Back to UNESCO WCS Home page


Sixth General Conference of
the Third World Academy of Sciences
Rio de Janeiro (Brazil), 6–11 September 1997

Executive Summary

Science for Sustainable Development in Latin America and The Caribbean
Opening Address
Brazil’s efforts to build a strong S&T infrastructure
Building capacity – step by step
S&T Policies in developing countries
From brain waves to global warming

Organization   Back to top

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.

Goals   Back to top

  • 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   Back to top

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.

Opening Address   Back to top

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.

Brazil’s efforts to build a strong S&T infrastructure   Back to top

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 schools;
  • building links between university-based scientific institutions and industrial firms; and
  • 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   Back to top

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 technologies; and
  • an inadequate technological infrastructure that inhibits access to the global computer network.

To overcome these obstacles, the panellists noted that developing nations:

  • must first address chronic problems related to widespread poverty and substandard educational systems.
  • 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 technologists.

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 warming   Back to top

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 collisions   Back to top

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   Back to top

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 through synapses.

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.

Air-related smog   Back to top

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’.

Global warming   Back to top

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   Back to top

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 scientists.

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 Countries (COSTED-IBN):

  • 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 developing world.
  • 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 (NAS’s) 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.


Contact:    Back to top
For further information, contact:


Associated Meetings List

Back to UNESCOBack to Natural SciencesBack to WCS