Ajay Sood is a professor in the Department of Physics at the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, India. He was President of Indian Academy of Sciences from 2010 to 2012, and is now Secretary General of TWAS – The World Academy of Sciences for the advancement of science in developing countries. He spoke to staff from the Royal Society and other London based Academies on TWAS and the role of science in development (PDF).  

ajay-soodTWAS is a global science academy based in Trieste, Italy, working to advance science and engineering for sustainable prosperity in the developing world. Its work includes providing Fellowships, grants for research and running scientific meetings, prizes and awards and a visiting scientists programme.

Ajay started with a historical account of what the world was like 30 years ago when TWAS was set up. There was still much scepticism then about whether science could be a realistic tool for development in the Third World. It was in the early 1980s, when Abdus Salam, physicist and Nobel laureate (and a Fellow of the Royal Society, elected at the tender age of 33), saw an opportunity for an Academy dedicated to the advancement of science in developing countries. TWAS was founded in 1983 with 42 elected fellows – nine of them Nobel laureates, who shared a belief that developing nations, by building strength in science and engineering, could build the knowledge and skill to address such challenges as hunger, disease and poverty.

Ajay spoke of a number of sobering challenges affecting the world, which TWAS is helping address through its work. These are: food and hunger, climate change, ocean health, drinking water, and biodiversity. For example, globally, 663 million people rely on unimproved water sources, at least 1.8 billion people use a drinking-water source contaminated with faeces and contaminated drinking-water is estimated to cause +500,000 diarrhoeal deaths each year.

This is particularly an issue in Africa, where there are 34 of the world’s 48 Less Developed Countries. The growing population coupled with the demographic profile offer both challenges and opportunities here.

TWAS still has gaps in its membership, and is making a conscious effort to increase its range, and the percentage of female Fellows.

Despite the challenges, Ajay’s talk was very motivating and optimistic about the prospects for growth and global partnerships. This is timely as the UK’s national academies are thinking hard about their roles in capacity building and development.  There are huge opportunities presented by the Newton Fund, and the new Global Challenges research fund announced in the Department for International Development new strategy, UK aid: tackling global challenges in the national interest.

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