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

TWAS 11th general conference, Durban

October 19, 2009

Welcome to the blog for the TWAS 11th general conference taking place in Durban, South Africa, this week!

I will be filing several reports each day on this blog, focusing on what is happening in the world of harnessing science and technology for development. You will hear from a lot of bigwigs, including South Africa’s relatively new science minister Naledi Pandor and the African Union’s science commissioner Jean-Pierre Ezin.

These are interesting times. It is a while now that ‘science for development’ has been on policymakers’ lips, and it is not presumptuous to expect to see some results.

But world finances are not what they used to be, and there is a real risk in many parts of the developing world — not least Africa — that science could lose out to other pressing funding priorities.

On Wednesday, I’ll report back from what will promises to be an extremely interesting symposium on the impact of the global financial crisis on research and education in developing countries. Some funders have already said they are cutting grants, but what are the reports from the coalface?

The tougher financial times we all face these days are likely to be a recurring theme throughout the conference. But the next few days also promise to be a showcase of how, with a little ingenuity and a lot of determination, limited resources can be made to go a long way.

So watch this space!

Linda Nordling, SciDev.Net

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