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New Centre to advance Mathematical Sciences in South Africa

- By Wits University

We are living in exponential times with about 150 million people born this year into the ‘data economy’. We are generating ‘exabytes’ of unique information annually and developing future generations to solve problems that we do not yet know about with technologies that do not yet exist.

A key component for enabling our existence in modern society and adding value to the ‘data economy’ is our ability to harness our expertise in the mathematical sciences. A recent Deloitte report on the impact of the mathematical sciences on the UK economy states that “there would be no engineering, economics or computer science, no smart phones, MRI scanners, bank accounts or PIN numbers” without research and training in mathematics. It further explicates that mathematics and mathematical tools are essential to address the challenges experienced across most sectors in the UK including the cybersecurity, aerospace, manufacturing, healthcare, pharmaceutical, medical technology and national security areas.

It further quantified that the 2.8 million people in mathematical science occupations in the UK were twice as productive as the average Briton in the workplace, and that they added a gross value of about £208 billion to the UK economy.

Back home, the National Research Foundation (NRF) identified the need to develop a coherent South African mathematical community following an international review of mathematical sciences research undertaken at universities in the country. The Wits Faculty of Science made the proposal for the formation of a national centre for mathematical science, resulting in the formation of the Centre for Mathematical and Computational Sciences (CMACS) at Wits. This is a national centre that serves the South African mathematical community at all South African universities.

 “The CMACS aims to address the academic and intellectual isolation of the South African mathematical sciences and to help produce graduates with breadth and depth of knowledge of contemporary developments in the mathematical sciences,” explains Dr Loyiso Nongxa, Director of the Centre.

According to the Review, South African mathematicians undertake world-class research in pure and applied mathematics, statistics, mathematics education and (theoretical) computer science. However, the academic, intellectual and geographic isolation of South African mathematics research from international centres of research needs to be addressed. There is also a disconnection of the research conducted in some areas with that of contemporary international interest.

“The Centre seeks to promote and champion the unity of the mathematical sciences and to secure the pipeline of future talent through PhD training and the targeted support for individuals,” adds Nongxa. “It further aims to improve the quality and competitiveness of doctoral training and career development in mathematics and improve connections with disciplines in the natural sciences, engineering, humanities and social sciences. Moreover, we would be remiss if we did not encourage collaboration and interaction with the public and private sectors, and other users of the mathematical sciences to ensure that the significance and relevance of the mathematical sciences is recognised and exploited widely.”

The Centre will also focus on initiatives to enhance the contribution of advanced and novel mathematical sciences to the National Research and Development Strategy, the 10-year Innovation Plan and the Five Grand Challenges of the Department of Science and Technology. Nongxa elaborates: “We are looking to develop areas of the mathematical sciences that are strategically important and may either be vulnerable or under-represented in the country. We are also looking to encourage connections between subfields of the mathematical sciences that have a critical mass that could possibly lead to new areas of research and exploit new emerging opportunities.”

The Centre will partner with the Department of Science and Technology / NRF Centre of Excellence for Mathematical and Statistical Sciences hosted at Wits and the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences to achieve its objectives through:

  • Establishing a Doctoral Training Centre for Mathematical and Statistical Sciences to facilitate the pooling of existing expertise at universities in order to provide high quality and broad training for students pursuing postgraduate studies in different disciplines of mathematical sciences;
  • Hosting workshops on emerging and rapidly developing areas of interest, specialised topics and contemporary themes;
  • Bridging the gap between academia, industry and the public sector;
  • Training the next generation of (South) African mathematicians by creating opportunities for them to be members of international research networks and to participate in activities which will enable them to be at the cutting edge of developments globally;
  • Launching an International Visitors Programme to attract foreign distinguished mathematicians for short-to-medium term visits in order to offer advanced and contemporary topics in the mathematical sciences to graduate students and early career academics and to introduce new areas of study; and
  • Identifying and developing mathematical talent in order to broaden the academic talent pipeline and increase the number of talented students who will pursue careers that depend on high level quantitative skills.

“We are hopeful that these programmes will go some way towards helping us to develop graduates that are equipped with advanced quantitative skills that will enable them to contribute to the advancement of new knowledge in society and make a meaningful contribution in academia, non-governmental organisations and the public and private sectors, which will enable us to prosper as a society,” concludes Nongxa.

* Dr Nongxa was recently appointed as the Chairperson of the Board of the National Research Foundation.