Mathematically speaking, NSA wants you!

February 10, 1992|By Douglas Birch

Industry and academia have cut back on hiring. But the secretive National Security Agency needs more than a few good mathematicians and has sacrificed some of its cherished anonymity to recruit them.

At a time when the NSA plans to trim its overall work force by about 15 percent, the high-technology spy agency near Fort Meade is aggressively recruiting people with degrees in mathematics.

The agency, which refuses to cite numbers, already claims to be thelargest employer of mathematicians in the United States.

Mathematical minds are prized because they are so versatile, said Dr. Richard J. Shaker, the NSA's chief of math research.

Specialists in algebra, number theory, combinatorics and other esoteric arts often are drafted to do work outside their narrow fields. Some of these theoreticians have "provided big breakthroughs needed for our work in communications, engineering, speech research, signals processing and the design and implementation of powerful, specialized computers," Dr. Shaker said in a speech at a meeting of national math groups in Baltimore last month.

A national study released at the same meeting showed high unemployment among mathematicians who earned doctorates in the United States last spring.

The study also found that the number of people with doctorates in math who are U.S. citizens has plummeted from 75 percent in the mid-1970s to 43 percent last year -- and the NSA is understandably averse to hiring foreign nationals.

"We need you," Dr. Shaker implored the crowd of about 400 mathematicians gathered at the Convention Center. (He declined last week to elaborate on the speech.)

The spy agency won't say why it appears to be pressed for brainpower at a time when international tensions have eased. A public affairs officer, who asked that her name not be used, said NSA would not comment on "operational" issues.

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