Why am I running again to represent the faculty on UBC’s Board of Governors?

A good question indeed. My official statement below (restricted to 250 words) tells a part of the story but not all. I was personally stunned, upon rereading it, by how many times I call for “refocusing, re-establishing, reversing, returning, recovering …” An unintended illustration of how, long-held assumptions about the values of our academic mission, have been in full retreat. And, we the faculty, are merely trying to recover some of what we used to take for granted even less than 20 years ago.

Another part of the story goes back to my post of October 2015, i.e., before we even knew more through the unintended leaks. Much damage has been done to our institution, and this needs to stop. It gets to be even more urgent to do so, when remnants of those responsible come to epitomize, including through their candidacy statement, the continuing lack of transparency, the waste of university resources, the conceit, and the arrogance of someone who has been “an admin. groupie” for too long.

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Overhauling NSERC is a long overdue national priority (I)

With an annual budget of $1.1 billion, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) is the agency through which the federal government funds advanced post-secondary research in science and engineering. Thousands of Canadian researchers rely on it, hence expect it to operate fairly, competently, and efficiently. Unfortunately, NSERC is an organization that seems to be stuck in the past, enamored with the sanctity of its own outdated ways. Its flawed operational structure keeps being mercilessly exposed by the changing times. It never caught up to the evolving ways of funding and supporting research. It needs to change. In this post, I will identify impediments to NSERC’s ability to optimize government’s investments in support of scientific research and innovation. I shall suggest a way forward in the next blogpost.

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Fettering unfettered research funding: The NSERC ways

Last week, I resigned from a committee that is supposed to liaise between NSERC and Canada’s Mathematics and Statistics communities. The reason? An unsettling lack of transparency, shoddy consultation, and poor decision-making by NSERC’s management in handling recent government budget increases. These problems are not new to NSERC. They date back to the presidency of Suzanne Fortier, but they seem to be reaching a crescendo with Mario Pinto. Fortier had to deal with the tightly earmarked budget increases of the Harper years, and so mastered the art of quietly re-allocating what used to be “internally unfettered” NSERC funding. Pinto has been living the dream of allocating three consecutive installments of new unfettered money from government. NSERC claims that all the new funds are going straight to the Discovery Grant program. We beg to differ. Once the funds arrive to NSERC, they become less unfettered than you think.

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Statistical science is everywhere

By Professor Nancy Reid, OC, FRSC

On Saturday, April 7, The Globe and Mail published a long article on advances in counselling and therapy around mental health—Rethinking therapy: how 45 questions can revolutionize mental health. The punch line? A new emphasis on data collection and analysis is helping therapists to track patients’ progress, alert them to troubling trends, give patients affirmation with their progress, and more. The use of these data collection efforts have been validated by clinical trials. Data collection and clinical trials have informed medical practice for chronic and acute diseases for more than seventy years.

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Did you say, Father’s day?

Last Monday, I wasn’t feeling great, so I asked a good friend of mine to come over and give me company, which he promptly did. Yes, this may be uncommon in this part of the world, but both he and I hail from cultures where this is done.

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The Problem with Naylor’s Panel Report

The report of Naylor’s panel reviewing Canadian Science is out. It is an incredibly eloquent “plaidoyer” for basic research both in terms of its role, past and present, in the advancement of society. It is of course music to the ears of Canada’s university researchers as well as administrators, though for different reasons. Government officials have not yet made any substantial comment and expectations raised by the report must be weighing heavy. The commitment of the Minister of Science, Kirsty Duncan, to basic research is beyond reproach, but she has to contend with “another minister of (applicable?) science,” and 29 of her colleagues around the cabinet table all with other priorities. This is seen in Budget 2017, which was not kind to her ministerial mandate –at least according to Canada’s rank-and-file researchers. The Naylor report made the job that much tougher by not making the required bold moves in re-prioritizing and re-allocating some of the current government’s expenditures on university research.

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Berdahl vs. Potter: The Tale of Two “Globe and Mail” Editorials

Oct. 22, 2015, Globe and Mail Editorial re: Jennifer Berdahl: “It’s far from clear, though, that her blog post was an exercise in academic freedom. Her post was one remark about one unexplained kerfuffle in a university’s administration, not a piece of data in a social research program.”

Mar. 23, 2017, Globe and Mail Editorial re: Andrew Potter: “The right of university professors to speak their minds without fear of sanction is critical in a free society. It matters not a whit that the online Maclean’s column that got Mr. Potter in trouble was poorly thought out.”

There are many similarities between the case of Jennifer Berdahl at UBC, and the Andrew Potter affair at McGill. Both faculty members made statements that caused displeasure to the powers in their respective universities and provinces. Both had their rights to academic freedom usurped and challenged. Both paid a heavy price for exercising this right. Much remains to be uncovered, but there is one glaring difference between the two cases. The establishment, at least outside Quebec, rallied around Andrew Potter, defending his right to academic freedom, and publicly chastising Suzanne Fortier, the Principal of McGill. Jennifer Berdahl didn’t have that luxury. No pundit/public figure questioned the role and attitude of Martha Piper, then acting president of UBC, of John Montalbano, then Chair of the Board, and of Lindsay Gordon, who is astonishingly still vying for a reappointment as Chancellor. What gives?

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Budget 2017, Naylor’s review, and the Mathematical Sciences in Canada

James Colliander, Director of the Pacific Institute for the Mathematical Sciences (PIMS) 
Nassif Ghoussoub, Director of the Banff International Research Station (BIRS)
Ian Hambleton, Director of the Fields Institute for Research in Mathematical Sciences (Fields)
Luc Vinet, Directeur du Centre de Recherches Mathématiques (CRM)

The direct funding of research initiatives on artificial intelligence (AI) and quantum computing via Budget 2017, and the release of the report of Canada’s Fundamental Science Review present an opportunity to reflect on the role of mathematical sciences within Canada’s scientific heritage and future, but also on our country’s ways of funding research. The importance of the mathematical sciences (mathematics, statistics and computer science) is deepening in almost all areas of knowledge. Mathematical sciences provide a conceptual infrastructure underpinning advances in biology, engineering, humanities, medicine, social sciences and beyond. Progress in our understanding in all these fields depends upon advanced research and high-level training in the mathematical sciences.

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Canada has two ministers of Science, yet Budget 2017 barely mentions Science

University researchers across Canada are stunned and puzzled. What happened to Justin Trudeau’s Liberals promises to undo the damage that the Harper years inflicted on the nation’s research capacity? The Liberals campaigned to end the “war on Science,” yet they seem to be governing by the very same playbook as their predecessors. Yes, they got “Science” into the title of two ministerial positions: The Minister of Industry is now the Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development (ISED). The Minister of State for Science & Technology is now a senior Minister of Science. But not much else seems to have changed. Actually, Budget 2017 hardly mentions Science (once you remove generic titles such as ISED, the Science review, and the Science Advisor!). University presidents may be satisfied –or told to be—by their infrastructure funds, a couple of researchers seem to hit the jackpot, but to Canada’s rank and file researchers, Budget 2017 looks pretty much like a repeat of Harper’s 2009 Budget.

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The Latest Attack on Academic Freedom in Canada: McGill Turns Away from Controversy and Provocation

By Alan Richardson, Professor of Philosophy at the University of British Columbia


“While the Institute itself is non-partisan, MISC is no stranger to debate and controversy.”—https://mcgill.ca/misc/about

“It is not a role to provoke, but to promote good discussion.”—McGill Principal Suzanne Fortier as quoted in The Globe and Mail

McGill University Principal Suzanne Fortier has spoken out in defense of her actions in accepting the resignation of Andrew Potter from his post as Director of the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada (MISC). She emphasizes on the responsibility of the leaders of academic units to represent those units. In particular, she maintains that the Institute must be non-partisan. However, she finds that in writing the Maclean’s article as director of the Institute Potter violated non-partisanship and, thus, poorly represented the Institute. His op-ed was, she claims, provocative and would lead political leaders not to wish to come to Institute events. She also claims that the scholarship was shoddy and…

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Salient points of Daniel Heath Justice’s letter of resignation from the UBC Sexual Assault Policy Committee in response to Furlong’s reinstatement


Dear Professor Ono,

I read with dismay the announcement yesterday that John Furlong has been reinstated as a UBC fundraising speaker. … There were many responsible and compassionate ways this matter might have been handled that would not have once again silenced or erased the abuse allegations of dozens of people from the Lake Babine First Nation — some of whom I understand have contacted your office and have received no response — but the result of UBC’s press releases has been to do precisely that, and to once again undermine the hard work that so many of us have undertaken at this university to do ethical, accountable work in relationship with Indigenous communities.

Given these events, I am sad to say that I cannot continue to serve with integrity on the UBC Sexual Assault Policy Committee. It is impossible to do so given that the Committee’s good work has…

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Shaking up the UBC Board of Governors

Month after month of bad press in local and national media outlets didn’t do it. Petition after petition asking for transparency and accountability from the governors and the managerial class didn’t do it. Eight hundred faculty members voting non-confidence in the Board of Governors didn’t do it. And the jury is still out on whether even a new president with a reportedly rock star status and a de-facto strengthened mandate can do it. But we still see one glitter of hope for our university. Continue reading

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Interview with a mathematician: Nassif Ghoussoub

In this interview, Anthony Bonato got me to reveal quite a bit about my background, my path to mathematics, my role in founding the Pacific Institute for Mathematical Sciences (PIMS), the MITACS Network of Centres of Excellence, and the Banff International Research Station (BIRS), my years on the UBC Board of Governors, my position on Arvind Gupta’s “mandatus interruptus,” my impressions on UBC president Santa Ono’s first steps, as well as my take on social media, and the future of Mathematical research. A bit long, but hopefully not very boring.

The Intrepid Mathematician

Nassif Ghoussoub is the founder and current director of the Banff International Research Station, the founding director of the Pacific Institute of Mathematics, and the co-founder of MITACS NCE. On top of all that, he is an award-winning mathematician, whose most recent work focuses on differential equations and mass transport theory.


I met Nassif when he was Scientific Director of MPrime NCE. My first impression of him was that he was amiable, laser sharp, and a natural leader. I’ve read his blog Piece of Mindfor years, where he posts refreshingly blunt (but fair) views on the academy.

Nassif was recently inducted into the Order of Canada, which is an honour he very highly deserves. I think we should all be proud as Canadians to have a mathematician of his stature represent us in Ottawa and on the world stage.

During the interview, Nassif was warm and open. I find the way Nassif talks about mathematics and…

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About Naylor’s panel roundtable regarding Big Science in a Canadian Context

For those not paying attention, David Naylor is leading “Canada’s Fundamental Science Review Panel” which is looking at the state of fundamental science in Canada. Last week, I had a chance to participate at a roundtable of experts in Calgary, where the consultation was about Big and Expensive Science infrastructure. Being director of a big but relatively cheap science research infrastructure, I wondered first whether I really belonged to that club. Indeed, other participants included directors of Canada’s landmark mega-projects: Triumf, SNOLAB, Canadian light source, Compute Canada, the Thirty-Meter Telescope, etc. Revealing on Twitter where I was and with whom, solicited this tweet from a colleague: “That’s like inviting the big 5 banks to a meeting on interest rates & ATM fees!” In fairness it wasn’t that bad, though the consultation could have benefited from a few more independent observers of big Canadian Science. I considered myself one of those – one panelist confided that I was invited because I’m known to speak my mind. But, in spite of valiant efforts by Art MacDonald who was chairing, the format was not conducive to speaking minds and extensive analysis, hence, this post.

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Research funding of Mathematics and Statistics in Canada

A submission from the NSERC Mathematics and Statistics Liaison group, to the Review of Federal Support to Research and Development, on research funding of mathematics and statistics in Canada.

1. Mathematics and Statistics in our research system; revolution, or a golden age

To the non-initiate, mathematics might seem frozen in time, rehashing the glories of earlier centuries. Nothing could be further from the truth. The last twenty years have seen a veritable explosion of results, as new horizons have opened. Centuries-old conjectures such as Fermat’s or Poincaré’s have been proven, and not just by seeing something long overlooked; on the contrary, the proofs have come through veritable revolutions, fundamental rebuilding of the mathematical arsenal, which are now having vast impacts way beyond their original application. These are exciting times; the reader might with profit, albeit at the expense of some time, consult the excellent “The Mathematical Sciences in 2025”, prepared for the US National Research Council.

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The Submission of BIRS and Canada’s Mathematical Sciences Institutes to Canada’s Fundamental Science Review

The Mathematical Sciences are the foundation of any advanced research ecosystem, and Canada’s mathematical sciences institutes have been instrumental in supporting this ecosystem. They do so by providing scientific leadership, by developing coherent national strategies for mathematical and statistical discovery and innovation, by transcending geographic and disciplinary barriers, by maximizing provincial leveraging, by spearheading international partnerships, and by connecting the research enterprise with the imperatives of providing training and education at all levels.

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Saving the UBC Senate from itself

By Vinayak Vatsal, Professor of Mathematics, UBC



Much has been made at UBC on the subject of governance, sparked by such diverse issues as the sudden resignation of Arvind Gupta, the violation of academic freedom that occurred in the aftermath of the resignation, the university’s non-response to complaints of sexual assault, and the handling of a petition to ask for divestment from fossil fuels.

Most of the discussion has been focussed narrowly on the Board of Governors and senior administrators, since it is within their ambit that this series of unfortunate events lies. A vote of non-confidence in the Board was held, and more than 800 faculty members voted to censure the Board for its perceived failures.

But largely forgotten in the discussion are the facts that UBC is a bicameral institution, and that the UBC Senate is is endowed by the University Act with expansive powers to manage the academic affairs of the institution. In principle at least, the…

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Some unedited thoughts for Canada’s fundamental science review panel

The Government bureaucracy seems to be buckling under the sheer number of reviews that the liberal government is currently conducting. One of them is focused on “determining the strengths of our current arrangements and pinpointing gaps and bottlenecks in Canada’s research funding ecosystem.” This review is welcome and overdue, especially that its panel is chaired by the knowledgeable and straight shooter, David Naylor, and populated by a few distinguished scientists such as Robert Birgeneau and Art McDonald. I will be submitting and co-submitting more formal recommendations elsewhere, but yesterday’s CFREF announcements managed to shake me out of my blissed procrastination. Time to get a few ideas off my chest. Continue reading

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A life of mathematics and computation: Jon Borwein

by Anthony Bonato, Department of Mathematics – Ryerson University

The Intrepid Mathematician

There was sad news this week with the passing of Jonathan Borwein on Tuesday, August 2, 2016.

Jon Borwein in his lab at University of Newcastle, Australia.

Jon was a powerhouse mathematician and computer scientist who leaves behind a rich legacy. As a highly awarded scholar, his academic output was staggering: almost five hundred papers, twenty-eight books, and he supervised dozens of graduate students and post-doctoral fellows.  His work spanned many areas within mathematics, such as analysis, optimization, financial mathematics, experimental mathematics, and high performance computing. He is also well-known for his work on computing digits of π, and the featured image of this blog is from one of his visualization experiments for that number.

I met Jon when he was Canada Research Chair at Dalhousie University. He was also Director of the Atlantic Association for Research in the Mathematical Sciences (AARMS). I was teaching an AARMS summer school course at Dalhousie, and my first…

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UBC’s new president is not a mathematician, but …

The last time I saw the fabulous Frances Bula, she said that she liked my tweets whenever I commented on mathematics and mathematicians. I think she really meant for me to leave the rest of the news and analysis to her and the pros. However, thanks to Stuart Belkin, I now have a chance to do both. I mention the Chair of the UBC Board because I hear that –fortunately I must say– he is the one in charge these days, including of the presidential search.  The remarkable choice of Santa Ono (yes Santa!) as UBC’s 15th president is nothing but a victory to those among us calling for a renewed spirit of research excellence, academic freedom, diversity, decency, humanity and fair-play among the UBC leadership, be it mid-level and up. Continue reading

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