Hot subdisciplines, such as biostatistics, nanotechnology and systems biology, are becoming increasingly dependent on mathematics. But federal funds for maths, in the United States at least, don't look very promising. And without adequate funding, fewer people will be encouraged to go into a field that is already seeing a shrinking number of US citizens signing up (see Special Report, pages 4–5).
Not very long ago, the future for maths in the United States looked bright. Last year, Rita Colwell, director of the US National Science Foundation (NSF), suggested doubling the agency's $120-million maths budget in two years, and quadrupling it to $500 million over five.
Colwell made the proposal because fewer US students were entering maths programmes and fewer foreign students were filling the gaps (see Nature 407, 931; 2000). One year and one president later, things have changed dramatically.
The latest suggested budget figure for the NSF's maths programme is $140 million for the fiscal year 2002, which begins on 1 October. Although Congress is hinting that it may add some money to the NSF's budget next year, it is unlikely to be at the level Colwell has lobbied for or that the US maths community is hoping it will receive.
If the universities are unable or unwilling to back maths more heavily, mathematicians will be lured into multidisciplinary projects, for which they are very much in demand. And private-sector fields, such as finance and biostatistics, both of which are lucrative, will become more attractive to mathematicians who feel abandoned by the public sector. Perhaps after enough mathematicians leave public research, the government will decide it is worthwhile to attract replacements.
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Smaglik, P. Subtracting mathematicians. Nature 412, 3 (2001). https://doi.org/10.1038/35091275