


Professor Terence Tao: Mathematics in Today's World 

Prompted by the imminent elimination of 12 positions in mathematics, statistics and computing from a current faculty of 27 at Australia's University of Southern Queensland in Toowoomba, Fields Medallist Terry Tao has contributed the following Guest Editorial.
Professor Tao did his undergraduate course at Flinders University, South Australia, obtained a Ph.D. at Princeton University and is currently Professor of Mathematics at the University of California, Los Angeles.
In
today's modern world, mathematics and its sister sciences play a more vital role
than ever before. For instance, many of the technologies we now take for
granted, from the encryption that allows us to securely conduct financial
transactions through ATMs and online, to the errorcorrecting codes that allow
us to flawlessly play CDs, send emails, and talk on cell phones even in
imperfect environments, to the algorithms that let internet search engines
deliver the pages that we are most looking for, are powered by deep advances in
mathematics, science, technology, and engineering. (As just one case in point,
the two founders of Google, and designers of their famous search algorithm, hold
advanced degrees in mathematics and computer science, and Google continues to
recruit heavily among recent Ph.D. graduates in mathematics and related
sciences.) The technologies of the future, for instance with regards to gene
sequencing, climate change, or new energy technologies, will rely on mathematics
even more. If Australia is to become competitive in these areas and create new
technologies rather than merely use existing ones, it will need large numbers of
workers who are not only trained in the technical aspects of their field, but
have the ability to adapt and refine their skills to handle these new challenges
and opportunities. A deep and wellrounded understanding of mathematics (and
perhaps more importantly, mathematical thinking) is one of the prerequisites for
such an ability.
But mathematics is not only important to the hightech sectors of economy, and
to the highly skilled workers in that sector; basic mathematics literacy is a
fundamentally valuable skill for anyone to have, regardless of profession. For
instance, a basic understanding of the mathematical concept of compound interest
can help one avoid unwise decisions with regard to credit card or mortgage debt;
a basic understanding of probability can help prevent one
from gambling or investing
foolishly; and a basic understanding of statistics can help filter out the good
data from the bad when researching a variety of topics, from learning about a
rare medical disease to deciding what brand of car to buy. While high schools
can give students a taste of the empowerment that the ability to reason
logically and mathematically gives, it is only through a quality undergraduate
mathematics education (and beyond) that one can truly develop these valuable
longterm skills. In many ways, these skills are the most valuable asset that
students can take away from a maths education; a B.Sc. in mathematics, or any
other discipline which relies on mathematics, is so much more than just a bunch
of formulae and a certificate.
The importance of delivering highquality education in mathematics and the
sciences is widely understood at many levels in Australia. For instance, on 14
Feb 2008, Senator Kim Carr, minister for Innovation, Industry, Science, and Research, addressing the Australian Academy of Science, said: "A nation that
cannot turn out topnotch mathematicians and statisticians is a nation in deep
trouble. Unless we turn around the trends that have bedevilled this discipline
over the last decade or so – in schools, in universities and in research – we
will not be able to meet our needs for people with a sound knowledge of
mathematics that they can put to use across the economy and across all fields of
knowledge."
All of the institutions involved in Australian mathematics education  from
schools to universities, from departments to administration, and from societies
to state and federal agencies  have their responsibilities and roles to play in
this vitally important effort. And, to a large extent, these institutions do
understand these duties and obligations, and execute them to the best of their
efforts.
It is because of this that the recent actions of the administration at the
University of Southern Queensland (and, to a lesser extent, the actions by some
other university administrations with similar views) are particularly shocking
and distressing. On 17 March, USQ administrators announced a proposal to
radically restructure their programs, courses, and staff to reduce budgetary
spending by approximately $1.5 million a year in the Faculty of Sciences, as
part of their "Realising Our Potential" initiative. On the staff side, almost
the entire burden of these cuts (15 staff reductions in all) in this Faculty is
to be borne by the Department of Mathematics and Computing (which also includes
statistics as a subdiscipline), for which 12 staff positions are to be cut,
from a present level of 27; in mathematics and statistics, 14 positions are to
be cut to 6. The majors in mathematics, statistics, physics, and chemistry are
to be discontinued, and all low enrollmentstream classes (in particular, all
nonservice courses) in mathematics are to be phased out, including the
postgraduate offer.
In the accompanying rationale by Dean Janet Verbyla of the Faculty of Sciences,
it was asserted that the staff reductions were in no way related to the
performance or quality of staff; instead, these cuts were purely in response to
"financial exigencies" and "student demand". However, the internal financial
health of the mathematics and computing department at USQ is in fact completely
sound. The Mathematics and Statistics students majors enrolling at USQ have been
holding steady at more than 20 EFTSL (equivalent fulltime student loads) a
year; together with the recent increase of $2700 per EFTSL for maths and
sciences from the federal government, and together with the over 400 EFTSL that
the department teaches in service classes, this brings in over $5.5 million a
year for USQ from mathematics and statistics, which according to standard USQ
funding models, should correspond to about $1.8 million passed on to fund maths
and statistics academics, which roughly corresponds to 17 fulltime staff, as
opposed to the 6 that is currently being proposed. (For comparison, other
programs or disciplines with closer to 10 annual EFTSL enrollments have been
designated as healthy in this rationale, and have significantly smaller staff
cuts, or even staff increases in some cases.) From these numbers, one is forced
to conclude that the income stream of mathematics and sciences is being
massively diverted to support other priorities of the administration.
But setting aside the shortterm financial arithmetic of the proposal, the
longterm damage it would inflict to what has been, even in the face of previous
cutbacks, viable and respected mathematics and statistics disciplines, will be
severe and irreversible. For instance, with these staff cuts and the reduction
to service teaching only, the department would have no choice but to scrap its
planned joint distance education program with the University of New England, as
well as its existing joint statistics classes, and to discontinue participation
in the ICEEM access grid room network for offering joint honours courses. UNE
is also struggling with its own budgetary issues, and the collateral damage from
the cuts at USQ could lead to a collapse in the ability to teach higher
mathematics at all in the region.
The proposal intends to reprofile and reassess the success or failure of its
restructuring efforts by 2009, but it would be far too late then, even with the
most strenuous of efforts from all parties, to restore the department to its
current strength and level of quality without decades of painstaking rebuilding.
Astonishingly, no assessment of such longterm effects, beyond the current
fiscal year, has been considered in the proposal and its rationale. There is
indeed a strong possibility that, after taking into account future declines in
maths and science enrollments that will inevitably follow as a consequence of
these cuts, that the university will in fact lose more money than it saves over
the long term.
There are other troubling signs concerning the level of diligence and due
process behind the USQ proposal. In a 27 March interview with ABC Radio, the USQ
Deputy Vice Chancellor for Scholarship, Graham Baker, asserted that the students
of USQ were their most important stakeholders in this proposal, and would be
consulted, but as reported in that interview and elsewhere, the majority of USQ
students had no information beyond rumours as to the proposals, and were also
not notified when the consultation deadline was recently extended from 9 April
to 14 April. Indeed it is difficult to find any information on these proposals
from official sources. One would have thought that as full and frank a
discussion with all parties involved would be desirable before undertaking such a
drastic and irreversible restructuring effort.
With regard to the role of a university to attract students to enroll in key areas of public importance, such as maths and sciences, Deputy
Vice Chancellor Baker in the above interview made the remarkable assertion that
the university had in fact very little responsibility in this matter, instead
suggesting that it was entirely up to the "maths lobby" and funding agencies to
achieve this task, even in the face of proposed deep cuts in these schools by
USQ. I find this abdication of responsibility wholly counter to the very concept
of a public university  it is not simply a forprofit corporation that issues
degrees based purely on shortterm fluctuations in market forces, but is an
institution that also serves the longterm public interest (and receives
substantial public funding because of this).
In response to this situation, I and many of my colleagues in the Australian
mathematical community, both in Australia and abroad, have initiated a vigorous
effort, at many levels, to persuade the administration to reconsider these
proposals. Through our online petition at
http://terrytao.wordpress.com/about/petitiontosupportmathsstatisticsandcomputingatusq/
we have, in the space of three or four days, already attracted close to 400
signatures of support, including many prominent mathematicians, scientists,
officials, and industry representatives both from Australia and internationally,
not to mention large numbers of students and other supporters of maths and the
sciences. Through efforts such as that petition, and this editorial, we are
trying to raise awareness of these issues, which in fact go far beyond the
immediate and urgent matter of the USQ plan, and extend to cover the longer term
health of education and research in Australia in mathematics and the sciences. I
sincerely ask for your support, and to visit our web page at
http://terrytao.wordpress.com/supportusqmaths/
to learn more about our campaign.
Terence Tao
Professor of Mathematics,
University of California, Los Angeles