Once again, I had to perform the unpleasant annual task of writing to more than 120 colleagues and their co-applicants all over the world to inform them that their proposals to run a research workshop at the Banff International Research Station (BIRS) in 2014 were not successful. Many of these declined proposals were excellent and some of the disappointed researchers were repeat applicants. The problem? 170 applications received in 2012 (more than double the number of the 2003 competition) for the available 48 weeks of programming at BIRS. The private sector has obvious answers to such increases in customers’ demand. But what do you do if your product is research capacity, your capital is scientific credibility, and your financier is the public sector?
Every year, BIRS hosts over 2000 researchers from 400 institutions in more than 60 countries who participate in its annual series of 48 weekly workshops, each hosting up to 42 researchers in disciplines in which mathematics, computer science and statistics are used in novel ways. The format allows scientists to exchange the latest advances in their fields of study and provides an environment that fosters new collaborations and ideas.
A unique aspect of BIRS is that it is a joint Canada-US-Mexico initiative, which is funded by Mexico’s National Council for Science and Technology (CONACYT), Alberta Innovation, the US National Science Foundation (NSF), and Canada’s Natural Science and Engineering Research Council (NSERC).
Another remarkable feature of the Station is that it is located on the site of the world-renowned Banff Centre in Alberta, which is already internationally recognized as a place of high culture with programs in music and sound, the written, visual and performing arts, leadership and management that draw in many hundreds of artists, students, and intellectual leaders from around the world.
It had been clear to me for a while now that we need to increase the opportunities offered at BIRS by expanding its capacity to no less than 75 workshops per year. In other words, we need an additional research facility, where BIRS can support 25-30 workshops in addition to the 48 programs that currently run in Banff every year.
It is also imperative that BIRS upholds its well-established scientific standards while developing its expanded program. The international BIRS Scientific Advisory Board should therefore continue to apply the same rigorous and uniform peer review process when selecting all of the 75 workshops.
Last but not least, and in order to preserve the coherence of the BIRS vision, it is highly desirable to secure a facility that is located in a place of high culture. A place which draws in artists, students, intellectual leaders and other creative forces, who would interact with the international community of mathematical scientists participating in the BIRS programs.
Against this backdrop, enter Francisco Toledo and El Centro de las Artes San Agustín Etla. Also known as CASA, El Centro is located at San Agustín Etla, a town that lies in a picturesque canyon in the foothills of the Sierra de San Felipe seventeen miles north of the city of Oaxaca. CASA, which opened its doors on March 21, 2006, is committed to be a public space, where education, artistic creation and experimentation could thrive. It was founded by Francisco Toledo, a prominent Mexican painter and graphic designer, who purchased the property in 2000 in order to create the first eco-arts center in Latin America. CASA is funded through the National Center for the Arts, the State Government of Oaxaca, and private foundations including the Harp Helú Foundation.
“Today CASA is comprised of a set of spaces providing for artistic initiation and creation. It has spaces equipped for the production of digital graphics, traditional graphic and dyeing workshops and textile design, photographic developing and organic printing. Under the assumption that the interaction with people from different lands stimulates creativity, promotes tolerance and strengthens a community, CASA invites artists to perform residencies giving priority to projects of ecological and community care.”
Francisco Toledo is convinced that mathematical scientists from all over the world can/should be part of these interactions in order to help stimulate another level of creativity, right there in his beloved Oaxaca. Toledo has consequently offered to donate a parcel of land adjacent to CASA on which could be built a facility, where some of the BIRS programs can run. Recent meetings with the Director of CONACYT, the Governor of the State of Oaxaca, and the Harp Helú Foundation were extremely promising.