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Sudanese Physicist Mohamed Hassan Says S&T Awakening in Developing World
Mohamed H.A. Hassan
SAN FRANCISCO—The challenges facing science and technology in the developing world are formidable ones, but surging S&T programs in countries like Brazil, China and Nigeria could inspire other developing nations to boost their scientific capacity, said Mohamed H.A. Hassan at the AAAS Annual Meeting Sunday night.
In his plenary address, Hassan reminded his listeners about the substantial S&T gap between the wealthy developed nations of the "north" and developing nations in the "south." But he said that a new "south versus south" gap is growing between places such as Africa where S&T infrastructure lags behind that of nations such as China.
Countries in the developing world are discovering that "investment in science and technology are not luxuries that only the rich can afford," Hassan said. "For a poor country, a luxury is to invest in the military and the weapons."
Hassan, a former plasma physics researcher, is the head of the Academy of Sciences for the Developing World (TWAS) in Trieste, Italy, and president of the African Academy of Sciences. His recent work focuses on the impact of global climate change in the poorest communities around the world.
In 2006, researchers in the developed north published 78% of the world's scientific papers, leaving 22% published by scientists in developing countries. Twelve countries including China, Korea and Turkey were responsible for most of the developing world's publications. Researchers in other developing countries published only .66% of the world's scientific literature, Hassan said.
One unexpected outcome of the rise of the south-south divide has been that some developing nations are luring researchers from their native countries, a new twist on the "brain drain" that still draws Third World researchers to the United States and Europe. "There is now an international market for scientific talent, which is becoming more and more competitive," Hassan said.
Developing countries, particularly in Africa, still face daunting problems of poverty, disease, and climate change that undermine S&T efforts. Yet the goals set by the United Nations to eradicate these problems "are extremely complicated and very difficult to reach without the full realization of science and technology," Hassan stressed.
Help could arrive in the form of new advances in biotechnology for agriculture, nanotechnology for water purification and information technology such as communication satellites, he suggested. In some cases, developing nations are providing these technologies to poorer nations. For instance, Brazil has exported biofuels technology to Senegal in recent years, according to Hassan.
New restrictions on travel and work visas after 9/11 and the high costs of scientific journals also limit S&T development in many areas of the world, particularly Islamic countries, Hassan noted. He drew his biggest applause of the night when he pleaded with the United States to relax its visa restrictions for foreign researchers.
Hassan also pointed to Africa's increased interest in S&T as a hopeful sign for the future. At the African Union Summit in Ethiopia earlier this year, representatives from 53 countries pledged to make 2007 "The Year of Science and Innovation" and to have every country spend at least 1% of its gross domestic product on S&T. Countries such as Uganda and Zambia are taking out loans to accomplish this goal, which Hassan called a surprising new development. "We could never imagine in years past that an African government would take a loan from the bank to support science and technology."
The developed countries of the Group of Eight and China have pledged to rebuild some of Africa's universities and fund new centers of science excellence in several countries. In another good sign, regional networks of science academies in developing nations are also becoming more active. "Academies of science that have been sleeping are waking up, learning not just to act like private clubs," Hassan said.
Hassan urged international science organizations such as AAAS to build on the successes of S&T in some developing nations to help those countries still struggling with their own science infrastructure, saying "it could make a huge difference in this worthy campaign."
19 February 2007