Remarks by Rita Colwell, Director of the NSF

Joint Press Conference for Banff International Research Station for Mathematical Innovation and Discovery Arlington, Virginia, September 24, 2001

Good afternoon, everyone. I am Rita Colwell, director of the U.S. National Science Foundation, and it is a great pleasure to take part in this ceremony -- really a "virtual ribbon-cutting" -- today.

Our event connects two nations, the United States and Canada, exemplary neighbors who have always cherished peace between each other. In that tradition, today we inaugurate an enterprise that represents the best of the human spirit.

Following the tragic attacks on the United States two weeks ago, this event today lifts our spirits as it symbolizes our joint endeavor to push back the frontiers of knowledge. We have called today's event "Close Parallels"--a mathematical metaphor evoking the steadfast closeness of our nations.

The National Science Foundation supports cutting-edge science and engineering across the range of disciplines. We always strive to integrate research and education, really two faces of the same coin. We invest in the very best of the future, the fundamental research whose ultimate outcome no one can foresee. Mathematical research is an ideal example of such fertile ground for far-reaching investment.

Today NSF is very pleased to announce an award to the Mathematical Sciences Research Institute--MSRI. The award of $1.27 million over four years will support United States' participation at the Banff International Research Station for Mathematical Innovation and Discovery. The research station in the Canadian Rockies in Banff will provide a spectacular setting for intensive mathematical research, when it opens in 2003. The station is a project of both our nations, led by the Pacific Institute for the Mathematical Sciences in Vancouver, British Columbia, and MSRI, which I've already mentioned, located in Berkeley, California.

I cannot resist quoting the director of the Pacific Institute, Nassif Ghoussoub; he said that the Banff center will enable visitors to ``live, eat and breathe mathematics.'' (I have to say that sounds like a very nourishing diet--talk about ``brain food!'')

Our NSF contribution joins Canadian support that will be described by our Canadian partners today. The NSF award will help support the travel and living expenses of participants in the research station's programs, especially those from the U.S. I should emphasize that our Canadian colleagues and funding agencies have taken the lead in bringing the Banff center into being. This activity underscores how international cooperation adds up to more than what any nation could accomplish alone.

Every important question of science and engineering is under study by researchers in nations around the world. The mathematical and statistical communities of the United States are at the forefront in engaging their counterparts abroad.

International connections in mathematics are important throughout a career in science. In June of this year, NSF helped to support the International Mathematical Olympiad, a competition that brought talented young people from more than eighty countries to Washington, D.C. for the annual event that was first held in Romania in 1959. It was a rare privilege for us to host the Olympiad in the U.S. However, every year, NSF hosts the U.S. Olympiad team in Washington to honor their achievements.

Our investment in the Banff Center is tangible proof of the vital and growing role of the mathematical sciences in all of science and engineering. I would like to show a few slides now, to illustrate this fundamental importance of mathematics.

E.O. Wilson writes that ``...mathematics seems to point arrowlike toward the ultimate goal of objective truth.'' Indeed, mathematics is the ultimate cross-cutting discipline, the springboard for advances across the board. Mathematics is both a powerful tool for insight and a common language for science. A good example, pictured here, is the fractal, a famous illustration of how inner principles of mathematics enable us to model many natural structures. Cosmologists are beginning to draw an awesome portrait of the structure of the universe--using mathematics as the medium. On the other end of the scale, particle physicists sketch quantum phenomena, again with mathematics as their brush and palette. In the realm of climate, our ability to predict El Nino--the irregular shifts in ocean and atmospheric conditions--is a superb example of where mathematics and computing have brought us. The meeting of mathematics and medicine augurs well for discovery on many fronts. Mathematics and complexity theory, for instance, give insight into the human heart. The top pictures are computer simulations of the electrical activity in a normal heart. Below are abnormal patterns, or fibrillation. Mathematicians are investigating why some patterns of electrical stimulus are better at eliminating fibrillation. Mathematics and biology transform each other. The information science of life edges ever closer to electronic information science. Advances in understanding life may lead to new modes of computing, notably biological computing.

To strengthen the mathematical foundations of science and society, the National Science Foundation has proposed a new priority area. We seek to advance frontiers in three interlinked areas: fundamental mathematical and statistical sciences, interdisciplinary research involving the mathematical sciences, and mathematical sciences education.

I show this final slide as a mathematical metaphor. Fractal sets like we see here can be used to build computer models of clouds, plants, the surface of the sea, even networks of blood vessels. Yet, mathematics also transports us beyond the practical, into the realm of the imagination and art. A coming together of brilliant imaginations for a higher purpose will be a hallmark of the Banff Center.

We look forward to an inspiring and long-lasting engagement among our mathematical scientists, our Canadian colleagues, and others from around the world, in a superb environment for communication and collaboration.