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[BRUSSELS] African physicists are to receive regular reports mapping the challenges they face in education and research, with the aim of addressing them and better harnessing the subject to achieve practical development goals, a conference has heard.

The Report on the State of Physics Education and Research — which will be issued biennially — was announced by Paul Woafo, vice-president of the African Physical Society (APS) at the European Physical Society's first international conference on physics for development in Brussels, Belgium, yesterday (11 October).

Woafo told SciDev.Net that the launch date for the first report would be set at next year's meeting of the APS.

The conference has been mapping out how physicists around the world can come together to achieve practical development goals on the ground, but in Africa there is insufficient national data on the state of physics education and research.

To address this problem, the APS is supporting the establishment of national physical science associations across the continent, with the most recent ones set up in Congo and Central African Republic. Less than ten African countries have one at present, according to Woafo.

Known physics challenges in Africa include insufficient training of teachers and researchers, too few meetings of experts, and "teaching pure, fundamental physics so students cannot go beyond theoretical knowledge for practical problem-solving", Woafo said.

"A big problem in Africa now is that at least 90 per cent of physics papers [produced on the continent] are about theoretical applications — they're not dealing with problems in African countries."

This can be changed at the beginning of research projects, Woafo said, by focusing research on solving practical problems — something local governments would then also be happier to fund.

On the other hand, the number of students and publications in physics in Africa is on the rise, he said.

The conference has also seen examples of initiatives, including GREATMAT — a research group in Cameroon that develops medical equipment, such as hearing aid and incubators, adapted for tropical countries — and ANSOLE, a pan-African research network on solar energy.

The new report will map such examples, and determine key challenges in both education and research by collecting data from national physical societies in Africa and other contacts from individual countries.

The report is "very important" because physics education at all levels in Africa has been going "from bad to worse", said Mulugeta Bekele, and associate professor of physics at the University of Addis Ababa, in Ethiopia.

The report would allow African countries to alleviate this problem, he said, by first identifying what the general weaknesses are and then using that list as a platform to work on "trying to get rid of the problems".

"We're [the Ethiopian Physical Society] not doing much but organising conferences," he said. "We need to find a way to work with the Ethiopian government to determine the direction we are going in to design what to do to build good education system in physics, and science, in general."

There was general support for such a report at the conference, but also strong calls for the APS to do more to promote networking among physicists in Africa.

Najeh Milki, a physicist from University of Tunis El Manar, Tunisia, said the APS is a voluntary organisation and lacks the time and money to dedicate to developing such activities as the report, and said that professionalisation of the society may help with this.