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Can Mathematics Get Its Act Together?

by Leon Seitelman

The mathematics profession must immediately develop a continuing, coordinated program to demonstrate the importance of mathematics to the general public, funding agencies and policymakers. This awareness campaign should emphasize the profession's contribution to technology and the economy. Raising public consciousness about the importance of mathematics to modern life is a prerequisite for obtaining public support and funding for mathematics projects.

The mathematics profession is in serious trouble. Budgets for mathematics, in both academia and government, are under vigorous attack. The balkanized culture of mathematics has stifled concerted action to garner public support.

If the mathematics profession is to survive and prosper, its public presentation must change. All mathematicians must appreciate their shared professional responsibility to show that public support of mathematics provides real value. We need to develop materials to reach the public with this message.

The Sky Is (or Was) Falling

During the mid-January budget crisis, National Science Foundation Director Neal Lane called attention to the need for action:

"...if you don't take it as one of your professional responsibilities to inform your fellow citizens about the importance of the science and technology enterprise, then...public support isn't going to be there. One thing that has been striking during this year of budget battles and, most recently, the shutdown, is the perceived stony silence of the science and technology community. I can assure you that this perceived lack of concern has not gone unnoticed in Washington."

In short, we are an invisible constituency with no (apparent) redeeming social value. We must take the initiative in educating our fellow citizens about the importance of mathematics, and not just in the context of pending legislation. This article recommends specific action to make this happen.

First Priority: Reach the Public

Academic scholarship is formal, but effective communication with the rest of society requires the mathematics community to provide information to readers and listeners on terms and in language familiar to them. In our textbooks, we may leave the proof to the reader; but in public policy discussions, we must show every step.

We Need to Change

The profession needs a serious attitude adjustment, to gain public support. Non-technical people make policy decisions; we have to give decisionmakers the information they need, on their terms and in their language; if we don't, we won't get their support. We have to understand that we will succeed only if we present information that the average person can easily assimilate, and only enough to establish the importance of our discipline.

We must point to important, understandable applications of mathematics, e.g., recent advances in coding theory that find expression in genetic research or compact disk technology, or that contribute to securing communications on the Internet. We need to show respect to the general public. We must be positive in our approach, demonstrating the vitality and importance of our discipline, but careful to avoid disparaging comparisons with other fields. This will require real work; a slipshod approach would be worse than doing nothing. Unusual effort will be needed, and uncharacteristic tact.

In mathematics, as in every other endeavor, there is no free lunch.

We Must Start a Dialog

The profession needs to establish an ongoing dialog with every Administration and Congress, completely apart from the funding process. We have to show how mathematics contributes to society, and the security and productivity of the country. Otherwise, we'll be treated as just another special interest group, but without a powerful lobbyist.

We need a unifying theme; a suggestion follows.

Mathematics Is Important and Adds Real Value

Mathematics is the language of technology. It is used to formulate, interpret, and solve problems in fields as diverse as engineering, economics, communication, seismology, and ecology. Mathematics provides us with powerful theoretical and computational techniques to advance our understanding of the modern world and societal problems, and to develop and manage the technology industries that are the backbone of our economy.

Mathematics is a living discipline. Some traditional subjects in pure mathematics have been studied for hundreds of years; other topics, developing during the last few decades from the study of industrial issues, have formed a body of applied mathematics closely tied to the understanding of practical problems and basic phenomena. There is remarkable synergy between these seemingly disparate fields of study, and the abstract nature of mathematics supports important applications in an ever-growing number of areas.

Keep the Message Simple

We must build our message on that theme. That message must be unmistakable -- Mathematics Is Vital to the Health and Prosperity of the Nation.

  • Mathematics Is Vital to the National Interest
    Strong mathematical capability on a national scale is essential for industrial and technological leadership.

  • Mathematics Is an Enabler for Other Disciplines
    Virtually all other technology benefits directly from the extension of mathematical knowledge.

  • Mathematical Competence Is a Workplace Necessity
    Mathematical requirements will increase dramatically for occupations in the information age.

Lay out the Realities

It is imperative to explain the benefits that result from mathematics, discuss how its practitioners work, and present the rationale for public support. For example:

Mathematics enriches our knowledge and technology through continuing improvements and unexpected breakthroughs.

Many important advances in technology apply techniques developed in one branch of mathematics to problems from another branch. The interdisciplinary impact of mathematics can be both substantial and unexpected. Appropriate examples are the application of chaos theory to economic modeling and markets, image reconstruction techniques to medicine and seismology, and group theory to nuclear physics.

Investments in mathematics provide a high rate of return.

Although many technical fields rely to an extraordinary extent on analytical or computational techniques, they typically commit only a tiny portion of their resources to the support and advancement of these underlying disciplines. Further, the critical supporting role of mathematics is often completely unknown to the user community. These factors reinforce the inaccurate but popular notion that mathematics has no significant role in modern society.

Budgets for mathematics projects are labor-intensive.

Support for projects in mathematics generally includes relatively modest sums for computing equipment and software, compared to laboratory science fields such as physics and biology. For this reason, the true contribution of mathematics is far greater than its relatively modest funding. But limited capital requirements also mean that budget cuts in mathematics affect personnel more than in other disciplines.

The growth and health of mathematics should be a national priority.

Mathematics has a substantial impact on economic growth and development. Because mathematical knowledge is built steadily on a foundation of previous results, steady progress requires reliable, continuing funding for the mathematical infrastructure.

A Unified Field Theory Is Sensible

The mathematics profession needs to present a unified message; it is but a tiny fraction of the entire scientific endeavor. But each of the three major professional societies is currently planning to produce its own policy statement. If the voices of mathematics compete, they may simply drown each other out.

In this case, academic preoccupation with precision and perfection works against us; professional societies should focus the effort to get the crucial message -- that mathematics is important -- to the general public. It is far better to publish a timely message that is 95% accurate, than to wait for completion of a perfect statement. In policy discussions, time is a critical discriminator.

A Check List for Action

Much of our "publicity" about fields of mathematics and their applications can be taken from the excellent testimony given by our representatives before various Congressional committees. (SIAM Managing Director Jim Crowley's testimony last Summer is an excellent example.) We need to develop public service announcements for radio and television, and to encourage the influential print media to present this kind of information. When mathematics contributes to the understanding of particular social issues (e.g., statistical modeling to develop more accurate census estimates, formulation and interpretation of economic models (inflation, Social Security scenarios, budget models), epidemiology models, ATM security), we need to encourage the media to include this fact in their reporting. Citizens will not know about the contribution of mathematics, if no one tells them.

The reality of the 1990's is that all of our institutions are being examined for relevance and value, with support levels more closely reflecting collective judgment about value obtained for investment. That this requires us to undertake a new role in education and publicity simply bears witness to the fact that mathematicians are, indeed, part of society. And that we have no more of an a priori claim on public resources than any other group.

Ironically, this scenario means that the task of representing the value of mathematics to the general public falls disproportionately to the applications community, regarded by many within the profession as the proverbial black sheep of the family. The transcendent challenge to establishment of a profession-wide position will almost certainly be the forging of a consensus position rooted in an applications perspective. For this reason, the applied mathematics community must take the lead in bridging the cultural chasm with pure mathematics.

A Modest Proposal

Specifically, we should:

  • Endorse the need for a common front for the profession.

  • Issue a statement on science policy endorsed by AMS, MAA, and SIAM. (Invite INFORMS, AMATYC, NCTM, ... to sign on, but write it ourselves.)

  • Collect brief descriptions of applications illustrating the impact of mathematics.

  • Develop straightforward presentations of interesting and productive applications of mathematics, to which the average citizen can relate, for the profession's public outreach.

  • Establish a permanent, joint committee of the three mathematics societies to ensure a continuing professional outreach, and fund it.

The critical first task is development of a united front to strengthen the profession. We won't go anywhere until we all start to pull in the same direction. But when we do, the country will benefit, and so will mathematics...a true "win-win" situation!


The author appreciates the many constructive suggestions offered by Ben Fusaro, Bob Borrelli, Courtney Coleman, and Brent Morris.

This article has been reprinted from the June 1996 issue of SIAM News.


Three years after the initial publication of this article, Seitelman reflects on a visitor's question: "What developments [relative to the need for a unified policy initiative among mathematics institutions and fields] have taken place in the interim [since June 1996], and are mathematics programs at universities still endangered?"

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