University News

NSF launches virtual institute

Senior Staff Writer
Thursday, October 20, 2011

The National Science Foundation, in part looking to moderate the effect of reduced federal funding, is investing in a pilot program to encourage international support of American research. Brown’s Institute for Computational and Experimental Research in Mathematics will play a key role in the project, partnering with another NSF-funded research institute in North Carolina and five Indian universities to form the Virtual Institute for Mathematical and Statistical Sciences, said Jill Pipher, director of ICERM.

The NSF pilot program, called Science Across Virtual Institutes, is envisaged as a low-cost way to build professional ties between researchers and acclimatize students to working in foreign countries. “In the current budget climate, we need innovative ideas that can leverage investments already made. That was its impetus,” said NSF spokesperson Lisa-Joy Zgorski.

NSF aims to inspire other countries to fund research at a higher level. “The connection is a formal agreement to support a collection of activities which we hope will foster greater collaboration, build on areas of mutual interest and strength and allow us to leverage resources,” Pipher said.

VI-MSS, the University’s project, will address issues such as sustainability, cybersecurity, health and the extraction of useful information from massive and complex data by supporting research in mathematics and statistics, Pipher, who is also the director of VI-MSS, said at an Oct. 5 NSF ceremony in Washington.

Two other pilot collaborations — one between American and Finnish researchers focusing on Wi-Fi availability and another between universities across seven countries exploring the relationship between physics and biological systems — were also announced at the ceremony.

Though it lacks physical headquarters, the virtual institute will organize international conferences, enable graduate and postdoctoral training at participating universities, compile online repositories of shared course material and arrange research visits. Pipher and the staff at VI-MSS are already arranging a conference on cryptography to be held at the Indian Statistical Institute in Calcutta this January.

VI-MSS may be able to provide innovative solutions to challenges faced by its component institutions, according to Govind Menon, associate director of VI-MSS and associate professor of applied mathematics, who is on sabbatical in New Zealand. VI-MSS might “bridge the gap” between high levels of Indian government funding for scientific research and the present dearth of researchers in that country, he wrote in an email to The Herald.

“Despite the adjective ‘virtual,’ we do stress personal visits — Skype is good for sustaining a collaboration, but it’s no substitute for that informal discussion over coffee that gives birth to a new idea,” he wrote. “There are sure to be unexpected roadblocks, but that’s part of the fun.”

In two years, the pilot program’s success will be evaluated on the establishment of long-term professional relationships, Zgorski said. At that time, the NSF will decide whether or not to fund additional collaborations. If the three pilot programs are successful, they could prove to be a remarkably cost-efficient model for improving scientific research, she added. The NSF’s contribution to VI-MSS totalled roughly $700,000.

Menon and Pipher emphasized that despite the NSF’s professor-oriented evaluation criteria, the focus of the partnership is on expanding international opportunities for students.

“We’re trying to forge lasting collaborations that didn’t exist before, and that’s somewhat easier to do with younger people,” Pipher said. “That was part of the mission of ICERM in the first place.”

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