AMSI 10-year Anniversary Celebrations

Jan Thomas, AMSI's founding Executive Officer, reflects on AMSI's first 10 years and looks towards the future.

The history of AMSI begins at least 20 years ago. In November 1991, the chair of the ARC, Max Brennan, commissioned an evaluation of the funding of the mathematical sciences through the ARC large Grants Scheme. The panel was chaired by Derek Robinson with the other members being eminent overseas mathematical scientists. Key submissions came from Hyam Rubinstein for AustMS and Tim Brown for SSAI.  Recommendation 10 reads:

The ARC should urgently take steps to assist the creation of a national mathematical sciences research centre, covering all research in all areas of mathematics and its applications, along the lines of MSRI, IMA, Fields and Newton

The ARC response to the panel’s report was submitted to the then Minister for Employment, Education and Training, Kim Beazley, by Peter Laver in 1993 and in regard to Recommendation 10 stated:

This recommendation will be considered by the ARC in conjunction with determining fields for the next round of Special Research Centres.

The next review of mathematical sciences was in 1995, published just prior to the 1996 election and the election that led to funding policies that had a serious effect on mathematical sciences. This review was even more ambitious calling for a Cooperative Research Centre for Industrial and Applied Mathematics as well as a research centre.

In 2000 I had the opportunity to visit the Fields Institute for a day at a time when I was gathering data for a FASTS – now Science Technology Australia - occasional paper of the crisis facing Australian mathematical sciences. I emailed a few key people, Garth Gaudry, Ian Sloan, Tony Guttmann and Lynn Batten suggesting we needed to begin looking at something more like the Fields Institute with its interests in research, industry and education. This was before MITACS which grew out of the Canadian institutes sometime later. So at that time Fields had considerable industry involvement. They had also had a contract to manage a new school curriculum. I got enthusiastic responses suggesting I develop the idea further.

I incorporated it in the FASTS paper ( see which did have a considerable effect and progress was certainly being made in some sections of government and opposition. Most of you won’t remember but in the 2001 election the Labor party policy had $3m a year for a mathematical sciences institute. I was told by someone in Beazley’s office that the mathematical sciences community would have to tell them how it would be done. This proposal sank along with the refugee boat that led to the Tampa ‘children overboard’ and re-election of the Howard government.

I will leave Tony Guttmann to describe our successful approach to the Victorian Government and formation of AMSI.

With one exception I am going to leave it to others to note the contribution of many in the formation of AMSI. The exception is Garth Gaudry who unfortunately can’t be here tonight.

Garth has made a major contribution to the political leadership in the mathematical sciences well before AMSI. With the assistance of David Widdup, first Executive Director of FASTS, the Australian Mathematical Sciences Council was formed under the FASTS umbrella. So from the late 1980s, we started to learn how to, I use the term loosely, lobby. By the time the Council died, a number of us knew a bit about policy and politics and we largely have Garth and David to thank for that. And the AustMS was giving me financial support to continue and coordinate policy and political action.

As part of my role with AustMS I was coordinating the Heads group and annual meetings had re-commenced. When we started our bid to the Victorian Govt. I emailed that group and told them what we were doing in Victoria. Garth replied immediately that UNSW would be a full member. Others then followed and so AMSI was truly national. It also meant we had more money to put up and we did have to put up real money.

Garth became the inaugural Director. And AMSI has been truly blessed by all its Directors, our inaugural Board Chair and staff.

And never underestimate how important it has been for AMSI to contribute to a corporate image for the mathematical sciences. Glossy publications, well-designed posters, business plans and so on are all important if you want to be taken seriously in the modern world. Garth understood this well. His editing skills were legendary.

Finally, I’m not sure that you all realise why AMSI will survive and what strengths it has.

With few exceptions, marine sciences being one, Australia doesn’t invest in long term projects. Cooperative Research Centres and Centres of Excellence come and go no matter how significant their work. If a CoE had eventuated in the early 90s, it would be very unlikely to still exist. If the Institute proposed by Labor had eventuated, it would probably have disappeared with the next change of government.

We can thank the Victorian Government for the underlying strength of AMSI. That strength is the real money that had to be found and members continue to contribute to its operations. Money controlled by the Board and members. If all other funds dry up, AMSI can continue to operate. The extent of AMSI’s operations will always be dependent on what additional funds can be garnered. But the membership fees allow independence of government and for AMSI to be a national voice in a way that would not otherwise be possible.

AMSI belongs to the members and its future is assured while you support it. The future would be bleak indeed without that voice. Never underestimate how important this money is because it can be used in ways determined by you, the Members. The STI grant was a kick start to go forth and apply for other funds. AMSI has shown how $1m can grow in a spectacular way.

There may eventually be more money for the research side which many of you aspire to. In the meantime, be proud of what you have and continue to nourish it.


Review of Grants Outcomes No. 9: Mathematical Sciences 1987 - 1991