South African model for African maths centres

[Image] African maths students are to benefit
from a network of training centres, which
will boost the continent’s complement
of skilled scientists and researchers.
(Image: AIMS South Africa)

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NextEinstein South Africa

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The Cape Town-based African Institute for Mathematical Sciences (AIMS), a postgraduate academic institution, is to be the model for three maths training centres on the continent.

The three centres are expected to serve as a nurturing ground for more world-class African mathematicians.

According to cosmologist Neil Turok, founder of AIMS South Africa, the goal is to build 15 such centres across Africa by 2020, possibly in countries such as Botswana, Egypt, Rwanda, Madagascar, Mozambique and Uganda.

The project, dubbed NextEinstein, is Turok’s brainchild and has already led to the opening of a second AIMS centre at the African University of Science and Technology in Abuja, Nigeria.

NextEinstein aims to boost capacity for scientific and technological education, research and development in Africa.

The South African-born Turok is currently the executive director of Canada’s Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics, taking up his position after a stint as the Chair of Mathematical Physics at the UK’s Cambridge University. The non-profit Perimeter Institute, which focuses on scientific research and educational outreach, is to disburse the funds.

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced the new venture in July 2010, saying that his government was pleased to support research into science and technology, as millions of people in developing countries already lead better lives because of it.

The first centre is to be launched in Senegal in September 2011, with others in Ghana and Ethiopia following soon afterwards. The Senegalese government has allocated about US$1.3-million (R9.4-million) towards the facility, and has donated a parcel of land near the coastal city of M’bour, about 80km south of Dakar.

The Canadian government has also pledged its financial support for the project, to the tune of C$20-million (R140-million). The money will go towards the construction of AIMS centres over the next four years.

“With the announcement of major support for the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences, Canada is also pioneering the sharing of knowledge and expertise as a route to development,” said Turok. “Just as ideas and innovation are the foundation of Canada’s new economy, they will be the basis of Africa’s future economic, educational, scientific and governance self-sufficiency.”

Africa’s young Einsteins

All of the new centres will be based on the Cape Town model, established by Turok in 2003. AIMS South Africa receives sponsorship and support from British philanthropist Sir Bob Geldof, eminent physicist Stephen Hawking, South African entrepreneur Mark Shuttleworth, US actor Forest Whitaker, and business tycoon Sir Richard Branson, among others.

Academic partners include the Stellenbosch, Cape Town and Western Cape universities locally, and the Cambridge, Oxford and Paris-Sud-XI universities abroad. An enthusiastic teaching body of both local and visiting lecturers ensures that tuition is of the highest quality, and often at no charge.

According to the centre’s director Prof Barry Green, there is no shortage of willing teaching staff, and he felt confident that the other AIMS centres wouldn’t have any problem in attracting lecturers either.

“AIMS is now generating a stream of well-prepared students entering many advanced areas of science,” said Hawking in 2008. “The NextEinstein plan, to create AIMS centres all over Africa, is even more exciting. Its implementation will have a major impact on the continent’s development. Not only will this be vital for Africa, I believe it will be important for the future of science because science needs Africa’s talents.”

The theoretical physics genius, who attended the Canadian announcement, added that he was looking forward to meeting Africa’s potential young Einsteins.

AIMS South Africa has already seen over 300 mathematics graduates from various African countries successfully complete the training course. With their skills and knowledge now at a globally competitive level, these students are able to apply to universities around the world for admission to postgraduate degrees. Many have been accepted into courses in Europe and the US, while others have successfully completed postgraduate degrees at South African universities.

About 60 students are currently enrolled, but the expanded AIMS network of 15 centres will see about 750 scientists graduating across the continent each year. This bodes well for the future of African science and technology.

The M’bour institute will take in 35 students for the 2011-2012 academic year. The centre’s director Mamadou Sangharé said that it would employ local lecturers, but also draw foreign teachers from its own pool of partnerships, particularly those with French universities.