STFC announces funding for two flagship African partnerships

New global research networks will advance crucial physics in topics such as radio astronomy and sustainable energy.

A total of £24.96 million has been allocated to fund collaborations between the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) and institutions in the UK, South Africa and across Africa.

The programmes, which will also be supported by the National Research Foundation (NRF) in South Africa and the Institute of Physics (IOP) in the UK, among other institutes, are:

  • The Research Infrastructure Partnership Programme (RIPP)
  • The Africa-UK Physics Partnership Programme

They are funded by UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) through the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology International Science Partnerships Fund (ISPF).

Global research networks

RIPP will facilitate lab-to-lab collaborations between NRF and STFC facilities.

These will develop international physics capacity through activities such as:

  • training opportunities
  • staff exchanges
  • collaborative research

The programme will also promote physics-related research by South African and UK universities, with a focus on assisting in the NRF’s transformation agenda to support historically disadvantaged institutions in South Africa.

The investment builds on a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) signed by STFC and NRF in April 2021.

Creating scientific opportunities

Dr Angus Paterson, Acting Deputy CEO for National Research Infrastructure Platforms at the NRF in South Africa, said:

The NRF is delighted to be working with UKRI STFC on these programmes.

The linking of key South African research platforms to those within STFC is very exciting and will lead to staff exchanges, training opportunities and, most importantly, innovative research.

The future of astronomy

Investment in RIPP will also support the continuation of the Development in Africa with Radio Astronomy (DARA) and DARA Big Data initiatives in a new combined initiative led by the University of Leeds.

DARA combines leading expertise from the UK and South Africa to build radio astronomy and data science expertise in the host countries of the Square Kilometre Array (SKA).

SKA will consist of the world’s largest radio telescope, made up of infrastructure in South Africa and Australia and headquartered at Jodrell Bank in Manchester.

RIPP will enable DARA to deliver high-tech skills training in several African countries to help ensure that their citizens can contribute to one of the most ambitious international science collaborations in history.

In doing so, it will continue to deliver real-world impact in these countries by improving opportunities and outcomes for local researchers.

Energy and climate science

The Africa-UK Physics Partnership Programme is a collaboration between STFC and the UK IOP.

It has been developed in response to analysis by IOP in 2019 that found that only around 5% of research programmes across sub-Saharan Africa involved physics.

This was identified by IOP as a critical issue for the field, given the proven, wide-reaching benefits of strong international networks within physics research, especially in the fields of energy, climate and weather.

To address this, the UK and seven African countries will work in partnership to build and sustain a skilled cohort of science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) graduates through activities such as network building and by providing access to leading UK research facilities.

Their aim is to foster mutually beneficial UK-African collaborations to meet the future science, technology and policy challenges of climate change and sustainable energy.

Much needed science

Rachel Youngman, Deputy Chief Executive, Institute of Physics, said:

We are delighted to hear that STFC has committed to funding a new UK-Africa Physics Partnership programme.

The impact of climate change in Africa is visible with the devastating effect it is having on communities and livelihoods. Physics has a central role in finding solutions and in the UK, we have much to learn from tackling climate change in Africa.

Until now though, funding for physics in African universities has been lagging behind other sciences and this has impacted capacity to undertake vital research and innovation.

It is great news that physics is being recognised for the vital role it plays in climate, weather and energy solutions. This funding is going to support valuable opportunities for UK and African physicists to work on solutions and learn from each other.

UK and international priorities

Both programmes are expected to significantly increase the capacity for advanced physics research in their associated partner countries and in doing so, develop a stronger foundation for global physics research.

They represent a significant overseas engagement for STFC and will help to secure the world leading international reputations of UK science infrastructure, instrumentation and scientists.

A major benefit for STFC will be the range of international opportunities for its UK-based groups to engage with, improving their expertise and scientific outputs, and potentially leading to valuable longer-term collaborations.

The programmes are funded through Official Development Assistance (ODA).

Making ambitious science possible

Professor Mark Thomson, Executive Chair of STFC, said:

I am delighted to announce the continuation of our work with the National Research Foundation and Institute of Physics to advance physics in Africa and support crucial research efforts from astronomy to climate science.

We are extremely proud of our International Science Partnerships Fund programmes which are helping to develop stronger physics research networks the world over for the benefit of the entire field.

Now more than ever, physics is a necessarily international endeavour and partnerships such as these are essential to ensure that leading minds in the UK, Africa and beyond can collaborate effectively on ambitious global projects such as the Square Kilometre Array.

Further information

The National Research Foundation (NRF) of South Africa is an independent statutory body mandated to develop high-end capacity and critical research infrastructure to promote knowledge production. Its aim is to contribute to national development through research with impact. NRF investment in scientific research aligns with the South African Government’s priorities as reflected in their national development plan 2030, the medium-term strategic framework 2020 to 2024 and in white papers, policies and strategies that shape the national science and research system.

NRF also advances the African Union’s Vision 2063 and its Science Technology and Innovation Strategy for Africa 2024, as well as the United Nations’ sustainable development goals. NRF’s remit covers research and human capacity development, national science system national research facilities and science engagement.

The Institute of Physics (IOP) is the professional body and learned society for physics in the UK and Ireland. It seeks to raise public awareness and understanding of physics inspire people to develop their knowledge understanding and enjoyment of physics and support the development of a diverse and inclusive physics community.

As a charity, it has a mission to ensure that physics delivers on its exceptional potential to benefit society.

Top image:  Credit: anyaberkut, iStock, Getty Images Plus, via Getty Images

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