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Workshop Explores Collaborations in Africa

Representatives from the APS, the European Physical Society and UNESCO, among other organizations, attended a planning workshop late last year to explore means for enhancing collaboration among scientists from developing and industrial nations in Africa.

Convened by the UNESCO Physics Action Council (PAC) and the APS, the meeting was held on 27-28 November at UNESCO's headquarters in Paris, France.

The discussions focused on a variety of issues, including the status of physical societies in Western Africa, and the role of the International Center for Theoretical Physics (ICTP) in Trieste, Italy, in promoting and supporting laser science centers. The ICTP currently supports two affiliated centers in laser science in Africa: one at the University of Cape Coast in Ghana and the other at the University Cheik Anta Diop in Dakar, Senegal reasoning that the applied aspects of such research held significant value for these nations and any potential collaborators. Both centers have also developed strong programs for student training, and the Cape Coast Center has outreach programs for K-12 students and teachers.

"Laser science is a discipline of vigorous basic research and great practical potential in such areas as telecommunications, health, agronomy, and plant biology and industrial processing," said Ahmadou Wague, a professor at the University Cheik Anta Diop's Laser and Atomic Physics Center in Dakar. "It is our contention that while scientists in developing countries can benefit from scientific liaison with their colleagues in the industrial north, scientists and institutions in the north can benefit from the application and work of scientists in the south."

Other important issues were the promotion of scientific collaboration between African research centers and those in North America, Europe and Asia; the improvement of telecommunications to promote permanent links among distant research facilities; the development of a regularized program of scholarly exchanges; and the broadening of interdisciplinary science contacts to include agricultural science, agronomy, industrial processing and biomedical applications.

One of the highest priorities, according to Irving Lerch, APS director of international scientific affairs, is the need to establish communication with African government leaders of science, technology, academics, industry and finance. Investment in science, technology and education in these developing countries is traditionally low: approximately .1% to .2% GDP level in Africa, which is roughly 10% of the GDP fractional investment made by developed countries. There is little impulse among governments in both the developing and industrialized nations to make such investment, and national priorities remain centered on such areas as agronomy and health. For basic science to be supported, there must be a clear and demonstrable connection between the work of such scientists and the most compelling needs of society, amply apparent in such areas of technology as telecommunications. "Only when government officials and the general public are informed of the connection between science and technology and industrial development, quality of life and prosperity, will attitudes change," said Wague "Developing countries face serious economic exigencies which will hinder development unless these issues are fully explored and taken into consideration when setting national priorities," he said.

The participants also reached agreement on the organization of a workshop on spectroscopy and applications originally developed by the EPS, now rescheduled for early December 1998 in Dakar. The APS Executive Board agreed to endorse such a workshop at its November 1997 meeting. The proposed program will include sections on high-resolution spectroscopy, atomic and molecular spectroscopy, liquid phase structure studies, molecular ion and helium ion spectroscopy, studies of rapid reactions, applications of medical lasers, applications of Raman and other spectroscopies to industrial pollution and other environmental problems, differential absorption techniques to detect atmospheric pollutions, and the development of Internet telecommunications for worldwide scientific collaboration. The African Laser Atomic and Molecular Sciences Network previously organized four pan-African workshops on lasers and applications in 1991, 1993, 1994 and 1996. A fifth workshop is planned for Botswana this August.

A program of long-term scholarly exchanges is also an important priority for numerous reasons. First, African scientists could materially contribute to the work of facilities in industrialized nations, thereby benefitting both themselves and their hosts. They would also be able to continue collaboration through electronic means to maintain their scientific commitments. Furthermore, they could contribute ideas and applications to the interdisciplinary communities associated with host institutions in such areas as agronomy, health sciences and industrial applications. Finally, students and post-doctoral scientists could benefit from exposure to the scientific programs of major centers in the northern hemisphere.

Telecommunications was identified as the key to maintaining scientific connections between African centers and those in developed countries. African nations are already making large and sustained investments in network infrastructure and Internet access. While high-capacity connections to the Dakar center were possible, broad band access for the Cape Coast center is problematic. Microwave connections between the center and Accra are not possible because of the cost of installing towers between the two cities. PAC is making every effort to convince local authorities of the necessicity for such a connection, and is consulting the largest commercial ISP provider in Accra about the most appropriate means of achieving the required connectivity.

Total APS membership is 40,767 of which 78% have mailing addresses in the USA and 22% reside outside the U.S. Eleven nations with the next largest APS membership are shown above. Central and South American nations with notable APS memberships include: Mexico (157), Brazil (148), Argentina (106), Chile (50), Venezuela (29), and Columbia (21).