SIAM News Blog

Mathematics in Industry around the World

By Hilary Ockendon

The 8th International Congress for Industrial and Applied Mathematics (ICIAM 2015), was well represented by sessions on applied mathematics, but sadly, only 19 out of the 651 minisymposia at the meeting held in Beijing in August were designated as "industrial." Among these, a series called "‘Industrial Mathematics around the World," organized by the late Professor Yongji Tan (Fudan University) and Dr. Yichao Zhu (Hong Kong University of Science and Technology), brought to light how different countries address industrial mathematics.

The talks in these minisymposia described how organized Mathematics in Industry started in Europe nearly 50 years ago and has since spread to all parts of the world. The overall trend, although not true everywhere, has been one of relentlessly-increasing activity. The general idea of mathematicians using their skills and imagination on practical problems has remained the same but the computer revolution has led to a vast increase in the number of study areas; mathematics is the underpinning technology for industry even with the broader EU definition of industry as "any activity of social or economic value."

After researchers from China, Europe, North America, and the Asia-Pacific region had each described their experiences, a wrap-up session highlighted common difficulties and explored ideas to overcome them. Attendees were unanimous in agreeing that industry-driven research can generate new and exciting mathematics. Yet they still find that more academic-minded colleagues require convincing of this fact and that those working in industry often need to overcome their fear of academic mathematics. There are also difficulties in obtaining funding for what is essentially an interdisciplinary activity.

Study groups, workshops, industrial internships, and studentships are some tried and tested ways of engaging with industry. However, some new twists on how to make contact emerged. Denmark has a Rapid Response Team ready to engage with companies and write a speedy report whenever a problem arises. The Dutch invite industrialists to breakfast meetings to stimulate collaboration at a time convenient for industry. New Zealanders present the uses of mathematics at meetings of Rotary Clubs. In India, YouTube lectures are used to promote industrial mathematics. The Irish hold meetings, called "A Pint of Maths," in pubs to emphasize the fun of doing real problems. A book of success stories, compiled by the European Mathematics Society and published by Springer, is widely used to show what mathematics can do.

As one speaker said, "Industrial mathematicians have to go out and blow their own trumpet." Although mathematicians are not noted for doing this, it was felt that academics who wanted to pursue industrial mathematics should be allowed time to make contacts and establish collaborations. An ideal structure is one in which academics can concentrate on the mathematical aspects of a problem—"what they do best"—while collaborating with industrial scientists via "technology translators." Therefore, there is an urgent need to train such people who can talk to both mathematicians and industrial scientists and thus "bridge the gap."

Speakers mentioned various ways of managing industrial mathematics. The Spanish have pooled the resources of 36 research groups at 18 universities and established a legal entity that works much like a consultancy, Smith Institute, a not-for-profit company in the UK, employs technology translators who work closely with academics all over the country. And the New Zealand government has recently set up R&D seed funding for joint industrial/academic projects.

Much was heard about the positive results of engaging students and postdocs in all these activities. The majority of participants in many current study groups are students and companies often use the events as much for recruitment as for solving problems. Getting students to write and present the work of a group teaches them useful skills (while also saving the faculty members some time!). Another great new idea is the MPI Fellowship, based on the Mathematical Problems in Industry workshops in the U.S., which supports one or two students for six weeks in completing and writing up an industrial project.  Danish students are incentivized by the offer of credit for attending and taking part in study groups (as well as by the provision of free biscuits and beer!). At the Centre for Industrial Applications of Mathematics and Systems Engineering in Poland, students have opportunities to participate in two-month-long summer internships to work on industrial problems; over a period of 10 years, this has led to many follow-up projects and employment for the students.

Some other noteworthy new ventures were brought to attendees’ attention:

  • Brazil was about to hold its first study group. This turned out to be very successful, with six problems and over 100 participants, 80 percent of whom were students.
  • The Universiti Teknologi Malaysia – Centre of Industrial and Applied Mathematics has been working since 2011 to boost industrial mathematics in Malaysia. It is anticipated that it will become a national hub, one part of which will operate similarly to the Smith Institute.
  •  In Japan, the Institute of Mathematics for Industry in Kyushu University hosted a national forum in October. This is part of the recently-formed Asia-Pacific Consortium of Mathematics for Industry,1 which provides support for neighboring countries on the Pacific Rim and is similar to the European Consortium for Mathematics in Industry (ECMI) model in Europe. 
  • Study groups that focus on a particular topic often work well. China has found financial study groups to be especially successful and Mathematics in Medicine Study Groups have become established in the UK and Canada.

Transcending all these exciting developments, a dominant theme of the discussion session was the expansion of networking both for mutual support and to save on duplication of effort. The ECMI, which was set up in 1987, is now well established. Two new networks have been created in Europe; EU-MATHS-IN is a network of national networks which has been created specifically to apply for EU money, and MI-NET is a network funded by the EU for four years to hold workshops and arrange internships and short-term visits. The web allows for uploading project reports onto a searchable database — a start on this has been made on the Mathematics in Industry Information Service, which features much information about study groups and already contains over 500 reports. Skype meetings are becoming commonplace and can be integrated into a study group so that an expert’s views are easily accessible.

The last word at the session came from Professor Yongji Tan who was convinced that ICIAM will reinvigorate industrial mathematics in China, which has languished in the country over the past few years. The Chinese government is now concerned about promoting more activity, particularly with regard to manufacturing, food security, and medicine. This, together with the enthusiasm of young Chinese mathematicians, will surely mean that industrial mathematics will grow in China and the whole Asia Pacific region in the coming years.

We regret to inform our readers about the recent passing of Professor Yongji Tan.


Science magazine, in its issue on November 6, 2015, highlighted some recent developments in the Asia-Pacific region in support of Mathematics for Industry (MfI). We wanted to include some highlights from the article:

  • South Korea inaugurated its Industrial Mathematics Ignition Program in 2015, with $2.5 million in grants distributed to 21 academic teams.  The program is geared toward startup companies. Winners of the grants are modeling how drugs reach target organs, developing new approaches to analyzing big datasets, and delving into the complex geometry of computer animation. At a follow-up symposium in Seoul, overseas experts offered advice to the grant winners.
  • In 2015, New Zealand organized its first week-long MfI study group for companies that had a short-term need for mathematical advice. For a $4000 fee, companies presented challenges, and academics volunteering their time brainstormed and developed possible solutions over the course of the week.
  • Professor Graeme Wake, Director of the Centre for Mathematics in Industry in New Zealand says that their organization is trying to coordinate activities of math in industry from experts within the country. Wake spoke to Science magazine recently about collaborations between mathematicians and industry in New Zealand. The website Mathematics-in-Industry NZ (MINZ) is helping promote mathematical activity in industrial settings. Watch a brief video explaining what MINZ does. 

1 In 2014, mathematicians from 11+ countries in East Asia and the West Pacific region formed the Asia Pacific Consortium of Mathematics for Industry (APCMfI). Activities include internships for graduate students to work on industrial and governmental research projects, Mathematics-for-Industry study groups, forums, and workshops.

Hilary Ockendon holds an emeritus position in the Oxford Centre for Industrial and Applied Mathematics and is currently the Executive Director of the European Consortium for Mathematics in Industry (ECMI).

blog comments powered by Disqus