Press release

New UNESCO study stresses vital role of mathematicians in tackling contemporary challenges

Despite the omnipresence of mathematics in our daily lives, in our phones, credit cards, cars etc., there may not be enough mathematicians to solve the complex challenges we face, from climate change to pandemics, a new UNESCO study finds.
Maths toolkit

Some 41% of the global population is at risk from flooding caused by tropical cyclones. Thanks to new mathematical models and better algorithms, the path of a tropical cyclone can now be predicted up to a week in advance.  In 2019, it could only be predicted five days in advance and, in the 1970s, just 36 hours ahead. Longer visibility gives municipal authorities precious additional time to plan the evacuation of populations in highly exposed areas.

This is just one of many case studies in Mathematics for Action, a new UNESCO publication released on 14 March to mark International Mathematics Day. “The study demonstrates why it makes sense for governments to include a mathematician on their team of scientific advisors”, says Christiane Rousseau of the Department of Mathematics and Statistics at the University of Montréal in Canada, who led the development of the toolkit.  

Mathematical methods to design vaccines

“The COVID-19 pandemic has really brought mathematical modelling into the public eye”, she adds. “Two years ago, who would have thought that a term such as ‘flattening the curve’ would become part of the public lexicon?” Similarly, news stories referring to mathematical terms such as the basic reproduction number (R0) of the virus or ‘herd immunity’ through mass vaccination have become regular features. Mathematical methods themselves have been used to design vaccines more efficiently and to model vaccine hesitancy as a social phenomenon.

But the utility of mathematics does not stop there. For Norbert Hounkonnou, President of the Network of African Science Academies, “the Mathematics for Action toolkit is a revolutionary policy-oriented tool. It showcases the decisive role of mathematics in contributing to solving the world’s most pressing challenges and in achieving the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals”.

One of these goals is to end poverty. The toolkit describes, for example, how researchers were able to compile poverty maps of 552 villages and communities in Senegal and identify areas in need of greater public investment, despite missing census data. By applying mathematical tools like machine learning algorithms (artificial intelligence), the researchers were able to establish the extent of poverty in specific areas. .

Scenarios for the future

How are the many services nature provides, such as freshwater, medicinal plants or crops to be priced? Two research studies in Mathematics for Action do just that by quantifying the value of ecosystem services and biodiversity of large estuaries in North America and Asia.

The toolkit describes how mathematical models enable the exploration of multiple “what-if” scenarios to inform the decision-making process. Scientists use climate models in combination with storylines to produce plausible alternative scenarios for the future.

“The shortage of quality mathematics teachers around the world is a threat to training a sufficient number of mathematicians and scientists capable of meeting the challenges of the contemporary world”, warn Merrilyn Goos and Anjum Halai, the two Vice-Presidents of the International Commission on Mathematical Instruction, two authors of the toolkit.

Read the toolkit Mathematics for action: supporting science-based decision-making

Media contact: Clare O’Hagan

Note for editors

The International Day of Mathematics was proclaimed by UNESCO in 2019 to draw attention to the extensive contribution that mathematics makes to social progress and the plethora of vocations that mathematics offers to boys and girls.

Mathematics for Action: Supporting Science-Based Decision Making is a series of policy briefs produced by UNESCO, the Centre de recherches mathématiques of Canada, the International Mathematical Union, the International Science Council and their partners.

The Centre de recherches mathématiques (CRM) was the manager of the toolkit project, which was produced by a consortium composed of the: