Article by John Ross, The Australian, 12 August 2015

It outshines other sciences in Discovery grant applications and trains graduates for a raft of industries. Yet schools don’t mandate it, universities don’t demand it and public funding bodies give it less money than any other scientific or technological discipline.

The latest report on maths in Australia paints a paradoxical picture of a field that has slumped to historic lows in participation, even though advanced mathematical research injects an estimated $145 billion into the Australian economy.

The report, the fourth annual profile by the Australian Mathematical Sciences Institute, found that maths had surpassed other sciences in Australian Research Council Discovery grants for four out of the past five years, with an average 28 per cent success rate compared with 21 per cent for other disciplines. It boasted the lowest cost per publication and the second highest citation rate of any Australian science, with Australian applied maths and statistics outperforming all 15 EU countries on citations.

“It’s an area where the outcomes are significant and the costs are low,” AMSI director Geoff Prince said. “It’s a good place for universities to invest because they can get runs on the board with the ARC and the government at low cost.”

Professor Prince said some universities had “woken up to this” and invested heavily in maths, including Wollongong, Newcastle and the Group of Eight members. Yet the report found that maths attracted the lowest share of public research expenditure of any science and technology discipline, at just 1.7 per cent, and Australian entry into maths degrees was less than half the OECD average.

The AMSI report found that the problems arose early, with a lack of specialist maths teachers at high school and plunging participation in intermediate and advanced maths at higher school level — fuelled by historically low insistence on prerequisites, with 86 per cent of science degrees not even mandating intermediate maths.

“I despair of the system when it does this,” Professor Prince said. “It sees this shrinking cohort, so it wriggles out of what could be a crisis in student numbers in science by dropping the prerequisites.”