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# News from ICTP 91 - Features - Mathematics

*Efforts to ally African mathematicians with mathematicians
of African heritage living and working outside of Africa could
help ease the continent's long-standing 'math crisis.'*

**Math Across the Oceans**

**T**his past October, 30 African-born
mathematicians, including 17 who live and work in Africa and 13
who have moved to developed countries (11 to the United States
and 2 to France), participated in a two-day forum organised by
the ICTP Office of External Activities (OEA). During the first
day of the forum, they examined the state of mathematics in Africa.
During the second day, they explored possible areas of North-South
collaboration.

This is not the first time that ICTP has brought together African-born scientists, who share a common heritage but now live and work oceans apart, to discuss issues of common concern.

In fact, the roots of this latest meeting date back to the spring of 1989 when the Centre organised an international conference that spurred the creation of the Edward Bouchet-ICTP Institute. The institute, named after Edward Bouchet, a late 19th century Yale University graduate who became the first black physicist in the United States, is designed to promote collaboration among black physicists working in Africa and the United States. Over the past decade, the institute has sponsored a series of scientific conferences--most recently, the 3rd Edward Bouchet-Abdus Salam ICTP International Conference held in Botswana in July 1998.

During the same summer, ICTP director Miguel Virasoro embarked
on a one-month journey across Africa, not just to attend the Botswana
conference but to participate in the ICTP-sponsored Edward Bouchet-Abdus
Salam Regional College on Functional Analysis and Differential
Equations, another by-product of the Bouchet-ICTP Institute, in
Accra, Ghana. As part of his itinerary, the director also visited
an ICTP affiliated centre in Benin and research facilities in
Côte d'Ivoire to take a first-hand look at the state of
scientific and mathematical research and training in Africa and
to discuss ways ICTP could help address some of the most critical
issues currently facing Africa's mathematics and scientific communities
(see *News from ICTP* #86, Autumn 1998). The director's observations
led him to call for a roundtable discussion among expatriate and
in-country African mathematicians. That, in turn, led to the October
forum.

Africa's mathematics community faces two critical problems. The first problem is that Africa's educational and research infrastructure is not strong enough to graduate a sufficient number of mathematicians with advanced degrees. Consequently, African-born mathematicians with master's and doctorate degrees have been educated in universities in the North. The second problem is that many of these mathematicians, after receiving their degrees, choose not to come back to their native countries.

In Ghana, for example, not one of the 20 young mathematicians sent to the United States for doctoral training over the past two decades has returned home. As a result, the average age of a Ghanaian mathematics professor is now 54--an alarming figure that is expected to climb even higher in the years ahead. The problem created by this 'generational void' is not confined to mathematicians. Indeed a recent study by the United Nations Educational, Cultural and Scientific Organization (UNESCO) estimates that 30,500 Africans who have earned doctorate degrees in a wide range of fields currently live and work in developed countries. Sub-Saharan Africa has about 950 doctorates employed by universities and research centres located on the continent.

As ICTP's director has noted, the problem of the brain drain is something that African nations may have to live with for some time. For example, long after Argentina and Brazil in Latin America and South Korea in Asia had launched aggressive government-sponsored programmes to build their scientific and technological infrastructure, these countries continued to lose a disproportionate percentage of their young scientists and mathematicians to Northern institutions offering higher pay and better working conditions. Only recently have an increasing number of young Argentinean and Brazilian students with advanced degrees decided to remain in the countries of their birth to pursue their careers.

Africa is likely to experience the same trend as it seeks to create a critical mass of mathematicians and basic scientists. In today's international job market for skilled and talented professionals, national boundaries cannot impede the movement of basic scientists and mathematicians as their careers unfold and take off. The only effective response for developing countries is to upgrade their research facilities, working conditions and pay to the point that native-born scientists and mathematicians come to believe that their countries can offer them a future.

It was within this context that ICTP hosted the October forum. The goal was to explore ways of improving mathematics research and education in Africa and examine possible strategies for curbing the brain drain over the long term.

Among the specific topics discussed were how African expatriate mathematicians could help nurture the growth of mathematical research in Africa and the role that such international organisations as ICTP and UNESCO could play in such efforts.

Conference participants acknowledged that they must overcome a host of difficult obstacles if they hope to advance their goals. First, African nations must address many urgent economic and social problems, and mathematical research is not high on the list of priorities. Second, international aid agencies have come to view the basic sciences as a low priority, placing greater emphasis and resources on the applied sciences and technology transfer. Third, mathematicians, like most basic scientists, have not been adept at conveying the value of their work to their political leaders. As a result, calls to improve research and training in mathematics and the other basic research are often drowned out by discussions focusing on other critical issues.

That is why the October forum could prove so valuable. Given the trends outlined above, it's unlikely that much progress will be made in advancing mathematical research and training in Africa unless the African mathematics community itself finds a way to effectively air its concerns both at home and abroad. And given their small numbers, difficult working conditions and isolation, these concerns are likely to remain muted unless mathematicians in Africa work in concert with their colleagues in the North to advance their shared goals.

For this reason, forum participants established several committees to explore funding opportunities both in the United States and Africa for the promotion of mathematics research and education in Africa.

Whether the committees' efforts prove successful remains to be seen. In the meantime, efforts to promote mathematics and physics in Africa will be advanced by such programmes as ICTP's Diploma Course, which provides one year of additional training for students with advanced degrees in high energy physics, condensed matter physics and mathematics (the 1999 class included 11 Africans) and ICTP's Joint Ph.D. Programme, which enables students to begin their studies at a university in the North and conclude their studies at a university in Africa (in 1999, five African students participated).

Mathematicians and, more generally, basic scientists often like to think that their research speaks for itself. And to a large degree they are right. But as we enter the next century, it has become increasingly clear that no country will be able to address the critical problems it faces without having a strong foundation in mathematics and the basic sciences.

One of the main tasks of the participants will be to convince decision-makers and funders that mathematics research is not simply a luxury only developed countries can afford but an indispensable tool for all nations seeking to improve the material conditions of their people. In our knowledge-based world, there is no substitute for a workforce skilled in mathematics, which is after all the language of science and technology.

*Francis Allotey*

*Francis Allotey, professor of mathematical physics at the
University of Science and Technology in Kumasi, Ghana, is a member
of the ICTP Scientific Council and Adviser at the Permanent Delegation
of Ghana to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna,
Austria. In 1998, he was among the first five recipients of the
World Bank-International Monetary Fund Africa Club Award.
*