Interview with ICIAM Past President Ya-xiang Yuan

  1. When did you first become involved with ICIAM?

I am a veteran of ICIAM. In 1987, I attended the first ICIAM congress in Paris, at which my supervisor Professor Michael J.D. Powell gave an plenary lecture. Since then I have been involving heavily with ICIAM matters. 1n 1999, I gave an invited lecture at the fourth ICIAM congress held in Edinburgh. As a delegate representing CSIAM, I attended the ICIAM Board meeting (at that time, the meeting was called CICIAM meeting) held right after the Edinburgh ICIAM Congress. At the 2005 ICIAM Board meeting held in Florence, on behalf of CSIAM, I made the bid for ICIAM 2011, unfortunately that was not accepted. I served the Scientific Committee of ICIAM 2007 which was held in Zurich. At the 2009 ICIAM board meeting held at Oslo, I, presenting CSIAM, made another bid for hosting ICIAM 2015, which was finally approved by the board. I was in the local organizing committee of ICIAM 2015, and also served in the Scientific Committee of that congress. 

 (Ya-xiang Yuan gave the opening speech at ICIAM-2023 in Tokyo)

 

  1. You are not the first ICIAM president who is not from Europe or North America – Ian Sloan preceded both of us – but you are the first from Asia proper. This must give you a different perspective on ICIAM. For example, the Europeans are very interested in interacting with industrial organizations and with government agencies. This must work very differently in China, and in other countries in Asia. What are your thoughts on “the second I in ICIAM”?

In 2017, at the board meeting held in Valencia I was elected as president of ICIAM, with the term starting from October 1st 2019. As the first ICIAM president from Asia, and also first one from a developing country, I do have a different perspective on ICIAM. For example, I would be happy to see that we can increase the number of ICIAM’s member societies, particularly from developing countries such as those from Africa, South America and also from regions where our member societies are less presented such as Rusia, east Europe, and west Asia. However, we did not do a good job in this respect. I also emphasis various balances (such as gender, geographic, research area) in ICIAM when composing committees, selecting invited lectures and choosing prize winners. As academic societies in China do not interact much with industrial organizations or with government agencies, personally I am not good at promoting the second “I” in ICIAM. Nevertheless, I think that industrial mathematics is very important and definitely very valuable part of ICIAM. Fortunately, the majority of the officers of ICIAM were from Europe and USA, and they are very familiar with the links between industry and academic community. ICIAM has been paying more and more attention to Industrial mathematics. For example, we had an Industrial Day in ICIAM 2019 and in ICIAM 2023. I am also very proud that ICIAM establishes its Industry Prize while I was the president. 

  1. Do you feel that the governing structure of ICIAM works well? So much has changed since I was president! Now one can run meetings over zoom, the officers can meet much more frequently by going online. When I first became an officer (I became treasurer in 2003) we met twice a year in person. And after our first remote meeting, Ian Sloan said that it was too bad - all the fun had gone out of it.

I feel that the governing structure of ICAM works pretty well. When I became an officer of ICIAM (as president-elect in 2017), the officers met only once a year and have another meeting online, which is not as good as meeting in person twice a year. I would definitely agree with Ian Sloan that it has more fun by meeting in person instead of online. However, due the COVID-19, almost all the officers meetings and board meetings were changed to online or hybrid during the period when I were the president of ICIAM. Online meetings are not only less enjoyable but also less efficient. However, the good thing about online meetings is that we can have more of them. Actually, for the last two years of my presidency, we had officers meeting once a month.  

  1. How much did you feel constrained by the fact that ICIAM has no staff except for a very part-time webmaster, the IT support given by JSIAM, and the accounting support donated by SIAM? Were you able to get support from your institute? Do you feel that the financial situation of ICIAM is stable?

ICIAM does not have any full-time staff, which makes its running very inefficient. Normally professional organization should have a secretariate office consisting of a few full-time staffs. For example, the Chinese Mathematical Society (for which I was the president) has 3 full time staffs. I am very grateful to JSIAM for its support for maintaining the website of ICIAM, and for SIAM for taking care of ICIAM’s financial account. Their generosities in offering related services helps ICIAM greatly. Though the financial situation of ICIAM is stable, ICIAM is a very poor organization which constrains it from exertive larger function. I would like to thank my institute for giving enormous support, including proving a part-time secretary and also financial support. I always use my research grants to travel for ICIAM matters, since ICIAM’s budget for officers’ travels is very limited. 

  1. One change that I noticed during the past 4 years that you have been president is that ICIAM spends a lot more time interacting with ISC, the International Science Council. (This is in part because I’m on the ISC committee that Maria Esteban chairs, and she has been very active.) Do you have any comments on this effort? Does it seem to you to line up with the mission of ICIAM? In general, ISC tries to advocate for “science for policy” – that is, to be listened to as a voice for science in, for example governmental decisions, or UN priorities. Do you think this is a useful role for ICIAM, and that working with ISC is an effective way to fulfill this role?

 

I am very happy to see that ICIAM has been very active in the International Science Council, due to the efforts of our ISC committee chaired by my predecessor, Maria Esteban. ICIAM is playing a more important role in ISC. I give two examples here. ICIAM was promoted from affiliate member to full member of ISC, and Maria Esteban was elected as fellow of ISC. ICIAM is active and represented in the Steering Committee of International Year of Basic Sciences for Sustainable Development​, which was initiated by ISC and endorsed by the UNESCO, focusing on links between basic sciences and the sustainable development goals. The increasing of the impact of ICIAM in ISC and other international activities is of course along the line of the mission of ICIAM. I would like to see that ICIAM can be more influential in science policy makings to governments and international organization. I believe that being the president of ICIAM helped me a lot for my lobbying the Chinese government to pay more attention to mathematics. Starting from 2011, the Chinese government launched the National and Research and Development Project “Mathematics and Applications” with the budget of 1.5 billion Yuans (approximate 200 million US dollars), which will definitely promote the mathematics research in China. However, I am skeptical about the pure political interests of academic organizations. For example, when some international academic  organizations issued statements on Russia-Ukraine conflict, ICIAM did not do the same thing. I do not want to let ICIAM to choose side when there is a political dispute between two countries. Of course, ICIAM is willing to help mathematicians from both Russia and Ukraine as their international exchanges were affected by the conflict. 

ICIAM is a founding partner for the establishment of a Standing Committee for Gender Equality in Science (SCGES), together with International Mathematical Union and other international Societies. Carol S. Woodward (ICIAM’s representative in SCGEC) and Guiying Yan (deputy representative) did a great job in creating an ICIAM webpage about the Standing Committee on Gender Equality in Science that describes the standing committee and its activitiesand another page focusing on ICIAMS’s activities in support of gender equality and containing recent news articles on the topic. Carol attended ICIAM’s officers meetings many times to discuss how to promote gender equality within ICIAM. It is expected that an ICIAM Committee on Gender Equality will be soon created. 

 

  1. Related to the previous question is the question of what ICIAM does and should do in addition to running a Congress every 4 years and awarding prizes. We have a very small effort to assist with conferences in developing countries. The pandemic slowed this effort down, and I’m not certain it has recovered. Do you see it as important for ICIAM to use its institutional muscle to do more to advance the profession, or to increase the influence of applied mathematics outside the profession? And if it’s important, what are some of the ways that ICIAM could do this?

ICIAM has been supporting conferences held in developing countries, at the scale of about 3 conferences per year. The pandemic did slow down this effort, nevertheless we were still able to sponsor a few online conferences held in developing countries during the past four years. I hope that ICIAM can do more in this respect, but currently it is not easy as ICIAM has a very limited budget. Both to advance the profession and to increase the influence of applied mathematics outside the profession are important, and they are also the major aims of our member societies. ICIAM can do more to advance our profession at the international level, such as to promote international exchanges and collaborations, to launch multi-national projects, to organize cross-disciplinary forums, and to bridge the gap between mathematics and industry.

 

  1. Is there anything you wish you had been able to do at ICIAM while you were president, and that you will urge your successor to work on?

The international Mathematical Union has its headquarter and its secretariate in Berlin. I wish that ICIAM also had a permanent office with a secretariate of a few staffs. I discussed this with the president of CSIAM, professor Pingwen Zhang, who expressed that CSIAM had an intention to provide office spaces and financial support for ICIAM to set up and run the secretariate office. But this was interrupted by the pandemic. I would happy to see if ICIAM will continue to explore the possibility of setting up a permanent secretariate office in the not too far future.  

 

  1. And, finally, what are your plans for yourself and your career now that you have completed the enormous task of being president? How will you celebrate your successful term?

I am very honored to have served ICIAM as the president for the last four years. Due to the pandemic, my term was not as successful as I had hoped. However, I have been trying my best and I am satisfied with what ICIAM had achieved in the past four years. As I said in my opening speech at the opening ceremony of ICIAM 2023 in Tokyo: “The International Council for Industrial and Applied Mathematics has consistently promoted the growth of mathematics and its applications globally, even amid the challenges posed by COVID-19. In these testing times, we've remained resilient, achieving notable progress.”  I am happy that my term ended successfully and from now I can have more time to enjoy carrying out research and supervising research students at the Chinese Academy of Sciences. 

At the end of my term as president of ICIAM, I would like to thank many people, particularly Maria Esteban, who gave me tremendous helps by teaching me how to run the organization. Right after my electing as president-elect, Maria flew to Beijing and sat in my office side-by-side to teach me how to use the ICIAM web system. Maria’s devotion, dedication and exertion set an unreachable example to me. She gave me many advices and suggestions and I learnt a lot from her. I also greatly indebted to Sven Leyffer, the ICIAM secretary, whose super strong ability and broad knowledge on ICIAM matters impressed me greatly, provided me tremendous assistance. I cannot image how I can survive without him! Due to his becoming the president of SIAM, he resigned from ICIAM secretary one year before his term, which made my last year as president of ICIAM miserable. 

As the president of ICIAM, I wrote a piece of “president’s message”, announcing ICIAM's activities to our member societies and the board applied and industrial mathematics community, for each issue of ICIAM’s newsletter (the Dianonia). The editor of ICIAM’s newsletter, Barbara Keyfitz, who has been doing a wonderful job in making sure the timely publication of the newsletter, helped me in polishing my articles, including correcting my English errors.

The original aim of founding ICIAM is to organize an international congress on industrial and applied mathematics once every four years. Thus, it is my opinion that to maintain the congress series and to elevate the level of the ICIAM congresses, and to make the ICIAM congresses more influential should be always the most important aims of ICIAM. 

I am very luck to have taken many difference roles within ICIAM: participant, contributed speaker, mini-symposium speaker, mini-symposium organizer, invited speaker, member of scientific committee, member of local organizing committee, delegate to the board, and an officer. Though I experienced many activities of the society, such as chairing office meetings, board meetings and the prize committee because of being the president, the most enjoyable experience of mine with ICIAM is attending ICIAM congresses as an ordinary participant, starting from the very first one in Paris to the last one in Tokyo. I am very happy to see that the last ICIAM congress in Tokyo had attracted more than 5000 participants with about one third from China. It is always a delight to participant in ICIAM congresses where one can meet old friends, get acquainted with new ones and exchange ideas with other participants. At the Tokyo congress I was able to meet many old friends whom I had not seen for nearly four years due to the pandemic. For example, I was very happy to see Nick Trefethen and Iain Duff, both of them also have attended all the previous ICIAM congresses.

 

  (Ya-xiang Yuan, Nick Trefethen, Iain Duff, photo taken before Cleve Moler’s Lecture)  

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