A Canadian in Ireland: The Industrial (Mathematics) Revolution
Dr. Iain Moyles
Canada is a country with approximately 35 million people, is the second largest country by land area, and, as of at least November 2016, is the world’s favourite North American country. In contrast, Ireland is a country of approximately 6 million people, by area would fit into Canada almost 120 times, and, according to most Irish people, is the best country in Europe. However, on July 6, 2015 the Irish population increased by at least two, when I immigrated there from Canada with my wife of only two weeks. While I could easily fill several blog posts just detailing the various quirky things that encompass immigrating to Ireland, instead I’ll focus on the state of mathematics in Ireland as seen by an outsider.
In Ireland there seems to be a strong focus on the industrial applications of university mathematics research but seeing as how I’m a post-doc in the Mathematics Mathematics Application Consortium for Science and Industry (MACSI) at the University of Limerick, my viewpoint is probably slightly skewed. This focus is driven through granting opportunities from agencies such as the Irish Research Council (IRC) and Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) that specifically target working on an industrially relevant problems, collaborating with industry partners directly, or setting up international collaborations to advance scientific interests of specific industries. Canada has some similar opportunities through the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC), however I would say that Irish academic community is more embracing towards the philosophy of industrial mathematics more so than academics in Canada. After being in MACSI for almost two years, I have seen a lot of unexpected benefits to the industrial mathematics framework. Firstly, there is a strong emphasis on communication skills. The MACSI postgraduate students standout at conferences for their ability to present their work which has led to a number of presentation and poster awards. In traditional academia, papers are published to an audience with a similar knowledge regarding the underlying research problem. For industrial mathematics, the audience is much broader and can include people who have very little mathematics training. In this case, it is essential to be able to communicate one’s scientific research in a very clear and accessible way.
The extended benefit of a good communication style is that technical research papers are also better written and often the broader implications of the work are better understood and explained. Another benefit of the industrial mathematics model is that most Irish researchers I’ve worked and interacted with feel relevant in the global context of science. Because many students, post-docs, and faculty are working on problems with clear impact, I find they’re very excited about their work and feel like they’re making a difference. In Canada, many academics are also excited about what they do, but this tends to be at a more senior level such as in a faculty position. Postgraduate students that I worked with in Canada would struggle during their PhDs because they would worry about their career prospects upon graduation. In contrast, many Irish postgraduate students I’ve spoken with feel like both academic and nonacademic career options are available to them which I think is a consequence of their contact with industry either direct or indirect.
It sounds like I’m being very traitorous to my home nation but my aim was just to point out some of the interesting aspects of an industrial driven mathematics philosophy which Ireland has and Canada generally doesn’t. This does not mean that the state of Canadian mathematics is worse than Ireland in fact there are many things about the Canadian system that are much better. In particular, the funding system in Canada for the most part (at least where I did my PhD) is such that prospective students apply to the university directly regardless of funding sources. The university allots a certain amount of money and spaces to new postgraduate students each year and will make offers until those spaces are full. If accepted students find their own sources of funding then students who were not offered a spot originally will be given a chance to attend. This model benefits the universities by enrolling the best students available and benefits the students because they learn relatively soon after the application if they are accepted or not. In contrast, the Irish system (or at least the University of Limerick) separates the students who apply for external funding and those that receive internal funding, i.e. through faculty research grants. The problem with this system is that external grants are extremely competitive and many good students may not get funded and therefore not attend their top choice institution. While circumstances can (and often are) accommodated to find money for the really good students that don’t obtain external funding, it can be quite harrowing to navigate. The Canadian system allows for insurance against these situations though still allows people to apply for highly competitive scholarships.
I’m glad I moved from the comforts of what I was used to and came to Ireland because I got to experience a new system and challenge my own philosophies on how a maths programme should work. Often administrators talk about the hypothetical benefits and hindrances of implementing new systems but there is so much that can be learned just by exploring other countries and seeing what they do. I encourage anyone who gets a chance to challenge the system they are comfortable with by experiencing an academic post in another part of the world.
Getting ready to land in Ireland for the first time ever. Unsrprisingly it was a rainy day!
Dr. Iain Moyles is a postdoctoral researcher in MACSI in the University of Limerick