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[Axiom-developer] AMS Notices: Open Source Mathematical Software

From: daly
Subject: [Axiom-developer] AMS Notices: Open Source Mathematical Software
Date: Sun, 18 Nov 2007 14:59:03 -0600

David Joyner and William Stein published an opinion piece in the
AMS Notices raising (yet again) the issue of mathematical results
that depend on closed source symbolic mathematics. They would like
to see open source efforts funded.

They raise the issue (raised here many times in the past) about 
funding open source mathematical software. SAGE is a university
based project and has a funding model that NSF recognizes. Axiom
and other projects don't fit any model and neither the NSF nor
INRIA is able (as far as I know from direct discussions) to 
consider funding open source projects like Axiom, which are not
supported by standard institutions, such as Universities.

My direct discussions with the NSF, on several occasions, raises the
point that the NSF claims that it does not fund projects which compete
with commercial software. This position is frustrating on several points.

First, the NSF funds the purchase of commercial software at universities.
Thus they explicity fund software that competes with open source. 

Second, (as I understand it) SAGE is an effort to create an open source
competitor to the current closed source systems. I applaud their efforts
and think this is very valuable. However, I'm not sure how much funding
they can get from the NSF with such commercially-competitive goals.

Third, even if the NSF funded SAGE, how would those funds benefit the
various subprojects like Axiom? Open source is mostly volunteer work
done in "spare time". While it is amusing to daydream of being paid to
develop open source computational mathematics on a full time basis, it
seems unlikely that this could lead to more than just small
grants. The expertise and continuity needed to do research work
requires longer term funding.

Fourth, most of the work on open source projects like Axiom is 
multi-national. I don't see that INRIA and NSF have a joint-funding
model. How could a project like Axiom give grants to people in France
out of NSF funds (or INRIA-funded U.S. workers)? In my experience,
this usually involved "visiting scientist" arrangements but open
source has no place to visit besides a website.

Fifth, Axiom is NOT intended to compete with software like Mathematica
or Maple. Axiom's goals are long term scientific research ideas, such
as proving the algorithms correct, documenting the algorithms, following
a strong mathematical basis for the structure of the algebra hierarchy,
etc. None of these goals compete with MMA or Maple. The NSF is intended
to fund this kinds of scientific research but apparently cannot.

Sixth, computational mathematics, which currently rests on closed
source commercial efforts, will eventually suffer from a massive
"black hole" once the current software dies. Suppose Wolfram Research
and Maplesoft go out of business. That might seem unlikely but there
are very few companies that last more than 50 years. Since software is
now considered an asset it cannot be simply given away. (Even if the
software was opened-sourced it is poorly documented according to
people who know the source).  We could have the situation like
Macsyma, where the company folded and the source code is never
released. Is this what the NSF sees as the correct long term basis for
a fundamental science like computational mathematics?

Seventh, if not funding the work directly, isn't it possible to at least
fund things like an 'Axiom workshop' so that open source developers could
have their travel and lodging paid for by grants? Face-to-face meetings
would greatly help the development work.

I could go on but I will stop here. 

Axiom is basic science and has long term plans to be the foundation
of open, provably correct, computational mathematics. Sadly, I feel
that funding is only likely after the fact. Oh well. The work continues.

Tim Daly

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