Success through Collaboration

Posted by Paul Glendinning on 08 November 2017

Part of my job at ICMS is to make sure that the infrastructure needed by the research community is in place and available to those who can make the best use of it. In most areas of science and engineering this conjures up pictures of large scale experimental facilities which a single institution would find hard to fund effectively, but I work with the mathematical sciences community, so what does infrastructure mean for us?

A history of collaboration

The classic (mis-)description of a mathematician's needs is monastic: a piece of paper, a pencil and the time to think. This may sound romantic, but it has never been true. Three hundred years ago Newton was pressurising colleagues to send him their latest celestial observations. Seventy years ago Fisher invented modern statistics at the Rothamstead Experimental Station where he was analysing data produced by agricultural experiments. Forty years ago the classification of finite simple groups, one of the major twentieth century achievements in mathematics, was a collaborative effort loosely organised by a few leading figures in the field. And, of course, we use computers! Communication between mathematical scientists and between the mathematical sciences and other disciplines has continued to grow fast - papers are available on arXiv years before they are published and mathematical scientists travel the globe to meet each other so that ideas can be chewed over face to face, accelerating the production of new directions to investigate.

Making connections

It is the recognition that personal contact between experts in the field can be so much more effective and efficient than exchanging papers or emails (or even Skype) that drives mathematicians to attend workshops and conferences. And to the extent that scientific infrastructure is the enabler of scientific progress, a mathematical scientist's infrastructure is the opportunity to meet with other experts and to be able to develop new ideas either in collaborations forged through those conversations or individually, given confidence by the support of those conversations. This is what ICMS and its sister institution, the Isaac Newton Institute (INI) in Cambridge, deliver to the mathematical sciences research community. The international dimension provides a welcome exchange of different research expertise and priorities which will be even more important following Brexit. At ICMS we run focused workshops (typically one week) whilst the INI run longer research programmes (typically three to six months long). This pattern is recognised across Europe and North America and the UK holds fewer events of this sort than almost all of its obvious international comparators.

Encouraging diversity

Direct contact is equally vital for the development of interdisciplinary research. Here it is essential to develop trust and confidence so that the different languages used can be understood across the discipline boundaries. This is equally true of work with industrial partners, and ICMS puts a lot of resource into building and fostering these emerging cross-disciplinary communities.

Early career researchers benefit from events which allow them to showcase their research to an international audience and to talk informally to established researchers in their field and each other. This brings them into the international research community and can help their career development. We run training sessions on knowledge exchange and on public engagement. We also champion diversity, for example we set targets for organisers on the number of women involved in the workshops as speakers and as participants.

Changing with the times

Over the past few years a number of reports have emphasised the centrality of mathematical science research to the UK economy (the Deloitte report 2012 (PDF), which shows that 16 per cent of UK GVA is underpinned by mathematical research), its quality (IRMS 2010 (PDF), which emphasised the geographical distribution of research excellence across the country but also the poor record we have on diversity) and the excellent standing of ICMS and INI both nationally and internationally (EPSRC Review of Mathematical Sciences Infrastructure 2015). All three of these reports were commissioned by EPSRC, and since a good knowledge of the context in which we operate is essential for good planning I hope that this fine track record will continue. The strength and applicability of mathematical science research is not always reflected in our involvement in wider projects such as the Global Challenges Research Fund. At ICMS we pride ourselves on being nimble, and we plan to hold strategic workshops to ensure that new methodologies and connections are understood in the UK at an early time, that industrial opportunities are maximised, and that the mathematical science community can scope new funding initiatives. This leadership in strategic development is another feature of good infrastructure.

Shoulders of giants?

Newton said he was only able to see so far because he stood on the shoulders of giants. That is one way of looking at it. Another is that he was only able to see so far because he stood shoulder to shoulder with other thinkers of his time (although admittedly there could be some friction where Newton was concerned). ICMS provides a supportive, inclusive arena in which research excellence in the mathematical sciences together with all its possible links, and the people who undertake this research, can flourish.


In the following table, contact information relevant to the page. The first column is for visual reference only. Data is in the right column.

Photo of Paul Glendinning
Name: Paul Glendinning
Job title: Scientific Director, International Centre for Mathematical Sciences,
Organisation: University of Edinburgh

Paul Glendinning is Scientific Director of the International Centre for Mathematical Sciences, Edinburgh. Follow Paul on twitter @paglend.