By: Dr. Athar Osama
Muslim-Science.Com talked with Dr. Mohammed H. A. Hassan, the outgoing Executive Director of The Academy of Sciences of the Developing World (TWAS). While Dr. Hassan hopes to continue to remain engaged with TWAS, his retirement is an end of an era for the institution created more than 25 years ago. Remembering those days, Dr. Hassan recalls his first encounter with Dr. Abdus Salam – one of the most prolific and inspirational scientist ever to have been produced by the Developing World – who had a formative influence on TWAS. As Hassan became a regular visitor at Salam’s International Center for Theoretical Physics (ICTP) in Trieste in Italy, he had an opportunity to work closer with Salam.
Hassan’s “call to duty” came from Salam in 1983 when the latter wrote to him to come to Trieste to engage in the creation of The Third World Academy of Sciences (TWAS). He spent a couple of months researching how academies worked and writing a charter for this new one. Before leaving back for his home country Sudan, Hassan sent – on Salam’s behalf – as many as fifty letters to world leaders to fund the operations of this new organization. None of those bore any fruits. In 1985, Salam called Hassan again, this time for a “longer period” of time, as he had found $1.5 million of funding from Italian government to fund his new academy. TWAS was inaugurated later that year by Javier Pérez de Cuéllar – the then Secretary General of the United Nations. Soon, the Academy became the focus of Hassan’s energies.
Muslim-Science.Com’s conversation with Dr. Hassan focused on his experiences of leading TWAS, the recent successes and accomplishments of the Academy, his views on the future direction of the organization and his association with Dr. Abdus Salam. This interview is being produced below for the benefit of Muslim-Science.Com’s audience.
Muslim Science (MS): Please tell us how you got involved with the Academy of Sciences for the Developing World in the first place?
Mohammed H. A. Hassan (MAH): The story is very interesting and worth telling. I graduated from Oxford in 1974 with a D Phil in Mathematics – actually the theoretical physics of nuclear fusion. I returned back to Sudan and joined the mathematics department at the University of Khartoum. However, as I returned home, I quickly grew quite frustrated. There were no books or journals that were accessible to me. As I grew more frustrated, my father – was a business man – asked me to do a chore for him. He wanted to set up a soap factory in Sudan and wanted me to go to Milan (Italy) to look at some machinery he wanted to buy. As I planned for my trip, some of my friends who worked at the University asked me to visit the International Centre for Theoretical Physics (ICTP) in the nearby Trieste.
On my way to Milan, I stopped over at Trieste. It was around 6pm when I arrived at ICTP. The institution had closed but there was light in one of the rooms. I walked straight into the room and found myself face to face with Dr. Abdus Salam who was the founding Executive Director of ICTP. As I realised my mistake, I tried to excuse myself. However, Dr. Abdus Salam was kind enough to welcome me into his office. He asked me my purpose of visiting and I told him about the reason for my travel to Italy and that I had grown very frustrated without much camaraderie in Sudan and no access to books and journals. Dr. Salam was very interested said that he would like to offer two options to me. First, I should try to change my field of research from plasma physics to high energy physics and joint a group of Sudanese professors who were very active in that area. That way I will be better connected with the rest of the world. He thought this transition should be very easy for me. Second, he said, if I couldn’t’ do that then I should write to him and he would look into how he could look into how I could visit Trieste more regularly. In the morning we met again, and I told him that it would be difficult for me to change my field of work because I loved plasma physics. Dr. Salam smiled at my suggestion and said that he thought I would make that decision. He promised to arrange for me to visit Trieste as an exchange scholar and that began a long association with Trieste.
MS: So you became one of those more than 140,000 scientists from developing countries who have visited ICTP at Trieste. How did that lead to TWAS?
MAH: Well, in 3 months time I was back at ICTP as an exchange scholar for 2 months. I became a somewhat regular visitor to ICTP after that. I would spend a month or two once every other year at ICTP in the company of other scientists from developing countries as well as leading scholars of the field to recharge my batteries and go back to work in Khartoum – just as Dr. Salam had predicted. I also had a chance to work closely with Dr. Salam and to get to him better. In 1983, I got a letter for him asking me to come for six months. I showed that letter to my university administrators who – because of Dr. Salam’s influence and good relations with them – gave me the permission to go to Trieste. When I arrived here, Dr. Salam told me that he wanted to set up an Academy of Sciences for the Third World and wanted me to draw up the structure and regulations of this institution. I knew nothing about Academies of Sciences so embarked upon learning about them. In six months, we developed the structure and regulations of new body and TWAS was born. Dr. Salam wrote a letter for 50 of the world’s leaders to get funding for it. We received no funding at all as a result of this. I went back to Khartoum. In 1985, I again got a letter from Dr. Salam asking me to come for a year this time. Again, my university granted me the permission to go. When I arrived at Trieste, Dr. Salam told me that he had arranged $1.5 million in funding from the Italian government for the TWAS and we were ready to do some serious work. In 1985, TWAS hosted a major conference on North – South Cooperation. The UN Secretary General came to inaugurate the Academy.
MS: So, TWAS came into being as one of Dr. Salam’s lasting contributions to the world of science?
MAH: Yes, Dr Salam was a simply brilliant at this. He was politically very astute. As a Nobel Laureate, his stature was such that he could call upon Heads of States when he visited a country. But the respect and love that he commanded from the scientific communities across the developing world was unquestionable. They saw in him a champion of their cause and gave him that status and he delivered in return. His most fruitful partnership was with Giulio Andreotti who was Italy’s Foreign Minister at the time of TWAS’ creation. These two gentlemen went along very well, understood each other, and did remarkable things together. It was through him that Dr. Salam arranged the $1.5 million for TWAS. In fact, there is a very interesting story here that could tell you about the nature of their relationship and Dr. Salam’s political acumen. When Andreotti heard that UN Secretary General was coming to inaugurate TWAS, he called Dr. Salam and asked if the Secretary General could visit Rome for a little while that day. Dr. Salam told his benefactor that SG has a very hectic schedule and that a number of engagements have been organised for him. However, he promised to look into it and call back next morning. The next morning Salam called Andreotti back and said that although it was very difficult, TWAS’ Executive Committee has decided to make some changes to their programme to make some time available for the Secretary General to visit Rome. However, this could be done on one condition, namely, if Andreotti could double the gift he had promised to give to TWAS. Andreotti agreed and Dr. Salam got his $3 million to start TWAS.
MS: What was Dr. Salam’s vision for TWAS?
MAH: Dr. Salam fundamentally saw TWAS as an institution created to serve individuals – the fellows of the Academy. During my interactions with him in those early days, we used to talk about a global agenda for TWAS by influencing governments in the developing countries to better support science. But Dr. Salam did not agree with it. His focus was primarily to support the individual scientists and build their capacity. The most important programme that we developed at TWAS, therefore, was the competitive grants programme for scientists of developing countries. There are more than 100 Science Academies in the world today. There were very few in the developing world at that time. There was hardly any country in the developing world at that time that had a competitive research grant programme to support scientists. TWAS was the first one to introduce this idea in the developing world. It is through our efforts that many of the relatively better positioned developing countries of the world – such as China – have now created their own competitive grant programmes today.
Later we started a young researchers’ grant programme as well to support young PhDs take off in their research careers and better integrate in their home countries. In this particular instance, our young PhD programme has in fact been replicated by The Royal Society in the United Kingdom as well.
MS: What has TWAS become today? What would you describe as the most important accomplishments of TWAS over the last two-and-a-half decade?
MAH: TWAS has grown over the last two and a half decades in a number of different ways. Today, while the headquarter remains at Trieste, it has five regional centres around the world in Asia, China, Latin America, Africa, and the Middle East. The Academy has more than 1000 members worldwide. There are a number of exciting dimensions to what TWAS is doing and I will talk about three of them.
First, the regionalisation is a new experiment for us. These five regional centres have begun operations and it is our hope that they will become self-sustainable regional coordinators of TWAS’ programmes. Right now, these centres are particularly active in organising conferences, handling local and regional logistics for various exchange programmes, and identifying young and talented scientists from the region through an extremely competitive system. Over time, we hope that these regional centres will become the focal point for south – south cooperation at the regional level. So, if a scientist in Mexico wants to go and work in Brazil, he doesn’t have to come to TWAS HQ in Italy to make arrangements. The Latin America office will take care of it. Over time, we hope to push some of these functions to the regional level while maintaining programme design, inter-regional collaboration, and overall leadership at the Headquarters.
Second, we are doing a lot more work with young scientists now than we used to do and this is very exciting for the future. The average age of a TWAS Fellow is 67 today. Although we have recently made attempts to limit the age of admission to fellowship to 70 years, we have a feeling that we are losing the attention of young scientists within the developing world. We have started this new programme whereby we identify young scientists under the age of 40 across the developing world through a very competitive process. Once these individuals are identified, they are made Affiliates of TWAS and remain in that position for five years. Each year, 25 new affiliates are included so this makes 125 at a given point in time. These affiliates are invited to TWAS’ annual meetings and are provided room to present papers in separate sessions. The idea is to engage with these younger scientists at this early stage and strengthen their careers. Being a TWAS affiliate is often considered a badge of honour and a sign of future promise that also helps the careers of these scientists. Our hope is that this young talent will be drawn to the Academy’s work and will ultimately do great things and become Fellows one day.
Third, and equally important, is the gradual shift of our focus towards networks and groups. Starting from our support for the individual scientist, we have come to believe that networks create tremendous value in science and we could achieve critical mass by supporting these. Five years ago, we started a funding programme designed for groups and networks. We select research groups in scientifically lagging countries of the world – not all developing countries – and label them a TWAS Research Unit. They get $100K of research funding for 3 years to support the group. We have found that this has become a mechanism for signalling quality whereby these are able to access more funding from other sources as a result of our endorsement. We believe these groups – once strengthened – would hasten the creation of critical mass of researchers within the developing world. We fund 10 groups each year and currently have a portfolio of 60 groups from the poorest countries in Africa to Bangladesh and elsewhere. We also fund a number of re-entry fellowships to recent PhDs to go back to their countries and set up a laboratory. We hope that this initial support will help these fellows establish networks of their own. We are hoping to carry out an evaluation of the effectiveness of our investments in this new direction and hope that it will achieve what we have sought to achieve.
MS: So Dr. Salam’s initial focus on supporting individuals is metamorphosing into focus on supporting research units and groups. Should your analysis suggest that this works better, do you think countries will be next? TWAS hasn’t been able to do a lot on influencing policy – energizing scientists to become engaged with policy – the kind of things academies in the West such as National Academies of Sciences (NAS) or The Royal Society (RS) pride themselves in doing. Would you agree?
MAH: You are right. TWAS has not done as well as we would have liked when it comes to impacting policy at the national level, although many of our programmes have served as templates or role models for governments to support science in the respective countries. But channelling the intellectual energies of our members towards policy advocacy and impact is something we’re still struggling with and trying to build. This is a major challenge for us in the coming years. One of the problems is there aren’t many scientists either exposed to or trained in policy sciences among the developing countries and there are even fewer established science policy institutions in the developing world. Policy as a discipline is quite weak in the developing world and that is something, I believe, the Academy should try to support.
MS: We will come back to the theme of policy in a bit, but I want to get your thoughts on another even more fundamental challenge that I believe TWAS must respond to. That is the idea of South – South Research Collaboration. Much of the South – South Collaboration today is in the area of fellowships and scholarships between more advanced and less developed Southern countries. The idea of real and meaningful collaboration such as joint research has not really picked up. How would you consider TWAS’ success in promoting that?
MAH: You’ve raised a very important observation. We have done fairly well in terms of getting developed countries to collaborate with each other through exchange fellowships. Some of the larger developing countries – such as India, China, Brazil, Mexico, and Pakistan – now offer between 150-200 fellowships per year through TWAS to other least developing countries. This is one of the biggest South – South Cooperation initiatives there is and it is our hope that it will become even bigger. However, with regards to actual joint projects and research there is much less, although there is some happening in this realm as well. China, for instance, through its Africa Initiative, is collaborating with a number of African Countries and there are smaller multilateral groupings such as IBSA (India-Brazil-South Africa). Many of these initiatives, however, have quite limited nationalistic agendas rather than a true multilateral spirit. We would like to do more in this realm.
MS: There does not seem to be a well-defined framework to do this either. For example, there was expectation that there will always be certain problems that are basically the domain of the South (like Malaria or other social issues) in which North has no interest to pursue research and hence developing countries could work together to solve these. Does that characterisation still hold as a basis of a framework for cooperation? How could TWAS respond to this in the coming years?
MAH: There is perhaps a lack of well-defined framework for South – South Research Cooperation failing which countries find it difficult to understand value in doing so. There has also been a lack of appropriate forums – and thinking – going into developing such a compelling framework. There was a time when Third World Network of Scientific Organisations (TWNSO) comprising Science Ministers and Science Academies existed where we there would be informal dialogue between policy-makers in science and technology and such ideas could develop. TWNSO – founded in 1988 – was a great success in that respect but it was co-opted in the 2006 by the United Nations’ G77 organisation and replaced by COSTIS. So far, UNESCO that manages COSTIS has not really been able to move COSTIS ahead with the kind of focus that is necessary and the organisation exists in Paris with a Secretariat and skeleton staff. This is probably to going to change soon as UNESCO is quite interested in giving this organisation its due. I think COSTIS could be the right forum to provide that kind of thought leadership to advance the South – South Research Collaboration Agenda forward. The value of COSTIS, however, will only be fully realised if it remains an “informal” forum that could enable leaders to leave their governments’ official positions outside and come together to generate real brainstorming and dialogue on these important issues
MS: Let’s get back to the idea of the Academy’s role as influencer of policy. I believe that the greatest contributions of Dr. Abdus Salam – with all due credit to his tremendous scientific achievements – were in the realm of science policy rather than science per se. His crowning achievement was the creation of ICTP – the institution that has helped and energised the careers of tens of thousands of scientists like yourself – but also TWAS and others. In a way, that is the true legacy TWAS has of its founder to carry forward. Is TWAS creating – or going to create – scientists of the calibre and influence of Salam? Also, at an institutional level as well, Academies tend to have considerable influence on policy whether it is the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) in the United States or The Royal Society in the United Kingdom through continuous round-the-year meetings, committees, and reports. Is there a desire for TWAS to go in that direction and have an institutional level policy impact?
MAH: That’s a very good point and it is my desire for TWAS to move in that direction as it seeks to deepen its influence and impact. TWAS will be happy to support science policy fellowships as well. However, we need to first identify institutions in the developing world that could host these fellows. Here, I believe, we have a deficit in that there aren’t as many high quality institutions in the developing world focussing on science policy as there are in the developed world. We need to develop science policy as a discipline and the scientific community need to embrace it too. I see TWAS as having multiple roles in the future. First, to serve scientists and scientific community, as it has done in the past. And second, to provide advice and service to the government. We, in the developing countries, certainly need to develop internal capacity to develop policy and not let policy be imposed on us from the outside world.
Salam was a wonderfully visionary man. He was always innovative and had a passion for development. He was a great asset to the developing world and the Islamic World. He really had a passion and a vision for science in the Islamic World. Every time he talked about the developing world, Islamic World came first. Unfortunately, his contributions were not recognised and he wasn’t given an opportunity to make a difference to the latter. This was an enormous disappointment for him and a big loss for the Islamic World. People like him are born once in a century or even less. But look at the difference he made to the developing world…
MS: Perhaps TWAS could – in the future – also serve as an academy for training and sensitising scientists in the field of science policy by involving them in its own policy advice initiatives and hence prepare them for roles in science policy-making. I hope to see TWAS Science Policy Fellowships soon. Dr. Hassan, it has been a real pleasure talking to you and I, on behalf of Muslim-Science.Com and its readers, wish you all the best in your future endeavours with and beyond TWAS.
Dr. Athar Osama is a London based science and innovation policy consultant and the Director of Middle East and Asia for an international technology policy consulting firm. He is also a Visiting Fellow at Boston University’s Pardee Centre for Study of Longer Range Future and the founder of Muslim-Science.com.