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Boosting Physics in Latin America: FeLaSoFi


The relatively small physics research community in Latin America has a lot to deal with. In addition to the economic and social development challenges that face individual countries, regional disparities in the capacity for scientific advancement and research and in the quality of education continue to plague the development of a strong, unified research community. But under the umbrella of one particular organisation, countries in Latin America have banded together to boost physics education and research and, ultimately, improve regional innovation capabilities.

Latin America and its scientific community are marked by regional disparities. The more developed countries--Mexico, Brazil, and Argentina--support healthy physics research communities that contribute at the highest international level. However, in poorer countries such as Peru, Bolivia, and Paraguay, the physics research community is very small, teetering on the edge, or altogether non-existent. As a consequence, those countries with inadequate physics research facilities tend to lose their undergraduate students to nearby countries that can offer more up-to-date and comprehensive training.

But even in the more developed countries, maintaining a steady pool of science graduates is often a problem. The overall production of trained physicists is very low, and relatively few Ph.D.s are awarded in science in Latin America. Instead, the social sciences, business, law, engineering, and manufacturing programs continue to attract more students than do the sciences (see this UNESCO report for more details), in spite of the existence of some quality (but generally expensive) undergraduate and graduate programs in science. Worse, of those physicists who do obtain their Ph.D.s in Latin America, many seek to advance their careers in industrialized countries elsewhere in the world and often do not return.

Federation of Latin American Physics Societies

No single Latin American country, richer or poorer, can win this struggle on its own. Founded in 1984, the Federación LatinoAmericana de Sociedades de Física (FeLaSoFi) is a fine example of scientific co-operation among some of the most disparate regions in the developing world. The organisation--a fledgling professional society by international comparisons--is made up of 17 physical societies in Central and South America and represents approximately 15,000 physicists.

Fighting the regional disparities in science education and research is highest on the agenda for change for FeLaSoFi, the society's president, Jose Roberto Leite, tells Next Wave. Central to the success of FeLaSoFi's mission has been the fact that the physical societies from the more developed countries typically sponsor meetings and activities that engage all member societies, regardless of their size or level of influence of their physics community. "[FeLaSoFi] is of great importance to the smaller societies of Central America and the Caribbean region, because these communities are rather small and would have little regional interaction or international contact otherwise," Irving Lerch, director of international affairs at the American Physical Society ( APS), explains.

Considering this responsibility, Leite believes that the organisation has an important role to play in the improvement of physics education in poorer countries. Part of its mission is to encourage participation in physics by offering scholarships for undergraduate and graduate programs in different regions. "International programs have to be established to allow Peruvian young professors or students, for example, to come to Mexico or Brazil and complete their M.S. or Ph.D. degree," he says. By providing better training opportunities within Latin America, he adds, it is hoped that these students will return to their home country and help build their own scientific community.

The federation also seeks to promote scientific exchange and regional research interests among Latin American physicists, many of whom are working in government R&D labs or in academia. FeLaSoFi's members believe that these networks would help support the development of large research facilities, such as the Tandar heavy-ion accelerator in Buenos Aires, Argentina, the Brazilian National Synchrotron Light Laboratory (LNLS) in Campinas, Brazil, and the Large Millimeter Telescope in Puebla, Mexico.

Inter-American-Iberian Physics Working Group

FeLaSoFi has built up an impressive network of partners to tackle to pressing issues of the physics community in Latin America. APS and the Canadian Association of Physicists ( CAP), among other organisations, are working alongside FeLaSoFi to achieve similar goals.

APS and CAP, in partnership with the Mexican Physical Society (SMF) and FeLaSoFi, helped establish the Inter-American Physics Working Group in 1998. Soon after, the Spanish, Portuguese, and French physical societies joined, and it evolved into the Inter-American-Iberian Working Group.

Among the working group's prime tasks are the issues of investment in science and technology and education and the resulting impacts on development. To fund workshops geared to students, postdocs, and young researchers, the group draws on resources from regional and international government funding agencies [such as the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF)], and international agencies including UNESCO and the International Union of Pure and Applied Physics.

The first Inter-American Workshop on the Use of Synchrotron Radiation for Research: Symposium on Nanotechnologies was hosted by LNLS in February 2001. Among the 160 participants were 26 students from Brazil, Argentina, Mexico, and the United States, many of whom received financial support. The working group has organised a second workshop that will be held this December (see sidebar); future plans include the development of industrial fellowships to provide opportunities for young people in industrial research.

Upcoming events

The second Inter-American Workshop on the Use of Synchrotron Radiation "Applications to Macromolecules and Biological Systems" will be held at LNLS in Campinas, São Paulo, Brazil, 9 to 11 December 2002. APS has secured funding from NSF to support U.S. graduate students to attend.

8th International Conference on Physics Education "The Teaching of Physics in Today's World" will be held 7 to 11 July 2003 in Havana, Cuba. The conference is organised by APS and the Cuban Physical Society.

Other examples of fruitful co-operation among North America's physical societies are the regular "CAM" (Canadian-American-Mexican) meetings, organised by CAP, APS, and SMF, and APS's particular focus on co-operation with the Cuban Physical Society (CPS). APS and CPS have established a collaborative program that includes a workshop on medical physics that was held in Havana earlier this year, attracting 35 U.S. physicists. The next APS-CPS meeting, on physics education, is scheduled for 7 to 11 July 2003 in Havana (see sidebar). Given all of this international activity, it is hoped that it is only a matter of time before Latin America can look forward to a robust physics research community that, in turn, will be able to contribute to the health and competitiveness of developing countries in the region.

Although Leite is just beginning his 3-year term as president of FeLaSoFi, he is full of plans to attract more international attention to the federation and to scientific activities in Latin America. For one, he believes that the establishment of a Latin American Journal of Physics, under the sponsorship of FeLaSoFi, would strengthen the representation of Latin American physics research. "If we concentrate our efforts in a strong journal in Latin American, we will be more effective than we are now with our local journals," he says.

Leite also hopes to actively engage representatives of the main physics research organisations in the world in the next meeting of the FeLaSoFi council and present to them the promises and pitfalls of physics education and research in Latin America. His message will be clear: By combining their efforts in FeLaSoFi, physical societies from all Latin American countries are working toward goals held in common with the Western world.

Resources: Other Latin American Physical Societies