APS News

The Back Page

Physics for Development in Africa

By Nithaya Chetty and Ahmed C. Bawa

Nithaya Chetty
Nithaya Chetty
Ahmed Bawa
Ahmed C. Bawa

Ed. Note: APS was a major participant in the planning and organization of the World Conference on Physics and Sustainable Development that was held in Durban, South Africa, October 31st-November 2nd.

This article deals with many of the issues related to the theme of that conference.

Physics as a discipline has suffered enormously at universities and in science systems across the African continent. The number of physics articles on the Science Citation Index emanating from institutions in Sub-Saharan Africa represents about 0.3% of the total number of papers published internationally. There are no easy answers to the obvious questions that may be asked.

Universities went into decline partly due to the impact of poor funding of higher education, partly due to the structural adjustment programs inspired by the World Bank and partly because of the collapse of African states in the decades following independence. And unlike the importance afforded to agriculture as a research enterprise, physics did not have an opportunity to establish itself. This is also due to the fact that physics had failed to re-imagine itself in these complex circumstances and thus failed to produce a convincing argument that its revival was important for development.

There is positive change in the higher education terrain due to changing local and global factors. The emergence of new understandings of the role of knowledge-producing institutions in economic growth and development and internal processes of democratization are generating new interest in universities. There is a growing understanding amongst African governments and policymakers that in terms of changes occurring in global production systems, the role of universities extends beyond their traditional role of contributing to nation-building and the production of successive generations of civil servants and professionals.

Participation rates in sub-Saharan Africa’s higher education systems are exceptionally low, with most of the systems absorbing less than 1% of the 18-24 year age cohorts. This is made more complex by the fact that most low-income countries have secondary school science participation rates at the level of 5% to 10%.

The processes of democratization and the increase in local interest in building universities receives strong support from international role-players such as the governmental development agencies and the large US philanthropic foundations. The World Bank has re-entered the terrain through the development of a strategy to help developing nations to re-think their approach to higher education. In the last two to three years, the World Bank has made substantial grants to Mozambique, Uganda and Ethiopia for the development of their university systems.

An important factor that is shaping the development of African science is growth in the power and ubiquity of the information and communication technologies. One intervention has led to advances in developing the capacity of African universities to access "cheap" satellite-borne international bandwidth. Another is aimed at building large-scale research and graduate study networks amongst science research groups as a means of building critical mass in research capacity.

Africa's economy cannot be separated from that of the rest of the world and there is therefore a clear understanding that it needs to enter the knowledge and information era at a level which makes it competitive. And higher education has a fundamental role to play in building a new generation of graduates who are technology-savvy and able to lead the continent into this globalized terrain.

In light of the creation of the AU (African Union) and NEPAD (New Partnership for African Development) and the recent discourses on the re-imagination of Africa as a post-colonial entity–for instance through the development of an African Renaissance framework–it is increasingly clear that Africa must leapfrog into this knowledge and information era.

One way of doing this is to develop the capacity to excite the continent's young with the possibilities of being active generators of new knowledge and the generators of new tools for the production of that knowledge. Physics in South Africa, in particular, has positioned itself in a developmental role, and in here is its growing strength and its future in this region. The IUPAP-sponsored “World Conference on Physics and Sustainable Development” to be held later this month in Durban is the culmination of a growing trend amongst physicists, governments and funding agents in the developing world to view physics as an instrument of change.

Physics is rooted in clear, logical thinking. There is an appreciation of cause and effect. There are underlying principles that are universal–physical phenomena measured in Pietermaritzburg, Paris or Pluto are all governed by the same principles. This universal nature is one of the triumphs of physics. Physicists of all hues and creeds - including Africans–have contributed to this vast body of knowledge over the centuries.

Many of the principles by which physics is governed are relevant to society-at-large. The quest for mutual respect and appreciation for peoples' abilities and contributions independent of their background are ideals we must all strive for in this world. These attitudes are central for building democratic societies, and in this way physics has an important role to play in the development of Africa.

Africa must participate in its technological development and not be entirely dependent on foreign inputs. Africa must utilize its natural resources optimally, and must pay more attention to its environment and to safety. All these factors impact on its economic well-being which, ultimately creates jobs and alleviates poverty.

Physics is an intrinsic part of the culture of all of humanity. Human beings have been curious about the world that they live in (and beyond) for time immemorial. It is precisely this curiosity that has led humans to harness energy, understand our environment, and develop technical applications that are the hallmarks of the modern era. Africa cannot afford to continue to be marginalized in this domain.

It is clear that a proper environment and culture must be established in Africa for pursuing science seriously–there is no endemic reason why Africa should fare poorly. For those who care about the continent and its people, a more serious effort must be made to help create the conditions for which mathematics and science can thrive.

If we do not make significant inroads in the near future, then other endeavors will not be able to make the strides that are anticipated: it has been suggested, for example, that the 21st century belongs to the biological sciences. It is, however, generally not appreciated that significant achievements in these disciplines will not be made without the involvement of mathematics and physics. Researchers with strong mathematical, physical and computational skills working in close collaboration with biologists are absolutely essential if this vision is to be realized. Africa must continue to invest in the basic sciences if it is going to compete on equal terms with the rest of the world. We cannot apply science if we do not have the basic sciences to apply.

The growth potential of computational physics in Africa, for example, is enormous and yet to be fully realized. At present our universities do not have a strong culture of hands-on computing. This lack of capacity is reflected in our society-at-large where there is an over-reliance on expensive commercial software to solve problems.

Africa must make maximal use of freeware software to keep expenses to a minimum. In South Africa, Mark Shuttleworth (first African in space) has very generously supported the use of Open Source, and several universities including our own have benefited from substantial donations from his foundation. Needless to say, computational physicists are at the very forefront in using these new facilities innovatively. The potential spin-offs are tremendous with local government and businesses showing a keen interest in going the Open route.

The AAIICT (African Advanced Institute for Information and Communication Technology) is currently being set up in Pretoria, and shows tremendous potential for boosting research in the computational sciences on the continent. The CHPC (Centre for High Performance Computing) is being established in Cape Town under the auspices of the AAIICT and will make available resources to scientists on a competitive basis for grand-challenge scale computational projects.

Southern Africa has invested significantly in the field of observational astronomy. SALT (South African Large Telescope), HARTRAO (the Hartebeeshoek Radio Observatory), HESS (the High Energy Stereoscopic System) and the proposed SKA (Square Kilometer Array) demand competent African graduates to maintain a high level of research productivity for the future, and this is creating greater incentives for students to take physics.

The recently concluded international review of physics (see http://www.saip.org.za) in South Africa has given much impetus for physics, not only in South Africa but also the rest of the continent and beyond. The proposed NITheP (National Institute of Theoretical Physics) has reached an advanced stage of planning and is due to be launched next year. The South African government has required that the Institute set as a high priority the development of quality black graduates in mathematics and theoretical physics. In addition, government has ordered that the Institute must make an impact on the continent. It is here that our international partnerships will help enormously. We need a steady stream of high quality international visitors to our shores to expose our bright young minds from the continent to current topics in physics. The Chris Engelbrecht Summer School series has established a tradition of doing precisely this–it is no exaggeration to suggest that the success of this School series strengthened the original bid to form the NITheP.

Discussions are underway to establish a South African synchrotron light source as well as a high powered laser facility, both of which will create more opportunities for intra-African as well as international collaborations.

The National Research Foundation of South Africa has supported the creation of Centers of Excellence in various fields including Materials Science. These large-scale so-called “flagship” projects have been funded as a mechanism to bootstrap scientific development in the country. South Africa has an historical interest in strong materials such as synthetic diamond, boron nitride, etc. that has made it one of the world leaders in the cutting tools and abrasives industries. There is a recognition that in order for the country to remain at the forefront in this field, quality materials research is vital.

There are a number of pan-African initiatives that have come to fruition over recent times: The African Institute for Mathematical Sciences, The African Laser Centre, The AAIICT, The African Materials Research Society, etc. More funding is becoming available from SADC (Southern African Development Corporation), NEPAD, the AU, etc. These initiatives are creating exciting opportunities for the advancement of physics as an academic discipline as well as creating quality human resources and making significant contributions toward addressing problems of relevance to Africa.

The physics community in South Africa is actively reaching out to physicists elsewhere in Africa who often toil under extraordinarily isolated circumstances. We want to see more African physicists spend more time in South Africa to strengthen collaborations, to access laboratory facilities, and to also be exposed to our international visitors.

A niche area exists for the research and development of undergraduate textbooks in physics with a focus on applications of relevance to Africa. This opens a whole new field of endeavor for those who are interested in developing teaching materials. This is an area where African physicists can get involved and make contributions on par with the rest of the world.

The declaration by SADC to increase the percentage of GDP to be spent on research and development means that we need to substantially increase graduate student production, and this is creating exciting opportunities for physics in the region. The physics community has been championing the cause of scientific development as a vehicle for progress at all levels within society, including educational, commercial, industrial and governmental. In this landscape, physics is beginning to establish itself as an instrument for change, and governments are beginning to listen.

Chetty directs the program in Computational Physics at the University of KwaZulu-Natal and is currently the president-elect of the South African Institute of Physics. Bawa is the Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research) of the University of KwaZulu-Natal and has recently headed the Ford Foundation Africa section.

APS encourages the redistribution of the materials included in this newspaper provided that attribution to the source is noted and the materials are not truncated or changed.

Editor: Alan Chodos
Associate Editor: Jennifer Ouellette
Staff Writer: Ernie Tretkoff