Germany-Africa maths research collaboration launched

African and German experts have identified five priority areas in mathematical sciences for collaborative research, which will be pursued over the next three years under a new initiative expected to build research networks and help advance maths in Africa.

The Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft – the German Research Foundation or DFG – and the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences or AIMS, met for two days ahead of the Next Einstein Forum’s Global Gathering 2016 – “Connecting Science to Humanity” – a major science event being held in the Senegalese capital Dakar from 8-10 March.

The meeting between African and German mathematicians started off as a topic-finding discussion in areas drawn from mathematical modelling in the life sciences and the physical sciences, optimisation, statistical modelling, geometry and topology, and algebraic structures.

These fields are applied in agriculture, health and the economy, among other areas, to guide decision-making and policy-making.

Exchanging ideas

“Mathematics is a discipline that heavily relies on the exchange of ideas,” Dr Frank Kiefer, programme director for physics and mathematics at the German Research Foundation, told University World News at the first workshop for both German and African researchers.

“The most important infrastructure is in cooperating with other mathematicians, which sheds new light and new insights in thinking. Therefore, enhancing international cooperation in mathematics is very important for the DFG,” he said.

The German Research Foundation is the largest self-governing funding organisation for basic research in Germany and Europe, with an annual budget of €3 billion (US$3.3 billion) provided mainly by the German government.

“Africa is a large continent with a lot of potential, therefore it would be definitely a huge mistake not looking for cooperation with mathematicians from Africa,” said Kiefer.

The AIMS model

A special situation exists in Africa in AIMS centres, which have an interesting model that helps to identify mathematical excellence, he said.

AIMS started off as a training institution but is now enhancing its research capacity “where we feel we can further play a role”, Kiefer commented. The German government is one of many international donors that have supported AIMS.

Since being created in 2003, AIMS – a pan-African network of centres of excellence for postgraduate education, research and outreach in mathematical sciences – has established five centres across the continent, in South Africa, Senegal, Ghana, Cameroon and Tanzania. A new centre will open before the end of this year in Rwanda.

Kiefer said workshops on the five topics would be held from 2016-18, at the AIMS centres. There was a sufficient critical mass of mathematicians from Africa to partner with mathematicians from Germany in the topics selected.

The DFG-AIMS cooperation, he added, could serve as a model for future initiatives that relate to specific areas. An amount of €200,000 has been set aside for the workshops but, Kiefer said, there was a possibility of further funding.

Opportunities for original thinking

Professor Peter Strohschneider, president of the German Research Foundation and chair of German medieval studies at the University of Munich, said that African and German researchers learning together could provide opportunities for original thinking.

Differences in approaches would be highlighted, as well as differences in theoretical concepts and methodologies, and in research questions and routes to solving them. Strohschneider said the partnership illustrated that international cooperation fostered diversity rather than being a levelling ground for cultural differences.

“Its purpose is to make the most of the intellectual richness that international cooperation offers to promote its own climate of opportunities,” he said, adding that when researchers came together they enjoyed the freedom to try new things, which may lead to creating new knowledge. He promised to look for sufficient funding to make the collaboration a success.

Problems of mathematical science in Africa

Some experts believe the project could help tackle maths problems in Africa.

“Collaboration among mathematicians on the continent is quite low,” said Professor Jean M-S Lubuma, dean of the faculty of natural and agricultural sciences at the University of Pretoria in South Africa. Cooperation between German and African researchers could also help to improve collaboration among African researchers.

He told University World News that mathematical sciences played a key role in the development of countries, but Africa faced numerous challenges in trying to fully use them.

“The challenges we have in South Africa easily extend to the rest of Africa.”

Lubuma said mathematical sciences suffered isolation at different levels, including from the geographical point of view of researchers in rural areas. Also, there were few experts, who were isolated by numbers in specific fields.

“There is also isolation in terms of infrastructures, internet, computer facilities and the library. These things are not granted in a similar way in South Africa universities, and this problem is amplified across many African universities,” he said. Further, most top mathematicians were reaching retirement age and the flow of young mathematicians was not fast enough.

Many researchers were interested in collaborating with South African mathematicians, he added, but there was no funding to support this. “We hope the collaboration with Germany will have a fund for African researchers to move across Africa.”

Wolfgang König, a professor of probability theory at the Technical University of Berlin in Germany, told University World News that in working with African mathematicians he was expecting to learn about new ideas and to delve into interesting application fields that might influence the mathematical model.

“I’m completely open to see new people, new mathematics, new applications. Let’s see what will happen,” König said.