The African Physical Society-Perspectives from its President

By Francis K. Allotey

As you may have read in the February issue of APS News, the African Physical Society (AfPS) was launched on the 12th of January, 2010 under the distinguished patronage of His Excellence Maitre Abdulaye Wade, President of the Republic of Senegal. There were 110 African Physicists from 21 African counties; 10 national physical societies were represented. We are very grateful for the support and good will African Physical Society has enjoyed from researchers and teachers from all over Africa and from sister societies around the world. As the first President of the AfPS, I would like to share some of the history and background that led to its formation.

The African Physical Society is actually a re-launch of the Society of African Physicists and Mathematicians (SAPAM) which was formally inaugurated at the Abdus Salam International Centre for Theoretical Physics (ICTP) in October, 1984 at a Pan African Symposium on the “State of Physics and Mathematics in Africa,” attended by over 120 African scientists from 26 countries in Africa.

Some of the reasons for the formation of SAPAM were the lack of cohesive and functional links among African Physicists and Mathematicians and the observation that there was a great scientific and technological gap between the industrialized and developing countries of the world, particularly countries in Africa, and that physics and mathematics are the basis of modern science, technology, and wealth creation industries.

The inauguration of SAPAM coincided with the opening ceremony of the 20th anniversary celebration of the existence of the International Centre for Theoretical Physics (ICTP), which the then Italian Foreign Affairs Minister, later the Prime Minister of Italy His Excellency Giulio Andreotti attended. During the same period, the meeting of Physics for Development and the 18th General Assembly of the International Union of Pure and Applied Physics (IUPAP) took place.

At the symposium, it was observed that among the problems contributing to the poor state of physics and mathematics in Africa were inadequate numbers of students, shortage of teachers, lack of critical mass for effective research, poor experimental facilities, shortage of textbooks and journals, inadequate interaction among African physicists and mathematicians, and lack of support by African governments.

Many of the problems listed above are with us today due to the lack of adequate support by African governments and development partners. Science is not considered a priority. It should be stated that African governments are not unaware of the role of science and technology for socio-economic development, for as far back as 1980 the then Organization of African Unity (OAU), now African Union (AU), launched the Lagos Plan of Action for sustainable socio-economic development of Africa and requested its member countries to allocate at least 1% of their GDP for science and technology in order to achieve the objectives of the plan. So far there are only two countries in Africa that have achieved this target.

Some leaders in Africa and even some in the developed countries, including donor agencies, question the need for spending the scarce financial resources in Africa on scientific research and teaching. They argue that African countries should buy finished technological products that have been developed elsewhere. Even until very recently the World Bank and International Monetary Fund were deemphasizing the importance of tertiary education in Africa.

However, transfer of technology can only take place between individuals with the same educational level. No technological package will ever be opened, if it can be opened at all, if the nation that bought the package does not have at least a small number of individuals with scientific and technological expertise at the same level as those in the nations that developed it. Georg Henrik Von Wright, a Finnish philosopher, defined modernity as consisting of two major components: science and technology on one hand and good governance on the other.

Over the past 25 years, SAPAM has had a long list of accomplishments, organizing conferences and workshops, building links amongst physicists working in Africa, and building links with physicists worldwide. In recognition of its activities and initiatives, the then OAU granted the society Observer status in 1990. With limited resources, SAPAM has made tremendous impact on the continent.

Long before climate change became a topical and global issue, SAPAM initiated in 1987 the APEPMA (Applicability of Environmental Physics and Meteorology in Africa) series of workshops to sensitize the physical science community and African policy makers with respect to issues related to climate and environment. The first workshop took place in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, at the time that that part of the world experienced one of the most devastating droughts in the 20th century. The 8th in the series of these workshops will take place in Botswana from 19-23 April 2010.

Before energy became the concern of governments in Africa, SAPAM has been running the Kumasi (Ghana) College on Renewable Energy since 1986. Some of the participants at these workshops have held and some are still holding positions such as ministers in charge of energy or members of energy commissions in their countries.

Two years after its founding, SAPAM recognized the need for capacity-building for sustainability in Physics and Mathematics Education in Africa and has been equipping and encouraging the younger generation in these disciplines. For example, SAPAM organized in 1986 a pan-African workshop in Nairobi, Kenya, on harmonization of curricula in Physics, Mathematics and Computer Science at the tertiary level of education in Africa. At the same workshop the production of low-cost scientific equipment for education in the sciences was initiated. The founding and relative success of SAPAM led to the formation of the Edward Bouchet Abdus Salam Institute (EBASI) in 1988 in Trieste, Italy.

The 6th EBASI meeting of over 200 physicists from all over Africa took place on 24th January, 2007 at the iThemba Laboratory, South Africa. At this meeting, it was resolved that SAPAM should be transformed and become known as the African Physical Society (AfPS). It was recognized that we need a professional society that is an advocate for physics and physicists at the AU, in the governments of the 53 African countries, amongst universities, research institutes and corporations, in primary schools, and in the African general public; a society that organizes meetings, conducts professional development workshops, suggests standards of professional conduct, provides information, and does all the things that professional associations do.

The membership model for the African Physical Society is one where there are member societies, industry and research institute memberships, as well as individual memberships. The plan for the African Physical Society is not to replace any national physical society; actually it is quite the opposite. It will endeavor to build national physical societies where one does not exist and provide a forum for these new ones and existing ones, like the South African Institute of Physics, to exchange information, personnel and other resources across the continent.

Importantly, the African Physical Society will incorporate, as a subsidiary organization, the African Association of Physics Students. Because there is always a change in the student body from year to year, a student organization does much better if there is a permanent organization of professionals that help keep the organization alive.

Again, the plan is not to replace any national association of physics students on the continent, but rather to link those that already exist and provide a way for physics students to connect to the larger physics world where a student association does not exist.

One of the important acts at the meeting was a resolution supporting South Africa’s bid to host the Square Kilometre Array radio telescope. Among the reasons given for the support were that the Square Kilometer Array will underscore Africa’s capability in sciences and innovation. In addition, the enormous investment in infrastructure will contribute to economic growth in the region, and the requirement for ultra-high speed internet across Africa to operate the square Kilometre Array will lead to improved IT infrastructure and access for millions of people.

Francis K. A. Allotey is Consulting Director of the Institute of Mathematical Sciences in Ghana.

APS encourages the redistribution of the materials included in this newspaper provided that attribution to the source is noted and the materials are not truncated or changed.

Editor: Alan Chodos

March 2010 (Volume 19, Number 3)

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RHIC Sets Temperature Record
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Members in the Media
This Month in Physics History
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Zero Gravity: The Lighter Side of Science