APS News

Conference Addresses Problems of Sustainable Development Worldwide

By Ernie Tretkoff

South Africa Minister of Science & Technology Mosibudi Mangena officially opens the conference
South Africa Minister of Science & Technology Mosibudi Mangena officially opens the conference
Photo credit: Roy Reed 

About 350 people from over 70 nations attended the World Conference on Physics and Sustainable Development from October 31 to November 2 in Durban, South Africa.

The purpose of the conference was to bring the international physics community together to develop plans for addressing some of the problems of sustainable development. The conference also served as a final international event for the World Year of Physics.

The conference was sponsored by the Abdus Salam International Center for Theoretical Physics (ICTP), the International Union of Pure and Applied Physics (IUPAP), and the South African Institute of Physics (SAIP) and the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

At the conference, four main themes were discussed: Physics and Health, Physics and Economic Development, Physics Education, and Energy and Environment. These themes were chosen because these are areas where physics has made major contributions in the past and where physics can make significant contributions in the future, said Judy Franz, APS Executive Officer and Secretary-General of IUPAP.

After a day of opening plenary sessions introducing the four themes, participants divided into the four groups, and each group came up with three or four recommendations.

In Physics and Education, recommendations include: making physics teaching resources and materials available through a website and equipment resource center; developing instructional materials that highlight the relationships between physics and sustainable development; presenting workshops for teacher-trainers in Latin America, Asia, and Africa; and supporting mobile physics projects.

Out of the Physics and Economic Development theme came a proposal for a facility that would train physicists in business skills to help them apply physics for economic development, a network on physics and agriculture that would make materials and resources available online, and a network on nanoscience for economic development, focusing on air, water, and energy.

Amy Flatten, APS Director of International Affairs, welcomes delegates at the Energy & Environment break-out session. Photo credit: Roy Reed
Amy Flatten, APS Director of International Affairs, welcomes delegates at the Energy & Environment break-out session.
Photo credit: Roy Reed 

The Energy and Environment session recommended investigating ways to enhance efficiency and reduce pollution in transportation, including studying new battery and internal combustion technology, promoting the use of solar energy, and developing biomass energy for small communities. Energy and Environment co-chair Osman Benchikh, of the Division of Basic and Engineering Sciences of UNESCO pointed out that 77 percent of people in the developing world do not have electricity, so energy is an extremely important area for development. A global program on renewable energy is needed, he said.

The fourth theme, Physics and Health, produced recommendations that included developing a collection of web resources for education, development of guidelines for medical physics education programs, development of regional training centers for radiation physicists, and increased recognition of physicists in medicine and collaboration with other physicists.

APS President Marvin Cohen said he felt there had been many good discussions at the conference. He emphasized that the proposals should be viewed as preliminary, and they will probably evolve as conference participants move forward with implementing them. Participants will follow up by continuing to meet with each other, forming task forces, finalizing proposals, and seeking funding. Each of the four themes will have an online bulletin board for participants to meet and discuss follow-up issues.

Amy Flatten, APS director of International Affairs, said that the conference went extremely smoothly. Participants were pleased that everyone was able to come together and produce concrete recommendations. “There was a lot of energy. The conversations were dynamic. There was a real sense of moving forward,” said Flatten.

Osman Benchikh, co-chair of the Energy and Environment theme, echoed those thoughts. “There was a lot of enthusiasm from the developing countries,” he said. Participants from developing countries seemed to think the conference was helpful, and they believed they would be able to carry out the recommendations. For instance, Phuc Xuan Nguyen, a condensed matter physicist from Vietnam said the conference was useful and noted that economic development, energy, health, and education are all important areas where there are problems to be solved in the developing world.


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