An Academy of Sciences for the Third World
By Akhtar Mahmud Faruqui
Science has been described as the highest expression of internationalism, the common preserve of the "haves" and the "have-nots". Yet its diffusion has been dramatically uneven. While science in the industrially developed nations of the North goes from strength to strength, in the South scientists are relatively few. They work in isolation from the world scientific community and the resources at their disposal are scanty.
In the last few years a new institution, the Third World Academy of Sciences (TWAS), has emerged as a leading contributor to efforts to bridge the science gap between North and South. The Academy, which is based in Trieste, Italy, is the first international forum to unite men and women of science from the Third World with the aim of promoting basic and applied sciences in developing countries.
The Academy is the brainchild of Nobel Laureate Abdus Salam of Pakistan, who devoted more than forty years of his life to helping scientists from impoverished developing countries overcome their isolation and participate in advanced scientific work at the frontiers of knowledge.
The headquarters of TWAS are in Trieste, Italy, on the premises of the (UN) Salam International Centre for Theoretical Physics (ICTP), which Professor Salam was instrumental in founding and headed since its inception till his death
First mooted by Professor Salam in 1981, the Academy was officially launched in July 1985 by the Secretary General of the United Nations, Mr. Javier Perez de Cuellar.
Soon after its founding the Academy floated and implemented a variety of schemes to bolster South science. It has awarded some 300 research grants to scientists working in a broad spectrum of fields including optics, nuclear physics, solar energy, seismology and laser physics. Applicants, whose projects were vetted by four international referees, were drawn from many countries: Jamaica, China, Argentina, India, Brazil, Pakistan, Mexico, Angola, Peru, Thailand, Turkey and Madagascar, to name just a few. Such iniiatives have multiplied in the intervening period.
Through a donation programme run in collaboration with ICTP, the Academy also provided scientific literature to developing countries facing shortages of foreign currency. A joint appeal to libraries, publishing companies, laboratories and individuals to donate books, journals and equipment to developing countries did meet with an encouraging response. Under the programme, some 50,000 books and journals were supplied annually to some 500 institutions in 90 countries.
One important TWAS project is a South-South Fellowship Programme designed to enable a scientist from one developing country to work in another. The Academy also supports visits by Third World scientists to biology, chemistry and geology laboratories in italy.
In 1987 the Academy instituted a History of Science Prize to highlight the work of a scientist from a Third World country whose achievements had not been previously recognized. The first prize was awarded for an essay on the astronomical tables which were compiled by the great mathematician Shams al-Din al-Khalili and used in Damascus for timekeeping from the fourteenth century to the nineteenth. The competition, which is open to scholars of any nationality, carries a cash prize of $10,000.
TWAS has also awarded annual prizes of $10,000 to outstanding scientists from Third World countries in the fields of physics, chemistry, mathematics and biology, and organized conferences on major problems confronting the Third World. A Conference on the Role of Women in the Development of Science and Technology in the Third World was attended by 240 women scientists from over 70 countries.
A non-governmental, non-profitmaking organization, TWAS is currently funded largely by Canada and Italy. Initially its members, ten of whom were Nobel Laureates of Third World origin, consisted of 106 Fellows from 42 developing countries, 42 Associate Fellows (scientists from industrialized countries who were either born in developing countries or have distinguished themselves in Third World science) and 3 Corresponding Fellows.
In late 1988, only three years after its creation, Ronald Leger of the Canadian international Development Agency commented that TWAS had already brought significant changes to many Third World scientists working in isolation. "For them," Leger pointed out, "TWAS has meant spare parts for a lab, or travel grants and South-South exchanges for young scientists, or a subscription to a scientific journal for an isolated scientist. Above all, TWAS has meant a new hope for science and technology in developing countries." - firstname.lastname@example.org