From MITACS to Mprime: Where do we go from here?

Canada’s mathematical sciences community currently faces many challenges. One that stands out particularly is the imminent elapse of the federal funding (about $5.4-million per year) for the MITACS Network of Centres of Excellence. This NCE currently supports 377 Canadian academic scientists working with 739 students, in partnership with over 650 sponsors in the private and public sectors. The next phase requires that the Canadian mathematical sciences community elevate its game, advocate for, and support transformational research while dealing with the Ottawa-induced addiction to easy money for fast solutions of trivial problems.

After serving for 12 years as Canada’s premiere Network of Centres of Excellence in the mathematical sciences, MITACS announced today that it is redefining itself as two separate organizations, Mitacs Inc.  and the Mprime NCE. Each with its own focus and modus operandi, the two institutions will work independently, but also in tandem whenever necessary, on supporting the country’s innovation agenda.

While Mitacs Inc. is adopting a broader mandate that will concentrate on developing and supporting a suite of unique programs geared toward collaborative industry/academic research projects, the initial phase of Mprime will focus on continuing the fulfillment of MITACS original mandate as Canada’s Network of Centres of Excellence in the mathematical sciences.

The initial mandate of Mprime will therefore be to continue the support of research in the mathematical sciences, with a focus on their applications to five key sectors of the Canadian economy, Biomedical & Health, Environment & Natural Resources, Information Processing, Risk & Finance, and Communication, Networks & Security.  

In 2011-12, Mprime will continue supporting more than 400 Canadian scientists working with 800 graduate students in partnership with an extensive network of non-academic institutions. In its last year of NCE funding, Mprime has elected to also support over 32 two-year postdoctoral fellowships across Canada starting in January 1, 2011.

The federal funding for Mprime through the NCE program will however elapse in April 2012, though limited management funds will be available for 2-years after the end of the second 7-year cycle in order to continue the coverage of network administration and networking costs. This will translate into a loss of $5.4-million per year in federal funding and more that $2-million of leveraged funds from the private sector, in support of the mathematical sciences.  So, what comes next for our research community?

It is worth recalling that the network has faced many challenges since its inception in 1999. Indeed, our initial proposal for an NCE in the mathematical sciences presented a great challenge to the NCE mindset of that time. Unlike Auto 21, the Canadian Arthritis Network, or the Canadian Stroke Network, our proposal committed to a broad-based mandate of mobilizing mathematical power and its remarkable ability to model physical, biological and economic systems in ways that permit effective prediction, design and control.

In other words, our network was mainly offering the methodologies behind this “unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics in the natural Sciences”.  It is difficult to focus on a specific sector, when mathematics is so omnipresent in all the sciences, so crucial to our understanding of the very nature of our physical world, and so essential to our perpetual quest to improving our standards of living.

The visionaries on the NCE directorate, led by Tom Brzustowski,  prevailed at that time and it is rewarding to see how they have been vindicated since, in view of the astonishing trajectory of MITACS, starting as an NCE in the mathematical sciences, yet branching out in support of so many other disciplines.

It is however this ubiquitous aspect of mathematics, which remains its very weakness. Indeed, the core of our discipline is easily sidelined and its original pioneering role quickly forgotten once the sciences, the engineers and the innovators become acquainted with its powerful methods. It is easily taken for granted by community leaders, by politicians, and by university administrators. It falls too easily off Deans’ radar screens and their Faculty strategic plans. Mathematics is everywhere, hence it is so much more expedient to support it through one of its trendy applications.

So, in a certain way, MITACS’ branching out is a major loss for the mathematical sciences, because no one has advocated for the mathematical sciences more vigorously than MITACS. The very first challenge of Mprime is to pick up where Arvind Gupta left off and to make sure that Mathematics doesn’t get sidelined again, albeit in our universities, in granting agencies, or in government ministries.

But Mprime should also signal a new phase for Canada’s mathematical scientists; a new threshold  that will require us to elevate our game, and to advocate for, support and contribute to transformational research. We want more of Canada’s scientists to experience epiphanies upon encountering deep and visionary mathematics.

Unfortunately, we have to first come to grips with the granting agencies’ new infatuation with programs that seek fast solutions for easy problems. We shall therefore advocate for our own version of an “Engage” program; a long range investment where Canada can contribute to research areas that are nothing short of the holy grail of 21st century science. And for this type of engagement with world-class research, we can learn a few lessons from DARPA’s (The US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) modus operandi about formulating research problems, selecting the teams of scientists to support, and funding them appropriately while working on these problems.

Now many challenging fundamental problems in the mathematical sciences have already been conceived and formulated. This have taken decades of deep reflective thought by several outstanding minds.  Many of these problems have already been earmarked by DARPA for support.  We want Canada in.

This will mean that we want our scientists involved in the quest for a solution of the Riemann Hypothesis, for advancing the Langlands’ program, as well as in the resolution of the Hodge conjecture. We also want them involved in the elucidation of the fundamental mathematical laws of Biology, and in the development of a mathematical theory to build a functional model of the brain that is mathematically consistent and predictive rather than merely biologically inspired.

Progress on any one of these problems will have huge ramifications into almost every aspect of human endeavor, from physics, to medicine and commerce.  Every step on the way towards their resolution would be a giant leap forward for mankind. And we want Canada in.

There is also a role of Mprime in the new cloaking science.  There is a role for Mprime in shaping the future of scientific models that capture and harness stochasticity in nature. Mprime should also contribute to the development of mathematical models for sustainability and Climate Change.

That is why I have decided to take on the directorship of the Mprime network. I want Canada in.


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4 Responses to From MITACS to Mprime: Where do we go from here?

  1. Nilima says:

    Heartfelt best wishes to MPrime! There is so much that our community came to take for granted in the heyday of MITACS: funding for students via projects, funding for workshops (solo or joint with the Institutes), BIRS, summer schools on topics ranging from elliptic curves through disease modeling, postdocs, focus periods, international exchanges and research prizes. The level and breadth of math sciences activity supported through MITACS was large indeed. I don’t think we’ve collectively assimilated what the impact of $5.4 million less per year for mathematical science in Canada means.

  2. Peter Bell says:

    Congratulations! Thanks very much for your service and commitment, best wishes for the future.

  3. JoVE says:

    Congratulations. Great decision. If advocacy for mathematics is what is needed (and you make a very strong case here), you seem like an excellent candidate for taking on the leadership of this group. Good luck and best wishes.

  4. Pingback: Weekly Picks « — the Blog

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