Revenge of the nerds

By Paul Jay, The federal Conservative government has had a few public disagreements with the scientific community in the last year, over things like funding, the closure of the Office of the National Science Advisor, the environment, decisions viewed as overtly political and yes, funding again.

And while researchers from all disciplines have made their voices heard, the loudest voices thus far have been the medical community and environmental scientists.

So it's interesting to note that mathematicians are the driving force behind a letter to the Prime Minister asking the government to revisit funding cuts announced in the January.

Wait a second... mathematicians? You'd be hard pressed to imagine a scientific community less driven to politics and ideology, but yes, it was a group of 18 mathematics professors who spearheaded the letter.

And of the 2,101 researchers (and counting) who have signed the letter, over 240 work in the mathematics departments of their schools.

One of the reasons for the action, said University of Toronto mathematics professor Ed Bierstone, one of the organizers of the letter, is that mathematics research is pure science, primarily curiosity-driven, and it's applied sciences that have tended to receive the bulk of the government's attention.

As well, one of the deciding factors when approving research grant applications is the number of highly qualified personnel who will be trained as part of the project, and in university-speak, that translates to PhD or graduate students. But, said Bierstone, while mathematics programs are found throughout Canada's universities, very few have graduate programs.

The result, said Bierstone, is that mathematics research grants are becoming harder to acquire. In this year's competition, for example, only 64 per cent of applicants received grants from NSERC, while five years ago that number was closer to 90 per cent.

For those who study math, numbers like that have become too hard to ignore.

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As far as I am concerned, mathematics is only a theory, and we should be open other systems of logic. Our schools should encourage a fair presentation of differing rules and thought processes so that students can decide for themselves what constitutes pure science. The government is right to reduce funding to the current, sadly monolithic, approach to Canadian mathematics.

Posted April 20, 2009 12:52 PM



"As far as I am concerned, mathematics is only a theory, and we should be open other systems of logic."

Mathematics is pretty much as logical as it gets. Don't let illogical numbers confuse you. Formulas often start as theories as to how something relates to another, but the numbers themselves can't lie.

I guess then that taxes, banking and lotteries are just theories as well with no real impact on our lives... like measuring out non-lethal doses of medice or some such nonsense.

To be fair, you are absolutely correct in your condemnation of the METHOD Canada uses to teach, but to throw out the skills with the curriculum is idiotic to say the least.

Posted April 20, 2009 03:16 PM

Stéphane Rainville

I think this is a good piece bringing attention to innumeracy and the need to invest more money into basic research. However, I think the article does a disservice by perpetuating the stereotype that mathematicians are uncommunicative nerds removed from the political process.

Posted April 24, 2009 12:58 PM

Tim Olheiser

It was a Russian mathmatician that came up with the formula to make fighters, and bombers stealth. Thus, making radar ineffective overnight.

It is a shame, governments don't see this. Math is'nt just a hobby that geeks do to pass the time.

Without math, no science would function.

I guess the sqeeky wheel gets the grease.

Posted April 26, 2009 04:03 PM

Jeff the Engineer

I work in the field of engineering, and I must say that mathematics is the cornerstone of my (very practical) work.

I am not a mathematician, but I use the tools that they develop every day.

Mathematics is the "mother science". Everything the rest of us do with science springs from it.

Just as a carpenter with better tools can build a better structure, and an engineer with better tools can design a better structure.

Thank you, mathematicians, for continuing to provide me with better tools.

Posted April 27, 2009 07:47 AM

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