The UNESCO Physics Action Council


Irving A. Lerch
Past Chair, Forum on International Physics, the American Physical Society
Trustee, Americans for UNESCO
Former Director of International Affairs, the American Physical Society
Professor and Director, Radiation Oncology Physics, New York University, retired


In the early 1990s, physics—one of the most global of scientific enterprises—began to look to UNESCO as an instrument to unify and coordinate the international outreach of the global physics communities. Several developments fueled this interest: the signing of a new tripartite agreement between UNESCO, IAEA and the Government of Italy assigning governance responsibility to UNESCO for the International Center for Theoretical Physics in Trieste; the sponsorship by UNESCO of CERN, the rise of developmental programs in Latin America, Africa and Asia; and the growing realization that a new framework was needed to coordinate research, education and intellectual exchange worldwide. Most important, physics had become a tool for intellectual, cultural and economic development in furtherance of UNESCO’s great cross-cutting goals.

On 24-25 June, 1993, Director General Federico Mayor and Assistant Director General for the Natural Sciences, Adnan Badran, convened a consultative meeting in Paris entitled, “UNESCO and the International Physics Community: An Agenda for Scientific Cooperation.” Invited participants included distinguished physicists from Russia, ICTP, the Association of Asia-Pacific Physical Societies, the American Physical Society, OECD, the French Physical Society, the European Physical Society, the Commission of the European Communities, IUPAP, the German Physical Society, the French Government and other organizations. The organizers of the conference were Siegbert Raither, head of mathematics and physics programs in the Division of Basic and Engineering Sciences and the Division Director, Vladimir Zharov.

At the conclusion of the meeting, the participants submitted a recommendation to Director General Mayor recognizing UNESCO’s growing importance to international science and recommending that priority be given to physics in developing countries, sustaining excellence of the physical sciences in East-Central Europe and the emerging states of the former Soviet Union, and promoting megaprojects in the physical sciences. A statement of general principles emphasizing the important roles of learned societies and partnerships between the public and private sectors recommended that a physics action council be convened to superintend the goals of UNESCO.

The Director General appointed ten senior physicists to the council and charged them with promoting international cooperation and collaboration and to provide counsel and guidance to UNESCO and its management. Donald Langenberg, then President of the American Physical Society and Chancellor of the University of Maryland System was made chair. The other appointees were F.K.A. Allotey (Ghana), Carlos Aguirre (Bolivia), Sivaramakrishna Chandresekhar (India), Michiji Konuma (Japan), Norbert Kroo (Hungary), Yuri Novozhilov (Russia), Herwig Schopper (Germany), Yang Guo-Zhen (China), and Irving Lerch (United States). Siegbert Raither was assigned as Secretary to the council.

The Physics Action Council (PAC) convened an organizing meeting in April, 1994, and developed a work plan based on three working groups: Large Physics Facilities (Schopper, chair, Aguirre and Kroo); Communications Networks for Science (Lerch, chair, Novozhilov and Langenberg); and University Physics Education (Konuma, chair, Yang, Chandrasekhar and Novozhilov). The PAC remained an active component of the Organization’s programs throughout the period of Mayor’s tenure as Director General (1994-’99).

Almost immediately, the council’s working groups began an aggressive program of international outreach, organizing meetings and workshops on telecommunications, access to large international research facilities and new approaches to invigorate physics education. The physics facilities working group held meetings in Japan, Paris, Brussels and Cuba and focused on projects in developing countries such as the Auger Giant Airshower project in Latin America, small accelerators in the Carribean and, ultimately, the SESAME project in Jordan. Telecommunications workshops were convened in Japan, China, Russia, the Philippines, Ukraine and Ghana—supported with resources provided by UNESCO, NATO, NSF and other funding organizations. Training for network administrators, programmers and technicians designed to promote internet access was the focus of these efforts. The role of physics education in capacity building led the education working group to survey successful programs and to examine ways of finding exceptional talent at the M.Sc. and Ph.D. levels in developing countries. In all cases these efforts were directed to complementing and strengthening the programs of the Science Sector and ICTP.

Today, the afterglow the council’s activities may be seen in the UNESCO-supported SESAME project, the programs of the telecommunications and informatics sectors of the Organization, and in the awareness that science education plays a crucial role in developing the intellectual capacity of a nation.