09/09/2011 09:05 EDT | Updated 11/09/2011 05:12 EST

The Quest for the Next Einstein in Africa

A steady but discernable trend is evident in global science. While the U.S., European Union, and Japan have dominated all measures of science funding and production in the post-war period, their share in global figures has declined in the past 20 years. They accounted for 95 per cent of global spending on research and development (R&D) 20 years ago. Today the figure is closer to 75 per cent. Similar declines are registered in other measures of scientific activity, such as publications in journals and patent registrations. The increase is accounted for by a handful of emerging powers, among which China, India, and Brazil dominate.

For the most part, Africa has not participated in the globalization of R&D. It spends 0.3 per cent of its GDP on R&D, a fraction of what is spent in developed and emerging countries. South Africa accounts for about half the scientific publications on the continent, with Nigeria following with about a tenth. So the under-representation of the rest of Africa in global science aggregates is stark. These and other figures are contained in the 2010 UNESCO Science Report.

To be sure, the story behind this state of affairs in Africa is complex, but a starting point would be its universities. Under-funded and under-valued at a time when science education requires both, post-graduate study typically means a scholarship overseas, a result of which is one of the highest rates of brain drain in the world. UNESCO reports that a third of African engineers and scientists were working in developed countries in 2009. The vicious circle between higher education, science, and its application to the myriad problems of development has to be turned into a virtuous one.

South African physicist Neil Turok, now head of the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo, Canada, thinks the problem should be tackled at its root. In 2003 he created the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences (AIMS) outside Cape Town, South Africa. To date, 450 master's and doctoral students have been trained there. His vision is to extend the endeavour to the rest of the continent. A campus in Mbour, Senegal, was inaugurated on Tuesday, Sept. 6. Amidst the pomp of politicians and officials, what was most striking was the presence of the first batch of 34 students (selected from among 350 applicants), already immersed in core language training (the program is to be bilingual) and computer basics. Quite correctly, their idea of a photo op was having their picture taken with the internationally eminent mathematicians present, who will form the AIMS faculty.

AIMS focuses on applied mathematics. Its students are encouraged to apply their skills to the very real problems the continent faces, be it modeling climate change, predicting the spread of a pandemic, or designing financial instruments to help users deal with market volatility. Typical is the case of Doriano-Boris Pougaza from the Central African Republic, now doing his doctoral work in tomography (the technique of using x-rays or ultrasound to portray cross-sections of solid objects like the human body). For the audience in Mbour, Doriano embodied the AIMS ethos of connecting science with idealism.

This task is not easy, anywhere. Take a look at the work of a group coalesced at well-formed eigenfactor. In the interactive map displayed, each square represents a scholarly journal; clicking on it shows the frequency of cross-referencing with other journals. One message from this chart is that the physical sciences are essentially ghettoized. In a recent paper, John Bollen and his colleagues take the analysis a step further. Since most scientific publications are now accessed online, the log data of scholarly Web portals tells a story of cross-searches and cross-referencing by researchers. The most striking black hole is between the physical and social sciences.

Here lies AIMS' greatest challenge and opportunity. If all AIMS does is churn out more post-graduates, then the link between science education and development will remain tenuous. By locating its campuses on the continent and by emphasizing the applications of mathematics to real world problem-solving, the hope is that a dynamic will be created wherein the conditions under which science thrives are fostered and nurtured. Taking the cue from the experiences of China, India, and South Africa, there is an expectation that the seed funding from Canada, France, and will motivate national governments to not only support the endeavour, but to create the policy and working conditions in which African scientists might thrive. In Senegal a promising start has been made with the government committing land and funds to the project.

The expansion of AIMS across Africa is named The Next Einstein Initiative. The losses from scientific under-achievement on the continent make the economic argument for investing in science a strong one. But there is something equally compelling about imagining an untapped genius somewhere in Africa, waiting to be nurtured and whose contributions to humankind cannot yet be imagined.

Rohinton Medhora is vice-president, programs, at the Ottawa-based International Development Research Centre. He blogs at target="_hplink">