At a time when the knowledge produced by a nation is increasingly seen as a ticket to prosperity, the Canadian government is taking a step beyond traditional aid programs, pledging $20-million for science education in Africa.
The funding will go to the Next Einstein Initiative, a unique project that aims to nurture and support the brightest minds in Africa through a network of research centres. Its founder is Neil Turok, the director of the Perimeter Institute of Theoretical Physics in Waterloo, who began the initiative seven years ago to develop the scientific capacity of Africa as a way to promote prosperity.
Canada's investment over four years will help support the existing African Institute for Mathematical Sciences in Cape Town, South Africa, as well as three planned centres in Senegal, Ethiopia and Ghana. Prof. Turok said the investment is transformative because of its size - the next-largest contribution to the project was a $1-million gift from Google earlier this year - and because it sends a signal to other developed countries that traditionally have steered clear of directing aid dollars to higher education in Africa.
"This is an amazing opportunity that we must not waste," Prof. Turok said Tuesday after the announcement, which was one of two made by Prime Minister Stephen Harper during a visit to meet renowned physicist Stephen Hawking, who holds a distinguished research chair at the institute.
"The development agenda has emphasized primary education, health and very basic food and agriculture," said Prof. Turok, a native of South Africa. Directing money to some of the one million students who graduate from African universities each year, he said, gives them access to leading instructors on their own continent and provides the skills they need to continue their studies in Africa or abroad.
Since its inception, AIMS has graduated 252 scholars from 30 African countries and has attracted top lecturers from around the world. The program is designed to be a stepping stone to a scientific career, and so far 95 per cent of its students have gone on to further study, about three-quarters of them in Africa, Prof. Turok said.
Eric Takam is one of those students. A native of Cameroon, he spent nine months at the Cape Town centre after graduating from a Cameroon university with a physics degree and is now a PhD student at Simon Fraser University.
"It was definitely a bridge," he said of the program. "Without it, I might have gone on to teaching, but now I am doing research." He hopes to return home to continue his work in seismic exploration.
Mr. Takam and others in Waterloo for the announcement stressed that the best way to help African nations is to give people the knowledge they need to solve their own problems.
The Prime Minister echoed that feeling during his announcement. "Increasingly, the prosperity of nations is measured by the depth of their science expertise," Mr. Harper said, drawing a direct line between science and commerce. The money, which will come from Ottawa's foreign-aid budget, is in keeping with the government's renewed interest in Africa following Mr. Harper's promotion of maternal health as part of last month's G8 meeting in Ontario.
During the visit, which also included a brief meeting with Prof. Hawking, the Prime Minister also announced details of a new $45-million funding program for postdoctoral fellows in Canada, part of a string of investments in science and technology by the federal government to promote its innovation agenda.
The fellowships, named after Nobel Prize winner Sir Frederick Banting, were first announced in this year's budget and will provide $70,000 in annual funding to 70 recent doctoral graduates each year. They will be open to foreign students, and up to one-quarter of Canadians who receive the awards will be allowed to use them to study abroad.
The federal government is hoping to boost Canada's productivity by increasing investments in scientific research, a move it also is counting on to help it bring the country back from a growing deficit.
Prof. Hawking praised both investments by Ottawa. "By investing in young scientists, it is setting an example, which other countries would do well to follow," he said. He also said his first visit to the Perimeter Institute will not be his last. "I look forward to returning often, and being a part of this exciting scientific hub of activity."
The Perimeter Institute is an independent research centre devoted to theoretical physics that was started in 1999 by Research In Motion founder Mike Lazaridis. The institute is now expanding with a new wing named after Prof. Hawking.