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IMSI: A New NSF-Funded Institute

1 December 2020 No Comment

Kevin Corlette is a professor in the department of mathematics at The University of Chicago and the director of IMSI.

Douglas Simpson is a professor in the department of statistics and the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and is associate director of IMSI.

Panagiotis Souganidis is a professor in the department of mathematics and a member of the Committee on Computational and Applied Mathematics at The University of Chicago. He is the scientific adviser at IMSI.

The Institute for Mathematical and Statistical Innovation (IMSI) is a new mathematical sciences research institute funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF). This institute is located at The University of Chicago and managed in partnership with Northwestern University, the University of Illinois at Chicago, and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. It is the newest member of the portfolio of institutes funded by the Division of Mathematical Sciences, joining the American Institute of Mathematics (AIM), School of Mathematics at the Institute for Advanced Study (IAS), Institute for Computational and Experimental Research in Mathematics (ICERM), Institute for Pure and Applied Mathematics (IPAM), Mathematical Sciences Research Institute (MSRI), and Statistical and Applied Mathematical Sciences Institute (SAMSI).

The mission of IMSI is to apply rigorous mathematics and statistics to urgent, complex scientific and societal problems and to spur transformational change in the mathematical sciences and mathematical sciences community.

A distinctive feature of the new institute is the organization of programs around longer-term scientific themes in key areas of application, with the application areas driving new mathematics and statistics. The aim is to enable sustained, ongoing advances in both the substantive area and mathematical sciences.

The ASA community is acutely aware that interactions with other disciplines have enriched and strengthened the core mathematical science disciplines. Furthermore, many are involved in application areas that pose novel challenges to the mathematical sciences. IMSI intends to accelerate progress on these problems by bringing together powerful teams of cross-disciplinary researchers for focused efforts to advance both the application and our field. Participation of ASA members in IMSI programs will be crucial to success in these endeavors.

The focus on applications is driven by an understanding that the mathematical sciences are woven inextricably into the fabric of the wider enterprise of research, science, and technology. If the mathematical sciences are to thrive, they must do so as part of that wider enterprise.

While mathematical tools and insights have always been crucial to research in other disciplines, their usefulness has been broadening and intensifying. The National Academies’ report The Mathematical Sciences in 2025 noted the mathematical sciences are becoming “an increasingly integral and essential component of a growing array of areas of investigation” and went on to argue that “the mathematical sciences have an exciting opportunity to solidify their role as a linchpin of twenty-first century research and technology” through a transformation into a discipline with “much broader reach and greater potential impact.” IMSI aims to be a catalyst for this kind of transformation of the mathematical sciences.

An important dimension of the potential impact of the mathematical sciences is its capacity to bring insight to challenges that arise, often with urgency, for society. Examples include the problem of modeling the spread of COVID-19 and its interactions with social distancing policies, the economy, and various forms of infrastructure; the problem of modeling climate and the effects of climate change on the conditions that make life on earth possible; and the power of ideas and techniques from artificial intelligence and machine learning to transform human society, both for good and ill.

These are challenges in which the mathematical sciences can make a difference and which, in many cases, demand all hands on deck. Responding to these challenges is an essential part of realizing the full potential impact of the mathematical sciences. It is also crucial to the health and diversity of the mathematical sciences community: We are less likely to attract new talent to the field if the field remains on the sidelines in the face of urgent challenges.

This last point highlights another element of the mission: the transformation of the mathematical sciences community. The Mathematical Sciences in 2025 pointed to benefits that would accrue to the mathematical sciences if more of its practitioners had an understanding of the general landscape of the mathematical sciences beyond their areas of expertise, the ability to communicate and collaborate across disciplinary boundaries, a better understanding of the role of the mathematical sciences in other disciplines, and more experience with computation. IMSI aims to offer researchers opportunities to develop these qualities more fully and thereby catalyze the development of a new breed of interdisciplinary mathematical scientist through boot camps, internships, research programs of various lengths, and training in communication across disciplines.

The long-term scientific themes will evolve over time, but only on relatively long timescales of a decade or more. There are six initial themes for IMSI: climate science, data and information, health and medical care, materials science, quantum computing and information, and uncertainty quantification.

Scientific activity at IMSI will take a variety of forms, including the following:

  • Long programs, typically three months in length, which bring a large interdisciplinary group of researchers together for a period of sustained focus on an area that seems ripe for progress
  • Workshops, either standalone or attached to a long program, of up to a week in length
  • Interdisciplinary research clusters in which small interdisciplinary teams collaborate on promising projects
  • Research collaboration workshops in which teams of senior and junior researchers work on problems over several months, with the work brought to completion in a concluding workshop

These activities are expected to fall within the scope of IMSI’s scientific themes, except for possibly standalone workshops, which can be used to explore a wider range of territory.

This year is a ramp-up year for IMSI, and the research activity will primarily take the form of workshops. We expect to host (either virtually or in person) eight workshops.

We plan to follow what we expect will be a more typical schedule in 2021–2022 with long programs—Distributed Solutions to Complex Societal Problems in the fall and Decision Making and Uncertainty in the spring. Applications for participation in these programs, as well as for associated tutorial programs in the summer of 2021, are open.

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