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University News

Hopes high at math institute’s debut

Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Though the state’s fiscal concerns overshadowed yesterday’s opening celebrations of the University’s $15.5 million Institute for Computational and Experimental Research in Mathematics, government and University leaders looked ahead to the promises the institute holds for research and innovation.

“I’m excited about the opening of this institute because, as you might have heard last week, I have a little math problem of my own I need to solve. Maybe this place can help me out,” Mayor Angel Taveras said at the opening, referring to the city’s $110 million projected budget shortfall.

The institute — entirely funded by a National Science Foundation grant — is the eighth of its kind in the nation and the first in New England. The institute is the only federally funded institute charged with studying the convergence of mathematics and computation. Research in that emerging field — which deals with whether, and how efficiently, problems can be solved on a model of computation — could lead to programs that model smart energy grids, social networks and climate change.

At the event, the institute was lauded as “a national and international resource” by Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., a “bold idea” by President Ruth Simmons and a “milestone” by Jill Pipher, professor of mathematics and director of the institute. Other speakers included Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., and Rep. James Langevin, D-R.I.

“What happens here at ICERM will be noticed around the world,” Simmons said. “It will allow Brown to compete in the knowledge economy.”

And despite drawn-out federal budget negotiations, during which legislators have proposed cutting the National Science Foundation’s operating budget, the assembled officials pledged their commitment to financing research initiatives.

“Every dollar invested in research leads to dozens of dollars of economic growth,” Langevin, co-chair of the Congressional Cybersecurity Caucus, said at the event. “We need the competitive edge that this research will support.”

Both Reed and Whitehouse pointed to the institute as fulfilling President Obama’s goal to “out-innovate, out-educate and out-build” the rest of the world, which Obama presented in his Jan. 25 State of the Union address.

“This institute speaks volumes about Brown, the potential here in Providence and Rhode Island,” Reed said. “It’s pulling together the best minds in academia, government and the private sector.”

Looking ahead

The institute will be governed by a board of trustees, an education advisory board and a scientific advisory board on which representatives from the institute’s corporate partners — Google, IBM and Microsoft — will serve.

These corporations’ involvement in the institute’s creation heralds a future for the institute as an instrument of economic growth, Pipher said. The institute will also fund up to 40 researchers in residence, create K-12 outreach programs, employ nine full-time staff members, support up to 12 postdoctoral fellows and attract thousands of visitors to the city for international mathematics conferences, according to a March 7 University press release.

There are already 10 conferences planned beginning Aug. 1, Pipher told The Herald. “We’re already booking hotel rooms for visiting scientists and mathematicians.”

In keeping with the University’s vision of itself as an undergraduate-focused institution, a select number of seats at those conferences will be made available for undergraduates. The institute will also sponsor undergraduate research programs in the summer that pair students with mathematicians.

The opening of the institute will also have an “indirect influence” on undergraduates, Pipher said. “The visibility of the math institute will attract events and people to Brown that will impact the University as a whole.”

“I would argue that ICERM’s focus on the undergraduate is one of the reasons its application was successful,” Simmons told The Herald.

The construction of the institute’s facilities on the top two floors of 121 South Main Street is slated for completion June 1, and all of its programs are expected to be fully functional in three years, Pipher said.

The institute’s opening comes at a time of rapid expansion for the University. In the past year alone, the University has approved the creation of an engineering school, moved forward with its intent to found a school of public health and begun offering juniors the opportunity to complete an international master’s degree in five years. But Simmons denied that the institute is part of an explicit expansion program.

“This institute was in the works for a very long time. … It came up from the faculty,” Simmons said. “It was not part of a deliberate effort to expand. Rather, it was an effort by faculty to increase the scope of their work.”

In the summer of 2008, the NSF solicited grant proposals to fund a new mathematics institute. A team of five faculty members from the mathematics and computer science departments worked on the application, and Brown’s proposal was chosen last summer from a pool of 11 other applicants. The grant is renewable at the end of five years.

“This means, of course, that we have to demonstrate the institute’s value every five years,” Pipher said. But she added that the oldest NSF institute — the Institute for Mathematics and its Applications at the University of Minnesota — was founded in 1982.

“These institutes are not expected to have finite lifetimes,” she said.

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