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).

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

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!

 

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NSF released Science & Engineering Indicators

At the end of the summer, I wrote a piece about the history of the NSF. I wrote

“Another cool thing the agency does is to collect reams of data and publish the Science & Engineering Indicators. These reports give interesting statistics on education, research and development, the global marketplace, and public attitudes toward science. “The State of U.S. Science and Engineering,” summarizing indicators, will be released on January 15, 2020. In the meantime, you can look at thematic reports (on a particular topic), examine state comparisons, and lots more. If you are into this sort of thing, you can spend a lot of time at this website; it is fascinating.”

Well, the 2020 report is out!

Journalists across the U.S. take note. The Concord Monitor looks at how the national numbers of the report compare to those in New Hampshire.

Journalists around the world take note. The Manila Times  notes that this report is accepted as one of the most authoritative reports on the state of the global S&T. The author of the piece from Manila begins with the observation that this report was released on the same day that President Trump signed phase one of a new trade agreement with China, and closes with this bold (?) assertion “The move of the U.S. from uncontested leader to an influential leader as we learnt from State of Science & Engineering 2020 might turn out to be a more historical event than the trade deal between the U.S. and China.”

You might also want to read the Inside Higher Ed take.

Ok, with all that lead in, what’s in it?

The report is short, only about 15 pages of reading (and a lot of graphics on those pages). It consists of six central chapters, plus an Executive Summary, Introduction, and Conclusion (Glossary, etc.). The six chapters are titled:

  • U.S. and Global Education
  • U.S. S&E Workforce
  • Global R&D
  • U.S. R&D Performance and Funding
  • Global Science and Technology Capabilities
  • Invention, Innovation, and Perceptions of Science

While the U.S. continues to perform the largest share of global research and development (R&D), other nations—especially China—are rapidly developing their capacity. Other countries’ increasing investment and activity have led to the U.S.’s relative share of global activity remaining unchanged or shrinking.

For me, a top line takeaway is that, while the federal government remains a major source of funding for basic research in the U.S., from 2000 to 2017 the share of basic research funded by the federal government fell from 58% to 42%. Mathematics research in the U.S. and done at institutions of higher education is funded by the federal government, with most of our federal money coming from the NSF. Eight federal departments and agencies[1] together account for most of the federal R&D spending, in all science and engineering (S&E) fields. The share of research funded by the U.S. federal government has declined. In addition to the 42% of funding for basic research provided by the federal government, the business sector funds 29% of basic research (this latter number is up from 19% in 2000). The business sector has long been known for its experimental development and applied research; it is now significantly contributing to basic research as well.The U.S. spends under 3% of its GDP on R&D expenditures; South Korea has the highest “R&D intensity” at 4.6%. Countries invest this money differently, and the U.S. invests more in basic research (17%); France targets much more (21%) of its investment in basic research. For comparison, China only spends about 6% of its annual R&D funds on basic research.Two other facts that probably won’t surprise you, and touch the mathematics community arguably more deeply than other communities of scientists:

  • U.S. eighth graders continue to rank in the middle of advanced economies in international mathematics assessment.
  • Foreign-born non-citizens make up a considerable portion of Ph.D. recipients, including more than half in mathematics (to compare, roughly 17% of the college graduate population of the U.S. is foreign-born).

Here are two other bits of information that I think important for all mathematicians to know:

  • Enrollment of international students in the U.S. has declined since 2016.
  • From 2000 to 2018 the percentage of U.S. articles published with coauthors in another country grew from 19% to 39%.

I have tried to present facts here, and only facts, taken from the Indicators. I am going to conclude with a few more facts, wrapped with opinions:

  1. Mathematics (and all science) is a global endeavor and we must fight to keep it so. I have written about this in the past. The President’s new expanded travel ban puts international collaboration further at risk.
  2. We should all know about the increasing and truly remarkable job that our colleagues at community colleges do, and recognize the enormous role they play cultivating domestic talent. From the report: “Community colleges play a key role in preparing Americans to enter the workforce with associate’s degrees or certificates or to transition to four-year educational institutions. In 2017, the United States awarded 93,000 associate’s degrees in S&E fields and another 133,000 in S&E technologies. Among U.S. students who earned S&E bachelor’s degrees between 2010 and 2017, about half (47%) had done some coursework at a community college and nearly a fifth (18%) earned associate’s degrees.” Note: this is about your students, even if you teach at a four-year or Ph.D.-granting institution. We must teach the students who are in our classes.
  3. Public perception about mathematics and science is important to us. Why? For one, we need our kids getting strong math and science in schools and thus need good teachers and good family support for such education. Second, we need all Americans to understand the role that science plays enhancing their lives, with new technologies and ever-improving health care. According to this report,
    • Americans overwhelmingly believe that science creates more opportunities for the next generation (92% in 2018), and that the federal government should provide funds for scientific research (84%);
    • However, only a minority of Americans (44%) have a “great deal of confidence” in the scientific community. This perception has essentially remained stable since 1973 (when it was 37%) and is second only to confidence in the military (59%).

[1] In addition to the NSF, these are Department of Defense, Department of Health and Human Services, Department of Energy, Department of Agriculture, Department of Commerce, Department of Transportation, and NASA.

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Hidden Figures Honored in Congress

Photo of Andrea Williams taken by Samantha Isom.

Editor’s note: Andrea R. Williams works at the American Mathematical Society as an Assistant to the Associate Executive Director in the Office of Government Relations. New to the field of mathematics and all that it encompasses, Andrea is a citizen scientist who teaches scuba diving and loves to volunteer dive with the Coral Restoration Foundation.

[All photos in the body of this piece are taken by Andrea.]

In January of 2017, I saw the film Hidden Figures, based on the book by author Margot Lee Shetterly. The film and book feature the lives and contributions of Dr. Christine Darden, Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson, African-American women who worked in the computer pool at Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory. These women, amongst other African American women at Langley, contributed to the success of NASA’s space program.

Andrea with Congresswoman Eddie Bernice Johnson

Fast forward to 9 December 2019, a reception at the US Capitol. Senators, Congresswomen/men, Hidden Figure Dr. Christine Darden, and others waiting to witness the honoring of these Hidden Figures and their families. A month earlier on 8 November 2019, the president signed into law the Hidden Figures Law Act initiated by Congresswoman Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX-30) and Senator Chris Coons (D-DE). Both were present as well as the Sloan Foundation to honor Dr. Christine Darden, who was also present to receive her Congressional Gold Medal.

Before the presentation began, I had the great fortune to listen in on Dr. Christine Darden’s conversation with a group of high school girls in attendance – all young women interested in the sciences! The students shared their awe to meet Dr. Darden and how they were inspired by the Hidden Figures story. I had an opportunity to speak with Dr. Darden as well; I tried not to fan out! Turns out her daughter is an alumna of Spelman College, as am I!

Congressional members with Margot Lee Shetterly and Dr. Christine Darden

This experience reinvigorated my love for science and has inspired me to further advocate to work with and advocate for our youth, and for the need for interest in science, technology, engineering and mathematics at every academic level and beyond. I am grateful to have met a living legend and to hear her speak to her experience as a Hidden Figure.

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AMS Education and Science Policy Activities at the Joint Mathematics Meetings

Each year at the JMM, the AMS Office of Government Relations organizes four events. I look forward to greeting you at all of them.

We host the Congressional Fellowship Session on Friday, January 17, 4:30 pm – 6:00 pm in the Colorado CC, Room 203. This one-year fellowship provides a public policy learning experience, demonstrates the value of science-government interaction and brings a technical background and external perspective to the decision-making process in Congress. Learn more about this program and speak with current and former AMS Fellows. Panelists this year are the current AMS Congressional Fellow Lucia Simonelli, who is serving in the Office of Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, and Jennifer Pearl (PhD mathematician and Director of the Science & Technology Policy Fellowships Program at the American Association for the Advancement of Science). You can read about this fellowship (and other DC-based opportunities for PhD mathematicians and students) in the right-hand column “Learn how we support mathematics in DC” on the AMS Government Relations website. Application deadline for the 2020-21 AMS Congressional Fellowship is February 15, 2020.

Our office, which since the summer of 2019 includes the AMS Department of Education, works with two of the AMS policy committees—the Committee on Education and the Committee on Science Policy. Each of these holds a session at the JMM each year.

This year the Committee on Education panel discussion (Thursday, January 16, 1:00 pm – 2:30 pm in the Colorado CC, Room 203) is titled “Next Steps: Mathematics Departments and the Explosive Growth of Computational and Quantitative Offerings in Higher Education.” Katherine Stevenson (California State University, Northridge) and Katherine Kinnaird (Smith College) designed and will lead the discussion. They will be joined by panelists Henry Adams, (Colorado State University) and Mario Banuelos (California State University, Fresno). Here is the description:

New computational and quantitative majors, minors, specializations, and certificates are flourishing in all sectors of American higher education. Examples include Certificates in Computational Intelligence and Linguistics, Bachelors degrees in Data Science, and Masters degrees in Financial Engineering. This reflects the increasing demand for quantitative competence in the workplace. What is certain is that student demand for these quantitative offerings is robust and departments that offer them typically seek and sometimes receive an increased number of faculty lines to respond to that demand.

There is little research on the role that mathematics departments play in these new computational and quantitative offerings. This panel explores current departmental practices worthy of attention in shaping computational and quantitative education writ large across the curriculum, and is a follow-up to the fall mini-conference hosted by the AMS Committee on Education. During this session, we will explore the role of mathematics in these computational courses and programs, practical ideas for implementing new modules in your existing courses, as well as methods for building new computational and quantitative courses in your department.

The Committee on Science Policy panel discussion (Friday, January 17, 2:30 pm — 4:00 pm in the Colorado CC, Room 203) is titled “A Call to Action – Grassroots Advocacy for Our Profession”. Francis Su (Harvey Mudd College) will moderate. Panelists include:

  • Kira Hamman, Penn State University
  • Anthony Várilly-Alvarado, Rice University
  • James Ricci, AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellow at U.S. Department of Energy
  • State Director of Constituent Affairs, Office of Colorado Senator Michael Bennet

Here is the description:

Why is advocacy important? What are various ways that you, as a mathematician, can be an effective advocate for issues that affect our profession and our communities? How can you leverage your mathematical training in such endeavors? Four panelists, who have experience in various arenas, will share their perspectives.

 We also organize and host the annual workshop for department chairs and other department leaders, held in the same location as and just prior to the JMM. You have missed signing up for 2020, but please keep in mind for 2021.

 

 

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AMS President Jill Pipher to Congress: “No Longer Secure: Cryptography in the Quantum Era”

Senator Jack Reed and Jill Pipher. Credit: Allison O’Brien

On Thursday, December 5, AMS President Jill Pipher spoke to Congressional representatives and told her attentive audience about the long history—from Caesar to present—of cybersecurity; the deep theoretical mathematics involved, and the state-of-play regarding both the potential and perils of quantum computing.

After a quick tour of the older history, Pipher turned to describing her own work. In the 1990s, Pipher and her colleagues Jeffrey Hoffstein and Joseph Silverman developed the NTRUEncrypt cryptosystem. NTRUEncrypt is similar in philosophy to other cryptosystems—more familiar to many of us—that rely on factoring large numbers in that it involves a very difficult task of undoing something (factoring) that is very easy to do (multiplying). This system is based on lattices. In the lattice context, the difficult task is related to the shortest and closest vector problems. Ok, I am going to stop here—if you want to know more about the mathematics there are way better resources than I.

Lattice-based systems appear to be resistant to quantum computer attacks. The government is very concerned about threats to our security in the age of quantum computing. For example, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) is in the process of selecting one or more public-key cryptographic algorithms through a public competition-like process. It is intended that these algorithms will be capable of protecting sensitive information well into the foreseeable future, including after the advent of quantum computers. Earlier this year NIST announced the 26 algorithms that have been submitted and will advance to the Post-Quantum Crypto Semifinals. Lattice-based algorithms are represented well in this group of 26, and are considered by many to be lead contenders for effective post-quantum security. NIST also leads a partnership between government, academia, and the private sector focused on cybersecurity education, training, and workforce development.

Representative Jim Langevin. Credit: Allison O’Brien

This briefing was attended by four members of Congress—Rhode Island Senators Reed and Whitehouse, and Representatives Langevin (RI 2) and McNerney (CA 9). All four gave remarks, and Senator Reed introduced Pipher. I was really pleased that the Rhode Island delegation showed in force, and that they acknowledged that the AMS headquarters is in Providence. Representative Langevin, especially, discussed cryptography in technical detail; this topic is one of his top legislative priorities and he is one of Congress’s leaders developing legislation aimed at protecting the nation from cyber-attacks.

Senator Sheldon Whitehouse. Credit: Allison O’Brien

All four shared their passion for science, the importance of evidence-based approaches to their work in Congress, and for the critical importance and timeliness of this particular topic. Senator Reed called for a federal effort, on the scale of the Manhattan Project, around quantum computing. They also recognized that the basic mathematics research is often funded by the NSF, and that continuing robust federal funding of the NSF is critical for advancements in our field.

Who else was there? In no particular order:

Representative Jerry McNerney. Credit: Allison O’Brien

I organize and host these briefings together with David Eisenbud, the Director of the Mathematical Sciences Research Institute (MSRI). David and I have great staff support for these. The first step, which we usually begin 6-12 months ahead of time is to find a speaker. We look for dynamic speakers who will talk about a topic of current congressional interest. After a speaker and a few dates are selected, we approach the office of a member of Congress who we ask to help with logistics for the day (this is necessary because only members of Congress can reserve rooms in the Senate and House and Capitol buildings).

The goals of the briefings are to show Congressional members and their staff that

  1. mathematics is everywhere;
  2. federally funding theoretical mathematics (especially by the NSF) leads to scientific advances that help secure our nation (via, for example, the work discussed at this briefing and also one we held in 2017 with speaker Shafi Goldwasser), and improve our health (via, for example, the advances in MRI technology discussed by David Donoho at our 2017 briefing); and that
  3. the AMS is a credible resource.

A list of previous briefings is found on the AMS and also on the MSRI websites.

Pipher is the President of the AMS and Vice President for Research at Brown University and Elisha Benjamin Andrews Professor of Mathematics. She was the founding director of the Institute for Computational and Experimental Research in Mathematics (ICERM), a National Science Foundation mathematics institute.

 

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After a slow start, the Trump White House is ramping up its science policy activities

President Trump waited a long time before nominating a Director for the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP). Indeed, OSTP lacked a director for over 700 days, the longest vacancy since the office was created in 1976.

This Presidency will probably not go down in history as one kind to science. But, I am not going to write about current proposals regarding the EPA. No, I will stick to telling you about OSTP activities over the past weeks. And, try to focus on some positives. Despite what any of us may think of this President, there are many good people working in the federal government, who have continued in their jobs as Presidents come and go. These people deserve our respect, and our help when they ask for it.

Kelvin Droegemeier was nominated on August 1, 2018 and—though he was easily confirmed—his confirmation did not occur until December. If he had not been confirmed by the holiday break, his nomination would have to have been made again. The AMS worked with other professional science societies to push for his confirmation, and it worked, but just in the closing hours of the 115th Congress.

Dr. Droegemeier is the 10th OSTP Director; he began his position in January 2019. Before joining the White House, he served as the Vice President for Research and Regents’ Professor of Meteorology at the University of Oklahoma. He is a highly-regarded scientist, with expertise in extreme weather events and numerical weather prediction. Among his scientific achievements:

  • Recipient of $40 million in research funding; author of more than 80 refereed articles and 200 conference publications;
  • Co-founder and Director of the Science and Technology Center for Analysis and Prediction of Storms (NSF-funded);
  • Co-founder and Deputy Director of the Engineering Research Center for Collaborative Adaptive Sense of the Atmosphere (NSF-funded);
  • Served 2 terms on the National Science Board, the governing body of the NSF, including the last four years as Vice-Chairman (nominated by Presidents GW Bush and Obama and twice confirmed by the Senate).

Over the past six months, we have seen much more activity by the OSTP.

On October 22, President Trump reconstituted his President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST), which is administered by OSTP. PCAST is an advisory group of the nation’s leading scientists and engineers who directly advise the President and the Executive Office of the President. Dr. Droegemeier is a member. Other PCAST members—numbering not more than 16—are from outside the federal government, and include scientists from universities and industry. On the same day, the President announced the names of the first seven members. The choices reflect the administration’s focus on technology—only one is an academic (UC Berkeley chemistry professor), and the others work at IBM, Dow, Cyclo Therapeutics, SC Johnson & Son, Bank of America, and HP Labs. On November 14, the White House announced the appointment of two additional PCAST members—one is the director of the Radar Systems and Remote Sensing Lab at the University of Kansas and the other is a professor specializing in GPS systems and an associate dean for research at Ohio State University.

PCAST members being sworn in on November 18, 2019.

None are mathematicians (as many of you know, President Obama’s PCAST also lacked mathematics). The revived PCAST held its first meeting on November 18. The photo shows the group being sworn in, which took place at the beginning of the meeting (and, I know, one person is completely obscured by the flag; it was impolite to try to get a better position!). The agenda was, broadly, to identify issues for PCAST to focus on, and generally set priorities. I attended this meeting. What did I find interesting?

  • Dr. Droegemeier discussed his plan to create a “SPEC” subcommittee. SPEC refers to students, post-docs, and early career scientists. This subcommittee will include about 20 individuals, and advise the PCAST.
  • PCAST will not write any reports over the next year. Instead, they will focus on concrete and shortish-term actions.
  • The intensity of discussions around foreigners in the US research landscape. As you might expect, some in the room are pushing on fixing what might be described, euphemistically, as the “visa situation,” while others are more focused on protecting US innovations and making sure there are no foreign “bad actors” here.
  • The lengthy discussions about STEM education, with one focus on changing the culture and messaging around early (elementary and middle school) education in mathematics. I wasn’t terribly surprised that this was discussed; Chair of the National Science Board (and computer scientist and mathematician) Diane Souvaine was leading the session in which this came up.

PCAST plans to have three or four more in-person meetings over the next year. The next one might be in February. These are open to the public and you can participate remotely. Instructions can be found at the Federal Register site; they also should be found at the PCAST homepage (this appears on the Department of Energy webpage since they fund PCAST).

Another major development is the formation, in May 2019, of the Joint Committee on the Research Environment (JCORE). This committee is comprised of 4 subcommittees, on:

  • Research Security (focus on foreign interference in US research),
  • Safe and Inclusive Research Environments (combat harassment of all types),
  • Research Rigor and Integrity (replicability, reproducibility), and
  • Coordinating Administrative Requirements for Research (significantly reduce administrative work and costs).

Dr. Droegemeier views universities as key stakeholders in the US innovation ecosystem. On November 5, OSTP hosted a summit, to inform the work of JCORE. Leaders from federal funding and security agencies, research universities and institutes, medical centers, scientific societies, and industry and non-profit organizations were brought together. In addition to being updated on progress made on JCORE topics, participants discussed and gave feedback on associated policy and other actions under development, and exchanged ideas about continued engagement by the multi-sector research community. AMS Immediate Past President Ken Ribet attended, representing the AMS.

Dr. Droegemeier has supplied a summary of the Summit. In it, you find his opening remarks, and a list of “Key Takeaways.” What are some highlights for mathematics? If you look at the takeaways, which begin on page 3, you will see some themes that are continuing priorities of this administration. These include security concerns, data sharing, and regulatory flexibility.

Here, for example, is a takeaway bullet point on security:

  • Research institutions need information that will allow them to determine whether to approve or disprove proposed collaborations with foreign entities, and to advise research staff on what circumstances may affect eligibility for Federal R&D funding.

While much coming out of the White House thus far on security concerns has focused on threats, I was pleased to see this bullet point, acknowledging the importance of global science communities:

  • Success along the path from fundamental research to technology applications often requires free flow through multiple research groups and international borders.

I am personally pleased to see a focus on sexual harassment in research environments, as articulated in this bullet point:

  • As a major objective, the research enterprise should work to maximize reporting of harassment and other inappropriate behaviors. This requires addressing fears of retaliation that often prevent individuals from coming forward.

Another related bullet point is the following:

  • Providing researchers with opportunities to work with multiple mentors can help address negative power dynamics in the research environment, and can help reduce perceived risks of reporting inappropriate behaviors.

This is not the first time I have been a part of conversations suggesting that “multiple mentors” is a good model, and I hope the math community moves toward this model.

There is also this bullet point that could be relevant to us:

  • The Federal Government should leverage the work of professional societies to help inform development of common solutions for core areas (i.e., conflict of interest, universal disclosure, etc.).

The AMS is, of course, a “professional society,” so we should try to understand this point. This could point to an area of concern for the AMS—that of open access publishing. JCORE could be interested in the work of publishers (such as the AMS) for solutions. It is a fair view that research that is funded by the government (i.e., by taxpayers) should be accessible to taxpayers. And, arguments from the health sciences are indeed compelling, as you can hear around 31-32 minutes into this session, in a question posed by Manfredi La Manna, an economist at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. He begins his line of questioning by asking the panelists to imagine that he is an emergency medicine doctor in sub-Saharan Africa and, from this viewpoint, “what I see is that the lack of open access leads to closed coffins.” Now, that session, and many conversations in this context are about NIH as a granting agency. However, regulations pertaining to open access have been directed to groups of agencies, and the NSF is part of this group. It is no secret that this administration is considering an update to a memo issued in 2013 by President Obama’s OSTP Director, John Holdren. This Holdren memo “directed Federal agencies with more than $100M in R&D expenditures to develop plans to make the results of federally funded research freely available to the public—generally within one year of publication.” See the AMS primer on open access for more on this topic generally, and on the embargo period in particular.

The point of this post was to give you a brief update on what is going on at the White House with regard to science policy, and how it might be relevant to the math community. So much for “brief.”

 

 

 

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