Value crisis or identity crisis? The French mathematical community needs figures to show that it plays a key role in our economy. A report has just been published which testifies to the involvement of mathematicians in all sectors of innovation. However, companies are less inclined than in Germany, especially to grasp their strategic role. And young people are less fascinated than before by the mastery of the "mathematical language". Radioscopy of a malaise.
Qhat better than the brilliant and refined Cédric Villani, can put flesh on the bones of maths, and prove the value of this logical language so powerful in underpinning intelligence? It is the last French recipient of the Fields Medal who staged the presentation of the first national report on the socio-economic impact of mathematics in France on 27 May at the Ministry of Higher Education and Research. In 57 pages, the document proves by A+B that mathematics contributes to the creation of added value to the tune of 15% of GDP (value in 2012). For jobs that represent only 9% of all jobs, this is a good score. The report highlights the leverage effect of mathematics: 50% of key technologies are conditioned by mathematical progress. It points out the five strategic skill areas that require fundamental or applied mathematics: signal processing and image analysis, data mining (statistics, data analysis and learning), MSO (modelling, simulation, optimisation), HPC (high-performance computing) and finally information systems security and cryptography.
The mastery of these fields of expertise by companies is seen as essential to enable them to meet industrial challenges. If information technologies, telecoms, networks, energy or finance are mathematically intensive, so is health: 50% of the key technologies in the field of life are impacted by mathematics, including 20% very strongly. There is a tendency for major groups to rely on centres of expertise that bring together mathematicians, economists and computer scientists for strategies (energy optimisation at EDF, economic modelling at GDF Suez). Safran, Limagrain, Alcatel-Lucent, Michelin, Alstom, Areva and Total have specialized R&D teams. Obviously on the world market for Big Data estimated at 24 billion dollars in 2016, mathematical needs are exploding: 137 000 jobs are expected to be created between now and 2020.
Reading this litany of the good services rendered to growth by mathematical science, one wonders why the mathematical community has been so keen to show how important it is! Identity crisis or recognition crisis? "It was important to quantify the actual role for our industry." insists Cédric Villani.
It seems that French learned societies have been driving this reflexive work since 2008 (survey on mathematics at the heart of innovation) followed by a work in Great Britain published in 2010 by the Deloitte firm (Measuring the Economic Benefits of Mathematical Science Research in the UK).
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At the European level, the Forward Look report "Mathematics and industry", produced in 2011 by the European Science Foundation, had a trigger effect. "The usefulness of mathematics has been objectified and the discipline has been highlighted as a factor of innovation and competitiveness".said Cédric Villani. After studies in Canada, the Netherlands and Australia, the French community wanted to produce an accurate picture of its contribution to the dynamism of our economy.
The inventory of fixtures was carried out by the CMI Cabinet at the request of theAMIES(the Agency for Mathematics in Interaction with Business and Society) and its partners, (the Fondation Sciences Mathématiques de Paris and the Fondation Mathématique Jacques Hadamard).
It is Pierre Bourguignon, President of the European Research Council, who is the clearest indication of why maths needs to be upgraded: "There are considerably more areas of advanced mathematics today than there were twenty years ago. They are also more strategic (...). We are now seeing the emergence of new professions and new economic models, in which statistics and data processing play an important role. The collection, structuring, transformation and exploitation of the data collected require very high-level mathematical processes (...) in the new paradigm, marked by the continuity between fundamental and applied mathematics and by the presence of fundamental mathematics at the heart of the economic world, the question of communication is central". (see " A New Golden Age for Corporate Mathematics ? " published in 2014).
While French research in mathematics remains one of the best in the world, weaknesses have been noted in the structuring of the research-industry relationship, the clarity of the higher education and research system and the attractiveness of the courses and company career paths, even though the professional outlets are excellent at the end of the courses. Laurent Gouzènes, head of innovation at the Medef, intends to alert the public authorities: "The demand for quality in mathematics education drops at the base, i.e. in high school. It is all the power of our research that is likely to suffer from this growing deficiency"..
So there's a latent youthful unlove for the queen of science? Not so sure. Rather, we should explore the discovery of a new face of the discipline linked to the changing uses of mathematics. For indeed, there are some differences between the figures of a Mandelbrot (fractal designer) or a Grothendieck (founder of Survivre et vivre, one of the first ecology movements in France) and those of David Bessis, passionate about digital marketing, king of consumer scoring, and Nicole El Kaouri, precursor of financial mathematics. Not a day goes by when we don't hear about the performance of startups like QuantCube technology or MydataBall in applying big data to finance!
From the strange and fascinating scientist, the mathematician became the perfect engineer of finance or artificial intelligence. Mathematician and philosopher Nicolas Bouleau (Cermics) underlines on his Blog Knowledge and pluralism : "The international credit market, does not make moralism, it takes human nature as it is... either... But what's wrong with this is that the credit market is nobody, you and I through our savings, the addition of small, harmless trusts without real political direction has been transmuted into a faceless power that strongly skews democracy".
At a time when our climatic, environmental or political challenges are urgent, it would be good to find among the socio-economic impacts of mathematics, a major lever for decision-making intelligence.