Tag Archives: NSF

Why not data science?

Addendum to the previous post: if the goal — surely a worthwhile one — is to promote NSF-DMS funding for data sciences, why not change the name to Division of Mathematical and Data Sciences?  My experience at the very interesting “High-dimensional phenomena” workshop at IMA was that good work in this area is being done not only by self-described statisticians, but by mathematicians, computer scientists, and electrical engineers; it seems reasonable to use a name that doesn’t suggest the field is the property of a single academic department.

Also, a colleague points out to me that DMSS would inevitably pronounced “Dumbass.”  So there’s that.

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Division of Mathematical and Statistical Sciences

Apparently the NSF is considering changing the name of the DMS (Division of Mathematical Sciences) to DMSS (Division of Mathematical and Statistical Sciences.)  There is some unease — surely at least partially related to the recent decision by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, the NSF’s rough British analogue, to restrict their math postdoctoral program to cover applied probability and statistics only.  I can attest from personal experience that pure mathematicians are very excited about the rise of data science — but also concerned about it choking out K-theory and functional analysis and geometric group theory and etc and etc.

Here’s the letter from Eric Friedlander, current AMS president:

October 10, 2011

Dear Colleagues,

I write to encourage discussion and comments among members of the AMS about the proposal under consideration by the National Science Foundation (NSF) that NSF’s Division of Mathematical Sciences (DMS) be renamed the Division of Mathematical and Statistical Sciences.  At the request of the NSF, I attach a letter from DMS Division Director Sastry Pantula advocating this name change; I also attach a particularly cogent response from a member of the AMS leadership.  

Please send your views and comments to
(The process to summarize comments is described below.)

Many of us strongly oppose this name change.  Such a name change could create an unnecessary and unfortunate divide in the mathematical sciences community.  We question whether this portends a shift within DMS away from support of basic research toward mission-oriented research.  This could bring the less mathematical aspects of Statistics into the same funding pool as basic research in Mathematical Sciences, thereby negatively impacting resources available for basic research in the Mathematical Sciences, including basic research in Statistics.

While waiting for NSF approval to consult the broad mathematical community, I have discussed this personally  with many mathematical scientists, including the leadership of the AMS.  The responses I have received have been near-unanimous in their opposition to such a name change.  It is significant that three previous DMS Division Directors Peter March, William Rundell, and Philippe Tondeur have written to express their opposition to this name change.

Permit me to give some reasons why such a name change is much more important than “just a name.”

1.)  The mission of the NSF is to fund basic research.  Much of
    mission-oriented Statistics is funded by other federal agencies,
    hospitals, industry, etc.  This name change suggests a move within
    DMS to relax its focus on basic research.
2.)  The suggestion of “new resources to all core programs” is far
    different from any commitment to seek new resources to support the
    basic research of these programs.
3.)  The current name (Division of Mathematical Sciences) was crafted to
    be inclusive.  The inclusiveness of DMS has resulted in increased
    funding for many programs including Statistics.  The Mathematical
    Sciences should work together, emphasizing commonality and presenting
    the best case for the importance of the Mathematical Sciences.
4.)  Statistics is only one of 10 programs supported by DMS.  In 2010, of
    the 2978 proposals submitted to DMS core programs, 242 were submitted
    to the Statistics program.  It is natural to ask why Statistics
    appears to be uniquely selected by DMS for special emphasis.
5.)  The analysis of big data is indeed important, and the Mathematical
    Sciences will play an important role in developing fundamental concepts
    and approaches to manage the “data deluge” and extract useful content.
    That said, National Science Foundation support of the Mathematical
    Sciences should energetically embrace basic research in all aspects
    of the Mathematical Sciences to advance fundamental knowledge and
    initiate unexpected revolutionary applications.

I encourage you to send your views and comments to

Our plan is to have a small AMS committee review comments received, prepare a summary of comments (names of responders would be suppressed), give this summary to the NSF, and post this summary on the AMS web page. We are asked to provide the NSF with an initial summary by mid-December, so please respond by December 1 if possible.  We also expect to have one or more forums at the Joint Mathematics Meeting in Boston in early January at which this name change will be discussed with NSF leaders.



Eric M. Friedlander
(President, AMS)

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Two CAREER awards at Wisconsin

I always post about our great new faculty members when we hire them, but it’s worth mentioning that they keep being great once they get here.  Of the 27 CAREER grants awarded by NSF’s Division of Mathematical Sciences this year, two went to the UW-Madison math department:   Benedek Valkó for “Random eigenvalue problems and fluctuations of large stochastic systems” and Andrej Zlatoš for “Reactive Processes and Turbulent Flows.”

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Should NSF give more, but smaller, graduate fellowships?

That’s a proposal that appeared today on Citizen’s Briefing Book, the digg-style section of the Obama transition website where interested citizens can post, and vote on, suggestions for the new administration.

On first glance, this sounds good to me! Currently, the NSF has a successful graduate fellowship program, which each year awards a few dozen students full support for their Ph.D. study, along with a $30,000 annual stipend. These students are the very strongest math undergraduates in the country, and the large majority go to one of the top 5 programs.

What if, instead, the NSF gave ten times as many students a much smaller package? Say, enough to supplement a TA salary by $5,000 per year, and to offer one or two semesters of full support to be used during the dissertation year? That would make a big difference to a lot of students at state universities, who otherwise have limited time off from teaching.

The argument for using the money to fund a small number of full-tuition fellowships, I guess, is that budgets are limited even at Harvard and Princeton, and the NSF fellowships allow more students to train at top departments than otherwise would. From running graduate admissions at Princeton I know very well that many, many students who would succeed at Princeton get rejected in favor of even stronger applicants. But graduate admissions are limited by things besides money — primarily the time and attention of the faculty.

The justification for the huge stipend is even harder to imagine. It’s more than doubled since I was a grad student fellow in the mid-90s. If a student is deciding whether to go to grad school on financial grounds, $30K is the same as $15K — bubkes next to what a star math major can make in industry.

So what would happen if the NSF gave many small fellowships instead of a few big ones? The students at Harvard and Princeton would still be fully supported, maybe teaching one semester to get some classroom experience. Maybe some students who otherwise would have gone to Harvard and Princeton would go to Chicago or Columbia instead. And a lot of U.S. students at good places like Wisconsin would write better dissertations faster.

Of course, the effect would also include a big transfer of wealth from the top-5 math departments to my graduate students; so maybe my self-interest is showing here.

See also: I. Laba’s thoughtful post on Canada’s NSERC Discovery Grant program, and whether it should switch from it’s current “many small grants” model to a “few large grants” model like the current NSF Graduate Fellowship.

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