The MITACS tribute-Ottawa, 2003

Je me demandais depuis le début de la soirée, mais pourquoi ils sont tous là? Nigel, Janet, Luc, Barry, même ma femme Louise. Tous les gens que j’ai tourmenté sans cesse depuis des années? Maintenant j’ai compris! I finally understood why all these people are here. All those I tormented over the years. They want nothing less than a public apology from Ghoussoub. Here in Ottawa, in the nation’s capital!

Nigel, let me say one more time and hopefully the very last time: THIS IS NOT ACCEPTABLE TO ME. But if this is any consolation Nigel, I will admit that just as you and Steve Halperin predicted, when my son was born 7 years ago. This is his favorite expression to his dad.

Now this is an insider joke, but very fitting to this gathering of so many young people, so many new colleagues from other disciplines and so many new partners from government and industry. This is the genius of MITACS, under the able leadership of Arvind Gupta. MITACS has created in 4 short years a whole new community of interdisciplinary scholars, scientists and industrial partners around the mathematics community.

So many people here and elsewhere should be proud of what they see in this MITACS gathering.  But our new and young community should also know: Things were not always like this. They should also know how we got here, because we need them to carry the torch and keep the campaign alive.

You see, almost 9 years ago, Steve Halperin, Jacques Hurtubise, John Chadam and I marched into the offices of Nigel Lloyd nearby asking for our money back. Mathematics had lost almost 1 m dollars in the first NSERC re-allocation. I personally believe that One of the defining moments of this long march and not many people know this…. came from Nigel who was then NSERC’s Director General for research grants and scholarships. Nigel of course had no intention to give us any money back, but he had the wisdom to suggest the establishment of a Math/NSERC Liaison committee. This was a momentous decision: For us, it was the beginning of a long educational process on how the “system” worked. It also gave us a platform to start thinking globally and to start coordinating and planning nationally and coherently the future of our discipline.

…. And many of you know what happened since… The community built PIMS, consolidated the funding of Fields and CRM as well as the math grant selection committees. We’ve been one of the few successful disciplines in 2 consecutive NSERC re-allocations exercises. Together, the 3 institutes initiated the MITACS network, which ought to be a source of pride for all of you. It sure is a source of pride for me when I see your accomplishments on the 100 + posters outside. We developed the Banff International Research Station with our US partners, we jump-started the Atlantic Association for the Mathematical Sciences and we created together several groundbreaking international links for our scientific community…and guess what …we are not done yet!

Because Canada needs the human capital that all of you young MITACS investigators represent, we are, in collaboration with our colleagues at Fields and CRM (now you know why Jacques is looking tired lately), with the NRC, with NSERC, with provincial governments and with the universities, we are laying out the intellectual framework and an implementation plan for a nationwide Laboratory in Computational and Mathematical Science for Technology. This exciting enterprise will have more than 150 researchers and postdoctoral fellows: positions that will be filled by many of you, young, skilled and talented MITACS investigators.   We are at the beginning of the road, but with your support I can assure you that this initiative will happen as many others before it, did.

But we were not the only ones that changed our ways.  NSERC also changed its ways!  Nigel’s proposal for a Liaison committee was –I believe– one of the first steps towards making the Council more in tune with the concerns and aspirations of the scientific communities: an attitude adopted fully -and with great success- by Tom Brzustowski who became NSERC’s President shortly after.  NSERC was no more a mere funnel for government cash to grantees through peer review. Tom, Nigel, Janet, Isabelle became pro-active partners and invaluable counselors in the building efforts. When I failed to get to the top of the NSF leadership to ask for support for the Banff station, it was Nigel who arranged it and who accompanied me to Washington DC to help make BIRS happen. When an exhausted PIMS community had decided to give up after another disappointing funding decision, it was Janet Walden’s 3 hours phone conversation that convinced us to keep the dream alive. I bet that Janet’s ears are still hurting till now 5 years later. When the Canada-China effort was stumbling, it was Tom Brzustowski who saved it and who accompanied our delegation to Beijing. And one more time, Tom and Isabelle Blain –who keeps forgiving me for drinking her glass of wine at these banquets– are with us on this new initiative trying to build Canada’s Human Capital in mathematical and computational expertise. You must have heard of the “Friends of NSERC initiative”. Well, Isabelle, Janet and Nigel, you may want to tell Tom that he may have friends elsewhere but our community is nothing less but NSERC’s Swiss guards.

Thanking people is tricky as there are literally dozens to whom I owe in friendship, support, mentorship and help. I will however venture a few names: No crisis could be dissipated without the calm and methodical approach of Ed Perkins, a trusted friend of more than 25 years (This might change after this roast). Nothing has been more comforting than the brotherly affection and counsel of Arvind Gupta (This will change after this roast). Steve Halperin’s friendship and wisdom made the building formative and fun. The dignified ways of Don Dawson made it civil and fun. The extremely pleasant and determined personality of Luc Vinet made it stimulating and fun.  The subtle ways of Jacques Hurtubise made it challenging and fun.  The thoroughness and dedication of Bob Moody, the calm leadership of Richard Kane, and the disarming charm of Francois Lalonde …were all quite an inspiration and made it fun.  Many thanks to all our friends in the private sector who are helping us on the various Boards: Randy Savoie, Shahid Hussein, Alan Eaves, Hugh Morris, Brian Barry, Ken Foxcroft, Murray Margolis, and so many others. I still remember your puzzled reactions during our first phone conversations and I am delighted to see how proud you are of YOUR network.

Our community’s message and its reactions to certain NSERC decisions were not always polished, but Tom Brzustowski, Nigel Lloyd and Janet Walden saw the potential and found a way to empower the movement and to let it explode in innovation and creativity. With that they earned our respect and admiration.   Many senior university administrators converted to our cause but –I said it and I will keep on saying it– no accomplishment would have been possible without the support of Barry McBride who has been a mentor and will always be a friend. Thank you Barry for coming all the way from Vancouver to share this evening with us.

More important than PIMS, MITACS, BIRS or any other institution developed in this explosive period of growth, is –in my mind– the dramatic change in attitude and the new state of mind of the Canadian mathematical community. We learned that we can and should think big, think globally, change outdated and often flawed perceptions about mathematical research and education, be an integral part of the country’s global R\&D effort, and play a leading role on the international level.  Because we can.

This should be remembered as a period where the community learned to look outward with confidence, to put forward bold visions and to lead. No one can turn back the clock, but let me again give our young generation a healthy dose of paranoia –as my friend McBride would characterize it. The Lloyd’s, the Brzustowski’s, the Carty’s and the McBride’s and many other believers in high places, will move on and will not always be with us to protect –Yes I say protect– all the gains of the last few years.  So, we need you, all of you young MITACS investigators to be vigilant, to step forward to positions of leadership, to stop those tempted to turn back the clock, and to keep the dream alive for Canada’s sake, and for Canada’s future.  Because this country is the home of decency and we owe it to her. I certainly do!

My wife Louise, what can I say that will not sound so inadequate. Thank you for putting up with all this. Sorry but otherwise, it couldn’t have been done…. and Thank you all.

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