30 December 2010 | EN
Mohamed Hassan, outgoing executive director of TWAS, talks to SciDev.Net about 25 years in the job and his hopes for the academy's future.
Mohamed Hassan, a Sudanese mathematical physicist and the president of the African Academy of Sciences, is stepping down as the executive director of TWAS, The Academy of Sciences for the Developing World, at the start of next year (2011).
He has run the academy since its inauguration by the UN secretary-general in 1985. The late Abdus Salam, a Nobel laureate physicist from Pakistan, founded TWAS in 1983 in Trieste, Italy. Under their joint leadership the academy grew into a well-respected and efficient advocate for developing world science and scientists.
The organisation now has five regional offices based in Brazil, China, Egypt, India and Kenya.
SciDev.Net talked to Hassan about his time at TWAS and how he sees the future of this growing organisation.
As you step down after 25 years, how do you see the future direction of TWAS?
TWAS aims to decentralise. Eventually the TWAS regional offices could evolve into regional centres, each with its own structure and management. But we don't want to rush into this, we want it to happen gradually, downscaling our operations in Trieste and giving more financial support to the regional offices.
We are happy with the way our regional offices are operating and organising local activities. We don't want the TWAS headquarters in Trieste to become a structure that is too big, bureaucratic or top-heavy. We would like to keep it small — a small body with a big brain.
As each regional office becomes larger and more well-known, it could ask donors and international agencies for additional support.
My dream is to have five TWAS centres that can take care of all capacity building and South–South collaboration issues in their regions.
But there is no deadline for setting up these regional centres, it is a gradual movement.
Hassan would like to see TWAS's devolution from Trieste to the regions
What sort of work have the regional offices been involved with so far?
They are currently handling small programmes — the most important of these is the young scientists programme, which is a new direction for TWAS.
Each year, five young scientists from each region are selected as TWAS young affiliates. This is a recent activity — it started some four years ago — and has been quite successful.
We would also like to decentralise some of the activities we are currently doing in Trieste, such as the postgraduate and postdoctoral training programmes. They are really regional initiatives so we are asking our regional offices to take over.
It is better if these offices handle local arrangements such as sorting out hospitality, living conditions and supervisors for students. Regional offices can also handle regional workshops and awards.
For example, the India office in Bangalore could take over the Asian programmes. Brazil, China, India, Mexico and Pakistan have all agreed to offer national support to the training programme for students, especially for those from least developed countries, for four years.
Are you planning any other major projects?
We would like to start issuing science reports on specific issues critical to developing countries, such as biofuels. We might call them 'South Science Reports'.
Of course, the InterAcademy Council issues detailed reports on science issues. But we really want to focus on developing countries and engage our scientists in producing such reports.
And we would like the scientific leadership in the developing world to come together and address science-based issues of critical importance to their countries.
For the first time we have more than 1,000 members — we crossed the line at the 21st general meeting in Hyderabad — so we would really like those members to engage with society in developing countries by addressing societal concerns.
Why have science academies in developing countries been so passive and inactive?
We have been like this for many years.
But now we would like to engage our scientists in preparing reports and offering real recommendations about how we can go forward, especially in South–South collaboration.
For example, there is the debate on food for fuel and talk of second-generation biofuels. Biofuels have been useful for Brazil's with its tropical ecology, but the same conditions may not be suitable for African countries such as Rwanda or Sudan, where there is a large area of land, and some of it is wasteland and some barren.
I think that the way forward is to develop biofuels from non-food crops, as India is beginning to.
How will TWAS resolve conflicting positions among developing countries on such issues?
National academies have a national audience, whereas TWAS reports will aim at the regional level and be tuned into those regional audiences, going beyond national interests.
The reports could also feed into other international organisations' work. For example, a report on food security could help the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation; one on health issues could inform the WHO.
I see two values for these reports: helping South–South collaboration and providing recommendations to energise the work of the national science academies.
Looking back, is there anything you feel the academy could have done differently?
Hassan: "I have for a long time wanted to engage our young scientists"
I would have liked to see the regional offices up and running. We wanted to do that since Salam's time. We initially had vice presidents in the regions, appointed for only four years, who perhaps didn't take it seriously. Nor did we have the infrastructure.
That is a clear failure. Now, after so many years, we are taking it up again. Decentralising and regionalising activities is a must.
I have also for a long time wanted to engage our young scientists — that is happening now.
Also, when we set out, our main task was to help individual scientists, not institutions. Then we realised that one cannot have good scientists without good, sustainable science institutions and engaged policymakers. So we started working with scientific institutes and policymakers.
What would you describe as the turning points in TWAS history?
Setting up of the five regional offices is one.
Another one is creating the programme for young scientists. The idea is that TWAS young affiliates eventually become life members of TWAS.
And the establishment seven years ago of the TWAS endowment fund from governments of the South has helped to stabilise TWAS's operations. It started with initial donations of US$500,000 from countries such as Brazil, India and Kuwait and today stands at about US$15 million. Brazil is the largest contributor, with US$1.7 million, followed by China and India which donated US$1 million each.
My dream is to see an endowment fund or trust fund of US$25 million.
Hassan sees the National Science Foundation in the United States as a model for TWAS in developing countries
How do you see TWAS in a decade?
That depends on how successful TWAS is in running its programmes and stabilising its running costs.
Aside from the regional offices becoming TWAS regional centres, we would really like TWAS to become more of a foundation for developing countries, along the lines of the National Science Foundation in the United States, supporting the best research groups and institutions in least developed countries.
These countries will not be able to support their own research activities on a large scale within the next ten years and will need our support. The Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency gives some money for this, but we need ten times more to enable TWAS to provide a reliable foundation for poor countries.
The proposed foundation would have its own peer review system, with a committee looking at grant applications and selecting the 20 best submissions from least developed countries.
This is my dream, to have US$5 million available for giving grants to small research groups in the poorest countries.
Hernan Chaimovich ( Brazil )
4 January 2011
In a part of an otherwise interesting and important testimony of my good friend Mohamed Hassan about TWAS, there is a statement about science academies that, while true in some cases, is not as general as the text implies. I beg to differ with the question´s implication: “Why have science academies in developing countries been so passive and inactive?”. I am also not in agreement with the initial part of the answer: “We have been like this for many years”. Major changes of Science Academies of the world have been evident in the last two decades, including, in particular, those from developing countries. Innovative Programs, Actions and Statements from global organizations such as the InterAcademy Panel (IAP) have only been possible because of the increasing awareness of Science Academies on their local and global roles in the conduct of science. Regional Networks of Academies of Science, such as the InterAmerican Network of Academies of Science (IANAS) are responsible for programs and initiatives of well known impact in the Americas and the Caribbean Region such as Science Education, Water, Energy and Women for Science. As SciDev Net is well aware of, having described some of these programs by IANAS, these actions would have not been possible if the science academies in the developing countries of the region were “passive and inactive”.
Monir Uddin Ahmed ( Bangladesh )
5 January 2011
Making National Academy of Sciences of developing countries should be taken seriously. If the Natioanl Academy of Sciences(NAS) are active, then scientific developement of any country become easy. TWAS can make NASs to rank the research organisations of that country based on performance (peer reviewed paper published and technology transfered) and influence government to distribute funds based on performance, then it will make huge progress.
Monir uddin Ahmed
Nagib Nassar,Universidade Brasilia,Brasil ( Brazil )
10 January 2011
I liked the article of SciDev.Net in honour of Mohammed Hassan, TWAS. SciDev.Net is always present in every occasion of the third world. Thank you for this.
Dr Hassan cites Brazil contribution. This is good. But what is more important is the poineering role which came from its contribution. Who was behind this is the Brazilian National Council for Scientific Development (CNPq) Presided by by Erney Camargo and followed by Carlos Alberto Aragao. Both of them approached the Academy and were enthusiastic for its support. The CNPq annual donnation of 50 fellowships encouraged India and China to do the same in the following year. In as much as Dr hassan served TWAS and scientific community of developping nations, there are these Brazilian scientists who contributed too for this noble cause. We say to Dr Hassan Thanks a lot for all what you did. You have honoured yr country Sudan, and say to our Brazilian Science authorities Erney Camargo and Carlos Alberto Aragao Thanks too. We feel honoured by your contribution in supporting TWAS and giving an example for other countries to follow Brazil.
Dr. Emmanuel Unuabonah ( Nigeria )
4 February 2011
I am quite happy with the strides TWAS have taken especially in the last ten years. Sincerely, Prof Hassan has been pivoter in making these strides possible. I salute his doggedness and realistic approach. TWAS has truly given science a better picture in the eyes of those us here in Sub Saharan Africa who have benefitted immensely from TWAS fellowships and grants. But for these fellowships and grants, most of us would have been frustrated out of science and from scientific research. I do hope in the coming years as younger scientists are intergrated into TWAS and as TWAS decentralizes into the regions these gains will not only be sustained but surpassed.
To Prof Hassan, I say "thank you" for your selfless sacrifice to TWAS in the past 25 years. You have left "big shoes" for your successor. I wish you the best in your future endeavours.
Emmanuel I. Unuabonah
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