A Justifiable Optimism for Applied Mathematics

December 21, 2000

From the SIAM President
Gilbert Strang

If I imagined that my final column would be a summary of work that is finished, I was totally wrong! I can write to you about no fewer than five major developments that are now in progress. This is a clear sign that SIAM is in a very active period---which I believe is highly desirable. Here are the five topics:

1. SIAM representation in Washington
2. Activity Group in CSE
3. Ad hoc Committee on Workshops
4. Awards to good referees
5. Mathematical Sciences Initiative at the National Science Foundation

In every case my report will be incomplete. But I want you to know what is happening---SIAM has a lot to do.

1. Certainly one of the liveliest activities has been the establishment of SIAM's Washington presence. At our Annual Meeting it was clear that our
society supports this plan. Three of us, Tom Manteuffel, Jim Crowley, and I, have looked for the best arrangement consistent with our budget and our needs. We initially anticipated having to choose between a firm that would provide information and liaison with Congress and the White House, and a mathematician who could speak for us on technical and policy issues. Now we believe that both are possible, each on a part-time basis.

Working with the Joint Policy Board for Mathematics in 1999 and 2000, Lewis-Burke Associates showed us how we can call attention to the importance of mathematics. We still have a lot to learn (this effort goes well beyond testimony to congressional committees). Now we look forward to working with April Burke in presenting the needs and contributions of applied and computational mathematics. And recently Mel Ciment, a long-time SIAM member (who served on the Council from 1988 to 1990), became active in representing societies like ours. His long experience in both mathematics and computer science at NSF, where he was involved in the recognition of computational science and in the PITAC report and the start of the IT initiative, makes him an ideal spokesman for SIAM.

I am optimistic about the future of SIAM's role in Washington. In recent years we have met, and come to know as friends, many of the key people in policy positions. SIAM is not a large society, but applied and computational mathematics is crucial to progress and we can say so in an effective way.

2. I wrote in earlier columns about the success of the first SIAM Conference on Computational Science and Engineering. Now we need to consider the possibility of a new Activity Group in CSE, and a proposal has been prepared for the board. I see this as a proper way for SIAM to develop scientifically, and at the same time to attract new members.

3. Workshops on industrial mathematics can be extremely alive and intense. This has been confirmed by long experience in Europe and Australia, where sharply focused workshops are a major activity (the Oxford Study Groups were among the earliest). Many departments in Europe have seen and acted on this vision, and have united in the European Consortium for Mathematics in Industry. A similar direct connection to industry needs to be strengthened in North America.

I am inviting a number of SIAM members to serve on an ad hoc Committee on Workshops. Every reply I have received has been overwhelmingly positive---I have had total encouragement from everyone. The workshops could take several forms, and John Ockendon is writing for SIAM News about a very successful one in England---a format in which fascinating free boundary problems arose when companies brought problems to experienced mathematicians. Other workshops present students with industrial problems, as part of their graduate training. A third format has speakers and topics prepared in advance for a large company or laboratory.

SIAM must be able to help in the development of workshops (by providing publicity in SIAM News, possibly by submitting proposals to government agencies, and certainly by working with our industrial members). This is a direction that needs new ideas.

4. Refereeing is an unselfish effort that is crucial to SIAM, and we can find a way to say how much it is appreciated. In a word, we want to thank referees who do a timely and careful job. We are thinking of an award made by the associate editor who handles the paper. The author will be happier when the report comes quickly, and the referee will have a tangible acknowledgment of a valuable contribution. SIAM will be happier too, when the difficult problem of handling submitted papers in a timely way is partly solved. The Board of Trustees and the editors of the SIAM journals are considering how to implement this idea. Like the other topics in this column, the final plan is not complete---the motive has to come first. Introducing a highly visible (and perhaps unique) award for referees should be good for the whole applied mathematics community.

5. The fifth action is on a national scale. The 2001 budget for NSF is very favorable, an increase of almost 14%. NSF envisages a major new initiative starting in 2002 and dedicated to mathematics. The planning is led by Philippe Tondeur, director of the Division of Mathematical Sciences, with very strong support from Rita Colwell, NSF's director, and Bob Eisenstein, who leads the Directorate for Mathematical and Physical Sciences. The change in administration makes 2002 an exceptional year for budget planning, and this initiative is the only one now in the works.

A successful initiative will make a very significant difference in funding, as well as in mathematics education and career opportunities. The goal is to include other agencies too, and all disciplines that depend on mathematics, statistics, and computation. These partnerships are natural (and extremely welcome) for applied mathematics.

It is very early to know the chances for success. I am writing about this initiative now for two particular reasons. The first is that it requires support from many people in government and also from scientists. We have to help. At the end of November a group from SIAM will visit the Office of Management and Budget as one step in building support for the NSF budget. This visit to OMB illustrates the new level of activities that SIAM can undertake.

My second reason is to add a personal word about Philippe Tondeur. He has a bold vision of tremendous progress for the mathematical sciences, including applied and computational mathematics. The more I see and appreciate his thinking, the more I feel that he deserves maximum support from SIAM.


Finally, thank you all for the very happy two years I have had as SIAM president. It was a wonderful time, an honor that I will never forget, and I enjoyed every day of it.

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