Leader: A subject's plus signs

June 11, 2004

This week's report on the health of UK mathematics is a success story that other sciences must envy (page 9). There may be no spectacular shows to compare with Venus crossing the face of the sun, but important research is going on in most fields. Areas that are less healthy may not matter, and those that do matter will probably be reinforced by new money. Yet some solid planning will be needed if mathematics in the UK is to stay level with international competition. Jobs for mathematicians are so plentiful that only the minority who are wedded to research will ignore the potential for a more lucrative career outside academe. Organisations from the National Health Service to IT companies employ mathematicians in increasing numbers. This is good for the UK and for the subject. But low pay for maths academics could lead to a paradoxical position in which university departments are staffed by the least capable mathematicians, not the best.

The effects would soon become apparent, in research and teaching.

However, the importance of maths and its low cost base mean that a solution to these problems ought to be attainable. The Teacher Training Agency has found that the average age of trainee maths teachers is over 30. This suggests that the attractions of a career as an industrial mathematician may be overstated. University maths departments are far from being in crisis. They recruit staff from across Europe and beyond, who find the UK a benign setting for their research despite their complaints that the students are less well informed than of old. The real lesson of the international survey is that this central discipline in intellectual and scientific life is unlikely to stay healthy unless careers, funding and the overall scholarly climate are right both for maths and for other subjects.

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