Bridging the “two worlds” of science

Gevers, photo by ASSAf
Gevers, photo by ASSAf

This morning, Wieland Gevers from the Academy of Science of South Africa painted a picture of the “two worlds” he has worked in as a biomedical scientist.

Gevers is one of three TWAS members to receive a “TWAS medal” in 2009. This is an accolade given to a selected few members each year in recognition of the research they have done in their field.

In the 1960s, Gevers got a Rhodes scholarship to study for a PhD in Oxford. Although the science he did there feels ancient by today’s standards, he says it was a privilege to be able to spend time at the very forefront of research and, as he puts it, “absorb the principle of doing science”.

When he returned to South Africa in the 1970s, by contrast, he was faced with the task of doing something with very little. Along with his research chair went only one assistant and two small pieces of scientific equipment.

This is a common problem across the developing world today, and one of the main reasons many emigrated scientists do not want to return. If they do, many—like Gevers in the 1970s—face the task of building up the institutions necessary to enable good science at the same time as pursuing their research.

Gevers’ picture of South Africa in the 70s may be at odds with the image the country enjoys today as the brightest jewel in Africa’s scientific crown. But the excellence the country has achieved over the past 40 years should encourage scientists in countries that currently struggle with their scientific capacity to feel hopeful about their own future.

Linda Nordling, SciDev.Net

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