Guest Editorial-09 April 2008
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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 error-correcting 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 well-rounded 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 high-tech 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 long-term 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 high-quality 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 top-notch 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 sub-discipline), 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 enrollment-stream classes (in particular, all non-service 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 full-time 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 full-time 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 short-term financial arithmetic of the proposal, the long-term 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 ICE-EM 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 long-term 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 for-profit corporation that issues degrees based purely on short-term fluctuations in market forces, but is an institution that also serves the long-term 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 on-line petition at

http://terrytao.wordpress.com/about/petition-to-support-maths-statistics-and-computing-at-usq/

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/support-usq-maths/

to learn more about our campaign.
 
Terence Tao
Professor of Mathematics,
University of California, Los Angeles