Mathematics and statistics: critical skills for Australia's future

22 May 2007

Mathematical research in Australia is becoming increasingly narrowly focused. The number of mathematics and statistics students and lecturers at Australian universities is critically low. At a time when, internationally, the major scientific advances are being made through collaborations between different branches of mathematics and other scientific disciplines, and by countries that invest heavily in mathematical research and education, Australian mathematicians and statisticians are becoming increasingly isolated and under-resourced.

Across most fields of mathematics and statistics, research output in Australia has become dependent on a small number of highly productive individuals working more or less in isolation. Inadequate resources are available for fostering vital collaborative links between mathematicians and statisticians in research, academia, industry and education.

The loss of a small number of key mathematical scientists puts Australia at risk of a major collapse in research capability. Excessive reliance on a small number of scientists with specialised interests is eroding the broad skills base needed for a robust and adaptable research community. In the past decade, mathematical science departments in the Group Of Eight universities have lost almost a third of their permanent academic staff. Mathematics departments in smaller universities have disappeared, and a number of formerly strong departments have halved in size.

Relative funding of mathematical sciences departments in universities is inadequate and does not reflect either their crucial importance or the real cost of delivering quality training of students. In 2003, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) Education At A Glance report showed that only 0.4% of Australian university students graduated with qualifications in mathematics or statistics, compared with the OECD average of 1%.

There is clear evidence that the current supply of trained mathematicians and statisticians is inadequate and decreasing.

The nation’s capacity to support research, research training and advanced education in mathematics and statistics is diminishing rapidly. The concentration of mathematical and statistical expertise in only a few universities undermines access to quality research, research training and undergraduate education in the mathematical sciences. As a result, Australian universities are unable to meet the demands of business, industry, government and the school sector for mathematically trained graduates.

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