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[NEW DELHI] The Indian government is to set up a centre in Chennai for training scientists from other developing countries, using facilities occupied until recently by the Committee on Science and Technology for Developing Countries (COSTED) of the Paris-based International Council for Science (ICSU).

ICSU decided to close down COSTED last November on the recommendations of a review panel that suggested that, in order to strengthen its presence in the developing world, the council should replace it with four regional offices, in Asia, Africa, the Middle East and Latin America and the Caribbean.

ICSU offered to convert the COSTED facilities in Chennai into its regional office for Asia. But officials of the Indian National Science Academy (INSA) last week rejected this proposal, deciding instead to locate a new Indian-led centre there.

The Centre for Science for Developing Societies (CSDS) will be funded by the INSA and the ministry of science. It will initially admit 20 doctoral students and 10 postdoctoral fellows who, after a period of orientation, will work with INSA fellows at the country's leading universities and research institutions.

The programme will also include specialised training normally not available in the university system. "We expect the centre to be in place by the end of the year and start functioning from April 2004," INSA president Martanda Sankaran Valiathan told SciDev.Net.

The new centre will use a careful selection procedure to allow talented individuals from developing countries to study in India, regardless of their social background. According to Valiathan, although many students from other developing nations are already enrolled in Indian institutions, most come from wealthy families.

Several internationally renowned institutions, including the six Indian Institutes of Technology, the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research in Mumbai and the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore, have offered to welcome students from the new centre.

"The proposed centre will be part of India's overall efforts to strengthen science and technology cooperation with other developing countries," says Valangiman Ramamurthy, secretary to the Department of Science and Technology.

Ramamurthy adds that Rs.2.5 million (US$54,000) that was previously budgeted each year for the COSTED secretariat, as well as the costs of its staff, building and other facilities, will be diverted to the new centre.

According to one science ministry official, the new centre is seen by some Indian scientists and politicians as a reincarnation of COSTED, with India – rather than ICSU – taking a leadership role. "Indian science enjoys immense respect, and this is a good opportunity for India to help other developing nations," he said. 

Gopalakrishnan Thyagarajan, former COSTED secretary, told SciDev.Net that he felt the decision to close COSTED was hasty and unfair, and an example of Northern science dictating an agenda to the South.

"It is very cheeky on the part of ICSU to wind up the COSTED secretariat, and then ask that infrastructure there and staff be made available to them for its regional office," he said. "It looks as if ICSU found COSTED inconvenient when trying to access the vast funds available in the global funding agencies (such as the European Union) and wished to project itself as a champion for South."

But ICSU’s executive director, Thomas Rosswall, argues that the decision to replace COSTED with regional offices was "very much driven by the suggestions and the needs of the South".

"The problem with COSTED was that it was centralised on India, but other regions are very different. Therefore it is important that the regions themselves decide what their priorities should be," he says. He added that the decision to shut COSTED and open regional offices will strengthen – not dilute – ICSU's involvement in developing countries.

Meanwhile INSA has also offered to host ICSU’s regional office for Asia. ICSU has agreed to provide US$200,000 for setting up the four regional offices in the current year, although this will be reduced to US$100,000 next year. The Mexican Academy of Sciences has offered to host the regional office for Latin America and the Caribbean.