A Sea Change in Science Policy for SIAM

September 17, 2000


The contagious enthusiasm and energy that have made Jamie Sethian's technical talks on level set and fast marching methods a high point of many conferences did not fail him as he spoke to a more general audience in Puerto Rico. In his I.E. Block Community Lecture, "Advances in Advancing Interfaces," Sethian had the audience wishing for more as he tracked fronts in medical applications and robotics, and considered the seemingly mystical question of how to "find boundaries that aren't there, while avoiding ones that are."

From the SIAM President
Gilbert Strang

The highlight of my report this month is a decision taken at SIAM's Annual Meeting in Puerto Rico. It had unanimous agreement in the SIAM Council and Board and Science Policy Committee. I think the motion might have been approved unanimously at the Town Meeting too, but breakfast under a tent next to a beautiful beach isn't the usual place for such an important vote. The decision was that SIAM will establish a presence of its own in Washington. If I say a little about the background, you will understand what this can mean for our society.

In recent years SIAM has been an active participant in the JPBM (Joint Policy Board for Mathematics). The three member societies---the American Mathematical Society, the Mathematical Association of America, and SIAM---have shared in supporting a director and a congressional liaison, from whom we learned a lot. This arrangement is ending by a decision of the AMS, which for several years has also maintained its own Washington office. (The MAA has headquarters in Washington but not yet a separate office for contacts with Congress.) Beginning in January, each society will organize its own effort. As our president-elect Tom Manteuffel remarked in Puerto Rico, this is really an opportunity that we are ready for. SIAM has the chance to speak about policy from its own viewpoint. I am sure we will do that.

In earlier columns I mentioned testimony to Congress; this is a small part of a Washington presence. Direct contact with members of Congress and their staff, in their offices or even better in their home states, is especially valuable. We also depend on support from the White House---the OMB and OSTP (budget and science policy offices) help to formulate the recommendations that go to Congress. They need input about mathematics and science, when they join in the crucial moments of final negotiations on funding.

A federal budget is a long process!

At an early stage, an agency like the National Science Foundation decides on its goals and how to achieve them. The NSF leadership strongly supports initiatives for fundamental and interdisciplinary mathematics. There seems to be an opportunity, right now, for a major initiative---and SIAM is ready to work for it. The development of mathematics at all levels is one of the best investments a nation can make, and it is our responsibility to explain why.

These fundamental issues are certainly not unique to applied mathematicians in the U.S. From conversations at SIAM meetings, I know that all of us, everywhere in the world, share the problem of communicating what we do. Applied and computational mathematics is essential to the science and technology that make an economy succeed. We know this is true, and we have to prove it.

I have many other memories of Puerto Rico, and I didn't even get to the rain forest or the diving that were high (and low) points for many participants. Three highlights for me were the von Neumann Lecture by Persi Diaconis, the Community Lecture by Jamie Sethian, and Ken Kennedy's presentation of the work of the President's Information Technology Advisory Committee. And meeting at a resort was somehow very nice. People didn't "jet in, give a lecture, and jet out." Friends had time to meet and talk, and I hope SIAM meetings will retain that good quality.

Another important event for applied mathematics has just taken place at UCLA. The new Institute for Pure and Applied Mathematics (IPAM) was inaugurated on August 5. IPAM is supported by NSF, and its key objective is to encourage collaboration between mathematics and other scientific disciplines. There will be specific scientific programs each quarter (functional genomics, financial mathematics, oscillatory integrals, and geometrically based motions in the first year). The director will be Tony Chan. The Web page ipam.ucla.edu also has information about the mentoring program, run through the Harvey Mudd Math Clinic, that will involve all levels from undergraduates to senior researchers.

The ultimate goal of IPAM is to stimulate new mathematics, through an understanding of its applications in other sciences. This is the third major mathematical institute with NSF support, following IMA at the University of Minnesota and MSRI at Berkeley. Proposals for future institutes are invited, and I hope SIAM members will respond with new ideas.

Presenting the Award for Distinguished Service to the
Profession to Margaret Wright, SIAM president Gilbert
Strang recalled her past-president's address at
Stanford---and "the standing ovation that expressed our
admiration and affection for Margaret." Wright's service did
not end with her term as SIAM president, Strang pointed
out: The "fair, open-minded representation of the
mathematical sciences on national committees" for which she
was cited continues, as do her efforts to encourage young
people through such organizations as the Association for
Women in Mathematics. As to SIAM activities, she is
currently a member of the board of trustees, editor-in-chief
of SIAM Review, and, with Martin Golubitsky, co-chair of
the organizing committee for SIAM's 50th-anniversary
meeting (2002). Accepting the award, Wright expressed
some of her thoughts on service and the mathematical
sciences community: "Technical work is paramount," she
said. "Unless you're independently wealthy, you do your
work as part of a community. . . . It matters that you
participate; the kinds of things that let us evolve as a
community depend on service."

Wanting to do something for SIAM, something not too demanding, Ronald DeVore (left) explained at the prize session that he had agreed to chair the selection committee for this year's Richard C. DiPrima Prize. His task, shared with committee members Russel Caflisch and Andrew Wathen, soon arrived in the form of 20 dissertations, none shorter than a hundred pages. Fortunately, he said, "one rose to the top"---"A Three-Dimensional Cartesian Tree-Code and Applications to Vortex Sheet Roll-Up," by Keith Lindsay, shown here at right. Lindsay, who received his PhD from Michigan and is now at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, was cited for "a beautiful solution to a long-standing problem." The prize is awarded annually, in memory of former SIAM president
Richard C. DiPrima, who died in 1984, to the author of the best doctoral dissertation submitted to the competition.

George Pólya had widely ranging interests, and SIAM's biannual prize in his honor alternates between reflecting that breadth and honoring outstanding contributions in combinatorics. This was a combinatorics year, but the range of areas touched by the work of the recipient would make him an especially apt choice for any prize bearing Pólya's name. Noga Alon, of Tel Aviv University, was cited for his work on algebraic methods in combinatorics, in particular for the development and "beautiful applications" of the "Combinatorial Nullstellensatz." He has an "extraordinary record," the citation continues, "of drawing on ideas from a wealth of mathematical disciplines to resolve questions across a broad spectrum of combinatorics and computer science."

On learning that he was to receive the W.T. and Idalia Reid
Prize, Constantine Dafermos (right) went to the library and
did some reading. Previously familiar with W.T. Reid's work
(in control theory and differential equations, the areas for
which the prize is awarded) only by reputation, he came
away "very honored to have a prize that bears Reid's name."
Dafermos was cited for "fundamental contributions to
nonlinear hyperbolic conservation laws."


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