Count on it: £3 million will help spruce up Imperial's new mathematics centre, above. Credit: IMPERIAL COLLEGE

Ambitious plans are to be unveiled this week for a top-level mathematics institute at Imperial College London.

The Institute of Mathematical Sciences, due to open in early 2005, will host six applied research groups, each of which will explore a single theme for an initial period of three to five years. Every group will be headed by an existing Imperial researcher, who will employ five or six postdoctoral researchers and visiting scientists.

Phil Hall, a mathematician at Imperial who will become the institute's first director, says it is being created in response to growing demand for mathematicians from other departments in the university. He cites the study of protein folding as an example of an area that is increasingly involving maths, and says that likely areas of interest for the institute include finance, biostatistics and string theory.

“We want to increase the quantity of this type of work at Imperial by an order of magnitude,” says Hall.

Imperial's plan, which was due to be announced on 11 December, is conceptually similar to established US centres backed by the National Science Foundation, such as the Mathematical Sciences Research Institute in Berkeley, California. Established in 1982, the Berkeley institute employs more than 20 postdoctoral fellows. “There is an emphasis on bringing young people together with experienced researchers” at the US centres, says Chris Sogge, chair of the mathematics department at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland.

British mathematicians have welcomed the plan, although some have questioned whether the university will be able to attract enough grants from research agencies to sustain the 50 staff that it plans to have.

But Hall says that by working in interdisciplinary areas, the institute will be able to tap into funding sources to which mathematicians on their own rarely have access, such as the Wellcome Trust, Britain's largest medical charity. Nonetheless, he adds, Imperial expects to subsidize its first three years of operation, in a building to be refurbished with a £3-million (US$5-million) grant from the Higher Education Funding Council for England.