SIAM News Blog

Letter to the Editor: DMS Questions its Impact as Innovation Engine

By Peter J. Thomas

In DMS Mathematical Sciences Research Institutes Update (SIAM News October 2015) Michael Vogelius, NSF Mathematical Sciences Division Director, defends the decision to eliminate the Institute for Mathematics and its Applications (IMA) and the Mathematical Biosciences Institute (MBI), while preserving the Institute for Computational and Experimental Research in Mathematics (ICERM), the Institute for Pure and Applied Mathematics (IPAM), and the Mathematical Sciences Research Institute (MSRI), following  review of noncompetitive renewal proposals by the DMS’ Institute Management Team. Of the five institutes under consideration, all those serving wholly or in part the interests of the pure mathematics community are to be fully funded, while those principally supporting the applied mathematics community are to be shut down. Dr. Vogelius does suggest that MBI could continue receiving partial funding from DMS if it can find, in effect, matching funds from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) or the NSF Directorate for Biological Sciences (DBS). By weakening its investment in applied mathematical research, Dr. Vogelius weakens the case for support of the Division of Mathematical Sciences as a whole.

The DMS has a $225M annual budget for 2015. Dr. Vogelius’ statement justifies the DMS’ existence in part because it “promotes interdisciplinary connections across all fields of science, engineering, and technology” and because its activities “are essential components of the innovation engine that drives the nation’s economy in the 21st century.”  
Dr. Vogelius’ statement also mentions that recent budget pressures have reduced the funding rate from rates “in the low 30s” circa 2012 to 26.8% in 2014. But funding rates for proposals submitted to the NIH and the DBS are even smaller: 24% at DBS and from 8-20% at NIH. The suggestion that MBI might find matching funds from these sources appears either naïve or disingenuous.  

If Congress, through the Government Accountability Office, were to investigate the actual impact of DMS as an “innovation engine,” it seems more likely that elimination of MSRI, ICERM, or IPAM would be called for. Or, perhaps, elimination of the entire Division of Mathematical Sciences.  By pursuing a policy of retrenchment and weakening its investment in applied mathematics, Dr. Vogelius undermines the basis for supporting the entire division. 

Peter J. Thomas is an associate professor in the Department of Mathematics, Applied Mathematics and Statistics at Case Western Reserve University.

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