Monday, August 21, 2017 - 0:07:57

Maths institute looks to set new standards


Vietnam , despite its comparatively modest economic resources, is following in the footsteps of many advanced countries to start investing in basic scientific research.

The establishment of the Vietnam Institute of Advanced Study in Mathematics (VIASM) in March is a clear demonstration of the Government's commitment to push local academia to a new level.

The founding of the institute is among the first steps of a project, worth 650 billion VND (31 million USD), that aims to transform Vietnam into a maths powerhouse by 2020.

Investment in research and technology, which has been successful in other countries, would help to unleash a new wave of innovation and trigger economic development.

Professor Dam Thanh Son of the University of Washington 's Institute for Nuclear Theory said Vietnam had lagged far behind its neighbouring countries in basic scientific research.

"You don't have to look too far to see that other countries are making extraordinary efforts to promote the basic sciences. China, India, Singapore are doing their best not only to produce high calibre, creative researchers and scientists of their own, but are also trying to attract foreign talents to come and work for their countries," he said.

Professor Nguyen Huu Viet Hung from Hanoi National University 's College of Natural Sciences said this project marked the first time the Government had ever invested such a remarkable amount in scientific research and education, after decades of almost complete dependence on foreign countries for in-depth research.

"Scientists of my generation were often sent to Soviet bloc countries friendly to Vietnam , while those of the following generations went to Western countries to acquire knowledge through financial aid provided by those Governments," Hung elaborated.

VIASM's scientific director, Professor Ngo Bao Chau, said the institute aimed to enrich educational and research experiences by organising seminars that cover hot topics of contemporary maths as well as short-term projects involving both local mathematicians and their peers abroad.

"The formation of the institute will strengthen collaboration among Vietnamese scientists who otherwise would be professionally isolated. By tapping into its membership network, it will promote high-level international partnerships that can raise the level of scholarship in Vietnam ," he said.

Professor Hung said that while Vietnamese mathematicians historically performed well, the mathematics teaching and learning movement was losing its long-established momentum.

"It's like a building reaching its apex while its foundation starts crumbling at the same time," he said.

Last year, Vietnamese professor Ngo Bao Chau was the first citizen of a developing nation to be awarded the Fields Medal, the equivalent of a Nobel prize in the field of mathematics. Yet opposite record was set this year when the Vietnamese team participating in the 52nd International Mathematical Olympiad got the lowest ranking in the nation's history, 31 out of 101.

Professor Duong Minh Duc from HCM City National University 's College of Natural Sciences said that teaching methods lay at the root of declining scores.

"For a long time, mathematics teachers opted for teaching students tricks to solve maths problems rather than fostering a long-lasting passion for this discipline," he said.

Professor Chau said this phenomenon—in combination with the continuing drop in mathematics majors—showed the society was losing its traditionally fervent interest in maths and basic sciences.

He observed that parents nowadays seem to steer their children towards more pragmatic professions, holding the opinion that mathematics-based careers could hardly guarantee a prosperous life.

In addition, applied mathematics has not taken off in Vietnam as of yet, giving the public the impression that mathematics is far removed from the practical world. There are many real-life problems that could have been solved with mathematical models, had researchers and students been able to work together as a team.

"The impediment here is that, while there are many competent scientists in Vietnam , it is no small feat to build groups of scientists to deliver solutions to real-life conundrums. It requires massive efforts to identify the problems in practical life and to get policy makers and mathematicians to speak a common language long enough to solve them," Chau said.

Vu Dinh Chuan, director of Ministry of Training and Education's Secondary Education Department, said the declining performance of Vietnam 's team in recent years had prompted the ministry to change its recruitment and training strategy.

One measure Professor Chau suggested was to organise math camps, a platform to bring talented students together for a period of time devoted to serious mathematical pursuits.

Chuan added that the ministry was committed to granting preferential treatment to mathematically gifted students.

He asked prominent scientists to go on more speaking tours around schools to encourage students' interest in science, saying he had already seen the impact from the recent visit by Fields medallist Chau.

"The students were extremely excited—they got a better understanding of what it's like to be a scientist and will now consider a scientific career more seriously," he said.

Speaking to Vietnam News from Havard University , maths PhD student Le Hung Viet Bao, who attended the VIASM seminars this summer, said that institutes of this kind were able to create a sound environment for leading scientists and young researchers to work together on pressing concerns of the field.

Although he does not currently plan to work in Vietnam , Bao did say the formation of VIASM would encourage scientists abroad to return to their home country, especially for short periods of three to four months.

The institute plans to make its debut to the international scientific community next January, when its international board will pay a working visit to Vietnam. /.
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