Math whiz invite doesn't add up

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The government is making efforts to invite Ngo Bao Chau, a Hanoi-born mathematician whose research has won international acclaim, to help implement its 2010-2020 national math development program.

Chau, 38, is currently a French naturalized citizen.

During a recent visit to Chau's family in Hanoi, Deputy Prime Minister Nguyen Thien Nhan said the government was willing to offer the best working and living conditions to Chau, whose groundbreaking mathematical work was honored by TIME Magazine as one of the top ten scientific discoveries of 2009.

The unofficial offer was made even as Chau is poised to attend the International Mathematical Union 2010, scheduled to open August 19 in India, as one of the nominees for the Fields Medals, before taking up a position at the University of Chicago on September 1.

The Fields Medals are commonly regarded as mathematics' closest analog to the Nobel Prize (which does not exist in mathematics) and are awarded every four years by the International Mathematical Union to one or more outstanding researchers.

The government's offer has raised questions about the its plan to recruit and use overseas talents.

In an interview with Thanh Nien, professor Le Tuan Hoa, deputy director of the Mathematics Institute, said it is clear that the country cannot afford to pay professor Chau the income he receives abroad.

"If Chau returns full-time to Vietnam, it could affect his connection with the international community of mathematicians, which can make it hard [on us] if we want to invite prominent mathematicians to Vietnam for research or recommend our students to them," said Hoa, who is involved with the government's draft plan to establish the Institute for Advanced Research in Math.

Professor Hoa noted that in the past, the institute has made efforts to offer the best working conditions for Chau, but under the government's current policy, the highest offer was only VND5 million (US$262) per month.

"That does not equal the daily salary he could earn abroad. We know we don't have enough funding to pay overseas Vietnamese experts. We must realize that we need to provide the minimum conditions for them to return," he said.

Hoa said the government is expected to soon approve the draft plan to establish the Institute for Advanced Research in Math, which consists of three to five full-time researchers whose mission is to leverage the country's position in the world of mathematics.

Local news website VietnamNet quoted professor Chau as saying he was very appreciative of the Deputy Prime Minister's offer but did not mention the possibility of returning to work full-time in Vietnam.

Chau last returned to Vietnam in late July, when he said he was committed to contribute to the country's math development plan at a higher level than his current teaching activities with the math institute. Since 2000, he has been visiting Vietnam during the summer to teach university students in Hanoi.

Chau, who won two gold medals at International Math Olympiad when he was 11 and 12 years old, received his doctoral degree from Université Paris-Sud in 1997. He was granted the Clay Research Award in 2004, the Oberwolfach Prize in 2007 and the Prix Sophie Germain de l'Académie des Sciences de Paris the same year.

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