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Mathematicians are in
short supply in the United
States. Potter Wickware
examines how the federal
agencies plan to boost the
mathematician A. N.
The US National Security are hundreds of
he study of mathematics is apt to Agency (NSA) is mathematicians in the
commence in disappointment,” wrote probably the largest NSA, far more than in
the mathematician A. N. Whitehead in employer of academic settings, so
1911, and, as if to corroborate this mathematicians in the readership for a typical
gloomy view, young people in the United States. Its main paper is wider than in the
United States are turning away from the mother of the mission is to make world at large, he says.
sciences. Between 1992 and 1999 the proportion of US classified information The NSA hires about
citizens among full-time maths graduate students at impenetrable to prying 50 mathematicians a
the nation’s top universities dropped by 26.5%, eyes. A preoccupation year, about two-thirds of
according to statistics from the National Science with ciphers and keys them PhDs. “This is a
Foundation (NSF). Exacerbating matters, today, fewer leads to emphasis on very significant
than half of the graduate students in maths algebra and number percentage of US citizen
programmes across the United States are US citizens, theory, but lots of work is maths PhDs, and we are
down from 75% in the 1970s, according to American also done in other areas incredibly worried
Mathematical Society data. such as signal analysis, about the shrinking
Strangely, the decline in interest comes just as a probability theory and pool,” says Schatz.
rich crop of theoretical and applied problems is statistics, according to To help counteract
bursting into bloom. Opportunities are abundant in Jim Schatz, head of the the flagging numbers of
cryptography, data mining, nanosystems, agency’s mathematical mathematicians being
communications networks, materials and imaging. research group. produced, the NSA
Physics continues to exert a strong influence on maths, “We have an augments the National
with string theory revealing connections between extremely rich set of Science Foundation’s
algebraic and differential geometry. And as biology problems here,” says efforts with early career
moves from a descriptive to a quantitative science, an Schatz, who explains that grants to help build the
entirely new frontier is opening up, both in restrictions on maths community.
physiological modelling and in new imaging systems publishing in a mostly Currently about 180
(see “Biostatistics booms”, opposite). classified environment grants a year, each
A decade ago, the combination of an economic are not the constraint averaging $20,000, are
recession and an influx of Russian and Chinese they might seem. There being funded. P.W.
mathematicians made for a bleak hiring picture, but
Booming business: Jim
Maxwell believes that job today the jobs are there, says Jim Maxwell, who tracks
prospects are good for US maths demographics at the American Mathematical
mathematicians. Society, in Providence, Rhode Island. The current is partly traceable to the rise of computer-science
unemployment rate among departments, which draw off those who otherwise
new maths PhDs is 3–4%, would have majored in maths. “The dotcom world was
down from over 6% in 1999. a fantastic temptation,” says Philippe Tondeur, director
Salaries in top academic of the NSF’s Division of Mathematical Sciences.
departments in 2000 ranged “People with modest skills got hired without realizing
from $50,000 to $55,000 for how short the shelf-life of their knowledge was. With
assistant professors, $65,000 for maths the skills don’t go out of date.”
associates, to $101,000 for full To reverse the trend, the maths establishment is
professors. Of the roughly 850 mounting an urgent if somewhat belated response.
PhDs who enter the job market The NSF, the main patron of maths research in the
in the United States each year, United States, wants to increase its budget for maths
about 60% take their first job in from this year’s $120 million to between $400 million
academia. and $500 million by 2007. Programmes to support
The diminishing appeal of mathematicians at the graduate, postdoc and early
maths to the current generation career levels have been brought into place, with grants
4 NATUREJOBS | 9 AUGUST 2001 | www.nature.com
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Institute (above, left)
balances pure and applied
maths in class (above).
and stipends destined to rise in number and value. markets and catastrophe insurance. A third area of
Central to the NSF’s support for maths are three interest is the mathematics of image processing.
institutes, at Berkeley, Minneapolis and Los Angeles. Continuing the trend of broadening the presence of
Unlike the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, maths in the scientific world, as many as four new NSF-
where the departments are staffed by permanent funded institutes are in line to be created, according to
faculty, the NSF-supported maths institutes rely on Tondeur, with proposals being reviewed now. In
‘soft’ money rather than endowments and have a contrast to the existing institutes, the new arrivals are
continually changing mathematical cast of characters. likely to have more closely defined mandates, such as
Berkeley’s Mathematical Sciences Research Institute statistics, large data sets and imaging. s
(MSRI) dates from 1982. It has a budget of $5 million, Potter Wickware is a science writer in San Francisco.
70% of which comes from the NSF, with contributions Mathematical Sciences Research Institute
from corporate partners such as Pfizer and Hewlett- ➧ http://www.msri.org
Packard making up the balance. The MSRI aims for a Institute for Mathematics and its Applications
Fadil Santosa sees
2:1 mix between pure and applied work, although Joe ➧ http://www.ima.umn.edu industry as a well-spring
Buhler, its deputy director, is quick to point out that Institute for Pure and Applied Mathematics for maths jobs.
these terms inconveniently blur into one another. For ➧ http://www.ipam.ucla.edu
example, number theory, once the epitome of pure
maths, is now the source of many commercially
important applications for computer security (see
“Spooky maths”, opposite). Biostatistics booms
In Minneapolis, the Institute for Mathematics and
its Applications (IMA) takes a somewhat different Biostatistics, which is or in research at
tack, focusing on problems from industry such as concerned with clinical- pharmaceutical
networking, computational complexity and trials design and companies and medical
optimization. Fadil Santosa, associate director for management, is research institutes.
industrial programmes, says industry is under- booming. Demand for Starting salaries are
appreciated as a well-spring of maths jobs, naming biostatisticians is driven $45,000–50,000 at the
companies such as Microsoft, Schlumberger and IBM by a range of issues masters level, and
as organizations that have maths departments. The including new drugs $60,000–70,000 for
IMA has a budget of $3.5 million from all sources, and therapies, testing of PhDs, with those on the Tony Chan: aiming to bring
including about $2.2 million from the NSF. alternative medications, industrial side getting a maths to bear on science.
The newest NSF-supported maths centre, the HIV/AIDS research and moderate premium
Institute for Pure and Applied Mathematics at the cancer, all fuelled by above their academic
University of California, Los Angeles, opened its doors increased funding from peers, says MacKenzie.
this year with a five-year budget the National Institutes About 20 students a
from the NSF of $12.5 million. of Health. year graduate from
According to its director, Tony “We can’t turn Washington in
Chan, the institute aims to bring people out fast enough biostatistics, up from six
mathematics to new problems to fill the need,” says or seven a decade ago.
in the sciences. Recent Alex MacKenzie, who “Our graduates
programmes have been coordinates the typically get flown out
concerned with functional biostatistics programme for interviews, are
genomics, stochastic processes at the University of wined and dined,
in biology and modelling of Washington, Seattle. competed for, and
crystallization. Programmes in Most graduates in usually can pick and
finance and economics focus on biostatistics are choose among offers,”
Philippe Tondeur says risk management, arbitrage, employed at universities, says MacKenzie. P.W.
maths skills do not date. derivatives pricing in energy
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