Canada Should Leverage its Connection to the Fields Medal

John Charles Fields was born in Hamilton Ontario in 1863, graduated from the University of Toronto in 1884, and got his PhD from Johns Hopkins University in 1887. Fields helped establish the National Research Council, the precursor to NSERC. Canadians should be proud that John Charles Fields diplomatically unified the International Mathematical Union during the time between WW1 and WW2 to create the International Medal for Outstanding Discoveries in Mathematics, known colloquially as the the Fields Medal. This award is regarded as the highest honor a mathematician can receive. It is often described as the Nobel Prize of Mathematics although I don’t like that moniker.

The Fields Medal is awarded to mathematicians under age 40 for outstanding discoveries. As a result, the Fields Medal often highlights emerging mathematical fields with recent breakthroughs made by a vibrant young researcher. The awarding of the Medal often energizes the research activity in these fields.

The Abel Prize was founded in 2003 by Norway with an initial investment of $23M. How should one assess the value of the Nobel Prize system for the country of Sweden? How should Norway value the Abel Prize? Based on the prize amounts, Canada appears to value research differently than her northern neighbors.

A Public Proposal

A one-time-only Canadian investment of ~\$5M (assuming a ~5% return on investment) would generate enough interest to raise the value for 4 Fields Medals each valued at $250K given every 4 years. In the past, the IMU’s prize committee has sometimes awarded fewer than 4 medals so \$5M might generate a fund that sustains value against inflation. Through philanthropy or government investment (and subject to peer review), Canada should raise level of the Fields Medal.

(Why $250K and not $1M? The Fields Medal is awarded when a researcher is in full creative bloom, and before the age of 40 years old. The 40 year rule fundamentally distinguishes the Fields Medal from the Nobel Prize. My view is that the award should be substantial but not life-altering, assuming a typical academic salary and lifestyle. )

Canada should leverage its connection to the Fields Medal starting at the next International Congress of Mathematicians in Seoul in August 2014:

  • The Prime Minister of Canada should award the medals at the next ICM to be held in Seoul, Korea in August 2014.
  • The raised award amounts and the participation by Canada’s government will generate interest in mathematics, the Fields Medal and in Canada, as a country that values the advancement of knowledge.
  • Canada’s mathematical research institutes (PIMS, BIRS, Fields, Perimeter, CRM) should jointly organize a year of concentration targeting the rapidly developing areas highlighted by the Medals during calendar year 2015. The four month interlude between the announcement of the Medals at the ICM and the beginning of 2015 can be used to plan the programs. Summer schools should be designed to bring advanced undergraduate and graduate students into the stream of ideas and discoveries highlighted by the medals. In principle, funds for these activities are already committed by NSERC through its long term commitment to the institutes.
  • Canada should aim higher and build new mathematics education practices intertwining research universities and the public schools using interactive technologies towards long-term goals like:
    • Canada should set a national strategy to win the International Mathematical Olympiad. Milestones: consistent top ten finishes within five years; top five finishes thereafter.
    • Canada should rejuvenate K-12 enriched mathematics education toward growing (not importing) a Fields Medalist in the next 12 years.
    • Canada should produce a female Fields Medalist.
The International Medal for Outstanding Discoveries in Mathematics, colloquially named after its Canadian founder John Charles Fields as the Fields Medal, is the world’s top honor for mathematical advancement. Canada should make the value of this award commensurate with its prestige and make long term plans to leverage that investment.

Unfortunately, the window for public submissions to the six member expert panel reviewing Canada’s federal research and development policy has closed. Nevertheless, I hope that this proposal is considered by that review panel and by the Science, Technology and Innovation Council. The recent budget announcements by the Harper and McGuinty governments include stunning investments in research on the brain ($100M), the genome ($65M), optics ($45M), the Perimeter Institute (Federal $50M, Ontario $50M) and the SR&ED program (~$4B, yes, Billion) giving tax breaks to business claiming R&D expenses. Research and development investments by governments, like the one proposed here, and those recently announced should be made strategically and through a transparent and robust peer review system.