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Growing Opportunities for International Collaboration in Physics in South Africa


Nithaya Chetty, Simon Connell, and Harm Moraal

This is the second article in a two-part series focusing on the expanding physics scene in South Africa. The first article, which appeared in the January APS News, focused on shaping the future of physics in South Africa.

South African physics is currently experiencing a renaissance in strategy and funding that opens up many exciting new opportunities,with an almost limitless scope for international collaborations. To fully reap the benefits of these opportunities, more must be done to mentor young physicists, and here the international community can play a more active role.

Even during the grim years of Apartheid, South African physics maintained high levels of international standards and research linkages. This was partly due to the sterling efforts of particular individuals and also our continued affiliation to the International Union for Pure and Applied Physics (IUPAP) of which South Africa was a founding member in 1923. Since the political transition, the opportunities have grown exponentially. The Department of Science and Technology (DST) has set up several support instruments to assist South African institutions and individual scientists to develop international collaborations. Some of these are administered by the National Research Foundation (NRF). For example, the number of binational science agreements has grown to 24. These agreements are with countries covering all levels of scientific development, and spread over all five continents. The major EU Framework support instrument is managed by the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), and the DST manages the co-funding instruments directly. A regional office for Africa of the International Council of Science (ICSU) was established in Pretoria in 2005.

The international scientific community is proactively inclined to strengthen South Africa’s scientific base and to welcome and nurture new linkages with institutions, groups, and individuals. There is a growing perception of the importance of science as an instrument for development and for furthering the aims of democracy. Norway and Sweden have historically had a strong commitment to scientific development on the African continent, and this legacy continues today. The Royal Society of the UK has been actively engaged in building up research capacity at many universities in South Africa. France, Germany and the USA are investing substantially in developing a stronger scientific base in South Africa, sometimes related to specific research thrusts. More recently, South Africa has signed agreements with India, Brazil, China, Japan and Russia, and we are now beginning to extend the research relationships into the former Eastern Bloc. Several South African universities have research relationships and student exchange programs with prominent universities and laboratories around the world.

The South African Large Telescope (SALT) is by far our greatest international success story, involving collaborative agreements with several international partners. This project has significantly changed our mode of interaction to one of equal standing and mutual benefit with our international partners. Here South Africa has a distinctive geographical advantage. This gives a clue as to how we see ourselves today: South Africa must pursue its research agenda so that it can enter the global knowledge arena on equal terms having secured local legitimacy. This is the essence of the Africanisation debate, and in this science has no small role to play. Three programs in observational astronomy have carried this notion still further.

The National Institute of Theoretical Physics (NITheP) has a strong developmental agenda, based on the integrated participation of high quality international theoretical physicists. Another component seeks to support young African theorists from outside South Africa–who are often working in dreadful isolation–to routinely travel to South Africa to participate in NITheP activities. Similarly, The African Institute for Mathematical Sciences (AIMS) brings quality graduate students from across the entire African continent to Muizenberg near Cape Town where students are exposed to high quality international and local lecturers. Already a number of AIMS graduates have either returned to their home countries where they are contributing to the development of an intellectual culture, or they have sought further studies at the masters or PhD levels in South Africa.

A national (or even African) synchrotron light source is in the pre-proposal phase, and strong involvement and interest shown by international experts will help drive this national flagship project to fruition. This is also true for the Photonics Initiative of South Africa (PISA), which is still in the exploratory phase. A relationship has been forged between CERN, iThemba Labs, and a selection of South African universities, which creates opportunities for our scientists to have access to facilities, equipment and both academic and technical expertise.

We encourage our international visitors to also focus on relationships with historically Black African universities to help develop capacity by breaking their isolation. Here, one may start with lecture series on basic graduate-level topics, including tutorials and computer exercises, and leaving behind the capacity to sustain the courses. Co-supervision of graduate students is a very practical next step to collaborate, and to help maintain the international standing of the local researcher. Thereafter, it is considered of vital importance that the students and young faculty travel abroad to gain international experience to form their own linkages. Several programs provide for long-term visits, but short-term working visits, which link local and international partners, are very affordable and effective. A new feature is the growing recognition of the importance of intra-African interaction and of exposing our international visitors to a wider trans-African audience.

To affirm the summary of the previous article, the challenge is to build on our new, now solid, foundation for South African physics, laid by the strongest financial support from the government in many decades. 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. We need to accelerate our human resource development to take up the increasing number of opportunities, and we encourage our international physics colleagues to continue to partner us in our efforts.

Nithaya Chetty is at the School of Physics, University of KwaZulu-Natal, and is the current South African Institute of Physics (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. Direct correspondence to Nithaya Chetty.




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