"Can Maths Save the Planet?" forum at UNSW


Friday, 12th July 2013

Can Maths Save the Planet?
Over 200 people gathered in UNSW's Leighton Hall yesterday afternoon for panel discussion and Q & A event "Can Maths Save the Planet?". The forum, which capped off social media campaign "Maths is Awesome Week", was part of the two-day Eco-Stats Symposium organised by A/Prof David Warton and the Ecological Statistics Reseach Group.

Prof Richard Kingsford (UNSW), Prof Kerrie Mengersen (QUT) and Dr Andrew Robinson (UMelb) featured on the panel, facilitated by Mark Horstman from ABC’s Catalyst. The event was streamed live via Google+, and online participants sent questions via social media. Questions were also taken from audience members.

The panel discussed the pivotal role of mathematics in conservation planning and biosecurity. Each panellist spoke separately about their own work, and how they believe maths can "save the planet". L-R: Prof Kingsford, Dr Robinson, Prof Mengersen, Mark Horstman

"We save it by looking at new types of data - there's all kinds of data that we have now: observational data, sensor data, image data, internet data", said Prof Mengersen. "We, as mathematicians and statisticians, can find the stories in those data, and to relay those to find the insights to convey those to the people that make the decisions that will save the planet".

Dr Robinson (dubbed "the best dressed man in the auditorium" by Mark) spoke about how he uses statistics to "make the world a better place". He said his role has been to "engage vigorously with the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry to help them figure out how they can best use the data they have available to them".

Can Maths Save the Planet?Prof Kingsford spoke about his aerial waterbird surveys, carried out over 30 years, and the significance of this data for illuminating population changes and the behaviour of river systems. A key issue raised by panellists was the challenge of being heard by the government. Prof Kingsford lamented the large influence of stakeholder and lobby groups in government decision making, and stressed the importance of scientists getting their research into the media. He acknowledged that dealing with data can sometimes be "incredibly difficult", and he emphasised the need for scientists to "learn to present complex things simply".

Dr Robinson claimed that it was "incumbent" on scientists and mathematicians to tell a story.

Prof Mengersen said that training in mathematical and statistical thinking needs to be encouraged. "We need to invest in our teachers and our communities, to develop our mathematical literacy", she said. She also highlighted the need for research to translate to policy outcomes.

The event culminated in a discussion about whether the question of maths saving the planet will still be relevant in 20+ years’ time. Prof Kingsford suspects it probably will be.

"It's a very complex set of threats out there... But I think maths will be doing a better job in 20 years' time in terms of saving the planet". He said he hoped for less illiteracy around the decision making space, as that is "where maths can really shine".