" proposed by Nevada Democratic Senator Harry Reid.

Reid, who has served two terms in the US House of Representatives and two in the Senate, is a strong advocate of improving literacy and mathematics competency among children, for example those of pre-school age. He is a supporter of the US Early Education Act of 2009, which aims to "establish a program to help states expand the education system to include at least one year of early education preceding the year a child enters kindergarten."

Reid also introduced the "America COMPETES" Act, which seeks to improve education and research in mathematics and science. Against this background it comes as no surprise to learn that he backs a mathematics initiative that "is aimed at serving supersmart children whose needs aren't being met in school," to quote the
Science article.

Of course, Australia's own "supersmart children" have gone on to achieve great things in mathematics. Terry Tao immediately comes to mind; Terry quickly saw that the demise of mathematics at the University of Southern Queensland would impact negatively on Toowoomba's own ten year old mathematics prodigy, Adam Walsh. The 27 year old mathematician Akshay Venkatesh, educated in Western Australia and now at Stanford after a PhD at Princeton, is another of our young, extraordinarily talented superstars.

Terry and Akshay will almost certainly make their careers outside Australia, in an environment of support for science which sustains over-achievement from pre-school to university and beyond. In Australia it is much more challenging to convince lawmakers of the need for funding mathematics. The enrollments of young Australians in both intermediate and advanced school mathematics continues to decline; the proportion of school students in both programs has fallen steadily over the last dozen years, from 27% to 21% and 14% to 10%, respectively. The number of mathematics majors at Australian universities has dropped by 14% during the last six years. We're neglecting not just our supersmart children, but our average-smart and our just-plain-smart kids as well.

Peter Hall is Professor of Statistics at the University of Melbourne.