Two Doubling Stories Unfold at NSF

July 31, 2003


Speaking at the 2003 SIAM Annual Meeting in Montreal, DMS director Bill Rundell urged the audience to take advantage of the National Science Foundation's priority area in the mathematical sciences. It brings opportunities for joint work with researchers in any discipline covered by NSF, he said. "If you're SIAM, it's stuff you care about anyway-interactions with others." A priority area solicitation will be released in the fall.
This is "an enormously interesting time to be at NSF," Bill Rundell told the audience at a special session held the first evening of the 2003 SIAM Annual Meeting in Montreal. For the audience, it turned out to be an especially interesting time to hear from Rundell, who was just then completing his first year as director of the National Science Foundation's Division of Mathematical Sciences.

On June 16, the day of the Montreal session, DMS released a new solicitation, for a program titled "Enhancing the Mathematical Sciences Workforce in the 21st Century," or EMSW21. Described by Rundell as an expanded version of the VIGRE program, EMSW21 broadens the base of eligible participants. The complete solicitation can be found at www.nsf.gov/pubs/2003/nsf03575/nsf03575.htm. The proposal deadline is September 16, beginning this year and yearly thereafter.

EMSW21 has three components, one of which is essentially the original VIGRE program. "Vertical Integration of Research and Education," as its title implies, supports departmentally based activities of students at all levels, from undergraduate through postdoc. The eligibility criteria for EMSW21 are the same as for the original VIGRE program: Participating students and postdocs (but not principal investigators) must be U.S. citizens, nationals, or permanent residents. The VIGRE component of the program will continue to be funded at close to the levels of the last few years, with slightly more than $10 million available for new awards in FY 2004. As before, a grant to an institution is expected to be for five years at up to $1 million.

The motivation for VIGRE, and for EMSW21, can be summarized in a word: numbers. Rundell, who has quickly become fluent in all sorts of numbers and statistics, offered a few to his listeners in Montreal. Only 1% of undergraduates in the U.S. major in mathematics, he said. The picture mysteriously improves at the PhD level, where 2.5% of degrees awarded at U.S. institutions are in the mathematical sciences. (All the physical sciences together, for comparison, account for only 1.5% of undergraduate majors but more than 10% of PhDs.)

In its four years, Rundell pointed out, VIGRE has begun to turn things around for the "vibrant science." At schools with VIGRE grants, numbers are indeed going up---for undergraduate mathematics majors, domestic graduate students, and, of course, postdocs.

"VIGRE is a great model for certain schools," he said, "but if you don't have programs from undergraduate to postdoc, you can't play."

It's at this point that the other two components of EMSW21 come in. The first, Research Training Grants, will support research-based training and education for groups of researchers in the mathematical sciences, not necessarily from the same institutions, who have related research goals. Unlike VIGRE, this program does not require department-wide participation.

The second new program, Mentoring Through Critical Transition Points in the Mathematical Sciences, will support mentoring efforts directed toward one or more key transition points critical in the progression from undergraduate studies to a tenure-track position. As stated in the solicitation: "Successful proposals will be those that provide ways to increase the number and the quality of training of U.S. citizens, nationals, or permanent residents entering the scientific workforce with strong mathematical training."

Returning to the numbers, Rundell pointed out that a goal of EMSW21 is to double, within three to five years, the number of math majors who go on to graduate programs in the sciences. Math majors do "leak out," he said; as long as the flow is toward a graduate degree in science, the program is considered successful. "It's OK to give our students to physics," he commented, quasi-tongue-in cheek, "just not the top ones."

Can a small college that consistently sends a large fraction of its mathematics majors to graduate programs apply for a grant under the new programs? "Probably not," Rundell said---"it doesn't have the numbers." What it can do is join with similar colleges, or for that matter with a large research university, in a consortium that can provide the numbers. Proposals will be judged in part on the basis of the quantitative goals set for delivering increased numbers of students. When the time comes, all these pipeline programs will be evaluated in the same way.

NSF is willing to spend the money to double the numbers of math majors going on to grad school, Rundell said in summary. "It's up to the community to figure out how to do it."

More than a single program, however ambitious and promising, is responsible for Rundell's interesting times, of course. As he also explained to the audience in Montreal, the total DMS budget, $178 million for the current fiscal year, will, if things go well, grow to $200 million in FY 2004. This is another doubling story: The 2004 total would be twice the amount DMS received just four years ago.

The generous increase has much to do with "priority areas"---the six areas currently designated by NSF as worthy of special attention and funding. For the most part the areas are sufficiently broad and interdisciplinary---nanotechnology and information technology being two examples---to touch on the interests of just about every one of NSF's 40 research divisions. The mathematical sciences, as readers of SIAM News will know, is also a current NSF priority area, typical in being of NSF-wide interest, atypical in being the only single discipline so designated.

What this means to the community, Rundell said, is that priority area funding can be used to support joint work between mathematical scientists and researchers in any discipline within NSF-including computer science, astronomy, the geosciences, and economics, or in cross-cutting areas like nanotechnology and biocomplexity. And because priority area funding is being used, it frees up existing DMS funds for new projects.

"If you're SIAM, it's stuff you care about anyway---interactions with
others," Rundell said in Montreal. To help DMS make the most of the oppor-tunities provided by the priority area, he concluded, "You must play if at all
possible in the priority area" by responding to these solicitations with strong proposals.

This picture will become more clear early in the fall, when NSF releases a solicitation for proposals in the mathematical sciences priority area. SIAM will post information on the Web and in SIAM News as it becomes available.

Readers interested in submitting proposals under the Enhancing the Mathematical Sciences Workforce in the 21st Century program are encouraged to discuss their ideas with DMS program officers Lloyd Douglas (ldouglas@nsf.gov) or Richard Millman (rmillman@nsf.gov).


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