Will BIRS bring CIFAR and the mathematical sciences together?

My inbox started filling up at an unusual speed. The Canadian Institute for Advanced Research (CIFAR) had just announced a partnership with The Banff Centre (TBC). “The two institutions are teaming up to create a physical home for CIFAR, with the hope being that their big brains will cross-pollinate with …,” wrote the Calgary HeraldThe dozens of messages from colleagues and friends had one thread in common. Isn’t this what the 2100 scientists who attend the Banff International Research Station for Mathematical Innovation and Discovery (BIRS) every year have been doing for 10 years now? No problem guys, haven’t you heard that imitation is the best form of flattery? Yes, but “how come BIRS is not even mentioned in the TBC press release, even though it is a perfect in-house example of the marriage of the arts and science of which its President speaks?” All very good questions indeed.

But first, what is CIFAR? Founded in 1982 by James Fraser Mustard, CIFAR is a private, non-profit institute, which “identifies major new areas of scholarly research where Canada has potential to lead.” It then supports the research of a select group within these areas “by providing them with such time-freeing benefits as teaching release, funding to hire graduate students and post-doctoral fellows, and general research funding.”

The 12 research areas currently supported by CIFAR are Cosmology and Gravity (since 1986), Nano-electronics (since 1999), Quantum Materials (since 1987), Quantum Information Processing (since 2002), Earth System Evolution (since 1992), Integrated Microbial Biodiversity (since 2007), Neural Computation and Adaptive Perception (since 2004), Experience-based Brain and Biological Development (since 2003)Genetic Networks (since 2005), Institutions, Organizations, and Growth (since 2004) Social Interactions, Identity and Well-Being (since 2005) Successful Societies (since 2002).

CIFAR receives direct funding (i.e., not competitively nor through the Tri-council) from the federal government and the Provinces of Ontario, British Columbia and Alberta. We don’t know how these governments evaluate the CIFAR program, whether through peer review or via KPMG (which seems to coordinate the evaluation of the Perimeter Institute).

In any case, where are the mathematical sciences in all this? The short answer is that they are fundamental in all these themes. In other words, no serious research can be done in any one of the above subject areas –including the social sciences– without quantitative analysis, albeit mathematical or statistical. Ironically, but not surprisingly, the BIRS workshop, which was running during the week of the formal announcement of the CIFAR-TBC partnership, was on “Topological Phenomena in Quantum Dynamics and Disordered Systems,” and several leading CIFAR fellows were attending it. Great! Are we now dealing with a risk of duplication, or with an opportunity for collaboration?

Then came the following heart warming letter to the editor of the Calgary Herald from Clifton Cunningham, a distinguished mathematician at the University of Calgary.

“Math is everywhere. From the sophisticated number theory used to protect your credit card transactions, to the Fourier transforms performing your instagram enhancements, to the eigenvectors determining Google search results, you use the results of mathematical research everyday. And it’s closer than you think. Literally. The finest minds in contemporary mathematics have been coming from across the planet to the think-tank known as the Banff International Research Station for Mathematical Innovation and Discovery (BIRS, http://www.birs.ca) for high-level workshops and collaborations almost every week of every year, for 10 years now. You use the fruits of past mathematical research in your everyday life, and the work going on now at BIRS, located in The Banff Centre, will affect your life in the future. Count on it.  Advances in mathematics lead to advances in science, which lead to advances in technology.

It’s happening right here, right now, at the Banff Centre. Which is why it is absolutely bizarre that Stephen Hunt’s recent article in the Calgary Herald, Banff Centre partners artists with big thinkers, makes no mention of the fact that the Banff Centre has partnered artists with big thinkers for 10 years, at the Banff International Research Station for Mathematical Innovation and Discovery. The soon-to-come addition of the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research (CIFAR) to The Banff Centre is fabulous news, but let’s not forget the context and pretend this is something new. The big thinkers at the Banff Centre are already here: at the Banff International Research Station for Mathematical Innovation and Discovery. Math is everywhere. And it’s here, too.”

So, what should we make of all this? Well, one could easily understand why the mathematicians are disappointed that BIRS, the multidisciplinary, the inclusive, the international, the peer reviewed, the pioneer, and the open resource hasn’t been mentioned.

The way I see it however, is that this is an opportunity. I have often described how BIRS has made The Banff Center a place of convergence between the mathematical sciences, the Sciences, the Arts and all creative forces. This new partnership could be a precursor of a long overdue “rapprochement” between the mathematical sciences and CIFAR. That the mathematician/computer scientist Denis Thérien and the physicist/statistician Pekka Sinnervo are now in leadership position at CIFAR, cannot be unrelated to these new developments.

Our eyes are also on Alan Bernstein, the relatively new President and CEO of CIFAR, a man of vision, who had in the past –ably and successfully– steered CIHR into its present re-invigorated state. Dr. Bernstein is surely familiar with Charles Darwin’s musings that he wished he had worked harder at mathematics, so as to possess the “extra sense” that he felt mathematicians can bring to understanding the world. Otherwise, he could at least remember that he owes our common friend and my colleague, Lon Rosen, his math and physics teacher at the University of Toronto, big time: He owes him not only for the dose of mathematical indoctrination but also for arranging that Alan take over his chair as cellist in a local string quartet, a position which Alan then enjoyed for 30 years.”

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