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Shaping the Future of Physics in South Africa

By Simon Connell, Nithaya Chetty, and Harm Moraal

This is the first article in a two-part series focusing on the expanding physics scene in South Africa. The second article will present growing opportunities for international collaborations in physics in South Africa.

Notable South African contributions to physics have been made in the past. With the advent of democracy in 1994, new opportunities arose due to the several-fold broadening of the participation in the science system. As the previous system wound down by the turn of the millennium, physicists had become concerned with declining levels of funding, the red-shifting of the age profile of productive scientists, and the poor appreciation of the role of physics in society and for development by the public.

The South African Institute of Physics (SAIP), a learned society established in 1955, together with the Department of Science and Technology (DST) and the National Research Foundation (NRF) initiated a project in 2001 which came to be known as “Shaping the Future of Physics” (SFoP). The four most recent generations of SAIP Council Presidents in particular contributed hugely to this enterprise. The time scales were long to ensure community buy-in via a solid foundation based on individual, regional and national consultation processes. The process was guided by South Africa’s National Research and Development Strategy. A core feature was a carefully selected panel of four international and three local recognized experts, who were in session for two weeks from April 19, 2004.

This International Panel (IP) produced a forward-looking and comprehensive 110-page report (see www.saip.org.za/ShapingTheFuture.html) in April 2004. One of the panelists, Jim Gates (University of Maryland), was later to write “The report of the IP … may be one of the most consequential activities of my life.” The report made fourteen recommendations as part of a strategy to revitalize South African Physics. It currently is the most significant driver shaping the agenda of the SAIP and will be so for some years to come.

The SAIP solicited comments on the report from the stakeholder community. These comments were processed and synthesized, and by July 2005 a set of mini-business plans to guide the implementation of all fourteen recommendations was submitted to the DST. In some cases, the implementation has been dramatic, and directly attributable to the SFoP process. In others, the recommendations were interdisciplinary in nature, and so are linked to other initiatives. Here the SFoP has catalyzed and stimulated positive developments.

Meanwhile a non-numbered recommendation for the establishment of a full-time SAIP secretariat with a permanent address was treated more urgently and separately. A crowning glory of the process is that this secretariat, in a fixed office in the newly constructed DST governmental building in Pretoria, started operating on January 1, 2008. The inaugural position of Executive Officer has recently been filled, and an office assistant and marketing coordinator are to be appointed. This office will greatly facilitate the SAIP’s mission to be the voice of physics in South Africa.

A new targeted program of quality improvement in secondary-level education has been established. It involves annual workshops for university lecturers who train secondary school teachers in physics. This is supplemented by a program for the development of resource material for teacher training in specific areas.

The IP was specifically concerned about financial barriers and challenges of integration of students of different cultures in undergraduate and graduate education. Of relevance here is a short-term financial support program for Women in Physics. Specific programs, such as theoretical physics, nano science, astronomy, and programs based at National Facilities, have benefited from much improved bursaries. However, the much-too-small (post)graduate bursaries for general university programs is still a crucial shortcoming that is high on the agenda of the NRF. There are several inter-institutional programs and specific recruitment drives at the honors level. These lead to a very significant crossing of demographic barriers. The composition of the postgraduate student membership of the SAIP has now evolved to reflect the racial demographics of the country.

To promote the marketing of physics in industry, a new program by the Applied Physics group of the SAIP is developing an electronic database of industrial physicists to attract students to the applied fields.

The public understanding of physics is to be addressed by the marketing coordinator in the new SAIP Office. Components of the program include a mobile Physics Pavilion and an annual conference to promote linkages between physicists active in outreach and the science centers. There was a very strong and successful participation in the World Year of Physics in 2005.

A new South African Research Network was announced in March 2007 by the Minister of Finance. It is hoped this will also facilitate implementation of a National Research Digital Library.

Several new flagship projects are established or envisaged. The Southern Africa Large Telescope of the SA Astronomical Observatory already has international acclaim, and it is supported by a highly successful inter-institutional National Astronomy and Space Science Program for postgraduate training. The KAT/MeerKAT/SKA suite of new astronomical projects has received a tremendous financial boost. The new National Institute for Theoretical Physics, headquartered in the Stellenbosch Institute for Advanced Studies and with regional facilities in Johannesburg and Durban, is now a reality. A program to promote science at synchrotrons has been underway for several years. The Pebble Bed Modular Reactor program is dramatically increasing its linkages with research and teaching institutions. The SA-CERN consortium program will promote access to the CERN facility. A new well-resourced Research Chair Program, as well as a Centres of Excellence scheme by the DST has increased the capacity of the universities and other research institutions to attract back to our shores South African physicists working abroad. This is supplemented by various equipment and mobility programs.

The Shaping the Future of Physics project was conceived at a time of great concern about the state and future of physics in South Africa. This process has greatly contributed to the current state of significant optimism, based on tangible outcomes on many the concern areas as described above. It will still take time, however, to address the shortfall of younger experienced physicists. Efforts must be intensified to recruit, educate and retain physicists in South Africa, building on our achievements and growing the collaborative networks locally and internationally. All these initiatives are undertaken in the most positive climate for the recognition of the role of science, and the strongest financial support from the government in many decades.

Nithaya Chetty is at the School of Physics, University of KwaZulu-Natal, and is the current SAIP president; Simon Connell is at the School of Physics, University of the Witwatersrand, and SAIP president-elect; Harm Moraal is at the School of Physics, North-West University, and a recent SAIP past-president.

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