Winter 2003

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From the Director

Mathematics in a Dangerous Time

Douglas N. Arnold
Doug Arnold,
IMA Director
The American scientific community has been propelled by recent events to explore opportunities for contributing to homeland security. For the mathematical sciences community, one form this exploration took was a workshop at the IMA in September titled "Operational Modeling and Biodefense: Problems, Techniques, and Opportunities." The idea behind this intensive day-long brainstorming session was to bring together experts in optimization, operations research, and supply chain management--many of whom were already in residence at the IMA for another program--with mathematical epidemiologists and scientists in the medical, public health, and miltary sectors. The presentations were fascinating, and the long and wide-ranging discussion periods even more so.

Can mathematics really contribute to bioterror preparedness? In fact, it already has. Work of Edward Kaplan and colleagues using mathematical epidemiology and queueing theory to model the outcome of different vaccination policies in the event of a deliberate smallpox attack, has already played a major role in the federal government's recent decision to change the national vaccination policy in the event of deliberate introduction of smallpox in the United States from ring-vaccination to mass vaccination. Kaplan, who was a co-organizer of the IMA workshop, just received the Institute for Operations Research and the Management Sciences (INFORMS) President's Award for this and earlier work. As with most IMA events, the ultimate value of the September biodefense workshop will be in the new ideas and contacts that people took home from it, some of which will, with lots of hard work, flourish and grow.

Another effort to harness the unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics for homeland security took place from November 19-21 near Washington DC, when the Mathematical and Physical Sciences directorate of the NSF and the Intelligence Community (an umbrella organization of the major US intelligence agencies) held a meeting to explore modes in which our community could assist the intelligence community in the fight against terrorism. I was given the task of opening the discussion with an overview presentation of mathematical techniques for combating terrorism.

At first one might wonder how much relevance there is of mathematics to antiterrorism. In fact, after a little research it became clear that there has been a great deal of relevant work done, and that there are a tremendous number of very challenging, and very mathematical problems arising in this important area. More importantly, a clear outcome of the meeting was that the intelligence community is thoroughly convinced of their need for advanced mathematical techniques and the engagement of mathematicians, and they are eager to partner with us. A report from the meeting will be issued early in the new year. There will be many challenges to our math sciences community. At the IMA, we will be thinking of mechanisms to work with the mathematics community to maximize its effectiveness. I hope that many of you will do the same.