SIAM News Blog

Venturing Outside the Silo

By Hans G. Kaper and Hans Engler

Pushing the boundaries of our discipline ensures that mathematics has an impact across various fields. As mathematical scientists, we continue to make significant advances and expose new areas of application. But how proficient are we at communicating the results of our efforts outside our silo? Some scientists are well aware of the contributions we can offer their discipline; however, too many are not, and consequently invent their own mathematical approaches. Decision-makers rarely recognize mathematics’ important contributions to the “real world.” Even well-educated members of the general public believe that most—if not all—mathematical problems were solved a long time ago. Our profession clearly has a communication problem.

We organized a scientific session on the “Mathematics of Planet Earth” (MPE) at the 2018 Annual Meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), held in Austin, Texas, this February. Entitled “MPE: Superbugs, Storm Surges, and Ecosystem Change,” our session featured three talks on applications of mathematics: “Unseen Enemies: Surveilling, Predicting, and Controlling Epidemic Outbreaks” (Glenn Webb, Vanderbilt University), “Spatial Self-Organization and Its Implications for Ecosystem Robustness” (Corina Tarnita, Princeton University), and “Resilient and Sustainable Coasts: How Mathematics and Simulation Play a Role” (Clint Dawson, University of Texas). The meeting allowed us to experience firsthand how other scientists view mathematics and how we can communicate science.

The AAAS is the world’s largest general scientific society. It fulfills its dual mission to “advance science and serve society” through many initiatives in science policy, education, and science communication. Thousands of scientists attend AAAS annual meetings, which feature prominent non-scientist speakers, such as this year’s keynote presentation by former vice president Joe Biden. Many science journalists and writers from around the world frequent the meetings, which leads to wide media coverage.

“Mathematics” is Section A among a total of 24 AAAS sections — recognition of its integral and enabling role in the larger scientific enterprise. Despite this status, very few mathematicians regularly attend the meetings, and mathematics rarely features prominently in the program lineup.

We left Austin with the impression that mathematicians had missed another opportunity to engage with other scientists and the general public. We also witnessed other scientists’ increased proficiency in communicating the importance and relevance of their research. Not interacting sufficiently with our peers and failing to regularly and skillfully share our work with a broader audience can only hurt our profession in the long run.

  Noteworthy Sessions from the
2018 AAAS 
Annual Meeting 

   – In a session titled “Exploring Universal
   and Industrial Quantum Computing,”
   speakers from Google, IBM Research, and
   Delft University of Technology presented
   different strategies to increase quantum
   computation’s error resistance and broad
   availability, and develop new hardware
   approaches for this task.

   – In a flash talk discussion session titled
   “Developing Robotics to Assist Humans,”
   speakers employed videos and animations
   to generate a lively discussion about the
   technical and societal challenges that result
   from robotic advancement.

   – In a plenary lecture titled “When Facts are
   Not Enough,” Katharine Hayhoe, an
   atmospheric scientist at Texas Tech
   University, offered suggestions for
   connecting with climate skeptics, including
   bonding over a shared love of gardening or
   concern for national security.


Why does our community not engage more actively with the world beyond our silo? Some of the reasons are apparent. We often find it difficult to determine the questions that drive projects in other disciplines, or see little opportunity for interesting mathematics in these projects, so we tend to stay within the comfort zone of our own discipline and its reward system. Our training compels us to emphasize correctness and generality over accessibility and illustrative examples. Additionally, mathematicians tend to use their own jargon. Many of us believe that our work is too complicated to explain in terms that might resonate with a general audience. Too often we communicate to address a few dozen peers, when in fact we could be reaching thousands. And unfortunately, those more extensive audiences almost expect such idiosyncrasies.

Effective communication should not be left to professional societies, and we as mathematicians can change our habits. The 2018 AAAS Annual Meeting featured many engaging presentations on a variety of topics, including “What Citizens Think About Science: Survey Data and Implications for Communicators,” “Science for All: Using Social Media to Take Your Research Around the World,” and “Advancing Artificial Intelligence: From the Lab to the Street.” See the accompanying inset for additional examples.

Persuasive science communication is a major challenge, especially for our discipline, and requires a shift in our collective thinking. We must recognize that it is not enough to be heard by a gathering of peers; there are broader audiences worth reaching.

To get started, consider the following questions. Can you summarize the impact of your work in 200 words, or even a few tweets? Could you explain your research in a 30-second elevator pitch to a dean or provost? Would you be able to get a three-minute video about your work produced and published? By venturing outside our silo, we learn how to strengthen our discipline’s communication efforts and spread awareness of mathematics’ relevance and value.

Acknowledgments: The authors thank the American Mathematical Society and Section A (Mathematics) of the AAAS for supporting their participation in the 2018 AAAS Annual Meeting. 

Hans Kaper, founding chair of the SIAM Activity Group on Mathematics of Planet Earth (SIAG/MPE) and editor-in-chief of SIAM News, is an adjunct professor of mathematics at Georgetown University. Hans Engler is a professor of mathematics at Georgetown University. He currently chairs SIAG/MPE.

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