As the Executive Director of the Ethiopian Academy of Sciences (EAS), I participated in a study visit (March 3- 16) in London as a guest of the Royal Society, along with officers from two sister academies, namely Isabela Seme Ndatu (Tanzania) and Francis Prince Ankrah (Ghana).
My host at the RS, Ruth Cooper, had organized upon my request, a busy schedule which provided me with ample opportunity to interact with many officers at all levels in many of the institutions I visited, including officers at high echelons, comprising , Professor Martyn Poliakoff (Foreign Secretary, RS), Dr Julie Maxton (Executive Director, RS), Professor Dame Helen Wallace DBE CMG (Foreign Secretary and Vice President, British Academy); Sir Brain Heap FRS (President, European Academies, Science Advisory Council); Sir Roy Anderson FRS (RS Council Member); and Dr Peter Gist (Director, ARUP). Many an evening was spent in a productive and enjoyable setting, rubbing shoulders with Professors from world renowned universities at receptions, or enjoying cuisine that such a setting can offer.
My visit focused on capacity building in order to address the many challenges the youngest Academy in the African continent, the Ethiopian Academy of Sciences, is facing. I held a series of meetings with officials of the Royal Society, British Academy, British Council, Wellcome Trust, the Centre of the CELL at Whitechapel, ARUP, and Houses of Parliament, and attended many important meetings at the British Council, UK Collaborative on Development Science (UKCDS), and listened to many interesting lectures, often addressing global challenges.
I was most impressed by what I saw at the Centre of the Cell. My host Mark Davis gave me an impressive tour of the Centre. I was also pleasantly surprised to notice that there were school children visiting the exhibition then, and I had a chance to listen to the interaction between the guide (perhaps a teacher) and the children (aged around 10 or so). The digital interactive set-up of the science exhibition centre is indeed informative. I thought about the visit for a long time (time and time again) and realized how fortunate these children are compared with those where I come from-what a difference in opportunity, exposure to the workings of nature through an attractive and interactive exhibition, all digitally managed. The structure of the building, the office and laboratory arrangements of this centre, were beyond what I could have possibly imagined; what a memorable setup it was; it left a big impression on me.
I was given an opportunity to tour parliament, and I visited both the House of Commons and the House of Lords and observed the British Parliament at work. The instructive information received and the insight given into the working mechanisms of science policy advice by Westmisiter Science Policy advisors will come in handy at EAS. This was capped by a visit to the Tower of London and St Paul’s Cathedral.
From the cultural perspective, the icing on the cake was a visit to the countryside, a small village in Kent, hosted by Ruth Cooper. We dined in a simple but pleasant country side restaurant and had a taste of English food as close to the original as possible, since time and the mixing of cultures has taken its toll, we were informed. Not far away from it is the old LEEDS Castle (of Leeds village not the steel town in the north). It is indeed a fine structure and revealed the pomp, as well as the security inherent in its historical setting. A piece of English history is crafted on its walls; the attire, the ups and downs of the well to do, and the difficulty of up-keep of such a grand structure, could be literally deciphered from the writings on the wall. The choice of the Black Swan as the mark of the Castle by the owners of the past remains a mystery to me. Ruth tried to walk us through the setting; she remained very considerate despite my often naïve remarks.
I was also rather impressed by the cordial reception I received everywhere, in every organization I touched base with; surprisingly even at places where I appeared uninvited/ hence unexpected. Staff members of the Royal Society went beyond the call of duty to make my stay as pleasurable and productive as possible. Everyone was very helpful.
The programme was holistic and covered as much ground as possible within the given period of time; and it was indeed very useful. My appreciation goes to all and more so to Ruth and Tracey who were our immediate contacts during our enjoyable stay in the UK. Professor Martyn Poliakoff deserves special thanks, many times more, since he is more or less serving as EAS’s Foreign Secretary on top what he manages at RS, serving in the same capacity.
Exception to this hospitality was the weather, unpredictable and miserable at the same time. It did not seem to be concerned by my lifelong experience in the tropics, the Ethiopian highlands where I enjoyed thirteen months of sunshine, all my life, except for a few years of rude interruption abroad when I was away as a student. Even then I was young and not easily perturbed by the chilly winters of Waterloo (Canada), much less so by the milder setting of Liverpool.
As a result of my study visit, EAS is now in a better position to stand up to the challenges it faces; and this would have not been possible without Pfizer’s support to the Royal Society. I strongly believe that the capacity building support to African academies should continue for some time to come to make sure that their respective activities are sustainable. After all, for the investment incurred to date to bear fruit for sustained development, limited additional capacity enhancements undertakings are absolute necessity. In my personal experience, the support to date has been instrumental, in pulling EAS through this difficult time of its infancy and early development-infant mortality is disturbingly high in the part of the world where EAS is found.