A letter to NSERC

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From: Nassif Ghoussoub <nassif@math.ubc.ca>
To: Claude Tricot <claude@yin.graf.polymtl.ca>, blk@math.uh.edu,
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Subject: Re: A letter to NSERC
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Here is a letter from the math/NSERC Liaison committee and representatives
from CRM, Fields and PIms to senior NSERC officials. It was sent this
morning to Nigel Lloyd. Please distribute to the maths community as it
contains relevant information on the changes in various NSERC programs,
their effect on our discipline as well as the efforts to protect and
improve the funding of Canadian mathematics.
*********************************************

Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council
350 Albert Street
Ottawa, Ontario
K1A 1H5

To NSERC

We write within the context of the Mathematics Liaison Group's
continuing discussions with NSERC. The reworking of NSERC's Strategic
and Industrial programs and the likely subsequent reassignement of the
projects currently funded by the CSP provide both opportunities and great
dangers for the funding of basic research in general and mathematical
science in particular.

This letter does not presuppose that any final decisions have been made
within NSERC. However, given the recent history of how Mathematics has
fared from the last two sets of NSERC policy decisions we are eager to
have input as quickly as possible. Over the last year the mathematics
community,

in conjunction with a significant part of the broader mathematical
sciences community, has been involved in several substantial activities
relating to NSERC:

A brief recapitulation

Jan-Feb 1995 Response by a consortium of all major groups
in the mathematical research community to the allocation process and the
cancellation of non-core programmes.

March-June 1995 Creation of a Liaison committee and detailed
discussions about the present and future health of mathematical
research in Canada.

June 1995 NSERC Council finds itself unable to endorse the
results of these negotiations

August 1995 Liaison committee members are encouraged to pursue
initiatives leading to a ``National Network for Research in the
Mathematical Sciences'' (NNRMS); Nassif Ghoussoub issues a call
for such a Network.

November 2-3~1995 The Directors of The Centre de Recherches
Math{\'e}matiques (CRM) and The Fields Institute for Research in
Mathematical Sciences (FI), and the co-chairs of the Executive of the
Pacific Institute for the Mathematical Sciences (PIMS) meet to
discuss the development of the NNRMS

\footnote {The joint communiqu{\'e} following this meeting is included at
the end of this letter.}

December 10~1995 NNRMS initiative to be discussed in detail at the
meeting of the Chairs of Mathematics Departments at the CMS Winter meeting.

January 5~1996 Mathematics representatives to meet in Vancouver
with the President of NSERC and senior NSERC adminstrators.

Our present intentions are as follows:

1. The three Institutes will present a joint Letter of Intent
to NSERC in December for the funding of a National Network for Research
in the Mathematical Sciences.

2. This letter of intent will include a request for funding by the
new Pacific Institute for the Mathematical Sciences plus
bridging funding to allow it to begin significant activities during
1996-97.

3. Additional funding for the "non-institute-based national
activities" of the NRNMS will also be requested to supplement ongoing
support from the CRM and FI for many of these activities.

4. The fully funded NNRMS intends to be in operation in the fall of
1997. Our long term goal is a single funding application for the NNRMS
which includes budgets for the CRM, FI, PIMS, and a variety of national
intiatives. The changes in the NSERC Programs makes it difficult to
predict when such an application will be feasible.

This Network represents an innovative and cost-effective way to
dramatically enhance the present and future health of the research
community. It will increase communication and cooperation between
mathematicians, statisticians, mathematical computer scientists, and
theoretical physicists throughout the country, and will do so on
a relatively modest (by comparison to other disciplines) budget.
The joint MFA grant application of the CRM, FI and PIMS is one example of
this cooperative spirit in forging stronger communication links.

In light of Council's decisions in October, the review path for such a
set of initiatives is less clear than it might have been.
Although the Research Partnerships Program could present new opportunities
for the Research community, we are concerned about some potential
obstructions and also with the eventual fate of the budgets of the CRM
and FI.

1. There is a need to explicate the notions of {\bf partnership,
collaboration and interdisciplinarity} so that they really apply to basic
science.

- -- The documents we have seen, while cancelling the CPG, do not address
explicitly the underlying concerns which led to its demise.

2. The desirability of clearly recognizing more {\bf discipline
specific variation in the criteria} for these programs.

- -- we mention that we are 9--10% of the scientific
community, but only 3--4% of the NSERC budget and are apparently being
offered little access to these new programs - as they are presently
configured.

3. The need to acknowledge that {\bf collaborations within Mathematics
are Interdisciplinary} in nature.

- -- Why is a collaboration among an electrical engineer, a mechanical
engineer, and an industrial engineer clearly interdisciplinary while
that involving an algebraic topologist, a computational fluid dynamicist
and a differential geometer is not?

4. Strategic Projects and {\bf Research Networks} seem to be skewed
towards applied science and engineering, unless receptors/partner
organizations are interpreted broadly. As presently described they appear
to be much like University-Industry Projects and thus do not seem to even
allow for schools, hospitals or the public sector to be the required
``receptor''. For example:

- -- We think that the Mathematical Science Institutes would be ideal
as the core of a Research Network - especially given CCSP's previous
instructions to coordinate their activities and play a genuinely national
role. Of course, this requires NSERC to allow networks with no terminal
date. The partners here are a diffuse mix of the educational sector,
governments, professional societies and industry (but industry in Canada
is very unlikely to directly support basic science in any substantial
fashion).

5. The proposed transfer of the budgets of the CRM and the FI into an
envelope overseen by the Mathematics GSC would be on balance a positive
move which would answer many concerns (such as stability of the funding
and a proper peer review process) but it also raises some new ones.

- -- not acknowledging the degree to which they serve a broader community:
statistics, theoretical physics, computer science, industrial engineering,
finance, etc;

- -- seemingly foreclosing the possibility for growth in their budgets.
Realistically, if they are moved into the Mathematics GSC -- without
additional startup funding -- any such growth is likely to come at the
expense of Research Grants (and the perception will certainly be that).
This means the community will greet such a realignment very suspiciously.
In any of the larger pools, the Institutes would always be able to
compete for additional funds (and expect to be judged on their merits);

6. The unreasonableness of having tougher {\bf criteria
for``non-receptor'' networks}; especially in areas in which the
envisaged external community traditionally does not exist. The present
structures/terms and suggested replacements continue to disadvantage
mathematics and other basic sciences, while allowing dramatically
improved funding opportunities and leverage to those groups {\bf already
able} to access such funds.

7. The inappropriateness of having to wait until the end of the next
allocation process to begin the process of obtaining new funds.

Many of the operational suggestions presently being explored by NSERC
might work very well in better funded fields. Without the replacement
of funds lost through cancellation of the non-core programs and
infusion of extra funds into mathematics they are non-starters for our
community. We simply do not have enough money to function as NSERC
supposes we should.

Appendix

MEMORANDUM from November 2nd Meeting at UBC.

A meeting was held at UBC on Nov. 2 regarding the proposed ``National
Network for Research in the Mathematical Science''. Present were Jon
Borwein, John Chadam, Nassif Ghoussoub, Ed Perkins and Luc Vinet. The
Network would have three main centres or nodes: the Centre de
Recherches Math{\'e}matiques (CRM), The Fields Institute for Research in
Mathematical Sciences (FI), and the Pacific Institute for the
Mathematical Sciences (PIms). Every effort is being made to structure
the Network so that the professional societies, other institutes,
local networks and other key components of the Mathematical Science
Community will play a direct role in the Network. It was agreed that
the development of such a Network would offer enormous benefits to the
scientific community, and would encourage the participation of a large
and diverse group of mathematical scientists from all parts of the
country.

The likely restructuring of the Targeted Program and Collaborative
Special Projects (CSP) Program (which funds the CRM and FI) into a
Research Partnership Program was discussed. This new grouping
includes a component to fund a ``Mini-Network'' which appears to be fixed
duration collaborations with an industrial``receptor''. [More details
may be found on Camel's NSERC pages.] The present intention is to seek
partial funding for the "Research Network for the Mathematical
Sciences" from a less restrictive version of the new Mini-Network
program. Portions of such a modified Mini-Network Program could
eventually fall under the auspices of the Research Grants Program. A
``Letter of Intent'' for such a funding application will be jointly
prepared in time for the December 15 meeting of CORG (Commmittee on
Research Grants) and the subsequent January 5 meeting with NSERC
President Brzutowski and senior NSERC officials in Vancouver. In view
of the interest the proposed Research Network received this past
August from members of the NSERC Executive, this appears to be a
natural course of action. Broad input from the Community is being
sought on this initiative. It will be discussed in the Chairs meeting
at the CMS Winter Meeting on December 10th.

As mentioned above, there were, however, some concerns as to whether
or not this new NSERC Research Network Program will be made
accessible to researchers in basic science. It is essential that
this Program - and many of the other reworked programs - genuinely
be available to Mathematical Scientists. A letter will be sent to
NSERC in the near future detailing our concerns on this important
issue.

signatories Jon~Borwein, John~Chadam, Nassif~Ghoussoub, Steve~Halperin,
Jacques~Hurtubise, Ed~Perkins and Luc~Vinet

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