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Can Mathematics Get Its Act Together? Further Reflection

by Leon Seitelman

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?

Unfortunately, I have seen virtually no interest within the profession to address the problems that I discussed in the SIAM News article more than three years ago. I received a few e-mails -- all favorable -- right after "Can Mathematics Get Its Act Together?" appeared. I told all of the respondents to write letters to the editor of SIAM News; none did (or at least, none were published). A subsequent piece in the October 1996 AMS Notices, "Publicize or perish," elicited a similar critical review.

In my judgment, the balkanization of the profession continues unabated, and mathematics budgets are still under attack at all levels. Congressional earmarking of an increasing share of the funding that was previously determined exclusively by peer review has unfortunately politicized some of the resources for mathematics, which were never that generous even in the "salad days" of science. (Note: The federal budget surplus may ultimately alleviate some of the pressure on mathematics-related funding.) The suggestion that we should raise public awareness about the importance of mathematics to modern life, as a prerequisite to obtaining public support and funding for mathematics projects, was apparently a non-starter; unfortunately, this suggestion was the single most important action item. The sole bright spot is the record of somewhat greater contact with the Congress, with a number of reportedly informative meetings with influential Representatives and Senators, especially around Math Awareness Day. (Whether this contact will be ongoing, rather than a one-time-only phenomenon, remains to be seen.)

By and large, however, the professional community has not made a strong case for (greater) public support of mathematics. Public outreach is nonexistent, and this failure has its consequences. The recent government sale of part of the communications spectrum, where 100% of the proceeds went to funding NIH projects, shows that support for those fields that prove their value to the public can in fact be considerable.

Professional mathematicians play a minor role in the dialog on mathematics education issues, ceding the playing field to the educators, who have consistently shown far more interest in issues of pedagogy rather than content, and little interest in real applications. The chasm between disciplines in mathematics is minuscule compared to the gulf between mathematics and mathematics education in many places.

In the meantime, many mathematics departments have displayed a disturbing inability or unwillingness to work with our client disciplines (engineering, science, economics, etc.) to provide the service courses that those departments feel they need. This is institutional suicide (a la Rochester), since those "customers" will inevitably teach their own "mathematics preparation" courses, marginalizing the mathematics department institutional contribution, removing an important revenue stream from mathematics department classes, and threatening the fiscal health and viability of the mathematics department, and some of its faculty positions (certainly, any replacement positions) as well.

So the short answer to your question is, "I see little change, if any, within the profession." Given the circumstances, this represents a large step backward.

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