As my co-blogger Brie Finegold mentioned last month, Cathy O’Neil of mathbabe.org has been writing about how MOOCs might change the face of math departments and, ultimately, how math research gets funded. O’Neil is concerned that without calculus classes to teach, math research funding could dry up unless we do a better job convincing the public and funding agencies that it is important. She writes,

“I’d like to argue for math research as a public good which deserves to be publicly funded. But although I’m sure that we need to make that case, the more I think about it the less sure I am how to make that case. I’d like your help.”

She gives the reasons she has come up with:

“1) Continuing math research is important because incredibly useful concepts like cryptography and calculus and image and signal processing have and continue to come from mathematics and are helping people solve real-world problems….

2) Continuing math research is important because it is beautiful. It is an art form, and more than that, an ancient and collaborative art form, performed by an entire community. Seen in this light it is one of the crowning achievements of our civilization….

3) Continuing math research is important because it trains people to think abstractly and to have a skeptical mindset….”

But she explains why she doesn’t find any of these arguments very compelling, and asks us to help her make the argument for funding math, even when mathematicians are no longer needed to teach calculus to future engineers. The comments section has quite a few interesting conversations about why and how to fund math, and O’Neil’s post has spawned at least one other blog post, by DJ Bruce.

Of course, as an early-career mathematician, the continued funding of my profession is important to me! I am not as convinced as she is that MOOCs threaten my job, but I think it’s good to think about how to make the case for math funding. I study math basically because of reason 2, but like O’Neil, I don’t think that alone makes a terribly compelling argument for funding math at the level of other sciences. I do think the combination of the aesthetic/creative and the practical makes mathematics very special, and I think that without mathematics, our search for truth in other sciences would be more difficult. I’m not sure the best way to sell the idea to the public and funding agencies, though. Can you do better? If you’d like to leave a comment on O’Neil’s post, you can do so here.

On a lighter note, Shecky Riemann recently posted an interview with O’Neil on his blog (cross-posted on her blog). My favorite line, about her daily blogging routine, was “…getting my daily blog on is kind of like having an awesome poop.” And that’s why I love reading Cathy O’Neil. She asks hard, provocative questions, and then she makes you think about poop.

Mathematical research gives the opportunity to master mathematic topics and it provides an understanding of mathematics as a growing field. Mathematical research helps people to develop confidence as mathematical thinkers and increase enthusiasm to do more mathematics. Mathematic research may lead to finding new formulas and it can help finding ways to simplify calculations or problems.

I believe that mathematics is important for progress in other fields. John Dewey claimed that we do not learn the basics by studying the basics but by engaging in rich activities which require them. For example we learn and understand mathematics better when applying it to engineering or accounting, but it is essential to use mathematics. It is the foundation of other sciences. If we do get funding to do more mathematic research we will have stronger foundations to build on. Without mathematics we will not be able to progress in other sciences due to the fact that most sciences are based on mathematics.