Interview with an African genius: why the next Einstein will come from Africa, the surprising countries leading the way and what's holding us back

"The entry of new cultures in science always renews it" - Neil Turok

NEIL Turok, is one of Africa’s (and indeed the world’s) best physicists, whose work has focused on understanding the universe’s very beginnings. Together with Stephen Hawking, he developed the Hawking-Turok instanton solutions, describing the birth of an inflationary universe, asserting that, big bang or not, the universe came from something, not from nothingness.

Closer home, the South African national has been creating waves through the founding of the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences (AIMS), a pan-African network of centres of excellence for postgraduate education, research and outreach in mathematical sciences. 

In an interview with Mail and Guardian Africa, Neil says he is extremely optimistic the next “Einstein” to hit the global stage will be from Africa. 

“Firstly look at the youth demographic. By 2050, about 40% of all the world’s youth will be African [increasing the probability that the next Einstein will be African]. But, more importantly, is the fact that Africans come from cultures that have been excluded from science and mathematics (like Einstein whose oppressed Jewish heritage involved the exclusion of earlier generations from university)...meaning they will bring something new.”

“When Africans start becoming frontline scientists in large numbers they’ll do it in a different way, with a new cultural perspective,” Neil  said. “Think about African contributions to art, literature, poetry…imagine what it’ll do in science.” 

“The entry of new cultures in science always renews it - the greatest advances come from revolutionary leaps,” he says. 

Towards this however, there are a number of major obstacles that face Africa’s budding scientists. 

Quality

First is the quality of education This is something that AIMS is trying to address, but which is also dependent on a strong foundation and a good understanding of science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM). 

One country that is an example of this struggle is South Africa. Neil says that while South Africa has a “strong science infrastructure making it a magnet for scientists, it struggles to produce its own young scientists.” The country is improving in science, “but that this is a legacy of the apartheid and the numbers with good scores is still too low…[the country] does need to do much more in terms of training teachers and interesting South Africans in science.” 

The second major challenge is related to employment. 

In interviews with some of Africa’s most brilliant young scientists at the Next Einstein Forum - the largest scientific gathering in Africa - the uncertainty they felt when looking at potential career paths was a real concern. This means that Africa’s brightest talent often feels compelled to move abroad to work at the cutting edge of research and earn a decent salary. 

For Amanda Weltman, whose research has led to entire sub-fields in cosmology and experimental physics, she didn’t know what the future would hold, just that her passion kept her going.

 “I just wanted to understand the way the universe works, to study physics and to learn and use more Maths. I did not know how I would get an academic job but I knew I had to be excellent to compete because my field is really blessed with so many brilliant young minds.”

Fewer opportunities

For Alta Shutte, a brilliant South African scientist who has made numerous discoveries explaining the significantly increased risk of Africans to developing heart disease, she said that “answering this is rather challenging as opportunities seem to be getting fewer.

“Obviously all cannot go into academia and private sector (such as pharmaceuticals) seem to be investing even less in research and development in South Africa. So it seems more and more likely that the brain drain may be fuelled even further. This, despite South Africa wanting to increase our annual delivery of doctorates to 6,000 per year. As many scientists lack entrepreneurial skills and training I am concerned as to what opportunities there will be for them in future”, she said.

When I put this question to Neil, asking whether he believed that Africa currently has enough jobs and industry to employ these young scientists, his answer was concerning. 

“No”, he said without hesitation. “We have to create opportunities at the same time as graduating [the scientists]. We have to create the whole scientific infrastructure in Africa.” 

Create innovation space

He was nonetheless positive about this challenge saying that “it’s actually easy but governments and companies have to be persuaded to start using science and technology in industry”.

“Companies for too long haven’t invested in growing value creation in Africa. The continent has a lot of raw materials but 90% of their economic benefit is through processing – not the raw materials themselves…Africa has to graduate scientists who will be involved in the design and manufacture of new products. Create space for innovation in which we lack so much.”

There have been bodies that have tried to create these spaces. 

The African Union for instance established a research grant programme which has resulted in 20 projects across the continent, all using science and technology as a key means to solving Africa’s socioeconomic challenges. 

In addition to providing full scholarships, AIMS is also trying to provide opportunities through supporting the creation of 100 research chairs, to take place over the next two year - an action that Neil proposed at the Next Einstein Forum. 

These chairs would create opportunities for African scientists who would be able to put together a team of postgraduates to work with them on their area of interest. They would “need to [have a] great working environment – such as is provided in AIMS centres and a lot of freedom; the freedom to choose their own area of interest, attend conferences and publish papers…It’s not expensive”, said Neil. “100 chairs would cost $20 million”. 

Leading the way

At the country-level Neil described some stand-out African nations which are producing good scientists and more conducive environments for opportunities. 

“Nigeria is producing an abundance of graduates, many in maths, science and engineering. Cameroon has a strong maths education system and recently invested in a big teacher training programme with AIMS. Sudan has a large number of scientists, especially women…some say women tend to go further in education in Muslim countries because doing so is a way of putting off marriage”, he says. 

There are also “many [scientists emerging] from Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda. Although one country that is skyrocketing [in that region] is Rwanda. [AIMS] had 2 applicants in 2008 and last year we had 169 graduates coming to do masters degrees at AIMS. To see that kind of change in the country is a consequence of excellence and consistent government strategy”. 

Rwanda is a stand out case which has removed visa requirements for all Africans and is trying to attract talented, young entrepreneurs to come and start pan-African companies. It is one reason why AIMS is moving its headquarters there. 

The future for Africa’s scientists is however looking brighter and Neils’ conviction that the next Einstein will come from the continent is really put down to human resolve. 

He described how one of AIMS’ graduates, Martial Loth Ndeffo Mbah, is now a staff scientist at Yale and was a frontline scientist in dealing with the Ebola outbreak in West Africa. Martial didn’t have a privileged upbringing though - he and his five siblings were raised by a single mother who was determined to get them all to university. She managed—using her meagre resources as a market trader.

In general Africans “believe in education and are willing to make huge sacrifices to get their children to school…their children struggle against the odds and through sheer natural talent stand out as first class graduates.” 

This shows Africa’s potential - the will to succeed, persevere and take science to a new level. 


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