Citation statistics

There is an interesting new report “Citation statistics“, jointly produced by the International Mathematical Union (IMU), International Council of Industrial and Applied Mathematics (ICIAM), and the Institute of Mathematical Statistics (IMS), on the use and abuse of various citation statistics (such as impact factors and h-indices) as proxies for research quality.  (One of the authors, incidentally, is Peter Taylor from the University of Melbourne, not to be confused with Peter Taylor from the Australian Mathematics Trust.)  The press release for the report is available here. The basic message is that these statistics can supplement expert judgement of the quality of one’s research, but cannot substitute for that judgement, despite being more a “objective” metric, as they are subject to various artificial distortions.  (For instance, a typical paper in the life sciences is cited six times more frequently than one in maths or computer science, due to a variety of factors, including the different academic cultures of these disciplines.)

Of course, expert evaluation by someone knowledgeable in the subject matter is a scarce resource, and it is still very tempting to rely on these statistics in the absence of such judgment.  I once was involved in applying for a large Australian grant that was open to all sciences.  One of the reviewers commented that the proposers (who were all mathematicians) had significantly fewer publications than those from competing proposals, particularly those in the life sciences (though my own publication count of 150 or so papers was deemed “acceptable”).   While statistics such as impact factors are intended to remove some of the distortions coming from using raw publication count as a measure of research quality and output, they are still far from perfect, especially when it comes to comparisons across disciplines.  (For the record, our proposal was not funded, though this was probably a result of many other factors than the above comment.)

[Via The Funneled Web and the Australian Mathematical Society.]

2009 / 2010 Fulbright CSIRO Postgraduate Scholarship to Australia

[This announcement was forwarded to me from the Australian-American Fulbright Commission, who supported me as a Fulbright scholar for my post-graduate study at Princeton. I recommend the Fulbright programs, especially for students who plan to maintain close ties to their home country while also enjoying the benefits of studying abroad. – T.]

A partnership of the Australian-American Fulbright Commission and the CSIRO National Research Flagships program.

Work in Australia on major challenges and opportunities in climate, energy, water, health and more. Gain international experience and build collaborations in Australia as part of your American Postgraduate studies in science working with Australia’s most ambitious scientific research program, the CSIRO National Research Flagships.

Australia’s leading and largest science research organisation, the Commonwealth Scientific Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), is offering Fulbright scholars the opportunity to work in Australia as part of your American PhD program.

Applications are now open for the 2009 / 2010 Fulbright CSIRO Postgraduate Scholarship to Australia. Valued at up to A$34,000, this scholarship supports an American citizen to undertake 8-12 months postgraduate research in Australia related to their American PhD with one of the nine CSIRO National Research Flagships.

The 2009 / 2010 scholarship may be started anytime between 1 July 2009 and 30 June 2010. Applicants will be assessed by their academic and professional merit; clearly defined and achievable projects; and the potential for their projects to add value and build collaborations between Australia and the U.S.

Background information on CSIRO, areas of potential research focus on which Fulbright Scholars can work, and contacts at CSIRO with whom you can explore your research options can be found at Information on the Fulbright Scholarship Program in Australia and scholar’s experiences can be found at

Applications for this scholarship are through the normal U.S. Postgraduate application process via your U.S. university, or direct to the Institute for International Education (IIE).

Applications close in the U.S between early September to late October (check with your U.S. university or IIE).

[Update, September 13: closed post to further comments.]

Mathematics at Flinders

In the last two decades at Australian universities, departments have primarily been funded using formulae that are based to a large extent on the number of Australian and foreign students that are enrolled in their majors, or are taught by their service courses. As such, there is a tremendous pressure on administrations and departments to increase enrollments at any cost – for instance by lowering course requirements, or removing requirements involving other departments and replacing them with in-house substitutes. As one consequence on this focus on enrollments, other factors such as research and teaching quality, or the needs of industry or the community, are considered secondary or are neglected altogether. Another effect is that department funding is subject to short-term fluctuations based on changes in student demand. [In contrast, in other countries such as the US, funding is usually not determined by rigid formulae, but instead changes slowly from historical levels in response to a combination of all the factors listed above.]

These factors have played a significant role in the recent USQ crisis, and as indicated in a letter to the most recent issue of the Gazette, have also had a detrimental effect on mathematics at the University of New England. In this post I would like to describe how this structure had largely destroyed mathematics at my old alma mater, Flinders University, in which the number of full time mathematics staff has dwindled from 19 during my time there in 1989-1992 to just three today, although a rebuilding effort is now being planned there, as reported last week in the Australian.

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Mathematics Ashes

The Australian and UK mathematics trusts have set up a “Mathematics Ashes“, in analogy with the well-known cricketing counterpart, for the Australian and British IMO teams to compete for each year, as part of their planned joint training sessions, thus injecting the traditional Aussie values of sport and rivalry with the Poms into the competition. The scripts of the losing team are to be burned, with the ashes sealed into the urn that is retained by the winning team.

The Australian Mathematics Trust has also announced this weekend that its BH Neumann award will be awarded this year to Ben Burton, the third Australian to win a gold medal at the IMO, and now director of training for the IOI, and also a researcher in the finance industry. Congratulations to Ben!

(Thanks to Peter Taylor for the news.)

Maths in the UK

Student numbers are consistently drifting from high- to medium-level mathematics courses, and migrating from there to the lowest level.  The nation needs mathematics, and mathematicians, to keep up with its traditional commercial rivals, and also with newer competitors such as China and India; yet the mathematics economy is losing out.  It’s cool to drop out of mathematics at school, but no-one would be proud of being unable to read.

Sound familiar?  Yes, it could easily be a paraphrasing of current concerns in Australia, but it’s actually a precis of a recently released report on mathematics in the UK, “The value of mathematics“, written for the UK think-tank Reform by Laura Kounine, John Marks and Elizabeth Truss.  Started by a current Conservative MP and a former head of the Political Section in the Conservative Research Department, Reform includes among its executives and advisors the Rector of Imperial College, London, a British Liberal Democrat politician, and the former CEO of Vodafone.

The report lays the blame at the door of declining academic standards in schools, and a drift away from rigorous approaches to teaching mathematics.

Queen’s birthday honours

The Australian Queen’s birthday honours list for 2008, announced this week, includes two honours for contributions to mathematics and mathematical education.  Ian Sloan has been appointed an Officer of the Order of Australia (AO)

For service to education through the study of mathematics, particularly in the field of computational mathematics, as an academic, researcher and mentor, and to a range of national and international professional associations.

while Bruce Henry has been appointed the Medal of the Order of Australia (OAM)

For service to education in the field of mathematics as an educator
and through contributions to enrichment programs for students and
professional development.

A longer article on Bruce’s accomplishments can be found at this announcement by the Australian Mathematics Trust.  Congratulations to both!

(Thanks to Elizabeth Billington and Peter Taylor for the news.)

Put a little science in your life

There is an excellent op-ed piece by Brian Greene in the New York Times today entitled “Put a little science in your life“. It discusses the importance of science, not only in addressing the modern world’s challenges, but also in empowering individuals with a means of understanding the world around them.

By a random coincidence, I recently wrote a similar (but less eloquent) piece myself, as a short forward to the 2008 “World-wide day of science” project at the University of New South Wales. I am enclosing this forward below the fold.

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Australian Olympiad Teams 2008

The Australian teams for the 2008 International Olympiads in Informatics (IOI) and in Mathematics (IMO), which will be held in August in Cairo, Egypt and in July in Madrid, Spain respectively, were formally announced on Thursday at Parliament House in Canberra.

Some statistics for Australia’s IMO performance over the years – it started competing in 1981 – can be found here. I myself competed in 1986-1988, and my two brothers competed in 1994 and 1995; it was a lot of fun for all of us. (A full register of former Australian IMO participants can be found here.) Of course, mathematical competitions are a rather different game from the more “serious” business of research mathematics (and are neither necessary nor sufficient to do well in the latter), but they still offer valuable mathematical training, cultural and travel experience, and of course a good bit of sport. Best of luck to the Aussie teams!

Relative Funding Model and Mathematics in Australian Universities

In 1989, the federal government placed colleges of advanced education in the same funding basket as the 19 pre-existing universities, forming a “unified national system” (UNS). During that year, a sample of universities provided 1988 data on the actual costs of running bachelor and postgraduate degree programs in various disciplines. From this, there arose a set of weights for funding ratios. For example, for undergraduate studies, the weights for students included humanities 1.0, mathematics 1.3, computing 1.6 and engineering 2.2 . This exercise was meant to determine universities’ operating block grants for the years 1991-93 but the weights of the Relative Funding Model (RFM) persisted until recently. Each year, the universities are told how many student places will be funded for each degree program. The universities submit enrolment figures for subjects in each discipline category. The government offices then calculate a block grant based on numbers of weighted equivalent full time student units (WEFTSU). There has been no compulsion on universities to apply these weights internally. For reasons that I never understood, the mathematics discipline seemed to fare badly under this system. Most estimates show that we have lost 30% of our mathematics faculty over the last 10 years. I can name 9 universities that currently employ or aim to employ 5 or fewer people to teach mathematics. They are spending a small fraction of mathematics student-generated income on mathematics faculty salaries. An average university is funded for over 300 mathematics/statistics EFTSU, attracting a block grant of close to $4M. In the federal budget of May 2007, the psychology and mathematical science disciplines were the main beneficiaries of the new discipline clusters. The universities have been given an extra $25M for mathematics teaching. From a survey by the Australian Council of Heads of Mathematical Science, so far the universities have agreed to hand down less than $5M to the mathematics coalface. A few institutions have capitalised on this situation to build up their capability in mathematics and statistics to improve their relative research standing at a relatively low cost.

The universities are somewhat hamstrung in the ways in which they are allowed to generate income. Certainly there is a financial incentive, for example to increase engineering enrolments and decrease mathematics enrolments, especially if the extra money is not fully transferred to cover the additional costs of teaching engineering. I have heard stories of engineering teaching labs using outdated 1960s equipment. At the same time, universities are forming committees to define “commentary by staff that is damaging to the reputation of the university” and to suggest disciplinary action for such reprehensible truthful behaviour. For several years, politicians and community leaders have been saying that the health of mathematics is important to the nation. In the May 2008 federal budget, compulsory student fees (HECS) have been halved for mathematics and science. The universities will be compensated by the government for the reduction in the income from HECS. The universities should be held accountable to use earmarked government money for its intended purpose. In response to a question about this on May 21, the Minister for Education and Deputy Prime Minister Julia Gillard said,

….we will be making it perfectly clear to universities what it’s for and the policy objective there. We obviously want our maths and science faculties to be able to teach quality maths and science… you should expect to see accountabilities in that area of the Budget and in relation to Budget funding generally.

After this pronouncement, I am confident that more universities will direct the money to its intended target. Tell it to the Deans.

[See also Phil’s article on the health of mathematical science in Australian Universities in the most recent issue of the Gazette. -Ed.]