Education, research, and economic development: Africa as a lesson for America
Could Africa ever be rich? Since the 1960’s, economic development aid has poured into the continent and pretty much vanished. Shiploads of grain, containers full of solar cookers, clothing, medicine, and outright money… and no progress. By every measure, Africa has remained a crucible of poverty from which human genius has emerged only with the greatest difficulty.
Enter Neil Turok, the physicist with the Klingon-sounding name. Born in South Africa, he worked with Stephen Hawking on brane theory. And he has an idea for transforming the problem: that “Africa should be seen not as a perpetually despondent continent, but as the largest single repository of untapped human potential in the world”.
“Turok challenged the global development status quo by creating the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences (AIMS). Located in a converted hotel in Cape Town, AIMS recruits students from across Africa for an intensive nine-month mathematics course. Students are taught by top international lecturers, and by the end are qualified for advanced programmes abroad.
At first, Turok says, the project generated widespread scepticism. Critics didn’t think that students would rise above the remedial level. Now the project has been recognised by the African Union, and this year earned Turok a $100,000 TED, at the Technology Entertainment and Design conference.”
New Scientist, 24 November 2008: Will the next Einstein be from Africa?
In Turok’s TED video, he tells a moving story about discovering the hunger for science even among people who struggle for survival. Bright young kids without shoes, a physicist from Darfur – if nothing else the video should destroy any vestige of racism or sexism left in the viewer. It should also destroy the idea that economic development is only about manual labor. Africa is a demonstration economy rich in manual labor, but poor in educational and scientific infrastructure. We need only look to that continent to know something important about ourselves as well.
There are African lessons for America. Our own political madness trades in the idea that the noble working man, with dirt under his fingernails, is the strength of America. It’s perfectly right as far as it goes. But unsurprisingly there’s a connected truth, which Turok is counting on: that labor is leveraged by education, by science. And as Archimedes said; “Give me a big enough lever, and I can move the world.”
In the days leading up to the election, I received this from my son, Lucas The Mathematician:
Perhaps I’m an elitist, but I just don’t relate to McCain/Palin at all. On Saturday, I heard Palin talking about how factory workers in some swing state were the real future of America, and its source of strength. I just don’t buy it. There’s nothing wrong with working in a factory, sure, but America’s real future and source of strength is in places like Palo Alto, CA and Cambridge, MA; Urbana, IL and Madison, WI. People like Sankar the mathematician, Philip the physicist, Andrei the microbiologist, and Erin the computer scientist. Real Americans who are building the future of America one breakthrough at a time. Whose jobs are threatened by better funding in other countries. People who sit around the kitchen table wondering about where their next grant is going to come from when the cost of research keeps going up, but the NSF budget keeps going down…
Our president elect was endorsed by 76 Nobel Prize winners in the sciences. He promises to restore funding to stem-cell research, and to emphasize science in policy decision. And we need to give him our complete support in that, because it’s the right direction. But the next president? Will the winds change, and the next president get worried about stem-cell souls, or have too many contributions from oil companies, or give lip-service to science while cutting NSF funding? Newt Gingrich once bragged about a ‘permanent conservative majority’; we need to lay the groundwork for a permanent reality-based education infrastructure. And I think that will only happen if we do a better job of communicating why it matters.