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Donors and African governments must invest in advanced science and maths education.

Of the eight United Nations Millennium Development Goals — the flagship international-development targets that world leaders set themselves for 2015 — none addresses how to improve education beyond the primary level.

Increasing literacy, eliminating hunger and reducing child mortality are all laudable goals and they have rightly been the focus of global development policies, especially in Africa. But the failure to consider secondary education, and beyond, as a development issue is an oversight. And it is a blind spot shared by Western donors, non-governmental aid organizations and African governments alike.

Without support for post-primary mathematics and science education, Africa will remain dependent on foreign experts to craft policy, meet the needs of industry, perform research, combat disease and run the economy. Africa needs African experts, for the local knowledge they bring — particularly in fields such as epidemiology — but also because true independence will be achieved only when such skills can be found domestically.

In a report to a 2009 UN conference in Addis Ababa on strengthening sciences in Africa, Aderemi Kuku, a US-based Nigerian mathematician and founder of the Mathematicians of the African Diaspora network, said that the continent has no critical mass in a single field of mathematics. He warned: “When the present generation of University teachers and researchers in Mathematics and Physics, disappear from the scene due to retirement etc., the situation will be near disaster unless urgent steps are taken.”

As we report on page 176, Neil Turok, a South African cosmologist and head of the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo, Canada, has led efforts to combat this trend. Turok pioneered the construction of the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences (AIMS), a hothouse of post-secondary mathematics teaching and research in Muizenberg, South Africa. The model has now been adopted in Ghana and Senegal, too. Turok hopes for a total of 15 institutes across the continent. He laments what he calls a science faculty “generation gap” and is critical of the way that international donors tend to emphasize basic education.

“Nobody’s been interested,” he told Nature. “The West for many years has been happy to deal with Africa on a charity basis, but investing in skills in people was not a priority. This was a major error.”

Science needs Africa as much as Africa needs science.

Bravo to AIMS for responding to the crisis of maths and science education on the continent, but, as Turok and his colleagues will be the first to say, the efforts remain modest given the scale of what is needed.

International donors and African governments must learn from the example. They should consider how to add post-secondary maths and science education to their development plans. It need not be expensive and it need not drain significant resources from other projects. In the space of ten years, AIMS has built a network of successful mathematics institutes for a few tens of millions of dollars.

And think of the payback. Science needs Africa as much as Africa needs science. What a waste of human talent not to have Africa participate as a scientific peer, for a world content to wait for Africa’s entry into science. What advances has humanity missed out on by having the continent so cut off from the mainstream of scientific debate and discovery?

The late evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould once said: “I am, somehow, less interested in the weight and convolutions of Einstein’s brain than in the near certainty that people of equal talent have lived and died in cotton fields and sweatshops.” Africa has that talent. Some of it may be discovered at AIMS. But much of it will not be.

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Science aid. Nature 491, 159–160 (2012). https://doi.org/10.1038/491159b

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