Supporting science and education in the developing world

In an age when science plays a critical role in every aspect of society—from the economy to culture to international understanding—it should come as no surprise that the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and ICTP have forged a strong and enduring relationship over the past 50 years.

That relationship dates back to the 1960s when UNESCO first lent its support to ICTP, then an organization in its infancy. It continued through the 1970s and 1980s when UNESCO extended its funding for ICTP's research and training activities, and culminated in the mid-1990s when UNESCO became the lead administrative agency for the Centre. ICTP is a UNESCO Category 1 Institute.

UNESCO's broad mandate in education, science and culture presents an excellent counterpoint to the Centre's focus on the basic sciences, particularly physics and mathematics. ICTP and UNESCO, both individually and together, have always been keen to turn the pursuit of knowledge into an instrument for global peace and understanding.

Three prominent examples of cooperation between ICTP and UNESCO include the following:

  • Active Learning in Optics and Photonics (ALOP)
    UNESCO's 2010 edition of its Education for All Global Monitoring Report called for “strengthening of the learning environment by providing highly skilled teachers”. The Active Learning in Optics and Photonics programme (ALOP)  – a UNESCO International Basic Sciences Programme (IBSP) flagship activity – is contributing to the solution.

    Tackling the problem at its source, ALOP trains educators with hopes that it will enable them to develop professionally and pass on their skills to their students. ALOP workshops provide participants with an introductory update in the fields of optics and photonics, and strategies for teaching that are active and that have been demonstrated to be more effective than traditional methods.

    Since 2004, ALOP workshops have trained more than 1000 teachers from 55 developing countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America (with the most being from around 20 countries in Africa). There have also been several follow-up workshops to train trainers, by giving them the opportunity to work as assistant facilitators.

    ALOP also exemplifies how UNESCO’s International Basic Sciences Programme works hand-in-hand with its partners like ICTP and sponsors to ensure that the physics education goals adopted in 2005 at the World Conference on Physics and Sustainable Development are achieved.  SPIE, the international society for optics and photonics, provides the major sustaining support for the programme.

  • The Latin American Center for Physics (CLAF)
    CLAF is an intergovernmental organization that promotes the development of physics throughout the region. CLAF was created on March 26, 1962, during a meeting in Rio de Janeiro, promoted by UNESCO and the Brazilian government with the participation of twenty Latin American countries.

    ICTP and CLAF have collaborated on programmes since the mid-1960s. In 1997, their collaboration was formalized in a memorandum of understanding to (1) assess the needs of physics communities in Latin America, particularly in countries with weak research and education facilities, and (2) devise a strategy of institutional co-operation to help physicists throughout the continent pursue fruitful and productive careers. With ICTP's help, CLAF has sought to plug the internal and external brain drain of physicists through a co-operative PhD programme established among Latin American universities. On another front, ICTP and CLAF have worked together to promote physics research among Latin America's relatively less developed countries.

  • The International Centre for Pure and Applied Mathematics (CIMPA)
    Founded in France in 1978, CIMPA is a nonprofit organisation working for the development of mathematics research in developing countries. It is a UNESCO category 2 centre. Each year, CIMPA co-organizes and sponsors numerous activities in developing countries across all continents. Other actions strongly supported by CIMPA include activities developed in close collaboration with continental mathematical unions such as the Schools in Partnership, whose purpose is to introduce undergraduate and master students to the research in mathematics. For most of its activities, CIMPA works in partnership with other bodies with similar objectives like the International Mathematical Union (IMU), the European Mathematical Society (EMS) and ICTP. Over the years, ICTP and CIMPA have organized numerous conferences, schools and workshops for mathematicians from developing countries.