The last dance and parting shots

October 23, 2009

The 11th TWAS general conference came to an end today with Jacob Palis, the president of the organisation, extending a greeting from another Jacob; Zuma, the president of South Africa.

Meeting Palis and his colleagues in Cape Town yesterday, Zuma promised that if TWAS was to organise another conference in his country he would attend in person. Oh well…

It has not just been hard work. Last night, TWAS members and staff were dancing on tables in a casino where the final party of the week took place. Unfortunately, your correspondent did not attend with her camera, otherwise this post may have had more interesting images to go with it.

The conference signalled a deepening collaboration between TWAS and South Africa, which is going to set up a regional chapter of the organisation.

It may also mark the end of an era. Mohammed Hassan, TWAS executive director, is expected to retire at some point. This could be his last general conference. But then again, it might not…

Even if Hassan retires, he is unlikely to sever his ties completely with the organisation, according to sources in TWAS. Like a certain Russian president-cum-prime minister, he is likely to stay involved for some time to come. Which, in this case, isn’t a bad thing!

Linda Nordling, SciDev.Net

Good news from Cameroon

October 22, 2009

University scientists in Cameroon have had their pay cheques increased by over 40% over two years. I was told this by the vice-chancellor of the University of Buea, Vincent Titanji, during lunch today.

Amid the gloom of the tales coming out of African universities about how they are facing uncertainty as a result of the financial crisis, this comes as a ray of sunshine.

Apparently, the government of Cameroon has decided to spend part of the money it “received” as a result of two major debt write-offs on health, engineering and teacher education. How very wise!

Titanji’s university is also getting a whole new faculty for health sciences with two specialised laboratories.

The payrise has stabilised the university sector, says Titanji. People are happy in their jobs now, and the institutions work harmoniously.

It is too early to evaluate the impact of the programme. But it is reminder that there are many possible sources for funding for S&T if a government is serious about supporting it.

In other news, Mohammed Hassan, executive director of TWAS, has been away from the conference today. For a good reason, we are assured. He has supposedly been to see South Africa’s president Jacob Zuma who has been awarded TWAS presidential medal.

We hope he will take a photo

Linda Nordling, SciDev.Net

School Children in Cameroon

School Children in Cameroon. Photo credit: Flickr / emeryjl

But is it good enough?

October 22, 2009

This morning we heard from some of the more recent success stories in science and technology. Atta ur Rahman, the former science advisor to Pakistan’s prime minister, described how targeted policies had managed to increase the country’s citations in international journals by 1000% in the last four years.

He emphasised the importance of nurturing excellence, saying that too often, developing country universities lack the creative “soul” of science embodied by the “beautiful” minds that work in places like Oxford or MIT.

Excellence had been top of the list when drawing up Pakistan’s S&T policies, he said. Paying high salaries for mediocre scientists would not give the desired results. So efforts focused on identifying the brightest students used independent auditors to ensure they got the scholarships rather than the merely well-connected.

Quality has been a buzzword at this conference. This indicates a growing maturity in the debate. But not all developing country governments seem to have caught up on this. One South African delegate I spoke to after Rahman’s lecture told me his government would never place such emphasis on top of the line science and technology.

South Africa’s science minister Naledi Pandor would disagree. She is actively promoting excellence, she says. But some academics fear that a more left-leaning government in South Africa will regard elite universities and research as a bourgeois luxury. The country’s mid-term budgets next week may show which way the wind is blowing…

Linda Nordling, SciDev.Net

The University of Oxford - really excellent

The University of Oxford - really excellent. Image credit: Flickr / Missy and the Universe

How’s your IBSA?

October 21, 2009


Last post of today I think…

This conference has been dominated by voices from a small number of countries. As they are the host, it is not strange that South Africa has taken a prominent role. But many talks have also come from India and Brazil.

In a way, it’s not surprising. There are more scientists in South Africa and India than in, say, Mali. But it is putting a slightly weird spin on things.

For example, we are not hearing enough from the poorest of the poor—except in the third person when delegates from the countries above talk about wanting to boost South-South cooperation.

And that they do, constantly, which is really encouraging. The financial crisis has opened up avenues for them to rally and try to plug the gaps left by the worse affected developed countries, who foot much of the bill for science and technology support for the poorest countries.

The governments of the ‘big three’ are also pushing strongly for collaboration with each other. The IBSA (India, Brazil, South Africa) partnership is still evolving, but speaking to South Africa’s science minister it seems like it is going well. Each party has put $1 million into a central pot for 2009/10.

Perhaps one of the outcomes of this conference should be some sort of gentlemen’s agreement between the better off developing countries and those who are really struggling for closer cooperation, perhaps plugging some of the gaps left open by Western donors cutting funding due to the financial crisis?

Linda Nordling, SciDev.Net

… or is it?

October 21, 2009

Just a note to point out an inconsistency I have encountered with regards to the last post. Speaking to one of Ezin’s officials after his talk, I was assured that the AU department for science, technology and human resources has quite enough money to carry out their duties, thank you very much!

Still, I queried two of my journalistic colleagues down here, and they confirmed that what I had heard Ezin say during his talk was what they too had heard.

(After Ezin’s talk I spoke to him about what projects were ‘less of a priority’ than the Pan African University and he mentioned teacher training as an example. Which points to there being a problem with funding…)

Linda Nordling, SciDev.Net

African Union is strapped for cash

October 21, 2009

The African Union Commission department for science, technology and human resources has run out of money.

This is essentially what Jean-Pierre Ezin, commissioner in the department, told this afternoon’s symposium on the impact the financial crisis has had on research.

The commission depends on three sources of funding—Africa’s 53 states, philanthropists and rich countries’ aid agencies—and all of them have been hard hit by the crisis, he said.

As a result, the department has not been able to raise all the funding needed to fulfil its planned activities for 2009.

Ezin did not mention what projects will fall by the wayside. The priorities for funding is clearer. Apparently, the commission president has asked all departments to draw up a prioritised list of activities for 2010. For Ezin’s department, this will be the Pan African University. Another is the department’s research grants programme.

Out of the speakers, Ezin by far voiced the most concern about the crisis and its effects. Science ministers from South Africa, India and Brazil all said there would be no major cuts for science.

Naledi Pandor addressing the symposium

Naledi Pandor addressing the symposium

South Africa’s science minister Naledi Pandor said her ministry will ‘cut the frills’. That will mean less dinners and conferences in 5* hotels, but researchers themselves will not suffer, she said.

South Africa’s midterm budget is due next week, so we will see how much truth there is to this.

But we still have to hear from the poorest countries how the crisis is affecting them. They should be sensitive to the same pressures as the AU commission, so their picture is probably not as rosy as that of the middle-income countries. Where were they at the TWAS symposium??

Linda Nordling, SciDev.Net

Bridging the “two worlds” of science

October 21, 2009
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

Who are the unsung heroes of developing country science?

October 20, 2009

A fascinating lecture by a South African astronomer provided food for thought this afternoon.

David Block from the University of the Witwatersrand made an impassioned and convincing argument that Edwin Hubble, the legendary astronomer, stole many of his iconic ideas from less famous colleagues.

Block’s research is published in Shrouds of the Night, a book about dark matter he co-authored with Ken Freeman last year.

For example, he says that the Hubble “tuning fork”—a way of classifying galaxies that was supposedly published by Hubble in 1926—was in fact invented in 1929 by a Sir James Jeans. Hubble, Block says, only used the tuning fork in a 1936 paper, without giving Jeans any credit.

According to Block, Hubble also stole another galaxy classification system and the “Hubble” luminosity profile—a way of modelling the light intensity emitted by a galaxy—from a mysterious “Mr Reynolds” who penned an article on it years before Hubble mentions it in his work.

Block believes this to be a J H Reynolds, an amateur astronomer living at the same time. Incidentally, his telescope eventually found its way to Egypt where it for a long while was the most powerful telescope to study the southern skies.

Figures like Reynolds and Jeans are the unsung heroes of science, Block said. Without a doubt, it should be the Jeans tuning fork, the Reynolds luminosity profile and the Reynolds galaxy classification system.

Why Reynolds or Jeans never spoke up about the blatant plagiarism of their ideas is a mystery. Reynolds and Hubble corresponded, and Block has unearthed strong evidence that Hubble borrowed ideas from Reynolds in old letters.

This begs another important question: Scientific collaborations between Northern and Southern scientists are not always equal. How many unsung scientific heroes from the developing world had their ideas nabbed by people who had the power and networks to claim them as their own?

Linda Nordling, SciDev.Net

Olympics, economics and Barack Obama

October 20, 2009

Much has changed in the fortunes of developing countries since last year’s TWAS meeting, the organisation’s president Jacob Palis said at the inaugural session before lunch today.

The financial crisis may have almost brought the world economy to a standstill—but it was the economic resilience of the developing country’s biggest economies that kept it going, he said.

Next year’s football World Cup in South Africa, a black man in the White House and Brazil winning the 2016 Olympics are all signs that the tide has turned for developing countries, he added.

Palis’ point was that one of the drivers of this change in developing countries’ fortunes is investments in science and technology.

But the progress has been uneven, and now it is up to the emerging economies—China, India, South Africa—to step up to the plate and share their successes with their neighbours, he concluded.

During the conference, South Africa and Brazil will meet for bilateral talks on how to boost science cooperation. There will be plenty of best practice examples for how to boost such links further.

But so far, the main voices in Durban have come from the powerful emerging economies, or from the developed world. Hopefully we will also be hearing from those who are a bit further from achieving a “knowledge revolution”.

The least developed countries will have access to help, but they also need to help themselves said South African science minister Naledi Pandor.

She voiced concern that four years after Africa adopted a common science plan, many countries either don’t have science ministries, or have not outlined a role for S&T in their national development plans.

In “recession watch” news, the German ambassador to South Africa said developed countries will not cut funding for developing country science.

Tell that to the Swedish development agency SIDA which may cut its research cooperation budget by 20% in 2010!

Linda Nordling, SciDev.Net

Record number of women elected to TWAS

October 20, 2009

TWAS – an overwhelmingly grey and male affair – is trying to get more female and young scientists involved in their activities. This was the main message from the general meeting of TWAS members this morning preceding the official opening ceremony of the conference.

The organisation is preparing a strategic plan, to come into force next year. Women, youth and having a more direct impact on policy are some of the important issues to be highlighted in the plan.

To the organisation’s credit, a record number of female scientists were elected to TWAS in 2009. But the women – eight this year – still only make up a small part of the 50 new members announced this year. Of all the members of TWAS, only 7-8 per cent are women.

The meeting also heard that there will be more activities involving young scientists at next year’s TWAS conference in Hyderabad, India.

All this sounds good. But some members complained that there was not enough emphasis on basic, and in particular experimental, science in the new TWAS strategy.

Linda Nordling, SciDev.Net

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