Ten African scientists among 2018 TWAS fellows

Ten African academics are among the 55 new fellows of The World Academy of Sciences or TWAS – the second-best showing by scientists from the continent in nine years.

Four South Africans and one each from Cameroon, Kenya, Morocco, Sudan, Uganda and Zimbabwe were elected TWAS fellows for excellence, announced on 26 January.

Based in Trieste, Italy, TWAS is a global science academy uniting 1,228 scientists in 70 countries with the goal to promote scientific capacity in developing countries. Sixteen of the new members are women – an unprecedented 29% of the new class.

The showing by the African continent is its second best in history and was achieved once before in 2004, although it fared better in 2009 when 11 fellows from the continent were chosen.

In the latest list fellows from China and India dominated, while South Africa led the African chart with four members, compared to 2016 when it had only one, with Kenya, Uganda, Zimbabwe, Cameroon, Sudan and Morocco having one each.

Other top performers globally include Brazil, with five, and Taiwan, which has three fellows.

However, the number of African fellows is lower than that of China, which has 12 members in the 2018 class, and India, with 11 scientists elected.

Among the prominent Africans picked in the latest round is the president of the African Academy of Sciences, Felix Dapare Dakora, who has been recognised for his research in grain legumes.

Idah Sithole-Niang of the University of Zimbabwe was praised for her role in the global research network for the genetic improvement of cowpea for Africa, which led to the development of insect-resistant cowpea varieties.

University of Cape Town professor and president of the Organisation for Women in Science for the Developing World, Jennifer Thomson, was recognised for her role in developing maize resistant to the African endemic maize streak virus.

TWAS Executive Director Romain Murenzi said the academy was aware of the membership gap between the more developed countries, such as China, India and Brazil, and the much poorer countries, with the majority of them found in Sub-Saharan Africa.

“To become a TWAS Fellow, a researcher must achieve the pinnacle of scientific excellence – that is a constant standard. But we recognise the membership gap between the emerging countries and the developing countries – Sub-Saharan Africa and the Least Developed Countries in particular,” the director told University World News.

The academy’s council was working hard to ensure that membership of TWAS was as diverse as possible, and was confident that this would be possible following policy adjustments initiated in 2016.

Even more efforts were being made to identify excellent scientists in countries where the academy needed more representation, mainly in low-income countries of Africa.

"For the TWAS council, it is a top priority to make sure that our membership is as broad and diverse as possible. Following policy adjustments approved in 2016, we are working harder than ever to identify excellent scientists in countries where the academy needs more representation.”

“Our membership committees are giving careful consideration to candidates from these countries and as a result, we have elected a very strong, diverse class of fellows for 2018,” Murenzi said.

China and India continue to dominate TWAS membership each year, mainly due to their strong policies and sustained investment in science, technology and innovation, Murenzi said, explaining the dominance in the number of fellows from Asia each year.

“To assess why China and India have come to dominate TWAS's new classes every year, whole books could be written. However, a country’s human resources are very important to its scientific advancement. But a nation’s will is very important, too, and this is reflected in its leadership,” he said.

“The common denominator for progress is strong policy on science, technology and innovation, backed by sustained investment in science and technology, including basic sciences,” Murenzi said.

TWAS uses a strict set of criteria to elect fellows, also known as members, the main one being scientific excellence.

Candidates must also be scientists whose contribution to their respective fields meets internationally accepted standards of excellence, and they may be working or living anywhere in the world, but if based in a developed country, must demonstrate efforts to promote science in developing countries.