Abdus Salam’s unfinished business

The legacy of Nobel Laureate Abdus Salam to promote science in the developing world remains unfulfilled Copyright: the abdus salam international centre for theoretical physics

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Abdus Salam used his genius to promote science in the developing world, but his legacy remains unfulfilled, says Athar Osama.  

Abdus Salam, whose 87th birth anniversary was celebrated this week (29 January), was more than a Nobel prize-winning physicist. Salam’s influence on society was, perhaps, second only to Albert Einstein’s. A bright star in the galaxy of scientists that graced one of the most productive centuries of modern science, Salam was to the developing world what Einstein was to the developed.

That "Salam was a genius and for genius to end up winning Nobel Prize is no big surprise," writes Nidhal Guessoum, a professor of physics and astronomy in his book ‘Islam’s Quantum Question’ [1].

Salam’s outlook was greatly affected by his experiences as a young scientist in his native Pakistan. After graduating from Cambridge – where he won the Smith’s Prize for the most outstanding pre-doctoral contribution to physics – and gaining a PhD at the Cavendish Laboratory, he returned to Pakistan, feeling an obligation to serve.

Intellectual loneliness in Pakistan

In 1951, he became a lecturer and then head of the mathematics department at the Government College, Lahore. Though he was already a celebrity among the small scientific community in Pakistan and much sought after, Salam encountered ‘intellectual loneliness’ – an idea that was to define his life’s work.

"The move turned out to be unfortunate," writes Nigel Calder, a British science writer who has followed Salam over the years. "He spent three troubled years there before professional frustration drove him back to England … reluctantly he became part of the ‘brain drain’ that robs Asia of its talent that it so urgently needs. But he resolved to do all he could to save other young men from the ‘cruel choice’ between homeland and profession." [2]


  • ‘Salam’s influence on society was second only to Einstein’s’
  • Legacy includes International Centre for Theoretical Physics, Trieste
  • Brain drain continues despite Salam’s efforts

Speaking with young Samir Hoodbhoy, an accomplished innovator-entrepreneur and one of the visionaries behind FAST ­– a leading computer science school in Pakistan – in 1965, Salam commented: "If you wish to begin a career in Pakistan, there must be a critical mass of contemporaries to sustain your efforts." [3]

Salam, the statesman

His return to Imperial College, London, resulted in the most productive years of his life as a scientist and as Salam, the statesman. In 1960, he was appointed science advisor to the president of Pakistan where he laid the foundations of a number of scientific institutions, including space and atomic energy commissions. In 1974, he founded the International Nathiagali Summer College – an annual meeting of young Pakistani scientists and leading international scientific figures in picturesque northern Pakistan – as a way to reduce the ‘isolation’ of his countrymen.

He was elected the youngest fellow of the prestigious Royal Society and founded the theoretical physics department at the Imperial College. He was also appointed scientific secretary to the Atoms of Peace Conference and served as one of the ‘wise men’ entrusted by the United Nations to guide the application of science and technology to fight poverty.

Salam’s contributions as a scientist form the basis of the idea of ‘Grand Unification’ and the ‘Standard Model’ in particle physics today.

Crowning achievement in Trieste

Salam’s crowning achievement, however, was the setting up of the International Centre for Theoretical Physics (ICTP) in Trieste, Italy, in 1964. He envisioned the ICTP as the first department of a broader UN University and as a “meeting place for leading theoreticians from the East and the West." [2]

During the cold war, Trieste was the place where scientists from the developing world flocked to "plug into the current excitement in physics, sample the latest ideas … meet informally with world leaders in the subject." [2]

Over the years, ICTP has hosted over 100,000 scientists from the developing world – more than 6,000 visitors from 122 countries in 2005 alone – and has contributed tremendously towards arresting the brain drain towards the West. While at ICTP, Salam laid the foundation of the Third World Academy of Sciences to support scientists in the developing world. He was also instrumental in proposing the Islamic Science Foundation that never really saw the light of day.

"Salam has contributed more towards the development of science in the developing world than any other Nobel laureate (or another individual)," says Atta ur Rahman, Pakistan’s former science minister. [4]

Brain drain unabated

While much has been achieved since Salam took on the cause of science in the developing world, considerable gaps remain. With the exception of a handful of countries – the BRICS and a couple more – quality science is still a luxury in the developing world and science remains an elite activity. Consequently, the brain drain stays unabated.

Today, more than ever before, the world needs visionary scientists of influence who can carry forward Salam’s unfinished business.

Athar Osama is a science policy researcher and consultant. A graduate of RAND Graduate School for Public Policy in Santa Monica, CA, he is also the founder of the Pakistan Innovation Foundation and editor of Muslim-Science.Com.


1] Nidhal Guessoum, Islam’s Quantum Question

[2] Nigel Calder, A Man of Science – Abdus Salam, in Ideals and Realities: Selected Essay of Abdus Salam by A. Salam and C. H. Lai.

[3] Interview with Samir Hoodbhoy

[4] Interview with Atta ur Rahman