Is the BIRS programme multiple disciplinary enough for NSERC?

The programs of the Banff International Research Station (BIRS) in Banff and Oaxaca are supported by the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF), Canada’s Natural Science and Engineering Research Council (NSERC), Mexico’s Consejo Nacional de Ciencia y Tecnología (CONACyT),  and the Alberta Ministry of Economic Development and Trade. In 2003, NSERC’s funding for BIRS was on par with its two partners then, covering 33% of the station’s inaugural budget. Fast forward to 2018 to see NSERC’s current funding for BIRS being the lowest among the four partnering governments – at 22% of the total budget. How did we get here?

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Calling on #UBC to step up and support our alumni Loujain Al-Hathloul (Arts, 2014)

29 May 2018

Lindsay Gordon, Chancellor, UBC
Santa J, Ono, President and vice-Chancellor, UBC

Dear Mr Gordon and Dr Ono:

“Pursuing excellence in research, learning and engagement to foster global citizenship and advance a sustainable and just society across British Columbia, Canada and the world.” – UBC’s purpose per Shaping UBC’s Next Century: Strategic Plan, 2018-2028

A UBC alumna, Loujain Al-Hathloul (Arts, 2014), has been detained without clear charges and without ability to contact her family in Saudi Arabia.  Ms Al-Hathloul is a well-known human rights activist in Saudi Arabia. The nature and timing of her detention strongly suggest that it is part of a crackdown on human rights in Saudi Arabia.

We, the undersigned, are deeply troubled by the following official response to a request that UBC comment on Ms Al-Hathloul’s detention:

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Reboot NSERC by engaging and empowering the researchers it serves

I described in a previous post some of the impediments to NSERC’s ability to optimize government’s investments in support of scientific research and innovation. Namely, how its rigid and insular operational structure hinders its capabilities to partner internationally; to coordinate nationally; to operate coherently and inclusively; to collaborate, leverage its federal resources, and multiply research opportunities; to adapt to the ascendance of interdisciplinary research, and to knowledgeably and confidently address emerging areas of research. To metamorphose NSERC from its current state of a reactive and unimaginative funnel of government money, to a pro-active and nimble organization that can multiply it and optimize its use, there is one simple solution.

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President Arvind Gupta on the essence of the academic mission…and an endorsement


By Professor Arvind Gupta

Dear colleagues,

As many of you are aware, there is a by-election for a faculty representative to the Board of Governors. This is an important election for UBC Vancouver faculty, and I feel compelled to send this message, given what has been happening at UBC over the past few years. I have been dismayed to witness disregard (and at times attacks) on our most fundamental values: the very essence of our academic mission, and the collegial governance and academic freedom required to fulfill it. We, the faculty, have long argued that these values are necessary for the free and unhindered pursuit of knowledge and discovery, for preserving a culture of openness and transparency, for upholding the rights of the underrepresented, protecting the vulnerable, and for speaking out against injustice of any form. Any undermining of these values is felt, not just within our institution, but more broadly across society.

I believe…

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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.”—

“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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