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UNESCO has appointed a US materials scientist to the post of assistant director-general of its Natural Sciences Sector which, alongside the Education Sector, commands the bulk of the organisation's budget.

Gretchen Kalonji, from the Office of the President at the University of California, has developed strong links with Asian research departments and has a commitment to promoting science in Africa, according to diplomats in Paris.

The UNESCO director-general Irina Bokova, who took up her post in November last year (see Bulgarian defeats favourite in UNESCO election), announced her new eight-person assistant team this week (14 April).   

Paris-based diplomats told SciDev.Net that Kalonji had strong backing from the US State Department which was seeking a high-level UNESCO position for an American, after the deputy director-general post went to an Ethiopian — Getachew Engida — UNESCO's current comptroller.

But diplomats and many UNESCO staff have expressed surprise at what they see as a low-key appointment. A number of stronger and higher-profile US candidates had been suggested for the post, they said.

Kalonji joined the University of California in 2005 where she is director of international strategy development.

Before moving to California, Kalonji was a professor of materials science at the University of Washington, Seattle, which she joined after leaving her assistant professorship at the Massachusetts Institute for Technology (MIT) where she successfully sued MIT for gender discrimination when she was refused tenure.

In the corridors of UNESCO's Paris headquarters, discussions focus not on Kalonji's suitability for the job but on her colourful past. 

Kalonji's partner, Denice Denton, formerly a Chancellor of the University of California, Santa Cruz, and now deceased, had previously been criticised by an employee union for helping Kalonji secure her current US$192,000 job. The job was awarded at a time when the university was raising student fees and cutting budgets. 

Kalonji's appointment is also seen as controversial because of her engineering background, when UNESCO's science division focuses on hydrology, geology, oceanography, biodiversity, and more recently climate.  

But other diplomats in Paris have pointed out that the real role of this post is to enhance science diplomacy and capacity building, particularly in Africa — Kalonji has clear strengths in these fields such as fluency in the East African language Kiswahili and experience in establishing successful links with universities in Tanzania.

While at the University of California she also led a large expansion in university ties across China, India and the Pacific. In recognition of these efforts, in 2006, she was appointed a distinguished honorary professor at Sichuan University, Chengdu, and a visiting professor at Beijing's Qinghua University.

"Gretchen Kalonji seems to be just what UNESCO needs — a good scientist and a skilled scientific administrator with a wealth of international experience," said John Daly, vice-president of Americans for UNESCO. "She has for years led the creation of an international strategy for the University of California system — experience which should pay off for UNESCO's Natural Science programme."