Canadian mathematicians get $21.6M for IT research

Government funding for a group called Mathematics of Information Technology and Complex Systems (MITACS) may help to keep jobs in Canada, according to its director.

Late last week, MITACS announced that it had received $21.6

million over four years from Industry Canada, about 50 per cent more than its last round of funding in 2000. MITACS, a Centre of Excellence located at Simon Fraser University in Burbaby, B.C., conducts maths-based research in multiple areas. “”Anything from designing better pacemakers to diseases like SARS to the next generation of computers,”” said MITACS scientific director Arvind Gupta, who’s also a professor in the computer science department at SFU.

The SARS research was instrumental in securing more government-based funding, he said.

“”We’ve developed a lot of mathematical models for diseases and we work with pharmaceuticals to understand how diseases work. If you’re going to target a drug, it’s good to have a model . . . to try it on,”” he said.

Instilling Canadian students with specialized skills will help to ensure that their jobs cannot easily be transplanted to other countries. A recent trend towards offshore outsourcing has resulted in some occupations being farmed out to countries like India where work can be accomplished at lower wages and with less overhead.

“”As we move into an area where knowledge is the only thing that can’t be commoditized, I think things like MITACS give Canada an edge to make sure that we generate the knowledge here,”” said Gupta.

“”If we’re got the best brains, you can’t go to another country and have people think for us. That’s what we try to emphasize with our students (and) teach them skills where they’re the ones doing the thinking.””

A certain amount of software development has already been commoditized and moved into the hands of offshore workers, but math skills are helping to keep some work firmly in Canada, according to a professor of mathematics at the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton.

Canadian banks often employ sophisticated software for helping to predict financial trends and cycles, said Viqar Husain.

“”Mathematical finance requires a lot of software development which cannot even be outsourced right now because the expertise doesn’t even exist in other countries like India,”” he said. “”The software associated with mathematical finance in particular has to carried out here.””

Husain added that funding is vital in order that the skills necessary to produce this type of software are kept in Canada.

MITACS will has to submit reports to the government about the status of research and how its funds are being allocated on an annual basis. But a more complete evaluation is conducted only once every four years.

“”It’s a nice way of doing things,”” said Gupta. “”If you’re always worrying about an evaluation every year, you’re scared to try new things. By giving us four years . . . we can try new things and try moving into new areas.””

The latest round of funds will be used to support research for about 450 students. MITACS also receives support from the private sector, which Gupta expects to be on the order of another $12 million.

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