The scientific director of the Basque Center for Applied Mathematics - BCAM talks about the center and its main research projects.
H ow would you explain to someone who doesn't know what BCAM is?
BCAM is a centre for basic research in applied mathematics. That means that all the work we do has the desire to have an impact on society. This impact can be seen in our collaborations with companies (industrial, financial, health, etc.), as well as in the contribution we make to the development of basic research in the BERC (Basque Excellence Research Center) network to which we belong, and in other national and international research centres and university groups. We are located in the centre of Bilbao and have more than 90 researchers from all over the world working with us. In 2014 we were the first Basque centre to obtain the Severo Ochoa excellence accreditation granted by the Ministry of Industry, Economy and Competitiveness to the best research centers in the country. This year we celebrate our tenth anniversary and continue to make progress both in our scientific activity and in improving the social appreciation of mathematics.
What kind of research is done at the centre?
We mainly work on two types of research: those that are at the frontier of knowledge and that also correspond to the purest mathematics and that are somehow timeless, and those that develop new techniques and methods that could be applied in our surroundings in the near future. The support we provide in data analysis to other research centers as well as the the industrial collaborations that we carry out are within this framework. In these cases, the development of mathematical models that can be simulated on the computer allows us to carry out multiple trial and error tests at very low costs, which greatly reduces the cost of developing a new product by the company.
How does BCAM contribute to the Basque Research Strategy?
Mathematics is completely transversal and is at the service of the problems posed by others, so from the beginning we have been very clear that one of our main objectives must be to serve our environment. For this reason, BCAM's research lines are aligned with the diversification strategy of the Basque economy RIS3 Euskadi, which focuses on biosciences, nanosciences and advanced manufacturing. In this sense, we provide statistical support on health issues to CIC Biogune, Biocruces and the Galdakao-Usansolo Hospital, research on renewable marine energies together with Tecnalia, and collaborate with CIC Energigune on battery and energy storage issues.
We also apply mathematics to advanced manufacturing problems with companies such as Etxetar or research centres such as the UPV-EHU Advanced Aeronautics Manufacturing Centre or the Centre for Aeronautics Technologies. These are just a few examples of the work we do, which I sincerely believe is very much in line with the needs of our environment.
What kind of contribution do you make to society? What about the companies around you?
On the one hand, I would highlight the contribution we make through applied statistics, artificial intelligence and automatic learning in health and social science. Know-how in these disciplines is one of BCAM's greatest assets. On the other hand, and as I have already mentioned, there is our contribution in the industrial field. We work in the modelling and computational simulation of the laws that govern nature, something fundamental for the optimization of resources.
What is the day-to-day life like in a center where more than 90 people of 25 nationalities work?
Well, it's very entertaining. I invite anyone who wants to come and see it to visit us, because it is really curious. Our average age is very low, around 35, so we work in a very young and dynamic environment. It is true that our research requires that a large part of the work be done in front of a computer or a piece of paper, but mathematics is very collaborative and we try to encourage the development of common ideas and interaction. Just to give an example, the center is full of blackboards that are usually occupied by several researchers working in groups. I believe it is essential that a research center creates a healthy environment in which there is complicity and in which one can learn just by breathing. I strongly believe that we are achieving this here.
What kind of actions does BCAM take to bring math closer to people?
There is still a long way to go to bring mathematics closer to society, but from BCAM we collaborate in several actions to disseminate mathematics, especially in our surroundings. For example, we collaborate with Aupatuz, an association of children with high capacities, in various educational activities. We also try to explain how mathematics can contribute to society in a close and understandable way in talks such as "Mathematics in everyday life" at the Bidebarrieta Library, organized
for many years by Raúl Ibáñez and Pedro Alegria of the UPV/EHU. I recommend them to anyone who is interested in this field, they are very informative and two of our researchers will participate in this year’s edition. Our last activity was the celebration of Pi Day on March 14th in collaboration with the Chair of Scientific Culture of the UPV/EHU. It was a pleasant surprise to see how many people took part in this initiative.
Is the launch of your social networks an effort in this direction as well?
Of course. Social networks are a source of information that everyone uses nowadays, to a greater or lesser extent. We cannot afford not to use a platform that makes it easier for us to convey the relevance of mathematics to so many people. In addition, we are a center that depends on public funds and we have an obligation to explain to society how our work benefits them.
What future projects does the center have? What are your main challenges?
Some people think that mathematics is all done and that it's just a matter of learning it, but this is not at all the case and in fact one of our main challenges is to obtain groundbreaking results in the research we do. But it is also a challenge, and no less important, to be able to convince our environment of the importance and usefulness of betting on mathematics. We start from a perception that is not very positive in almost any level. Even our own colleagues in other sciences think that the real impact of mathematics is reduced to being the language in which nature insists on writing its laws, which is obviously no small thing. But mathematics is, apart from a science in itself, one of the main engines of progress. It has always been so, but the daily press gives us continuous examples that it is very likely that its influence will be even greater in the 21st century. Among other things, the use of mathematics in the social sciences has only just begun. We must therefore make mathematics visible and insist that betting on it is in the economic and social interest of us all. Therefore, there is no doubt that the dissemination and training in mathematics will be another two of the important focuses in the future projects of BCAM.