Sixth General Conference of
the Third World Academy of Sciences (TWAS)
Rio de Janeiro (Brazil), 611 September 1997
Science for Sustainable Development
in Latin America and The Caribbean
Brazils efforts to build a strong
step by step
S&T Policies in developing countries
From brain waves to global warming
TWAS convened the Conference in conjunction with the Third World
Network of Scientific Organizations' (TWNSO) 5th General Assembly and the International
Foundation for Science's (IFS) 8th General Assembly. The Brazilian Academy of Sciences
hosted the event, which was attended by more than 300 scientists and public officials from
50 different countries including 12 ministers of S&T.
- Review the status and prospects of scientific research and education in Latin
America and the Caribbean, particularly the role that research and education play in the
development of the region;
- Exhibit the wealth of science in Latin America and the Caribbean for the purposes of
advancing South-South and North-South cooperation;
- Discuss the environmental and developmental challenges facing Latin America and the
Caribbean and identify the role of science in resolving these challenges;
- Examine strategies for building science and technology (S&T) capacity in the South;
- Honour scientists from the South who have made significant contributions to the
advancement of S&T.
Science for Sustainable Development in
Latin America and The Caribbean
The major theme of the Conference was: Science for Sustainable
Development in Latin America and The Caribbean. Dozens of speeches, panels and workshops
were designed to create a forum for the exchange of information on S&T issues from
Latin America and, more generally, from around the world. More than 100 people,
including two Nobel Laureates, made formal presentations. In addition, 15 researchers
hailing from 7 different countries were given awards for their achievements in basic and
applied science. The Chinese Academy of Sciences' Shanghai Institute of Ceramics was also
honoured for the collective contributions of its researchers.
H.E. Fernando H. Cardoso, President of Brazil and TWAS Fellow,
presented the opening address. Cardoso noted that advances in S&T particularly
in the fields of telecommunications, electronics and biotechnology offered
developing nations unprecedented opportunities for economic and social development.
Seizing these opportunities, he said, will require investments in
education, especially at the primary and secondary school levels, and a strengthening of
the ties between universities and industry. Cardoso pledged to provide educational
opportunities for the 40 million Brazilian youngsters currently not enrolled in school. In
effect, the President was saying that no nation could expect to build a strong S&T
infrastructure without well-educated citizens.
Brazils efforts to build a strong S&T
José I. Vargas, Brazil's Minister of Science and Technology and
President of both TWAS and TWNSO, noted that, over the past half century, Brazil had
largely imported its S&T from more advanced nations and, as a result, had pursued few
pathways for creating its own indigenous capacities in S&T. Despite its shortcomings,
the strategy had achieved some degree of success.
Now, by nurturing its own highly skilled personnel and modernising its home-grown research
facilities, Brazil was well-positioned to receive an even greater influx of foreign
investment in the future. At the same time, Brazil had launched cooperative projects with
other developing nations centred on technologies for which these nations have cultivated
advanced skills. For example, Brazil had worked closely with Argentina in the field of
biotechnology and had initiated a space project with China that would result in the
launching of a resource-data collection satellite in 1998.
Vargas highlighted Brazil's recent success in building its S&T infrastructure. The
basis of this success, he observed, resided in putting S&T at the top of the political
agenda. Brazil, for example, had created a National Scientific Council chaired by
President Cardoso. The Council advanced its goals by:
- fostering basic science education, particularly in the nation's primary and secondary
- building links between university-based scientific institutions and industrial firms;
- increasing the visibility of science among Brazilian citizens by sponsoring prizes and
grants for both scientists and technologists.
Most importantly, Vargas noted, Brazil has set a
challenging, but reachable, target to increase its national investments in research and
development (R&D) to 1.5% of the gross domestic product (GDP) by 1999. At the same
time, Brazil is encouraging the private sector to boost its share of national expenditure
in R&D to 40% by the turn of the century.
Such initiatives, Vargas concluded, provide benchmarks by which progress
in S&T development may be measured. In the process, these benchmarks help to move the
debate from the conference hall to the shop floor where real advances in the application
of S&T can take place.
S&T policies in developing countries
A roundtable on S&T policies in developing countries from around
the world was chaired by E.E. Okon, Director-General of the Federal Ministry of
Science and Technology in Nigeria. The panel included ministers from Cameroon, Iran,
Madagascar, Malaysia, Nigeria, Senegal, Syria, Vietnam and Zambia. The ministers were
joined at the podium by the heads of the United Nations Conference on Trade and
Development (UNCTAD) and Sweden's International Development Agency's Department of
Research Cooperation (Sida-SAREC).
The panellists offered their views on a wide range of issues related to ongoing efforts to
build a strong S&T infrastructure in the developing world. Most panellists focused
their remarks on the relationship between S&T and the social and economic well-being
of their people.
Specifically, the panellists emphasised the potential revolutionary impact of information
technologies, which promised to provide a vehicle for instantaneous global distribution of
the most up-to-date data and knowledge. However, they also noted that the information
revolution, which would likely be as wide-ranging and long-lasting as the industrial
revolution, could be aborted in the developing world by two factors:
- poorly educated citizens who lack the knowledge and skills to deal with these
- an inadequate technological infrastructure that inhibits access to the global computer
To overcome these obstacles, the panellists noted that developing
- must first address chronic problems related to widespread poverty and substandard
- would be ill-served if they pursued a strategy that sought to mimic the S&T policies
in the North.
- must devise pathways to the development of a S&T infrastructure that would fit their
own particular circumstances. Such pathways should focus on each nation's and region's
comparative advantages say, in natural resources or proximity to particular markets
and its ability to develop an indigenous pool of skilled scientists and
Thus, the panellists concluded that:
- only a strong foundation based on
education, training, and investments in S&T would ensure sustainable economic and
social progress among the nations of the developing world.
From brain waves to global
A series of lectures was given by distinguished scientists. The issues
under discussion ranged from lasers to brain waves, smog and global warming a
smorgasbord of science that reflected the diverse menu of critical topics currently being
explored by scientists in both the South and North.
Atomic and molecular
Yuan T. Lee, Nobel Laureate and President of the Science Academy in
China (Taiwan), spoke about the scientific world's desire to monitor and analyse the
millions of chemical events involving collisions among molecules. Indeed, Lee noted that
it had long been the dream of scientists to observe and understand the details
of molecular collisions, which often altered the chemical composition of the materials
comprising our universe.
These atomic and molecular collisions, however, took place at a scale too small to be
detected by the naked eye. In fact, until recently, even powerful microscopes could not
decipher the details of these material-altering events. Now, with advances in laser and
molecular-beam technologies, scientists for the first time in history could visualise and
study chemical reactions step by step, molecule by molecule. This breakthrough,
according to Lee, could lead to great advances in both chemistry and material science. In
fact, Lee suggested that the collective force of these new technologies could have the
same impact on chemistry as the human genome project had had on biology. We were, in his
view, on the threshold of being able to map our chemical universe.
Chemical reactions also play a major role in the functioning of our brains. Scientists
have made great strides over the past few decades in understanding how our brains do what
they do that is, how they enable us to think. Yet, for the most part, the
functioning of the brain remains a mystery. As Ricardo Miledi noted in his lecture, the
brain may well be our last scientific frontier, proving even more mysterious and
challenging to explore than outer space.
The human brain
Ricardo Miledi, Director of Cellular and Molecular Neurobiology at the
University of California at Irvine (USA) noted that the human brain contains billions of
neurons that are interconnected by an even greater number of synapses fibrous
sites where nerve cells touch other nerve cells to produce a complicated network of
information exchange. The brain's intricate functions from language skills to
unspoken abstract thoughts and images depend on signals that are transmitted
For these exchanges to take place, however, a neurotransmitting substance must
be released from transmitting cells and subsequently absorbed by receptor cells that are
located along the brain's membranes. The brain, in fact, has many transmitters and
receptors but until recently scientist knew little about them. They were simply too small
and inaccessible to study.
Now, however, frog oocytes (unfertilised eggs), together with powerful new laboratory
equipment, could help medical researchers probe the mysteries of the brain. By injecting
RNA into these frog eggs, scientists are able to observe the action of transmitters and
receptors on a scale that adds valuable knowledge to our understanding of the brain's
functions. According to Miledi, the frog eggs provide the software--that is, the membrane
models that shed light on the neurological interactions occurring within the brain.
Meanwhile, powerful new microscopes and computers provide the hardware that enable
scientists to examine these interactions for the first time.
Such efforts, Miledi noted, would not only help satisfy human curiosity but could help
refine old drugs or lead to the development of new ones that would help combat the scourge
of mental illness.
Prozac, for example, has proven to be an effective drug used to counteract mental
depression. Indeed, last year, the drug generated US $5 billion in global sales. As Miledi
observed, scientists know this much: prozac makes chronically sad people happier and it
seems to achieve this sanguine effect by interrupting certain signals sent from the
brain's transmitters to its receptors. But scientists do not know how prozac accomplishes
its good work or, for that matter, the drug's potential adverse impacts on other
brain-related and neurological systems.
That's one reason why the research on oocytes could prove invaluable. Miledi suggested
that such research could help scientists better understand how drugs like prozac work and
thus enable them to devise procedures that are more effective and less risky.
As F. Sherwood Rowland, Nobel Laureate and Foreign Secretary of the U.S. National
Academy of Sciences, noted, scientists have known about tropospheric ozone, or smog, for
more than a century. The grey-like haze that hovers along the sidewalks and streets of
most large cities and infiltrates the lungs of old and young alike is
created when hydrocarbons and nitrous oxides interact in sunlight.
Rowland noted that ozone levels have increased substantially across the globe over the
past century, largely as a consequence of our burning more and more fossil fuels, which
emit hydrocarbons into the atmosphere. Today, 75% of all the energy we generate, including
85% of all industrial energy, is derived from the burning of fossil fuels.
Rowland also observed that the ozone problem was most acute in the world's largest cities
during the dead of summer when long, intense periods of sunlight combined with heavy,
slow-moving air to create a deadening atmosphere of gritty haze that posed serious threats
to public health. Yet, Rowland also noted that the burning of agricultural waste and the
clearing of forests, although not as critical as the burning of fossil fuels in the
creation of ozone, nevertheless contributed to the problem.
Today, all continents and all countries face an ozone problem. Incidences like the recent
closing of schools, business, and factories in Malaysia due to life-threatening smog
(caused by the extensive clearing and burning of forests) are likely to increase in the
years ahead as the world's population increases and more and more people live in densely
populated metropolises. In 1900, the world had 13 cities with one million inhabitants; by
2025, it is estimated that there will be 500 cities inhabited by one million people or
more. That's why Rowland concluded his talk with this observation:
- ozone, which emerged as a significant problem in the last half of the 20th
century, will likely become a critical problem in the first half of the 21st century. As
the global economy expands into the far corners of the earth and an increasing number of
nations benefit from a rise in their GDP, ozone is one problem to which everyone will
contribute and from which everyone will suffer.
Godwin O.P. Obasi, Secretary-General of the World Meteorological
Organization (WHO), spoke of another critical atmospheric problem that has been at the
centre of scientific debates for the past two decades the problem of global
warming. As Obasi observed, most scientists agree that increased levels of carbon dioxide,
methane, nitrous oxides, and chlorouflourcabons into the atmosphere have caused the
temperature to rise between 0.3 degrees Centigrade and 0.6 degrees Centigrade over the
past century a rate of change that is higher than any over the past 10,000
years. Now, a consensus has emerged among scientists that global mean average temperatures
are likely to increase by 2 degrees Centigrade over the next century.
As Obasi also noted, current scientific models are far from perfect. As a result, the
debate over global warming and climate change must continue. However, recent
meteorological events suggest that the world is indeed becoming warmer. Obasi, for
example, stated that 1995 was the warmest year on record. Episodes of extreme weather,
another characteristic of global warming, seem to be occurring more frequently. Witness
the recent floods in the Great Plains of the USA and in Eastern/Central Europe and the
expected intense weather patterns, including cyclones and hurricanes, that scientists fear
will accompany the world's next bout with El Niño beginning in late 1997.
Obasi concluded by stating the impacts of climate change on regional ecosystems could be
extensive. For example, if current scientific projections prove correct, forested areas
could experience changes in habitat that would impact both the flora and fauna of various
tree-dominated ecosystems. Farmers in agricultural areas, in turn, might find that crops
grown for centuries can no longer be cultivated. Islands and low-lying coastal areas could
be inundated by rising sea levels. Fresh water supplies could become tainted by salt or
other contaminants. And public health everywhere could be adversely effected by the spread
of bacteria and viruses into environments that become more hospitable to the growth of
disease-transmitting organisms due to warmer and wetter climates.
In light of these possibilities, Obasi suggested that the scientific community should
pursue several different courses of action:
- scientists should work hard to improve the
reliability of their models. Decision-makers across the globe would benefit from more
accurate information on the future patterns and impacts of climate change. Equally
important, the public would likely rally behind the mitigation policies and programmes
that were adopted both by their own nations and international organizations if they had
greater confidence in the projections made by the scientific community.
- individual governments and international
organizations would be wise to pursue policy measures that have broad positive
environmental impacts beyond the issue of global warming. For example, policies designed
to curb carbon-dioxide emissions would not only blunt a rise in temperatures but would
have the more immediate impact of reducing smog. Similarly, programmes designed to
increase energy efficiency would reduce the cost of doing business and free capital for
other worthwhile investments. Such measures, according to Obasi, would likely be easier to
enact because they carry both short- and long-term benefits.
Building capacity step by step
Representatives from TWAS, IFS, UNESCO, Third World Organization for
Women in Science (TWOWS), African Academy of Sciences (AAS), and the U.S. National Academy
of Sciences participated in the panel discussion on institutional sustainability
that is, how do you build a solid and sustainable administrative foundation capable of
pursuing effective S&T policies over the long term?
C.N.R. Rao, TWAS Founding Fellow and Vice President, opened the session by observing that
many international organizations, including TWAS, IFS and ICSU, worked closely together to
overcome the built-in disadvantages for example, poor pay,
inadequate equipment and intellectual isolation that often impede scientific
research in developing countries. These organizations, Rao observed, had focused on
activities aimed at:
- improving science education and teaching;
- increasing public understanding and appreciation for science; and
- developing networks that keep scientists in the developing world in touch with their
colleagues across the globe.
Networking, Rao suggested, might be the most important prerequisite for
the sustainability of science in the South over the long term.
John G. Field, President of ICSU's Scientific Committee on Ocean Research (SCOR), pointed
to SCOR's efforts to provide travel grants to scientists in the South while, at the same
time, holding workshops and training programmes in developing countries all in an
effort to overcome the debilitating impact that professional isolation has on scientists,
particularly young scientists, in the South. Mohamed H.A. Hassan, Executive Director of
TWAS, addressed the need for all developing nations to continue to build their domestic
capacity in S&T. Such efforts, Hassan said, would require:
- improving the working conditions for scientists;
- increasing the number of women working in science;
- encouraging regional cooperation; and
- enhancing public awareness of the role that science plays in advancing the economic and
social well-being of all people.
Björn Lundgren, President of IFS, urged international organizations to
identify specific areas where they could make a difference in capacity-building and to
pinpoint the comparative advantages that they enjoy in comparison to other like-minded
institutions with similar goals. That's the only strategy, Lundgren observed,
that would enable international organizations to maximise the impact of their
investments in capacity building. IFS, he noted, focuses its efforts on young
scientists of Southern origin who carry out their research in developing countries.
Lydia Makhubu, President of TWOWS, cited a host of inter-related factors that continue to
undermine strategies for improving scientific inquiry in the developing world,
particularly in Africa. These efforts, she noted, have too often failed
have to build a system that promotes indigenous knowledge, skills and institutions.
In particular, Makhubu highlighted the problems created by the absence of women in science
throughout the developing world. She suggested that their absence impacted the scientific
community in ways that we have only begun to understand. Makhubu contended that the
following issues demanded serious attention not only for the sake of women but for the
sake of science as well:
- Has the scientific community, for example, ignored some key issues as a result of the
absence of women?
- Would the scientific and technological enterprise be following a different path if more
women were involved in research? These issues,
T.R. Odhiambo, President of the African Academy of Sciences, raised
another critical issue related to the problems of sustainable capacity-building
- the decreasing number of young scientists
in Africa waiting in the wings to replace the continent's current generation of
Paralleling the concerns expressed by President Cardoso at the opening
of the Conference, Odhiambo noted that, like Brazil:
- Africa's shortcomings in S&T would
never be fully addressed unless there were a substantial decrease in illiteracy rates
accompanied by dramatic improvements in the overall quality of basic education. Odhiambo
cited the work of the Foundation of Children's Science Publications as a valuable step in
the right direction.
G. Thyagarajan, Scientific Secretary for the ICSU-affiliated
International Sciences Network's Committee on Science and Technology in Developing
- spoke of the need to enhance the ability of scientists working in the South to move from
one developing country to another as their careers unfolded
- highlighted the critical need throughout the South to increase researcher access to the
most up-to-date scientific data and information.
- expressed particular concern about the growing privatisation of scientific information
and the implications that this trend had for scientists, particularly those in the
- cited the importance of regional networks as a way of overcoming scientific isolation
and maximising the return on scientific investments.
Wendy White, Director of the U.S. National Academy of Science's
(NASs) Centre for Committee on International Organizations and Programs (CIOP) spoke
of the Academy's interest in promoting capacity-building in the developing world. She
cited NAS's membership of ICSU and the investment that it has made in facilitating the
flow of scientific information on the Internet as two examples of the Academy's desire to
advance the goals of the COSTED-IBN.
V. Zharov, Director of UNESCO's Division of Basic Sciences, offered a broad overview of
UNESCO's efforts to support both formal education and overall public understanding of
science. He noted that, given the complexity of the issue, it was necessary to attack the
problem on several different fronts: for example, by promoting:
- basic education,
- scientific literacy,
- the distribution of scientific publications and monographs,
- better equipment and facilities, and
- public understanding and appreciation for the work of researchers.
Zharov pointed to the UNESCO/ICSU World Conference on Science to be
held in 1999 in cooperation with TWAS and other scientific organizations as an opportunity
to revise the global scientific agenda and define new strategies for both
capacity-building and the use of S&T for sustainable development. He invited everyone
in attendance at the Rio Conference to participate in UNESCO's World Conference on
Science, especially through the regional associated meetings that would be taking place
over the next 18 months or so.