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21 September 2012

Mohamed Hassan awarded Abdus Salam Medal

One year after his retirement, Mohamed Hassan, executive director of TWAS for twenty-six years, has been awarded the Abdus Salam Medal, both for his enduring commitment to the Academy, and the outstanding results he has achieved.

Mohamed Hassan awarded Abdus Salam MedalFrom 1985 to 2011, Mohamed Hassan worked indefatigably for the Academy, an extraordinarily effective and committed ambassador of sustainable development, presenting – and effectively transmitting – the values and principles of TWAS around the world. He acknowledged the award of this prestigious prize with visible emotion: "When I began my career at TWAS in 1983, I had no idea that the Academy would become my life. I am deeply touched by this esteemed recognition." 

The Abdus Salam Medal was officially instituted in 1995 to honour Abdus Salam, Nobel laureate in Physics, and the Academy's founder and first president. The prize is awarded to personalities who have served the cause of science in the developing world. There have been seven awardees since the first Medal was presented to Federico Mayor, from Spain, in 1995, including M.G.K. Menon from India (1996); Thomas R. Odhiambo from Kenya (1998); José I. Vargas from Brazil (2000); Paolo Budinich from Italy (2002); Lu Yongxiang from China (2005); and C.N.R. Rao from India (2008).

Hassan's first visit to Trieste dates back to 1976, when he came to Italy to pursue his father's dream and become a successful businessman. But fate had other plans: "I met Abdus Salam for the first time that year," recalls Hassan, "but it was only in 1983 that we began a real and fruitful cooperation, and friendship." Hassan was at Khartoum University in Sudan when Salam visited him to discuss the idea of an international academy devoted to promoting scientific cooperation among countries in the South. "Salam invited me to spend six months in Trieste to help lay the Academy's foundations", Hassan explains.

The resulting Academy Foundation Meeting was in fact the first step towards building TWAS. Hassan then wrote to some 30 or 40 organizations around the world, requesting funds to develop the Academy and its proposed programmes. "Only the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) answered. They gave us CAD50,000. And that was how it all began."

Launched as a small assembly propelled by big dreams and visionary plans, TWAS has grown rapidly: the initial quota of 40 members has now reached over 1,000. These Fellows, elected from over 90 countries, are not only excellent scientists, thus ensuring that TWAS is based on a foundation of high quality research, but the 15% of Associate Fellows elected from the North, must also demonstrate a long-standing commitment to building science capacity in the South.

"I was privileged to be in the right place at the right time", admits Hassan. "I could actively bring my own contribution and ideas to the establishment of the so-called 'Trieste System', a dynamic visionary team inspired by similar goals - sustainable development and international cooperation in the name of science." The Trieste System includes the International School for Advanced Studies (SISSA), the International Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology (ICGEB), and the International Centre for Science and High Technology (ICS-UNIDO), as well as the Abdus Salam International Centre for Theoretical Physics (ICTP).

Within this consortium, Hassan was instrumental in consolidating the idea that scientists from the South deserve the chance to enhance their careers and train in an international context, and to devise new and appropriate solutions to solve the specific problems that affect their countries. 

As he observes: "Twenty-five years ago, when TWAS was just established, nobody felt the urgency of setting up and fine-tuning a programme dedicated to South to South cooperation. This idea was not on the global agenda – yet. It is an idea that has gained momentum and credibility over the course of time." 

And, undoubtedly, it is to Mohamed Hassan's great credit that TWAS is now regarded as one of the most important scientific organizations supporting scientifically lagging countries. Indeed, TWAS might be considered the leading merit-based academy dedicated to building scientific capacity and excellence in the South. 

During his time at TWAS, Hassan covered a broad spectrum of activities. As well as  increasing public awareness of the role of science in economic development, he established and strengthened partnerships with other international organizations, including: the Organization for Women in Science for the Developing World (OWSD); IAP – the global network of science academies; the InterAcademy Medical Panel (IAMP); ICTP; UNESCO; the Kuwait Foundation for the Advancement of Sciences (KFAS), the OIC Standing Committee on Scientific and Technological Cooperation (COMSTECH) and the Commission on Science and Technology for Sustainable Development in the South (COMSATS). He planned a number of strategic actions to support young scientists and research groups, including dedicated grants, prizes, and regional conferences. Most important for the long-term well-being of TWAS, he worked unceasingly to provide adequate financial support for the Academy's activities. 

In this respect, "TWAS is especially grateful to the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs," Hassan underlines, "because it has granted us a perennial fund since 1985. This fund is allotted to specific programmes aimed at sustaining individual scientists as well as scientific institutes, and also covers South to South cooperation initiatives." 

According to Hassan, one of the most important achievements of his term in office – and unique among world academies – has been the promotion of a South-North collaboration scheme which encompasses three activities: a programme for visiting scientists; support for international and regional meetings; and support for TWAS's General Meetings and Conferences. 

"TWAS plants the seeds of seminal shifts in the way that science and scientific cooperation are conceived at the international level. It has the enormous potential to forge a new course in history", says Hassan, praising the 'top light' structure of the Academy, whose five Regional Offices help to decentralize activities, allowing a more immediate, and therefore more effective and efficient, contact with specific countries. "The Regional Offices, in fact, act as multipliers of the Academy's actions, meaning that problems can be handled easily and - often - solved more quickly", he notes.

Perhaps surprisingly, given TWAS's impressive track record, Hassan declares: "We can do better," and then affirms: "We will do better", and this determination is entirely in keeping with the energy and ambition Hassan has poured into TWAS since the Academy's inception. 

"I like to say we, because I feel as much involved in TWAS's future as I was involved in TWAS's past. However," he continues, "all my achievements stem from the collective efforts of many different people, from the entire  TWAS staff, to the Academy's members, and those who have supported us, especially UNESCO, under whose aegis we operate. It requires a special level of commitment and collaboration to build world-class institutes, research centres and high-level universities with competitive facilities that will attract students."

For all these reasons, then, it is no surprise that the TWAS Council unanimously nominated Hassan as this year's recipient of the Abdus Salam Medal. 

"Of course, I am in debt, and deeply grateful, to the many people I have worked with during all these years. But I would like to mention some true friends, and close visionary leaders – the three TWAS presidents with whom I worked after Salam: José Vargas, C.N.R. Rao, and, last but not least, Jacob Palis." 

Mohamed Hassan will receive the Abdus Salam Medal in September, at the official award ceremony in Tianjin, China, during TWAS's 12th General Conference and 23rd General Meeting.

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