Opinion06 April 2009 



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 cashstrapped
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 preschool 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 overachievement
from preschool 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 averagesmart and our
justplainsmart kids as well.
Peter Hall is Professor of Statistics at the University of
Melbourne.