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

From: William Stein
Subject: Re: [Axiom-developer] Re: AMS Notices: Open Source Mathematical Software
Date: Sun, 25 Nov 2007 19:49:50 -0800

On Nov 25, 2007 7:54 PM, root <address@hidden> wrote:
> >> >> 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.
> >> >
> >> > Great questions and comments.  There aren't easy answers.
> >> > One possibility is selling "support"... which could bring in
> >> > money to support people who are out of country.
> >>
> >> One possibility I've wondered about for a while would be getting a
> >> number of colleges to simultaneously agree to pool small amounts of
> >> money into an effort to support a couple of developers working on these
> >> programs - i.e. spreading the cost over many institutions rather than
> >> just having one or two carry all of the cost.  Start up a small
> >> nonprofit or some such to serve as the organization in question.  Surely
> >> if grant money can sometimes pay for commercial software it could go to
> >> pay for such an arrangement, particularly if the software was all
> >> guaranteed to be open.
> >>
> >> Is this something someone could set up with any hope of success?
> >
> >I think something like this could be successful.  Actually, Magma has
> >been a very successful example of almost exactly this during the last
> >10 years.   They are a nonprofit, they get a pool of small amounts
> >of money from a few hundred (?) sites, and as a result hire about
> >5-10 fulltime people per year to work on Magma.   The only difference
> >is that Magma is not open.  But it is a useful successful real-life
> >example, which
> >should not be ignored:
> >
> My experience at schools has been that money is a scarce and very
> closely guarded resource.

Yep.  But schools do buy software... (they really don't like to so
much but they do it).

>  At one school, over 50% of the grant money
> disappeared into the "overhead" at the provost office before the
> money ever appeared.

At every university I have taught at (UCSD, Harvard, Washington), the
overhead that the university gets on any grant money I have is about 55%.
That is, if I would like to receive $1000 from the NSF, then the NSF has
to give me $1550.  This additional $550 is used by the university to pay
support staff, build buildings, roads, whatever.   The overhead rate varies
from university to university, since it is negotiated with the NSF.

> Either the initial grant had principal investigators at different
> schools (or one of the PIs moved), or a visiting scientist arrangement
> allowed someone on leave to join the project for a while, otherwise
> I don't recall other arrangements. However, my experience is quite
> limited.

I'm not sure what you're saying here, but at least with NSF funds
a researcher can pay any US citizen (or person with a soc security
number) working anywhere in the US
some money to work on a project with me.   They don't have to be
officially listed on a grant application or at my university.     That said,
the grant budget would have to list that somebody somewhere would
be getting paid by the grant to do the specified work (one can't
spend NSF money they've received on anything they want -- it has
to be explicitly budgeted first).

> On the federal front, I believe the funding organizations are only
> capable of making grants to other organizations that have departments
> that handle funds, requiring the overhead.

I think that's correct.

> But giving money to open
> source is like giving money to the homeless. Even though 100% of it
> will go to support direct needs, it appears to disappear.

I'm not sure I follow.

In any case, here is a very concrete example of the NSF funding open source:

The money will go to pay for a postdoc for three years at UW (Clement Pernet
for the first 2 years), whose main work will be on open source software.
(I can't emphasize how much work it was to get the above grant...)

> Corporate funding has mostly (except TI?) shifted to more dedicated
> businesses (eg. Wolfram, Maplesoft, etc.) and I've already mentioned
> that I believe these will end. The question is, what will replace
> them and how will computational mathematics be impacted?

I have no idea.  I look forward to any thoughts you might have on this.
I have basically had no successful experience getting any funding for
open source math software from corporate sources.  That's where you've
done much better than me -- getting Scratchpad opened is in itself
getting a lot of "funding" in some sense.

> I am of two minds about the whole funding issue.
> On the one hand, funding would make it possible to concentrate
> completely on the research and development of the code and community.
> Given that Axiom has a 30 year horizon this would allow deep planning,
> a stronger theoretical basis, and more functionality.

Just out of curiosity does Axiom always have a 30 year horizon, or does
it become a 20 year horizon at some point?


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