New hot-house for African science

10 October 2003

The African Institute for Mathematical Sciences (AIMS), a state-of-the art educational centre that seeks to create a new generation of African mathematicians and scientists, opened its doors in Muizenberg, Cape Town this month.

AIMS is a collaborative project of the Universities of Cape Town, Stellenbosch and the Western Cape. Courses will be taught in association with the universities of Oxford and Cambridge in the United Kingdom and the University of Paris-Sud in France.

The Institute will initially focus on a one-year residential postgraduate course covering areas of modern science, to be taught by outstanding African and international lecturers, with the ultimate goal of strengthening scientific and technological capacity across Africa.

The course will develop strong foundations in mathematical research skills, while providing an overview of many of the most exciting cutting-edge fields in science, including bio-informatics, molecular biology, ecological mathematics, financial mathematics, cosmology, and wireless communication technology.

Lecturers will employ the most modern techniques, with an emphasis on developing strong mathematical and computing problem-solving skills, encouraging breadth and innovation, and building an awareness of the potential for science to solve problems of development.

AIMS will “encourage inter-disciplinarity, cross-fertilisation of ideas and breadth of vision, countering the common modern tendency to over-specialisation”, the Institute says on its website.

AIMS has recruited 30 of Africa’s top graduates for its first year, and will build to 40 students in the second year and 50 students in the third year.

Professor Neil Turok, who holds the chair of mathematical physics at Cambridge University, was one of the prime movers behind the Institute. A leading cosmologist, based in Britain but of South African extraction, Turok is the son of African National Congress MP Ben Turok.

AIMS received over R1-million in funding from South Africa’s department of science and technology, as well as support from a range of public and private organisations including British cellphone giant Vodafone, the Ford Foundation, SUN Microsystems, PetroSA and the International Council of Scientific Unions.

The project also has widespread support among the international academic community, and counts among its patrons Sir John Sulston of the Sanger Institute, winner of the 2002 Nobel Prize in Medicine, Joseph H Taylor of Princeton University, winner of the 1998 Nobel Prize in Physics, and cosmologist Stephen Hawking, author of the worldwide bestseller A Brief History of Time, who said: “This institute will bring Africa to the cutting-edge of science.”

A proposal by Turok and several colleagues, including Jan van Bever, dean of science at the University of the Western Cape, stated: “The African continent stands in desperate need of development and progress . Unless Africa can create an indigenous pool of technical and scientific talent, it will be condemned to a continued existence on the margins, at the mercy of each new technological revolution.

“The goal of AIMS will be to recruit the brightest science and mathematics students from across Africa, and provide them with a broad overview of cutting-edge science as well as excellent basic mathematical research skills.”

The core of the curriculum will be maths. “Mathematics”, say Turok et al, “is central to modern science and technology, yet there is a dearth of mathematically trained African graduates.” The AIMS diploma will be based on lecture courses given in tandem by invited overseas lecturers and local academics, “reviewing many of the most exciting areas of science today, employing mathematics as the unifying thread”.

AIMS will be housed in a former hotel in Muizenberg near Cape Town. As befits an institute housed in an old hotel, AIMS will also be the students’ and teachers’ home for the duration of their study. It is hoped that a “true ‘hot-house’ intellectual atmosphere” will develop in the self-contained residential centre, upgraded and equipped with excellent computer, library and lecturing facilities.

There are also plans to make AIMS a centre for the development of school mathematics enrichment materials and in-service training for teachers.

Education Minister Kader Asmal, speaking at the Institute’s launch, said: “We are all aware of the acute shortage of maths and science teachers at school level, and maths and science graduates at university level, yet the global economy is increasingly driven by industries requiring these skills.

“African and international scientists working together to improve education and research across the continent could provide a leading-edge example, bringing Africa together to solve its problems and build a brighter future for all its citizens.”

Arts, Culture, Science and Technology Minister Ben Ngubane said the AIMS student intake represented a rich mix of African cultures, which was likely to lead to innovative responses to the needs of the continent.

“The institute offers huge opportunities for the advancement of Nepad [the New Partnership for Africa’s Development] by creating a pool of technical talent, who will be in a position to focus on African solutions to African problems”, Ngubane said.

British astronomer Sir Martin Rees, one of a number of African and international scientists attending the launch, said: “This venture, initiated by an outstanding group of committed researchers and teachers, could be extraordinarily cost-effective in fostering youthful talent and scientific excellence in South Africa and beyond.”

SouthAfrica.info reporter

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