Tag Archives: long range plan 2012

LRP update

The Long Range Plan committee for mathematics has posted the first draft of the document for consultation and feedback. We were informed that the document is not intended to be circulated beyond the math community at this point; on the other hand, since it is clearly available for download to anyone interested, I assume that I can write about it on my blog (read mostly by the same community anyway).

A few general comments, then. I read the draft fairly quickly when I was first notified of it. I was going to read it again more carefully before writing this post, then decided against it, on the grounds that the document is likely to be read by officials who are just as busy as I am and will not have much time to spend on it, so that quick impressions may be worth recording in any case.

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PIMS Collaborative Research Groups

(Edited below, 09/06/2011)

PIMS Collaborative Research Groups are groups of

[…] researchers with a common research interest and with a common desire to collaboratively develop some aspects of their research programs. The groups may already exist, organizing joint seminars and workshops, making joint PDF appointments, or developing joint graduate training programs, but will have the potential to do much more, given resources and organizational structure through PIMS.

A CRG must have a “critical mass” of participating researchers from PIMS member universities, that is, the major universities in western Canada plus the University of Washington. The smallest group that I can recall had 8 faculty, but usually there are many more, in the 20-30 range, and the numbers only seem to keep getting larger. (Once in a while a CRG includes a few participants from other institutions, but this is not common, and in any case it is a very small fraction of the group.) Each CRG has one or several “leaders” who develop the proposal and coordinate the project.

The PIMS 2010 Annual Report (link to PDF) tells us that PIMS spent $220,846 on CRGs in 2010. This figure is for the calendar year, which does not coincide with the fiscal year, and presumably does not include major items such as postdocs or summer schools, which are reported separately in their own categories. There were 4 CRGs ending in 2010, 2 ongoing, and 2 starting in 2010. Between all that and what I’ve gleaned in the past, the actual total CRG budget might be about 100-130K per year, per group. (If anyone here has better information, please correct me.) The money is parcelled out into amounts designated for specific purposes, i.e. this much for each of this many postdocs, this much for each distinguished visitor (one per year), etc.; the rest of the funding for each item comes from the Discovery Grants of the participants. Additionally, each CRG gets about one BIRS workshop per year, again from a separate budget (this time BIRS).

According to the program webpage, the CRGs “create new research opportunities,” “enhance training programs,” “generate new ways of having its [PIMS’s?] scientific programs driven by its member scientists,” integrate, facilitate, create a context, as well as foster a variety of things.

What could possibly go wrong?

I’ve said before that this is not my favourite funding program, basically because too much of it revolves around politics rather than scientific merit. Well, whatever. Not every research support program has to please me. But I’m concerned about the ongoing trend to support “big science,” as represented by large groups or major new initiatives and of which CRGs are a good example, at the expense of individual funding.

The Discovery Grants budget in mathematics took the first large cut in 2007 and has been decreasing ever since, culminating in this year’s mess. The appropriate response from NSERC would be to raise our DG budget by 70% or more, bringing it in line with other disciplines of science and resolving pretty much all of our financial problems. Instead, we get the long-range planning exercise where, I suspect, we’ll be asked to devise ways to do more with less. Between that and the upcoming renewal of institute funding, which will require a new framework again as the institutes are being removed from the MRS program, I’m worried that more money will get shifted away from individual grants and towards the institutes or other forms of collective funding.

There are plenty of political arguments for such a move: the PR value of large initiatives, the matching funds, the money doesn’t look spread so thin when it’s handed out in large chunks. But from the point of view of science, it would be catastrophic. I’ve written posts already on why thematic institute programs can’t replace stable individual funding. PIMS CRGs, on the other hand, support many of the same activities (postdocs, visitors) that are normally funded by Discovery Grants, but are awarded to groups rather than individuals. Let’s talk about how that works.

(Sorry about the length. I wanted to write this out in enough detail so that a non-mathematician could understand the problem, and didn’t want to run a whole series of CRG posts.)

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Submission to the LRP steering committee

Below (under the cut) is the text of the submission I am about to send to the Long Range Plan steering committee. I missed the April 18 deadline for submission of discussion papers, basically because I was too busy and exhausted at the end of the semester, but the committee web page states that “comments and ideas are welcome at any time”, so here are mine. There’s very little here that I haven’t already said on this blog in much more detail (the relevant posts are linked below) and it’s possible that some of the committee members have seen those posts already; this is just a short summary. (A PDF version is also available.)

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Good to know

The NSERC “long range plan” mathematics and statistics committee has just posted a clarification:

Comments from several people indicated that the first point, in particular [“Current and future scientific priorities”], suggested that the plan would include some ranking of research areas. This was not intended, and we have changed this element to “current and future scientific context”, which we hope is clearer.

It’s not, but then the committee does clarify it somewhat:

  • How are current scientific developments affecting research in mathematics and statistics
  • How is research in mathematics and statistics impacting science
  • How does/should research in mathematics and statistics contribute to national science policy discussions

Well, this is a welcome development.

I can’t tell whether the committee is just clarifying its mandate or has actually revised its goals. Both the NSERC newsletter announcing the exercise and the letter from NSERC Vice-President Isabelle Blain in this issue of CMS Notes refer clearly to “priorities” and “areas of strength”; I’d heard that language before, from some of the same people who are involved in the current exercise, and I remember well enough what it meant. Other than that, the information blackout was almost complete. There was some sort of a consultation process when the committee was being formed, or so I’ve heard second-hand. The rest of us were just told not to worry because wise people were taking care of us.

Anyway, this is good. There will be a meeting with the steering committee members at the upcoming CMS meeting this weekend. Perhaps we can finally get some straight answers?

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It’s 2 am, where is my long term strategy?

The September issue of the CMS Notices has a front page article on the long-range strategic planning exercise. We learn that the NSERC Major Resources Support program is being shut down; the mathematics institutes, which have been supported through MRS in recent years, will have to find some other funding mechanism.

Our community is thus being asked to develop a long range plan for mathematics and statistics in Canada. The plan should examine our discipline, identify scientific trends, and propose the right structure of resources to develop the mathematics and the statistics. It should not, however, deal with individual allocations. […] It has worked well for the astronomers and the physicists, so why not for us?

Because we’re neither astronomers nor physicists, perhaps?

There are of course many issues. First some scientific ones: where is our discipline going? Getting some sense of this is important for explaining what we then want to do, not in the sense of only deciding to fund, say, number theory or geometry (mathematics in its own organic way has been doing very well on its own), but in giving the right structures. For example, a question of proportion: the mainstream (80% or so) individual funding of research is complemented by collective vehicles (the Institutes, BIRS), which have had a transformative effect (think of the increase in the number of post-doctoral fellows) and which have a remarkable record of leveraging additional resources from provinces, universities, and private sources, as well as foreign granting agencies.


There are worse ways to start that discussion than pointing out that the two most important “structural” new ideas in mathematics in recent years had nothing to do with leveraging funds from provincial governments, international cooperation agreements, or with institutes for that matter. Continue reading

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Addendum on “priority areas”

OK, if anyone reading this disagrees with my last post, I really would be interested to know why you disagree and how you would make a case for prioritizing research areas in mathematics. Neither NSERC nor anyone else has even tried to make an argument – the decision that the “long range planning exercise” would take place was presented to us as a fait accompli, with nary a hint of a rationale. So, go for it if you wish, but please try to keep a few things in mind.

  • The case for “priority areas” is usually made in the form of testimonials from scientists whose own research areas have been prioritized, especially from those who were awarded huge grants and/or gained considerable political power as a result of the exercise. I suppose that this can be convincing enough to a politician who just needs a photo op with grateful scientists, doesn’t matter which ones. Others might find it political, partisan and divisive instead. Then again, if you’d like to fund something like this in harmonic analysis, I just might change my mind.
  • The other usual argument is that since our resources are limited, we should focus them on “areas of strength” where success is most likely. There are several problems with it, at least where it concerns mathematics. The first one is that it treats people as “resources” that can be moved at will wherever they’re needed. Sorry, but that’s not how it works. Research at its highest levels requires a much greater intellectual and emotional commitment than what is required from, say, bank accountants or other white-collar employees who are routinely moved from one task to another in the course of their work. Our commitment is to a specific research area, often to a specific set of problems that resonates with us in highly personal and idiosyncratic ways. Try telling a mystery writer, for instance, that she should switch to chick-lit because the publisher has made chick-lit a top priority. See how she responds to that. And you thought it would work with us?

    Second, this argument also assumes that Canadian mathematics is a world unto itself, isolated and self-contained, and that our success depends only on the collective strengths of the Canadian mathematical community and not on external developments. As someone who for many years had no collaborators in Canada, but many outside of it, I will have to disagree.

    Third, in practice such policies take us deep into the diminishing returns territory. A department that already has 7 faculty working in Exciting Area 1 might not need another one – it might benefit more from hiring someone in Exciting Area 2 which is currently represented by only one person. Logically, that makes sense. But if you go to the faculty meeting where the vote is taken, you only need to see the seven Area 1 faculty sitting around you to know which way the vote is going to go. “Critical mass” translates into excessive and unstoppable inertia. The smaller groups get steamrolled and the large groups lose their ability to respond to external developments.

  • Please try to use normal, plain English. The jargon of “catalysts”, “creating opportunities”, “enhancing and facilitating collaborations”, “fostering excellence” and “scientific cross-pollination” holds no interest for me. If you use this language to disguise lack of content, you might not make it past moderation.


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Letter to NSERC: Canadian mathematics does not need “priority areas”

The latest NSERC newsletter informs us:

At NSERC’s request, the Canadian mathematics and statistics communities will conduct a collaborative long-range planning (LRP) exercise over the next 15-18 months. The exercise will include broad consultation, identify areas of strength and establish a unified vision of priorities and directions for mathematics and statistics research in Canada. The resulting plan will inform the Mathematics and Statistics Evaluation Group of the priorities for current and emerging areas, thereby allowing for the best use of resources to advance the work of the communities as a whole.

Key partners in this process include the Canadian Mathematical Society, the Canadian Applied and Industrial Mathematics Society and the Statistical Society of Canada, as well as the three Mathematical Institutes (the Pacific Institute for the Mathematical Sciences, the Centre de recherches mathématiques and the Fields Institute for Research in Mathematical Sciences) and the Banff International Research Station.

Currently, the Mathematics and Statistics-NSERC Liaison Committee is working with the communities to establish a steering committee, which will develop Terms of Reference that reflect how the communities at large will be consulted and discuss how their input will be incorporated into the final LRP report.

My opinion is not exactly being solicited at this point, and it may well get filtered five times through the fine cloth of poll aggregators when it is formally solicited, to remove my name and any identifying details that might add weight to my story. I do, however, have enough experience with “priority areas”, and especially with falling through the cracks between them, to want to speak up now.

I also would really like NSERC to hear directly from the individual mathematicians, not just from institute directors and those in positions of power. Institutes are designed to support group-based research and prioritize areas; individual mathematicians need to develop their research programs according to their own best judgement. We do not always see eye to eye. It makes no sense for the institutes to control the prioritization of our individual grants.

Here, then, is my story.

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