Interest in Physics research low among students in sub-Saharan Africa

Lack of encouragement, low awareness about career paths and professional opportunities are key obstacles

By Madhumita Paul
Published: Monday 20 September 2021
Interest in Physics research low among students in sub-Saharan Africa: Study

There is a lack of interest among undergraduate and postgraduate students in sub-Saharan Africa to pursue a career in Physics, according to a new study

Lack of encouragement to take up the subject and low awareness about career paths and professional opportunities are key obstacles in physics-based research output in the region, the researchers noted.

Of the over 4,000 relevant projects across sub-Saharan Africa, only 5.5 per cent involved Physics, a 2019 study by the Institute of Physics (IOP) found. In response to this, the United Kingdom Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy funded the new research to address hurdles in the region’s Physics research.

The study was conducted by the Association of Commonwealth Universities (ACU) and IOP. 

As many as 50 universities and research facilities as well as focus groups were surveyed and 24 Physics experts were interviewed across Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Malawi, Nigeria, Rwanda, South Africa, Tanzania and Uganda between March and June 2020.

Over 90 per cent of the universities surveyed said they would benefit from greater access to large-scale research facilities.

The largest share of Physics students was engaged in energy research (55 per cent), followed by climate and weather (25 per cent). 

Several participants mentioned gender norms, cultural barriers, family responsibilities and workplace harassment as significant barriers for gender inclusivity in the discipline.

Research and development in Medical Physics remained low in sub-Saharan Africa, according to the report. Increasing the number of medical physicists can help address alarming trends in the prevalence of diseases, the authors of the paper opined. 

Physics research in the region is marked by major challenges such as gaps in human capital, infrastructural deficits, weaker support systems for innovation and barriers to international collaboration, according to the study. 

The report offered a number of recommendations to guide the development of future strategies to support Physics research in sub-Saharan Africa region:

  • Providing funding and support for Physics education from basic education through to university
  • Encouraging students, particularly young women and girls, to pursue Physics by clarifying career opportunities, raising awareness about the importance of physics and promoting the value of academia
  • Granting financial support for post-graduate students
  • Improving resource and development infrastructure and strengthening commercialisation support systems through enhanced academia-industry ties and increased placements and opportunities for consultation work
  • Engaging governments on the need to have more academic staff and to appoint research-only staff at universities
  • Addressing gender-based cultural stereotypes and workplace harassment to reduce barriers for women in physics
  • Improving access to large-scale research facilities and building multilateral centres of excellence, particularly in the field of health and medical physics
  • Enhancing opportunities to establish new bilateral and multilateral research collaborations and to strengthen existing networks.

Physics has applications in many sectors of economic development, including health, agriculture, water, energy and information technology, the researchers noted. 

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