MUSCAT, Sultanate of Oman – High-level science leaders from across the developing world urged a deeper commitment to educating and training young scientists, particularly women, to drive economic development and address global challenges.
The leaders, appearing at the TWAS General Meeting in Oman, described efforts in their countries to raise a new generation of innovators – scholarships, mentoring and overseas training, and even anti-poverty programs to support the strong development of children at the earliest age.
At the opening ceremony and in sessions featuring several top government officials, the theme was consistent: All nations must do more to fully develop their human potential. And TWAS must do more, especially to support women – not only in developing countries, but in its own membership and management.
TWAS President Bai Chunli sounded the theme on 26 October 2014 in his opening address to TWAS members and in an address to more than 500 dignitaries, high-ranking policymakers and global science leaders at the opening ceremony.
"As a central part of our mission, we recognize our responsibility to nurture a new generation," Bai said. "If we wish to fully activate the scientific potential of the developing world...we should take a leadership role in helping educational and scientific institutions learn how to support women and bring out their best scientific talents. Leadership also requires that we elect more women as members of TWAS."
Others echoed Bai's call, and the theme would be repeated in presentations and talks throughout the four-day meeting at Barr Al Jissah Resort outside of the capital city of Muscat. Many described how a broader corps of global researchers would be essential for addressing climate change, disease, even recovery from civil conflict.
Biologist Roula Abdel-Massih, a TWAS Young Affiliate and associate professor of the University of Balamand in Lebanon, shared that message in an interview with Oman TV's English News Bulletin. “If you look at the challenge or the battle against hunger, the challenge against poverty, and even the new battle against terrorism, all this, the solution is in educating the youth in science and technology and allowing them...to create new solutions,” said Abdel-Massih.
Advancing women 'a development imperative'
At the meeting, TWAS frequently won praise for its work with global partners on PhD programmes, research grants and other measures for young scientists, and for supporting the Organization for the Advancement of Women in Science for the Developing World (OWSD). A new five-year agreement was announced at the meeting, under which TWAS and India's Department of Science and Technology will work together to build scientific talent both in Africa and in India. Oman announced that it would provide TWAS with 10 new PhD fellowships for study in Omani universities.
"TWAS since its founding in 1983 has proved to be a very dynamic organisation that ensured a strong and active support to young scientists from developing and emerging countries," said diplomat Ugo Ferrero, representing the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
But there was a view that the scientific community, including TWAS, could do more – especially to support the advancement of women.
"Gender equality is about human rights and dignity," said Anna Paolini, director of the UNESCO Doha Office and UNESCO’s representative in the Arab States of the Gulf and Yemen. "But it is also a development imperative, and a business imperative....The stakes are high even globally, and so are the challenges – with women representing only 30% of researchers at the global level."
At the meeting in Oman, TWAS elected 46 new Fellows, 10 of them women. That brought total membership to 1148, but only 119 of them – 10.4% – are women. And of TWAS's 15 top officers, council members and executives, only two are women.
While TWAS has played "an incredible role" in advancing science in the developing world, the low number of women elected to the Academy and serving in its leadership shows "there is still quite some way to go," said Hannah Akuffo, acting head of the research cooperation unit at the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida).
In TWAS and other science bodies, "the quest for excellence and quality, when narrowly defined by citation indexes and impact factors, as often occurs, can lead to exclusion rather than inclusion," Akuffo said. While they must maintain a strong commitment to standards of excellence, she added, "a blinded overemphasis on impact factors and citation indices can skew judgement and can easily lead us to miss opportunities."
She called for research to assess why women are under-represented in science academies – and possible solutions.
A need for more investment
In any national effort to cultivate new scientific talent, government policy is critically important; investment in education and research is a measure of a government's commitment. Too often, speakers said, that commitment is lacking.
Most of the world's leading innovators invest at least 2.5% of gross domestic product in research and development; nations such as South Korea, Japan and Sweden exceed 3%. But in former republics of the Soviet Union, investment in research and development averages about 0.2% of GDP, said Ali M. Abbasov, Azerbaijan's Minister of Communications and High Technologies. The investment is about the same in the Arab region, said Egyptian Minister of Agriculture and Land Reclamation Adel E.T. El-Beltagy, a member of the TWAS Council. To have a significant impact, he added, it should be at least 1.5% of GDP.
But R&D is not the only measure of national commitment to science. In presentations at the annual TWAS meeting of science ministers and high-level policymakers, officials described a range of creative, fast-track efforts to develop science and engineering talent.
Oman: In 1970, when Oman's Sultan Qaboos bin Said Al Said rose to leadership, he saw quickly that education was central to development. Words from one of his first speeches have become a national motto: "We will teach our children even under the shade of a tree."
At the time, Oman had three elementary schools, said Oman Research Council Secretary-General Hilal bin Ali Al Hinai; today it has over 1,500 schools. In 1986, it had one university with about 500 students; today it has 54 centres of higher education. The sultan's government poured about 13% of its 2013 budget, or 4.6% of GDP, into education.
Before 1970, almost no young women could be found at an Omani school. But under the nation's universal education policy, by 2004, about 48.4% of students in public schools were female, according to a UNESCO report. About half of the students at Sultan Qaboos University are women.
A system of incentives guides many of those students toward careers in science and engineering. For example, Al Hinai told the TWAS audience, Oman provides grants for undergraduate research and graduate-level student research. This draws them into the culture of competitive research and gets them thinking about how to land a research project.
Oman's partnership in the TWAS meeting reflected its commitment, officials said. It gave the young researchers a chance to experience global science and to present prize-winning research, and it showed the world the range of Oman's research interests.
"This elite of researchers will be the cornerstone and the real investment for the future of Oman," said Abdullah bin Mohammed Al Sarmi, undersecretary of the Ministry of Higher Education.
South Africa: A systematic effort is underway to advance science for development in South Africa – and support for young researchers is central to the effort, said Zanele kaMagwaza-Msibi, the nation's deputy minister of science and technology.
"It goes without saying that the participation of young scientists in our country's efforts to address socio-economic issues and move towards a knowledge-based economy is absolutely vital," she said in her address. "Young scientists represent the future of our country's science and technology development."
Through National Science Week and World Space Week, and various expos and Olympiads, South Africa seeks to inspire high school students to study science and mathematics. Through the South Africa Young Academy of Science, it is participating in a virtual-mentoring programme that is focused on schoolgirls.
Africa's National Research Foundation last year funded more than 9,700 postgraduate students at honours, masters and doctoral levels, and supported over 800 interns in various science fields, she reported. Financial support for top research centres and elite professors has helped to increase the number of doctoral graduates from 1,200 to 1,700 over the past five years.
Azerbaijan: After the breakup of the Soviet Union, the central decision-making apparatus withered away and the former republics suffered broad setbacks, Abbasov told the audience. Investment in R&D declined. Young scientists left for Europe and the U.S., and over time, brain drain cost the republics billions of dollars in unrealized economic development. Many fell to the status of developing countries.
But some, he said, have done better than others. Azerbaijan’s oil and natural gas reserves generate strong income, and over the past decade, it has been one of the world's fastest-growing economies. The nation is investing in development – and human development – to strengthen and diversify its economy.
“The fundamental principle for human resources development is improving the quality of the educational and R&D system of the country, which is the high priority of state policy,” Abbasov explained.
That's reflected in the government’s “three pillars” development plan: Pillar 1 is education, science and human resources development, and Pillar 2 is creating a favourable environment for innovation, including investments in science and education. (Pillar 3 is making capital available for implementation of R&D innovations.)
The government is investing in research infrastructure and offering grants, scholarships and other incentives to students, Abbasov reported. At state expense, more than 5,000 young Azeris are enrolled in European and US universities for undergraduate and graduate studies.
Brazil: Glaucius Oliva, president of Brazil's National Council for Scientific and Technological Development (CNPq), described another systematic effort to develop the nation's research talent. "Brazil's national development strategy is based on investments in people to develop the skills needed for full engagement in the knowledge-based economy," he said.
The effort begins in early childhood, Oliva said, with programmes to dramatically reduce childhood poverty and increase school attendance.
Brazilian policy has broadly expanded access to technical and university education by building new facilities and through scholarships and grants. The result: Enrolment in higher education has risen from 2 million in 2000 to 7.2 million in 2013, an increase of 360%. And the nation's "Science without Borders" initiative has won global acclaim for sending 100,000 young scientists around the world for study and research.
Every mind matters
Policies in each of these countries share a common vision: People are the most important resource. In Egypt, more than 70% of the population is under 25 years old, said El Beltagy, the Egyptian minister, and for developing nations with large youth populations, education and training are urgent priorities.
"With this big group of young people, either they will be a liability for the country, or they will be potential for the future to build on," he said. "The only ticket for you is to give these young people knowledge and knowledge and knowledge, and then they can work with the world to form this global alliance for peace and prosperity which we all require."
Edward W. Lempinen