An Extended Sound Bite for the Math Sciences

May 9, 2001


SIAM president Tom Manteuffel (right) testifies before the U.S. House of Representatives Subcommittee on VA, HUD, and Independent Agencies, on the importance of funding for mathematics research at the National Science Foundation.
Talk of the Society
Thomas Manteuffel and James Crowley

This is normally a busy season in Washington, as budgets emerge from the federal agencies for action in Congress. (The White House is involved along the way, of course; more on that below.) SIAM and many of its members take a keen interest in this process because of the importance of research funding for the health of our discipline and for progress in science in general.

The budget for FY2002 has been particularly dramatic for science funding in the U.S., and nowhere more so than for the mathematical sciences at the National Science Foundation. As reported in previous issues of SIAM News, NSF director Rita Colwell had proposed major increases in funding for the mathematical sciences (described in the journal Nature as a quadrupling of the mathematics budget).

The funding picture in the other agencies has not been as bright. Funding for applied mathematics and computational science comes from several agencies, among them the Department of Energy and various agencies of the Department of Defense. As a whole, these agencies have not seen increases at the levels received by NSF over the past few years; as a result, funding for many areas of interest to SIAM members has not kept pace with that for disciplines funded mainly by NSF (or the National Institutes of Health). Nevertheless, the proposed increase at NSF was a positive sign and one that is urgently needed by the entire mathematical sciences community.

With the change in administrations, though, has come a change in priorities, and the hoped for double-digit increase in the NSF budget has become a proposed increase of 1.3%.

We are pleased that, within this frugal framework, NSF is proposing to commit $20 million of the new funds to the Division of Mathematical Sciences-an increase of almost 17% over the current DMS budget ($120 million). This signals a recognition by Rita Colwell, and NSF as a whole, that funding for mathematics has lagged behind funding for other disciplines.

We are also pleased, for at least two reasons, that the proposed $20 million increase in the DMS budget is to be allocated to interdisciplinary projects. First, in the context of an overall 1.3% increase for NSF, the substantial increase proposed for mathematics can be sustained only with the support of the other disciplines, which tend to be in favor of interdisciplinary mathematics. Secondly, it is generally this type of research that is of interest to SIAM members.

Congress sets the budget, of course, and final figures will not be determined until this fall. It is still possible to influence the process. Last month, in an effort to do so, SIAM asked for, and was granted, an opportunity to testify on behalf of increased funding for NSF before the House Appropriations Subcommittee on VA, HUD, and Independent Agencies---the committee responsible for the NSF budget.

On March 21, a delegation from SIAM---including the two of us (as president and executive director of SIAM), Mel Ciment, SIAM's senior adviser on Washington activities, and April Burke and Mark Marin of Lewis-Burke Associates, SIAM's legislative liaison in Washington---appeared at the VA/HUD Subcommittee hearing. As SIAM president, I (T.M.) was privileged to give testimony at the hearing. This was a very interesting experience that I would like to share with you.

The actual testimony occurs in a medium-sized room, before at most thirty people. Of the 11-member subcommittee, only four were present at our hearing. I was told that this was an excellent turnout. Each person who testifies is allowed four minutes of oral testimony. When the red light flashes, you stop. The oral testimony is little more than an extended sound bite; you can hope to make only one or two points.

Five pages of written testimony are accepted into the record. Our written testimony, while ostensibly directed to the subcommittee, was constructed with many audiences in mind: the subcommittee members, the staff of the subcommittee, NSF, other funding agencies, other scientific societies, and the membership of SIAM. Both the oral and the written testimony were the product of many hours of effort involving the entire SIAM delegation.

The points we tried to make were:

Discussion after the oral testimony was positive. Subcommittee member David Hobson (R-OH) agreed that advanced research in the mathematical sciences is important; Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-NJ) asked about numbers of women and minorities in mathematics (SIAM responded with a subsequent letter).

In sharp contrast to the situation at NSF is the funding trend at the National Institutes of Health. NIH has seen funding increases on the order of 15% for many years, and with the new administration's identification of research in the health sciences as a priority, it seems that this trend will continue.

After the NSF testimony, the two of us, accompanied by Mel Ciment, visited NIH, bringing with us the belief that the potential contibutions of mathematics to the life sciences are far more extensive than those explored to date. After a warm reception by NIH officials, we learned about some new programs created to develop cross-disciplinary research that includes mathematical modeling and computational simulation. An example is the recent announcement of several research opportunities by the National Institute of General Medical Sciences, including the following three programs: Structural Genomics Initiatives (www.nigms.nih.gov/funding/psi.html), Glue Grants for Integrative and Collaborative Approaches to Research (www.nigms.nih.gov/funding/gluegrants.html), and Complex Biomedical Systems Initiatives. Getting these research projects under way may be a difficult process---partly because of the culture within NIH, and partly because of inertia in the mathematical sciences community. However, these programs are a very promising development for SIAM's constituency.

We hope to nurture our relationship with NIH. The life sciences are a growing area for applied mathematics and computational science, with a wealth of problems that harbor exciting mathematical and computational challenges. It is for this reason that SIAM members established the new SIAM Activity Group on the Life Sciences. For a perspective on what SIAM members and their collaborators are doing in this area, we encourage all of you to attend the first SIAM Conference on Life Sciences, Boston, September 24-26 (www.siam.org/meetings/ls01/).

One thing is clear: The challenges and opportunities for applied mathematics and computational science are greater than ever before. This is increasingly clear not only in the life sciences, but also in other new areas highlighted by SIAM conferences---the first SIAM Conference on Imaging Science, which will be held in Boston immediately before the life sciences meeting (www.siam.org/meetings/is01/), and the recent SIAM Conference on Data Mining (www.siam.org/meetings/sdm01/).

Along with these exciting opportunities, the community faces challenges, in obtaining appropriate levels of funding and maintaining adequate numbers of new PhDs in our field. These are worldwide challenges. We sincerely hope that all SIAM members will take an active role in working to meet them, whether by speaking out about the contributions that mathematics makes to society or by making time in their careers for a term at one of the science funding agencies.


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