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Q&A: The importance of mathematics

Q&A: The importance of mathematics

TWAS Fellow Lê Tuân Hoa discusses the role of maths in the developing world, as well as its role in career development, sustainability science, and international cooperation
Mathematician TWAS Fellow Lê Tuân Hoa visiting the TWAS secretariat at the campus of ICTP. [Photo:S. Treacy/TWAS]
Mathematician TWAS Fellow Lê Tuân Hoa of the Institute of Mathematics in Hanoi, Vietnam, visited the TWAS Secretariat in Trieste, Italy. [Photo: S. Treacy/TWAS]

Mathematics has a reputation as the purest, most elemental form of research. But, notes TWAS Fellow Lê Tuân Hoa in a recent visit to TWAS headquarters in Trieste, Italy, basic research of its kind often has a contribution to make in the real world.

Hoa, elected a TWAS Fellow in 2011, is a mathematician with the Institute of Mathematics in Hanoi, Vietnam, whose research focuses on the complexity of algebraic objects. He’s also the chair of Section Mathematics of the State Council for Professorship of Vietnam since 2018, as well as a former president of the Vietnam Mathematical Society. This year, he was elected a member of the International Mathematical Union’s Commission for Developing Countries.

In this interview with TWAS staff writer Sean Treacy, Hoa discusses the usefulness of international organizations for strengthening mathematics research in developing countries. He also emphasizes the importance of support for basic science, and how mathematics can contribute to other priorities such as sustainable development.


Q: What is your experience as a mathematician from the developing world, and what makes it distinct within global mathematics?

A: I think mathematics plays a very important role everywhere, but now in developing countries people are starting to understand the importance of mathematics. Because of the economic situation, many global institutions have effective measures to support science in general and mathematics as a practical field in the developing world.

To have a network among mathematicians is very helpful to the development of mathematics in recent times. So we try to help each other to develop mathematics. We have the International Mathematical Union, and we have the South-East Asian Mathematical Society.

Q: What can organizations like TWAS do to strengthen education in advanced mathematics in the developing world?

A: I think TWAS can make a very good contribution with its Centres of Excellence. These programmes with these centres, from time-to-time you receive visitors from other countries. Of course, because there is limited support, the programmes are not comprehensive. But if we can increase financial support from both sides—TWAS and host institutions—I’m sure that we can regularly have more visitors and thus make more contributions.

Of course, to teach more students you need more funding. But with scientific visitors, through them you can form an international network. So with the support of these programmes, we in the developing world can have better facilities than say 20 years ago.

Q: With a basic science like mathematics, how do you convince people and policymakers to think of it as a priority in research compared to the applied sciences?

A: You know, that is always a problem. Applied sciences are very important for the near future. But basic science is also very important. Even if it is not so effective, we should say that to policymakers, whenever we meet them. Another, more effective way, is try to do that through capacity building.

Together with my colleagues at the Institute of Mathematics at the Vietnam Academy of Sciences and Technology and other universities in Vietnam, we try to draw and train the best students. The best students will always have a chance to pursue master’s and, hopefully, PhD programmes. Step by step, we can have more young researchers in basic science, and build research groups in the country. Then, we can convince and ask the government to give them funding to support their research. This is exactly the way the National Foundation for Science and Technology Development of Vietnam was founded 15 years ago.

Higher education is important. High school students strong in mathematics often apply to study abroad, but very few of them come back. PhD students trained inside Vietnam are in different position because they often become part of a research group of his or her supervisor. And when they then go abroad for a postdoctoral programme, many of them come back because they already have a network and they understand that, inside their home country, they can do science. Meanwhile those coming back from abroad need time to adapt, and some of them could never be integrated in any research team. I think the same happens in other developing countries.

Q: How does advanced mathematics relate to initiatives to promote sustainable development, which are a priority for so many countries right now?

A: More and more of those with training in advanced mathematics are able to take part in research that is not only applicable, but practical. Even in a country like ours, where interest in science is low.

Mathematicians can pursue a mathematician career in sustainability—they can choose a second job working for an IT company and take on work that is original, and continue their career in mathematics. If you study mathematics, you don’t have to do pure research, you have many more opportunities. This explains why mathematics has less difficulties compared to other basic sciences in Vietnam.