Mathematicians wanted

Study shows that Brazil suffers from a great lack of these professionals and the few that exist do not interact with scientific sectors

Brazilian mathematicians, who in the last 30 years, have earned prestige on the international scene and often published scientific works in relevant periodicals, have not been able to train enough successors to meet the local skills demand. The need to measure the problem, which has been identified for some time now by the mathematicians’ community in their day-to-day lives, has led a group of researcher to carry out a first survey of the situation of training people in the field. The results of this work, gathered the Panorama of Human Resources in Mathematics in Brazil: The Urgent Need for Growth, reveals a critical situation.

“Brazilian mathematics is facing three great interrelated tests: increasing the number of researchers, their interaction with other fields, and training a large number of university level lecturers for higher education”, warns the study, which bears the signatures of specialists from the Federal University of Ceará, the Federal University of Minas Gerais, the Fluminense Federal University, The National Laboratory of Computing Science, the University of São Paulo (São Carlos), the Pontifical Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro (PUC-Rio) and the Institute of Pure and Applied Mathematics.

“We have to act urgently on various fronts”, comments Jorge Hounie, professor at the Federal University of São Carlos and consultant to FAPESP. “We have to raise the level of degree courses, arrange for mathematics departments to get closer to their peers in applied fields and open a communication channel with companies that could make better use of mathematicians”, he says. According to the proposal, one of the main tasks in the field is to swiftly prepare a project able to expand the number of master’s degrees holders to meet the demand for training lecturers in the disciplines of mathematics and in the other courses, as well as training qualified master’s degree holders for doctorate programs and for the labor market. According to data from the Higher Education Staff Development Coordination (Capes), 2,800 masters in mathematics have been trained in Brazilian postgraduate courses, of which 1,180 have been in the last ten years.

Weak training
According to information from the Ministry of Education, there are 369 graduate mathematics courses available in this country, of which 117 are in federal universities, 85 in state universities and 167 in private higher education institutions that graduate, 11. 8, 26 and 28.4 students per course a year, respectively. According to the study, many members of teaching staff suffer from weak academic training and do not have the ability to pursue a master’s degree in mathematics as things stand at present. And mathematicians estimate that the dropout rate in graduate courses is around 75%, and 88.2% of the mathematics graduates who underwent the National Examination Courses in 2000, were awarded a mark of less than 2.24 on a scale of 0 to 10. Among the measures the document recommends for solving the problem is strengthening grants for scientific initiation in mathematics and the creation of a mechanism for the field along the lines of the Capes Special Training Program (PET).

The quality of teaching in graduate courses is one of the crucial factors in the proper training of primary and secondary education teachers, in which the data is also far from being encouraging. The information resulting from examinations held under the Brazilian Education Appraisal System (Saeb) show that, in the examinations held in 1985, 1997, and 1999, third-grade students were awarded scores in the range of 225 to 275, on a scale of 0 to 500. The document points to the need to train 1,650 masters urgently to meet the requirements of the Guidelines and Bases Law Of Education. In 1999, the 24 postgraduate programs in mathematics and applied mathematics qualified only 200 new masters – and this took fields of knowledge associated with mathematics into account. “The open positions in the postgraduate programs are inevitable so long as there is a low supply of students”, reflects Carlos Tomei, a professor at PUC-Rio and one of the specialists signing the study.

The study also suggests the need to double the annual number of masters graduates in five years and to triple it in eight years. There are around 800 doctors today and this needs to double in five years and triple in ten. On average, Brazil is graduating fifty mathematics doctors a year – and 50% of these already have employment guaranteed. This means, at best, placing 25 new doctors a year in the market to compete for vacancies in the universities – and this number does not even replace the natural loss of qualified people through retirement The number of teaching staff doing post graduate courses is made up entirely of doctors.

In turn, an increase in the number of mathematics professionals in the production sector and in other sciences requires, in the opinion of the document’s authors, “a complete revision” of the teaching chain, enabling a dialogue between scientists and technicians of other specialties and encouraging multidisciplinary partnerships in research and in solving the problems arising from the country’s social and economic circumstances.

“Historically, mathematicians have always tended to produce very solid responses to tangible problems “, observes Hounie, citing as an example, the mobilization of specialists in the field in the United States in World War II. In the interface with other fields of knowledge, Tomei perceives a lack of encouragement by the community itself and by agencies. He sees, however, some promising signs, particularly in the statistical., actuarial, financial mathematics, computer graphics, and modeling fields.

Plentiful in suggestions, the study asks, for example, for masters courses to be established in the actuarial, mathematical economics, and mathematics in biology fields, among others, and doctoral curses with qualification alternatives in applied fields or for specialists in statistics and in various sub-fields of mathematics of importance for the country’s development to be imported; and for a grants program to be established specifically for training postgraduate students abroad, in applied mathematics fields.

Relations with production sectors
Outside the academic environment, the document recommends strengthening relations with the production sector to achieve a greater understanding of the benefits that specialists in mathematics can offer various segments.The study states that any attempt at solving the problems brought up will only be possible through a nationwide project for mathematics and Tomei points out that defining a detailed action plan should be discussed by mathematicians and, among other interested parties, the development agencies. “Our intention is to open up this debate”, he says.

Shortage is the classroom
Number of doctors working on postgraduate studies fell by 12% from 1996 to 1999*
1996 /1997 /1998 /1999
Mathematics / 530 / 533 / 480 / 476
Applied Math. / 133 / 139 / 99 / 110
Total / 663 / 672 / 579 / 586

* System of exclusive dedication in public universitiesSource: Panorama of Human Resources in Mathematics