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Bai Chunli: We must recognize the potential of young people

Bai Chunli: We must recognize the potential of young people

Scientists have a responsibility to nurture a new generation of researchers, and that's a central part of the TWAS mission, says TWAS President Bai Chunli in his address at the 25th TWAS General Meeting in Oman

The following is the complete text for TWAS President Bai Chunli's address at the start of the 25th TWAS General Meeting in Oman:

Esteemed colleagues, dear friends, ladies and gentlemen – welcome to Muscat, in the Sultanate of Oman, and welcome to the start of the 25th TWAS General Meeting. It is an honour to share this morning with you, and I am very pleased to see all of you with us this year.

I want to give a special acknowledgement to some of our past and current leaders who are here with us today: the Academy's 3rd President, C.N.R. Rao of India. The immediate Past President, Jacob Palis of Brazil. Founding Executive Director and current Treasurer Mohamed H.A. Hassan of Sudan. Greetings also to our Vice Presidents and our Council members; Secretary General A.K. Sood and Executive Director Romain Murenzi. And I would like to offer a very special welcome, and sincere thanks, to two TWAS Fellows who work in Oman who have been instrumental in bringing this meeting together: Prof. Salma Al Kindy, and Prof. Ibrahim ElTayeb, both of Sultan Qaboos University. And special thanks also to Arab Region Vice President Fayzah M.A. Al-Kharafi, who has played an indispensible role in organizing this meeting.

Earlier this month, our colleagues at the International Centre for Theoretical Physics in Trieste celebrated their 50th anniversary. They had much to celebrate – ICTP has accomplished so much good since its founding, and their future prospects are very strong. But something else was striking about this celebration: There were many high-level speakers, and they repeatedly expressed respect for TWAS. For the work that we have done, and our role in future challenges. These generous words came from Irina Bokova, the director general of UNESCO. From high-level leaders in the Italian Foreign Ministry. From a senior member of Jordan's royal family. From Nobel laureates.

Of course one is happy to hear such kind words. But for me, this is a signal of our great responsibility. The compliments have been earned by 31 years of innovation, starting with TWAS Founder Abdus Salam...31 years of hard work... 31 years of excellence... Every day, we must continue to live up to this standard of excellence, and to earn the world's respect. Every day, we must seek to build on the work of the leaders, Fellows and staff members who came before us.

In the classic literature of China, one of the highest social values is to show respect to elders. Around the world, many people know that about Chinese culture. But it is also an important value to recognize the potential of young people, and to educate them. The Analects quote Confucius on this topic: “A youth is to be regarded with respect. How do we know that his future will not be equal to our present?" 

Certainly many other cultures hold similar values. The Arab world, I know, has a similar view: You honour the experience and wisdom of elders. And you respect the promise and potential of youth.

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It seems to me that, in our time, similar values apply to the world's scientific enterprise. Certainly it is true for a global science academy like TWAS. Abdus Salam holds a position of the highest respect among our members. We have over eleven hundred elected Fellows, and we will elect more here today. They are typically elite senior scientists, with long careers and great impressive achievements. We regularly call upon their experience and insight to guide us.

Our relationship to young scientists is equally important. As a central part of our mission, we recognize our responsibility to nurture a new generation. Our support takes many forms, but we should recognize that young scientists want substantive opportunities to apply their creativity, their idealism – and their considerable skill – to address important challenges. This can help to advance scientific knowledge, and it can contribute to the well-being of communities everywhere.

TWAS's fellowship programmes clearly focused on supporting a new generation of scientists. The TWAS Young Affiliates programme is the highest symbol of our desire to encourage young researchers. Currently we have 120 Young Affiliates from our five regions – scientists who already achieved distinction. But there is a sense that they are eager to make a greater contribution to science, and to TWAS. For that reason, we hope to advance at this meeting a significant new programme.

With support from Lenovo, the world's largest personal computer company, we want to establish a network for the Young Affiliates that would serve as a platform allowing them to collaborate with each other, and to build networks with other young scientists both in the South and the North.

In his 1979 Nobel Prize lecture, Salam offered a simple insight that has come to define his legacy: “Scientific thought is the common heritage of mankind”.

While it may be a common heritage, scientific capacity is distributed very unevenly in our world – even among the developing nations. Therefore, if we want to nurture a new generation of scientists and engineers, we must reach further and search more diligently to find scientific excellence.

Last year, I talked to you about two crucial goals for the Academy: To increase membership in countries where we have few or no members, and to increase the number of women among our members. I am pleased to report that we have pursued these goals with good energy – and with positive initial results.

This year we have a total of 178 candidates nominated for election into TWAS membership. Of these candidates, 33 are women. 67 are nationals of 36 countries that have five or fewer members of TWAS. Among these countries are Algeria, Guatemala, Kyrgyzstan, Myanmar, Oman and its neighbour, Yemen, and Tanzania.

We will make the final selections later today. Though we don't know how the vote will turn out, I believe these numbers represent progress. Much work has gone into finding these candidates, and this is the scale of effort that we need every year.

It is worth noting, also, that TWAS communication efforts are very important to these goals. I hope that our communication capacity continues to build so that TWAS can convey its work and its opportunities consistently to a growing worldwide audience. 

At TWAS, we have the highest ambition: To build a new generation of scientists, and to make our positive impact truly global. But despite all of our talent and experience, we cannot achieve these goals by ourselves.

If you take a look around this beautiful conference center, you will see that our colleagues from Oman have invested a great amount of energy and resources in this meeting. They are committed to science, and they have shown a very generous commitment to our Academy. In years to come, we expect this relationship will grow and prosper.

We know well, of course, the importance of our friends. From the Academy's earliest days, the Government of Italy has provided core funding for our programmes. ICTP, too, has been an essential partner from start. UNESCO has brought vast experience to help guide us and a solid administrative framework to support us.

Today, new partners are emerging. Lenovo is providing highly valuable support by sponsoring the TWAS-Lenovo Science Prize and by pledging support for our Young Affiliates. We have built a new relationship this year with the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development. This is an intergovernmental centre serving countries in the Himalaya-Hindu Kush region. Leaders of the organization have pledged valuable support to the CAS-TWAS President's PhD Fellowship Programme. 

At the same time, many long-time partners are increasing their support for TWAS. India, South Africa and Brazil in recent months have made new investments in our work.  That followed new pledges earlier from Argentina, Kuwait, Malaysia, Mexico, Pakistan and Sweden, and my own country, China.

We're seeing a highly significant trend: Emerging nations, or emerging economies, are taking positions of science leadership for the developing world. They have learned key lessons about building scientific strength in their own countries, and now they are sharing their experience with other developing nations, and especially the Least Developed Countries. This is a very promising trend for science in the developing world. And it is a very gratifying expression of solidarity with TWAS and our shared mission.

Every year, we come together to renew our commitment to excellence in science for the developing world. We reaffirm longstanding partnerships and make new friendships. For me, this meeting always renews the inspiration that drives us to pursue our essential mission.

Over the next four days, we will see the positive results that TWAS and its many partners can achieve. Later today, we'll hear from a team of government ministers and other high-level policymakers from around the world, all of whom are focusing on the cultivation and support of young talent in science and engineering. We'll hear agricultural economist Zhang Linxiu, the winner of the Celso Furtado Prize, who has studied the educational and employment needs of China's rural young people. We'll hear excellent lectures from TWAS Prize winners – on arsenic in rice, renewable energy, neuroscience and string theory. We'll learn about top Omani scientists and their work. And we'll hear from Professor Al-Kindy, who will deliver a TWAS Medal Lecture on powerful new techniques in biological analysis.

This promises to be an excellent meeting. Let us learn from it. Let us be inspired. And then let us embark on another year's work that leads to innovation and scientific progress for the benefit people across the world.

Thank you very much.