Positive numbers 1

June 27, 2003

Gordon Graham ("Society will never survive on bread and circuses alone", THES , June 20) defends pure mathematics as stimulating and maintaining society's intellectual life.

But I suspect that most mathematicians would rather argue that mathematics pursued out of intellectual curiosity is the ultimate form of blue-skies research. Often, a result proved or technique developed generations ago is the key to a new application. That is not why mathematicians do it, simply why they have no need to apologise for being paid to do it.

Mathematics also provides an example of how and why market forces can fail in higher education. As the Roberts report in 2002 showed, maths graduates come out very well in salary comparisons because of competing demand from the financial and research-and-development manufacturing sectors for their logical thinking and modelling skills. Yet the demand for university places in maths and the physical sciences has fallen due, almost certainly, to the dire national shortage of mathematics teachers. This in turn is leading to a concentration of mathematics provision within universities, which is likely to make matters worse.

It seems that paying maths graduates higher salaries in the financial sector has no more created demand from students than bigger fishing quotas in the North Sea would restore the lost fishing stock.

John Lane
Department of mathematics
University of Wales, Aberystwyth

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