Update: Taxes and Education

On November 6, I wrote about the GOP tax bill introduced in the House of Representatives. That bill is due to be voted on this week.

Meanwhile, the Senate has introduced their own bill and it differs significantly from the House’s Tax Cuts and Jobs Act. The Senate Finance Committee is considering this bill this week.

Again, let’s focus on the impacts on students and colleges and universities. As described in my last post, the House bill would require students to report tuition fee waivers as taxable income. Many of you are concerned about this, and rightfully so, as mathematics graduate students would be affected. About 60% of the 145,000 students who receive tuition waivers are in STEM fields. According to Nature, “higher taxes could be one more disincentive to pursuing an advanced degree, given the already bleak prospects in an oversaturated academic job market and the flat budgets at science-funding agencies.”

The Senate rejects this tax on tuition waivers that appears in the House bill. The Senate version also preserves the American Opportunity Tax Credit, Lifetime Learning Credit and Hope Scholarship Credit, as well as the credit for student-loan interest. All of these are discussed in my last post.

The Council of Graduate Schools (CGS) has put out a piece describing several examples of the potential impact of taxing tuition waivers on master’s and doctoral students.

The Senate agrees with the House, though, in the creation of a new excise tax of 1.4% on endowments at some private colleges and universities. Endowments are often used to support students demonstrating financial need and to broaden the pool of students who can attend. This excise tax will impact these students, our most vulnerable. The House bill originally would have placed this tax burden on schools with at least 500 students and with assets of \$100,000 per student; this amount is now \$250,000 per student.

These are not the only provisions in the Senate bill that would impact AMS members. Media postings are now coming out at a rate, and the Chronicle of Higher Education is just one place you can learn more. The American Council on Education is another good resource. They end their piece on this with:

“Higher education leadership, staff, faculty, and students should actively engage in advocacy activities to remind Congress of our community’s priorities.​ Also, please make use of our Contact Congress pages to help reach your congressional delegation about the specific higher education provisions most important to you.”

You can find how to contact your members of Congress at the AMS Washington Office web page (link in upper right corner), and I encourage you to follow ACE’s advice and reach out about the provisions important to you! The CGS examples above could be useful making your case.

The House and Senate versions of the tax bills differ in many ways, not only on the education provisions. The differences need reconciled before being signed into law by the President, and so it is still timely to weigh in with your Congressional members on the points you care about.

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The Tax Bill and Potential Impacts on Graduate Education and our Universities

The “Tax Cuts and Jobs Act” was introduced last week in the House and is moving quickly through Congress. It contains several provisions that, if signed into law, would affect the AMS community. I will add something to this post when the Senate version comes out.

Speaker Paul Ryan has stated that he is confident the House will pass the bill by Thanksgiving. Let me give you a quick overview of what this bill means for students and institutes of higher education. At the end of this post there is more information about what you can do to take action, by contacting your Congressional delegation about the provisions affecting graduate students in mathematics.

Under current law, there are 15 different tax benefits relating to education that often overlap with one another. The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act would eliminate or consolidate a number of tax deductions meant to offset the costs of higher education.

Most of these provisions (described below) are found in the bill’s Title I, Subsection C , though Title V, subtitle B contains the 1.4% tax on certain schools. If you want a very good explanation of the bill, I suggest the section-by-section summary from the House Ways and Means Committee.

For starters, the three higher-education tax credits — the American Opportunity Tax Credit, Lifetime Learning Credit and Hope Scholarship Credit — would be folded into one credit. The bill

  • eliminates the Lifetime Learning Credit, which provides a tax deduction of up to \$2,000 for tuition, and
  • eliminates the Hope Scholarship Credit.

In place of those two cuts, the bill extends the American Opportunity Tax Credit (AOTC) for one extra year, making it a tax break that students can take for up to five years. For the first four years, the AOTC lets you get up to \$2,500 back if you spend up to \$4,000 on tuition and fees—no change there—but for the fifth year, under the new tax plan, the size of the tax break would be halved, so it would be worth only \$1,250.

The bill also:

  • Eliminates a credit for student-loan interest. Currently, people with incomes below certain thresholds can deduct up to \$2,500 of student loan interest each year. The tax bill would do away with this as of 2018.
  • Eliminates a \$5,250 corporate deduction for education-assistance plans. At the moment, when employers pay your tuition for continuing education, the amount they pay is not taxable income for you as long as it meets certain conditions and amounts to no more than \$5,250 per year. If the tax bill passes as written, these tuition payments will count as taxable income starting in 2018.
  • Eliminates new contributions to the tax-free Coverdell Savings Accounts; existing Coverdells would be rolled over into 529 plans.

The bill proposes new taxes on some private-college endowments and on compensation for the highest-paid employees at nonprofit organizations, including colleges and nonprofit academic hospitals. One example: private universities with at least 500 students and assets of more than \$100,000 per student would face a new 1.4% excise tax on investment returns. Many universities are putting out statements about this.

The plan would also tax the tuition waivers that many graduate students receive when they work as teaching or research assistants. The Washington Post asserts that “streamlining the jumble of tax credits could increase revenue for the government by $17.3 billion over 10 years, according to the plan. That is likely because the new credit would squeeze graduate students, especially PhD candidates who spent far longer than five years in college.”

The AAU released a statement opposing the proposed excise tax on university endowment income; the APLU also issued a statement addressing the overall bill’s effects on higher education and stating their concern in particular about the “provisions in the legislation that would tax students on tuition reductions that colleges and universities provide, especially to graduate students who are teaching or performing pathbreaking research.”

While most university groups are coming out against these provisions, there is one positive for student borrowers: people who have their loans discharged for death or disability would no longer have to pay income taxes on the amount forgiven.

What can you do?

You can talk to your university government relations office about this bill and how it will impact your university, and see what action — if any — your university is taking.

If you are concerned about the effect on graduate students, I suggest you take a look at “Graduate Students & The “Tax Cuts and Jobs Act”: What You Need to Know,” a resource guide put out on November 3 by the Student Advocates for Graduate Education (SAGE) Coalition. This guide explains the bill’s impacts for grad students and postdocs; it explains who, when and how to contact legislators; it gives a timeline for Congress votes on this bill; and it gives a script.


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“You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take” — Wayne Gretzky (former professional ice hockey player and coach)

Once upon a time there was a Senator from Wisconsin who thought it a good idea to publish a monthly bulletin highlighting what he viewed as the most frivolous and wasteful uses of taxpayers’ dollars. From 1975 until 1988, Senator William Proxmire offered the Golden Fleece Awards. The June 1987 award, as just one example, called out the Executive Office of the President for spending $611,623 to fit one room with gold trim.

Fairy tales often start funny and sweet, but beware the wolf in sweet grandma’s pajamas. Senator Proxmire’s intentions may have gone awry. Many of the awards have gone to scientists, and these researchers’ intentions have been presented unfairly, making them appear frivolous. Golden Fleece Awards have raised suspicion and hostility towards the notion of government spending on science and, indeed, toward science itself.

Maybe you’ve heard of the shrimp on the treadmill? Or smiling bowlers?

Then, along came Representative Jim Cooper (TN 5), who suggested attempting to temper growing animosity toward federal funds going to science and indeed to science itself brought on by some of these awards. He aimed to show that not only is the return on investment in scientific research 100% (well, ok, 150%) worth it, but also that successes in science are often unpredictable. The Golden Goose Award was first awarded in 2012 and aims “to celebrate scientists whose federally funded research seemed odd or obscure but turned out to have a significant, positive impact on society.”

The AMS is a contributing sponsor of the Golden Goose award and gets excellent visibility within the broader Washington D.C. science community as a result of our investment(with science advocates, federal agency employees, allies in Congress). If you have ideas for nominations, feel free to contact me.

Mathematicians have been recognized. In 2013, Lloyd Shapley and David Gale (together with economist Al Roth) were recognized for their work on an algorithm which could be used to match spouses, in order to maximize marriage stability. Their original research was funded by the U.S. Office of Naval Research and may sound silly. But, as many of us know, this work has saved many lives because it’s now been used to improve our national kidney exchange program. The work has also been employed by urban school systems for school choice programs, and has been honored with a Nobel Prize. Maybe not so silly after all?

On September 27, I was fortunate to represent the AMS at the annual awards ceremony. The audience of several hundred was very enthusiastic. Indeed, the woman sitting next to me (a food systems policy expert who served in President Obama’s OSTP) told me that it was the best audience she had ever been a part of, at any sort of event (and I think she was including concerts, plays, everything …. I know her, and she does not mince words!).

This year, another mathematical theory was recognized. Lotfi Zadeh was honored, posthumously, for giving birth in the 1960s to fuzzy sets and fuzzy logic. Fuzzy logic replaces the 0/1 Boolean choice by a number between 0 and 1. One might think it is like probability theory. Consider the proposition that “It was cold in Nuuk on October 2, 2017”. There is no uncertainty about the high temperature that day (36F), but more there is a question of whether this can be categorized as ‘cold’. Fuzzy logic might give that proposition a degree of correctness of 0.8.

This idea has met commercial success in the operation of electronic devices: “In 1986, the first commercial application of fuzzy logic hit the shelves in Japan: a fuzzy shower head. Using fuzzy concepts of hot, cold, high pressure, low pressure, and others, the shower head could use fuzzy logic to control showers across the country. Within a few years, the market was overflowing with fuzzy consumer products. Vacuum cleaners, rice cookers, air conditioning systems, microwaves, everything was moving to fuzzy control. Even the entire subway system of Sendai in Japan was built with fuzzy logic controlling the motion of the trains.”

Dr. Zadeh earned his Ph.D. in electrical engineering at Columbia University, after migrating first to Iran from his native Azerbaijan, and then to the U.S. The September 27 ceremonies included remarks from Senators Cory Gardner (CO), Chris Coons (CT), and Representatives Suzanne Bonomici (OR 1), Randy Hultgren (IL 14), Paul Tonko (NY 20), Bill Foster (IL 11), and Golden Goose “father” Jim Cooper. Their remarks focused on the tremendous importance of funding promising research projects and that we don’t always know what we will discover is often exactly the point of pursuing a scientific question. Oh, right, this is Wayne Gretzky’s famous assertion that “you miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.”

The congressional members (from both parties mind you!) greeting the welcoming crowd also addressed the global scientific strength achieved through open immigration and travel policies, as Dr. Zadeh’s example shows. In fact, several of the recipients are immigrants. And, another of the award-winners’ trajectory told a differently compelling story: frog researcher Joyce Longcore did her Ph.D. in her 50s and talked emotionally about her journey from stay-at-home-mom to world-class chytrid researcher.

Good science supported by courageous federal investment is in our nation’s interest and needs bipartisan support.

We must all get out there, and tell our stories to celebrate mathematics (and all science) and convince all lawmakers of the importance of a robust and sustained investment in scientific research. The federal government can take risks – big and small – to further science; the private sector will not invest in basic research in the same way.

A post-note of sorts; more reasons to stand up for science: In 2015, Representative French Hill (AK 2) decided to bring back the Golden Fleece. And, Senator Rand Paul (KY) has just introduced the BASIC Research Act (S. 1973) as part of his effort to convince others that there’s a lot of “silly research” being done that does not deserve federal funding.

The AMS sponsors the Golden Goose Award.

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Spend a year, or two, in Washington D.C.! Applications due soon!

Editor’s note: Guest columnist Catherine Paolucci served as the AMS/AAAS 2016-17 Congressional Fellow and is now serving a second year as a AAAS fellow, this time posted in the Executive Branch.

As a mathematics community, we often look to publication, education, and mentorship as ways to broaden our impact, both within and beyond our specific disciplines. For the past year, I’ve had the exciting opportunity to serve as the 2016-2017 AMS Congressional Fellow. This experience has expanded my vision of the ways in which mathematicians can use their expertise, skills, and specialized training to broaden their impact through government service and policy work.

For those of you who don’t know, each year the AMS sponsors a Congressional Fellowship as part of the broader American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Science and Technology Policy Fellowship program (more about that later). The AMS Congressional Fellow has the unique opportunity to join the office of a member of Congress, or a Congressional Committee, and serve in that office for the academic year.

Catherine Paolucci staffing Sen Franken during a Senate HELP Committee hearing.

As with two of the last three AMS Congressional Fellows before me (including AMS Washington Office Director Karen Saxe!), I had the privilege of being offered an opportunity to serve as an Education Policy Fellow for Senator Al Franken (MN). While the learning curve was steep, and I often felt completely out of my element, I gained extremely valuable knowledge and experience. I was also able to contribute to many important developments related to education, including higher education, teacher education, and career and technical education (CTE).

This past year was unlike anything that I ever imagined I would do as part of my career. While the opportunities to bring mathematical knowledge to the table were limited, the personal and professional growth far exceeded anything that I could have expected. In addition, I have been able to bring strategies and insight back to the mathematics community for effective advocacy and efforts to ensure continued support for mathematics research and education.

In addition to the Congressional Fellowship, the broader AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellowship program offers opportunities to make valuable mathematical contributions within Executive Branch Agencies. These fellowships are open to applicants at any stage in their career who have a doctorate in a scientific field. They offer one-to-two-year placements in government agencies, including the National Science Foundation, Department of Defense, Department of Homeland Security, National Institute of Health, State Department, U.S. Agency for International Development, Department of Energy, Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Army Corp of Engineers, and others.

In fact, after completing my Congressional Fellowship, I have decided to further expand my impact and learning as an Executive Branch Fellow with a placement in the National Science Foundation (NSF). I am also excited to report that, from last year to this year, the number of fellows who have come from a mathematical field has more than doubled! As a proud member of this group of outstanding fellows, I interviewed for a wide range of interesting opportunities involving work in data analytics, modeling, program evaluation, science diplomacy, outreach, and STEM education. Here’s everything that you need to know to apply:

Congressional Fellowships: In addition to applying for a Congressional Fellowship through the AMS, AAAS also sponsors two Congressional Fellows each year. If you are interested in working in Congress, I recommend that you apply for both opportunities to increase your chances. I also encourage you to stop by the AMS Congressional Fellowship Information Session (Friday January 12, 4:30-6:30 in Room 11B on the upper level of the San Diego Convention Center) at the upcoming Joint Mathematics Meeting…But don’t wait to apply!!

AAAS Congressional Fellowship: Deadline: November 1, 2017 Apply Here

AMS Congressional Fellowship:  Deadline: February 15, 2018 Apply Here

Executive Branch Fellowships: The same application is used for both the AAAS sponsored Congressional Fellowship and Executive Branch Fellowship programs (if you happen to have a J.D. or legal experience, it also offers a Judicial Branch Fellowship). You can apply for up to two programs, so you can apply for both the Congressional Fellowship and the Executive Branch Fellowship or either on its own. The deadline to apply for fellowships that begin in September 2018 is fast approaching, so start your application now!!

Deadline: November 1, 2017 Apply Here

If you have questions about any of these fellowship programs, or you’re interested in applying, please feel free to contact me (Catherine) by e-mail.

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Federal policies and our work at institutions of higher education

AMS President Ken Ribet has issued a statement about President Trump’s statement on the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. He’s joined leaders of other science organizations (e.g., AAAS, APS) in making such a statement, and I am glad he has done so. Most AMS members work in academia and DACA recipients are our students, typically working hard to achieve their goals and dreams of studying and contributing to the scientific enterprise, just like our other students. It is unarguable that American science is as strong as it is due to the nation’s mostly admirable history of welcoming immigrants to work alongside us in our labs, and in our classrooms. This current statement is in line with the AMS history of speaking up for immigrants, and efforts to protect a truly international scientific community.

Along these same lines of concern, Senators Tom Cotton (AR) and David Perdue (GA) have introduced their “RAISE Act” which would reduce legal immigration by half within 10 years. The RAISE Act introduces a “point system”, whereby the government would decide who has “high skills” and would take power away from universities in making hiring decisions. President Trump is supporting this bill, and it fits with another proposal that would affect academia — his promise to scrutinize the H-1B visa program. Additionally, the RAISE Act would eliminate visa preferences for extended family members, and decrease the number of refugees. While the higher education community is largely opposing this bill, it probably has little hope of becoming law.

I think we all know that the federal government has great oversight over K-12 education, but does it really have much influence over higher education? On the ground, at our universities and colleges, one might think that the states have much more influence over higher education. And that is probably true, at least for public institutions.

But, we have the federal government – and Presidents of past in particular – to thank for huge changes to the way higher education works in this country. Here goes, my “proof by example”. Or, maybe you prefer to think of this as “evidence-based” thinking.

First, think of Lincoln’s Morrill Act. Enacted in 1862, this law established the first of our terrific land-grant institutions. It provided each state with 30,000 acres of Federal land for each member of Congress from the state. The land was then sold by the states and the proceeds used to fund public colleges that focused on agriculture and the mechanical arts. The State Agricultural College in Iowa (now Iowa State University) was the first to be designated as a land grant college. Incidentally, it is not easy to get laws passed – the Morrill Act was first introduced in 1857, passed the Congress, but was vetoed by President Buchanan. At this time, Justin Smith Morrill was a Representative from Vermont and was one of the founders of the Republican Party.

Next, think of the GI Bill. Since 1944 it has enabled millions of veterans and their family members to attend college. It can be argued that this law set the precedent for today’s financial aid model and signals to all that lack of finances should not prevent Americans from attending college nor should it narrow the choice of schools that low-income students attend.

And, as a final example of legislation with a big impact on higher education in this country, we have the Truman Commission on Higher Education, which suggested the creation of a network of public colleges to serve local needs. A national network was established in the 1960s with the opening of 457 public community colleges, and the number has grown to over 1000 today. There is at least one community college within commuting distance of most of the U.S. population, and they educate a large proportion of minority, low-income, and first-generation college students. It might make sense that this vital part of our higher education landscape grew out of hopes of our only 20th century U.S. president who did not graduate from college.

Where are we now? There’s DACA; there’s the RAISE Act; there’s the Department of Education current scrutiny of Title IX which prohibits sex discrimination in education; there’s the administration’s reconsideration of “gainful employment” regulations which have been used to reign in predatory for-profit institutions from taking advantage of students; there’s the reinstatement of year-round Pell grants.

“Title IX”, in case you don’t know, refers to a portion of the Higher Education Amendments of 1927, a set of amendments to the original Higher Education Act. Signed into law by President Johnson in 1965, the HEA has been amended many times and Congress may further amend it at any point in time. Its two central purposes are to (1) strengthen the educational resources of our colleges and universities; and (2) provide direct financial assistance for students pursuing higher education.

Senator Lamar Alexander (TN) (chair of the Senate committee that covers education, a past president of the University of Tennessee, and a former U.S. Secretary of Education) has stated that his “top education priority this year is reauthorizing the Higher Education Act.” It was last scheduled for re-authorization in 2013 but that has yet to happen. I am looking forward to congressional work on this important legislation. With almost two-thirds of Republican and Republican-leaning voters saying (in a recent Pew study) that colleges and universities have a negative effect on the country (mind you, also about 20% of Democrats agree), it is a very good time to re-affirm and re-articulate the federal commitment to higher education.




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More bad news for science in the U.S.

If you think my July 24 post about the outlook for science in the U.S. brought bad news, just wait, it gets worse.

We really need to worry about the marginalization of science
in the present Administration

Probably not a surprising piece of news. Here are more reasons why we should be concerned, just in case you need convincing:

It can be – and is – argued that scientists have not been successful enough in telling Congressional offices powerful stories of how our federal investment in basic research pays off for American taxpayers. Senator Chris Coons (DE) recently wrote some advice for our community on this score. Part of my job, as Director of the AMS’s Washington Office, is to collect our stories and tell them. I can assure you that there are many great people, including from our sister disciplinary societies, in D.C. telling these stories with me, on behalf of all scientific areas. We work hard, but we can always do more, and do better. One area in which I feel we have not been very good is in helping legislators understand what “indirect” or “overhead” costs go to and why they are critical to supporting research. Because these critical funds are not well-understood and are perhaps under the radar (and perhaps because discussing them does not a sexy conversation make), they are under threat.

There are other alarming signals coming from the government, appearing as serious threats to science. One such signal is in the lack of science appointments made thus far. The White House has recently allowed the Office of Science and Technology Policy’s (OSTP) science division to empty completely of all staff, and the science adviser at the State Department recently resigned. President Trump has not filled the position of OSTP Director, or official science advisor, positions often held by one person (John Holdren held both under President Obama). President Obama’s OSTP had over 130 employees (to be fair, this was a large OSTP, compared with previous administrations), with nine in the science division who led on issues such as STEM education. Every post-World-War-II president except President Nixon has had scientists in the White House. According to a recent Nature article, only 12 people are working on science in the White House, and the Administration is being represented at senior staff meetings by Michael Kratsios who is Deputy Assistant to the President (OSTP), and a former chief of staff to venture capitalist Peter Thiel. Without a stronger working group, OSTP and science are being marginalized in the current Administration. Incidentally, Kratsios is also serving at least in some way as the public face for science in the White House; we were very pleased that he attended the United States of America Mathematical Olympiad (USAMO) awards ceremony held at the State Department in June. The AMS supports the USAMO and Executive Director Catherine Roberts, Committee on Science Policy Chair Scott Wolpert, AMS Congressional Fellow Catherine Paolucci, and I represented the AMS at the event. The chart below gives an overview of key science positions filled by recent administrations. The chart does not show retentions and – important to the math community – President Trump has retained President Obama’s NSF Director France Córdova.

Finally, don’t even get me started on threats to international cooperation in science (e.g., introduced legislation that would dramatically alter universities’ ability to hire who they want to hire), and support for STEM education. I plan to soon write about these topics.

In addition to this blog, I post regular items on the AMS Washington Office Government News page (and recently wrote there a little bit about the legislation mentioned in the preceding paragraph).


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Redistricting on my mind

My past few weeks have been filled with thoughts of redistricting – I gave a talk at MAA MathFest titled “Ready for redistricting 2020?” and, then, spent an exhilarating week at Tufts at the Geometry of Redistricting Workshop. This workshop was organized and hosted by the Metric Geometry and Gerrymandering Group, a Boston-based team of mathematicians run by Moon Duchin of Tufts University. The team did an extraordinary, amazing, marvelous, phenomenal (your choice of superlative adjective) job of organizing the five-day event. The logistics were complicated. And, how great it was to be with dozens of experts, all interested in the topic, but bringing varied backgrounds and training with them. We were mathematicians, statisticians, computer scientists, and operations researchers; we were economists and political scientists; we were civil rights lawyers and legal experts on redistricting. We ranged in age, and we work in academia, at law firms, in the private sector, and for non-profits. [At left is Robert Cheetham, President and CEO of Azavea, talking about their product DistrictBuilder.]

The Tufts workshop is getting great coverage from media, including from Boston’s NPR news station WBUR and the New Yorker in an article by Dawn Chan.

As the workshop website says, the first three days were open to the public, and the last two were spent in specialized training (a teaching track, a computing track, and an expert witness training track). The public days were filled with morning lectures and afternoon deep delves into topics ranging from computational, to social, to mathematical, to legal.

The morning sessions the first three days were so popular that they were held at the historic Somerville Theater at nearby Davis Square. The theater opened in 1914 and, according to its website was “designed for stage shows, vaudeville, opera, and that new fad – motion pictures – the theatre was only one of the Hobbs Building attractions, which also included a basement café; bowling alley and billiards hall; ten ground floor storefronts; and the Hobbs Crystal Ballroom on the second floor.”  It was fun to see workshop participants in such a splendid space, enjoying popcorn and frozen thin mints (you know who you are!). And, Moon had to clear us out of there immediately after our talks were over at 12:45 so that we did not hold up the early matinee viewing of Dunkirk each day.

So, why were we brought together? First, the next round of redistricting will commence soon after the decennial census and subsequent reapportionment of Congress. Second, the Supreme Court has announced that it will consider whether or not Wisconsin’s congressional maps have been gerrymandered on partisan grounds. Both are BIG deals.

Advocates in Washington are concerned about the upcoming census – the President’s proposed FY18 budget includes a 2% increase in Census Bureau funding, considered “woefully inadequate” to enable the bureau to prepare for the 2020 census. Previous increases in the eighth year of the ten-year census cycle have ranged from 61 to 96%.

Why are Wisconsin maps under scrutiny? In 2012, Republicans won 60 out of 99 seats in the State Assembly while only receiving 48.6% of the statewide vote. In 2014 and 2016, Republicans extended their advantage. The Supreme Court has resisted setting a standard by which to decide that a partisan gerrymander is unconstitutional, but they may do that in this case. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg has said that this is the most important case the court will hear next term. Indeed, if the Wisconsin map is found to be unconstitutional on the partisan argument, partisan map-drawers’ hands will be tied in the next round of redistricting following the 2020 census.

Of course, I wouldn’t be writing this if mathematics were not relevant and, indeed, redistricting uses a lot of math. Measures of compactness are by now considered traditional for detecting gerrymandering (though not agreed-upon nor well-understood); the newish efficiency gap is a central character in the Wisconsin drama; and computer simulations (to generate lots and lots of maps that could be used) are being used and developed, and may point the way to some future clarity for measuring partisan bias in the redistricting process.



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Recess in Washington; Congress winding down pre-recess budget negotiations

I’m headed off to the MAA’s MathFest and thought it a good time to give you an update on budget proceedings in Washington.

The month of August is traditionally a congressional recess, meaning that Representatives and Senators are in their home states and districts, spending much time with their constituents. You’ve probably read the news, that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is pushing back the start of the month-long recess for his colleagues, so that Senators can have time to work on health care legislation and other pressing matters. August recess was codified in the Legislative Reorganization Act of 1970 and the last time the Senate delayed its recess was in 1994; then too the reason was to work on health care reform. The House is taking recess as planned; and we shall see what really happens Senate-side. Things seem a bit up in the air, to put it mildly.

In any case, you may well be reading this because you hope to hear how the appropriations process is unfolding this year. The last time I wrote about this the FY2017 budget process was not yet over, and President Trump had released his budget blueprint for FY2018. On May 23, the President’s full budget was released. (Both the blueprint and full budget are found at the White House budget page). This proposal is devastating for mathematics, and indeed for much of scientific research and discovery.

The President’s budget proposed an 11.2% cut to the NSF. If adopted, this funding will support approximately 8,000 new research grants, with an estimated funding rate of 19%. For comparison, in FY 2016, NSF funded 8,800 new research grants, with a funding rate of 21%. Rep. Bill Foster (IL 11) – the only physicist in Congress – issued a statement on the NSF’s reported cuts if the President’s FY2018 Budget Request takes effect, estimating that 13,000 researchers, professionals, and students could be affected by the proposed budget cuts.

The Administration is seeking deep cuts to science agencies as part of a broader decrease in non-defense spending. This would offset a proportional increase in defense spending to fund the Administration’s planned military and border security projects.

The President’s budget is simply a guide, and it has not been received warmly in Congress. The next step is for each of the House and Senate to come to their own budget proposals, and then for these to be reconciled. The House has finished their work; the Senate is just getting started. While the House bill is not as damaging to the scientific enterprise as the President’s – it proposes a 2% cut across the board – it still is not good news. The NSF’s main research account would be flat funded under the House bill. This would be the second year in a row without an increase for research and will compromise America’s leadership position in scientific discovery and innovation.

The Senate has yet to consider the part of the budget that includes funding for the NSF; this is expected to occur this week. The Senate has allocated 53.36 billion dollars for Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies (CJS), which is actually below the 53.94 billion approved by the House; not a good starting point. This CJS money must be divvied up amongst agencies including the NSF, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

As appropriations negotiations move from the House to the Senate, it is important to note that the House CJS bill is constrained by sequestration-level spending caps. With other countries increasing their levels of research investment (including a proposed doubling of investment in the EU), now is not the time for the United States to reduce its investment in research. The AMS has signed on to letters sent to key Senators urging them to work toward a budget agreement that removes the budget caps. Support for raising budget caps is bipartisan: the Tuesday Group Caucus, a centrist Republican group in the House, has sent a letter to Speaker Paul Ryan with concerns about the FY2018 budget process. The group wants to lift spending caps which would, in turn, allow spending levels for agencies like the NSF to be increased.  Indeed, Rep. John Culbertson (TX 7), chair of the CJS subcommittee that considers NSF budgets, has fought to protect the NSF and promised to increase its funding if the spending caps are raised. Rep. David Price (NC 4) has also spoken out on increasing the NSF budget.

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Over the weekend we lost a major force in mathematics. Maryam Mirzakhani died far too soon, at the age of 40. You no doubt know that she is the first and only woman ever to have been honored with a Fields medal. This morning my colleague posted a piece giving an overview of her mathematical contributions.

There have already been many pieces written about her, and there will be many more. I am not adding to that here, simply pointing you to Mathematical Reviews Executive Editor Ed Dunne’s piece on her work, in case you land here first.



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Making the Pool Bigger: Advocating for NSF and AMS

Editor’s Note: Lea Jenkins is in the Department of Mathematical Sciences at Clemson University. She represented the AMS at the 23rd Annual Capitol Hill Exhibition of the Coalition for National Science Funding. Key to the mission of the AMS Washington Office are telling compelling stories of how our federal investment in basic science research pays off for American taxpayers and expanding the pool of AMS members who are in contact with their congressional representatives is an important piece of that. In the previous post on this blog you can read about another such example, as explained by David Donoho (Stanford) at a recent Congressional Briefing.

On May 16, 2017, I had the distinct privilege of traveling to our nation’s capital and lobbying my congressional delegation, on behalf of the American Mathematical Society (AMS), for increased funding for the National Science Foundation (NSF).  I arrived at Washington Reagan National Airport mid-morning, and shortly after my arrival at the hotel was met by Anita Benjamin, Assistant Director for the AMS Washington Office.  Anita had already scheduled meetings with legislative assistants in each of the offices for the South Carolina senators and in the office of my representative to the U.S. House.  The assistants who set aside their time to meet with us were friendly, engaged, and extremely professional.  The project I touted to advocate for the increase in NSF funding is rooted in efficient use of water resources in agricultural regions.  As agriculture is the #1 industry in SC, and all of us are concerned with the depletion of existing water resources, my project was well-tailored for the audience I had.  Over the past few years, as my colleague Kathleen Kavanagh and I have worked on our applied agriculture problem, I have often heard the comments similar to to “We would never have thought of using math in an agriculture problem”. I am thrilled to be able to make more people aware of the broad range of applications for which mathematics makes significant contributions.  I was especially thrilled to be able to make those in charge of voting on national budgets aware of the impact mathematics can have on society.

The main event of the trip was the reception hosted by the Coalition for National Science Funding (CNSF), where over thirty researchers contributed poster presentations (http://www.cnsfweb.org).  I had the opportunity to visit many of the posters prior to the start of the reception and I was amazed at the variety of research projects being moved forward in the U.S.  Researchers were sponsored by professional societies and universities that are members of CNSF; these organizations are all dedicated to ensuring funding for general research becomes a priority for Congress.  I was pleased to discuss my work with (among others) Henry Warchall, senior advisor for the NSF Directorate for Mathematical Sciences; France Córdova, NSF Director; and Representative Jerry McNerney from California, the only mathematician in Congress.  Anita was responsible for getting fruit displays for my booth which all visitors were invited to enjoy!  The display also enforced the connection we wanted the representatives to make — that is, that NSF-sponsored research impacts our lives every day, often in ways no one suspects.

The time at the reception flew by, and my day in Washington was over well before I was ready.  I had no idea I would enjoy visiting the offices of my congressional delegation as much as I did.  I was awestruck being in the buildings that housed the offices of the Senators and Representatives and seeing the level of activity surrounding these offices on a daily basis.  I gained an appreciation for the staff supporting the work of the members of Congress; their schedules are packed, and they handle a variety of tasks that keep government functioning.

I also cannot say enough for the extraordinary efforts of Karen Saxe, AMS Associate Executive Director and Washington Office Director, and Anita Benjamin to organize my entire stay and ensure the trip was a success.  I was exhausted when I returned to my hotel room, but so willing to repeat the entire experience.  I strongly encourage those of you who have not done so personally contact your Congressional delegation to make their staff members aware of the gains we can make as a society with appropriate levels of funding.  Do not hesitate to make the trip to Washington if asked by one of the CNSF organizations.  I believe you will find it well worth the short amount of time asked of you.


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