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Report of Herbert Fleischner (April 2012)
SOME REMARKS ON THE QUESTION OF DEVELOPING PURE AND/OR APPLIED MATHEMATICS IN DEVELOPING COUNTRIES
Last October, I taught a course at the math department of the University of Zimbabwe (UZ). ICTP financed my trip to UZ, while UZ paid me a local salary and provided housing on campus.
Zimbabwe has gone through a period of hardships which are now slowly being overcome. The math department at UZ which was flourishing as late as 2002, is now in a situation where one can start to rebuild the department, and it'll take outside help. Many of the talented younger mathematicians had left UZ before 2005, and most likely they will not return to Zimbabwe (although they live in various countries of Southern Africa). EMS-CDC's main contact in Southern Africa, Themba Shonhiwa (former chairman of UZ's math department and of SAMSA) who had worked in Swaziland and SA since 2003, I believe, died of cancer in 2009. And several colleagues of the "old guard" at the UZ math department died in 2010 and 2011. So much for the picture which is rather grim.
Right now, one of the old colleagues, A.G.R. Stewart, is chairing said department, as he was until the early 1980s and later on as interim chairman, and to the best of my knowledge, he is the only member of the department with a PhD in pure math (he is an algebraist). Heneri Dzinotyiweyi, former department chairman and Dean of Science in the 1990s and later on, is now Minister of Science and Technology in the coalition government (he is a member of MDC, as opposed to Mugabe's ZANU-PF), and will most likely not return to academia. Most of the current departmental members have an MSc in mathematical modelling (several studied and graduated from the Norwegian sponsored M.Sc. programme in Mathematical Modelling). Correspondingly, they do not have a thorough training in pure math; that is, they are not trained enough to produce new mathematical results (when I speak of courses in pure maths, I mean primarily proof oriented courses). Of course, topics like modelling in financial mathematics or in epidemiology, are important for DCs, but very often people in an area like epidemiology are primarily faced with the problem of insufficient statistical data. Also Heneri Dzinotyiweyi (a functional analyst partly trained in the UK) questions the mathematical (!) value of results in these areas. On the other hand, many graduates from math modelling programmes are offered relatively easy ways to publish papers on various topics in mathematical modelling (as I understand it, they are not producing new approaches to certain topics; rather, they gather data to be used in existing models).
As a matter of fact, right now there are very few M.Sc. students in pure maths at UZ. Simon Mukwembi, former M.Sc. graduate from UZ who got his Ph.D. at U of KwaZuluNatal, SA, suggested that my course (aimed at M.Sc. students) could also be used to upgrade the mathematical knowledge of existing academic staff at UZ. The near future will show whether this idea is feasible.
I elaborated in detail on the current situation of math at UZ, although UZ's current overall situation is not typical for many if not most universities in Southern Africa; but the current imbalance of pure and applied math at UZ is - in my view - a warning signal for the development of math in Southern Africa at large (apart from SA) if the development of pure maths (both w.r.t. training academic staff and scientific research) is viewed of secondary importance.
AIMS is developing a system of mathematical centers in various African countries, but there the main emphasis is (currently) applied mathematics.
I don't know to which extent problems as described above exist also in Asia and/or Latin America.
Herbert Fleischner (EMS-CDC associate and former chairman).
URL of this website: http://ems-cdc.org
Last modified: 3 March 2014