Mathematical Sciences and the NSF Big Ideas

Editor’s note: Guest columnist Juan Meza is the Division Director of the NSF’s Division of Mathematical Sciences. Immediately before joining the NSF, he served as Dean of the School of Natural Sciences at the University of California, Merced.

In 2016, the National Science Foundation proposed ten new activities called the 10 Big Ideas. These were intended to be “long-term research and process ideas that identify areas for future investment at the frontiers of science and engineering.” The Big Ideas also represented “unique opportunities to position our Nation at the cutting edge – indeed to define that cutting edge – of global science and engineering leadership”. Three of those activities should be of particular interest to the mathematics community: Harnessing the Data Revolution (HDR), Quantum Leap, and Understanding the Rules of Life. Each of these Big Ideas has a planned budget of \$30M per year for five years. In total, these three activities represent a \$450 million investment from NSF and therefore represent an excellent opportunity for fundamental research. In this article, I would like to present a brief introduction to one of the Big Ideas and suggest some ways for mathematical scientists to engage in these activities.

Harnessing the Data Revolution

The activity that I’ll discuss is called Harnessing the Data Revolution, which seeks to establish theoretical, technical, and ethical frameworks that will be applied to tackle data-intensive problems in science and engineering. Based on several trends over the past 10 years, this activity will use insights gained from data to transform science and engineering and contribute to data-driven decision-making that impacts society. The HDR vision has five interrelated efforts:

  • Foundations of data science;
  • Frameworks, algorithms, and systems for data science;
  • Data-intensive science and engineering;
  • Data cyberinfrastructure; and
  • Education and workforce development.

One component of HDR that the mathematics community is already involved in is the Transdisciplinary Research in Principles of Data Science (TRIPODS) program that is part of the first effort in foundations of data science. In 2017, NSF funded 12 new Phase I institutes across the country ( press release). This program encourages teams of mathematicians, statisticians, and computer scientists to develop the foundations of data science. We anticipate having two phases for this program with a solicitation for larger Phase II proposals in the future.  Based on feedback from the community and the popularity of the original round of awards, NSF decided to support a second round of Phase I awards.  This new round of awards has the same underlying structure, but with an additional feature of including researchers in electrical engineering.

Another new component of the HDR Big Idea will be a set of Institutes for Data-Intensive Science and Engineering.  This activity will seek to create an integrated set of institutes that can accelerate discovery and innovation in multiple areas of data-intensive science and engineering. The goal will be to harness diverse data sources and develop and apply new methodologies, technologies, and infrastructure for data management and analysis. The HDR Institutes will also support convergence between science and engineering research communities, data science expertise in foundations and applications, and systems and cyberinfrastructure. In addition, we envision that the HDR Institutes will enable breakthroughs in science and engineering through collaborative, co-designed programs to formulate innovative data-intensive approaches to address critical national problems.

HDR Institutes will also be developed through a two-phase process involving a conceptualization phase followed by a convergence phase. The conceptualization phase will be implemented in 2019 via two complementary funding opportunities. The first opportunity will encourage individuals with compelling science problems and/or technical expertise to self-organize into teams with the aim of developing innovative, collaborative research proposals through an IDEAS Lab process.

Ideas Labs are based on a British model called Sandpits, which has been around since the early 2000s. Several groups at NSF have used this mechanism as a way to bring together individual PIs to form proposals that address challenging scientific problems. The Ideas Labs themselves will take place in May over the course of a week. Groups will be formed from the applicants to the program based on the skills each person brings to the workshop. Each group will work together to study the designated challenge and to generate novel ideas for research proposals. Ideas Labs are especially suited to individuals who are willing to step outside of their particular area of interest or expertise, enjoy creative activity, can think innovatively, and are open to, or seeking, new collaborations.   Successful teams will be invited to submit a full conceptualization proposal pursuant to the solicitation.

The second opportunity will encourage applications from teams of researchers proposing a framework for an integrated set of science and engineering problems and data science solutions. The conceptualization process will result in two-year awards aimed at building communities, defining research priorities, and developing interdisciplinary prototype solutions. The subsequent convergence and co-design phase will be implemented in the 2021 timeframe with awards that integrate and scale successful prototypes and new ideas into larger, more comprehensive institutes that bring together multiple science and engineering communities with computer and computational scientists, mathematicians, and statisticians around common data science approaches.

For more information on the HDR Big Ideas please visit: https://nsf.gov/hdr

About Karen Saxe

Karen Saxe is Director of the AMS Office of Government Relations which works to connect the mathematics community with Washington decision-makers who affect mathematics research and education. Over many years she has contributed much time to the AMS, MAA, and AWM, including service as vice president of the MAA and in policy and advocacy work with all three. She was the 2013-2014 AMS Congressional Fellow, working for Senator Al Franken on education issues, with focus on higher education and STEM education. In Minnesota she has served on the Citizens Redistricting Commission following the 2010 census and serves on the Common Cause Minnesota Redistricting Leadership Circle. She has three children and, when not at work especially enjoys being with them and reading, hiking and sharing good food and wine and beer with family and friends.
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