Stand up and be counted for maths, say rectors

Summary

Flemish universities are throwing their weight behind a platform that will promote maths education, research and innovation

Maths matters

Flemish universities have issued a plea for more effort to go into mathematics, from pupil education to research. To this end, they have endorsed the Flanders Mathematics Platform, set up by a group of committed academics.

“It’s a paradox. The impact of mathematics on our society is increasing, yet mathematics is becoming less visible,” said Herman Van Goethem, chair of the Flemish Interuniversity Council (Vlir), which is co-ordinating the new platform.

It points out that high-quality mathematics research is necessary if we are to better predict climate change, control epidemics and monitor food safety. Maths also underpins lucrative technologies such as artificial intelligence.

One challenge is the acute shortage of maths teachers. “Every year some 400 maths teachers stop working, mostly because of retirement,” explained Koen Verlaeckt, Vlir’s secretary general. “But of the 100 mathematicians who graduate each year, only 20 choose teaching as a career; mathematicians are also highly sought by business.”

New platform

The aim of the Flanders Mathematics Platform is to bring together the education sector, business and academia to work on this issue. The hope is that it will aid communication about the importance of mathematics, work on improving maths education and attract more students to study mathematics (especially girls and young women).

It also wants to expand research and improve the use of mathematical knowledge in technological innovation. “We want to spread a comprehensive vision of what mathematics is and means to society,” said Ann Dooms, maths professor at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB) and one of the initiators of the platform.

In addition to the rectors, the platform has been endorsed by business leaders and educational organisations. Individual academics, teachers and students have also put their names to the platform declaration, along with personalities such as astronaut Frank De Winne and singer Charissa Parassiadis (aka Slongs Dievanongs).

Making wavelets

Ingrid Daubechies is a good example of how far maths can take you. This week she was named one of five international women of science for 2019 by the L’Oréal Foundation and Unesco, for her ground-breaking work on wavelet theory. This has transformed the numerical treatment of images and signal processing, providing standard algorithms for data compression.

An alumnus of VUB, Daubechies relocated to the US in the 1980s, working both in academia and industry. She is currently a professor at Duke University and was the first woman to be president of the International Mathematical Union.