Feds provide $20 million to kick-start pan- African network of math institutes

Guest Contributor
July 19, 2010

It was second time lucky for a Canadian-led proposal to establish a series of mathematics institutes across Africa, with the federal government contributing $20 million over four years to help create three institutes in Ethiopia, Senegal and Ghana. The successful proposal was made by the recently establish Global Outreach Initiative (GOI) of the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics (PI) which made the announcement July 6th with prime minister Stephen Harper in attendance.

The African Institute for Mathematical Sciences (AIMS) was initially pitched to the science academies of the G-8 for inclusion in the recent G-8 agenda (R$, April 9 & June 4/10). Conceived as a network that will grow to 15 centres by 2020, Canada is putting up the initial financing and the plan is to have other western countries contribute up to $70 million for the second phase.

The financial headquarters for AIMS is in London where two trusts have already been formed to support it with another trust in Canada in the planning stages. Several private donations are also in the works and will be announced in the coming months. The administrative headquarters for AIMS will be in South Africa with responsibility for accepting applications and assigning students.

PI director Dr Neil Turok has long made the creation of a network of institutes a key objective. He spearheaded efforts to establish the initial centre in Cape Town South Africa with a second centre opening two years ago in Abuja Nigeria. While expansion of the network has been under consideration for a few years, it wasn't until a 2009 visit to Ottawa and a presentation at the International Development Research Centre that a concerted effort to secure funding was launched.

"We're thrilled (with the federal funding). Neil worked in the UK to try and make this happen but it never occurred," says Suzanne Corbeil, PI's director of global outreach. "The work is just beginning. AIMS will be the focal point of our Global Outreach Initiative and although it will take on other projects in the future it will focus on AIMS for the next four years."

Corbeil says Turok's winning of a $100,000 TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) Prize in 2008 helped bring attention to the AIMS initiative and he subsequently established the Next Einstein Initiative to push the AIMS concept. Each TED winner is asked to make one wish to change the world. Turok's stated at the time that "My wish is that you help us unlock and nurture scientific talent across Africa, so that within our life times we are celebrating an African Einstein."

While the Canadian government's funding wasn't as much as originally requested ($25 million over five years), it is expected to encourage funding from a variety of government, non-profit and academic sources both national and internationally. The core program of each centre will be math and physics. But each centre will focus on specific areas of application, drawing successful candidates from across the continent if they want to pursue a career in energy (Ghana) or agriculture (Ethiopia). Other future centres will focus on math, science and technology as it relates to finance and health. Once the network is fully implemented, it will graduate 750 students annually, adding significantly to Africa's pool of knowledge expertise.

"Students apply to the secretariat and will be assigned to one of 15 centres. It's a pan-African approach," says Corbeil. "Where the student goes depends on the area of interest. Each centre will have a distinct theoretic profile and many will have more of a technological focus. It's a great way for development to proceed."Corresponding to AIMS is another PI initiative called the One for Many Scholarships Program, which will encourage Canadian universities to contribute funding from one scholarship to AIMS. The money will be used to support four or five AIMS scholarships, paying for food, housing and a small allowance. So far, four universities — Waterloo, Ottawa, Guelph and Victoria — have signed onto the program and another six are being solicited.

The education provided by AIMS is intended to bridge a student's undergraduate education and graduate studies, which will most likely be pursued in either Europe or North America. World class lecturers will be cycled into each of the AIMS centre for three-week blocks, exposing students to a rich diet of cutting edge research and theory. Corbeil says students are expected to return to their home countries after their graduate education and of the 300 students who have graduated to date, more than 80% have done so.

AIMS intended to support the start-up costs and operations of the centres for their initial five years after which the host countries assume financial responsibility. Tuition costs for the students will be covered by scholarships like those generated through the One for Many Scholarships Program and similar initiatives lunched by participating countries.


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