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

Take action today!!! Petition to protect graduate students has June 1 deadline

SCROLL DOWN TO READ ABOUT & LINK TO THE PETITION, or use this Direct Link to PETITION (described below)

Congress is currently working on a re-authorization of the Higher Education Act (HEA). This law, first enacted in 1965, is the basic federal law intended to increase accessibility to higher education.

Specifically, it authorizes numerous federal aid programs that provide support to both individuals pursuing a post-secondary education and institutions of higher education. The HEA is organized into eight titles:

  • Title I, General Provisions;
  • Title II, Teacher Quality Enhancement;
  • Title III, Strengthening Institutions;
  • Title IV, Student Assistance;
  • Title V, Developing Institutions;
  • Title VI, International Education Programs;
  • Title VII, Graduate and Postsecondary Improvement Programs; and
  • Title VIII, Additional Programs.

The HEA was last comprehensively reauthorized in 2008, though it has been amended over the past decade. It really needs to be reauthorized.

So, where are we in the reauthorization process?

On December 12, 2017, the House Committee on Education and the Workforce approved — along party lines — the Promoting Real Opportunity, Success, and Prosperity through Education Reform Act (PROSPER Act; H.R. 4508), which would provide for the comprehensive re-authorization of the HEA.

It is now up to the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) to come up with their version of this bill.

Once the Senate introduces their version, the two versions need reconciled. When a final version is approved by both House and Senate, the President will be asked to sign into law.

What are some concerns about the PROSPER Act?

Higher education advocates are speaking out against the PROSPER Act. According to the American Council on Education (ACE): “While the bill includes several valuable proposals, these are greatly outweighed by multiple provisions that would be harmful to higher education, and particularly to low- and middle-income students.” ACE has a resource page with information about the bill along with links to contact House members on provisions of interest to undergraduates, graduate students, graduates and student loan borrowers, and higher education institutions.

The Association of Public and Land-grant Universities (APLU) has voiced its concerns about the bill. They are most concerned about elimination of

  • the in-school interest subsidy on undergraduate loans,
  • the Supplemental Education Opportunity Grants (SEOG), and
  • Graduate PLUS loans.

The first is the subsidy that ensures interest does not accrue on undergraduate loans while one is enrolled as a graduate student (I know I benefitted from this subsidy). Over 1.6 million low-income students benefit from SEOGs, and there is no proposed substitute for this grant aid. The elimination of PLUS loans would force more students to private market lending opportunities, which often offer less favorable terms and interest rates.

There are other provisions of the PROSPER Act that are harmful to education. Three examples:

  • The bill further erodes the Pell grant program by misguided investment strategy. Today a Pell Grant covers under 30 percent of a four-year public university degree while in 1980 it was 75 percent.
  • It eliminates TEACH grants that help students who agree to teach at schools that serve low-income families.
  • It also eliminates the 90/10 rule, which will enhance predatory behavior by for-profit schools. This rule contains a loophole that hurts veterans, but veteran groups have spoken out in favor of closing the loophole and not eliminating the rule altogether.

What can you do to voice your concerns?

  • Sign this petition. The American Physical Society (APS) is coordinating a petition opposing the bill and is asking those at colleges and universities across the country to sign on. The APS will deliver the petition to Senators Lamar Alexander of Tennessee and Patty Murray of Washington. They lead the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) that is drafting its version of the bill. The petition asks them to maintain the loans the House PROSPER Act would cut, and not to increase the financial burden on graduate students through its bill. They are collecting signatures until June 1, so there is still time to add your name to the list!
  • Write personal letters to key Senators. In addition to Chairman Lamar Alexander and Ranking Member Patty Murray, members of the HELP Committee are Senators Enzi, Burr, Isakson, Paul, Collins, Cassidy, Young, Hatch, Roberts, Murkowski, Scott, Sanders, Casey, Bennet, Baldwin, Murphy, Warren, Kaine, Hassan, Smith, and Jones. The Committee website gives links to their official websites which will, in turn, give you instructions on how to submit letters. If you live in one of their districts, write your Representative. If you do not live in one of their districts, write to the Chairman and Ranking Member.
  • Write an op ed. If you would like to write an op ed, feel free to reach out to me for advice. In any case, the op eds (read next paragraph) are good models, and check in with the AMS advice page on writing op eds. If you live in a HELP members’ state, an op ed is especially meamingful.

Graduate students have been articulating their concerns in op eds around the country. In the Knoxville News Sentinel, Masters student Justin Powell writes about how the bill would hurt students; Shua Sanchez, a first-generation Ph.D. student, adds to this in his opinion piece in the Spokesman Review, explaining how it would not only hurt graduate students but also would devastate scientific advancement.

These graduate students join political commentators in their opposition to the PROSPER Act – Mildred Garcia and Peter McPherson opine in The Hill, and Georgetown policy professor John Brooks in the New York Times.

While the deadline for the petition is June 1, there is plenty of time for letter-writing and op ed writing!

Posted in Advocacy, Graduate students, Higher Education | Tagged , | 1 Comment

My AMS internship in the Washington, DC office

Editor’s Note: This is the second of two consecutively posted pieces by the AMS Office of Government Relations AY2017-18 student interns. As you will read, Eliot is an undergraduate at the University of Maryland.

My name is Eliot Melder, and I have been an intern at the American Mathematical Society’s Office of Government Relations for the past six months as part of the University of Maryland Global Fellows in Washington, D.C. Science Diplomacy program. During my time with the AMS, I’ve had the chance to work on important projects and apply skills I’ve learned in my classes, as well as engage in the political process and travel to the hill several times to meet with key figures and attend briefings. This internship has been an incredible experience overall, and I’m grateful to both the AMS and the Fellows program for giving me this opportunity.

A little about me: I’m a sophomore at the University of Maryland, College Park studying computer science and math. I’m taking classes in algorithm design and automata theory, and I’m a TA for discrete mathematics. My ultimate goal is to go to grad school for automata theory or another branch of computer science theory.

After becoming the intern at the AMS Office of Government Relations in October, I was given my first major project, which was to provide an analysis of National Science Foundation funding by state, on both relative and per-capita scales. I was also tasked with determining which states would gain, retain, or lose eligibility for the NSF EPSCoR ( assistance program if the eligibility criterion was shifted from percentage-based to per-capita-based. This project was motivated by the introduction of a bill in Congress known as the Smarter EPSCoR Act, which – if enacted – would apply this change.

My first instinct as a CS student was to write a program. So I did – I wrote a program to read through the award data, then computed the average funding per state and per capita and determined EPSCoR eligibility for each state based on these numbers. I determined which states would gain and lose eligibility if the system were to switch.

The EPSCoR project was my first real chance to apply my computer science skills to a real-world problem. I was able to apply principles of data collection and analysis from my courses, and produce results that had an impact on policy decisions.

My second large project was updating nine of the Coalition for National Science Funding’s “State Sheets” (, which are two-page brief sheets showcasing NSF-funded research in each state and providing statistics about funding information. The sheets are updated yearly with new data. Updating the state sheets was a more relaxed and fun project, and I was able to see many examples of interesting research.

My final major project was to create a detailed breakdown, by agency, of federal government spending for mathematical research. Again, I had the chance to apply my computer science skills; I wrote a program to sift through lists of millions of recent grants published on and pick out the mathematical ones based on the Catalog of Federal Domestic Assistance (CFDA) number assigned to each grant, as well as the description text. I then organized each grant by agency and produced a breakdown of mathematically related grants by agency. We discovered some enlightening results, including that the Federal Highway Administration awards many mathematically related grants.

The grant breakdown project was an excellent chance for me to apply the concepts I have learned this year in my classes at the University of Maryland. I have studied text pattern matching, Ruby scripting, and input processing this semester, and I was able to incorporate these ideas into my program for the project and discover useful information hidden in the data.

I have also had the chance to go to the Hill and attend briefings, meetings, and panels about policy issues on which the AMS is interested. Among the events I have been lucky enough to attend are a panel hosted by Scientific American and featuring Rep. Jerry McNerney, and a private briefing on cryptography for Senators Blumenthal, Nelson, Schumer and Shaheen. This internship has given me the chance to become more closely involved in politics than I ever thought possible, and I have had many valuable and amazing experiences throughout.

I am grateful to the AMS and the UMD Global Fellows program for giving me this opportunity. I have had a fantastic seven months working at the office, and I want to thank my coworkers here at the Office of Government Relations for making each workday great. I look forward to continuing my involvement with the AMS beyond the end of my internship in May, and using this experience as a starting point to achieve my mathematical goals in the future.

Posted in AMS Washington office, Higher Education, Internship | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

The NSF is taking action against sexual harassment in science

Editor’s Note: This will be the first of two pieces by the AMS Office of Government Relations AY2017-18 student interns. Abby Quick is working on her M.A. in Mathematics at American University. She is recipient of the 2017 Hanna Miriam Sandler and Bella Sandler Scholarship Award.

As part of a growing movement in the scientific community—and society at large—the National Science Foundation (NSF) is taking action to combat sexual harassment in research environments. The agency is the primary funding source for fundamental science and engineering research in the United States, and thus has power to influence science culture by affecting policies and practices at institutions across the country. In a notice released February 8th, the agency announced they are taking the following steps:

  • proposing new reporting requirements for incidents of assault and harassment;
  • setting expectations that grantee organizations have clear standards of behavior and notification pathways for all personnel under a funded project; and
  • creating a web portal with resources to help institutions develop policies, procedures, and codes of conduct that promote a safe and equitable research environment.

Photo by Jeanne Theismann.

Under the proposed reporting policy, a new term and condition for awards would require organizations to report to the agency any findings that a Principal Investigator (PI), co-PI, or any other grant personnel violated the organization’s policies on sexual harassment, any other kind of harassment, or sexual assault. Awardees would also be required to report if they place a PI or co-PI on administrative leave relating to a harassment finding or investigation. The agency then has the authority to remove or replace the individual in question, or to suspend, terminate, or reduce funding.

The NSF has long had the authority to intervene, but they could only act when an incident was voluntarily reported; the new policy would make reporting a requirement. The web portal will give individuals the ability to report incidents or investigations directly to NSF in the event that an organization is not responding appropriately to a complaint.

In February, Rhonda Davis, head of the NSF’s Office of Diversity and Inclusion (ODI), discussed the agency’s efforts at a hearing of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, entitled “A Review of Sexual Harassment and Misconduct in Science.” She expressed the agency’s goal to “eliminate unsafe research environments that upset the whole balance of the science ecosystem, harm our scientists, and impede the very progress of science itself.”

Experts testifying on the issue of sexual harassment in the sciences before the Research and Technology Subcommittee of the House Science Committee. Left to right: Rhonda Davis, Kathryn Clancy, Kristina Larsen, and Christine McEntee. (Image credit: National Science Foundation)

Witnesses at the hearing discussed how the hierarchical nature of academic research can perpetuate a culture of abuse. The student-advisor paradigm, for example, means a student is often reliant on a single superior for support and career advancement. Therefore, if an advisor is not responsive to complaints of abuse or is him/herself the abuser, a student may have trouble finding a pathway to reporting or could face consequences that jeopardize his/her career. If the abuser is prominent in the research community or a big money-maker for the university, other faculty and administrators may also dismiss complaints, sweep them under the rug, or retaliate against victims.

At the hearing, Rep. Dan Lipinski (IL-3) expressed concern that the NSF’s new reporting requirements could “chill investigations of assault.” He wondered whether universities, out of fear of losing star researchers or compromising grant money, might be reluctant to report findings or even to initiate investigations in the first place, lest they find misconduct they would be required to report.

Ms. Davis explained that the agency’s new web portal allows anyone to report incidents and investigations directly to the NSF, whether it be a victim of abuse, a faculty member, a professional society, etc. She noted that the agency considered the possibility of this chilling effect, but they believe that, in the midst of this cultural movement to eradicate sexual harassment, a university’s decision to cover up abuses “could be at their own peril.”

The NSF is seeking public comment on the proposed reporting requirement through May 4th.



Posted in National Science Foundation, Sexual Harassment | Tagged | Leave a comment