Four lessons from an amazing site visit

B8nJaPxCQAAcgSGA joint site visit to the Banff International Research Station (BIRS) by four granting agencies representing four different governments, happened on April 16 and 17. Eight officials from the US National Science Foundation (NSF), Canada’s Natural Science and Engineering Research Council (NSERC), Mexico’s CONACyT, and Alberta Innovation and Advanced Education, accompanied an international review panel of five distinguished mathematical scientists to the site visit for BIRS. The four councils had jointly commissioned the panel to evaluate the Station. The visitors listened, asked, conversed, challenged, advised, and will soon be submitting their recommendations.

They will eventually write a report for the granting foundations with their evaluation of the station’s practices, performance, and impact, as well as their recommendations for improvement (if any 🙂 ) and of course on the renewal of the funding of BIRS for the next cycle 2016-2020. Here are a few observations from these amazing two days.

Lesson 1: Peer review is the only way. I have been involved over the years in the founding of several institutions in support of Canadian and international advanced research. Not once have I tried to go around and circumvent the peer review process. I am a firm believer in open and fair competitive exercises through the designated granting councils and foundations. No research initiative should be imposed or funded through patronage, connections, special privileges, or political access. Research projects cannot and should not be decided by politicians, power brokers, donors, or career administrators.

The BIRS site visit showcased peer review at its very best. In preparation of the site visit, the NSF had asked half-a-dozen anonymous reviewers for their evaluations of the BIRS proposal. Their criticisms and queries were communicated and addressed. The visiting experts were first class in their professionalism.

Lesson 2: International collaboration makes a difference. A particularly unique impact of BIRS is that it “underscores how international cooperation adds up to more than what any nation could accomplish alone.” These words of a former director of the NSF, Rita Colwell, who is currently on the Board of Directors of BIRS, go to the heart of this project. The site visit illustrated how impactful it is, when scientific leadership transcends provincial, national but also disciplinary boundaries to work together towards advancing scientific discovery and innovation.

This collaboration had reached a milestone in February 2014, when the Government of Mexico awarded an infrastructure grant of 43-million pesos for the construction of an affiliated research facility in Oaxaca so that BIRS could run an additional 25-30 workshops per year. Like BIRS, the new facility, Casa Matemática Oaxaca (CMO) is located in a place of high culture, the Centro de las Artes de San Agustín Etla, also known as CASA. BIRS will host 21 additional workshops in Oaxaca in 2015, and 26 additional BIRS workshops are scheduled to run at CMO in 2016.

Lesson 3: Inter-agency collaboration can have unexpected benefits: BIRS represents a breakthrough for North American scientific cooperation, as it was the first research facility to involve NSERC, NSF, Alberta Innovation and CONACyT in a partnership of this scale.

Each agency has its processes, values and modus operandi, and joint evaluations such as the one for BIRS offer great opportunities for them to compare, and learn from, each others’ best practices and winning ways. There is no doubt that CONACyT had lots to look forward to from its interactions with its “Anglo-Saxon” counterparts. But on one issue, the influence of the NSF on NSERC has been simply remarkable.

For many years, diversity issues, including a consistent and sustained effort to support the research of women and other underrepresented groups, have been high on the NSF’s priorities. It is only recently, that the relevance of these important issues are starting to seep into the culture of other granting councils, including the Canadian ones. BIRS could take some credit for this catalytic influence. After the first joint visit, NSF and NSERC staff and several senior Canadian and US academic leaders held workshops at BIRS to explore and compare best practices to address diversity issues. The impact on the Canadian institutes is lasting.

Lesson 4: Nothing trumps community’s support: I kept being asked in the days leading to the site visit, “Are you nervous? Are you worried?” My answer was always, “Not at all. Actually, I am cherishing it, and can hardly wait for it.”  I knew that BIRS has the support of the world’s scientific community, and that its leaders will stand by me to support BIRS and to defend its impact. I was not disappointed.

Over sixty of our colleagues from all over the world participated in person and via conference calls. Their takes on BIRS were as varied as their positions dictate, as broad as the scientific areas that BIRS covers, and as rich as the types of interactions the Station facilitates. Their personal testimonials —in addition to this ongoing stream— were candid, superlative, and up-lifting.

Just take a look at who showed up to support BIRS: Twelve directors of Canadian, US and Mexican institutes, seven presidents of North American and European mathematical and statistical  professional societies, half-a-dozen chairs of major mathematical science departments.

The Chair of the BIRS Board, Doug Mitchell, the new president of The Banff Centre, Janice Price, and its previous president, Jack Davis, were very eloquent and effective in their support of BIRS.  The presence, the support, and the commitment to excellence of so many leaders of the international community of mathematical scientists were surely not lost on them.

The BIRS site visit showcased a scientific community at its best. This one was special.

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