Can mathematicians help to solve social-justice problems?

Can mathematicians help to solve social-justice problems?


When Carrie Diaz Eaton trained as a mathematician, they didn’t expect their career to involve social-justice research. Growing up in Providence, Rhode Island, Diaz Eaton first saw social justice in action when their father, who’s from Peru, helped other Spanish-speaking immigrants to settle in the United States.

But it would be decades before Diaz Eaton would forge a professional path to use their mathematical expertise to study social-justice issues. Eventually, after years of moving around for education and training, that journey brought them back to Providence, where they collaborated with the Woonasquatucket River Watershed Council on projects focused on preserving the local environment of the river’s drainage basin, and bolstering resources for the surrounding, often underserved communities.

By “thinking like a mathematician” and leaning on data analysis, data science and visualization skills, they found that their expertise was needed in surprising ways, says Diaz Eaton, who is now executive director of the Institute for a Racially Just, Inclusive, and Open STEM Education at Bates College in Lewiston, Maine.

For example, the council identified a need to help local people to better connect with community resources. “Even though health care and education don’t seem to fall under the purview of a watershed council, these are all interrelated issues,” Diaz Eaton says. Air pollution can contribute to asthma attacks, for example. In one project, Diaz Eaton and their collaborators built a quiz to help community members to choose the right health-care option, depending on the nature of their illness or injury, immigration status and health-insurance coverage.

“One of the things that makes us mathematicians, is our skills in logic and the questioning of assumptions”, and creating that quiz “was an example of logic at play”, requiring a logic map of cases and all of the possible branches of decision-making to make an effective quiz, they say.

Maths might seem an unlikely bedfellow for social-justice research. But applying the rigour of the field is turning out to be a promising approach for identifying, and sometimes even implementing, fruitful solutions for social problems.

Mathematicians can experience first-hand the messiness and complexity — and satisfaction — of applying maths to problems that affect people and their communities. Trying to work out how to help people access much-needed resources, reduce violence in communities or boost gender equity requires different technical skills, ways of thinking and professional collaborations compared with breaking new ground in pure maths. Even for an applied mathematician like Diaz Eaton, transitioning to working on social-justice applications brings fresh challenges.

Mathematicians say that social-justice research is difficult yet fulfilling — these projects are worth taking on because of their tremendous potential for creating real-world solutions for people and the planet.

Data-driven research

Mathematicians are digging into issues that range from social inequality and health-care access to racial profiling and predictive policing. However, the scope of their research is limited by their access to the data, says Omayra Ortega, an applied mathematician and mathematical epidemiologist at Sonoma State University in Rohnert Park, California. “There has to be that measured information,” Ortega says.

Lily Khadjavi teaching

Lily Khadjavi used a pivotal set of traffic-stop data from the Los Angeles Police Department in her statistics class at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, California.Credit: Loyola Marymount University

Fortunately, data for social issues abound. “Our society is collecting data at a ridiculous pace,” Ortega notes. Her mathematical epidemiology work has examined which factors affect vaccine uptake in different communities. Her work1 has found, for example, that, in five years, a national rotavirus-vaccine programme in Egypt would reduce disease burden enough that the cost saving would offset 76% of the costs of the vaccine. “Whenever we’re talking about the distribution of resources, there’s that question of social justice: who gets the resources?” she says.

Lily Khadjavi’s journey with social-justice research began with an intriguing data set.

About 15 years ago, Khadjavi, a mathematician at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, California, was “on the hunt for real-world data” for an undergraduate statistics class she was teaching. She wanted data that the students could crunch to “look at new information and pose their own questions”. She realized that Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) traffic-stop data fit that description.

At that time, every time that LAPD officers stopped pedestrians or pulled over drivers, they were required to report stop data. Those data included “the perceived race or ethnicity of the person they had stopped”, Khadjavi notes.

When the students analysed the data, the results were memorable. “That was the first time I heard students do a computation absolutely correctly and then audibly gasp at their results,” she says. The data showed that one in every 5 or 6 police stops of Black male drivers resulted in a vehicle search — a rate that was more than triple the national average, which was about one out of every 20 stops for drivers of any race or ethnicity, says Khadjavi.

Her decision to incorporate that policing data into her class was a pivotal moment in Khadjavi’s career — it led to a key publication2 and years of building expertise in using maths to study racial profiling and police practice. She sits on California’s Racial Identity and Profiling Advisory Board, which makes policy recommendations to state and local agencies on how to eliminate racial profiling in law enforcement.

In 2023, she was awarded the Association for Women in Mathematics’ inaugural Mary & Alfie Gray Award for Social Justice, named after a mathematician couple who championed human rights and equity in maths and government.

Sometimes, gaining access to data is a matter of networking. One of Khadjavi’s colleagues shared Khadjavi’s pivotal article with specialists at the American Civil Liberties Union. In turn, these specialists shared key data obtained through public-records requests with Khadjavi and her colleague. “Getting access to that data really changed what we could analyse,” Khadjavi says. “[It] allowed us to shine a light on the experiences of civilians and police in hundreds of thousands of stops made every year in Los Angeles.”

The data-intensive nature of this research can be an adjustment for some mathematicians, requiring them to develop new skills and approach problems differently. Such was the case for Tian An Wong, a mathematician at the University of Michigan-Dearborn who trained in number theory and representation theory.

In 2020, Wong wanted to know more about the controversial issue of mathematicians collaborating with the police, which involves, in many cases, using mathematical modelling and data analysis to support policing activities. Some mathematicians were protesting about the practice as part of a larger wave of protests around systemic racism, following the killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Wong’s research led them to a technique called predictive policing, which Wong describes as “the use of historical crime and other data to predict where future crime will occur, and [to] allocate policing resources based on those predictions”.

Wong wanted to know whether the tactics that mathematicians use to support police work could instead be used to critique it. But first, they needed to gain some additional statistics and data analysis skills. To do so, Wong took an online introductory statistics course, re-familiarized themself with the Python programming language, and connected with colleagues trained in statistical methods. They also got used to reading research papers across several disciplines.

Currently, Wong applies those skills to investigating the policing effectiveness of a technology that automatically locates gunshots by sound. That technology has been deployed in parts of Detroit, Michigan, where community members and organizations have raised concerns about its multimillion-dollar cost and about whether such police surveillance makes a difference to public safety.

Getting the lay of the land

For some mathematicians, social-justice work is a natural extension of their career trajectories. “My choice of mathematical epidemiology was also partially born out of out of my love for social justice,” Ortega says. Mathematical epidemiologists apply maths to study disease occurrence in specific populations and how to mitigate disease spread. When Ortega’s PhD adviser mentioned that she could study the uptake of a then-new rotovirus vaccine in the mid-2000s, she was hooked.

Portrait of Michael Small

Applied mathematician Michael Small has turned his research towards understanding suicide risk in young people.Credit: Michael Small

Mathematicians, who decide to jump into studying social-justice issues anew, must do their homework and dedicate time to consider how best to collaborate with colleagues of diverse backgrounds.

Jonathan Dawes, an applied mathematician at the University of Bath, UK, investigates links between the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and their associated target actions. Adopted in 2015, the SDGs are “a universal call to action to end poverty, protect the planet, and ensure that by 2030 all people enjoy peace and prosperity,” according to the United Nations, and each one has a number of targets.

“As a global agenda, it’s an invitation to everybody to get involved,” says Dawes. From a mathematical perspective, analysing connections in the complex system of SDGs “is a nice level of problem,” Dawes says. “You’ve got 17 Sustainable Development Goals. Between them, they have 169 targets. [That’s] an amount of data that isn’t very large in big-data terms, but just big enough that it’s quite hard to hold all of it in your head.”

Dawes’ interest in the SDGs was piqued when he read a 2015 review that focused on how making progress on individual goals could affect progress on the entire set. For instance, if progress is made on the goal to end poverty how does that affect progress on the goal to achieve quality education for all, as well as the other 15 SDGs?

“If there’s a network and you can put some numbers on the strengths and signs of the edges, then you’ve got a mathematized version of the problem,” Dawes says. Some of his results describe how the properties of the network change if one or more of the links is perturbed, much like an ecological food web. His work aims to identify hierarchies in the SDG networks, pinpointing which SDGs should be prioritized for the health of the entire system.

As Dawes dug into the SDGs, he realized that he needed to expand what he was reading to include different journals, including publications that were “written in very different ways”. That involved “trying to learn a new language”, he explains. He also kept up to date with the output of researchers and organizations doing important SDG-related work, such as the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis in Laxenburg, Austria, and the Stockholm Environment Institute.

Dawes’ research3 showed that interactions between the SDGs mean that “there are lots of positive reinforcing effects between poverty, hunger, health care, education, gender equity and so on.” So, “it’s possible to lift all of those up” when progress is made on even one of the goals. With one exception: managing and protecting the oceans. Making progress on some of the other SDGs could, in some cases, stall progress for, or even harm, life below water.

Collaboration care

Because social-justice projects are often inherently cross-disciplinary, mathematicians studying social justice say it’s key in those cases to work with community leaders, activists or community members affected by the issues.

Getting acquainted with these stakeholders might not always feel comfortable or natural. For instance, when Dawes started his SDG research, he realized that he was entering a field in which researchers already knew each other, followed each other’s work and had decades of experience. “There’s a sense of being like an uninvited guest at a party,” Dawes says. He became more comfortable after talking with other researchers, who showed a genuine interest in what he brought to the discussion, and when his work was accepted by the field’s journals. Over time, he realized “the interdisciplinary space was big enough for all of us to contribute to”.

Even when mathematicians have been invited to join a team of social-justice researchers, they still must take care, because first impressions can set the tone.

Michael Small is an applied mathematician and director of the Data Institute at the University of Western Australia in Perth. For much of his career, Small focused on the behaviour of complex systems, or those with many simple interacting parts, and dynamical systems theory, which addresses physical and mechanical problems.

But when a former vice-chancellor at the university asked him whether he would meet with a group of psychiatrists and psychologists to discuss their research on mental health and suicide in young people, it transformed his research. After considering the potential social impact of better understanding the causes and risks of suicide in teenagers and younger children, and thinking about how the problem meshed well with his research in complex systems and ‘non-linear dynamics’, Small agreed to collaborate with the group.

The project has required Small to see beyond the numbers. For the children’s families, the young people are much more than a single data point. “If I go into the room [of mental-health professionals] just talking about mathematics, mathematics, mathematics, and how this is good because we can prove this really cool theorem, then I’m sure I will get push back,” he says. Instead, he notes, it’s important to be open to insights and potential solutions from other fields. Listening before talking can go a long way.

Small’s collaborative mindset has led him to other mental-health projects, such as the Transforming Indigenous Mental Health and Wellbeing project to establish culturally sensitive mental-health support for Indigenous Australians.

Career considerations

Mathematicians who engage in social-justice projects say that helping to create real-world change can be tremendously gratifying. Small wants “to work on problems that I think can do good” in the world. Spending time pursuing them “makes sense both as a technical challenge [and] as a social choice”, he says.

However, pursuing this line of maths research is not without career hurdles. “It can be very difficult to get [these kinds of] results published,” Small says. Although his university supports, and encourages, his mental-health research, most of his publications are related to his standard mathematics research. As such, he sees “a need for balance” between the two lines of research, because a paucity of publications can be a career deal breaker.

Diaz Eaton says that mathematicians pursuing social-justice research could experience varying degrees of support from their universities. “I’ve seen places where the work is supported, but it doesn’t count for tenure [or] it won’t help you on the job market,” they say.

Finding out whether social-justice research will be supported “is about having some really open and transparent conversations. Are the people who are going to write your recommendation letters going to see that work as scholarship?” Diaz Eaton notes.

All things considered, mathematicians should not feel daunted by wading into solving the world’s messy problems, Khadjavi says: “I would like people to follow their passions. It’s okay to start small.”



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