Bringing together the best minds in mathematics: a Q&A with John Toland and Valerie Isham

Written by Oz Flanagan on . Posted in Features

The Centre for Mathematical Sciences occupies a ring of sleek modern buildings that houses Cambridge University’s applied and pure maths departments. Set within this collection of buildings sits the Isaac Newton Institute (INI) for Mathematical Sciences. In the world of mathematics, the work that goes on in this building is some of the most advanced theoretical work taking place globally today.

The Institute hosts research programmes that last between four weeks and six months. These programmes bring together visiting academics from around the world to work collectively in an effort to make advancements on an array of mathematical subjects.

John Toland is the current director of the Institute and the fifth professor to hold the position since the Institute opened in 1992. Prior to his appointment in 2011, he was professor of mathematics at the University of Bath since 1982.

Last year, the INI launched the Turing Gateway to Mathematics, an initiative that seeks to bridge the gap between the theoretical mathematical work that takes place at the Institute and those who may apply it in the wider world. We asked John about his hopes for the Turing Gateway and how the Institute aims to ensure its distinguished reputation in the future.

The Turing Gateway project was launched last year, why was it initiated and what potential do you think can be realised by it?

Early in my directorship, the Isaac Newton Institute (INI) received a research proposal from a group of social scientists. However, the advice I received from experts was that the proposed research was in fact 'well known, but unfortunately not known by the people who need to know it'.

That remark, which highlights the (possibly growing) gap between cutting-edge mathematical research and the subsequent impact that such research can have on science and society, led in March 2013 to the launch of the Turing Gateway to Mathematics (TGM).

The TGM aims to:

  • Facilitate communication between mathematicians and users who require access to particular mathematical expertise, and thereby to shorten pathways to impacts;
  • Distinguish between an Impact agenda (of the REF, for example) and the cutting-edge research agenda for which the Isaac Newton Institute is renowned; 
  • Manage expectations given the inevitable time-lag between fundamental research and its impact (considered by the REF to be up to 20 years);   
  • Establish new connections between mathematics and other academic areas, and with industrial, governmental and commercial users.

Working closely with INI and with the wider UK mathematical sciences community the TGM has proven in its first year that it can successfully facilitate the use of modern mathematical tools and techniques, and promote the advantages of a fundamentally mathematical viewpoint on problems from other areas. The TGM is an early stage enterprise which, given the ubiquitous nature of mathematics, has more or less unlimited potential.

The Turing Gateway was set up in response to the government ‘impact’ agenda. How do you think the government attitude to mathematical and scientific research has changed over the course of your career?

Since 1986 governments have sought to base funding of higher education institutes on an assessment of the quality of their research, and the interpretation of what this means has been refined by the Research Selectivity Exercises (1989, 1992) and the Research Assessment Exercises (1996, 2001, 2008). Even so it was a surprise when early in planning for the Research Excellence Framework (REF 2014) it was announced that a component of future university funding would be based on the impact of research beyond academic boundaries.

Since the component of impact-based funding at the next REF is expected to be even higher than now, I believe it is essential that consideration is given to correct mechanisms for rewarding genuine impact, not confined by a narrow definition which is more suited to some disciplines than to others. The REF’s current definition of impact explicitly excludes the development of mathematical tools and ideas to support academic research in other disciplines. This is not good for other disciplines when they confront mathematical challenges, nor for the mathematical sciences.

How has funding changed over the years at the Institute? Are you now more reliant on philanthropists and what effect does this have?

Between 1992 and 2014, the INI was funded by the mathematics programme of EPSRC (and its predecessors SERC and SRC). In recognition of its interdisciplinary work, it will in future be funded collectively by BBSRC, EPSRC, ESRC, NERC and STFC. In spite of this, compared with 2008 the award from the research councils has been reduced in cash terms by £100k per annum and now covers roughly 50% of overall costs. The effect has been a 40% cut in the per diem support for visitors while cover for their self-catering accommodation has been maintained. At the same time the number of high quality proposals is increasing with the effect that a major component of the Director’s time and effort is now committed to fund raising to support current activities. My ultimate ambition would be to create an endowment fund to support the many ideas that come to us for support on a regular basis – but that for now is a far away vision.

Technology has meant it is now incredibly easy to collaborate and communicate over the internet. But what advantages do you still get from having a group of mathematicians working face to face?

Programmes at INI are planned in order to develop new connections between researchers from different but mutually supporting areas, or to dig deep in addressing hard problems in collaboration with others. Its purpose is to nurture innovation (serendipity even) in research at the highest possible level and to expand horizons. It is not a place for work in existing research silos with long-time collaborators – we can all do that at our home institutions without the infrastructure that is available here.

The INI is a creative collaborative space which is occupied by up to fifty mathematical scientists at any one time (and many more when there is a workshop). Some of them may not have met before and others may not realise the relevance of other research to their own work. The INI is especially important as a forum where early career researchers meet senior colleagues and form networks that last a lifetime.

Having said that, the INI strives to ensure that the influence of these activities is not limited in space and time. All its seminars are streamed live and subsequently available in perpetuity on its web seminar archive. Moreover, international experts who are unable to attend in person can deliver lectures live from any part of the world through modern telecommunication facilities.

Moreover, participants who attend INI seminars in person can and do refresh their memories by attending the same seminar on the web a few days later. In these ways technological development improve the personal INI experience rather than making it redundant. None of this electronic wizardry detracts from the fact that personal encounters are extremely important in mathematical research.

The academic world has never been so international, how do you make sure that you continue to attract the brightest and best to your research programmes?

This is a world famous place for research in the mathematical sciences with a reputation for efficient management and a warm welcome for visitors. Recently we have had a delegation from Tokyo to study our building and the way in which programmes are managed, along with a high level visitation from Singapore with the same mission. The highly selective peer review process (five referees for each proposal) with acceptance being recommended by an independent Scientific Steering Committee, ensures the quality of programming. The corresponding high quality of organisers, key participants and the time committed to programme planning goes a long way to ensuring that invitations to participate are attractive. For the moment there is no reduction in the numbers wanting to take part in INI activities.

Valerie Isham has recently been appointed as Chair of the Scientific Steering Committee, the body who decides which research proposals should become future programmes at the INI. Valerie is professor of probability and statistics at University College London and a former president of the RSS. To get a better idea of what place statistical research has at the Institute, we asked her how she sees statistics and the other branches of mathematics collaborating.

In your view, how useful is it for statisticians to come to the INI and be able to work with other mathematicians?

As a subject, statistics is both highly inter and intra-disciplinary. Statisticians interact with those in many other fields and their interests and areas of specialisation span the whole range of mathematical science from probability to computational methods. Many areas of mathematics are relevant, including for example 'pure' mathematics areas such as analysis and algebra, and 'applied' fields like differential equations and numerical analysis. Increasingly, topics such as random matrices and networks cut across these traditional boundaries. The INI plays an invaluable role in enabling statisticians to organise and take part in top-quality research programmes that aim to bring together experts from all the relevant fields, both within mathematics and from other disciplines. It is this opportunity to interact with others including the leading international experts, to exchange views and experiences, and to promote opportunities for new research collaborations, that is so special about the INI.  

In relation to the statistical programmes that take place at the INI, how unique is the opportunity that INI gives for these research programmes?

Within the UK, the INI is pretty much unique, in that the four or six month duration of most of its programme gives extended time for collaborations to be developed and enables real research progress to be made. The care given in programme selection, through extensive peer review, helps to ensure that the programmes have the highest international standards. The ICMS in Edinburgh runs workshops that often have similar inter and intra-disciplinary aims and are also extremely valuable. However, these are usually one-week long and serve primarily to enable researchers to keep up with the latest advances. Outside the UK, there are a number of institutions, particularly in North America, that run long-duration programmes of interest to statisticians. However, a particular benefit of the INI to UK researchers is the opportunity to take part in programmes on an intermittent basis, attending for short periods of time as other commitments allow.


You can find a full overview of the research programmes taking place at the INI in the past, present and future on their website.

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