So, Scott’s comment about being dictator of a math department got me thinking (very idly), and I came up with a hypothetical for you guys: imagine you earn a preposterous amount of money one way or another, and for whatever reason you decide that the best use of it is a new institution dedicated to research in mathematics (I don’t actually agree with this premise, but one can always assume that one has a truly preposterous amount of money, and have already spent a bunch of it on family planning NGOs and smart growth advocacy, or whatever other causes you might think are a higher priority than mathematics). What model would you go with?
(Disclaimer: obviously what I’m about to say was heavily informed by my experience at IAs, but shouldn’t be read as too much of a criticism. After all, I’m talking about a hypothetical world where IAS still exists, and I doubt anyone thinks they’re going to have much success out-IASing IAS, so almost by definition, it’s better to do something a bit different, not out of criticism, but rather respect for the niche they already fill).
I’ll just note, we’re not talking about all that huge an amount of money here. IAS, which is by no means a minimal conception of a mathematics institute, has an annual budget of about $50 million (split roughly three ways between mathematics, natural science and social science/humanities), about $100 million in real estate and facilities, and around $500 million in endowment. That’s a lot of money, to be sure, but there are plenty of people in the world who have that kind of money. Now, I just have to find one who really likes math, and really trusts me.
Some things to consider:
where would you put it?: Of course, the optimal location varies depending on what kind of institute you want, but is also a question of preference. Urban or rural? Close to an established mathematical center, or further away? I’m firmly in the urban category (many people like IAS’s location, but I think it’s a net minus in terms of quality of life and net recruitment), and a personal believer in returns to concentration, so am inclined toward Central or Inman Square, Cambridge. There’s simply no other spot which gives access on foot to two of the best universities in the country. Even if you include Group II departments, there’s nowhere with the sort of overlap that MIT, Harvard, BU and Northeastern have (not to mention that a quick bike ride to Porter and 20 minutes on the train put you at Brandeis, another Group I department). The only place that’s even close is between Courant and CUNY Graduate Center in midtown Manhattan, which I think is a poor choice for expense reasons. One can certainly argue for the New York area (including Princeton and New Haven) or Chicago or the Bay Area as good competitors on a regional basis to Boston, but none of them has a core at all comparable to the one roughly centered on Central Square. Berkeley and Standford are 40 miles apart, and Northwestern and Chicago are close to 30, both with not particularly convenient transit links.
I’m lazy, so I really think that things need to be close to each other for them really be able to interact well. When I was in Berkeley, going to Stanford or Davis for a seminar was almost inconceivable to me, even though these are departments are “close by” compared to most good math departments and at least have functional transit links (though the Stanford-Berkeley one seems to be deliberately frustrating at times). But, from MIT or Harvard, I would go to Central Square for a sandwich.
But I am curious if there are less obvious choices people would support. Austin? San Diego? Seattle? Maui?
how long would you want people to stay?: honestly, I would be kind of tempted to just clone AIM somewhere else, having just one week with a somewhat loose, open conference format. This is, in part, because I really like AIM workshops, and I think more people should be exposed to that model of conferring (the important points: planning the talks over the course of the conference rather than before the conference, and the topics being assigned by the organizers with input from the audience, with a view toward bringing the audience up to speed on a particular problem, rather than necessarily covering the speaker’s latest research. Also, the room at AIM is laid out in a way that makes it easy to drop in and out of talks, something I consider a good idea).
What do people think: is there more “pent-up demand” out there in the mathematical world for week-long conferences, or year or semesters away? This isn’t a question I feel like I really know the answer to, but don’t feel like I can really hazard a guess.
would you attempt to focus the topic of the research, either over the long or short term?: for example, MSRI does this pretty tightly on a semester-basis, whereas IAS tends to do so more loosely on a yearly basis, and AIM changes from week to week (but is very tight each week). My personal feeling is that making sure that people have people to profitably work with should be one of the paramount concerns, which militates pretty strongly toward tight focus. That’s personally what I would prefer, but one could make a go at being more eclectic.
what balance of seniority would you opt for?: existing mathematics institutes seem to try to spread this pretty evenly, with something of a tilt toward people early in their careers. While this seems like a pretty reasonable strategy, I would certainly like to see some other models tried. One interesting possibility would be a aggressively recruit a big group of postdocs (or perhaps, say, people within 5 years of their Ph.D.) for one or two year stays and then parachute in more senior people on a shorter term basis (say a week or two). When I say big, I mean like 30 or 40. If you were willing to pay a bit more in salary, and put it in an appealing place (this is where choosing a location like Cambridge would come in handy), I think you could recruit very successfully (though in 2007, about 160 new Ph.D.’s were employed at Group I schools, so 40 would be a huge chunk). Of course, my position as a postdoc colors my view of this a bit, but I think greater concentrations of postdocs could have some really positive effects in terms of collaboration and spreading ideas. Other industries know that there are big benefits to people all being in the same place to physically exchange ideas (this is why MIT is developing a crust of pharmaceutical companies around its campus). On some level, it would be ideal if we could stick all the mathematicians in the world in the same city, but for various reasons, that’s not so possible for more senior people, but it might be more possible amongst people at a mobile stage in their career.
Also, this might sound trivial, but it also would be fun, which I think is easy to downplay the
importance of. Postdocs tend to have fewer peers in the same place compared to graduate students or even ladder faculty, which I think can be problematic.
Anyways, what do you guys think? What questions did I entirely forget to address?