From its inception, it has been intended that the Isaac Newton Institute should be devoted to the Mathematical Sciences in the broad sense. In this respect the Institute differs significantly from similar institutes in other countries. The range of sciences in which mathematics plays a significant role is enormous, too large for an Institute of modest size to cover adequately at any one time. In making the necessary choices, important principles are that no topic is excluded a priori and that scientific merit is to be the deciding factor.
One of the main purposes of the Newton Institute is to overcome the normal barriers presented by departmental structures in Universities. In consequence, an important, though not exclusive, criterion in judging the ‘scientific merit’ of a proposed research programme for the Institute is the extent to which it is ‘interdisciplinary’. Often this will involve bringing together research workers with very different backgrounds and expertise; sometimes a single mathematical topic may attract a wide entourage from other fields. The Scientific Steering Committee therefore works within the following guidelines:
(a) the mixing together of scientists with different backgrounds does not per se produce a successful meeting: there has to be clear common ground on which to focus;
(b) each programme should have a substantial and significant mathematical content;
(c) each programme should have a broad base in the mathematical sciences.
Research in mathematics, as in many other sciences, tends to consist of major breakthroughs, with rapid exploitation of new ideas, followed by long periods of consolidation. For the Newton Institute to be an exciting and important world centre, it has to be involved with the breakthroughs rather than the consolidation. This means that, in selecting programmes, a main criterion should be that the relevant area is in the forefront of current development. Since the Institute’s programmes are chosen two to three years in advance, it is not easy to predict where the front line will be at that time. The best one can do is to choose fields whose importance and diversity are likely to persist and to choose world leaders in research who are likely to be able to respond quickly as ideas change.
Although the novelty and the interdisciplinary nature of a proposed programme provide important criteria for selection, these must be subject to the overriding criterion of quality. With such a wide range of possibilities to choose from, the aim must be to select programmes which represent serious and important mathematical science and which will attract the very best mathematicians and scientists from all over the world. However, the Institute is receptive also to proposals of an unorthodox nature if a strong scientific case is made.
Although the Institute operates on a world-wide basis and contributes thereby to the general advancement of mathematical science, it must also be considered in the context of UK mathematics. A natural expectation of all those concerned is that each programme will be of benefit to the UK mathematical community in a variety of ways. If the UK is strong in the field, UK scientists will play a major part in the programme; if the UK is comparatively weak in the field, the programme should help to raise UK standards and instructional courses, aimed primarily at younger researchers and research students, will play a vital role here.
It is intended that each Institute programme will have long-term impacts well beyond the programme itself in terms of breakthroughs, new research directions and collaborations. In order to offer an opportunity to review progress, the Institute will whenever appropriate run a short follow-up event some years after a programme has finished.
Because of the wide base of support for the Newton Institute in the EPSRC and elsewhere, the Institute’s programmes shall as far as possible represent an appropriate balance between the various mathematical fields. In order to retain the backing of the mathematical and scientific community, the Institute will run programmes over a wide range of fields and, over the years, achieve this balance. Such considerations, however, are secondary to the prime objective of having high quality programmes.