Panel Reports On State Of U.S. Mathematics

May 13, 1998

A panel commissioned by the National Science Foundation's Division of Mathematical Sciences reports that several adverse trends threaten to undermine the United States' dominant position in world mathematics. The panel also notes that NSF policies significantly affect the strength of U.S. mathematics and hence the health of other sciences.

The "Report of the Senior Assessment Panel for the International Assessment of the U.S. Mathematical Sciences" is NSF's first such international "benchmarking" or evaluation of any scientific field. Chaired by retired Lieutenant General William E. Odom, former head of the National Security Agency, the assessment committee consisted of mathematicians from Europe, Asia and Canada as well as from U.S. national laboratories, industry and elsewhere. NSF grantees were specifically excluded from the panel. The just-published report is part of NSF's response to the Government Performance and Results Act, and contains recommendations for how NSF should support mathematics.

The panel recommends that the U.S. work to retain world leadership in "critical subfields" of mathematics. Federal support for mathematics -- except for that provided by NSF -- is falling rapidly, according to the panel, so NSF bears a special responsibility for the future of mathematics in the United States.

The panel suggests that NSF work to broaden education in undergraduate and graduate mathematics, increase support for graduate and postdoctoral study in mathematics, strengthen interaction between creators and users of mathematics, and generally work to sustain current U.S. world leadership. Other recent studies have addressed the importance of mathematics in K-12 education; the assessment panel chose not to address this issue.

"If we wake up to discover that we have allowed the dominant position of U.S. mathematics to erode, we will pay a heavy price in foregone progress in technology, science and economic productivity," Odom said in the report's preface. It is urgent to give more support to mathematics and to utilize that support more effectively, he added.

The panel emphasizes how other sciences have grown increasingly dependent upon mathematics. One reason is that computational and mathematical simulations provide a new tool to refine scientific theory as well as observation and experiment. Mathematics is also crucial to managing and "mining" the massive amounts of data now typically collected in many scientific experiments.

"The report argues that the economic health and, indeed, the security of the nation has come to depend heavily upon mathematics," said Donald Lewis, director of mathematical sciences at NSF.

The panel calls current U.S. leadership in mathematics "fragile" and heavily dependent on importing foreign talent. Much of that brain-power has come in recent years from the former Soviet Union, a source that has now dried up. On the other hand, "Young Americans do not see careers in the mathematical sciences as attractive," the report says.

National Science Foundation

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