Remarks by Tom Brzustowski, President of NSERC

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

Ladies and Gentlemen:

If I may begin, Rita, with a personal request to you. I would ask you on behalf of the entire staff of NSERC, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, to convey to our colleagues at the NSF, to the American mathematics community, and to the people of the United States our heartfelt regret and our profound outrage at the event of September 11.

I am very glad, as Nassif has already indicated that he is, that the event today was not postponed or cancelled, because to have postponed it or cancelled it would have given a victory to the terrorists. They might never have known of it, but we would have known.

Let me now move on to the most important thing that I have to do here. I have to read the magic words which make it official, and here they are. The Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada is contributing $1.5 million towards the operation of BIRS from the year 2003 to the year 2006.

Now, we are here to celebrate a hugely important event. It is hugely important not just for the participating organizations, but for our nations, and for mathematics in the world.

Let me begin by congratulating PIMS, MSRI, and MITACS. (I'll stick with the acronyms, as life is too short to spell them all out.) Let me congratulate these three organizations for their intellectual involvement and their promise to deliver the fruits of this superb international collaboration.

Let me also congratulate the funding partners. Let me congratulate the National Science Foundation of the United States. You heard in the remarks of Dr. Colwell the extensive understanding of the importance of mathematics which has driven their decision. And let me congratulate the Province of Alberta where BIRS is located. This is a province which, in my opinion, really does have its act together when it comes to science and engineering research, and BIRS is yet another illustration of that.

The hallmark of a good idea is that so many people find it obvious once it has been mentioned - obviously! Why not?! You know that Oberwolfach has succeeded for many years. Why not, by way of developing a partnership in research in mathematics in North America, set up something that would be at least as good, and maybe far better? And so it was done - on a fast track and with quick decisions. Something was done that would not have happened, could not have happened, without the vision, the energy, the tenacity, and the leadership of one person, and that of course is Nassif Ghoussoub.

When I think of the many contributions Nassif has made in mathematics, I know they include some quite decent papers on partial differential equations. (I do look at Nature Nassif. I've seen your stuff.) Quite apart from that, his contributions as a leader in organizing mathematical activity in Canada has been extraordinarily important. And now we see the leadership stretching to international collaboration, and we welcome that.

Now I should mention, perhaps for the benefit of our American colleagues rather more than the Canadian colleagues who are already convinced of this, just why this is such an important event. It is the next step in the emergence of Canadian mathematics into the prominence that it deserves. Canadian mathematicians have been good for a very long time. They have been very good, and we have many outstanding individuals, but Canadian mathematics in the corporate sense has been achieving the deserved prominence only very recently. The three institutes now active, CRM, Fields and PIMS, the Network of Centres of Excellence MITACS, are all contributing to that prominence. And today the international partnership that produced BIRS adds to it as well.

But BIRS is also important in another way. It puts the seal of recognition by the funding agencies on the way that mathematicians do research: the face to face contact, the debate of ideas, the closing of dead ends - perhaps in the presence of those who might have contributed to paving them in the first instance, the opportunity for people to change their minds, and the excitement of recognizing a really new development and the ability then to go off with colleagues and immediately talk about it some more. All these aspects of working together in a setting like BIRS are hugely important. Mathematicians assembled in an environment conducive to intellectual creativity will produce a great deal.

Let me finally come to something that I have been saying for quite a little while, and frequently - maybe even weekly. It is more of a matter for generalists thinking about mathematics than it is for mathematicians. I really do believe that mathematics has been the language of high technology. And I also believe that mathematics is becoming the eyes of science, helping scientists in all fields drink from a firehose of data. But for mathematics to function in this way, as the language and as the eyes, and as the many other things that mathematics is yet to become, there is need for continued effort to expand and strengthen the foundations of mathematics - the work of basic research in mathematics.

With that, let me conclude by congratulating one more person, as the focus now shifts from Nassif to Bob Moody. Let me congratulate Bob Moody on becoming the research director of BIRS. I think BIRS is very lucky to have Bob Moody; I think Bob Moody is very lucky to have BIRS. This is a hugely important international effort which will be important for Canadian mathematics, for mathematics in the United States, and ultimately for mathematics in the world. I congratulate all who participated in creating it. I thank our funding partners and I wish everybody success in the years to come.

Thank you very much.