TWAS comes to India

October 14, 2010

Welcome to the blog from the 21st General Meeting of the Academy of Sciences for the Developing World (TWAS), in Hyderabad, India.

So is this yet another developing countries’ meeting on their science struggles? Not exactly. The mood is upbeat, as several developing countries that have witnessed enormous changes in science since TWAS held its first meeting in Trieste in 1985 can testify.

Take Hyderabad, for example. A somewhat sedate city when TWAS was founded over two decades ago, Hyderabad today is host to cutting-edge biology institutes such as the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology and Centre for DNA Fingerprinting and Diagnostics; and a global biotechnology and information technology hub. Brazil, China, Rwanda and South Africa have similar success stories to tell.

TWAS meetings are changing too.

Their initial major goals were to provide a forum where scientists from the developing world could discuss critical issues of common concern and showcase their science, and to create a bridge between scientists and science policymakers.


TWAS's 1st international conference on 'South-South and South-North Cooperation in Sciences' (5-10 July 1985)


The second TWAS meeting was held in Beijing, with 150 participants from 50 countries. The Beijing meeting featured in Nature as one of a handful of scientific meetings in the second half of the 20th century that had a significant impact on scientific discourse.

TWAS 2010 will have 350 participants from 54 countries. The emphasis is shifting to strengthening the research–policy interface, expanding South-South collaboration and on the work of young scientists. There is growing concern, too, that discussions need to focus more on countries and scientists that have yet to fully participate in the growing scientific capabilities of developing countries.

India’s prime minister Manmohan Singh will open the meeting, followed by an Africa–India ministerial round table. Other key developing countries’ concerns on the agenda include tuberculosis, typhoid vaccine and zinc deficiency. And there is other exciting science stuff — I personally like the sound of munching black holes (yummy!) and growing galaxies.

SciDev.Net blog will be updating you daily,  so please watch this space.

T V Padma, South Asia Regional Coordinator, SciDev.Net

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

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

Scientoons anyone?

July 23, 2008

This is a scientoon –  a cartoon on science and technology that helps you look at science with a dose of humour.

ESOF 2008 devoted an entire session on scientoons that have emerged as an innovative way to spread science messages. For a non-scientist who may just have a passing interest in a specific scientific topic, scientoons are a way to grab their attention and put a piece of information across quickly.

The ESOF session on “Scientoonics : a novel way to learn science having fun”  was put together by a group of ardent ‘scientoonists’ from India: Manoj Patairiya from the National Council of Science and Technology Communication (NCSTC) in Delhi; Pradeep Srivastava from the Central Drug Research Institute in Lucknow; and Abhay Kothari, a designer in Ahmedabad.

For ‘scientoonists’, their art is not only about making a caricature that draws a smile but also provides information about new research, subject, data or concept in a jiffy.

So a scientoon is slightly different in its structure from a cartoon. A cartoon has two elements: a caricature and a satire at the bottom or in the form of a balloon. A scientoon has an additional third element: a box that contains the science information that needs to be communicated.

And the scientoon need not be confined to a print magazine or daily.  Or for that matter a research journal or a popular science magazine.

India’s NCSTC has produced radio skits on science or ‘radio scientoons’, puppet shows on science or ‘puppet scientoons’ and ‘multimedia scientoon’ on the internet and video.

It is now trying to develop theme-based scientoon strips, films, books to suit a variety of audiences, including persons with special needs, such as ‘Braille scientoon’ for the visually challenged.

So just let your imagination flow and begin your scientoon.

Dr. Manoj Patairiya is a science writer based in New Delhi.

India debates, but IAEA cool

July 21, 2008

It turns out that while the Indian government has tied itself into knots explaining the Indo-US nuclear deal to Indian political parties, and is seeking a vote of confidence in the Parliament right now, at least some International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) officials seem to be a little more relaxed.

“I have not yet read the document,” commented Diane Fischer, senior safeguards analyst at IAEA, after a presentation on Monday (July 21) at the Euroscience Open Forum on how the agency tracks nuclear smugglers. A bit surprising given that entire rules are being re-written in the deal, and one would have expected at least some passing academic interest from IAEA officials in the matter.

Fisher was asked by Indian journalists about whether certain IAEA conditions on broader access to nuclear facilities apply to India-specific safeguards in the nuclear deal signed between the two countries in March 2006.

Since then, and even weeks before the signing, there has been much debate in the country about India-specific clauses in the deal, which basically allow India, which has not signed the nuclear non-proliferation treaty to buy nuclear fuel from the US for its civilian reactors. This would normally have not been permissible under the US Hyde Act.

After many a hand-wringing among strategic and nuclear science analysts over the India-specific clauses and umpteen changes in the text, officials from India’s Department of Atomic Energy went to IAEA headquarters in Vienna last week to seek approval of the deal. The board of governors at IAEA will meet on August 1 to decide on the issue.

Back home, the coalition government in India tottered, with the Communist parties withdrawing support to the coalition government.

At the time of writing the blog, the result of the Indian parliamentary debate and vote of confidence is yet to be out. And looks like not all IAEA safeguard officials are aware of what the document holds.

T V Padma, South Asia Coordinator, SciDev.Net

Data ‘tsunami’ from the world’s largest atom smasher

July 21, 2008

European scientists are gearing themselves up for what they describe as a ‘data tsunami’ from the world’s largest atom-smashing project, which researchers hope will unlock some of the biggest unsolved puzzles about the universe.

Results from the European Organisation for Nuclear Research (CERN’s) Large Hadron Collider (LHC) project, the world’s biggest scientific collaboration in particle physics, are expected to roll out this year to provide insights into some fundamental unsolved problems such as the origin, evolution and composition of the universe

Indian physicists are excited too – they have contributed hardware, software and skilled manpower to evaluate some of the sub-systems in the project. The Centre for Advanced Technology (CAT) at Indore in central India, under the Department of Atomic Energy, is India’s nodal agency for the LHC project that marks a sound record of collaboration between CERN and India.

The results are poised to change our views of the universe in a profound way, says Tejinder Virdee, professor of physics at the Imperial College, London. Virdee gave a keynote lecture at the ESOF meeting in Barcelona on Friday (18 July).

The LHC, located at the Franco-Swiss border, is the most powerful particle accelerator in the world. It has two giant superconducting magnets, 27 kilometres in girth and cooled to two degrees above absolute zero of temperature.

Two beams of protons – positively charged ions – will circulate in these rings for several hours, smashing into each other head-on, at an energy level of 14 Tera-electron volts, higher by a factor of seven compared to current levels.

Four large detectors will record the debris from the collisions. The collisions are expected to recreate matter as it was billionths of seconds after the Big Bang.

A huge avalanche of data is expected, ESOF delegates were told. The gigantic task ahead for physicists will begin with tracking, finding and identifying the particles.

Scientists will next reconstruct the data and use computer simulations for analysis of the complex information.

Computer simulations of the huge volume of data and the high collision rates means a massive computing capacity. The task is no longer being done solely by CERN, with scientists realizing the importance of collaboration at such times. Instead, it is being distributed to 11 computing centers round the world.

Scientists are not taking any chances either. A second copy of the raw data and massive data reconstruction sets will be stored in Spain.

The second tier of copy data means an additional 120 computing centres in 35 countries.

Little wonder then the expected massive data is being compared to an avalanche and, much worse, a tsunami.

T V Padma, South Asian coordinator, SciDev.Net

Europe keen to project its science in China, India

July 21, 2008

For the first time, a group of Asian science, health and environment journalists, mainly from China, India and Japan, are covering the Euroscience Open Forum (ESOF) in Barcelona,  thanks to fellowships by Germany’s Robert Bosch Stiftung Foundation.

This marks an attempt by the Bosch Foundation to expand the science journalist exchange programme to countries beyond Europe.  For the first ESOF event in Stockholm in 2004, the foundation provided fellowships to German journalists to cover the event, as well as the American Association for Advancement of Science (AAAS) meeting in 2005.

For the second ESOF conference in Munich in 2006, the foundation added a bilateral touch to the programme, offering reverse fellowships to ten US and three Canadian journalists to cover the event.

This year, the geographical outreach for the fellowships has expanded to Asia, with eight from China, nine from India, four from Japan journalists. They join 20 colleagues from Germany and ten from India.

Rainer Hoell, science programme officer from Robert Foundation, says they are open to the idea of expanding the fellowship programme to Africa and other regions.  May the tribe increase!!

Journalist exchange apart, Europe is increasingly, recognising the emergence of China and India as major science and technology competitors and the importance of projecting its scientific achievements and scope for collaboration in these countries, says James Cornell, president of the International Science Writers Association.

The continent is somewhat concerned that the US has stolen a lead over it in science and technology collaborations in India and China, and is now keen to make up for it.

T V Padma, South Asia coordinator, SciDev.Net

Science and terrorism

July 19, 2008

Scientists lost in their labs and the terrorists plotting their next attack are no longer two unlinked communities, says Sir Richard Mottram, former permanent secretary for intelligence, security and resilience with the UK government.

Science can both contribute to and help counter the global threat of terrorism, he told delegates at the European Science Open Forum (ESOF) 2008 on Saturday  (19 July).

From November 2005 to November 2007, he dealt with, among others, a foot and mouth outbreak for which the UK government had extensive contingency plans. This outbreak was linked to a failure in biosecurity at either a government laboratory or a related commercial facility.

He also dealt with the murder of a former Russian spy in the UK, Alexander Litvinenko, by poisoning with polonium-210, in 2007.

Sir Richard says weakly regulated scientific activity and dissemination of scientific knowledge could increase the risk of terrorist threats. Notions of scientific freedom and openness need to be “tempered” and effective regulatory mechanisms developed to counter the threat.

Similarly,  scientific and technological solutions can help counter terrorism, such as using sensors and biometrics for scanning a person; information handling and communication tools; improving infrastructure to counter terrorism; and undertaking psychology and behaviour studies to understand what drives terrorists’ minds. But these could be misused by terrorist groups too, he cautioned.

Science and technology need to be at the heart of policy responses to counter the general threat terrorism and the specific threat of proliferation of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction, Sir Richard suggests.

One clear lesson to be drawn from US attempts to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq is the importance of ensuring that intelligence analysis and assessment draw on expert scientific advice, he says.

An important policy conclusion from the Iraq experience is the need to maintain deep scientific expertise within the intelligence community.

In the UK and many other countries, he says, it has been difficult to develop a government-wide science and technology strategy to counter terrorism as these policies are formed by internal security or home ministries that are not science-based.

In these ministries, more compelling or immediate problems could garner more financial resources than science programmes.

Developing science and technology strategies are also hindered by uncertainties over the exact magnitude of threat and the kind of response needed to counter it.

He warns that European governments do not take the potential threat of terrorism, including misuse of nuclear technology by terrorists seriously.

The picture gets more complex in the case of some developing countries such as India, which has a growing economy, is an emerging a world leader in information systems, and has faced terrorist attacks, Sir Richard told SciDev.Net.

“How to control dissemination of scientific information through the cyberspace and its misuse is important,” he says.

T V Padma, South Asia coordinator, SciDev.Net

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