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  • Q&A: Mohamed Hassan and 25 years at TWAS

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.

Trieste, Italy

Hassan would like to see TWAS's devolution from Trieste to the regions

Wikipedia Commons/Husond

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?

Students attend a TWAS meeting in Hyderabad, India

Hassan: "I have for a long time wanted to engage our young scientists"

Flickr/TWASphotos

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.

National Science Foundation, United States

Hassan sees the National Science Foundation in the United States as a model for TWAS in developing countries

NSF

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.

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