In the developing world, building a research community might not seem a priority, but it is a means to strengthen the development agenda and secure the future.
The Council of Science Editors1 has arranged, on 22 October 2007, the publication of a 'global theme issue' on poverty and human development. The project involves more than 230 scientific journals, each publishing content relevant to the Millennium Development Goals set out by the United Nations in 2000. Nature Physics is one of the contributing journals.
Naturally, the Millennium Development Goals (listed in the box) target hunger and disease — the spectres of HIV/AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis — and mortality among mothers and children. The goals also prioritize education, empowerment and development in partnership, and these are issues relevant to research communities in developing nations and to their more established counterparts worldwide.
In their Commentary article for Nature Physics, Nithaya Chetty, Simon Connell and Ahmed Bawa present2 the situation of physics in South Africa. They make clear the vital role that science has in underpinning the development of South African society. Indeed, developed nations such as the USA have become acutely aware of the importance of their own science programmes in maintaining their global competitiveness — witness the American Competitiveness Initiative3. Although there is no doubting the urgency of such problems as the AIDS epidemic in Africa, science programmes are no less important in developing economies than in wealthier nations as a means of securing their future. Chetty, Connell and Bawa paint a picture that is positive overall — in South Africa, the place of physics research and education in the country's future has been recognized, and opportunities for researchers are being created nationally and through global partnerships.
A project that has resonance around the world, and not only in Africa, is One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) — the plan to equip children in developing countries with a robust '$100 laptop'. The XO laptop, as it is known, will soon be available, and, for a limited period from 12 November 2007, US residents will have the opportunity to join a 'give one, get one' scheme4: pay $399 to get an XO laptop, and another will be given to the developing world. (Astute readers will notice that the $100 price tag is yet to be realized, but it is still the target.) The white and green, waterproof, plastic device has no moving parts, but supports a Linux operating system, a web browser, a PDF reader and wi-fi antennae ('rabbit ears'). The screen can be read even in direct sunlight, and there is a variety of ways to charge the laptop, including by pull-string or crank handle.
OLPC founder Nicholas Negroponte (currently on leave from the MIT Media Lab) declares, “It's an education project, not a laptop project.” Indeed, and its impact should be hugely significant: imagine being suddenly confronted with all that the web has to offer. It's about “learning learning”, according to OLPC. The first recipients will be in Afghanistan, Cambodia, Haiti and Rwanda, and other 'least developed countries' (by the UN definition) may join the scheme. The web is a remarkable resource, but Chetty and co-authors point out that bandwidth is already a major problem on the African continent, one that must be overcome.
The plan is to hit the Millennium Development Goals by 2015. But, according to an interim report5, the world is likely to miss the net. A recent downturn in investment from developed countries is aggravating the already challenging schedule. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon has called for “urgent and concerted action”5. It's not only about money. As the example of physics in South Africa shows, the investment of time, energy and knowledge by the world's scientists will pay off too.
This article is part of the Global Theme on Poverty and Human Development, organized by the Council of Science Editors. All articles from the Nature Publishing Group are available free at www.nature.com/povhumdev. The content from all participating journals can be found at http://www.councilscienceeditors.org/globalthemeissue.