SIAM News Blog

Forward-Looking Panel at MPE18 Examines the Intersection of Mathematics and Environmental Science

By Hans Engler and Emil Constantinescu

The second SIAM Conference on Mathematics of Planet Earth, sponsored by the Activity Group on Mathematics of Planet Earth (SIAG/MPE), took place last fall in Philadelphia, Pa. During the meeting, a forward-looking panel on emerging topics—in the style of a well-attended panel from the inaugural SIAG/MPE conference two years earlier—attracted a sizable crowd.

Panelists included Beth Wingate (University of Exeter), Mihai Anitescu (Argonne National Laboratory and The University of Chicago), Hans G. Kaper (Georgetown University), Christiane Rousseau (Université de Montréal), and Jon Hobbs (Jet Propulsion Laboratory). Emil Constantinescu (Argonne National Laboratory) moderated the discussion.

The panel’s themes were derived from MPE-related work by mathematical scientists, and conversation covered the successful execution of such work and its potential focus areas in the future. Constantinescu opened the discussion by asking panelists about their particular success stories in accomplishing interdisciplinary work pertaining to MPE. He also conjectured how to best foster collaborations between mathematicians and domain experts.

All five panelists had interesting stories to tell and spoke about scientific efforts that involved substantial mathematics. Wingate explained how numerical analysts can aid and advance ocean flow modeling projects. Anitescu pointed to recent successes in high-quality forecasting (of weather, energy demand, etc.) that depend on mathematical contributions, while Kaper reported on a classical superconductivity modeling success where experiments confirmed mathematical predictions. Hobbs and Rousseau turned their attention to sustained interdisciplinary research involving mathematical scientists. Hobbs talked about the science team working with NASA’s Orbiting Carbon Observatory 2 satellite—which collects spatiotemporal information related to environmental science—and Rousseau acknowledged high-level institutional collaborations through the International Science Council, which was founded in July 2018. The council’s first president is a mathematician.

Panelists discuss present and future research at the 2018 SIAM Conference on Mathematics of Planet Earth, which took place in September 2018 in Philadelphia, Pa. From left: moderator Emil Constantinescu (Argonne National Laboratory), Mihai Anitescu (Argonne National Laboratory and The University of Chicago), Christiane Rousseau (Université de Montréal), Hans G. Kaper (Georgetown University), Beth Wingate (University of Exeter), and Jon Hobbs (Jet Propulsion Laboratory). Photo credit: Katie Kavanagh.

A question from the audience suggested that some MPE themes, such as “Planet Earth as a physical system” and “Planet Earth as a system at risk,” might be more amenable to interdisciplinary collaboration than others, like “Planet Earth as a system supporting life” and “Planet Earth as a system organized by humans.” Reluctant to agree with this assessment, panelists utilized the question to comment on expectations, rewards, and obstacles associated with interdisciplinary research. The typically long timeframes of such work make it challenging for junior researchers to get involved. Academic reward culture also tends to recognize contributions within the discipline, and our current training system may not adequately prepare students for interdisciplinary work on changing topics.

Constantinescu’s second question to the group pondered a big MPE-related scientific challenge in need of resolution over the next five to 20 years, and how mathematics can play an influential role. Most panelists interpreted this question somewhat broadly and examined consequences stemming from global change. Hobbs specifically referred to a recent report entitled Thriving on Our Changing Planet: A Decadal Strategy for Earth Observation from Space (published by the National Academies Press), which articulates a vision of scientific tasks for Earth sciences in the next decade. The report highlights the concept of Earth information and calls attention to major mathematical implications. Other panelists considered climate and environmental change and the pressing need to assess their inevitable effects, communicate relevant findings to the public, and develop and evaluate adaption strategies. They also emphasized the obligation to understand extreme environmental events, possibly in nonstationary situations, and devise tools for interpreting small probability phenomena.

Another audience question broached ideas to improve effective interaction between academics and practitioners. Wingate remarked that the boundary between academic and nonacademic researchers is already blurring, at least in the United Kingdom. Rousseau pointed to past successful interdisciplinary and international research efforts that have had lasting scientific and political impact, including the International Geophysical Year (1957-1958) and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. A similar effort within mathematics was the MPE2013 initiative—supported by many international mathematical institutions and organizations—that led to the founding of SIAG/MPE.

The panel concluded after an hour of lively conversation. It provided a welcome opportunity for SIAG/MPE members with very different application areas to identify common scientific themes. We look forward to a similar panel at the next SIAM Conference on Mathematics of Planet Earth in 2020.

Hans Engler is a professor of mathematics at Georgetown University. He previously chaired the SIAM Activity Group on Mathematics of Planet Earth. Emil Constantinescu is a computational mathematician at Argonne National Laboratory and scientist-at-large of the Consortium for Advanced Science and Engineering at The University of Chicago.

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