Australian 2008 IMO results

The Australian Mathematics Trust reports that Australian IMO team has just won 5 silver medals and one bronze medal at the International Mathematical Olympiad in Madrid, with a country ranking of 19th out of 97; this is Australia’s best showing in a few years.  Congrats to the Aussie team for their efforts (and for the Ashes victory!).

[The Olympiad problems can, of course, be downloaded from the official IMO site.]

(Thanks to Peter Taylor for the news.)

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.]

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.