A Foundation Aims to Bring Up Africa’s Math Grade

Jim Simons knows more than a little bit about math. At the age of 23, he earned a Ph.d. in mathematics from UC Berkeley, took a job cracking codes for the U.S. government, and later was chair of the math department at SUNY Stoneybrook in New York. In the early 1980s, Simons founded Renaissance Technologies, a hedge fund that averaged over 70 percent in annual returns from 1994 to 2014, with over $70 billion total assets under management in 2015.

Lately, as we've reported, Jim and his wife Marilyn have been scaling up their Simons Foundation, which aims “to advance the frontiers of research in mathematics and basic sciences.” And while its grantmaking focuses mainly in the United States, Simons has a keen eye on boosting math elsewhere in the world, most notably Africa, with its Africa Mathematics Project, started in 2013.

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The Africa Mathematics Project is “designed to nurture and accelerate high-level mathematics research in sub-Saharan Africa.” The foundation invites math researchers in Africa working in a broad range of mathematical fields to apply for coveted five-year grants.

Grants typically go toward the support of graduate students, mathematics conferences, research, and international collaborations and exchanges. This year’s maximum grant amounts is $90,000 per year over the course five years, not to exceed $450,000. The application deadline for this year’s grant round is August 31 and the foundation plans on making a total of five awards.

We all know that the United States has a math problem. And while improvements are being made, the country is still lagging internationally. The situation is much worse in Africa, with South Africa ranking dead last in math and science education quality according the World Economic Forum Global Competitiveness Report. The African nations of Mozambique, Nigeria, Zimbabwe, Tanzania, Sierra Leone, and Malawi also came in toward the bottom of those rankings.

While those low rankings are certainly a point of interest for Simons, it didn’t choose to focus on sub-Saharan Africa due to any one country’s poor math performance. According to the David Eisenbud, former director of mathematical projects at Simons, it chose sub-Saharan Africa due to the fact that the region is “home to pockets of strong mathematics researchers who lack resources and could potentially benefit greatly from small, but long-term investments.”

Simons is really big on collaboration, here. For example, 2013 awardee Tony Ezome of the Université des Sciences et Techniques de Masuku in Gabon and his team won an award to support work in number theory, cryptography and allied fields. At the time, Ezome was the only researcher in his field. The situation was similar for Patrick Rabarison of Madagascar, so the two formed a collaboration, both studying in France with four other researchers.  

Simons isn’t the only funder interested in bolstering scientific research in Africa. As we've reported, a number of foundations have an eye on this challenge, which is closely related to building up the continent's overall human capital, along with its economic prospects.

Last year, the Gates Foundation, Wellcome Trust, and the U.K. Department of International Development (DFID) contributed a collective $4.5 million to establish the Alliance for Accelerating Excellence in Science in Africa (AESA). The new initiative fosters autonomy among scientists in Africa, giving them the freedom to decide how and where research dollars from global funders will be spent.

Related: The Latest in the Growing Push to Bolster Autonomous Scientific Research in Africa

At the same time, Wellcome Trust also put a plan in place for its Developing Excellence in Leadership, Training and Science initiative or DELTAS program. DELTAS is a $60 million, five-year initiative that is working toward the continued development of research leaders in Africa. Eventually, Wellcome Trust hopes to hand over control of DELTAS to the Alliance for Accelerating Excellence in Science in Africa.

Africa has been gearing up for a scientific revolution for some time, now. Support from big private and public funders like Simons, Wellcome, Gates, and DFID will certainly do a lot to help forward that revolution.