Submission from John Henstridge, Data Analysis Australia Pty Ltd

 

Submission to Decadal Plan for the Mathematical Sciences in Australia

John Henstridge

Managing Director, Data Analysis Australia Pty Ltd

I am making this submission both as a mathematical scientist who has been working in the commercial world for almost thirty years, and as the managing Director of Data Analysis Australia and hence an employer of mathematical scientists.

Background

To help understand the background of this submission it is useful to provide a summary of the history of myself and Data Analysis Australia:

  • Having started a conventional academic career with a PhD in times series analysis at the ANU and a position at the University of Western Australia, I moved into consulting work, initially within the University and then commercially.  In 1988 I founded Data Analysis Australia.  I am a Chartered Statistician of the Royal Statistical Society and an Accredited Statistician of the Statistical Society of Australia.  I chaired the Accreditation Committee of the Statistical Society for four years and am currently Vice President of the Statistical Society.
  • While Data Analysis Australia started as a one person company in 1988 it now employs about 25 people, most of whom are consulting statisticians or mathematicians.  The company has clients across Australia in government and industry and has completed thousands of consulting projects, ranging from a few hundred dollars up to $1.5 million.  As a growing company, Data Analysis Australia is frequently recruiting staff and is very aware of the supply of mathematical graduates in Australia.

Hence my interest is in mathematics that can contribute in the commercial and professional contexts.  I am not so well placed to comment upon the issues of research in mathematics and statistics but acknowledge that they are linked.

The State of the Mathematical Sciences Education in Australia

There are many disturbing trends affecting the mathematical sciences in Australia.  Others have detailed these, but they include a decline in secondary students studying advanced mathematics, a decline in students majoring in mathematical courses in university, a decline in numbers of mathematical scientists on university staff and a decline in the membership of mathematical societies.

One impact I observe is that it is increasingly difficult to recruit appropriate staff within Australia.  Quite simply, Australia is not producing enough mathematically trained people at all levels.  Data Analysis Australia is now reliant upon recruiting internationally – currently New Zealand is our primary resource for recruits at all levels.  This is observation is consistent with the evidence that suggests that compared with comparable countries – New Zealand, the United Kingdom, Canada and the USA – Australia is graduating only 40% the number of mathematical scientists.

A related issue is the reduction in knowledge of graduates.  This is probably driven by the reduced preparation of students starting at university – many start at a lower level and finish at a lower level.  In addition many universities have an emphasis in undergraduate broadening.  I notice this particularly amongst statistics graduates.  One result is that many job applicants who think that have done a reasonable degree in statistics lack the mathematics to be good statisticians.

I am aware of considerable effort to improve statistics education in Australian Universities.  However much of this is oriented towards service courses, the bread and butter for funding many statistics departments.  While this is important, particularly if these courses are to continue to be taught by competent statisticians, it has meant in my mind that many statistics departments have relegated to second place the education of statistics majors other than those destined to do graduate work.  It is likely that the same comments would apply to teaching in other areas of mathematics.

I believe the Decadal Plan should set targets for increasing graduates in the mathematical sciences, with a minimum target being to double the number within (say) ten years and an aspirational target of quadrupling the number.

Mathematics versus Statistics

There is an ongoing debate (at least amongst statisticians) on whether statistics is part of mathematics or separate.

I believe that this debate is largely misdirected – the real issue is the divide between pure mathematical work and applicable mathematical work.  Statistics has an affinity to areas such as operations research where the concept of “worthwhile” is not based upon mathematical completeness or even on being exactly right, but rather on whether it is genuinely useful in solving real problems.    One can argue about the differences between being inductive or deductive in nature, and whether they constitute science or logic but that is largely semantics.

What is important is that mathematics has through most of its history been considered important in the wider community when it is applied.  Mathematics for its own sake has always been important to the mathematical community but rarely supported in a large way by others for the mathematics alone.  While I strongly believe that mathematics should be funded for its own sake, I also believe that it is unrealistic to expect good funding while the public face of mathematics does not stress the benefits to society.

For statistics, it is relatively easy to present the benefit to others – it is a profession that stresses solving problems important to other people.  It is also a discipline where the process of applying the mathematics is well developed – both formal inference and the process of consulting.

A major problem is that the teaching of mathematics in secondary schools does not give proper recognition of how mathematics (including statistics) is applied.  To often it is a combination of pure mathematics (good in its own right) and very pedestrian applied mathematical science, often taught by those who have never applied it.  Statistics comes out very poorly.  My general belief is that the time spent doing statistics in school as it is currently taught is largely wasted and the time would be better spent doing more mathematics so that they can better learn statistics at a stage when it is better taught.

Hence I see statistics as part of mathematics, but strongly believe that the rest of mathematics can learn much from the statistical community in terms of being an applicable  discipline.

Visibility of Mathematical Scientists as Professionals

Most people do not see mathematical sciences as leading to a career.  This even applies to graduates in the mathematical sciences.  I can recall several occasions when I employed young graduates who had studied mathematics or statistics because they loved it although they had no expectation that it might lead to a job, and to get a job with a company like Data Analysis Australia where they could continue to do mathematics or statistics at the end of their study was an unexpected bonus.

We need to increase the visibility of the mathematical sciences as a career and to improve the recognition of this as a distinct profession.

The statistics community is leading in this with its accreditation system, largely modelled on the Royal Statistical Society’s system.  Features of this are:

  • It is outward focused, providing an assurance to users and employers of statisticians.  For this reason it insists on applied statistical ability.
  • It is allows for people from a variety of backgrounds and employment situations.
  • Its highest level, Accredited Statistician, is assessed in detail with emphasis on proven work through reports or papers.

More needs to be done.  Perhaps the greatest challenge is to have the accreditation system formally recognised by bodies such as employers.  Given that so many statisticians work in the public sector, it is unfortunate that the public services do not appear to recognise it as a distinct profession in that way that they recognise lawyers, medical doctors, engineers etc.  In the United Kingdom’s Civil Service, statisticians are so recognised and there is a cross department system for setting standards, mentoring and providing career paths – from their website:

The Government Statistical Service (GSS) is a decentralised professional community spread across most UK government departments and devolved administrations. Headed by the National Statistician, the GSS produces National Statistics and other official statistics, analysis, interpretation and provides statistical advice to improve understanding and help decision-making at the very highest levels.

Australia needs such a system for statisticians and other mathematical scientists.

I recommend a co-ordinated approach that might see the development of an accredited mathematician system to parallel the statistical system – I believe that the statisticians have got it largely right, even though there is much more to do.

 

 

 

 

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