The president of the Clay Mathematics Institute, a major research center in the US, shares his thoughts about how research meetings and interactions could go on during the pandemic. A question that doesn’t concern only mathematicians. Leave your comments!
The Clay Mathematics Institute (CMI) is a Private Operating Foundation dedicated to increasing and disseminating mathematical knowledge. It exists to “further the beauty, power and universality of mathematical thought”. In normal times, CMI supports the work of leading researchers by awarding Fellowships and prizes, and by organizing or enhancing conferences, workshops and summer schools. These are not normal times, so what should such facilitators of mathematics do now?
Institutes built to house researchers cannot remain empty for long if their cost is to be justified and sustained, while funders of research fellowships will find the demand for the precious time that they buy greater than ever. CMI will be increasing the amount of funding it dedicates to Research Fellowships, reflecting the extraordinary quality of applicants that we have seen in recent years, as well as a desire to help alleviate the bottleneck that will undoubtedly develop as universities across the world freeze hiring.
The Simons Foundation has responded to this bottleneck with an admirable program of Bridging Fellowships. National agencies also have to act, to save a generation from falling into the gap.
Alternatives to face-to-face meetings
Beyond fellowships and prizes, most of CMI’s budget is spent on the travel and accommodation associated to physical meetings. Face-to-face conversation and the total immersion of a conference are stimuli that have sustained most of us throughout our careers.
We are now forced to consider alternatives. And we face the disquieting possibility that we may have to reassess the hitherto-commanding argument that physical meetings justify the environmental damage that they cause and the resources that they consume. Might these resources be better directed elsewhere in the service of mathematics?
Maintain free interactions
There is a danger of exclusion in this. If we are not to meet as often in person, we must devise mechanisms that allow people from different regions, cultures and generations to interact as freely as they do when drinking coffee at a meeting. Break-out rooms in zoom are not going to do it, particularly in terms of crossing generational boundaries.
If we rely more heavily on new means of conveying recent mathematical ideas, we might also contemplate new means of sifting these new media, distinguishing the formal from the informal while respecting both, and lauding the exceptional ones to distinguish them from a sea of noise. One can imagine a structure of archives with different foci and requirements, analogous to the landscape of journals. (Selection and custodianship would be thorny issues.) Who would fund this?
What future for physical institutes?
Physical institutes have played a pivotal role in global mathematics over recent decades — they are precious, fertile places. What now for them?
Oberwolfach is honing a style of hybrid meeting, with reduced numbers on site, maintaining the luxury of a specialist audience. MSRI has also responded creatively to the crisis, honouring their commitments to postdocs, nurturing online research groups, and providing hardware and software to participants to ensure that digital exclusion does not confound their attempts to extend inclusivity. The increased need for suitable kit is something that all funders have responded to, including CMI, but it is remarkable how slight many of these needs are.
More attendants to mathematical seminars
Our seminars in Oxford this term featured speakers from across the globe – no travel, no jet-lag. Airlines and hotels will go bust, while seminar budgets can be put to other uses.
In Oxford this is intriguing, but the real potential lies elsewhere: might we radically increase the number of people in the world with access to mathematical conversation at the highest level? By this I mean the experience of a regular seminar, with the ability to interact with distinguished speakers. The ability of organisations such as CMI or IMU to convene and lend prestige to such a program could play a key role, while the amounts of money required — ensuring connectivity and paying honoraria – are likely to be modest.
Invent new kind of conferences
Grand colloquia also have an important role to play in mathematics. Events such as the Clay Research Conference or ICM can provide inspiring visions of the frontiers of mathematics.
The rigour and care with which the topics and speakers for such events are selected is crucial; in the case of the Clay Research Conferences (CRC), this is the responsibility of CMI’s Scientific Advisory Board. If the pandemic curtails such large-scale gatherings beyond 2021, it will be incumbent on us to find a new mechanism that does justice to this heritage.
New thinking is required
This is not easy: the ocean of lectures online is a feast that can easily lead to gluttony and fatigue; how does one craft an event that stands above this? The excellence of the mathematical content is the most important feature, but we also have to come to terms with the importance of production, archiving and distribution.
We are currently wrestling with similar issues in the context of the CMI-HIMR summer school, which Alexei Borodin and Ivan Corwin have moved online inventively, and the PROMYS program for gifted high-school students (extended to embrace Europe), which is thriving online despite losing its characteristic physical intensity.
New thinking is required from us all as we strive to promote and enhance the beauty, power and universality of mathematical thought in a changed world.
Martin R. Bridson FRS (President, Clay Mathematics Institute)
This editorial has first been published by IMU-Net, the IMU Newsletter.