The tasks of developing international exchanges, promoting spontaneous meetings among scientists and ensuring freedom of research in mathematics and physics are at the heart of the IHES mission. In order to fulfill them it is fundamental to allow researchers to freely come and go between institutions and to thus spread knowledge.
Over the years, IHES has engaged in a fruitful co-operation with mathematicians from Africa. Thanks to the generous gifts of the Schlumberger Foundation, between 2004 and 2009, and of the Lounsbery Foundation, between 2013 and 2015, the Institute has created a steady stream of African visitors coming to IHES for their research visits.
Specific support for this activity ended in 2015. IHES continues to invite African scientists, but not longer within this privileged framework that allowed African visitors to have their often hard to afford travelling expenses refunded. An interview with Philibert Nang, mathematician and professor at Ecole Normale Supérieure in Libreville, Gabon, helps us understand the importance of international visiting programs such as the one of IHES.
Interested in algebraic analysis, and in D-modules in particular, Philibert Nang visited the Institute for the second time between September 17th and December 5th 2016. His first visit to IHES was in 2008, and it was covered by the African Fund, founded by the Schlumberger Foundation. It was thanks to the flyers and posters that IHES distributed to African universities, often still suffering from insufficient internet connection, that he discovered the IHES visiting program.
What is the impact of your stay at IHES on your work?
To understand the importance of research visits abroad for African scientists and mathematicians, it is necessary to keep in mind that Gabonese universities are extremely under-equipped. Even libraries there are often lacking, or obsolete.
This is true even though Gabon is not considered as a least developed country, bur rather as a developing country: the internet connection is slow and, moreover, universities cannot pay for the access to most scientific online journals. That is a huge handicap for researchers, who need to stay up to date with the state of the art in their domains and who need to be exposed to different ideas in order to get their own.
From this point of view, Gabon is in an even worse shape than other African states, whose status of least developed countries in recognised. Specific programs exist, where institutions like ICTP in Trieste, and other organisms related to UNESCO, provide least developed countries with an if limited access to online scientific journals.
On top of that, Gabonese universities do not fund research stays abroad. Rasearch institutes such as IHES – or the Max Planck Institute for Mathematics in Bohn, Germany, allow sub-Saharian African researchers to work with some of the best scientists and mathematicians in their domains.
Staying at IHES is a great opportunity for me. Here I find an exceptional scientific atmosphere. What makes it so enriching are daily seminars, high-level courses and the possibility to share my work with scientists at a very high level. All this implies that one month of work here is equivalent to 4-6 months in Gabon. My stay at IHES will allow for a substantial progress in my work.
Are there any other aspects of the life at IHES that make it a particularly good place for a researcher?
The atmosphere at IHES is calm and quiet, ideal to work. Moreover, IHES took charge of my accommodation. To my knowledge, there is no other institution that provides an accommodation to the researchers and to their families. Considering the current political situation in Gabon, the presence of my family ensured that I had the right state of mind to focus on my work and to make substantial progress, which would have been much harder had my family not been here.
The Ormaille residence, where I am staying with my wife and my daughters, is a very comfortable, spacious and pleasant place where to live. Moreover, our apartment is well equipped with modern devices and we have access to a fast internet connection, which is quite exceptional for us.
I also believe that a dynamic and effective administrative staff, as the one of IHES, constitutes an important help, allowing researchers to focus on their work, as it is them who deal with all the bureaucratic procedures.
Do you have any suggestions to improve our visiting program?
It would be very important to continue with the African Fund : by inviting African researchers to France, IHES considerably contributes to promoting mathematics and theoretical physics in African countries.
I would like to have access to longer visits, which would allow for greater continuity in my work. Also, it would be important for countries that are scientifically isolated as Gabon and other sub-Saharian countries are, to access IHES databases, and particularly to be allowed access to electronic journals also from abroad. That would make my work back in Gabon much easier.
photo credit: ICTP