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:

You can also find this at our Education webpage:

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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.”




Posted in Federal support for science, International science, OSTP, White House | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Census 2020


On October 9, I was interviewed by Macalester College President Brian Rosenberg about the Census. This was paired with a talk that Moon Duchin and I gave on campus two days earlier titled “Mathematical Interventions in Fair Voting,” and with a feature article about the Census in the Fall 2019 Macalester alumni magazine. I thought you might be interested in this topic, so decided to write about it here, to dive in a bit further, and reach a different audience.

Many thanks to my colleagues Ron Wasserstein and Steve Pierson at the American Statistical Society (ASA); they know much more about this topic than I, and generously share their expertise. Interestingly, the ASA was formed in November 1839 in Boston as a means to promote the 1840 Census. Ron did a nice interview on this topic.

Carrying out a good Census and making secure datasets available to researchers both involve statistics and mathematics. Additionally, the Census is the first step in the redistricting process, which is quickly evolving to involve more and more work of statisticians and mathematicians. This column is *not* about redistricting.

What is the history of the Census, why do we do it?

Article 1, Section 2, the Constitution includes the phrase:

“Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons. The actual Enumeration shall be made within three Years after the first Meeting of the Congress of the United States, and within every subsequent Term of ten Years, in such Manner as they shall by Law direct. The Number of Representatives shall not exceed one for every thirty Thousand, but each State shall have at Least one Representative…”

This tells us that the Census must be done for the purpose of (re)apportionment (and taxes), how often it must be done, and that there are lower and upper bounds for the size of the House of Representatives. Congress first met in 1789, and the first national Census was held in 1790. Current law controlling the Census requires that the Census be conducted on or about April 1. The returns must be made available within nine months in order to apportion members of the House of Representatives to each of the states.

While we are constitutionally mandated to do the Census in order to reapportion Congressional seats, Census data determine how a significant amount of federal funds are distributed. For example, in fiscal year 2015, Census data were used to determine the allocation of about \$675 billion, in over a hundred programs. According to a report out by the Census Bureau, the top five programs by amount of funds that used Census-based population numbers and population characteristics to determine fund distribution in fiscal year 2015 were: Medicaid, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Medicare Part B, Highway Planning and Construction, and the Federal Pell Grant program. The demographic data are also used by businesses to determine, for example, where to build new supermarkets and by emergency responders to locate injured people after natural disasters.

How many questions are there, and have there been? What are changes in 2020?

The first Census (in 1790) had six questions; it simply asked for the name of the head of the household and the number of people in the household of the following descriptions:

  • Free White males of 16 years and upward
  • Free White males under 16 years
  • Free White females
  • All other free persons
  • Slaves

The distinction between the first two categories was made, in part, to determine the country’s military potential. And, you probably don’t need the unpleasant reminder that, for the purpose of apportionment, slaves were counted as three-fifths persons; the 1868 14th Amendment removed this fractionalization. You may also have noticed the bit about Indians who are not taxed; it took until 1940 for this to change and did so when the Attorney General ruled that there were no longer any “Indians not taxed.” US marshals took the Census in the original 13 States, plus the districts of Kentucky, Maine, and Vermont, and the Southwest Territory (Tennessee); they rode from house to house on horseback.

The number of questions in the decennial Census has varied widely since the first in 1790 to 2000, where a multi-page form with dozens of questions was sent to one out of every six households (the “long form”). It probably isn’t surprising, that reading about these questions is quite interesting (to me at least) and lends some great insights about political history. 1910 provides rich examples. Instructions to enumerators include:

“For persons born in the double Kingdom of Austria-Hungary, be sure to distinguish Austria from Hungary. For person born in Finland, write Finland and not ‘‘Russia.’’ For persons born in Turkey, be sure to distinguish Turkey in Europe from Turkey in Asia.”


“If the Indian is of mixed blood, write in column 36, 37, and 38 the fractions which show the proportions of Indian and other blood, as (column 36, Indian) 3/4, (column 37, white) 1/4, and (column 38, negro) 0. For Indians of mixed blood all three columns should be filled, and the sum, in each case, should equal 1, as 1/2, 0, 1/2; 3/4, 1/4, 0; 3/4, 1/8, 1/8; etc. Wherever possible, the statement that an Indian is of full blood should be verified by inquiry of the older men of the tribe, as an Indian is sometimes of mixed blood without knowing it.”

Ok, then.

Also, in 1910 it seems it was relevant to know if the wives of a polygamous (Indian) man were sisters, or not. Enough on the 1910 Census.

Generally, I find interesting the choices for languages commonly spoken in the US (as listed as options on the Census), and choices for jobs, and how these have changed over the decades.

In 2010, the Census Bureau cut down the length of the questionnaire, and for 2020 it remains short. You can see the 2020 Census form for yourself. A more detailed list of 72 questions, called the American Community Survey (ACS), is sent to selected households (and has been sent since 2005), in non-decennial years, to allow the Bureau to do statistical sampling. About 3.5 million households are selected to receive the ACS each year.

In 2020, households will have the option of responding online, by mail, or by phone. There are nine questions for “person 1” (and seven are asked for each further member of household). Notable changes for 2020 include new write-in areas under the race question for those who identify as white and/or black (“Irish” and “Somali” are among the provided options). There are also new household relationship categories that allow couples living together to identify their relationships as either “same-sex” or “opposite-sex.”

What about the citizenship question?

I figured you would ask about that. After much back and forth, the citizenship question is NOT going to be on the 2020 Census form. But, it has been included in the past; who knows what will happen in the future.

The last time a citizenship question was among the Census questions for all US households was in 1950, though smaller Census Bureau surveys have included questions about citizenship. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross had claimed that the Justice Department needed data from the question to help enforce the Voting Rights Act. Critics pushed back, arguing that adding the question would discourage non-citizens, especially unauthorized immigrants, from participating at all. The Supreme Court ruled in June that the question could not appear on the Census. The court’s opinion stated that the Trump administration had the right to add the question, but the reason it supplied was not compelling.

All this said, the Census Bureau already releases some data on citizenship, gathered in the ACS. But, the ACS annually reaches only about 2.5% of all households, compared with the roughly 16% that received the Census long form.

Further, an Executive Order issued by the President on July 11, 2019 commits the Census Bureau to releasing Citizen Voting-Age Population (CVAP) data by March 31, 2021. The Executive Order states: “Nevertheless, we shall ensure that accurate citizenship data is compiled in connection with the Census by other means.” These data will be produced by combining administrative data from a number of federal, and possibly state, agencies into a separate micro-data file that will contain a “best citizenship” variable for every person in the 2020 Census. Current sources of citizenship data include the Social Security Administration, Housing and Urban Development, Medicare and Medicaid.

Interestingly, the citizenship question—if asked—was predicted to affect apportionment. If it had been on the 2020 Census, the following states would, probably,

Lose seats Avoid losing seats Gain seats
California loses 2 Alabama Montana gains 1
NJ loses 1 Minnesota
TX gains 2 instead of 3 Ohio

How much does it cost now? Can we afford it?

The 2010 Census cost \$13 billion, approximately \$42 per capita. To compare, the 2010 Census cost for China was about US\$1 per capita and for India was US\$0.40. A 2019 report predicts that the 2020 Census is now estimated to cost approximately \$15.6 billion. Census funding currently in jeopardy, as is all federal funding (because we are living under a “continuing resolution” which will keep the government running until November 21).

The Census Bureau was established as a permanent agency within the Department of the Interior in 1902. It currently employs about 4,285 permanent staff members, and are in the midst of hiring hundreds of thousands of temporary workers for the 2020 Census. Census 2010 employed 635,000 temporary workers. Certainly, hiring so many is costly.

But, it costs so much for many reasons—one thing I learned from Ron Wasserstein’s podcast is that non-response actually drives up the cost significantly. If you don’t fill yours in, the Census Bureau sends someone to your door to get you to answer. This drives up the cost terrifically. Adding the citizenship question would have (probably) created many, many more who need this door knocking. So, asking the question would have driven up the cost (ironic that President Trump pushed for the citizenship question and simultaneously has consistently requested less money for the Census in his annual budgets?). The lingering toxicity and fear raised by the visibility of that question and legal case—even though question will not appear on the questionnaire—may still drive up cost in this way.

This begs the question…..

Does one have to fill out the Census?

Easy. Yes. There are fines for non-response and for providing false responses. In 1790 the fine was \$20. Today, failure to respond can result in a \$100 fine; providing false answers is a more severe offense, and carries a \$500 fine. Recent news reports that I found by googling, however, indicate that punishment for failure to respond is not usually enforced.

What can you say about the use of technology and the Census?

Oooh, another interesting question. You may be surprised to hear that the 1890 Census was the first to be processed by machine. Punch cards and an electronic tabulator were adapted and developed by Herman Hollerith to speed the tallying of the 1890 Census (punch cards were first developed around 1800 by Joseph Marie Jacquard for the loom, to manufacture textiles at scale and by unskilled workers). Technology developed, and involved UNIVAC I, the TIGER system, early adoption of the computer tape, CD-ROM technology, and the Internet. This history is interesting, and more fully explained at the Census website.


From a Science article by Jeffrey Mervis: “Protecting confidentiality has been a priority for the Census Bureau for most—but not all—of its existence. After the first US Census was conducted in 1790, officials posted the results so that residents could correct errors. But in 1850, the interior secretary decreed that the returns would be kept confidential. They were “not to be used in any way to the gratification of curiosity and Census officials,” or “the exposure of any man’s business or pursuits,” notes an official history of the Census published in 1900. In 1954 the agency’s confidentiality mandate was codified in Title 13 of the U.S. Code.”

This time, the Census bureau will be adopting differential privacy to protect the identity of everyone whose information is contained in data it releases. “Differential privacy addresses the paradox of learning nothing about an individual while learning useful information about a population.” That sounds exactly what we want with Census data (not to mention with medical data, etc.).

Source: Matthew Francis

Differential privacy protects individuals in a dataset by adding noise. A researcher using the dataset is not able to reverse engineer, to discover the identity of any specific person. Differential privacy was developed in 2006 following the Netflix challenge, which was aimed at improving their movie recommender system. And went wrong. Matthew Francis, in SIAM News, gives a readable and more mathematical description of differential privacy (from which I stole the image to the right).

When will we know the results?

The Census Bureau is expected to announce the new state population counts by December 31, 2020, the deadline for sending the count to the president for the purpose of reapportionment of congressional seats. Further data are released later; some of it publicly available. Two types— “small-area data” and “microdata”—will be available and researchers can use as they wish. Small-area data provides the basic characteristics of residents—age, sex, and race/ethnicity—by Census block. A Census block is the smallest geographic area for which data are reported. There were 11,155,486 blocks in 2010. Blocks cover the entire country, and need not contain inhabitants. Microdata—full information about individuals—are provided for “Public Use Microdata Areas” which contain at least 100,000 people, again, cover the entire country.

Concluding Remarks

There really is a lot to learn about the Census. The Census Bureau has a great website, and the Census Project is a great resource for updated news and commentary.



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Meet the AMS Committee on Education

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. Each policy committee provides major direction for AMS activities and programs in its area.

I wrote about Committee on Science Policy on April 11, 2019. Today, I write to introduce you to the Committee on Education. A summary of the committee’s charge reads:

The Committee on Education serves as the Society’s channel for communication and cooperation with other organizations on matters concerning education, provides a forum for the discussion of mathematics education issues, provides information and makes recommendations to the leadership and membership of the Society on education issues, and organizes elements of AMS meetings addressing mathematics education.

I serve as the staff support for this committee. This means that I give logistic and content support throughout the year for the committee’s work.

One of the specific principal activities of this committee is “To recommend to the leadership of the Society, members of the Society and to the research community as a whole, actions which will make positive contributions to improving mathematics education.” You may have heard that the AMS Department of Education has moved from AMS headquarters in Providence, RI to Washington, DC. The relatively new Director of Education Abbe Herzig will be working in concert with this committee.

The CoE also reviews nominations and selects the recipient of the Award for Impact on the Teaching and Learning of Mathematics. This award is given annually to a mathematician (or group of mathematicians) who has made significant contributions of lasting value to mathematics education. Consider nominating your colleagues, please! The next deadline is September 15, 2020.

The Committee on Education (CoE) meets for two days each fall and the meeting is paired with the AMS Annual Mini-conference on Education, which the committee organizes. This year we will be together October 24-26; the committee business takes place Thursday evening and Saturday while the mini-conference is open to the public and will occur on Friday October 25th. All of this takes place in Washington, DC.

This year’s mini-conference, Mathematics Departments and the Explosive Growth of Computational and Quantitative Offerings in Higher Education–organized by CoE members Kate Stevenson (Chair), Erika Camacho, and Uri Treisman–promises to be great. Here is a description of the day’s focus:

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 growing centrality of the mathematical sciences to the development of knowledge in traditional STEM fields as well as to a growing list of non-STEM disciplines. It also reflects the increasing demand for quantitative competence in the workplace.  This mini-conference will explore the role of mathematics departments in these new computational and quantitative offerings.

The speaker list is impressive:

Ben Baumer (Assistant Professor of Statistical & Data Sciences, Department of Mathematics & Statistics, Smith College)

Michael Dorff (Professor of Mathematics, Brigham Young University & President, Mathematical Association of America)

Mark Green (Professor Emeritus and Distinguished Research Professor, University of California, Los Angeles & Chair, NAS Board on Mathematical Sciences and Analytics)

Tom Halverson (DeWitt Wallace Professor and former Chair 2013-2019, Department of Mathematics, Statistics & Computer Science, Macalester College)

Stephanie Hicks (Assistant Professor, Department of Biostatistics & Member of Data Science Lab, Johns Hopkins University)

Nirmala Kannankutty (Acting Division Director, Division of Graduate Education, National Science Foundation EHR-DGE)

Anthony Kearsley (Information Technology Laboratory, Applied and Computational Mathematics Division, NIST)

William “Brit” Kirwan (Chancellor Emeritus, University System of Maryland)

So far, we have over 100 participants registered from two- and four-year colleges, research universities, and federal agencies.

The committee meeting on October 24 and 26th includes discussions about AMS programs and activities which focus on education, and planning for the 2020 mini-conference and education-related activities at the 2021 Joint Mathematics Meetings. A report on the meeting, as well as of past meetings, are found at the committee website.

The AMS CoE 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:

  • Deborah Loewenberg Ball, University of Michigan, is the William H. Payne Collegiate Professor of education, an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor, and the director of TeachingWorks. She is an expert on teacher education, and her work centering on ways to improve the quality of beginning teaching, particularly for children of color and low-income children. She taught elementary school for more than 15 years, and continues to teach mathematics to elementary students every summer. Deborah served as president of the American Educational Research Association from 2017 to 2018, as a member of the National Science Board from 2013 to 2018, and as dean of the University of Michigan School of Education from 2005 to 2016.
  • Michael Dorff, Brigham Young University, is Professor of Mathematics and founder and director of the $2.6 million NSF-funded Center for Undergraduate Research in Mathematics (CURM). He is a fellow of the AMS and current President of the MAA.
  • Katherine Kinnaird is Clare Boothe Luce Assistant Professor of Computer Science and of Statistical & Data Sciences at Smith College. Her research is computational and at the intersection of machine learning, mathematics, and cultural analytics. She co-organized the 2013 Workshop for Women in Machine Learning (WIML), and has served on the WiML executive board, including a term as president. She also was a co-organizer for the first Women in Music Informational Retrieval Workshop in 2018.
  • Katherine (Kate) Stevenson (CoE Chair) is Professor of Mathematics and Director of the Developmental Mathematics Program at California State University, Northridge. From 2011-2016 she directed a $2.7 million grant from the Gates Foundation Grant to improve entry level courses within the CSU and California Community College System.
  • Uri Treisman is a University Distinguished Teaching Professor, professor of mathematics, and professor of public affairs at The University of Texas at Austin. He is the founder and executive director of the University’s Charles A. Dana Center. Uri has served as a Distinguished Senior Fellow at the Education Commission of the States since 2013. He is also chairman of the Strong Start to Finish Campaign, and serves on the director’s board of Transforming Post-Secondary Education in Mathematics, and is the representative of the American Mathematical Society to the American Association for the Advancement of Science (Education, Section Q).
  • Diana White is Associate Professor of Mathematics and Mathematics Education at the University of Colorado at Denver. She is also Director of National Association of Math Circles.
  • Jon Wilkening is Professor and Graduate Vice Chair in the Department of Mathematics at the University of California, Berkeley. His research interests focus on Numerical Analysis, Computational Physics, Partial Differential Equations, and High Performance Computing. He sits on several editorial boards and is the recipient of a National Science Foundation Faculty Early Career Development Award (CAREER).

Additional members are:

  • Erika Camacho, Arizona State University and NSF Division of Human Resource Development, is a member of the AMS Council and represents the Council on the committee.
  • Ralph Cohen, Stanford University, is on the AMS Board of Trustees and represents the board on the committee.
  • Doug Ensley, Shippensburg University, is the MAA Representative to the committee.
  • Susan Loepp, Williams College, 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 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.
  • Michael Vogelius, Rutgers University, is the Chair of the Committee on Science Policy and thus sits on the committee.
  • Ravi Vakil, Stanford University, is a member of the AMS Council and represents the Council on the committee.

How can you get involved? You can volunteer for any one of the five policy committees, or for one of the many other committees of the AMS.


Posted in AMS Washington office, Higher Education, Mathematicians, Professional Societies | Tagged , | Leave a comment

What you missed over the summer: balancing openness in science with threats to security by foreign researchers


“… to the members of our international campus community, without hesitation and with heartfelt affirmation, let me say: We value you. We support you. We will always welcome you. This is a campus that is unafraid of inclusivity. We are compelled and defined by it. And that will never change.”

These are powerful words written by Carnegie Mellon University President Farnam Jahanian over the summer.

Now is a good time to finally cover this topic, as many of you will have spent the summer traveling abroad to attend conferences, and collaborate with colleagues.​ I’ve been thinking to write about this important topic for many months. There has been a lot going on. Things may have changed by the time you read this. In any case, here we go.

Over the summer, there have been continuing developments that could affect foreign-born mathematicians and could affect how we all participate in the global scholarly community.

There have always been regulations on international research collaborations, and they tighten and loosen over time. Many scientists are fearful that we are entering a phase of intensified tightening, and worried about what this means for them and their students and colleagues. There is stepped-up interest by our government to identify and eliminate intellectual property theft, cyber-attacks, and espionage that result from foreign influence. Much of this interest is aimed at the Chinese. And, there are implications that extend outside the walls of science— according to Steven Aftergood at the Federation of American Scientists, the “perceived Chinese theft of U.S. intellectual property is one of the factors that led to imposition of U.S. tariffs on Chinese imports.” There are simultaneously evolving visa and immigration policies that limit the ability of foreign-born students and scientists to study and work in the U.S.

Over the summer,

You may have seen news headlines, including some scary ones.

On July 5: DeVos cracks down on foreign funding on U.S. campuses
On July 16: Diversity and international collaboration should not become casualties of anti-espionage policies
On August 9: U.S. universities confront a security storm in Congress
On August 30: No, I won’t start spying on my foreign-born students
On September 3: Chinese scientists came to the U.S. to pursue their dreams. Under tighter scrutiny, many are returning home

You may have heard that the Government is stepping up its scrutiny.

Some congressional members are driving ramped-up efforts to prevent foreign entities from taking unfair advantage of the U.S. research enterprise. Senator Grassley (Iowa) has been inquiring about foreign threats to taxpayer-funded research, using his position as the Chair of the Senate Finance Committee to pursue this line of investigation. In April, he sent a letter to National Science Foundation (NSF) Director France A. Córdova seeking information regarding the processes in place at NSF to detect and deter threats to NSF-supported research. His letter specifically mentions China’s threats to U.S. national security as well as its talent recruitment programs which he says (quoting a witness at a congressional hearing) are effectively “brain gain programs” that “encourage theft of intellectual property from U.S. institutions.” The NSF responded in a letter to Senator Grassley, dated April 26.

Also in Congress, bills have been introduced to protect intellectual property and protect against espionage. There are three bills of note:

  1. Protect Our Universities Act (1879)
  2. Securing American Science and Technology Act of 2019 (H.R.3038)
  3. Secure American Research Act of 2019 (S.2133)

The latter two are similar in their intent, though S.2133 has language that worries many university administrators. For example, it would create a registry which would list individuals who have failed to disclose foreign affiliations to their federal funding agencies. The first bill takes a more aggressive approach; specifically, it would require students from China, Iran, and Russia to undergo background checks before they can work on professors’ research projects that would be considered sensitive (as determined by the Department of Homeland Security).

Other bills have been introduced to remove barriers for STEM educated international students who want to work in the US after they complete PhDs, such as the Keep STEM Talent Act (S.1744).

Dr. Kelvin Droegemeier has now been at the helm of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) for several months. Before joining the administration, he was Vice President for Research and Regents’ Professor of Meteorology at the University of Oklahoma. He served two six-year terms on the National Science Board, the governing body of the NSF, including the last four years as Vice-Chairman, having been nominated by Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama and twice confirmed by the United States Senate. On September 16, he issued a letter to scientific societies, including the AMS. The letter describes OSTP’s concerns and planned actions for protecting the US research enterprise. One such activity is the formation (in May) of the Joint Committee on the Research Environment (JCORE). JCORE has four subcommittees — the Research Security subcommittee, which will focus on foreign-power interference in U.S. research, as well as subcommittees on Safe and Inclusive Research Environments; Research Rigor and Integrity; and Coordinating Administrative Requirements for Research.

Relatedly, the White House put out its annual budget priorities memorandum for research and development which specifically calls for needed “protection of our ideas and research outcomes.” We are, according to the memo, experiencing America’s Second Bold Era of Science and Technology but warns that “Unfortunately, this Second Bold Era also features new and extraordinary threats which must be confronted thoughtfully and effectively.” The memo does not discuss the benefits or importance or necessity of international collaboration for scientific advancement.

The NSF currently has hundreds of awards that involve international activities. The NSF is tightening policies, and the response to Grassley’s request outlines some of these. A revised draft of the NSF Proposal and Award Policies and Procedures Guide (PAPPG) was published earlier this year and also includes some changes. One change is that “proposals that include funding to be provided to an international branch campus of a U.S. IHE,[1] must include in the project description, justification for why the project activities cannot be performed at the U.S. campus.” Another change is internal, and aims to standardize U.S. citizenship requirements and foreign government talent recruitment program participation restrictions for NSF employees. This would affect you if you are thinking to apply to be a rotator at the NSF. The NSF has commissioned a report (by the JASONs) to assess how universities can maintain openness, while being cautious about security. This report is expected to be completed by the end of the calendar year.

Finally, there have been delays in visa processing that are affecting international students and scholars. While stepped-up processing affects individuals from several countries, the target is clearly China. Christopher Ford, head of the State Department’s international security bureau, has said that new procedures are in place “to improve how we scrutinize the flow of students and researchers coming from China in order to weed out the occasional “bad apples” who travel abroad to acquire technology for Beijing’s military machine and repressive domestic security apparatus.” Congressional members from both parties are taking note and beginning to investigate. The American Institute of Physics has written more extensively on visa delays.

If you are specifically interested in the risks to academia as perceived by the FBI, you will find their 2018 report “China: The Risk to Academia” informative. It describes the risks and gives resources and training materials for protecting your university, as well as hints for how to “spot students or professors” who might be providing information to foreign adversaries (they may not even know they are providing the information). I know this sounds alarming and, to echo Steven Aftergood, reflect the current state of the US-China relationship. To try to balance our anxiety, it can be noted that the report starts with comforting remarks: “The vast majority of the 1.4 million international scholars on U.S. campuses pose no threat to their host institutions, classmates, or research fields. On the contrary, these international visitors represent valuable contributors to their campuses’ achievements…”

You may have wondered if we are the only country thinking about this, and how much of this is due to (real or perceived) xenophobia of our current administration and lawmakers.

The U.S. is not the only country ramping up scrutiny of foreign influence at universities. The Australian Minister for Education Dan Tehan announced the creation of a University Foreign Interference Taskforce to address concerns, arising at least in part due to reports of Chinese hacking of Australian university computer systems and allegations of universities unknowingly working with entities connected to China’s military. The Australian taskforce will have four working groups to address cybersecurity, intellectual property, foreign collaborations, and communications to raise awareness.

Russia has been issuing rather alarming-sounding rules for collaborations there, as described by the New York Times.

Some of you have told me about foreign mathematicians who have applied for J-1 visas to visit your university, who have had their visa applications rejected for failing the English proficiency test. You may have wondered if this is a new requirement unveiled by the Trump administration. In fact, it was 2015 when the State Department published regulations requiring that all J-1 Exchange Visitor applications include an English Proficiency Form. Most universities have a webpage, like this one at the University of Nebraska explaining this rule.

There are, in addition to those mentioned in the preceding section, new policies and plans for changes to existing policies being introduced. For example, in October of 2018, the administration proposed a plan to introduce a maximum period of authorized stay for student visas, replacing the current practice of issuing student visas for the duration of studies.

And, it is true, foreign scientists are being fired from academic positions for failing to disclose foreign funding. This includes two professors who were fired at Emory University; four of their postdocs were also fired, and told to leave the country within 30 days.

One can conjecture about why, from 2016 to 2017, the number of international undergraduates fell by 2.2% and the number of international graduate students in the US dropped by 5.5%. I shouldn’t give that sort of stat without more nuance and updated information. And, the story is more nuanced. The numbers vary by discipline, and by country. While overall foreign graduate student enrollment in all fields decreased, foreign graduate student enrollment in mathematics and statistics increased that year.  From a recent National Science Board report: “Although 2018 marked a second year of decline in the total number of foreign students studying in the United States, the decline was small (less than 1%), and more undergraduate and graduate students were studying S&E fields. Four countries—China, India, South Korea, and Saudi Arabia—account for more than half of foreign students in the United States. The number of Chinese S&E graduate students studying in the United States has continued to increase (by 11% over the last 2 years), whereas the number of Indian S&E graduate students sharply declined (by 22% over the last 2 years).”

You may have received a letter from your college or university president.

Carnegie Mellon President Farnam Jahanian wrote to his community in August: “As public concerns and political debates emerge about global engagement in higher education, we must ensure that our research ecosystem remains strong. This requires steadfast commitment to both the free flow of ideas and the safeguarding of our work as required by the national interest.”

Columbia University President Lee Bollinger wrote the August 30 opinion piece mentioned at the beginning of this post.

MIT President L. Rafael Reif has written to his community.

Inside Higher Ed published an opinion piece by Mary Sue Coleman, president of the Association of American Universities, and Peter McPherson, president of the Association of Public Land-grant Universities calling for the need “to bolster the security of their research without sacrificing the openness and collaboration that serves as a keystone of their research enterprises” and calling on universities to form “a strong partnership with federal intelligence and security agencies.” While this piece addresses the new challenges straight on, it simultaneously calls for calm by pointing out that “America’s research universities have a strong track record of working with the government to secure classified or otherwise controlled information conducted on university campuses.”

University leaders are also voicing concerns specifically about the visa scrutiny discussed above. They are writing letters to elected officials; one such example is written by the Presidents of several New Jersey institutions to the New Jersey State Assembly.

You may have wondered what the situation is in mathematics, specifically, and what the AMS is doing on this front.

We all know that mathematics is a global enterprise. More than 50 percent of Ph.D. degrees awarded in 2015–16 in the U.S. went to non-U.S. citizens.[2] Almost 70 percent of AMS authors in our four primary journals reside outside the U.S.[3] Roughly 20 percent of AMS membership is international. The AMS cohosts an international math conference each year and supports other international meetings, including the International Congress of Mathematicians. The AMS supports policies that promote and strengthen international cooperation in mathematics research and education.

 The AMS joined 60 scientific societies on a letter to the White House (sent September 4) stating that our “organizations and members are witnessing an escalating concern among U.S. and international scientists that new policies and procedures under consideration to minimize security risks will have the unintended effect of harming the scientific enterprise.” The American Statistical Association (ASA) and the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics (SIAM) also signed. The signatory societies ask that the Joint Committee on Research Environments (JCORE) consider a broad range of perspectives from the science and engineering community and for the opportunity to engage in the committee deliberations. (This committee was convened by Dr. Droegemeier and is described above). I have met Dr. Droegemeier and shared with him the demographics of the mathematics community, our reliance on foreign-born graduate students, and AMS support of the international research community. Dr. Droegemeier’s letter to societies—referred to above—responds to the September 4 letter from societies.

Additionally, the AMS joined dozens of other societies endorsing H.R.3038, discussed above.

Closing words

Temporary visa holders earn more than a third of the Ph.D.’s awarded by U.S. institutions in science and engineering. In mathematics, we are highly dependent on graduate students from China, India, South Korea, and Taiwan. This is consistent with overall trends in science and engineering, as the bar chart shows.

Source: The NSF 2017 Survey of Earned Doctorates (published December 2018):

We must maintain openness in our universities.

We must keep the country attractive for all students and postdocs.

We must keep our nation attractive for immigration.

At the same time, we must increase STEM participation of all groups.

I’ll close with another great quote from Carnegie Mellon University President Farnam Jahanian:

“As we embark upon a new academic year full of promise and opportunity, let us reaffirm our belief in the power of education to transcend social and economic divides. Let us take pride in knowing how much our work matters. And let us continue embracing the diversity that has always made, and continues to make, it all possible.”


[1] An IHE is an institute of higher education.

[2] From the Annual Survey of the Mathematical Sciences and for the period July 1, 2015–June 30, 2016:

[3] During 2014–18, in four AMS journals: Journal of the AMS, Transactions of the AMS, Proceedings of the AMS, and Mathematics of Computation.


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