The CNRS-PIMS (Pacific Institute for the Mathematical Sciences) international laboratory: an ever-expanding Canadian IRL

International Lab life

The Pacific Institute for the Mathematical Sciences (PIMS) is a mathematical research institute created in 1996 by several Canadian universities, with the aim of promoting research and excellence in all areas of the mathematical sciences. Since 2007, CNRS has been linked to PIMS via an international research laboratory (IRL CNRS-PIMS), renewed in 2024 for the third time. Insmi looks back on this highly successful cooperation.

Site PIMS de l'Université de la Colombie-Britannique© PIMS

A unique institute rooted in Canada

In 1996, Canadian mathematician Nassif Ghoussoub brought together a consortium of five universities in Alberta and British Columbia to create the Pacific Institute for the Mathematical Sciences (PIMS), whose aim was, and still is, to promote research in all areas of the mathematical sciences. These five original universities - the University of Alberta, the University of Calgary, the University of British Columbia, the Simon Fraser University and the University of Victoria - have since been joined by the University of Washington in the USA in 2005, the University of Regina in 2007, the University of Saskatchewan in 2008, the University of Lethbridge in 2012 and finally the University of Manitoba in 2015. PIMS now comprises ten universities across Western Canada, making it unique in several ways.

Unlike other institutes, which are generally centralized on a single geographic site, PIMS has a site in each of these ten universities. As a result of this distributed structure, researchers are spread across the entire network, and PIMS events are organized at each of these sites, revitalizing mathematics across the entire territory. Over the years, PIMS has also been able to break down disciplinary barriers with other research themes, and its community now extends beyond mathematics and statistics departments. It now includes scientists from fields as diverse as physics, biology, engineering, computer science, operations research and economics, making PIMS a real driving force for multidisciplinary exchange and collaboration. Finally, of the four major mathematical institutes in Canada, PIMS is the only one to be institutionally binational, thanks to the presence of the University of Washington, which projects the institute beyond Canada's boundaries and enables it to benefit from international scientific and economic developments.

In 2007, PIMS and the CNRS signed a cooperation agreement, creating the former PIMS-Europe international mixed unit to facilitate exchanges between French and North American mathematicians. This agreement has been extended into 2019, with PIMS becoming an International Research Laboratory (IRL), a new type of entity defined as part of the simplification of CNRS structures. PIMS is now undergoing its third renewal, news that delights its current director, Professor Ozgur Yilmaz.

We just learned that the CNRS has approved a 5-year renewal and we are currently in the middle of paperwork process to finalize this agreement. Up to this point, this collaboration has been a great success and I'm very enthusiastic to continue that.
Ozgur Yilmaz, director of PIMS

A successful collaboration with the CNRS

Collaboration between the CNRS and PIMS is expressed in particular through Flagship Programs, various exchange programs and reciprocal visits of varying duration between the two institutions. Among the institution's flagship programs are the PIMS-CNRS Postdoctoral Fellowships, reserved for candidates from Insmi's Unités Mixtes de Recherche, and the CNRS Visitors program, considered the backbone of these exchanges by Director Ozgur Yilmaz. This program enables researchers from Insmi's mixed research units (CNRS Mathématiques) to spend 6 months to 1 year at PIMS.

Vincent Calvez, CNRS research director at the Laboratoire de Mathématiques de Bretagne-Atlantique and current deputy director of PIMS, spent 7 months at PIMS between 2017 and 2018 as a CNRS Visitor. He immediately noticed the unique geographical location of PIMS and its multi-disciplinary community, as well as the great freedom enjoyed by researchers during their visit.

I had a great experience as a CNRS Visitor. What I really appreciated was the great freedom you have once you're there: you can visit different places, meet different research groups and attend their meetings. Personally, I made connections with a group within the UBC Mathematics Department, and with a group at the Biodiversity Research Centre, which is not part of PIMS but is literally across the street, which was very enriching. It was very useful to see other ways of organizing research.
Vincent Calvez, CNRS researcher at the Laboratoire de mathématiques de Bretagne-Atlantique and Deputy director of PIMS

Prior to his stay, the researcher had no connection with Vancouver, where the University of British Columbia's PIMS site is located. Almost 7 years later, the connections he made then continue to bear fruits as he is about to welcome a PhD student from Simon Fraser University, whose tutor he met during one of his visits at the Biodiversity Research Centre. In his own words, the bonds forged through the CNRS Visitor program are “very strong, both in biology and mathematics”, and have made a major contribution to his research.

The Pacific Institute for the Mathematical Sciences is therefore rich in opportunities for researchers, in many ways. According to Ozgur Yilmaz, the institute's geographical network and its variety of research fields and themes enable visitors “to look around and see what others are doing, to get away from their daily routine”. This stimulation is accentuated by the pleasant setting of the towns where the PIMS sites are located, the benefits of which he sums up as follows: “a good environment is an important factor in producing good mathematics”. As for Vincent Calvez, he emphasizes the ease with which exchanges take place: “once you join the network, word spreads and you're easily invited to give seminars, attend meetings and so on. Your students and colleagues are also welcome, and PIMS helps you organize their visits”.

Testimony from Lucia Di Vizio, researcher at the Laboratoire de Mathématiques de Versailles

I met Marni Mishna, professor at Simon Fraser University, at a symposium in September 2017, in Banff. In October 2018, Marni gave a very nice talk to the Transcendence and Combinatorics working group, which I organize with Alin Bostan and Kilian Raschel. In November 2019, Gwladys Fernandes was also giving a series of talks on a theorem by Ritt and a theorem by Becker and Bergweiler. This is how our three-way collaboration began.

By March 2020, we finally had specific questions and a vague proof strategy, but remote collaboration proved impossible. In addition to the objective difficulties of finding schedules that would fit in with our family lives, there was a fundamental difficulty with the project, namely our very different mathematical backgrounds: we really needed to get together in front of a blackboard! So we jumped at the chance offered by PIMS to finance a stay at Marni's, which enabled us to finish our work.

I'll give a "niche" view of this experience, since I think I'm the only woman who's been away in the PIMS IRL for a decade. I stayed in Vancouver for 4 months: that was the maximum I could have envisaged. For 2 and a half months, I stayed alone with my 9-year-old son. First of all, Vancouver has a few French-speaking public schools, and my son's was excellent. Marni was a great help because, with her in-depth local knowledge, she was more than just a website of recommendations and tips for mothers on the verge of burn-out. For my son, it was a wonderful experience.

It's often said that a stay IRL is an excellent career opportunity, and it's objectively true. For me, it was an opportunity to recharge my batteries professionally, but not only: we wrote an article that was right up our alley, but which we wouldn't have written working remotely. I think I can speak for my co-authors when I say that we really enjoyed writing it. There's no denying that a sexist society imposes a daily life on female researchers and teacher-researchers that isn't always easy, but going to the other side of the world enables us to get rid of this social conditioning, simply by being suspended between two places, in a kind of free zone. It feels really good! So I have only one piece of advice to give you: leave at the first opportunity!

Successful international events

PIMS' international reach and collaboration with CNRS extend beyond the Flagship programs. Backed by its position in Canada and its flourishing attractivity, the institute organizes nearly a hundred events a year, of varying size and scope. In close collaboration with the CNRS office in Ottawa and the French Consulate General in Vancouver, PIMS recently organized the France-Western Canada Workshop on Ocean and Polar Sciences. As part of the strategic dialogue led by the France-Canada Joint Committee on Science, Technology and Innovation, the main aim of this event was to identify common research themes, explore new opportunities for interaction and foster collaboration between Western Canada and France. According to the many positives feedbacks, the event was a clear success and Ozgur Yilmaz would like to extend it to other thematics in the future.

There are other directions we want to explore and organize on this model. We set up a system in which each keynote was held by not one, but two researchers, one from Canada and the other from France. Instead of giving half and half talks, we asked them to talk beforehand and try to coordinate their talks to make the keynotes more dynamic. I was doubtful about how this would work, but it was a success. In fact, I think some of these pairs of scientists started collaborating during their preworkshop exchange. I hope to be able to repeat the experience, as I'm very enthusiastic about the result!
Ozgur Yilmaz, director of PIMS

For the next five years, Ozgur Yilmaz would like to continue developing exchanges between PIMS and France, notably through shorter exchanges and by organizing new workshops aligned with the CNRS’s and PIMS’s thematic priorities. Eventually, he would also like to bring together representatives from universities in North and South America to “see if there are any synergies we could develop together thanks to our common link with the CNRS”. There's no doubt, then, that PIMS has many more exciting projects in store for the French and Canadian mathematical communities in the future.