Targeted, proactive efforts needed to strengthen physics

The need for a proactive effort to improve the teaching and researching of physics in Sub-Saharan Africa as a foundation for critically important scientific work has been highlighted in a new report from the Association of Commonwealth Universities (ACU) and the UK-based Institute of Physics (IOP).

The study was undertaken to help guide the establishment of an Africa-UK Physics Partnership Programme, promoting physics in African tertiary institutions and the secondary education systems that supply their students.

The report examined 50 universities and research facilities, with researchers interviewing 24 physics experts from Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Malawi, Nigeria, Rwanda, South Africa, Tanzania and Uganda.

They concluded that there were significant weaknesses “in human capital, infrastructural deficits, weaker support systems for innovation and barriers to international collaboration” that impeded the teaching and study of physics in Sub-Saharan Africa.

These failures have major real-world consequences, given the importance of physics as the basis of applied sciences delivering solutions to the problems faced by Africa.

This includes struggles to build sustainable energy systems, cope with the impact of climate change and create effective health services.

Stronger knowledge of physics in Sub-Saharan Africa “would make a significant contribution to the sustainable development goals …” concluded the report.

A key step suggested was to improve secondary school physics studies in order to generate expertise and interest in pursuing the subject at African universities. Physics teaching in schools is often weak, concluded the report.

It also stressed that special effort be made to encourage women to study and work in physics by combating the notion that this is a subject for men and reducing workplace harassment.

There were also clear and specific calls that African physics specialists be given better access to large-scale research facilities within and outside the region, with targeted efforts to build multilateral centres of excellence in the continent, notably focusing on health and medical physics.

Recommended solutions

Study participants said African health expertise, and energy materials, astronomy, big data and high-energy physics, would especially benefit from access to:

• The Centre for High-Performance Computing, in South Africa;

• Nuclear and high-energy physics facilities in Ghana, Nigeria, South Africa and the Switzerland- France-based European Organisation for Nuclear Research;

• International climate and weather facilities;

• The Square Kilometre Array telescope facilities being established in South Africa and Australia;

• iThemba Labs in South Africa for medical physics research; and

• Synchrotron light sources such as Britain’s Diamond and France’s European Synchrotron Radiation Facility.

The paper hoped that African physics would benefit from planned research institutions, such as the projected National Solar Energy Research Facility, in South Africa, and a planned Africa Meteorological, Climatological, Environmental Data Centre in Nigeria.

Other proposed solutions to strengthen African physics included more financial support for post-graduate students; strengthening academia-industry ties, including more placements and consultation work; encouraging governments to employ more academic staff; pressing universities to allow some physics academics to focus entirely on research rather than teaching; and establishing new bilateral and multilateral research collaborations.

Meriel Flint-O’Kane, ACU’s head of programmes, said: “Physics has the potential to significantly deepen our understanding and experience of the world, from mitigating climate change to developing new medical technologies.”

More African physics specialists “could advance vital innovation that would help us achieve the sustainable development goals”, she said.

Rachel Youngman, the IOP’s deputy chief executive, said: “Capacity-strengthening work in a few key areas could create the conditions for physics to thrive in Sub-Saharan Africa.”

Substantial challenges

The challenges facing initiatives to achieve this goal are substantial, however.

Dr Tilahun Tesfaye, of Addis Ababa University, Ethiopia, for instance, noted in the report: “Although the Ethiopian curriculum states that 30% should be on hands-on experiments, experimental physics is dead in some schools.

“We once did a teacher training workshop where we found that more than 50% of physics teachers had never done an experiment, not even a simple pendulum; hence they have no confidence at all to teach physics experiments.”

Dr Michael Okullo, of Kyambogo University, Uganda, added: “Most people do research with the sole aim of obtaining a qualification and publication only. In addition, government and industries are not in close ties with universities regarding scientific research.”

Such problems need to be considered when designing a proposed Africa-UK Physics Partnership Programme, which may receive British government financial support, said the report.

Professor Simon Connell, of the University of Johannesburg, said that Africans needed to be proactive in highlighting how they want the initiative to invest in African physics.

“Africa must have a stronger leadership in the Africa-UK initiative, we must not wait for handouts but take leadership if we want this to be successful,” he said.

Connell added that African governments must also be involved in funding these activities, and not just be beneficiaries of grants.

Dr Nuru Mlyuka, of the University of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, stressed that bilateral and multilateral cooperation from government level is essential, aiding the development of visas while ensuring duty and customs costs regarding the supply of important equipment can be waived.

The report concluded that a future Africa-UK Physics Partnership Programme could provide the necessary support for partner countries in Sub-Saharan Africa “and enable the development of a stronger culture of innovation and problem-based physics training”.