Our First Branch of Government Needs Science Too


Editor’s Note: Lucia Simonelli just completed her year as the AMS Congressional Fellow. She served in the office of Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, and focused her work there on his climate agenda. She received her Ph.D. in mathematics from the University of Maryland-College Park and, prior to her year in Congress, had been a postdoctoral fellow in the mathematics section at the Abdus Salam International Centre for Theoretical Physics (ICTP) in Trieste, Italy.  Lucia is now a Senior Policy Fellow at Carbon180.

When we think of science expertise in government we often think of the NSF, NIH, CDC, or even national laboratories. We are reasonably aware of the structure, function, funding, reputation, and even scrutiny of many of these executive branch entities. However, we hear much less about the status of the scientific, technical, and medical expertise available to Congress, and consequently, these resources have been especially vulnerable to cuts and dissolution.

I begin with some historical context. Twenty-five years ago, Congress was a rather different place. There were significantly more Congressional staff, especially in committees. There were also substantially more staff serving in the Congressional support agencies; these support agencies are essential to the health and function of the legislative branch as they provide neutral, confidential, and credible resources to Congressional members and staff. Congress even had its own “think tank” called the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) with a mission and capacity to anticipate the scientific, technological, and medical issues that would eventually necessitate policy action.

During this time, circa 1995, under the guise of an initiative called “Contract with America,” Congress was stripped of many of these vital resources. Staff was cut, and the OTA was entirely defunded. Targeting the OTA specifically was political. It was the smallest of the Congressional support agencies, so it was the easiest to eliminate (the budget of the OTA was less than 1% of the legislative branch budget).  It was a very powerful symbol to cite the elimination of an entire agency.  In addition, particular results of the OTA’s thorough and comprehensive assessments were perceived to be at odds with certain political agendas.

It is difficult enough for Congress to come together and effectively act in the wake of a crisis – take for example the turbulence of the past few months. But what has become painstakingly clear is that in the context of certain crises, reactionary politics are not adequate; we must be well-positioned to act before.  And currently, Congress is not equipped with adequate resources to craft the forward-thinking policies that many issues do and will require.

One of the primary functions of the OTA was to craft “horizon scanning” reports which included the most cutting-edge findings available, compiled in a form readily utilizable by Congress. In addition, while not ever making policy recommendations, these reports provided comprehensive analyses of the policy options and the implications of these options through a transparent process open even to stakeholders. These public and peer-reviewed reports laid the foundation for many key pieces of legislation and remain highly regarded among experts in various technical fields. Princeton University has preserved an archive of these reports.

Imagine if Congress had these thorough, bipartisan resources for pandemics on hand a few months ago – there would certainly have been a report, if not multiple reports, on pandemics and pandemic responses after the outbreaks of Ebola, SARS, Zika, etc. The reality is that we are facing an increasing number of issues that can only be dealt with successfully by anticipation, not reaction: climate change, artificial intelligence, cybersecurity and quantum computing, to name a few.

In addition, OTA was Congress’s trusted intermediary, taking information, restricting it to fact-based arguments, and presenting it accordingly. The staff at OTA, and the network of experts created through the production of each report, served as invaluable, nonpartisan, consultative resources to Congress. OTA staff was often integrated directly with Congressional staff, and they were available to serve as in-house experts.

The vacuum of expertise left by defunding the OTA and cutting staff and capacities of other agencies, specifically in science, technology and medicine, has forced Congress to obtain its information externally. Increasingly, Congress has relied on outside stakeholders for expert advice and information. While stakeholders’ perspectives are invaluable, special interest and bias inevitably accompany these sources. Congress also now heavily relies on executive branch agencies – the very agencies for which Congress is tasked to provide oversight.  Consequently, cuts to the legislative branch have not made government smaller or less powerful, they have instead disproportionately allocated power.

“Failing to augment Congress’ technological expertise also ensures the preferences of executive branch agencies and private interests hold the greatest sway in technology policy decisions, to the detriment of the public interest. To address this, Congress needs to bring back its nerds.”[1]

There is a glimmer of hope as momentum grows to increase science and technology resources for Congress. Bipartisan bills have been introduced in both the House and Senate to revive a modernized version of the OTA, accompanied by appropriations requests from a growing cast of Members to refund the OTA and to increase science and technology capacity in currently operating agencies, e.g., the creation of the Science, Technology Assessment, and Analytics (STAA) team within the Government Accountability Office (GAO). Andrew Yang even included reviving the OTA as part of his 2020 presidential campaign platform.

Various fellowship and rotator programs have been developed to place experts from academia, industry, or executive branch entities in Congress. Examples include the AMS Congressional Fellowship and the TechCongress Fellowship.

While it is vital to advocate for increased and continued support for science in the executive branch, it is essential that we also push for Congress, the first branch of government, to have the expertise necessary to properly and effectively carry out its constitutional functions.


[1] Zach Graves, Kevin Kosar: Bring Back the Nerds: Reviving the Office of Technology Assessment (R Street) http://2o9ub0417chl2lg6m43em6psi2i.wpengine.netdna-cdn.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/01/Final-128.pdf



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Remembering John Lewis; African Americans in Congress


Over the past two months we have seen renewed energy to address systemic racism in this country. This is very good and I am ever-optimistic that we can make many small steps forward, and maybe even some larger ones. I sure wish it didn’t take some tragedy like the horrific death on May 25 of George Floyd to galvanize us to act. In just one small step, the AMS took part in #ShutDownSTEM day, and we are continuing work started that day. This is indeed small but we can at the very least begin by making changes in our own homes, the contexts we can control.

It seems like hits are coming at every turn. In my DC-based world, we are mourning the loss of a true leader in the fight to end systemic racism: Congressman John Lewis. I have been pondering for some time what I could possibly write here, to add to the conversation.

I’ll start with the congressional context in which Lewis worked. In total, there have been 162 African Americans who have served in the US Congress (this number is relative to the total of 12,348 who have served). Ten have served as US Senators and the rest in the House of Representatives (most as Representatives but a few as Delegates). The first three— Jefferson Franklin Long, Joseph Hayne Rainey and Hiram Rhodes Revels—served in the 41st Congress (1869-1871).  Some sources only list Rainey and Revels; I am not sure why this is so, but it is probably because Revels was the first Senator and Rainey the first Representative. It is notable that Long served less than three months.

For about a decade following that beginning, the number of African Americans serving in Congress increased, it then decreased throughout the 1880s. From 1901 until 1929 the total number of African American House members sat at a dismal zero. In the Senate, the longest period without any African American members was an embarrassing 86 years (1881-1967). Since the mid-1950s these numbers have been more or less increasing, especially in the House. These trends align with other social movements in the country, working after the Civil War to first elevate but then quickly reverse this and instead to oppress African Americans. Our current Congress—the 116th running 2019-2021—began with the highest number of African American members ever at the start of a Congress: 57 (52 Representatives, 2 Delegates, and 3 Senators). Two of these are Republicans; the rest Democrats. Two giants from this group have died in the past year—Congressmen Elijah Cummings and John Lewis.

Number of African Americans in Congress, 1870 to Present.
Source: https://www.everycrsreport.com/reports/RL30378.html

Congressman Long represented Georgia and it took over 100 years before Georgia elected another African American to the House; Representative Andrew Young won a seat in 1972. John Lewis came next for Georgia; he was first elected to serve in 1986. Lewis served continuously until his death on July 17. He won 17 consecutive elections to the House. Lots has been, and is being written about him. I needn’t add to that, except to tell a sort of personal story.

John Lewis has for a long time been a personal hero. One of the biggest honors of my life has been to be on stage with him. In 2017 both he and I received honorary doctorates from Bard College (did someone say “imposter syndrome?”). The day began with a brunch at Bard President Leon Botstein’s home. I met the congressman there, and he was extremely friendly and kept telling me it was such an honor to meet a mathematician. For the many hours that the commencement took, I sat next to him on the stage and from time to time he would make a comment about the speeches that were going on. He told me I should reach out to his staff in DC when I returned. I did, and soon thereafter had a meeting with his staff to talk about shared concerns, mostly about the importance of higher education, and elevating groups of people (African Americans, women, low income) through education. We also talked about funding for science, and about the tax on tuition that was then (late fall 2017) being introduced in Congress and how it would affect our undergraduate and graduate students. The Georgia district he represented is home to several colleges and universities:

  • Morehouse College
  • Spelman College
  • Clark Atlanta University
  • Morris Brown College
  • Morehouse School of Medicine
  • Georgia Institute of Technology
  • Georgia State University
  • Emory University
  • Agnes Scott College
  • Clayton State University
  • Atlanta Metropolitan State College

Much work done in Congress happens through committees. Because Congressman Lewis didn’t serve on committees that overlapped much with AMS advocacy priorities, I didn’t have the opportunity to interact much with his office (in my work capacity here at AMS). I was impressed to find out that on his website he kept a list of his constituents who have received federal support for their work together with some general guidelines about how government awards work. This page was last updated in 2019 and includes active grants from the Division of Mathematical Sciences (DMS) and the NSF. I find it meaningful that these are posted, usefully and proudly, on his website (I have not seen another congressional member’s website that includes this information though acknowledge they probably exist).

What would he want us to do, and what can we do to celebrate his life? He would want us to vote. John Lewis was one of the lead advocates for voting rights this country has ever had. He highlighted this in his legislative work; in his view,

“the vote is the most powerful, non-violent tool we have in a democratic society.”

Many of you reading this are professors and, in that position, have the wonderful opportunity (dare I say responsibility?) to encourage your students to vote. Ask your students what percentage of students they think votes. I used to do this when I still taught and they always—and I mean always—gave an overestimate. In our last presidential election in 2016, just over 46% of 18- to 29-year-olds turned out to vote (this % is of the citizen population in this age range). A bright spot in voting patterns is that in 2016 young voters ages 18 to 29 turned out to vote in greater numbers when compared to 2012, with a reported turnout increase of 1.1% (and, this is the only age group with an increase in participation from 2012 to 2016). Another bright spot is that in recent mid-term elections we have seen an even bigger increase in voter turnout in this age group—from 20% in 2014 to 36% in 2081.

To honor his memory, I hope you will—if eligible—vote in November and encourage your students to do the same.

Source: https://www.census.gov/newsroom/blogs/random-samplings/2017/05/voting_in_america.html

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More on Re-imagining the NSF

On June 9, I wrote in this blog about the Endless Frontier Act. It has come to my attention that my post may seem critical, and not enthusiastic about the bill. To the contrary, the bill is a tremendous show of support for mathematicians (and all scientific) researchers at universities. It is notable that a bipartisan group of congressional members are backing a bill that sees universities as critical—and central—partners in staying competitive globally (MIT President Rafael Reif has written about this in The Hill).

In the last section of my June 9 post, I attempted to describe what I think would be concerns in the math community about the bill and to explain that these concerns have been addressed by congressional staff leading the bill. In particular, the bill would not alter the mission, operation, or funding of the existing NSF directorates. The bill will continue to be refined as part of the Congressional process, and I—together with my counterparts in DC—will be working to further strengthen the protections for NSF’s current programs while supporting the proposed expansion.

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Re-imagining the National Science Foundation


Senators Schumer and Young, and Representatives Gallagher and Khanna have introduced legislation that would, if enacted into law, bring major changes to the NSF. There would be a new name for the agency, a major re-organization of internal structure, and a lot more money. A lot.

The Endless Frontier Act was introduced in late May. The congressional offices have been working on this legislation for a long time, and have sought input from scientific societies and university leaders. The current annual budget for the NSF is \$8.3 billion (fiscal year 2020). This bill would infuse \$100 billion over five years, additionally, to the NSF. Relatively speaking, you can see, this is remarkable. The title of the bill is a nod to the 1945 report by Vannevar Bush, written for President F.D. Roosevelt, which served as the impetus to launch the NSF.

The press is beginning to cover this. It is a big deal, politically speaking, that it comes from the Democratic Leader’s office. It is a very loud signal of support for the NSF, coming from a very important congressional voice. Independent of whether or not this becomes law, it sends a clear message that the country is seriously underinvesting in science. Rhetoric used in the press release tells us that staying globally competitive (think China) is a priority and at least partial motivation for the bill.

In the next section of this post I list details of the proposed legislation. After that, I will tell you about some of my concerns, and ways they have been addressed in the bill.

What’s in the proposed law?

According to the summary of the bill found on Senator Schumer’s website:

  • The National Science Foundation (NSF) would be renamed the National Science and Technology Foundation (NSTF) and task a new deputy director with executing the new funding of fundamental research related to specific recognized global technology challenges with geostrategic implications for the United States.
  • The new NSTF would have two Deputy Directors – one to oversee existing NSF operations and the other to oversee a newly established Technology Directorate. The bill would provide the new Directorate with flexible personnel, program management, and awarding authorities.
  • The new Directorate would be given DARPA-like authorities, with the option to utilize program managers for selecting awardees.
  • NSTF would have a newly-created Board of Advisors for the Directorate for Technology to advise the Deputy Director on how to strategically advance technology in the 10 key focus areas. The new board would not have decision-making authority and the National Science Board would retain its existing authorities.
  • The authorization for the new Directorate would be $100 billion over five years to reinvigorate American leadership in the discovery and application of key technologies that will define global competitiveness.
  • An additional \$10 billion would be authorized over five years for the Commerce Department to designate at least 10 regional technology hubs, awarding funds for comprehensive investment initiatives that position regions across the country to be global centers for the research, development, and manufacturing of key technologies.
  • The Directorate would be authorized to coordinate with the Department of Commerce and other federal departments and agencies on initiatives to build the regional technology hubs and to connect disadvantaged populations and places to new job and business opportunities developing key technologies.
  • In addition to carrying out its own activities, the Directorate could partner and provide funding to the rest of NSF and to other federal research entities when that would advance its objectives. The Directorate would be prohibited from taking money from other elements of NSF.
  • The new Directorate would fund research in the following technology focus areas:
  1. artificial intelligence and machine learning
  2. high performance computing, semiconductors, and advanced computer hardware
  3. quantum computing and information systems
  4. robotics, automation, and advanced manufacturing
  5. natural or anthropogenic disaster prevention
  6. advanced communications technology
  7. biotechnology, genomics, and synthetic biology
  8. advanced energy technology
  9. cybersecurity, data storage, and data management technologies
  10. materials science, engineering, and exploration relevant to the other focus areas

We would see

  • Increases in research spending at universities (which can form consortia that include private industry) to advance U.S. progress in key technology areas, including the creation of focused research centers
  • New undergraduate scholarships, industry training programs, graduate fellowships and traineeships and post-doctoral support in the targeted research areas to develop the U.S. workforce
  • The development of test-bed and fabrication facilities
  • Programs to facilitate and accelerate the transfer of new technologies from the lab to the marketplace, including expanding access to investment capital
  • Planning and coordination with state and local economic development stakeholders and the private sector to build regional innovation ecosystems
  • Increases in research spending for collaboration with U.S. allies, partners, and international organizations

Potential drawbacks?

On the one hand, who doesn’t want more money for the NSF that increases the amount of research done at universities, and gives more support to undergraduate and graduate students?

On the other hand, the NSF is the only science funding agency of the federal government that is not mission driven. Research proposals submitted to the NSF are curiosity-driven. To me, it is important for the agency to retain its autonomy to invest in promising and potentially risky proposals regardless of field, regardless of potential marketability. Would this law change that? Former NSF Director Arden Bement says it might.

And, there are already investments by the NSF in these research areas. How would they be affected? Would other directorates lose money to fund the new one? Would money from the Division of Mathematical Sciences (DMS) and the Directorate for Computer and Information Science and Engineering (CISE), for example, be diverted to this new directorate? In fact, the new directorate would be allowed to provide funds to other divisions but money would not be allowed to flow the other direction.

The bill itself is 79 pages long. On page 39 we see that “Appropriations limitations,” and a reference to “Hold harmless.” This means that the \$100 billion would not be allowed if the normally appropriated amount (the amount that is now \$8.3 billion) is not in place. Immediately following on the same page, we see “No transfer of funds”; this ensures that money cannot flow from DMS, for example, to this new directorate. However, the new directorate could, for example, decide to direct money to cryptography research through DMS.

I appreciate that many mathematicians might not like the name change suggestion, or the focus on research that is not “basic” or “fundamental.” I hope, should this bill pass to law, that it is always remembered that translational research cannot happen without basic research. Many mathematicians, might find the “competition with China” argument troubling. Though I don’t know how the bill will be amending and changed as it works through Congress, I do feel confident that staff working on this bill have heard all these concerns.

The Endless Frontier Act bill text can be found here and a summary can be found here.



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Support Our International Students and Faculty Colleagues: Update


Since I last wrote about this topic on May 13, many of you have responded to our call to Take Action. To date, over 400 mathematicians have written their congressional delegations using the link. Senators and Representatives in 35 states have already been contacted. I am grateful and humbled by this immense support for our international students and colleagues.

On April 30, the Joint Policy Board for Mathematics (JPBM) had its biannual meeting. JPBM decided to, and has now issued a statement concerning potential impacts of the April 22 Presidential Proclamation Suspending Entry of Immigrants Who Present Risk to the U.S. Labor Market During the Economic Recovery Following the COVID-19 Outbreak. The statement was sent to the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP). OSTP head Kelvin Droegemeier joined us for part of the JPBM meeting; the immigration proclamation was one of several topics we discussed with him.

JPBM is particularly concerned with Section 6, “Additional Measures”, which mandates that a review be undertaken of all “nonimmigrant programs” with the intention of ensuring “the prioritization, hiring, and employment of United States workers.” We are concerned about the broad nature of the directive outlined in Section 6 and the implications it carries for nonimmigrant visa programs and our international students.

The full JPBM statement is found here: https://bit.ly/2XhgYgT

The expectation is that President Trump will extend and expand the initial April 22 order. Among the programs the administration is expected to restrict is Optional Practical Training (OPT), which permits foreign STEM students on F-1 visas to work in the U.S. for up to three years post-graduation. The JPBM letter is part of a very large effort to prevent such extension and expansion. Additionally, the AMS was one of 36 scientific societies writing on May 20 to the White House about this. On May 21, a group of over 300 higher education groups and businesses wrote them about L-1, H-1B, F-1, and H-4 nonimmigrant visas and OPT. Each letter takes a slightly different angle, and all efforts amplify the others.

I am not optimistic about this and find it personally quite disturbing. I’m a second/third generation American, married to a non-US citizen and–like almost anyone I imagine reading this–have so many friends, students, and colleagues who will be negatively affected by further changes of the types being discussed to these programs . President Trump is using this vehicle (of Presidential proclamations) to put in place immigration policies being pushed by his senior advisor Stephen Miller, and considered a plus for his re-election. Articles like this Politico article and this Forbes article discuss this, and give more letters and talking points on this topic. This is a moving target; stay tuned.

JPBM consists of the American Mathematical Society, the American Statistical Association, the Mathematical Association of America, and the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics. The four societies have nearly 90,000 members, and the Board represents the mathematics and statistics community in policy discussions.


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Support Our International Students and Faculty Colleagues


On April 22, President Trump issued a “Proclamation Suspending Entry of Immigrants Who Present Risk to the U.S. Labor Market During the Economic Recovery Following the COVID-19 Outbreak.” Section 6 requires a review of non-immigrant visa programs, and it is expected that there will be future suspensions and extensions of restrictions on immigration.

Non-immigrant visa programs enable the best and brightest from around the world to contribute to scientific advancement in the U.S.. In fact, international students comprise a majority of doctoral candidates in a number of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields. I am especially concerned that international students currently in the US completing their educational program may be subject to an expanded ban.[1]

We need your help to ensure our international students and faculty colleagues are able to come to campus in the fall! I am working to ensure that international student and scholar programs, including Optional Practical Training for F-1 students (OPT), not be included in future immigration bans. What can you do? I have posted a “Take Action” whereby you can write your own Congressional delegation urging them to protect international students and scholars. This link gives you an editable letter; if you choose not to supply a personal story, it will take you less than a minute to Take Action. The review period ends on May 22, and best if you do this soon!

In mathematics, the majority of PhD students studying in the U.S. are from other countries. Of the new mathematics doctorates earned at U.S. institutions during the 2016-2017 academic year, 46 percent of those awarded at large and medium-sized public institutions went to candidates from outside of the U.S.  At all other PhD granting institutions, including at all large private schools, the majority were issued to foreign students.  It should be noted that these figures are not uniform across sub-disciplines.  In the field of statistics, for example, only 34 percent of doctoral degrees given by U.S. institutions were awarded to U.S.-based candidates. 

U.S. consulates around the world are closing, severely limiting international students and scholars the opportunity to pursue their education and research here. This deeply affects the future finances of our colleges and universities, and existentially threatens some of them. At the same time that the U.S. is limiting the number of visiting students and scholars, other countries are providing warm welcomes. This loss of talent will not only lead to difficult years for higher education in the short term, but will affect our businesses and economy for decades.

While some international students who need visas have been able to schedule visa-interview appointments, many still cannot, and others receive interview dates well beyond the start of their academic programs, including graduate students. At the same time, our current international students need continued support in their efforts to participate in experiential learning through OPT and STEM OPT.

I hope the government will step up and support temporary measures to support student visa processing in a timely manner this year that will accommodate the requirements of the academic calendar. And, that these changes be communicated quickly and clearly to potential applicants. The recent projections of a 25 percent decline or more in international student enrollment for fall 2020 threaten colleges and universities, and will have a long-term impact on American jobs and crucial research, including research related to responding to and preventing health pandemics. A dramatic decline in international students—including their direct economic contributions to local communities and the jobs they support—will only further dampen our economic rebound. All told, during the 2018-19 academic year, one million international students and their families contributed approximately $40 billion to our national economy, and the economic impact of our international student community more than tripled in the last ten years.[2]

I also hope modifications are made to support the OPT programs, including an extension period of up to 60 additional days to secure a qualifying on-the-job training experience related to the degree completed at a U.S. university or college. This support is particularly critical as reducing OPT would lead to a total job loss over the next decade of 443,000 positions and 255,000 job reduction for native-born workers, according to a Business Roundtable report.[3]

We can easily feel a small player in mathematics, but we play a crucial role educating all future STEM workers and are a vitally important department on every college and university campus. Congressional leaders care a lot about the health of higher education institutions in their states and districts. I appreciate your efforts to work with them.

[1] Proclamation No. 10014, 85 Fed. Reg. 23,441 (April 22, 2020).

[3] The Economic Impact of Curbing the Optional Practical Training Program, Business Roundtable, https://www.businessroundtable.org/policy-perspectives/immigration/economic-impact-curbing-optional-practical-training-program (last visited May 4, 2020).

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The AMS and Science Policy


How can you get involved?

Spring is the time of the annual AMS Committee on Science Policy meeting. This year, it was April 21-22 and was held virtually. Of course, we had to do this, and hard to complain when there are so many people who are struggling to feed their families and survive the current global health crisis.

The AMS has five “policy” committees, which were established in 1993 to correspond to the five major areas in which the mission of the AMS is concentrated: Education, Meetings and Conferences, the Profession, Publications, and Science Policy. A sixth policy committee was just established in January–the Committee on Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion; this new committee will begin its work very soon. Each policy committee provides major direction for AMS activities in its area.

The Committee on Science Policy (CSP) is one of the five. From the Committee website:

The Committee on Science Policy serves as a forum for dialogue about matters of science policy involving representatives of the Society, government and other interested parties; interacts with Federal agencies and policymakers; provides advice to the Society on matters of broad science policy; conducts periodic reviews of Society activities in areas of science policy; and selects those elements of AMS meeting programs which bear directly on policy questions that are within the purview of the Committee.

I serve as the staff support for this committee. This means that I work with the committee chair to set the agenda for the annual meeting, and give logistic and content support throughout the year for the committee’s work.

CSP meets for two days each spring, in Washington DC, giving us the opportunity to interact with important players in the policy arena (including congressional staff, from agencies that oversee funding in the mathematical sciences, and from other professional societies with missions with overlap to that of the AMS). The meeting in DC gives us the opportunity to make visits to CSP members’ congressional delegations. This gives congressional members insight into what mathematicians’ research looks like, why their funding of the National Science Foundation (NSF) is so very important to us, and what our teaching and other work mentoring students looks like. They care very much about what goes on especially at public universities in their home districts and states, and how we use federal funding to further research and train the next generation of mathematicians (and all scientists).

This year we could not do the Hill visits, and also could not meet with other decision-makers in DC. We had looked forward to hearing from the following, who were going to join us at the meeting:

Sara Barber is a PhD physicist and professional staff member on the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology and on the Subcommittee on Research and Technology. She was going to give us an overview of the Committee on Science, including its jurisdiction, membership, 2019 achievements and priorities in 2020. Sara has spoken to the CSP before, and she’s been super-informative.

Mark Green & Michelle Schwalbe were planning to speak with us about their work with the Board of the Mathematical Sciences at the National Academies. The BMSA organizes studies, workshops, and other activities that provide top-quality mathematical science advice to policy makers, helps strengthen connections between mathematical sciences communities and diverse application areas, supports the health of the mathematical sciences ecosystem, and increases public awareness of the expanding role of the mathematical sciences. BMSA Chair Mark Green and BMSA Director Michelle Schwalbe were planning to discuss recent projects from the board as well as emerging opportunities for the mathematical sciences in policy discussions.

Patty Evers heads the human rights work at the National Academies. Over the past year, I have worked with Patty, and she has given great advice as well as offered a sounding board, as I negotiate the work of the AMS Committee on the Human Rights of Mathematicians. This committee has been very active over the past few years; statements, reports and letters appear at the committee website.

Anne Kinney is head of the NSF’s Mathematical and Physical Sciences Directorate, which supports fundamental research in astronomy, chemistry, physics, materials science and mathematics. I was really looking forward to the chance to introduce her to the committee. She was supposed to participate at the 2019 JMM, but that evaporated due to the government shutdown. This time, COVID prevented us from meeting her!

Lucia Simonelli is the 2019-20 AMS Congressional Fellow and is serving in the office of Senator Sheldon Whitehouse. Each year the AMS sponsors one Congressional Fellow who spends a year working on the staff in a personal office or for a committee. The Fellow is a standing presenter at our annual committee meeting, telling us about their experience as a mathematician in the program, and about their day-to-day work in Congress.

The AMS CSP includes several at-large members, and also some who serve on the committee by virtue of some other position they hold within the AMS. The current at-large members of the Committee are:

  • Jeffrey Brock is Professor of Mathematics and Dean of Science at Yale University. He recently moved from Brown University, where he chaired his department from 2013 to 2017. In 2016 he served as founding Director of Brown’s Data Science Initiative. His research focuses on low dimensional geometry and topology.
  • Moon Duchin is an Associate Professor of Mathematics and Senior Fellow of Tisch College of Civic Life, Tufts University. She also serves as the director of Tufts’ interdisciplinary Science, Technology, and Society Her mathematical research is in geometric group theory, low-dimensional topology, and dynamics. She is one of the leaders of the Metric Geometry and Gerrymandering Group, a Tisch College-supported project that focuses mathematical attention on issues of electoral redistricting.
  • Edgar Fuller is Distinguished University Professor, Associate Director of the STEM Transformation Institute, and Coordinator of Undergraduate Mathematics Education at Florida International University. He recently spent almost two years as an AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellow at the US Department of Homeland Security.
  • Rosa Orellana is a professor at Dartmouth College. Her research is in algebraic combinatorics. She’s received the John M. Manley Huntington Memorial Award for newly tenured faculty for outstanding research, teaching, and mentoring. She co-founded a chapter of the Association for Women in Mathematics, in an effort to increase the number of women taking and majoring in mathematics at Dartmouth.
  • Michael Vogelius, Board of Governors Professor at Rutgers University, is the current Chair of the committee. He recently served as Division Director of the Division of Mathematical Sciences at the NSF. His research interests lie in the areas of mathematical analysis, partial differential equations and numerical analysis.
  • Suzanne Weekes is Professor of Mathematics at Worcester Polytechnic Institute. Her research work is in numerical methods for differential equations including applications to spatio-temporal composites and cancer growth. She is the recipient of the 2019 Humphreys Award for Mentoringfrom the Association for Women in Mathematics, co-directs the national PIC Math (Preparation for Industrial Careers in Mathematical Sciences) Program, and she is a founding co-director of the Mathematical Sciences Research Institute Undergraduate Program (MSRI-UP).

Additional members are:

  • Ruth Charney, Brandeis University, is the AMS President Elect and thus sits on the committee.
  • Kasso Okoudjou, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is a member of the AMS Council and represents the Council on the committee.
  • Jill Pipher,Brown University, is the AMS President and thus sits on the committee.
  • Catherine Roberts, American Mathematical Society, is the AMS Executive Director and thus sits on the committee.
  • Carla Savage, North Carolina State University, is the AMS secretary and thus sits on the committee, as a non-voting member.
  • Katherine Stevenson, California State University, is the Chair of the AMS Committee on Education and thus sits on the committee.
  • Anthony Várilly-Alvarado, Rice University, is a member of the AMS Council and represents the Council on the committee.
  • Judy Walker, University of Nebraska, represents the AMS Board of Trustees on the committee.

How can you get involved?



Posted in Advocacy, AMS Washington office, Science Policy | Tagged , | 2 Comments

NSF and other funding of research grants and student loans during the COVID-19 pandemic


I hope you are all healthy, both physically and emotionally, and coping as you can.

The AMS is working to support the community through this pandemic period.

If you have a current or pending federal grant, or are planning to submit one in the next months, you may have questions about how COVID-19 is affecting federal granting agencies. The National Science Foundation (NSF) has issued guidance about proposals and current grants during this pandemic period. In particular, you might wonder about incurred expenses from grants for events cancelled due to COVID-19. Please see guidance on NSF’s implementation. Direct questions about the policies described in the NSF Guidance should be directed to policy@nsf.gov.

NSF is also working to update existing FAQs and other resources to reflect new guidance and is keeping staff and the community informed online. The NSF is of course not the only agency acting; all funding agencies are developing and implementing their own guidelines. In view of the disruption of regular work, the White House Office of Management and Budget has provided federal agencies leeway to waive administrative requirements for grantees. A compilation of agency guidance is available here.

You may be doing more talking with your students about their personal situations and worries. The federal government is working to mitigate expenses and deadlines. As one example, all borrowers with federally held student loans will automatically have their interest rates set to 0% for a period of at least 60 days. University umbrella groups, including both the Association of American of Universities (AAU) and the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities (APLU), are urging the federal government to help students and institutes of higher education. These two organizations, together with other higher education groups sent a letter to the Department of State seeking guidance regarding visa policy and processes for international researchers and students in the U.S. during the COVID-19 closures. The letter also requests clarification regarding procedures for processing visa applications for new student admissions. As you can imagine, guidelines and policies are changing each day. AAU and APLU websites are updated regularly.

Readers are invited to add helpful hints and information in the Comments section. We can all help each other through this!

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Colleges and universities across the country go to online teaching: tips for math instructors

As you may know, the AMS Department of Education is now physically located in DC. This helps us keep up to date with policies affecting higher education.

Many state governments are curtailing in-person classes at their public universities, and many private colleges and universities are doing the same.

As a service to the community, AMS Education Director Abbe Herzig has just posted a piece describing tips for math instructors who are transitioning to teaching online. This is an urgent concern, especially for faculty and graduate students who have little or no experience teaching online and for all instructors who have to convert their courses in a short period of time.

Please help us circulate: it will be a great service to our community if we can get this out to math faculty and grads as broadly as we can.

The direct link is: https://blogs.ams.org/matheducation/2020/03/16/2937/

You can also find this at our Education webpage: http://www.ams.org/education/online-courses

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President Trump’s proposed NSF budget for 2021: what’s in it for the mathematical sciences?


President Trump’s proposed budget for fiscal year 2021 includes significant cuts to the NSF. Together we can urge Congress to reject proposed cuts and instead increase the budgets for federal science agencies.

Tell Congress to prioritize science funding by signing your letter here!

Each year our lawmakers determine how much money will be allocated from “discretionary” government funds for the National Science Foundation (NSF) to fund researchers and students. Discretionary funds are divided into two pots— “defense” and “non-defense.” NSF funds come out of the non-defense discretionary (NDD) pot. In addition to the discretionary funds, we have the “entitlement” or “mandatory” programs such as Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. A very short description of the very complex annual budget process appears on my AMS website . To give you some sense of amounts of money we are talking about, the fiscal year 2020 NDD amount was \$671 billion, with \$8.3 billion of that going to the NSF.

Some details for mathematics

For fiscal year 2021 (FY21), President Trump proposes a total of \$7.7 billion for the NSF, a 6.5% decrease from FY20. It is estimated that the NSF will receive over 34,000 research grant proposals and that about 25% will—if the President’s budget is in fact adopted—be funded (this percentage varies by directorate quite a bit). Of the \$7.7 billion, \$215 million will go to the Division of Mathematical Sciences (DMS). This represents a 9.4% decrease from FY2019 (final numbers for FY2020 are not known). Inside DMS, the research account will get \$205 million (an 8.9% cut), and the rest goes to education (an 18.1% cut). Roughly 54% of the DMS portfolio is available to support new research grants each year; the remaining 46% supports research grants made in prior years. Training the next generation of mathematical scientists and supporting the Mathematical Sciences Research Institutes remain a priority. Partnerships are encouraged, and the proposed budget specifically asserts that:

“DMS can expand the impact of its research investments, including a partnership with CISE on data science through the Transdisciplinary Research in Principles of Data Science program. DMS also partners with the NIH on two programs in biosciences: the Joint DMS/National Institute of General Medical Sciences Initiative to Support Research at the Interface of the Biological and Mathematical Sciences, and the Joint DMS/National Library of Medicine Initiative on Generalizable Data Science Methods for Biomedical Research. Other partnerships include a program with the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency to develop the next generation of mathematical and statistical algorithms for analysis of large datasets; and a program on algorithms for modern power systems with DOE. Another program with the Simons Foundation and BIO supports research centers on the Mathematics of Complex Biological Systems.”

There are a few proposed cuts that are quite severe and are to programs well-used by the mathematics community, including a 30% cut to the Faculty Early Career Development Program (CAREER) grant program and an almost 20% cut to the Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) program (both cuts are from FY19 levels).

The NSF is comprised of seven research “directorates;” DMS sits inside the Directorate for Mathematical and Physical Sciences. The NSF is left to divvy up its funds to the directorates (as opposed to being mandated by law to spend specified amounts on biology, mathematics, etc.), with one exception—the Directorate for Education and Human Resources (EHR) receives its own budget.

Some details for education programs at NSF

EHR runs programs to build a diverse and highly skilled STEM workforce and also to increase STEM literacy more broadly. The proposal from the Trump administration is to cut the EHR budget by \$9 million, to \$931 million. The largest cuts are to support undergraduate education.

The Division of Graduate Education in fact would benefit, with an 11.3% increase. Mathematics graduate students are funded directly by EHR’s Graduate Research Fellowships Program (GRFP), as well as through senior researcher’s individual grants. The NSF provides support for approximately 32% of the U.S. science and engineering graduate students receiving federal funds and about 5% of the science and engineering graduate students in the U.S. overall. While the number of senior researchers supported is expected to grow in 2021, the number of all others supported—including graduate students—is expected to shrink. The number of new GRFP fellows (in all fields) is expected to drop from 1,976 in FY19 to 1,600 in FY21. This decrease would be paired with an increase in funding for the Research Traineeship program with a focus on AI-related occupations. The traineeship program is distinguished from the GRFP by its emphasis on graduate students—at both the Masters and PhD level—working in research areas of national priority.

Other cuts in the education portfolio would be to the Minority Serving Institutions.  Hispanic Serving Institutions would see a dramatic 68% cut and Tribal College and Universities would experience a 17% decline in investment.

A few other notable cuts that I bet affect many of us

President Trump also proposes to do away with the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program. This program—while not a perfect program—aims to help those who have careers in public service. In short, it erases remaining education loans for those who such careers, and who make regular payments for 10 years. Math professors who work at a public state college or city college are often eligible for student loan forgiveness through this program.

On a final gloomy note, the following are proposed to be eliminated altogether: the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. President Trump has proposed, and failed to eliminate these every year he has been in office.

What’s next?

The President’s budget is just a first step in determining final appropriations and the White House released this budget—A Budget for America’s Future—on February 10. Next, the Senate and House each arrive at their own proposals, and then hash out their differences. When (and if) this is done, the President is then asked to sign their proposal into law. (If this process does not come to completion, we get a government shutdown.) President Trump’s FY21 proposal favors areas of interest to his administration—artificial intelligence and quantum information science, which are referred to as the “industries of the future.” The Big Ideas continue to garner support. Another winner in science is space exploration; specifically, The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) would receive a boost for its Moon to Mars program. Funding to NASA and NSF come from the same budget and so a gain for NASA could result in a loss for the NSF.

Congress is not likely to embrace the President’s budget, and final NSF appropriations have always exceeded President Trump’s proposals. For example, Congress has rejected his previous proposals to cut the GRFP program. Science reporter Jeff Mervis does a nice job of describing why this may be the case, and the political games that are played in arriving at a final budget. He explains that what the NSF proposes to do with the money, if President Trump’s FY21 budget is enacted, “employs the time-tested strategy of paring activities that Congress will almost certainly want to fund at a higher level.” This is just one example of this sort of political game that is played each year as Congress and the President together try to come to a budget agreement.

This post has focused on the President’s budget for the NSF. To get more details of the NSF budget, to read more about the budgets for other science agencies, and to keep up to date, I highly recommend the American Institute of Physics’ Federal Science Budget Tracker.

Finally, let me remind you (or tell you if you have somehow missed my post about the history of the NSF) that this year the NSF is 70 years old, and it is the 75th anniversary of the publication of Science, the Endless Frontier, in which Vannevar Bush outlined his vision for what would become the NSF. Our national investment in the NSF—the only agency with no guiding scientific mission determining its choices of projects to fund—is more important now than ever!

What can you do?

President Trump’s proposed budget for fiscal year 2021 includes significant cuts to the NSF. Together we can urge Congress to reject proposed cuts and instead increase the budgets for federal science agencies. Tell Congress to prioritize science funding by signing your letter here!

Thank you!


Posted in Appropriations, National Science Foundation, NSF | Tagged , | Leave a comment