MEDIA RELEASE: Can Maths Save the Planet?


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Can Maths Save the Planet?

As a school student I was always concerned about environmental issues, I kind of wanted to “save the world”.  I was also interested in maths, and it took a while to fully appreciate how well these two interests go together.  These days, I research ways to use data to answer important ecological questions which not long ago were very difficult to get a handle on.  Some examples: the risks of climate change to biodiversity, learning about new and rarely seen species when we have hardly any data on them, inferring how extinct species lived, from fossils of just the bones in their hands.  I’ve worked on plants, animals, dinosaurs, penguins, criminals, casino games… mathematical skills can help you get a foot in the door to all sorts of interesting problems.

Maths is highly valued not just in environmental research, but also when it comes to decision-making on environmental issues.  Consider the widely discussed target of limiting carbon dioxide emissions to 450ppm – this is informed by mathematical modelling, which predicts an increase in average temperature rise of about 2 degrees Celsius under the scenario.  Or how a species is assigned Critically Endangered status – one criterion is a 50% chance of extinction over the coming 10 years, which again warrants some data and a whole lot of modelling.

A Eureka award-winning example of how mathematics can cut through to decision-making is in reserve design – the Marxan software (, developed Prof Hugh Possingham’s team at the University of Queensland, is used by governments designing wildlife reserves world-wide.  “Our software has even got Britain and France working together” says a tongue-in-cheek Prof Possingham.

Prof Richard Kingsford at the University of New South Wales won a Eureka prize for his contributions to the Murray-Darling water use debate.  He employed a biostatistician to help understand the consequences of different decisions on Murray-Darling water usage.  “Statistics models were critical to the debate with many different lines of evidence essential to providing sufficient information to steel governments to make the right decision”, Prof Kingsford says.  Another recent example of maths in action is the biosecurity work of Dr Andrew Robinson at the University of Melbourne, to improve how government allocates its resources to quarantine efforts.

And it looks like there are plenty more examples to come.  There has been something of a revolution going on in mathematics and statistics over the last couple of decades, driven by advances in computing and the new technologies this enables.  So as the capacities of our number crunchers improve with time, will the range of questions maths can answer improve too?  “Yes” says Dr Robinson.  Something tells me he would be more than happy to elaborate…

Prof Kingsford and Dr Robinson will appear on a panel discussion and Q&A “Can Maths Save the Planet?”, hosted by Mark Horstman from ABC’s Catalyst program, Thursday July 11th at 5pm, Leighton Hall, The University of New South Wales.



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