Dr. David Ssevviiri was in Maseno the last couple days; he’s a Ugandan mathematician currently in Kampala, educated in South Africa. David’s an incredibly bright guy, very interested in a kind of narrow research area of prime ideals (and prime modules) in ring theory. But he has a voracious appetite for learning new things, and seemed very happy to soak up as much algebraic combinatorics as I was willing to throw at him.
One of the things that was really clear in our conversations was the need for easier connections between African mathematicians and the rest of the world mathematics community. South Africa has been doing quite a lot (with plenty of international support) to ensure chances for the best mathematical brains in Africa to get a quality graduate education. Unfortunately, when the resulting mathematicians go back home, they are often cut off almost completely from the broader research world. This is because the research communities in most African countries are very small, and most of these countries don’t have a science budget to support research activities. Since much of the research funding in the developed world comes from national agencies like the NSF (in the US), this means there are very few opportunities for Africans to receive funding. Additionally, for international grants they are in direct competition with international researchers, and the University systems in Africa largely aren’t preparing people (yet) to be able to compete on level footing for these kinds of grants.
The result of isolation is that people’s research focus tends to be very narrow, without enough reference to what’s going on more broadly. Indeed, new methods of investigation (like computer methods) or proof (from more recent theorems) can go unheeded, since the researcher stays close within their specialization and misses out on the new methods.
A couple possible solutions. On a larger scale, a pan-African science foundation would be hugely beneficial. This would avoid the hurdles of creating a science foundation in every country, and allow aggregation of resources to be able to accomplish things on a scale that (say) twenty Burundi-sized NSF’s wouldn’t be capable of. Such an organization would then be capable of funding researchers with a good research program and track record within African universities. Hopefully, competition for these sorts of grants would improve the quality of research going on in Africa, as well as provide funding for doctoral students. (Another big problem: PhD students are often so overloaded with teaching responsibilities that there’s little chance to actually work on their research. As such, quality of theses tends to be low.) The difficulties of such an approach would be a) ensuring consistent funding for the overall structure, and b) ensuring that politics doesn’t over-ride the accomplishment of the mission of the foundation.
On the smaller scale, we should encourage international collaborations with African mathematicians and provide more funding for promising researchers to attend international conferences. Both help reduce the degree of isolation in the center of Africa. These require personal time expenditures from mathematicians in the developed world, as well as a greater willingness to use conference organizing money to bring in (possibly marginal) African researchers. But such activities would be an excellent way to reduce isolation, and help the state of mathematics research in Africa.