January 10, 1998|By Neal Thompson | Neal Thompson,SUN STAFF

In addition to warding off doom by eavesdropping on the world, the National Security Agency has shouldered a corollary responsibility over the past 10 years: saving the world of mathematics.

The NSA's presence at this week's math conference in Baltimore is part of a stepped-up effort to reinforce the nation's math underpinnings through research grants to mathematicians, yearlong sabbaticals at its Fort Meade headquarters and summer programs for undergraduate math students.

The effort costs the secretive spy agency more than $3 million a year, said James R. Schatz, chief of the NSA's mathematics research division. A decade ago, the NSA made no such investments.

As the largest employer of mathematicians in the nation, the NSA has been concerned that disturbing trends in math -- poor test scores, a waning focus on math in U.S. classrooms, a declining number of doctorates in math and a small pool of elite mathematicians -- could be a threat to national security.

In addition to the grants, sabbaticals and summer programs, the NSA has sponsored research programs at schools such as Cornell and George Washington universities in recent years.

The agency also is spending money to draw more women and minorities into math.

"The philosophy here is that unless the U.S. mathematics community is strong, healthy, vibrant, then we're not going to have the kind of population to recruit from that we need," Schatz said in an interview Friday.

Lt. Gen. Kenneth Minihan, the NSA director, told many of the 4,000 mathematicians at the Baltimore Convention Center yesterday that the agency relies on them to supply more of the silent heroes who helped win the Cold War.

"The Cold War is characterized by battles not fought, lives not lost," Minihan said. "That era was fought with mathematicians and cryptologists."

Although the NSA's efforts to lure the nation's best math minds ** are a decade old, only in recent years have results been strong.

In each of the past two years, the NSA has hired 50 to 60 mathematicians, most of them holding doctorates. Such mathematicians were in short supply a decade ago. The agency interviewed more than 100 applicants this week and plans to hire 50 math experts this year.

Nothing like it

"Over a three-year period, we're going to be hiring over 100 mathematicians with Ph.D.s. There's nothing like that in the world, really," Schatz said. "A university might have one or two openings a year, if that."

Such job opportunities come at an important time for the nation's mathematicians. Top mathematicians from the former Soviet Union are being hired at U.S. colleges and universities, constricting the job market for U.S.-born mathematicians. That has pushed many of the native mathematicians into the NSA, which is allowed to hire only U.S. citizens.

"Changes in the Soviet Union brought a lot of talented mathematicians here," said Allyn Jackson of the American Mathematical Society, co-sponsor of the conference. "So I think rTC there are a lot of people who might not have thought about working for NSA who are considering employment there because they can't find positions in academia."

Accepting funds

Another change in recent years has been mathematicians' willingness to accept NSA research funding.

They "thought the funding from the military could sort of warp the mission of the mathematics community," Jackson said. "They thought, 'Oh my God, the NSA, the military, they're going to have all kinds of strictures on publishing.' But now a lot of really good mathematicians are getting funding from them, and people are less worried about military funding."

Kenneth Chelst, professor of operations research at Wayne State University in Detroit, received a $25,000 grant from the NSA to provide high school teachers with relevant math problems for their students.

He used the money to create workbooks laying out business situations -- a shoe company's production plan, a pizza maker's work schedule, for example -- that can be solved using algebra and other math procedures.

More active role

"It's exciting that there's somebody in government interested in math," said Chelst, who is sending his workbook to 2,500 high schools next week.

The NSA spends $2.5 million a year on such research grants (some of which also goes toward math conferences), $500,000 on summer undergraduate programs at four universities and about $100,000 on an advisory group for statisticians.

The agency went through much soul-searching before deciding to sacrifice some of its cherished secrecy to play a more activist and public role. The payoff has been a stronger pool of recruits with the talents to operate the agency's math-based code-breaking, cryptology and encryption mission.

"We're not going to be healthy if they're not healthy. The way they can be healthy is if their students have jobs," Schatz said.

Problem-solvers

Schatz said academics who usually deal with theoretical math find themselves challenged by math problems whose stakes are national security.

"Mathematicians are problem-solvers. They're happy if they have intriguing, interesting problems to solve," he said. "That's what they live for."

The one shortcoming in NSA's recruitment drive has been an excess of white male candidates.

A congressional study of math funding in the United States in April found that NSA was trying to draw more minorities and women into mathematics -- but slowly.

'Women and minorities have been under-represented in mathematics since the beginning of time," Schatz said. "We're working very hard to diversify."

Pub Date: 1/10/98