Unlocking the future for UK and Africa research partnerships

By Rachel Youngman
Deputy Chief Executive

On the eve of the UK-Africa Investment Summit, IOP Deputy Chief Executive Rachel Youngman argues that increased physics research collaboration with African countries is key to tackling global challenges.


On Monday 20th January the UK-Africa investment summit will take place in London, hosted by Prime Minister Boris Johnson. The event is a key part of the UK government’s plans to promote international trade and provides a valuable opportunity for UK businesses to engage with policy-makers and international institutions from the UK and across Africa.

The summit takes place at a time when I have been looking at how IOP can draw together a network of individuals and organisations to support the UK physics research community to strengthen collaboration with African countries.

We have been involved in work supporting the development of physics in the continent for some time, such as our recent support for a new business innovation programme in Tanzania, which is now run by their Government’s Science and Technology Incubator. However, as I wrote in an earlier blog, our approach has been changing. The work I am writing about today provides a good example of how our international role is shifting, and how this change reflects our new strategy ‘Unlocking the Future’, by using our convening ability to work in partnerships and together influence others to achieve the level of systemic change that would be impossible on our own. 

Measuring UK-Africa research collaboration

For the last few months, we have been working with a network of partners to analyse the state of UK-Africa research collaboration in physics. While there has been some significant work in other areas, such as life sciences, physics and physical science has not seen the same level of analysis. 

The decision to do this work stems from my conversations with the UK Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (BEIS) last year, when we explored our shared sense that the importance of physics research in solving global challenges such as climate and weather, health and energy, and developing key solutions using artificial intelligence, big data and large scale national facilities, is not matched by the volume of physics research projects between the UK and countries in Africa. This is despite the impact of those challenges being felt so keenly across much of Africa – and Africa itself holding so much of the potential to develop solutions that can have a much wider global impact. 

Through IOP’s networks in the UK and Africa, and our own in-house capabilities for analysis provided by our data insights, policy and international teams, we are well placed to look at these issues. We have used a range of datasets from stakeholders in the UK and internationally to assess the current level of research collaboration and understand the barriers to more of it. From this analysis, we have started to set out ways to increase collaboration in those challenge areas. 

We have worked with a number of key organisations. In the UK, these include the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) and Wellcome. Internationally, we have spoken with the International Centre for Theoretical Physics, the World Bank and the International Union of Pure and Applied Physics. We have had input from leading academics in the UK and overseas through African universities, the Association of Commonwealth Universities, as well as drawing on insights from British Embassies. And we have discussed our work with officials at BEIS and the Department for International Development (DfID). The number and variety of the organisations, bodies and physicists – the strategic players - that we have brought together to address these complex issues is a great example of IOP’s convening power in action. 

So what did we learn? First, our findings confirmed that physics is not as prevalent as it needs to be in research projects. For example, among higher education research projects, of almost 1,000 UK-Africa projects studied, only 5.5% involved physics - equating to 13.5% of identified funding.

Why is this? Partly it is driven by a lack of capacity and infrastructure for physics, especially in sub-Saharan countries, where an improved pipeline of talent and movement of people with research and technical skills, and access to facilities, is needed. These are, of course, complex issues that require national, systemic change to develop the talent pipeline, as well as reliable and well-maintained infrastructure. Not surprisingly, we also found that working effectively together across great distances is a challenge, when getting around is difficult and obtaining visas is a problem. The root causes differ from country to country, as will the solutions.

Second, our findings identified a lack of awareness on the UK side about the research that is being done in African universities. UK funding has also often been viewed through the lens of international development, where the focus is on very pressing problems such as healthcare. In this context, funding may not be available for more strategic, longer-term impacts such as building skills and capacity, and improving the movement of people and access to distributed training centres and facilities. These are developments that can support an increase in the expertise that already exists in the region.

The power of physics

It is not at all surprising that resources have been focused on work to tackle the acute health challenges faced in many African countries. But to address these challenges effectively requires multidisciplinary approaches, and the expertise and skills of physics as well as related STEM disciplines are key.

An excellent example is a collaboration we looked at between a team of computer scientists from UCL and a surgeon at the University of Ibadan in Nigeria. Together, they are using artificial intelligence to build a system for improving rapid, effective malaria diagnosis. By doing so, they are helping to ensure that medicines are administered only in confirmed cases and so are cutting waste and combating drug resistance. When I was in Dar es Salaam at the end of last year, I met representatives of the World Bank to learn more about a new internationally funded programme in Rwanda that includes UK partners to develop the technology to carry vaccines by drones to remote communities.

These and other examples we found speak to the value of UK researchers collaborating with scientists on the ground to address health challenges, and our evidence shows how important it is to strengthen the fundamental role of physics research to that work.

Thinking strategically

What this work demonstrates is how IOP can use its convening power and our growing data analysis capability to unlock the potential of physics to meet global challenges. It is hugely ambitious, as we lift our sights to contributing to a major strategic change in the way physicists are able to engage with colleagues around the world. The work will continue to be driven by effective partnership work with the physics community; and by bringing together the collective and amplified voice of key players here and in Africa. The strength of the latter is especially important if we are to advocate for large-scale change through improved research funding and an overarching focus on capacity building and building effective two-way partnerships. 

What I hope we can do now, by continuing those discussions with the UK government, is create the conditions where that large-scale change can take place. 

As we look ahead to next week’s summit, I am cautiously optimistic about what can be achieved. There is clear potential for the growth of physics across the continent, which in turn offers great promise for researchers and businesses in the UK to help tackle some of the global challenges. 

However, my experience of working on different types of funded programmes across Africa has taught me that a shared vision and intent is simply not enough. We need to see a long-term strategy stretching through this new decade and into the next underpinned by a well-structured, coordinated investment of time and money. UK and African researchers need access to existing and new funding that will allow them to work together on the ground. All of this needs to be supported by a much more consistent approach to our collaboration with the international community. As my old boss pointed out when I took the first steps in my international career, just remember that everyone wants to save the world, but they want to be the first to do it!  

Success is so much easier to write than to achieve, particularly when our own organisation’s role is not to become a single voice, a delivery partner or conduit for funding. But what we have done already with our partners is to provide a much clearer picture of the state of UK-Africa physics research collaboration, and make what we think is a sound case for improvement. What we do next will need the continued input of leaders from the physics research community and our partners in the UK and Africa to work with us in the push for policies that can support greater collaboration to build capacity and unblock some of the barriers.

I am always pleased to hear your reflections and ideas so do contact me at rachel.youngman@iop.org.