AUSTRALIAN MATHEMATICAL SCIENCES INSTITUTE: The Early Years
AMSI’s history begins with early attempts to emulate what was occurring in other nations. In 1991, an Australian Research Council commissioned report recommended the creation of a national mathematical sciences research centre.
A 1995 review called for a Cooperative Research Centre for Industrial and Applied Mathematics as well as a National Research Centre for the Mathematical Sciences. University funding in the 1990s resulted in the dramatics contraction of Australian mathematical sciences and hopes for either centre vanished.
In July 1997, the Australian Mathematical Society (AustMS) employed Ms Jan Thomas as Executive Officer. This role allowed her to influence a significant change in the mathematical sciences. She reconvened annual meetings for heads of mathematics departments and worked with them collecting and publishing data relating to the state of the mathematical sciences in Australian universities. All this was crucial to the coming establishment of AMSI.
In 1998 Ms Thomas was elected to the Federation of Scientific and Technological Societies (FASTS) — now Science & Technology Australia —executive. Post the 1995 review, unforeseen problems had emerged in mathematical sciences departments around the country. In particular it was apparent that many of Australia’s best mathematical minds were taking positions overseas. The flow of experienced research mathematical scientists leaving, and the trickle coming in, was published by Ms Thomas in a FASTS Occasional Paper in October 2000, updated in 2002.
In 2000 Ms Thomas briefly visited the Fields Institute in Canada. After her visit she contacted a number of eminent mathematical scientists in Australia to inform them of the range of industry, education and research activities the institute was involved in. Ms Thomas proposed that Australia should pursue something closely resembling the Fields model. Those she spoke to supported the idea to establish a Fields type institute and it was included in the FASTS paper (p. 23).
Professor Lynn Batten was particularly enthusiastic about a Fields model. Before taking a position at Deakin University she had been involved in all three Canadian mathematical institutes and her involvement had included time on the Fields board and executive. At the annual AustMS meeting in Canberra in 2001, Professor Batten approached Professor Tony Guttmann and Ms Thomas and pointed out the Victorian Government’s Science, Technology and Innovation (STI) Infrastructure program.
The preliminary application was due by the end of October 2001. Professor Guttmann obtained the University of Melbourne’s support, and the preliminary application for AMSI survived and made the short-list of projects that were to develop a full business plan.
Professor Guttmann and Ms Thomas wrote the proposal. And AMSI will always be indebted to Professor Batten and Professor Garth Gaudry. Professor Batten for her knowledge of the Fields and suggesting STI; Professor Gaudry who immediately provided the support of the University of New South Wales (UNSW) when Ms Thomas contacted the Heads of Mathematical Sciences Departments through her role at AustMS .
After surviving the initial STI cull, a full proposal and business plan had to be submitted. Professor Guttmann and Thomas had to attend ‘how to write a business plan’ school. Most other bids had huge resources; AMSI had the support of the FASTS paper and friends including Professor Sir Gus Nossal.
The business plan was submitted on 10 April 2002. It identified three themes AMSI intended to tackle.: industry support, research and education.
In July 2002 AMSI was awarded $1m from STI. Dr Jim Lewis agreed to be the interim chair of the board and the first meeting was held on 20 October. AMSI became a legally constituted Unincorporated Joint Venture on 2 November 2002. The signing of the Joint Venture Agreement with its initial six partners was finalised on 20 December 2002.
The University of Melbourne, as the lead agent, provided space in the basement of a new building in Carlton.
Professor Guttmann was interim director but he had to relinquish this role with AMSI when an application for an Australian Research Council (ARC) Centre of Excellence for Mathematics and Statistics of Complex Systems (MASCOS) he was leading was successful. In supporting the MASCOS proposal, the ARC noted that the mathematical sciences had shown they could collaborate in establishing AMSI.
Professor Gaudry had been interim deputy director and took over as interim director from 1 February 2003. He was subsequently confirmed as the inaugural director.
AMSI’s future was greatly assisted by funding from the federal government. Dr Brendan Nelson became Minister for Education, Science and Training and in 2002 he appointed Dr Thomas Barlow as his science advisor. Ms Thomas was travelling to Sydney once a month for meetings regarding the upcoming International Congress on Industrial and Applied Mathematics (ICIAM). She arranged a breakfast meeting with Dr Barlow and asked Professor Gaudry to attend – Professor Gaudry lived in Dr Nelson’s electorate and was head of the school of mathematics and statistics at UNSW.
Dr Barlow was shown the data in the FASTS paper and meetings with Dr Nelson in Sydney and Canberra followed. Once AMSI was established Dr Nelson was keen to help and funding for a summer school was suggested. Late in 2002 Professor Guttmann received a phone call from the minister’s office asking him to submit a budget for the summer school to the federal government’s Higher Education Initiatives Program. A grant of nearly $200,000 was obtained and so, with AMSI barely established and still without offices, the first Summer School opened with 107 students. Dr Nelson visited the School on 20 February 2003.
On May 22 2003 the Hon. John Brumby, the then minister in charge of the STI project, opened the AMSI offices.
Similar funding was obtained for the 2004 summer school, held at UNSW. Dr Nelson attended and opened the four week residential school. The big announcement on this occasion was that AMSI had been awarded a four-year grant of $7.8m to establish the International Centre of Excellence for Education in Mathematics (ICE-EM).
ICE-EM was an initiative in the 2003 federal budget. Professors Gaudry and Guttmann, and Ms Thomas wrote the ICE-EM proposal with input from Professor Peter Hall and Professor Neil Trudinger.
ICE-EM allowed AMSI to begin a vibrant program in schools; it also stabilised the summer school, introduced other higher education programs and established the Access Grid Room network – now the Advanced Collaborative Environment.
The annual reports following the ICE-EM grant show how AMSI has grown to the vital institute it now is.
Material supplied by Jan Thomas with assistance from Tony Guttmann
Editorial assistance by Stephanie Pradier
(1) Review of Grants Outcomes No. 9: Mathematical Sciences 1987 – 1991
(5) Professor Gaudry died on 18 October 2012. For details on his contribution to AMSI and the mathematical sciences see: https://www.austms.org.au/Publ/Gazette/2013/Mar13/Gaudry.pdf