PIMS 10th Anniversary

Thanks Ed and thanks Arvind for your generous comments. It is always embarrassing to hear so much praise from two of the most unsung heroes of PIMS. With these two guys, I feel like I am a graduate student with an extremely generous supervisor: First they help in giving you your thesis subject, then they help you solve it, then they help you write it, then they work on your moral by praising you for achieving it.

Here is a secret: Among other help I received from these two guys, every communique I wrote over the years went through the eagle eyes of Ed Perkins, and every PIMS budget I put forward was essentially put together by Arvind Gupta even after he became Mr. MITACS and our man (or is it superman) in Ottawa.

I have to admit that this is a tricky situation I am in. I was thinking this morning: what would Robespierre say if he was invited to the 10th anniversary of the french revolution?

But then Ivar, came to the rescue or thought he was: Nassif: You talk about the past and I talk about the future.

How more depressing can it get?

Then I cheered up a little when I saw this phrase –due to Mahatma Gandhi– that was sent to me in 2003 on the occasion of my stepping down from the PIMS directorship. It said:

“First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win”.

This was really the story of PIMS, at least how the story of its implementation: from concept into a reality. About the rest, here is a compromise Ivar, and I am a man of compromise as every administrator knows.

I will not talk about the past, but I will talk about the lessons of the past.

First lesson: The Founding of PIMS was a Taboo-Shattering Experience. The ideas behind PIMS were darn good, but not obvious to everyone. Here are some:

–Institutes are about people and not about “bricks and mortar”.
–Neighboring universities win by collaborating.
–Mathematics is also a collaborative science.
–Bi-national institutes work.
–The West need not be isolated, and can lead internationally.
–Ottawa’s decisions are not always the last word.

Past events (and current attendance) lead me to think that many of these concepts remain as challenges. We are not out of the woods yet.

Second lesson: “PIMS is like riding a bicycle. To keep your balance you must keep moving”. PIMS –whether under my direction or Ivar’s– understood this early and had to keep moving by building MITACS, BIRS, the CRGs, the International Graduate Training Centres, and by reaching out to the Pacific Northwest through UW, to the Pacific rim through PRIMA, and to Europe through the CNRS. The record is unequaled, and we all should be shouting it in the streets of Victoria and Ottawa.

Third lesson: PIMS was born in an era of budget deficits, program slashing and publicly stated poverty, at both governments and at the universities. But the lesson is that there is always room for a good idea even in the darkest days. Yes, we may be entering era now. But The Centre for Stochastics is a heck of a good idea. With Simon, Ron, Indira, and others at the helm, I believe the stars are lined up again in favour of innovation, excellence and mathematics.

Fourth lesson: PIMS is and should remain a collaborative institution that empowers and credits its base of human resources. No one could have done what’s been done alone, albeit on the conceptual level or on the execution level. When the CRGs were conceived, there were 16 of us (from every one of the six universities) in a retreat at Whistler working at it. And how could have PIMS given birth to BIRS, if it wasn’t for Bob Moody, our exceptional colleagues in Alberta, and the thousand letters of support that we received from fellow mathematicians all over the world. The same holds for the training centres, PRIMA, and many others.

Fifth lesson: Mathematics need not be a low priority for university senior administrators, and for this I need to make a special tribute to three deans Dick Peter, Barry MacBride, and Colin Jones. Dick was the former dean of science in Alberta. What a gentle giant. What a power of nature, and what an asset he was. Dick sadly passed away suddenly a few month ago at the age of 62. Barry McBride was a mentor, a friend and a great believer in research excellence and innovation. PIMS wouldn’t have existed without these guys. I really wished they were here tonight.
Because for me this evening is really to honour them, so please join me in a toast to honour four special friends of PIMS: Dick, Barry, Indira and Colin. We have to honour our own.

Last but not least, I salute Hugh Morris, who was chair of the PIMS Board for the whole period of my directorship.

Hugh is a dear friend, a gentleman and a committed campaigner on our behalf. Thank you Hugh for all the early years, but also the later years since he is still on the Board. He honors us with his presence tonight.

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