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[JOHANNESBURG] A new initiative has been launched to promote and coordinate research in Africa on the science of lasers, in a bid to help tackle a range of medical, environmental and agricultural problems facing the continent.

The African Laser Centre, launched this week in Johannesburg, South Africa, will act as a 'virtual centre' for research and training in the science of lasers — a field hard hit in the continent by funding constraints, a shortage of skilled technicians and the brain drain.

Initially funded with a one-million-rand (US$145,000) grant from the South African government, it will be based in Pretoria at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), Africa's largest research organisation.

The centre has been two years in the making under the auspices of the New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD). It will help transfer laser technology from laboratories to the marketplace. It also aims to assist national laser centres to acquire laser equipment, and will maintain a database of laser researchers to facilitate collaboration in the region.

The creation of centre presents "both an intellectual challenge and a developmental challenge," says Ahmadou Wagué, Senegalese president of the African Laser Atomic Molecular Network. "In Africa we need both, because we need to develop intellectual resources, but we must not forget about the application of this knowledge. Lasers join these two."

Lasers have been used to treat medical conditions such as cataracts, glaucoma and various forms of cancer, as well as to detect tuberculosis. They can also be used to monitor pollutants, and to assess stress levels in plants as a way of helping to improve crop harvests.

Laser scientists have welcomed the initiative, particularly as it offers research institutes the chance to provide training to technicians and scientists as well as to upgrade equipment.

"We can find world-class scientists, but we battle to find technicians to support them," says Henry Tromp, a business unit manager at the National Laser Centre in Pretoria, South Africa.

"Usually we send people overseas for training at the manufacturers' facilities for a week to a month. This time we will probably send people to work in South Africa to get basic training in laboratory running and experimental set-ups for six months, and then send them overseas. We're very excited because we think we will get some good short term results out of these projects."

The initiative will also build on efforts to share expensive equipment among research centres. For example, South Africa's National Laser Centre created a rental pool among universities for lasers three years ago. "This rental pool will [now] be available for universities and research institutes outside South Africa's borders," says centre director Philemon Mjwara.