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Let’s use African physics talent in action on climate change

11 November 2022

By Dominic Hurley, Head of International Relations

Our visits to sub-Saharan Africa have made clear that the UK must invest in physics-based talent there to tackle pressing global challenges. 

With the Cop27 summit in the headlines much of the focus has been on the politics of who is turning up, what’s being promised and what has so far not been delivered.

But without the right science, developing alternatives to carbon and technologies to conserve and use energy more efficiently, there is little chance of delivering on any plan to reverse climate change.

When I was in Africa recently to discuss how UK institutions can support physics in that part of the world I heard anecdotal evidence about how climate change is already having an impact.

From water level changes in Lake Victoria, to sea level rises in Dar es Salaam, it’s a story of too much rain in some places, drought in others. Rising temperatures and record weather events are the commonplace stories wherever you look.

And Africa, with its sensitive ecosystems, growing population and political and economic challenges is particularly vulnerable to the impact of climate change – it is likely to be where it hits first and hardest.

A portrait of smiling Dominic Hurley, IOP Head of International Relations

However, the region also has the potential to help tackle these challenges. It is home to 1bn people, half of whom will be under 25 years old by 2050. And there is huge motivation from the scientists you do meet there to solve the problems they know are going to be hitting their communities, families and homes.

There is lots to be said about co-locating the scientists working to tackle a problem with the problem itself, as stories about western-designed solar panels melting in the African heat testify to.

On our visits we have been lucky to meet some amazing young scientists and hear about the great work they are doing with the limited resources they have.

We are all partners in fighting climate change and scientific talent can potentially come from anywhere in the world, but in reality the opportunities are far less evenly distributed. So how do we join the jots and capitalise on the extensive untapped talent that Africa holds?

Many of the scientific and technical disciplines that are needed to help tackle the global challenges we face are underpinned by physics and Africa is a diverse region offering significant talent and natural resources with the potential to deliver real sustainable growth.

It is a region of the world where it is estimated that 55% of the world’s potential renewable energy sources are located.

However, funding for physics in African universities remains limited. We need this to change so that African scientists have access to a properly funded programme covering physics education, research, and infrastructure, equipping them with the training and skills development they need to flourish in their careers.

The UK government is aware of this potential and has identified the need for investment and to build partnerships in the region.

The Institute of Physics (IOP), in collaboration with physicists in the UK and Africa, has since published a report calling for the government to award £20m extra funding to physics-based research in Africa.

Based on the evidence we gained, the most effective way to strengthen physics capacity is to focus on early career physicists, undergraduates through to the postdoctorate and first employment stages, deliberately focusing on developing the people, skills, and infrastructure to support them.

The intention is to develop a cohort of talented and experienced African physicists, with networks and connections that link them to countries within the region, the UK and with other scientific disciplines.

This would be achieved through a five-year programme of theme- and challenge-based funding calls to build research capability, networks and collaborations promoting equitable partnerships and gender inclusivity. If we enhance the physics education pipeline and postgraduate and postdoctoral careers, we then have the potential to create a new generation of physics graduates who are ready to move into high-value jobs in science or technical disciplines.

The global challenges that are daunting today will ultimately be solved by the talented and innovative young scientists of tomorrow. As our political leaders meet at Cop27 in Egypt we once again have a chance to discuss how we can best co-ordinate our efforts to jointly tackle these challenges.

Building a future that manages the impact of weather and climate change with sustainable and secure decarbonised energy is a priority and if we invest in sub-Saharan Africa now it could prove a game changer.

Dominic Hurley, Head of International Relations, IOP