The election outcome and what it means for mathematicians


This post contains three parts:

  • a long section on the newly elected members of Congress and the potential committee shake-ups that will affect the NSF and other science agencies;
  • a shorter section on redistricting legislation that passed on November 6; and
  • An even shorter section on the number of women coming to Congress in 2019.

Election day winners and losers and what it mean for committees with jurisdiction over the NSF

In the November 6 election, seven newcomers with a graduate degree in a STEM field, or a medical degree, were successful in their bids for seats in the House and will join the 116th Congress in Washington, D.C. on January 6.

The seven are Sean Casten (D-IL), Joe Cunningham (D-SC), Chrissy Houlahan (D-PA) and Elaine Luria (D-VA), who are all engineers; pediatrician Kim Schrier (D-WA); Lauren Underwood (D-IL), a registered nurse; and dentist Jeff van Drew (D-NJ).

Elaine Luria has a BS in physics and a Master of Engineering Management (MEM). As an engineer, she operating nuclear reactors in the Navy.

Chrissy Houlahan has an undergraduate engineering degree from Stanford and an MS in Technology and Policy from MIT. She has taught high school science and most recently worked for a non-profit focusing on early childhood literacy in underserved populations.

Joe Cunningham has a bachelor’s degree in ocean engineering. He worked in this field, in industry, until the 2008 recession when he returned to law school.

Sean Casten a BA in molecular biology and biochemistry, a MEM and an MS in biochemical engineering. His career has been in the private sector and focused on clean energy technologies.

Re-elected to Congress are PhD mathematician Jerry McNerney (D-CA) and PhD physicist Bill Foster (D-IL).

There are four committees with power over the NSF; these are the “appropriating” and “authorizing” committees for each of the House and Senate. These committees also appropriate funds for and regulate and write policies governing NASA, NIST and other science programs.

The Appropriations Committees decide how much money the NSF receives each year, money that is then awarded to scientists to support their research. Senate-side, not much will change: we expect Richard Shelby to remain as chair, and Jerry Moran to remain as chair of the Commerce, Justice, and Science Appropriations Subcommittee (this subcommittee has NSF in its portfolio). In the House, the flip to Democrat control means that there will be more musical chairs. While not yet certain, it is expected that Nita Lowey will chair of the Appropriations Committee and José Serrano will chair of the Commerce, Justice, and Science Appropriations Subcommittee.

In appropriations, committee structure is neat in that it is identical in both chambers. Not so with other committees. In each chamber there is a committee with oversight of the NSF (non-funding policies). These are the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology and the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation. Eddie Bernice Johnson has submitted her bid to chair the House committee and we expect that will come to pass. Jeff Mervis of Science magazine interviewed her and they spoke about her thoughts on the work of the committee, including oversight of the NSF, academic espionage, STEM education, and sexism in science. In the Senate, John Thune will probably not continue as chair of the Senate committee because he is expected to be named the majority whip; in this case Roger Wicker will probably take over as chair of this committee.

While bringing new science proponents to Congress is great news, we also lost some allies. Barbara Comstock (R-VA), John Culberson (R-TX), Randy Hultgren (R-IL), and Kevin Yoder (R-KS) all lost their re-election bids. Comstock has been a leader advancing women in STEM fields and combating sexual harassment in science. Culberson is a proponent of planetary science and space exploration, and his efforts have led to years of increased funding for NASA. Hultgren’s district includes Fermilab and he has been an effective supporter of the Department of Energy’s national laboratory system. Yoder has been a strong voice for basic science research and for medical research in particular and his efforts have resulted in higher funding for the National Institutes of Health. Comstock and Hultgren are current members of the Committee on Science, Space, and Technology. Culberson and Yoder both serve on the Appropriations Committee, with Culberson chairing the Commerce, Justice, and Science Appropriations Subcommittee.

The House also lost Jacky Rosen (D-NV)–a computer programmer, software developer, and proponent of programs to support women and girls in science–but she won her bid for the Senate seat so will remain in Congress. It is not clear whether or not Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) will remain, as his election has gone to a recount. Nelson is an astronaut and major ally of the STEM community.

Redistricting reform in the states

The mathematical and statistical sciences have always played a fundamental role in drawing voting district plans, and with modern predictive techniques and computing power, can play an increasingly powerful role in this process. The AMS does not endorse any one approach or metric for measuring fairness of voting district plans. We do urge, however, that mathematics and statistical science be employed to evaluate the fairness of district plans and have put out a policy statement to this effect.

Congressional redistricting is done by the states and there is a wide variety of complicated and ever-changing laws guiding the decennial process.

Colorado, Michigan and Missouri all passed measures amending their state constitutions to create independent redistricting commissions. This brings the total number of states to nine that will use independent commissions to draw state legislative districts and eight that will use these commissions for state and federal districts following the 2020 census.

Colorado voters considered two ballot measures to amend the state constitution; each passed with over 70% of the vote. Under the two amendments (Y is for congressional lines, Z for state legislative ones) a twelve-person commission comprising four Republicans, four Democrats and four unaffiliated members will be tasked with coming up with the new maps. Districts will need to be competitive. Competitive is defined in Colorado as having a reasonable potential to change parties at least once every ten years, and measuring competitiveness entails evidenced-based analyses, voter registration data, and past election results.

In Michigan, Proposal 2 passed and transferred the power to draw the state’s congressional and legislative districts from the state legislature to a 13-member independent redistricting commission. Proposal 2 requires commissioners to prioritize specific criteria, including compliance with federal laws; equal population sizes; geographic contiguity; demographics and communities of similar historical, cultural, or economic interests; no advantages to political parties; no advantages to incumbents; municipal boundaries; and compactness.

The Missouri measure is arguably the most interesting to the mathematical and statistical sciences community. Missouri currently has two legislative redistricting commissions that draw maps for the state house and senate respectively. Voters in Missouri approved Proposition 1, which created a position called the “non-partisan state demographer.” There will be no change to the composition of the commissions. Amendment 1 requires the state demographer and commissions to consider specific criteria, including what the initiative calls partisan fairness and competitiveness, contiguity, compactness, and existing boundaries of political subdivisions. Partisan fairness means that parties shall be able to translate their popular support into legislative representation with approximately equal efficiency. Competitiveness means that parties’ legislative representation shall be substantially and similarly responsive to shifts in the electorate’s preferences. Wasted votes (as in the efficiency gap) are to be counted in measuring fairness. Missouri voters supported this constitutional amendment which also makes changes to the state’s lobbying laws, and sets campaign finance limits for state legislative candidates.

Utah had a similar measure on the ballot to set up an independent commission and set criteria for the line-drawers. As of now, Proposition 4 has the majority of the votes, but it is a very slim majority and the result has not been finalized.

In addition, several states passed ballot measures having to do with voting rights, including on automatic voter registration (NV, MI, MD), requiring photo-IDs (AR and NC), and restoring voting rights for felons (FL).

Number of women in Congress

Ok, I cannot end without telling you this piece of news. This election sends over 100 women to the House of Representatives. This shatters the old record of 84 of the 435. The number of female Senators will remain 23.

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Voting Rights Data Institute for Students


Editor’s Notes: (1) Democracy counts on voters voting; please vote on November 6! (2) This post is written by three undergraduates who spent much of their summer working on gerrymandering. I invited them to share their experiences applying their mathematical and statistical know-how, and working in a multi-disciplinary group to tackle this societal problem.  Redistricting affects the House of Representatives, members of which stand for election every two years. Redistricting is a decennial process and the next round will occur as soon as 2020 Census numbers are established. States should have their new maps in place for the 2022 midterm elections.

Ruth Buck hard at work. Credit: Katya Kelly.

Our names are Ruth Buck, Katie Jolly, and Katya Kelly.  We spent this past summer as undergraduate fellows at the Voting Rights Data Institute (VRDI), a program of the Metric Geometry and Gerrymandering Group (MGGG). We are a combination of recent graduates and seniors in the geography and applied math/statistics departments at Macalester College in Saint Paul, MN. The program was a group of 52 undergraduate and graduate students interested in applying math and computer science to redistricting and voting rights. Over the course of the summer, participants worked on projects related to graph theory, software development, operationalizing state rules for districting, and a wide variety of other topics.

Each week we filled out a survey about our interests and goals and then were assigned to work on one of many projects. Each project group focused on one aspect of gerrymandering research and then presented their work in an informal session at the end of the week. Some groups had more of a theoretical focus, while other groups were much more applied. Then, the next week the process began again.

We rotated projects for the first three or four weeks and then chose a few to focus on for the remainder of the summer. One group created an open-source software to allow community members to create districting plans interactively while another explored discrete compactness measures. An overarching goal of VRDI was to build software that uses a Markov chain Monte Carlo algorithm to explore the space of possible districting plans to evaluate gerrymandering. Participants worked on this project throughout the entire summer, writing and rewriting thousands of lines of code. There were dozens of other projects, many of which are freely available and open-source on the MGGG GitHub page.

The main project that the three of us worked on  was creating a shapefile of Ohio’s precinct boundaries. The precinct is the smallest geographic unit that election results are reported at. To do any sort of meaningful, high-resolution analysis of election results, one has to have access to precinct boundaries. The problem that arises here is that for most states, there is no central repository where precinct boundaries are stored.

Digitized images of Ohio. Compiled by Emilia Alvarez.

Digitized images of Ohio. Compiled by Emilia Alvarez.

While states like Minnesota and California store their precinct boundaries on the Secretary of State website for public use, most states, including Ohio, leave the creation and storage of precinct boundaries completely up to the counties. More populous counties are able to employ GIS specialists to manage their precinct boundaries and other spatial data, but smaller counties often lack the resources.

Our project involved many telephone calls to each of the 88 Ohio counties, digitizing hundreds of PDF and paper maps, and innovating ways to use the Ohio voterfile to interpolate precinct boundaries in areas where no other information was available. A voterfile is a list of registered voters that often also includes information about voting history. In Ohio this data is publicly available, but that is not the case in every state.

Not only were we responsible for coordinating the efforts of sometimes more than twenty people, but we were also responsible for teaching the vast majority of whom who had never used GIS how to digitize maps. We gained skills in organization, documentation, and writing clear, concise help guides.

The role of math and statistics in policy issues is often underappreciated. The work we did this summer made clear to us how intertwined math and politics really are. For example, take some state’s rules for redistricting, which may require that a redrawn district be “compact.” Compactness is a complicated mathematical concept with many acceptable approaches. The decision to take one approach over another can have a significant impact on the political environment of the new district.

In public policy, it’s important to be able to communicate results clearly and effectively. Statistics are important not only in terms of reporting numbers but also for providing meaningful interpretations of what these numbers imply. It’s easy to get lost in technical terms, but being able to explain the work to the appropriate audience is invaluable in the world of voting rights.

Gerrymandering is detrimental to the sustainability of our most basic civil rights. MGGG is active and seeking innovative ideas to help combat partisan gerrymandering in redistricting. With the 2020 census approaching, there is an abundance of work to be done in a variety of disciplines. We encourage anyone who is inspired by the goals of MGGG and concerned about the future of voting rights to get involved with the group. More information is available on their website.

We would like to acknowledge the work of Moon Duchin, Justin Solomon, Daryl DeFord, and Aidan Kestigian in organizing a spectacular summer program. Thank you also to the the MIT Prof. Amar G. Bose Research Grant and the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life at Tufts University for funding this opportunity. We are excited to see the Voting Rights Data Institute continue and make a meaningful impact on the future of democracy.

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Good news! Great reports now available to all!


CRS reports are now public!!

What in the world is she talking about, you ask? What is “CRS” and who cares about their reports? Please do read on…..

Say you want to learn more about the role of the federal government in STEM education, type “STEM education” into the search field and up come reports on this topic. You will even see one by Boris Granovskiy—the 2014-15 AMS-sponsored Congressional Fellow who moved directly from his fellowship into his current position at CRS.

Might be me, but I love these reports and spend many hours reading them (ok, so maybe this really is just me). Reports can be downright fascinating to read, such as this one on women in Congress. They can be useful in teaching, such as this one about the hurricanes that hit the US in 2017 (of course, it depends what you are teaching but you might find yourself talking about modeling hurricanes or predicting storms in a math class). Say you want to know the average age of current Members of Congress; look no further than the report on members of the 115th Congress! Answer: 58 years old in the House, 62 in the Senate. Or, say you are interested in finding out about current legislative activity around unauthorized children arriving in the U.S.; you can find that too.

When I was the AMS-sponsored Congressional Fellow (2013-2104), I learned what a truly amazing resource the Congressional Research Service (CRS) is for Congressional members and their staff. I could call in the morning, talk to someone immediately, discuss the issue I needed information on, and have a report within 48 hours (and often by the end of the business day). Their reports are concise, well researched and non-partisan. (All this is not to imply that the CRS is the only place Congressional members get good information; they typically have very knowledgeable staff members, well-versed in whatever subject area they work on for their boss—agriculture, education, transportation, government oversight, etc.).

I typically requested help from the CRS when I was preparing my Senator for a hearing on, say, the Higher Education Act (first signed into law in 1965 and containing a lot of things you might/should care about if you work in academia). It has been updated since (most recently in 2008), and is (over-)due for another update. Indeed, both House and Senate have introduced their own new versions. If I wanted to read about the House version, I might well turn to read the CRS report on this so-called PROSPER Act.

Oh, and have I mentioned that the staff members talk to you on the phone and will come meet you to discuss the topic you are requesting information about? This was very useful–sometimes you don’t quite know what the right questions are (at least, I didn’t). Reports are prepared to assist Members of Congress and congressional committee staff “at every stage of the legislative process—from the early considerations that precede bill drafting, through committee hearings and floor debate, to the oversight of enacted laws and various agency activities.”

The CRS is part of the Library of Congress and serves at the pleasure of Congress. President Woodrow Wilson signed the law establishing the agency in 1914. No one outside of Congress can request a report. In the past, once you had one of these reports, however, you could share it with whomever you wanted, including posting on websites. For example, the Federation of American Scientists ( used to distribute select reports, many of which can still be found at that website.

While it remains the case that the CRS serves only Congress, the reports are now publicly available (caveat: some of the reports are confidential and remain off-limits). This change was mandated by the Consolidated Appropriations Act, which was signed into law on March 23, 2018. This law required that reports become available by September 18, 2018. You can find reports at the CRS website.

Note that the upload process is manual, and being done in reverse chronological order. So right now, you are just seeing the most recently released or updated reports. As the rollout process progresses, more and more active reports will be available. Just one example of what is lacking is that one of my very favorite reports on the Higher Education Act is not accessible through this search process yet.

You can find reports at the CRS website.

Happy reading!





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Submit your big and wonderful ideas by October 26

We know that mathematics touches every other field of science funded by the NSF. I hope that the next set of “big ideas”—that help guide NSF funding priorities—reflect that. We have an opportunity and, arguably, a responsibility to make this happen.

It would be terrific if mathematical scientists contributed to the open call, the “Ideas Machine 2026” described below. I encourage mathematical scientists to join together with others, both in math and from other fields, to submit ideas.

The Directorate for Mathematical & Physical Sciences (MPS) Advisory Committee met on August 14-15, 2018. The presentations from the meeting, including a presentation by the MPS liaison Lin He on the Ideas Machine 2026 activity, can be found at . Suggestions of Blue Ribbon Panelists for the Ideas Machine 2026 activity can be sent directly to Dr. He( (please copy your suggestion to

In her monthly message, NSF Director France Córdova describes the call for the new ideas and instead of trying to re-write her words, I provide hers:

“Inspired by the momentum and impact of the NSF’s 10 Big Ideas, we have been considering what kinds of initiatives could be launched today to set the stage for breakthrough discoveries and innovations in 2026 and beyond. Why 2026? It’s the 250th anniversary of our nation’s birth, an event–we think–to be widely celebrated with momentous discoveries.

Our external stakeholders are critical to our planning process for 2026. To gather input from researchers, the public and other interested groups, the NSF recently launched the NSF 2026 Idea Machine competition. Participants–those who do not work for the NSF–can earn prizes and receive public recognition by suggesting the pressing research questions that will require answers in the coming decade. In other words, the public has the opportunity to formulate the next set of Big Ideas for future investment. This is an opportunity to help set the U.S. agenda for fundamental research in science and engineering (S&E). It’s an invitation to contribute to the NSF’s mission to support basic research that drives the economy, enhances its security and helps sustain U.S. global leadership in S&E. Entries will be accepted through Oct. 26, 2018. The NSF plans to announce the winners in August 2019.

Please visit the Idea Machine website for additional information about eligibility, rules, judging and submission instructions. We encourage the public, including high school classrooms, to submit entries. Help us spread the word about the competition. By enlarging the pool of ideas, we hope to uncover new sparks that will ignite future areas of discovery. Could one of the next 10 Big Ideas be on your laptop?”



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The White House issues annual science memo

Editor’s Note: Today marks 17 years since the tremendous loss of lives on the east coast of our nation. It would be difficult to post this without remarking on the pain that the survivors and families have endured since that day.

Apologies in advance; this post could be a bit in the weeds.

On July 31, the White House issued its annual memorandum (M-18-22) identifying research and development (R&D) areas that federal agencies (including the NSF) should prioritize as they develop their fiscal year 2020 budget requests. The Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) jointly prepare these memoranda. This one is signed by Mick Mulvaney, OMB Director, and Michael Kratsios, Deputy US Chief Technology Officer and Deputy Assistant to the President at OSTP.

It begins: “The United States is a nation of thinkers, inventors, and entrepreneurs. Empowered by free-market capitalism and driven by bold ideas, Americans created an ecosystem of innovation that is the envy of the world, advancing science and technology and making the Nation prosperous and strong.” Overall, the language in this memo speaks to a strong, connected, technologically advanced, and independent America that leads all other nations. The tone brought to mind President Trump’s inaugural assertion “From this moment on, it’s going to be America First.”

The Trump administration issued its first such memo (M-17-30) in August of 2017, to guide the budget process for fiscal year 2019.

How does the new version differ from the first?

This year’s version is more specific, but basically builds on the first Trump R&D memo. It suggests federal R&D funding be “focused primarily on basic and early-stage applied research,” and calls on the private sector to increasingly fund “the transfer of research discoveries from the laboratory to the marketplace.”

The memo identifies eight “R&D Priority Areas,” describing what the administration would like to see investment go toward:

  1. Security of the American people;
  2. American leadership in artificial intelligence, quantum information sciences, and strategic computing;
  3. American connectivity and autonomy;
  4. American manufacturing;
  5. American space exploration and commercialization;
  6. American energy dominance;
  7. American medical innovation; and
  8. American agriculture.

There are also five “R&D Priority Practices,” which provide the how:

  1. Educating and Training a Workforce for the 21st Century Economy;
  2. Managing and Modernizing R&D Infrastructure;
  3. Maximizing Interagency Coordination and Cross-Disciplinary Collaboration;
  4. Transferring Technology from Laboratory to Marketplace; and
  5. Partnering with Industry and Academia.

“American Military Superiority” and “American Security” were the first two priority areas listed last year. The first of these used terms including “warfighter,” “weapons and defenses,” and “battlefield.” These particular terms are gone, though national security is still central, with the White House calling for increased investment in the military, border technology, and cybersecurity. The first priority listed this year asserts, “as adversaries leverage emerging technologies to threaten the nation, it is imperative that we invest in R&D to maintain military superiority and keep the American people safe.” Recent media accounts of our current military innovations certainly corroborate this demand to modernize our military.

Here are a few other specific changes, including several relevant to the mathematical sciences community:

  • The section dedicated to “American Leadership in Artificial Intelligence, Quantum Information Sciences, and Strategic Computing” gives a new focus this year.
  • Language aiming to eliminate duplication of work done by the agencies, with an eye toward “increasing government accountability and efficiency” has been removed (though the third priority practice still points in this direction).
  • A focus on connecting all Americans via a 5G wireless network is introduced, as is the goal to deploy autonomous and unmanned vehicles.
  • “American Medical Innovation” replaces last year’s “American Health” which suggests a different approach and attitude. Lowering healthcare costs was mentioned last year but not this year; a focus on mental health and suicide prevention was introduced this year.
  • A section on “American space exploration and commercialization” has been introduced.
  • A section on “American Agriculture” has been introduced and encourages “use of embedded sensors, data analytics, and machine learning techniques” to optimize agricultural outputs while minimizing inputs.
  • A section on manufacturing has been added, to help keep jobs at home and ensure that products are made at home.
  • There is again a call for educating and training a STEM workforce, repeating the need for computer science skills and for access to education for all (including from rural and urban areas, women and from other underrepresented groups).
  • Industry and academia are called on to work together with government agencies to “help align basic research with future private sector needs.” Regulatory barriers that hamper such partnership’s successes are requested reduced.

A few random, closing observations:

  1. Many in the science community point out that Obama administration memos highlighted global climate change, and the first two Trump memos have not mentioned climate change at all. Trying to be generous, the memo does call for improved weather prediction tools, to protect before during, and after natural disasters. This call is consistent with the nomination of Kelvin Droegemeier for the top spot at the Office of Science and Technology Policy in the White House. Incidentally, since I last posted, Dr. Droegemeier’s confirmation has passed from the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation with unanimous support. All that remains is a full Senate vote, as of now unscheduled.
  2. As I wrote in my post on December 1, 2017, the government-university-industry partnership dates to at least the Morrill Act of 1862, is ever-changing, and at least to some, is currently “out of whack.” Calls for re-envisioning this triumvirate are coming from many places including—in the last priority practice of this memo—from the White House.
  3. The White House, right now, is working on its congressionally mandated Federal STEM Education 5-Year Strategic Plan, under project leader Jeff Weld, Senior Policy Advisor and Assistant Director of STEM Education at OSTP. When this report comes out, it will be the second, after the first plan was published in 2013. The R&D memo published in July 2015, to guide budget requests for fiscal year 2017, refers to the 2013 plan and states that “investments in STEM education should be guided by the priorities outlined in the Federal STEM Education 5-Year Strategic Plan.” Perhaps next year, once the Weld team plan is published, we will see a nod to it in the 2021 R&D memo.
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White House top science advisor Kelvin Droegemeier’s confirmation hearing to be held August 23, 10:15 EDT

On August 1, President Trump made his nomination for a Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP). This position requires Senate confirmation. Once the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee gives their approval, he will need to be confirmed by the full Senate. This nomination is not controversial and, in fact, has won widespread praise. His confirmation hearing is set for August 23 (that’s right, that’s Thursday); you can listen and watch.

Kelvin Droegemeier
Credit: NSB/Kelvin Droegemeier

Kelvin Droegemeier received his PhD in atmospheric science in 1985 from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. He has been on the faculty at the University of Oklahoma for his entire academic career, and is currently the university’s vice president for research. He is a well-known meteorologist, and focused his research on modeling and predicting extreme weather.

His scientific, policy, and political work have been well documented by other sources, as has the reception his nomination has received in the science community. You can read elsewhere about his many accomplishments. See, for example, the good account by the American Institute of Physics, and an article in The Atlantic. Not only are scientists voicing approval, but so too are universities; see statements by the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities and the Association of American Universities, for example. Google searches will give lots more information about him, and on the widespread support for his nomination.

President Ford signing H.R. 10230, establishing the Office of Science and Technology Policy

Droegemeier is nominated to be Director of OSTP. Congress established the OSTP (including the position of its Director) in the National Science and Technology Policy, Organization, and Priorities Act of 1976 (P.L. 94-282), signed into law by President Ford. The act states, “The primary function of the OSTP Director is to provide, within the Executive Office of the President [EOP], advice on the scientific, engineering, and technological aspects of issues that require attention at the highest level of Government.” Its mission has three parts: first, to provide the President and senior staff with accurate, relevant, and timely scientific advice; second, to ensure the policies of the Executive Branch are informed by sound science; and third, ensure that the scientific work of the Executive Branch is coordinated to provide the largest benefit to society.

Traditionally, the OSTP Director is also the Assistant to the President for Science and Technology. In the latter position, Droegemeier could give confidential advice to the President on matters of science and technology. What are these positions, what is OSTP? So glad you asked! A little primer on OSTP might be helpful.

Though the OSTP was only established in 1976, Congressional acts having to do with science date to the beginning of our nation. Congress passed its first science and technology policy related act, regarding patents, in 1790. The history of the relationship between the federal government and science and technology is complex and interesting, and I plan to write more about it soon (maybe in The Notices? Maybe here?). Beginning in the 1930s, presidents used a variety of advisors who gave their counsel without statutory authority. In the early 1970s, Nixon chose to end this practice. Against this background, Ford chose to establish the OSTP through legislation, to make permanent an advisory body within the White House. Most of you will know that we’ve been waiting a long time for this nomination. Indeed, OSTP has been without a director for nearly 600 days, the longest vacancy since the position’s creation in 1976. You will note that President’s Clinton and Obama both had chosen their science advisor in advance of their inauguration.

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Recess in Washington; Science Appropriations Update

August is normally a time when all Congressional members return to their home districts. In DC, their staff members continue to work – meeting constituents, drafting legislation – and they have the opportunity to take more reflective time to consider their boss’s larger legislative agenda. This year, House members are taking this customary “August recess,” but the Senate has shortened theirs and will remain working in DC except for the week August 6-10 when they, too, will return home.

One of the items on the Senators to do list is to work on appropriations. Congress has until October 1 to pass all 12 appropriations bills (see below for explanation) and get them to the president’s desk for signature into law. There are only 11 legislative days on the calendar in which both chambers of Congress are in session before September 30. While Congressional leaders seem optimistic that appropriations process will wrap up during these 11 days (and – just saying – for the first time since 1996), there are significant potential roadblocks. President Trump may veto the final bill, as he is threatening to do if there is inadequate funding for a border wall. And, the November election and Supreme Court confirmation hearings could slowdown appropriations work. Even if the entire 11 days are devoted to appropriations, there is much work to be done before a bill is given to the President to consider signing into law establishing spending amounts for the fiscal year 2019 (FY19).

The Congressional Budget Act of 1974 guides the process by which Congress decides how much money to spend each year, what to spend it on, and how to raise money to pay for that spending.

The President is to release his or her budget proposal on the first Monday in February. The President recommends overall fiscal policy, with two main components: (1) how much the federal government should spend on public purposes, and (2) how much it should take in as tax revenues. The difference between (1) and (2) is the proposed deficit (or surplus). The President’s budget is very detailed, and lays out his or her relative priorities for federal programs — how much he or she believes should be spent on defense, agriculture, education, health, and so on.

The budget then works its way through each of the House and Senate. The President’s budget is only a request to Congress; Congress is not required to adopt his or her recommendations. Congress passes twelve appropriations bills annually. The House and Senate Budget Committees, working separately, establish top-line numbers for spending, with input from other legislators, committee chairs, and party leadership. Once these top-line numbers are established, the House and Senate Appropriations Committees begin their work. They take the spending target determined by the Budget Committees and divide it between the twelve appropriations subcommittees (one for each of the twelve bills that are to be passed each year).

The subcommittee — one of the twelve — that funds the NSF is Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies (take a look at the House and Senate members, see if a member of your congressional delegation is one). This subcommittee’s jurisdiction includes other agencies such as NASA, NIST, NOAA, and OSTP, and also the Federal Prison Industries Incorporated and the Commission on Civil Rights, among other programs.

Figure 1

The budget process just described addresses the piece of the pie in Figure 1, labelled “discretionary” (30% in 2017). These programs are called “discretionary” because Congress must set funding levels for them each year through the appropriations process. In contrast, we have the “entitlement” or “mandatory” programs such as Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid (the 63% wedge). Interest has been creeping up in recent years and we expect that trend to continue, thereby taking away funds in the other categories.

Discretionary funds are categorized as “defense” or “non-defense” (see Figure 2). In 2017, non-defense discretionary (NDD) spending accounted for 15% (\$610 billion) of federal spending (the other 15% of discretionary is defense related).

Figure 2

Science, environment, and energy programs constituted 12% (\$71 billion) of NDD spending in 2017. Just under half of the spending in this category supports conservation and the management of natural resources, such as national parks, and other environmental programs, including those in the Environmental Protection Agency. One-quarter of the spending covers NASA’s space exploration and related scientific research. The remaining spending supports the NSF and the Department of Energy, and water resources infrastructure.

For FY19, the President has proposed a 4% decrease (to \$7.47 billion) from FY18 for the NSF overall (see Figure 3). However, the House proposes a 5% increase, and the Senate proposed a 4% increase. The AMS is advocating for \$8.45 billion for the NSF; we have submitted written testimony to the Senate Appropriations Committee giving this number, and our rationale for it.

Figure 3

Congress does not determine how the NSF divvies up its funds between research directorates with one exception – the Education and Human Resources (EHR) Directorate gets its own budget line and the President, House, and Senate proposed changes to the EHR budget are -3%, 0% and 1% respectively. The House Appropriations Committee approved its version of the Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) appropriations bill that funds NSF on May 17, and the Senate Appropriations Committee approved its version on June 14. Next step is for each full chamber to vote on their respective bills. After that, the two are reconciled to produce the final bill presented to the President.

While Congress does not fund by directorate, the President’s budget proposal is very detailed. The largest proposed cut by the President is a decrease of 18% to the Major Research Equipment and Facilities Construction budget line. Among the directorates, there are significant variations, ranging from a 3.3 percent increase proposed for the Geosciences Directorate (GEO) to a 9.1 percent cut proposed for the Social, Behavioral, and Economics Sciences Directorate. The Mathematical and Physical Sciences Directorate (MPS) is slated for a cut of \$17 million or 1.3 percent. Inside MPS, sits the Division of Mathematical Sciences (DMS) for which the President proposes a 6.3% cut. Most individual investigator awards for research in mathematics come from DMS.

For the first time the President is requesting dedicated funding for each of the NSF’s 10 Big Ideas: a total of \$343 million to be split among the directorates and the foundation’s other offices. While Congress does not specify how the NSF is to spend its appropriations, their bill language gives indications of what they want out of the NSF. Both House and Senate voice qualitative support for the Big Ideas. And both chambers highlight the need for significant investments in computing. The Senate also supports “core research” while the House expresses support for research centers and facilities. No mention is made specifically of mathematics research in the House Committee’s proposal. The Senate Committee does make one specific reference: it “recognizes the importance of the NSF Mathematical Sciences Institutes across the country, which provide important basic research in multiple fields.” Both versions refer to mathematics in the context of education and training the next generation of scientists.

While Congress finishes up its work on FY19 appropriations, the White House is moving on and issued the outline of its science priorities for 2020 on July 31. The FY20 Administration R&D Budget Priorities Memo identifies eight R&D topics for the federal government to prioritize:

  1. Security of the American People
  2. American Leadership in Artificial Intelligence, Quantum Information Sciences, and Strategic Computing
  3. American Connectivity and Autonomy
  4. American Manufacturing
  5. American Space Exploration & Commercialization
  6. American Energy Dominance
  7. American Medical Innovation
  8. American Agriculture

I will write more in this blogspot about this memo over the next weeks.

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It’s almost August — invite members of congress to visit your campus!

Your senators and representatives spend significant amounts of time in their home districts and are eager to meet constituents (you!) on the ground. One week per month and the entire month of August are “recess” for the US Senate and House of Representatives. Your congressional delegation is typically working at home during these recess periods. The “congressional calendar” shows dates that you can expect your Senators and Representative to be at home.

Visiting members of Congress in Washington, DC, is great, and we certainly encourage you to do so. But, visits at home can give great value to you, your college or university, the AMS, and the larger science community.

Congressional members (find yours here) are concerned with the health of the institutions of higher education in their districts and are proud of these institutions’ research accomplishments and the students educated. They want stories to tell about inspiring students, and innovative programs (research and teaching) at their two- and four-year colleges and research universities. How do they get these stories? One way is that constituents (like you) bring compelling stories to their attention. We can take responsibility by sharing about individual student’s paths to and through college; interesting STEM education initiatives on campus; and the great innovations coming out of our research programs.

AMS President Ken Ribet (light-colored sweater) and other UC Berkeley faculty and students host US Congressman Jerry McNerney (blazer).

As an example, AMS President Ken Ribet (light-colored sweater) and other UC Berkeley faculty and students hosted US Congressman Jerry McNerney (blazer). Representative McNerney is a PhD mathematician and an advocate for mathematics and mathematicians in Congress. After breakfast, Congressman McNerney toured engineering facilities, led by nuclear engineering graduate student Marissa Zweig (white sleeveless).

What should you do if you want to invite a Congressional member to campus?

  • Think of what physical facilities you will show them (a spiffy new science center, a particular lab or institute that is federally funded, a conference you are holding on campus which they might attend and be invited to give some remarks, etc.).
  • Think about who will be a part of the visit (undergraduates from the district who have overcome odds to be where they are, students engaging in interesting projects, early career faculty members, etc.).
  • Think about who you should team up with (faculty in other departments, etc.).
  • Talk with the folks in your government relations office, and this is best done in advance of all planning you do. Most universities and many colleges have such an office and they can give you ideas, and provide support. At the least, they will want to know if a Congressional member is going to be on campus, PLEASE let them know!

Final words:

  • Do not think only of federal legislators; we also encourage you to invite state and other local politicians to campus!
  • In addition to working with your government relations office (if you have one), the AMS Office of Government Relations can help you craft your visit. Contact us at:

Final, final words (easy first steps to take):

  • You can begin the process of engagement with policy issues by participating in webinars. There is one scheduled for July 26 at 2 pm. It is run by DC colleagues whom I work with regularly. Register for the webinar here. From their description: “This experienced panel will explain not only why continuing the dialogue in the district is essential, but also offer suggestions, advice and share experiences about a range of ways for scientist to engage with elected officials while they are home in their districts, such as inviting Members and their staff to campus to see first-hand the NSF-funded research and meet with researchers and students.” I’ll be there, so feel free to send questions to me ( after the webinar.
  • Take a look at the “Engineers & Scientists Acting Locally” website. Have a look at their checklist, and if you take action, submit a postcard.
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The Supreme Court has decided on gerrymandering, what does it mean for the math & stats community?

What is going on with the Supreme Court vis-à-vis gerrymandering?

The Supreme Court justices are busy finishing up their current term and the past weeks have seen decisions handed down on gerrymandering cases.

To get you up to speed, the court considered cases from three states during its 2017 term:

Information about these, and all Supreme Court cases for the 2017 term can be found at

The first two cases focused on partisan gerrymandering and the third on racial gerrymandering. Decisions for the partisan claims had the potential to usher in sweeping changes in the way map-makers draw district lines and, in fact, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg said that Gill v. Whitford  is the most important case the court would hear this term.

In August I wrote a little bit about the Wisconsin case and more in the January Notices of the AMS.

Incidentally, there were other cases considered that have to do with voting rights including one examining the process Ohio uses to remove voters on change-of-residence grounds, and one having to do with what voters can wear to polling places in Minnesota.

But what happened with the important Wisconsin and Maryland cases? In short, the Wisconsin case charged that Republicans had done the rigging, while in Maryland the Democrats were accused. The justices’ opinions for both were announced on June 18; by announcing their decisions in the two cases at the same time, they are able to appear not to favor one party over another. Chief Justice John Roberts delivered the Wisconsin opinion and the Maryland opinion was per curiam.

Why are these decisions important to the mathematics and statistics community?

Amy Howe writes that with these two cases on their docket, “there were high hopes that the justices would finally weigh in definitively on challenges to the practice of purposely drawing maps to favor one party at the expense of another – either by holding that courts should steer clear of such claims or by laying out standards for courts to use in evaluating them.”

Justice Anthony Kennedy was the pivotal judge; he believes that courts could have a role in partisan gerrymandering cases if a workable standard for evaluating them were to be found (see pages 10-11 of the Gill v. Whitford opinion). Justice Kennedy was not persuaded by arguments this term, and the status quo remains.

Had the Wisconsin case gone differently, it could, for example, have deemed the efficiency gap to be a workable standard. The mathematics community has not come together around this particular standard, nor any other quantitative measure of partisan fairness. However, our community is focusing on a general approach, which we refer to as “outlier analysis.” See below for more on this approach.

Over the past year, the AMS Council has approved a joint statement with the American Statistical Association on the role of the mathematical sciences in redistricting and the AMS has become a partner of the ASA’s Count on Stats initiative which educates about, supports and advocates for the use of sound statistical science by federal agencies (including, of course, the Census Bureau whose work is foundational for redistricting).

Researchers could/should take these Supreme Court decisions as a “call to action.”

Read the last paragraph of this article in The Hill!

We need to continue to:

  • Improve our methods so that – one day – map-drawers, Supreme Court justices, and other key players will be able to effectively use mathematics and statistics to create (partisanly speaking) “fair” voting districts. (There are, of course, teams of researchers working on this problem already.)
  • Educate – before 2020 – about the strengths of our approaches to the problem of partisan gerrymandering so that map-drawers will choose to adopt them, even without a Supreme Court decision (by, for example, giving talks in our local communities at schools, churches, senior centers; writing op eds; getting involved actually drawing maps if possible).

 And, finally, where do we mathematicians and statisticians go from here?

As mentioned, researchers in the mathematics and statistics community have been developing a general approach to evaluate partisan gerrymandering that can be explained – very roughly – as follows.

The starting point is census data and a proposed map you are trying to evaluate for partisan qualities. Then:

  1. Create a large “ensemble” of possible alternative maps.
  2. Apply a metric to each map in the ensemble, to assess partisan bias of the map.
  3. Make a histogram of this metric (horizontal axis shows range of values of metric; vertical axis shows percentage of maps in the ensemble with the different values of the metric).
  4. Ask the question: Is the proposed map an outlier in this histogram? If yes, consider it designed with partisan bias and reject it.

If we were to know the partisan metric(s) of all possible redistricting maps, then we could make statements about whether the partisan metric(s) of the proposed map is an outlier. However, there are way too many possible maps.

Central to this “outlier analysis” is the ability to generate a large number of different possible alternative maps (step 1). The goal is to create a large ensemble of maps each of which is “reasonable” in the sense that it:

  • gets within some small margin of error for equal population,
  • is composed of districts that are compact according to some measure (Polsby-Popper is often used),
  • is composed of districts that are contiguous, and
  • respects political (e.g. county) boundaries.

There are competing algorithms out there for generating the ensemble, and this is an active research area. Look for the work of Jowei Chen (Michigan) and Jonathan Rodden (Stanford); Wendy Cho (UIUC); Kosuke Imai and Benjamin Fifield (Princeton); Alan Frieze (Carnegie Mellon), Wesley Pegden (Carnegie Mellon), and Maria Chikina (Pittsburgh); Jonathan Mattingly (Duke).

The metric (step 2) could be the well-established mean-median score or the relatively new efficiency gap (as proposed in the Wisconsin case). The metric instead could be number of seats that would be won by each party, if the map were adopted, based on past election results.

This procedure and analysis can be done – up front – as line-drawers are drawing their maps in 2020 or in court later, when maps are challenged. I prefer it be done up front and court challenges avoided. Researchers can continue to perfect the algorithms used for creating ensembles and continue to run simulations to evaluate the pros and cons of the various metrics.

All this said, we have to be very careful: Justice Roberts wrote (pages 20-21 of the Gill v. Whitford opinion) about the efficiency gap and other such metrics:

The difficulty for standing purposes is that these calculations are an average measure. They do not address the effect that a gerrymander has on the votes of particular citizens. Partisan-asymmetry metrics such as the efficiency gap measure something else entirely: the effect that a gerrymander has on the fortunes of political parties. …….. this Court is not responsible for vindicating generalized partisan preferences. The Court’s constitutionally prescribed role is to vindicate the individual rights of the people appearing before it.

This tells me that at least some justices will never adopt our outlier analysis because it can only determine if the parties are treated “fairly” or “symmetrically” by maps in question. If you are going for a “deep” read of this opinion, be sure to also read Justice Elena Kagan’s concurrence, which addresses this issue of individual harm done (the “one person, one vote” context) by partisan gerrymandering and lays out a plan for how future claims could be argued successfully.

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Origami meets math, science, and engineering

MSRI Director David Eisenbud, Erik Demaine, AMS Government Relations Director Karen Saxe, and AMS President-elect Jill Pipher.

This is the enticing title of the most recent Congressional briefing, sponsored jointly by the AMS and the Mathematical Sciences Research Institute.

On May 22, Professor Erik Demaine of MIT (a MacArthur Fellow “genius”) wowed the audience with surprising – and a surprisingly wide range of – applications of computational origami in manufacturing, robotics, public safety, space technology, and medicine.

Ingestible robot, developed by the research team of Demaine’s MIT colleague Daniela Rus. See:

We saw life-saving car airbags that are folded based on origami. We saw very large telescopes that fold to fit on space stations and then expand for use once in space. We saw deployable origami bulletproof shields that police and other keepers of our public safety can use, for example, during mass shooting situations. We saw a tiny origami robot that unfolds itself from a swallowed capsule and has the potential to transform internal medicine.

The briefing took place in the Russell Senate Office Building in a room secured for us by Senator Charles Schumer’s staff; we appreciate very much their support. We were fortunate to have a strong show of AMS leadership in the room – President Ken Ribet travelled from California, President-elect Jill Pipher from Rhode Island, and Vice President Ken Ono from Georgia.

I kicked off the event welcoming everyone.  MSRI Director David Eisenbud followed with a few words about both the two sponsoring groups and the goal for our briefings. He then introduced Representative Jerry McNerney who spoke about the importance of federal funding for research.

Erik Demaine and Congressman (and mathematician) Jerry McNerney.

McNerney is a Ph.D. mathematician (the only one in the current Congress), strong supporter of Congressional funding for fundamental research in mathematics and science, and vocal advocate for evidence-based policy-making. He is also an AMS member! We are extremely grateful for his presence at this briefing. AMS President Ken Ribet then introduced Erik Demaine.

Professor Demaine forcefully articulated two key messages:

  • mathematics touches a truly wide variety of other scientific and engineering fields, and
  • it is not always straightforward to predict what types of fundamental research will ultimately lead to innovations that improve our national security and save lives.

It is, therefore, critical that the federal government fund research that may – at times – seem abstract and potentially even silly. Investing in computational origami and much of theoretical mathematics may seem, by nature, somewhat risky but the examples in our briefings show what can happen with sustained funding from federal agencies. Investment in basic research is critical for reasons of economic and national security, and global competitiveness. Much of the research in mathematics is carried out by faculty members working in academia; our research universities have been the envy of the world and must remain so.

The talk was timely in the sense that Congress is currently in the midst of appropriations conversations for FY2019 funding. On May 17, the House Appropriations Committee approved the fiscal year 2019 Commerce, Justice, Science Appropriations bill on a vote of 32-19. The bill includes $8.175 billion for the National Science Foundation for FY2019. After years of funding levels that have not kept pace with inflation, this proposed increase of over 5% is a welcome and much-needed step forward to effectively supporting an agency that is vital to our economy, national security, and global competitiveness. The Senate has not yet released its NSF funding proposal. The President has proposed $7.5 billion (a 4% decrease) but Congress usually does not follow the administration’s suggestions. The AMS, as part of a large coalition of science societies and universities, is asking for $8.45 billion. I will write soon about how these deliberations unfold.

Curved Crease Sculpture, Erik & Martin Demaine, Renwick Gallery, Smithsonian American Art Museum, 2012.

MacArthur Fellow Erik Demaine has been instrumental in the development of the field of computational origami. He is also an acclaimed artist. His works have been shown at major museums, and his pieces are in the permanent collections of Washington D.C.’s Smithsonian Renwick Gallery and New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA).

This briefing was just one a series of such. Other recent briefings include one by David Donoho (Stanford) on compressed sensing and MRI technology, and by Shafi Goldwasser (Simons Institute for the Theory of Computing at the University of California, Berkeley) on cryptography.

Posted in AMS Washington office, Congress, Federal support for science, Mathematicians, Uncategorized | Tagged , | Leave a comment