The report on the Review of the National Innovation System can be found on the website of the Department of Innovation, Industry, Science and Research.
The principal author, Prof. Rubinstein, is a Professor of Mathematics at the University of Melbourne and Chair of the National Committee for the Mathematical Sciences. A shorter version of this submission, and a preliminary submission to the Higher Education Review, has been circulated to the Australian Council of Heads of Mathematical Sciences (ACHMS). Their comments and suggestions have been taken into account in preparing this submission.
The submission reflects the broad interests of the mathematical sciences community and is consistent with the findings and recommendations of the National Strategic Review of Mathematical Sciences Research in Australia titled: Mathematics and Statistics: Critical Skills for Australia’s Future. While it supports the interests of Australian mathematical scientists, there is considerable evidence that others share these.
Innovation = creating value through doing something in a novel way
Innovating = creative problem solving
The mathematical sciences are fundamental tools of innovation but arguing their case is not necessarily easy. Mathematics and statistics can create value when applied in ways that have been around for centuries. Similarly creative problem solving may use mathematical tools that are not new. However, there has also been a huge expansion in new mathematics and statistics and their application in recent years. It is essential that the old and new mathematical tools are available to innovators across Australia—in business, industry, science, economics, technology and the social sciences. Without these fundamental tools many opportunities to innovate will be lost.
The National Strategic Review of Mathematical Sciences Research in Australia titled: Mathematics and Statistics: Critical Skills for Australia’s Future completed in 2006 documented the critical state of mathematical sciences in Australia. The Review went beyond research and its findings and recommendations provide a template for improvement from school mathematics to advanced level research.
The mathematical sciences community is heartened by government recognition that there is a serious national problem:
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 (Hon. Senator Kim Carr).
However, at the time of this submission the mathematical sciences in Australia continue to contract. The new money for mathematics and statistics teaching that was included in the May 2007 budget has been passed on to mathematical sciences departments in only a minority of universities.
More recently, proposed cuts to mathematics and statistics at the University of Southern Queensland have led to an international campaign. Comments on the web site such as: “As an outsider, the choice facing the University of Southern Queensland is more far-reaching than just sheer economics. Does it want to remain a proper university by imparting fundamentals of knowledge to its undergraduates? No self-respecting university can kill off its mathematics department” posted by Prof. Howell Tong of the London School of Economics, do little to enhance the reputation of Australian universities internationally. Nor do they encourage applications from other nations to positions in Australia that could address a narrowing mathematical sciences research base identified in the Review.
This submission is premised on the following points:
These points are discussed below.
The importance of mathematical methods is growing fast in a vast array of areas, from computing to economics to urban planning to environment protection, and in most countries in the world we experience a rapidly increasing demand for the technical, yet universal, skills that mathematical education provides.
These skills are not confined to science and technology. Australian finance, business, science, industry, human services and government can only thrive when they effectively exploit information available within their organisations, nationally and globally. Technology of the 21st century accumulates or interprets the vast majority of information quantitatively. Therefore, Australia needs strongly quantitatively literate people—mathematicians and statisticians—to deliver innovation management and development throughout all social endeavours.
Data analysis, risk analysis, signal processing and optimisation are essential mathematical tools in a competitive technological nation. Medical imaging, epidemiology, bioinformatics and genomics, information technology and engineering, physical sciences, financial analysis, environmental management and actuarial studies are all areas requiring high levels of mathematics.
Australia’s economy rests on mining, agriculture and services. Two major parts of the latter sector are financial and educational services. In all these areas, the mathematical sciences play a crucial role. Australia has a strong reputation for innovation in mining and agriculture and to retain our competitiveness, it is essential to have a strong base of skills. For example, there are many SMEs in mining consulting and technical services, using optimisation techniques. Mathematicians employed by BHP Billiton have saved tens of millions of dollars in operational costs. In recent years BHP Billiton has been forced to find the mathematical expertise it needs in other nations, such as Russia and India. Mathematical work has proved crucial to the development of new technologies for mineral extraction. The demand for trained statisticians in agriculture is much greater than the supply.
In financial services, there is a strong demand for highly trained mathematicians and statisticians, for risk analysis, algorithmic trading, portfolio management etc. In medicine, the genomics revolution is built on sophisticated analysis of huge amounts of data to find subtle correlations indicating the genetic basis for diseases. To measure the efficacy of drugs and other treatments, statistics is a fundamental tool.
Mathematics underpins the security of all electronic communications including internet transactions, electronic banking including ATM's and mobile telephones. Given the ubiquitous nature of electronic communications and modern society's utter dependence on it, information security is critical for individuals and the nation.
Prime Minister Rudd has announced stronger commitments to our Pacific neighbours. Mathematicians can punch above their weight in contributing to aid projects, such as providing improved management models for aid-dependent Pacific economies, and also environmental models for providing sustainable primary industry industries and protection against adverse impacts of climate on arable and habitable land. The bottom line is that mathematical skills directly help to strengthen security for our neighbours, and thus security in our own region.
Over the last decade, the mathematical sciences have been under tremendous pressure in Australia. The strong international demand has led to a significant loss of talent to the U.S, Europe and Asia. Strategic reviews of statistics and of the mathematical sciences were held in 2005 and 2006 respectively, with leading international reviewers.
The reviewers were surprised by the extent of the decline—between 1996 and 2006 around 1/3 of academic positions in university mathematical sciences departments had been lost. Australia produces only 0.4% of its university graduates majoring in the mathematical sciences, as compared to the OECD average of 1%. In fact the number of graduates is declining year-by-year, yet the demand for their skills is increasing. The government’s DEST SET Skills Audit shows that the period 1997-2005 has already experienced 52% employment growth in the mathematical sciences, compared to 37% over all natural sciences. Finally there has been a marked decline of proportions of year 12 students doing either advanced or intermediate level mathematics in all states over the last decade. Only elementary mathematics, which is not suitable for tertiary study requiring quantitative skills, has increased numbers.
Fundamental to improving the mathematical sciences base in Australia is improving the supply of appropriately qualified teachers of mathematics. This is also an equity and social inclusion issue—young people who do not receive a sound background in mathematics are disadvantaged in both their personal and professional lives. In times of teacher shortfalls the students most disadvantaged are likely to be in rural, remote and hard to staff schools in urban areas. A report by the Deans of Science on mathematics teachers in secondary schools had numerous worrying findings including that many schools have difficulty in recruiting teachers, and no longer offer advanced mathematics, especially in rural and regional areas.
These concerns were highlighted by the Productivity Commission in its 2007 report on Public Support for Science and Innovation. The Commission noted the "recognised shortage" of "secondary school teachers in science and mathematics," and pointed out that current attempts to alleviate the shortage, using teachers who are not university- trained in mathematics, "may adversely affect student performance and engagement and decrease future university enrolments in the sciences."
Unlike most nations, Australia lacks data concerning its teaching force and workforce planning tends to be ad hoc. Two related reports released in 2008 demonstrate that there is a serious problem in relation to mathematics teacher supply and a long-term need for proper workforce planning. The situation is compounded by shambolic requirements for teacher registration across the different States. For example, teachers in Queensland do not register as mathematics teachers and employers determine whether or not they can teach mathematics and to what level. In NSW there is a requirement that secondary mathematics teachers have a three-year major in mathematics. To what extent this requirement is met at the school level is not clear.
Clearly this situation needs national resolution but it should not distract from the more important issue of improving the supply of mathematics teachers.
In that regard the universities, and those responsible for the accreditation of university courses, also have some responsibility. The lack of discipline content in many primary teacher education courses is to be deplored. The rise of double degrees—for example BSc/BTeach—where the content of a BSc is reduced to two years runs counter to the voice of experienced teachers of mathematics who were leaders in their schools in their responses to the Deans of Science. A clear majority of these leading teachers saw a three-year degree or higher in mathematics plus teacher qualifications as necessary and desirable, especially at senior levels.
There has also been a move to preparing teachers for the 'middle-years' but no clear articulation of the discipline knowledge needed. The dropping of mathematics from many degrees where it would be expected overseas contributes to the middle-years problem as fewer graduates who enter teaching have any tertiary mathematics study.
The mathematical sciences base in Australia is the sum of all its parts. Issues in regard to teachers have been highlighted in the discussion above. These should not detract from the need to strengthen all areas. In particular, the Review considered that every university should be able to offer a three-year sequence in mathematical sciences. It was particularly concerned in regard to the number of universities with large enrolments in education but very limited teaching capability in the mathematical sciences.
Particular attention needs to be paid to statistics and the need for all universities to have an identifiable statistical presence. Many researchers, in particular in biological and social sciences, are relying on outdated statistical methods. This is resulting in poor experimental design and analysis that will eventually have a serious impact on Australia’s international reputation in some disciplines. The lack of statistical expertise is impeding research and innovation in universities, business and industry, research institutes and government agencies.
The mathematical sciences community has been working together to begin to address some of the issues. Many advanced economies have recognised the special role of the mathematical sciences and set up research institutes and networks to foster collaboration with science, technology and industry, and to develop international linkages. The Victorian Government recognised the need for such a centre when it supported the formation of the Australian Mathematical Sciences Institute (AMSI) through its Science, Technology and Innovation Infrastructure grants program. AMSI is hosted by the University of Melbourne. Most university mathematical departments have been members of AMSI since its inception and contribute towards its operating costs.
AMSI runs summer schools for honours and graduate students, assists with research workshops and has an industry program including internships for postgraduate students. A network of access grid rooms (AGRs) has been established at a number of universities around Australia. The aim is to teach advanced small classes at several sites simultaneously, so that, for example, a larger range of honours level subjects are available. The AGR network is also supporting links with international colleagues. The network allows rapid knowledge transfer of new mathematical tools to support research, industry applications and teaching.
AMSI also has under its auspices the International Centre for Excellence in Education in Mathematics (ICE-EM). ICE-EM has a team of experienced mathematicians and teachers who have written textbooks covering the curricula of all states from years 5-10. These textbooks were piloted in schools across Australia with teacher feedback contributing to the final products. Workshops and support programs for teachers accompany these excellent materials.
AMSI/ICE-EM are well positioned to have valuable input to national curriculum development and, through their established networks, provide the professional development and discipline courses for teachers that will be needed to ensure its effective implementation.
The mathematical sciences seek measures to stop the downwards spiral, to improve the training of mathematics teachers, to turn around the decline in the numbers of mathematics graduates, and to bring the supply of trained mathematical scientists much closer to demand than it is today.
The Review has a detailed plan for rebuilding the mathematical sciences in Australia. Attention is drawn specifically to Chapter 6 where immediate priorities are outlined and recommendations are linked to suggested actions, responsibilities and KPIs. The Review noted that Australia’s mathematical sciences capacity ultimately depends on the quality of school mathematics education and drew "particular attention to the need for improved flow of well-qualified mathematics secondary school teachers. While short- term solutions must be sought at this stage, the long-term solution rests with improving university mathematical science graduate numbers."
The suggested actions listed here should be read in conjunction with the Review:
Australia is a big country, with a dispersed population. Ensuring a mathematical sciences base that supports teaching, research, and industry in remote and rural areas as well as the major population centres is a challenging task.
With sufficient will it can be done.*