At $23.7 million, largest NSF grant in university history to renew Brown’s math institute

The largest single National Science Foundation grant in Brown’s history will fund ICERM, Brown’s national mathematics institute, for the next five years.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — Brown University’s Institute for Computational and Experimental Research in Mathematics (ICERM), one of just six federally funded math institutes in the U.S., has been awarded $23.7 million in renewed funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF).

The grant, which is the largest NSF award in Brown’s history, will support ICERM’s cutting-edge research and education programming for the next five years. 

“Since its founding a decade ago, ICERM has been on a trajectory of steady growth in the research programs we offer and in the number of scholars and students who participate in them,” said Brendan Hassett, a professor of mathematics at Brown and ICERM’s director. “We’re thrilled that NSF has recognized that trajectory and chosen to renew our funding at such a high level.”

ICERM was launched in 2010 with a $15.5-million grant from NSF. The institute’s mission is to expand the use of computation and experimentation in mathematical research, bringing new technologies and techniques to bear in studying topics spanning pure and applied mathematics. Full-semester programs, weeklong workshops and other events bring together renowned mathematicians and students from across the world to share new ideas and collaborate on research projects. ICERM’s original funding was renewed in 2015 with a $17.6-million grant.

ICERM is changing the way in which mathematicians approach their work, which was part of our original vision when the institute was founded.

– Jill Pipher, vice president for research

This latest renewal is a strong validation of ICERM’s research approach as well as Brown’s ongoing support of the institute’s work, says Jill Pipher, Brown’s vice president for research and a mathematics professor who served as ICERM’s founding director.

“The funding level is a testament to the confidence that the National Science Foundation has in ICERM's mission and in our execution of it,” Pipher said. “It is also a vote of confidence in the successful management of this major national research center, something that can only be achieved with the unwavering support from both faculty and administration that ICERM has enjoyed from its start in 2010.”

Hassett says that ICERM’s emphasis on computation and experimentation represents an emerging way of approaching mathematical problems. 

“I think a lot of people probably assume that what mathematicians do all day is work on computers and try to do hard computations,” Hassett said. “But the traditional approach to math is really pencil and paper. ICERM was founded on the need to focus on the aspects of mathematical discovery that involve playing with examples and doing experiments, which aren’t traditionally reported in mathematics scholarship.”

The power of that computational approach can be seen in ICERM’s contributions to major areas of mathematical research, Hassett says. Examples over the past five years include ICERM-supported research on the Langlands program, a set of conjectures often viewed as a grand unifying theory of mathematics. ICERM’s work on the topic contributed to the L-Functions and Modular Forms Database — a collection of mathematical objects relevant to the Langlands program. The database now contains millions of objects and countless links between them, which continue to inspire new research.

An image of a Fibonacci sequence
Mathematicians and artists from all over the world contributed math-derived images for ICERM's Illustrating Mathematics program in 2019. This image was part of a collection generated using the Fibonacci Sequence.

Another initiative, held in 2019, was an example of ICERM’s ability to engage the greater community in mathematical research. The program, called Illustrating Mathematics, brought mathematicians together with painters, sculptors and other visual artists to explore the images and objects produced in the course of mathematical study. It featured panel discussions on the intersection of art and science, a public art exhibition at Brown’s Granoff Center for the Creative Arts as well as in-depth research sessions aimed at helping mathematicians to use modern computer visualization in their research.

“I think that that program really spoke to people who are actually not part of the mathematical community,” Hassett said. “We had over 200 submissions of artwork, and each one communicated some of the things that go on in the heads of mathematicians when we think about our work.”

Over the past five years, thousands of researchers and students have come to ICERM to contribute to new discovery. The institute has hosted 603 long-term visitors (people who stayed longer than 10 days) and 3,707 short-term visitors, representing all 50 U.S. states and 69 countries. Those visiting researchers add to an already vibrant scholarly community at Brown, which is home to internationally renowned departments of mathematics and applied mathematics, as well as an emerging Data Science Initiative.

In its next five years, Hassett says ICERM will continue to offer and expand its cutting-edge programming. Among the activities already planned is a semester program on partial differential equations, the equations used to describe everything from fluid flows to gravitation. Another program will explore braids, the study of how strands of rope can be entangled. Braids can give rise to strange algebraic structures that could be useful in data encryption.

ICERM will also focus on emerging venues for disseminating research findings and approaches. 

“The main vehicle for presenting scholarly output has traditionally been through academic journals,” Hassett said. “But if a researcher is developing new computer code, a journal article isn’t always the best way to present it. We’re looking to expand the use and visibility of things like code repositories as a means of sharing new algorithms, approaches and results.”

Another priority will be to expand outreach activities aimed at increasing diversity and inclusion in the mathematical sciences. Those activities include GirlsGetMath, a summer math camp for high school students held at ICERM for the past six years. ICERM recently won a new private grant from Jet Blue to begin taking the program nationwide.

Hassett noted the key contributions the grant’s co-principal investigators made in assuring that ICERM’s will continue. They include Pipher; Bjorn Sandstede, professor of applied math and director of Brown’s Data Science Initiative; Kavita Ramanan, professor of applied math; and Benoit Pausader, associate professor of mathematics.

“ICERM’s strength comes from the participation and commitment of our co-investigators as well as faculty and students from across Brown’s scholarly community,” Hassett said.

Pipher added that she looks forward to seeing ICERM continue to flourish in its next five years.

“The quantity and quality of science and research being produced at this institute is just phenomenal,” she said. “ICERM is changing the way in which mathematicians approach their work, which was part of our original vision when the institute was founded. I am thrilled to see Brendan's ideas and refinements of that vision validated with this renewal.”