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An overview and ways to help

By Bassem Sabra

When representatives from the APS emailed me in the first days of the war on Lebanon , they inquired about my safety, the effect of the war on the Lebanese physics community, and how the APS could be of help. I replied with a short letter, which appeared in the August/September issue, written hastily while fighter jets screamed overhead. In that letter I addressed the first couple of issues and intentionally left out the last. Circumstances at that time did not grant me the luxury of thinking clearly about how the APS can help Lebanese physicists. Having now pondered the issue further, I would like to use my contacts with APS News and the APS International Office to help build a long-term relation between the Lebanese physics community and the APS.

I should stress that I am not a spokesperson for Lebanese physicists. There are no physics organizations in Lebanon . I am simply a Lebanese astrophysicist living and working in his country. I can, however, host you on a “tour” of Lebanon 's physics arena.

The physics community in Lebanon is about 500 strong. There are about 100 professors and 400 students. Most students go on to teaching careers in Lebanese schools, as well as schools in the Arab Gulf states, where the salaries are more lucrative. Students who opt for a PhD go mostly to France and the US . Their research covers the full spectrum in physics. A remarkable absence is that of physicists in Lebanese industry, probably due to the lack of R&D.

Four universities grant undergraduate physics degrees: Lebanese University (LU), American University of Beirut (AUB), Universite Saint-Joseph (USJ), and Notre Dame University-Louaize (NDU). Only the LU and the AUB grant master's degrees. The AUB and NDU follow the American education system. Their students use the same physics textbooks used in US universities. The LU, which is the only public university in Lebanon , hosts most of the faculty and students, and it maintains strong ties with French universities in terms of education and research.

The fields of expertise of the faculty are atomic physics, condensed matter physics, string theory, optics, astrophysics, elementary particles, etc. Theoretical/computational studies are more common since experimental projects require more funding. However, the government has been encouraging research projects that have direct applications. The Lebanese Council for Scientific Research (LCNRS), the main government-run funding agency for basic sciences, governs joint grant programs with its French counterpart. Research output is generally low. A high teaching load, lack of incentives, and lack of adequate support all conspire negatively. Fortunately, some physicists, both old and young, are determined to carry out research and have been succeeding in publishing in international refereed journals. Many of the faculty, especially those who were educated in the US maintain strong research ties with their US colleagues.

Support for research is meager. The LCNRS has an annual budget of only $3.5 million US, roughly $1 US per Lebanese citizen. This is extremely low, even by developing world (to use the politically correct term) standards. Recently the LCNRS has taken some initiatives to encourage research, giving preference to fields that have direct applications. Certain areas in physics benefit from this, namely condensed matter physics and materials science. Despite the modest support for basic research, the outlook in the last couple of years has been improving. For example, the LCNRS was willing this year to support two astronomy projects, a first in its history.

The war and its aftermath have profound effects on physics, and science in general. Much of the infrastructure in the country lies in ruins. Many schools have been destroyed. The research budget for the LCNRS will probably be cut. Universities will not fare better. Enrollment will probably be low because of economic hardships in the aftermath of the war. Lab equipment, textbooks for the upcoming academic year, and supplies will be late in arriving given the current air and sea siege. Operating under these conditions will be very frustrating.

American physicists can help in many ways:

  1. Just visiting Lebanon to give colloquium/public lectures would be a vote of confidence and show of solidarity with the devastated nation.
  2. Another way would be to open the opportunity for undergraduates to visit US universities in the summer to do research. I am thinking here of some kind of a joint REU program between Lebanon and the US.
  3. Many experimental physicists in Lebanon may have interesting ideas about projects, but they do not have the necessary equipment to carry out their research. Hosting a Lebanese researcher at a US university lab to carry out her/his experiment would be an idea.
  4. US physics labs may donate oldish or no longer used equipment to physics labs in Lebanon.
  5. Researchers in the US may "out-source" some aspects of their projects to Lebanese researchers. These are just a few ideas of how to increase collaborations between the physics communities in the US and Lebanon.

Bassem Sabra is at the Notre Dame University-Louaize, Lebanon. He can be reached at bsabra@ndu.edu.lb.

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