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Over 25 years, TWAS has fostered and celebrated science in the South. Jacob Palis looks back — and forward to the challenges ahead.

This year marks the silver anniversary of TWAS, the academy of sciences for the developing world. Over the past quarter century, the academy has emerged as a leading institution in international science and as a key voice for science in the South.

TWAS began with 42 members. Today membership stands at 871. Nearly 85 per cent of fellows are from developing countries — a clear sign that scientific capacity in the developing world is growing.

Many factors have propelled this welcome trend, including governments' increasing commitment to invest in science and technology, the rise of new information and communication technologies (ICTs), and better working and living conditions for scientists in the South — all of which have encouraged researchers to pursue their careers at home.

Supporting and celebrating science

The academy is proud of the contributions it has made to these advances. It has helped to promote science among both policymakers and the public and, equally importantly, it has helped raise the profile of individual scientists in the South.

Election to TWAS confirms a scientist's contributions to his or her field. It also bestows prestige and recognition. The membership process is highly competitive — fewer than 25 per cent of nominated scientists become members each year. As a result, the academy can justifiably claim that its members represent the best of science in the South.

Through its research grants programme, TWAS has also helped thousands of scientists at critical junctures in their careers. More recently, it has expanded this programme to fund research teams in 80 scientifically lagging countries.

By assisting both individuals and institutions, TWAS' research grants provide broad support for science and society in the developing world. With backing from TWAS, for example, the Faculty of Science and Technology at the University of Mali is helping improve water quality using nanofiltration, and the Institute of Pathobiology at Addis Ababa University in Ethiopia is conducting much-needed research into sustainable control strategies for diseases like leishmaniasis and schistosomiasis.

By funding research groups in countries that are least proficient in science, TWAS hopes to narrow the gap between countries' scientific capacities, not just between the North and South, but also within the South itself.

TWAS prizes in basic sciences celebrate the careers of top scientists in the developing world. The Trieste Science Prize, sponsored by illycaffè, recognises and rewards the developing world's most eminent scientists. The 2008 winners of the prize are Beatriz Barbuy, honoured for expanding our understanding of the chemical composition of stars, and the Indian engineer and physicist Roddam Narasimha, honoured for his seminal work in fluid dynamics.

A voice for the South

Over the past quarter century, the academy has provided a strong voice for the scientific community in the South, helping to shape policy debates within developing countries.

TWAS has accomplished this through various means, including funding for research and scientific exchange, support for scientific conferences and meetings, and by sponsoring workshops that offer scientists and decision makers critical training opportunities and guidance on such topics as safe drinking water, biodiversity and renewable energy.

The academy is also involved in projects like the EuroAfriCa-ICT consortium, funded by the European Union, which uses ICTs to promote collaborative research between European, Caribbean and African institutions. Such projects help developing countries build important in-roads into cutting-edge technologies and ensure that they participate in today's most critical scientific debates.

South for South

Most importantly, perhaps, TWAS serves as a bridge for South-South cooperation and support in science. The academy's South-South fellowship programme for post-graduate and post-doctoral students is potentially one of the most far-reaching initiatives for scientific capacity building in the South. Each year, 250 fellowships are made available in Brazil, China, India, Malaysia, Mexico and Pakistan to young students from other developing countries.

If TWAS can sustain and expand the number of fellowships, it could help train thousands of young scientists. This would significantly widen the scope of scientific knowledge in the least developed countries. The sense of solidarity that the programme creates among developing countries could help forge a common sense of purpose extending well beyond each nation's scientific community.

The road ahead

But while TWAS has achieved much over the past 25 years, much more remains to be done.  

The academy must continue to raise the profile of science in developing countries that do not yet fully embrace and promote scientific capacity building. Overcoming the South-South divide is likely to be one of the fundamental issues for science in the developing world in the years ahead.

To assist this effort,the academy must be a place where ideas can be shared and discussed. Scientists in the South have much to contribute to issues such as climate change, energy supply, biodiversity loss and emerging infectious diseases — issues that directly affect their countries' well-being.

TWAS must also continue to help young and mid-career scientists. The future of science belongs to the next generation of these professionals, and we must help them achieve their full potential.

Finally, the academy must expand its role as a bridge between the South and North to help advance scientific research and to develop effective international policies.

TWAS' silver anniversary is a time to celebrate, not a time to rest on our laurels. I am confident that the academy's next 25 years will be even more fruitful as we continue to apply lessons we have learnt to meet future challenges for the benefit of science and societies across the developing world.

Jacob Palis is president of TWAS.