Mathematicians are in short supply in the United States by qsb11675



                                     Mathematicians are in
                                     short supply in the United
                                     States. Potter Wickware
                                     examines how the federal
                                     agencies plan to boost the
         Predictive power:
         mathematician A. N.
         Whitehead anticipated
                                                                                                   Spooky maths
                                                                                                   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 |

                                                                                                                                        The Mathematical
                                                                                                                                        Sciences Research
                                                                                                                                        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-           ➧
       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           ➧                                           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         ➧

       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
       NATUREJOBS | 9 AUGUST 2001 |                                                                                                                  5

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