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Italy backs Third World science body

17 December 1998 (Nature, Vol. 396, page 610)

[TRIESTE] The Italian government announced last week that it has agreed to make a long-term financial commitment to the Third World Academy of Sciences (TWAS), the body set up in 1983 at the initiative of the late physicist and Nobel laureate Abdus Salam.

According to academy officials, the move should allow the academy to significantly increase its operating budget within the next few years, boosting its efforts to stimulate scientific excellence in Third World countries.

The academy was set up by Salam alongside the International Centre for Theoretical Physics (ICTP) in Trieste, of which he was director from its foundation in 1964 until 1993. From an initial membership of 44, it now has more than 400 full members, each recognized for scientific achievement.

Until now, the operating costs of the academy have been largely covered by an annual grant from the Italian government. But the value of this has dropped considerably in recent years, and Italy's financial instability has also created problems.

Under an agreement signed last week, however, the government has promised to present a bill to parliament committing it to increase its payments to the academy from 1.9 billion lire (US$1.16 million) next year to 3 billion lire in three years' time. The government also promises to maintain payments at that level thereafter, subject to a biannual review.

This will provide the academy with the same form of guaranteed income as that already given to two other Trieste institutions: the ICTP and the International Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology.

"The idea launched by Salam 15 years ago has paid off in many ways in boosting the growth of scientific knowledge in the developing world, and Italy is proud of having been able to contribute to its success," says Facio Bonetti, head of the scientific and cultural division of the Italian foreign ministry.

According to Mohamed Hassan, the executive director of the academy since its creation, Italy's decision to formalize its support was partly prompted by the academy's success in raising money for an endowment fund from developing countries.

The fund, which was launched in 1993, is now more than one-third of the way towards reaching its target of $10 million. Individual sums of $500,000 have each been committed by Brazil, China, India, Nigeria and Kuwait, and other countries, including Egypt, Colombia and Senegal, have contributed smaller sums.

"The Italian government was able to see that the developing countries themselves are now committed to our activities," says Hassan. Eventually it is hoped that the academy will be able to use the income from its endowment fund to cover its running costs, allowing all other forms of income to go directly towards projects and other grants.

One of the main contributors towards these at present is the Swedish International Development Agency, which is currently committed to providing $200,000 a year over three years through its technical assistance division, SAREC, towards a project for training women researchers in sub-Saharan Africa.

Another scheme currently waiting in the wings, says Hassan, is the creation of networks of centres of research excellence in Third World countries. One possible network, involving institutions working in dry-land biodiversity, has recently been submitted for funding to the World Bank's Global Environment Facility.

José Israel Vargas, Brazil's minister of science and the president of TWAS, argues that its expanding activities since its foundation mean that the academy now finds itself "within sight of the vision presented by Salam at the academy's first meeting here in Trieste in 1985".

He adds: "With our operational budget about to be placed on solid ground, our long-term activities gaining in strength through contributions to the endowment fund, and the continued support of outside funding agencies, these are exciting times for TWAS."


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