Physics institute focused on developing countries gets a new leader

As director of the Abdus Salam International Centre for Theoretical Physics, Atish Dabholkar will consolidate the centre's activities.
Atish Dabholkar standing in front of a blackboard covered in equations.

Atish Dabholkar has become head of the Abdus Salam International Centre for Theoretical Physics in Trieste, Italy.Credit: Roberto Barnaba, ICTP Photo Archives

A physics centre with a mission to promote science in developing countries has a new commander-in-chief. Last week, physicist Atish Dabholkar began work as director of the Abdus Salam International Centre for Theoretical Physics (ICTP).

He takes over from Fernando Quevedo, who had been director since 2009, and who oversaw the centre’s expansion to include satellite institutes across the world. During Quevedo’s tenure, the ICTP also sought to broaden its sources of funding.

Based in Trieste, Italy, the ICTP was founded in 1964 — at the height of the cold war — by Abdus Salam, the first Muslim Nobel laureate in science. Salam, who was from Pakistan, led the centre until a few years before his death in 1996.

Established under the umbrella of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, and the International Atomic Energy Agency, the centre is located just a few miles inside Italy’s border with what was then communist Yugoslavia, and is now Slovenia.

In its early years it encouraged collaboration both between physicists from the East and West, as well as physicists from developed and developing countries — the latter was Salam's principal motivation in creating the centre. Today, the focus is mostly on research, and on capacity building of scientists from developing countries.

Since it was set up, the ICTP has provided some 165,000 scientists from 188 nations with postgraduate education, scholarships and opportunities to network and collaborate with leaders in their fields. Last year, one-quarter of the visiting researchers were women. The centre has also expanded to include more areas in the physical sciences, including applied mathematics and ecological economics.

Dabholkar’s appointment is welcomed by Jeff Murugan, a mathematical physicist who studies quantum gravity at the University of Cape Town, in South Africa. “I am very excited,” he says. From a cost–benefit point of view, theoretical physics is “cheap science”, Murugan adds. “This seems to me like the kind of science that Africa, with its enormous human potential, should be investing in.”

During his tenure, Quevedo had oversight of some 60 activities per year including research programmes, conferences and workshops, and engineered a breakneck expansion, opening satellite centres in Rwanda, China, Brazil and Mexico.

Dabholkar, who was previously head of the ICTP’s high energy, cosmology and astroparticle physics section, says that for at least his first two years at the helm, he will focus on consolidating the centre’s current activities rather than starting major new ones.

Some of the centre’s alumni choose to stay abroad, but others return to their home countries and contribute to their societies. Finding quantitative metrics to gauge the centre’s impact on this front — and whether its impact is growing over time — remains a challenge, Dabholkar says, but one he intends to work on.

Quevedo says it isn’t easy to evaluate real impact. The ICTP’s efforts are most productive in countries that have solid policies to develop their own research capacity. “We call it contribution to science culture in a country,” he adds.

But Pervez Hoodbhoy, a physicist at Forman Christian College in Lahore, Pakistan, and an ICTP alumnus, says that the centre cannot be a substitute for a country’s whole higher-education system. As a result, he says, “the more advanced among developing countries have benefited far more from ICTP than less advanced ones”.

Dabholkar says he will continue an effort by his predecessor to broaden the ICTP’s funding base. Italy has historically been the centre’s main financial sponsor, currently providing around 80% of its yearly budget of €26 million (US$29 million); another 10% comes from the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Quevedo points to one recent funding success. The European Research Council agreed to a request from Quevedo to allow applications from ICTP researchers from outside the European Union. Starting in 2020, these researchers will be eligible for ERC grants, on the grounds of being part of an institution located in the EU.

Dabholkar grew up in a small village in Kanpur in the north of India, and says he comes from a family of intellectuals and social activists who were inspired by the idea of rebuilding the nation after it gained independence from Britain in 1947. This, he says, means the mission of the ICTP is very close to his heart.

“Growing up in India gave me a certain sense of commitment and a perspective about a broad cross-section of the society,” he says.

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