Ukrainian research backed with creation of new maths institute

Four Fields Medal winners and former European Research Council president among advisory board for independent research institute

January 13, 2023
Ukraine flag, Kharkiv
Source: iStock

A high-powered group of European researchers have put their weight behind a first-of-its-kind mathematics centre in Ukraine, which academics say marks a milestone for the country’s research.

Supported through €1 million (£889,000) in matched funding from the algorithmic trading firm XTX Markets, the standalone centre will support “top-level research in mathematics, with special emphasis on training younger generations of mathematicians” and developing the field in Ukraine, according to its website.

Intended to host both senior and junior researchers – including PhD students and postdocs – the International Centre for Mathematics in Ukraine plans to run its activities out of partner organisations’ premises until it is safe to do so in Ukraine. Possible options for its physical location include Kyiv, Kharkiv and Lviv.

Its announcement comes as the country continues to face regular blackouts and shelling because of the war with Russia, with many universities operating remotely.

Organisers speaking to Times Higher Education called the institution’s establishment a “milestone” for Ukraine’s research and education.

“The centre will have a huge impact on local mathematics and science in general. It will vitalise the scientific community and connect Ukrainian mathematicians with the rest of the world,” said Masha Vlasenko, a researcher at the Institute of Mathematics of the Polish Academy of Sciences and part of the centre’s coordination committee.

The project has already drawn support from academic high-flyers. Its initial advisory board includes four winners of the highly prestigious Fields Medal recognising achievements in mathematics.

Jean-Pierre Bourguignon, an advisory board member and the Nicolaas Kuiper honorary professor at the Institut des Hautes Études Scientifiques – and formerly president of the European Research Council – said it was “very natural” that high-powered mathematicians would lend their support to the project.

While it is “maybe not obvious to outsiders”, Ukraine has longstanding strength in maths and “remarkable” training in the field, he said.

Mychailo Wynnyckyj, director of the doctoral school at the Kyiv-Mohyla Business School, praised the development as “very positive”.

He noted that other Ukrainian research organisations had recently attracted substantial donations, with the Kyiv-Mohyla Academy receiving $1 million (£820,300) from cryptocurrency exchange WhiteBIT for blockchain research and education.

Tymofiy Mylovanov, president of the Kyiv School of Economics, said it was important that the country was attracting institutional funding.

He drew a contrast with the individual PhD positions and professorships for Ukrainian scholars offered by many Western institutions in the first months of the war, an approach he said “facilitates brain drain”.

Professor Mylovanov said that now, funding needed to go towards building up research capacity inside the Ukraine.

“It’s not like the country collapsed; there’s a research institute functioning here. What’s needed is support here – this is the right way to do it,” he said.

While he was pessimistic that Kharkiv – a city in eastern Ukraine, which has sustained heavy damage due to the war – was a realistic option for the centre, he believed it could find a home in the west of the country.

“My bet is on Kyiv,” he said, although he noted Lviv, close to the Polish border, could be favourably positioned for international conferences.

Regardless of location, the success of the new centre hinges on its leadership and future funding, he said.

“All the fundamentals are in place, now we need delivery,” he said.

But he was reluctant to call the project a success until it produced concrete results.

“It’s easy to take money,” he said. “That’s fine, but whether it has physical locations, programmes for residency, obligations, conferences…research outputs, that’s the question.”

Professor Bourguignon said that in coming weeks, International Centre for Mathematics organisers hope to secure legal status for its board of trustees. He noted it was important to ensure its members include academics both in and outside Ukraine.

“We want a truly international, European board,” he said.

Organisers are looking to host international conferences and dialogues between mathematicians. The centre also plans to host a summer school for Ukrainian and international students, which would be possible to join remotely – with a “possible” first cohort in mid-2023, said Professor Bourguignon.

But he acknowledged that organisers may have to take a wait-and-see attitude on some plans.

“Of course, there’s huge uncertainty in how war is going to develop, which is making any definite plan basically impossible.”

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