The impact of mathematics – human interactions!

Think of a mathematician and you might imagine an isolated individual fueled by coffee whose immaculate if incomprehensible papers may, in the fullness of time, via a decades-long dry chain of citations, be made use of by an industrialist (via one or two other dedicated mathematicians).

Not so, says new research by Oxford Mathematician and Computer Scientist Ursula Martin and evaluator Laura Meagher. Instead they reveal a vibrant and fertile environment where human interaction is the key.

Mathematics’ impact in every walk of life is astounding. Deloitte estimate that 10% of all UK jobs and 16% of total UK GDP is a direct result of mathematics. Ursula and Laura’s research puts the flesh on those figures, literally so as it demonstrates that mathematical impact is brought about above all by human interaction, long term relationships and close working with other disciplines and end users.  

In the context of an increasing interest in generating and measuring impacts across the academic and funding worlds, Ursula and Laura used the trove of data provided by the 2014 Research Excellence Framework (which assesses the quality and impact of research across higher education in the UK) to dig down into 209 examples of the impact of UK mathematics and statistics.

Complementing this with surveys and in-depth interviews, they identified a diverse ecosystem of people and ideas across mathematics, an ecosystem that includes the many other disciplines where mathematics is crucial as well as the many end users and beneficiaries of mathematical research. Their research also highlighted the role of specialist individuals in building long term relationships.

Moreover, the varieties of impact were striking, both the deep conceptual work that can reshape a whole field, and the detailed deployment of that work in a specific problem domain, both mathematical and beyond.

Finally, their work reinforced the crucial role of universities in developing a culture supportive of impact generation which reinforces the distinctive but all-pervasive nature of  mathematics, a discipline that is underpinning and influencing so many of the scientific, technological and social questions we are asking of our world.