Africa’s science, innovation, education and research infrastructures have over the years been undervalued and under-resourced. This is particularly true in physics. The African Strategy for Fundamental and Applied Physics (ASFAP) initiative aims to define the education and physics priorities that can be most impactful for Africa. The first ASFAP community town hall was held from 12 to 15 July. The event was virtual, with 147 people participating, including international speakers and members of the ASFAP community. The purpose of the meeting was to initiate a broad and community-driven discussion and action programme, leading to a final strategy document in two to three years’ time.
The first day began with an overview of the ASFAP by Simon Connell (University of Johannesburg) on behalf of the steering committee and addresses by Shamila Nair-Bedouelle (UNESCO assistant director-general for natural sciences), Sarah Mbi Enow Anyang Agbor (African Union commissioner for human resources, science and technology) and Raissa Malu (member of the Democratic Republic of Congo’s Presidential Panel to the African Union). These honoured guests encouraged delegates to establish a culture of gender balance in African physics. Later, in a dedicated forum for women in physics, Iroka Chidinma Joy (chief engineer at the National Space Research and Development Agency) noted that women are drastically underrepresented in scientific fields across the continent, and pointed out a number of cultural, religious and social barriers that prevent women from pursuing higher education. Barriers can come as early as primary education: in most cases, girls are not encouraged to take leading roles in conducting science experiments in classrooms. Improved strategies should include outreach, mentorship, dedicated funding for women, the removal of age limits for women wishing to conduct scientific research or further their education, and awards and recognition for women who excel in scientific fields.
Representatives of scientific organisations such as the African Physical Society, the Network of African Science Academies and the African Academy of Science all presented messages of support for ASFAP, and delegates from other regions, including Japan, China, India, Europe, the US and Latin America, all presented their regional strategies. The consensus is that strategic planning should be a bottom-up and community-driven process, even if this means it may take two to three years to produce a final report.
The meeting was updated on the progress of a diverse and well-established range of working groups (WGs) on accelerators, astrophysics and cosmology; computing and the fourth industrial revolution (4IR); energy needs for Africa; instrumentation and detectors; light sources; materials physics; medical physics; nuclear physics; particle physics; and community engagement (CE), which comprises physics education (PE), knowledge transfer, entrepreneurship and stakeholder and governmental-agency engagement. The WGs must also maintain dynamic communications with each other as key topics often impact multiple working groups.
Marie Clémentine Nibamureke (University of Johannesburg) highlighted the importance of the CE WG’s vision “to improve science education and research in African countries in order to position Africa as a co-leader in science research globally”. Convener Jamal Mimouni (Mentouri University) stressed that for ASFAP to establish a successful CE programme, it is crucial to reflect on challenges in teaching and learning physics in Africa – and on why students may be reluctant to choose physics as their study field. Nibamureke explained that the CE WG is seeking to appoint liaison officers between all the ASFAP working groups. Sam Ramaila (University of Johannesburg), representing the PE WG, indicated four main points the group has identified as crucial for the transformation and empowering of physics practices in Africa: strengthening teacher training; developing 21st-century skills and competences; introducing the 4IR in physics teaching and learning; and attracting and retaining students in physics programmes. Ramaila identified problem-based learning, self-directed learning and technology-enhanced learning as new educational strategies that could make a difference in Africa if applied more widely.
On the subject of youth engagement, Mounia Laassiri (Mohammed V University) led a young-person’s forum to discuss the major issues young African physicists face in their career progression: outreach, professional development and networking will be a central focus for this new forum going forwards, she explained, and the forum aims to encourage young physics researchers to take up leadership roles. So far, there are about 40 members of the young-people’s forum. Laassiri explained that the long-term vision, which goes beyond ASFAP, is to develop into an association of young physicists affiliated to the African Physical Society.
We are now soliciting inputs for the development of the African Strategy for Fundamental and Applied Physics
The ability to generate scientific innovation and technological knowledge, and translate this into new products, is vital for a society’s economic growth and development. The ASFAP is a key step towards unlocking Africa’s potential. We are now soliciting inputs for the development of the African Strategy for Fundamental and Applied Physics. Letters of interest may be submitted by individuals, research groups, professional societies, policymakers, education officials and research institutes on anything they think is an issue, needs to be improved, or is important for fundamental or applied physics education and research in Africa.