Maths suffers falling numbers

November 3, 2000

Australian universities face a critical shortage of mathematicians. In the past five years, more than 25 per cent of the academics in maths departments have quit, and few, if any, new appointments have been made.

A report on the future of the mathematical sciences says that in the past five years, more than 100 of the nation's top mathematicians and new researchers have left Australia to work abroad. The result has been fewer applications for research grants, difficulties in making appointments in key areas and the dropping of degrees majoring in mathematics or statistics by some universities.

"There is something seriously amiss in a country where many of its best teachers and researchers in disciplines as important as the mathematical sciences are demoralised, disillusioned and depressed," the report says. "No discipline will grow and prosper with the kind of loss of intellectual capital represented by the brain drain documented here."

In a study commissioned by the Federation of Australian Scientific and Technological Societies, Jan Thomas, the executive officer of the Australian Mathematical Society, investigated the state of mathematics teaching and research in universities, its status in schools, and the number of students undertaking advanced mathematics in their final years.

Her report paints a picture of a discipline in crisis. She found that staff shortages in university maths departments are serious and the departments themselves have become marginalised.

Ms Thomas says that the number of final-year school students studying maths has been falling for the past decade, and that few maths graduates are choosing to teach at a time when experienced teachers are retiring.

The report says Australia needs a long-term, coordinated strategy to address the "multi-faceted weaknesses now inherent across the discipline". It lists the priority areas as:

  • Tackling the problems in university mathematics by reversing excessive staff and student losses
  • Increasing the number of students taking advanced mathematics in universities and schools
  • Ensuring students are taught maths by teachers with appropriate qualifications and skills.

The report recommends a national campaign to promote awareness of the benefits of continuing mathematical studies at the highest levels. It also calls for more incentives to attract mathematics graduates into teaching, and for secondary teachers to be given study leave to develop appropriate mathematical knowledge and skills.

In universities, special attention should be paid to the mathematical sciences as the worldwide demand for top mathematicians far outstrips the supply. More support is needed for research and teaching, and a national centre, with adjunct state centres, should be set up along the lines of the Canadian Fields Institute.

"It has become all too common for universities to announce major new initiatives in biological and information technologies at the same time as they are losing their best statisticians and mathematicians," Ms Thomas says.

"This seems to relate to some misunderstanding of the role of mathematics and beliefs that being computer 'literate' somehow does away with the need for mathematics."

No discipline can afford the brain drain experienced by Australia's mathematical sciences and remain vibrant, creative and innovative, she says.

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