23/04/03

Top maths institute to stem Africa’s brain drain

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South Africa is to host an ambitious new mathematics institution, which aims to stem the brain drain by attracting Africa’s brightest students who will be taught by the world’s top scientists.

The African Institute of Mathematical Sciences (AIMS), which will open in Cape Town in October 2003, seeks to reduce the flight of scientific talent from Africa by becoming a ‘centre of excellence’, offering an attractive alternative to overseas institutions.

The initiative — the brainchild of world-renowned cosmologist Neil Turok, professor of mathematical physics at Cambridge University in the United Kingdom — will offer students a broad overview of the sciences, with mathematics as the unifying thread. Students will spend nine months at the institute, where they will be immersed in the mathematical aspects of subjects such as demographics, economics, computational science and ecology.

Teaching will be carried out almost entirely by guest lecturers, who will visit AIMS for two to three weeks at a time. Life for the students promises to be intense, as they will be living side by side with academic staff in what was once the Rio Grande hotel in the coastal resort of Muizenberg.

Turok says the scientists he has approached — from Nobel laureates to post-doctoral researchers — are all very enthusiastic about spending time at AIMS, and he hopes many will go on to conduct guest lectures at underprivileged universities in other African countries.

The idea behind the institute is based on the International Centre for Theoretical Physics in Trieste, Italy, which was founded in 1964 by the Nobel prize-winning physicist Abdus Salam. The centre, which seeks to foster the growth of scientific research in developing countries, has become renowned for its physics research.

The project has strong support from David King, chief scientific advisor to the British government. King says that even if many of the AIMS students subsequently leave Africa to pursue overseas opportunities, many will return to the continent in later years as mature scientists with access to international networks.

AIMS is a joint venture between Cambridge University and the universities of Cape Town, Stellenbosch and the Western Cape. Each university will accredit the AIMS diploma, and one third of the students will register with each of the Cape Town Universities.

Turok says that the institution will require US$1 million for its first three years of operation, and has so far secured US$345,000 from mobile communications company Vodafone, and US$75,000 from the Science and Technology department of the South African government.

Tamar Kahn is Business Day’s science and health correspondent.