Banff math centre gets $10M from NAFTA partners

The Banff International Research Station for Mathematical Innovation has been awarded $10 million in funding over five years from the United States, Canadian, Alberta and Mexican governments.

Tucked in among artists, performers and writers at the Banff Centre in the Alberta Rockies, a building run by mathematicians was the scene this weekend of an international funding announcement worth millions of dollars for math and statistical research.

When it's added up, which guests at the Banff International Research Station for Mathematical Innovation and Discovery are very, very good at doing, it totals more than $10 million over five years from the United States, Canadian, Alberta and Mexican governments.

"It's the first time we have the National Science Foundation of the United States investing so much money in Canadian infrastructure in Alberta. And it's the first time the Mexican government invested in [research] outside Mexico," explained Nassif Ghoussoub, who is the scientific director and founder of the research station.

Every year, the station hosts more than 2,000 researchers from around the world for week-long brainstorming sessions. If formulas are needed to simulate testing for fuel cells, the station invites 40 experts to spend a week in Banff to work on a solution. And if statistical methods for surveying a population's spending habits is required, the station knows who to call.

It has been operating since 2003. In 2005 it received $10 million over five years from its partnering agencies.

This weekend's announcement allows the station to continue operating and includes $3.25 million from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, $3.4 million from Alberta Advanced Education and Technology and $3.68 million from the U.S. National Science Foundation.

It also includes $250,000 from the Mexican government. 

"[It] represents the only serious joint educational and scientific research program in the NAFTA space," Jose Antonio de la Pena of Mexico's national council on science, said in a news release.

Environmental, health solutions

Cora Marrett, acting director of the U.S. National Science Foundation, said the station is important for providing solutions to environmental, health, security and sustainability issues.

"Mathematical sciences are a key to innovation and for advancing the frontiers of scientific discovery," Marrett noted in the release.

Ghoussoub, who is also a professor at the University of British Columbia, said the station is modelled on similar European facilities. No such facility existed in North America, so he and other organizers approached a few governments almost 10 years ago.

He said the Alberta government offered the Banff Centre, saying it could get the project moving quickly if he could bring the Canadian and U.S. governments on board.

Guests at the facility sleep and eat on site, set in the beauty of a national park.

"It's a think-tank. It's really about getting the best people in the world to come to Banff and spend some time together day and night essentially and working in isolation and solve problems jointly or develop research programs jointly," Ghoussoub said, adding the setting is inspiring and the mathematicians get to mingle with the artists who also inhabit the Banff Centre.

"Mathematicians are also very interested in music, in the arts, and we have workshops on scientific writing, the connection between mathematics and the visual arts. We try to develop synergies between the two groups," he said.