It is vital to build capacity in the basic sciences in Africa

This year is the centenary of the International Union of Pure and Applied Physics of which South Africa is one of the 13 founding members, and which has 60 member countries. It is also the International Year of Basic Sciences for Sustainable Development. 

These celebrations come at a critical time, as the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation has highlighted the basic sciences are being neglected worldwide. This has led to a state of serious vulnerability in disciplines such as physics, maths and statistics. These are key to innovation, development and the world of work in the 4IR (Fourth Industrial Revolution) and Society 5.0. Nurturing the basic sciences has become a priority and we have made this part of Nelson Mandela University’s national and continental strategy. 

The basic sciences (also known as the fundamental sciences) include physics, biological sciences, chemistry, maths, statistics, computer science and the geological sciences. Research in the basic sciences is curiosity driven and it is critical to the understanding of natural phenomena and the processes by which natural resources are transformed. By extension, this research plays a huge role in  sustainable development, in making radical shifts to the way we live now by finding solutions to address the real-word problems expressed in the UN Sustainable Goals. 

Physics is the cornerstone of other basic sciences, as well as of the applied sciences, which include space science; information and communication technology and energy. Strong collaboration between the sciences is a prerequisite for the generation of new knowledge and its application. 

Over the past 150 years, basic scientists have achieved fundamental advances, such as quantum mechanics; genomics; antibiotics; plate tectonics; nuclear fission and fusion; the x-ray; the theory of evolution and the internet/world wide web — which is effectively a by-product of particle physics research at CERN, originally with the aim of addressing the information-sharing needs of academics. In reading this document, most of you will be using a high-speed wireless device that has its origins in technology developed by radio astronomers interested in processing confused, faint signals from the depths of space.

Looking to the future, we have an incredible opportunity on our doorstep with the Square Kilometre Array (SKA), one of the world’s largest big science projects, which South Africa is hosting with other African countries and Australia. The majority of the SKA dishes are positioned across Africa, and we need to make sure that we have a strong and growing pipeline of young basic scientists contributing to projects like the SKA and applying themselves to future discoveries. 

In the same vein, South Africa and Morocco participate in international research collaborations such as the Large Hadron Collider (the world’s largest and most powerful particle accelerator) at CERN in Switzerland and at other accelerators around the world. It is all about advancing the boundaries of human knowledge to understand our universe and push the frontiers of technology and understanding for the benefit of society. 

iThemba LABS — the African hub of expertise in accelerator-based sciences — promotes collaborations with international partners and brings together scientists in the physical, medical and biological sciences who are tackling some of the most fundamental scientific questions of our age.

International facilities like the SKA and CERN are gateways for students from Africa who can also take their knowledge back to their home institutions. It’s an example of the continent working without borders to build capacity in the basic sciences.

To advance and shape the future of physics on the continent, the process of having an African Strategy on Fundamental and Applied Physics was established in 2020 by a steering committee. I serve on the body’s international advisory committee and we are increasing the number of physics programmes and learning initiatives throughout Africa. South Africa is playing a leading role as the South African Institute of Physics is one of the most established on the continent, dating back to 1955.

As part of the 100-year celebrations, the Faculty of Science at Nelson Mandela University hosted the South African Institute of Physics conference in July this year and we are hosting the 2022 edition of the African School of Fundamental Physics and Applications in November. The continental school started in 2010 and is held in a different African country every two years. 

This year, about 80 postgraduate students from all over Africa, including South Africa, will converge at Nelson Mandela University. The students have been selected from hundreds of applications and they will spend two weeks with us doing intensive hands-on training and participating in lectures by a range of international experts.

As an engaged faculty of science, with an emphasis on science for society, one of our focus areas is on growing our partnerships with universities and schools, particularly in the township and rural areas, to enlarge the basic sciences graduate pipeline. 

What is very important for us is to see physics in Africa working for communities and societies, and this includes considerably escalating the participation of girls pursuing physical science in high school, and young women taking physics at universities, continent-wide.

Also at year-end, the annual internship of the National Institute for Theoretical and Computational Sciences will take place at Nelson Mandela University. Twenty to 30 South African students, many from rural universities, come to the university for four weeks of intensive training on nuclear physics, particle physics, astrophysics and cosmology.

Nelson Mandela University will also be hosting the African Conference on Physics and Applications in 2023 where physicists from throughout the continent will gather to discuss cutting-edge physics and physics for development in Africa. This aligns with the Africa-focused agenda of the International Union of Pure and Applied Physics and hence some of the activities we are hosting will be supported by the union.

Participants from African countries who cannot physically attend can collaborate virtually, with digitalisation as the enabler. We have already had several successful pan-African virtual collaborations, such as during the pandemic when postgraduate physics students from all over the continent came together virtually to model the Covid-19 virus in different African countries, as well as the impact of lockdowns in their countries. They published two papers from this and are busy with a third, looking at the impact of Covid-19 vaccination in African countries. 

Digitalisation can be a significant enabler in Africa, providing all countries with equal access and opportunity to participate in international science but, as we know, connectivity and affordable data are still considerable inhibiting issues in many African countries.

Resolving this is a priority because the continent-wide development of the sciences can contribute to the growth of economies, such as through the transformation of resources into products, services and processes. As Madiba said: “It is in your hands to create a better world for all who live in it.”

Professor Azwinndini Muronga is a theoretical physicist and executive dean of the Faculty of Science at Nelson Mandela University.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.

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