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Mathematics and development

Claude Lobry
Director, International Centre for Pure and Applied Mathematics (CIMPA)

'Knowledge - including scientific knowledge - should not be produced exclusively by only a part of mankind, leaving the other part merely to benefit from its existence'

The need to help the poorest countries to develop their mathematical research is not immediately obvious. It is certainly the duty of the richer nations to help the poor countries in their struggles. But the idea of putting even the smallest proportion of the funds available for the countries of the South into basic research is one that most political decision-makers would perceive as close to sacrilege. They are wrong.

The problems of the poor countries -- health, malnutrition, pollutants, infrastructure, energy and so on. -- demand rapid decision-taking. Waiting for the results of research is not an option, as these are by their nature unexpected, and work to an unpredictable timescale. The development of the Southern countries requires a massive mobilisation of all current scientific knowledge to enable us to say "according to current knowledge, the following steps may be considered, their implementation will take so long, these will be the costs incurred."

The issue hinges on setting up committees of experts who are both competent and trustworthy, and this is where researchers and research play a crucial part. Only those researchers who are actively involved in the informal network of international research are able to put forward the names of individuals competent to deal with particular issues. They need not be specialists in the area themselves; the most important thing is that they be outstanding in their own field, and therefore have access to the best sources of information. This is true both for poor countries and for industrialised ones, but is felt particularly keenly by the former.

Indeed, any significant social issue in a developing country has economic and political implications which affect industrialised countries. These countries cannot be left to deal with forming expert committees alone. Without wishing to question the integrity of individual committee members, it is clear that the committees could be set up in a way that might invest them with particular values, or even prejudices.

This can be illustrated by way of a simple example. Imagine a country with vast stretches of desert land, willing to hire this land out to developed countries as a dump site for their toxic waste. The safety conditions and a fair remuneration for the service must be discussed. Can the country providing the service be expected to put its trust blindly in the experts of the country which is buying the service? Obviously not.

The situation would be completely different if this country had a team of efficient physicists, who could draw up an opinion based on the quality of the expertise provided. The South must therefore urgently acquire a research body capable of tapping into the global corpus of scientific knowledge, and it is the duty of the North to assist them in this.

From this perspective, it is clear that mathematics research must be developed like any other. But there are also other, equally important, arguments for the development of mathematics research. Take, for example, the link between research and education.

Poor countries run an enormous deficit in technicians and engineers, who may be neither borrowed from the North, nor even sent there to be trained. These countries must therefore develop their technical teaching and the scientific streams of their secondary education, both of which are require many mathematics teachers. These teachers must be trained in maths departments of a high and valid standard, ergo where research is conducted.

The discipline of mathematics also serves the other sciences. But mathematical skills are lost or blunted unless they are maintained by research. Mathematicians must work at their own subject if they are to intervene effectively in other disciplines.

Finally, there is the idea that knowledge in general (scientific knowledge) is produced exclusively by one section of humanity, leaving the rest content with enjoying the benefits. But this last point is best addressed by the eminent Brazilian biophysicist Carlos Chagas Filho : "Is basic research really necessary in an under-developed country? My answer is very clear. It is imperative for two reasons. The first is that if we do not carry out this research ourselves, we will quickly fall into a technological dependence which I see as one of the more unbearable forms of colonialism. The second reason is expressed in the notion, not yet fully recognised, that science is an integral part of culture and cannot develop without it."

The International Centre of Pure and Applied Mathematics (CIMPA) is a non-governmental association, supported by Unesco, which has been helping countries of the South develop their research potential for twenty years. Since its inception, the CIMPA has held or supported over 100 schools and seminars. In total, these have welcomed over 3000 students, of which more than 2000 from developing countries. More than a dozen pieces of work have been published. Information on the CIMPA programme can be found: here.

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