'It's so important to allow brilliant people in Africa to thrive'

May was a momentous month for advanced scientific research and training in South Africa. Eminent theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking, Nobel laureates David Gross and George Smoot, and Nasa administrator Michael Griffin came to South Africa, all on their first science trip to Africa. The occasion included two significant events.

First, there was the launch of the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences (Aims) Research Centre, an extension to the existing postgraduate training programme in mathematical sciences in Muizenberg and the planned expansion of Aims to 15 other related centres across Africa within the next five years.

This expansion is called the Einstein Initiative and seeks to recruit and nurture the brightest maths and science graduates on the African continent.

Second, was the launch of the National Institute for Theoretical Physics at the Stellenbosch Institute for Advanced Study. The establishment and funding of the two research centres have rightly had the backing of the Department of Science and Technology, the minister of which, Mosibudi Mangena, was present at the launches.

While the two centres (and the expansion of Aims) are greatly needed for science in South Africa, they come at a time of a serious plague to science development in South Africa. Science education in our schools is ill-equipped, poorly funded and short-staffed.

This leads to poor science and maths matric results. African countries with GDPs much lower than this country do better in placing their students in research training programmes in South Africa.

Aims’s goal is to nurture the next Einstein in Africa. But our government, private sector and influential citizens have not prioritised dealing with the problems that stand in that Einstein’s way. There are some small-scale government-supported initiatives to promote science at high school level (exhibitions or talks that tour the country for a few days or weeks a year), but this is not enough. Support for maths and science in South African schools should be long term and sustained.

A lesson to be learned from the launch of the centres and the eminent scientists who came to support them is to realise the importance of such places. We should open similar maths and science centres of excellence at high school and lower levels.

One or two such centres could be built in each province. This endeavour will need support from the department of education and the private sector. An example is the Dinaledi Maths and Science Initiative, a partnership between government and the private sector, which started in 102 schools. Now 500 schools are involved.

As cosmologist and Aims founder Neil Turok said: “It’s so important to allow brilliant people in Africa to thrive.”

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