November 26, 1990|By Daniel S. Greenberg

WASHINGTON — Washington. HIGH-LEVEL mathematics is indispensable for running a technological society. But the enrollment news from the doctoral levels of academe is that mathematics is increasingly shunned by Americans to the point where it would dry up in many places without foreign students.

Led by a handful of specialists whose work is incomprehensible to the masses, mathematics is the basic tool of all the other sciences and is essential for industry, defense and government. And only mathematicians can train the next generation of mathematicians. As with poetry, many achieve the lower levels of accomplishment in mathematics, but superstars are rare.

The job market is reportedly healthy for mathematicians with advanced training. However, professional societies' latest figures reveal a continuing American withdrawal from the field. The trend is variously attributed to the derelict state of math training in high school and college, the inherent difficulty of the subject and the lure of higher-paying fields. In addition, fellowships for training are both skimpy and in short supply. Whatever the causes, the effects are striking.

The number of mathematics doctorates awarded by U.S. universities has changed little over the past 15 years -- 938 in the 1973-74 academic year and 929 in 1989-90. What has gone downward is the number of Americans receiving that degree. Americans accounted for 677 students, 72 percent, of the graduating class in the earlier period, but the latest class numbered only 401 Americans, or 43 percent. That's a record low since 1973-74, when citizenship data were first collected, according to the American Mathematical Society and the Mathematical Association of America.

Also to be noted is that after many years of sermonizing and some serious efforts to encourage more women and minorities to seek careers in mathematics, the results are disappointing. The annual number of American women Ph.D graduates in math has actually declined from a peak of 102 in 1980-81 to 89 in 1989-90. Four blacks received math doctorates in the latest graduating class, another decline, from nine the year before.

Rather than a threat, as some view them, the foreign students are actually a blessing, in mathematics and other science-related fields, where their numbers also bolster sagging U.S. university enrollments. Many specialized courses would simply disappear from some campuses without foreign students to justify their continuation, according to Edward Connors, director of the Office of Government and Public Affairs at the Joint Policy Board for Mathematics.

Foreign graduates sometimes remain in the United States or return to work here after a stint at home. The education invested in them thus often benefits American society. But many return to their native lands to stay. And, particularly as economic conditions improve in Third World nations, professional opportunities at home are on the increase. It is possible that foreign students will continue to fill the gap in Ph.D-level math studies and that enough will stay on to fill American needs. But counting on that could be as perilous as relying on foreign energy supplies. South Korea, for example, is successfully courting the return of many scientists and engineers working in the U.S.

Hit by federal budget reductions during the 1980s, university mathematics departments have been receiving special attention in government science planning. A master plan for revival was produced in 1985 by a high-level committee chaired by Edward E. David Jr., a former presidential science adviser and industrial executive.

Washington, however, prefers high-tech spectaculars to piddling academic programs. Perhaps because only a few million dollars are involved, the renewal design for mathematics has dawdled along with little success, as can be seen from the doctoral statistics. The universities themselves, beset with awesome fiscal problems, have done little to beef up their math departments and make the field more alluring for potential recruits.

The distress of mathematics is taking place out of public view and beneath the threshold of political notice. If painful consequences ensue in industry and elsewhere, they will arrive slowly. When they are noticeable, it will be too late to fix them. Now is the time to rejuvenate science and math education in the schools and to infuse needed money into universities. But despite heady political talk about education, little is actually being done.