2011 Winter CMS Town Hall Notes

The 2011 Winter CMS Meeting took place this past weekend. On Sunday (2011-12-11), there was a CMS Town Hall meeting. The discussion was led by a panel consisting of Long Range Plan Committee Chair Nancy Reid, CMS President Jacques Hurtubise, and CMS Director Johan Rudnick (who was partially obscured by a poinsetta). Attendees to the town hall meeting were fed a free lunch.

Long Range Plan Update

Nancy gave a status update on the long range plan. She reported that the committee met in October and is in the process of writing. They hope to have a draft version of the report available in late February with a target goal of final publication in June 2012. Nancy also reported that she and Math-NSERC Liaison Committee Chair Walter Craig had sent a letter of recommendations to NSERC for this year's Discovery Grants competition. The letter is posted here and also on the LRP web space.

Nancy reported that the overall federal funding envelope for math/stats through NSERC (Discovery grants, Institute, …) is around $21M/y. To function effectively, the Institutes require additional funds from the Provinces and other partners. To avoid the departures of talented mathematicians from Canada as forecasted last year, there is a need for more funding. I asked if the LRP report would contrast the circumstances faced by Canada’s financially threatened math/stats community with the recent <a href=“http://blog.math.toronto.edu/colliand/tag/perimeter-institute/">$100M ( $50M federal, $50M Ontario) gift to the Perimeter Institute. Nancy replied that the LRP report will only address funds granted through NSERC and will not comment on grants given through other sources.

Persistent Concerns about NSERC and Discovery Grants

The open discussion revealed that there remain serious concerns within the Canadian mathematical community about NSERC and the Discovery Grants program. Nancy reported that consultations with NSERC have “not always been easy.” Brett Stevens expressed the view that the weight given to the training of highly qualified personnel in evaluating the merit of proposals was problematic. Nancy relayed that these issues had been raised with Isabelle Blain. Based on those conversations, Nancy predicted that no substantial review of the new system would take place until 2014.

According to Nancy, NSERC staff claims that no discipline other than mathematics has complained about the new peer review system. I relayed that there have been reports by computer scientists and physicists of troubles with the outcomes of their recent competitions. NSERC might not be aware of the troubles in other disciplines but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist. Through the Liaison Committee, the LRP process, the Institutes, meetings of chairs, trans-Canada research collaborations, and meetings of the CMS and SSC, the math/stats community in Canada has strong communications channels. These channels allowed us to see the anomalies in the 2011 outcome through a national lens. I wonder if other disciplines would see problems with the conference model if they too had a wide enough vantage point on the outcome of their recent Discovery Grants competitions.

There was some discussion about how NSERC has moved funds away from the Discovery Grants program into a potpourri of programs supporting commercialization and academic-industrial partnerships. As mentioned in the 2007 report of the International Review panel (which led to the new peer review system), pure mathematics is unfairly punished when basic research funds are redirected toward short term commercialization goals.

Eddie Campbell isolated an issue that our community must confront. Should NSERC fund lots of smaller grants or fewer larger grants? There is a fixed amount of money in the federal budget for mathematics. How should those funds be spread out? Jacques mentioned that “spreading peanut butter” is a frequent metaphor used in discussions around this issue.


I highlighted Minister Tony Clement’s call for federal government transparency. With this background, I asked Nancy if the LRP could arrange for the release of NSERC President Suzanne Fortier’s slides from her public presentation at the Summer 2011 CMS meeting. Nancy replied that the LRP has the slides but has been instructed not to circulate them. Nancy also reported that the LRP had requested data regarding the appeals numbers and success rate. She said the success rate is running around 25% but the LRP had not yet received the requested data. In light of Mr. Clement’s call for federal government transparency, I wonder why the data presented publicly by NSERC’s President to the Canadian Mathematical Society and requested by the LRP remains concealed from public view.

Immigration Policy Concerns

David Pike expressed frustration that Canada’s immigration rules prevent international graduate students from seeking permanent residency. I didn’t quite understand the details. David reported that the policy is seriously affecting his finishing PhD student who wishes to stay in Canada but will probably be forced to leave. Canada and the provinces invest heavily in the training of international graduate students. David reported that current immigration policy prevents Canada and the provinces from benefiting from this investment since these highly qualified graduates are often required to leave after earning their PhD.

The CMS town hall meeting was a great opportunity for discussion among members of the Canadian math/stats community. I look forward to the LRP report and am grateful for all the hard work that Nancy Reid and the committee have done.