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Leadership Inspired by Salam

Fernando Quevedo reflects on decade as ICTP director

ICTP Director Fernando Quevedo
ICTP Director Fernando Quevedo


In many ways, ICTP outgoing director Fernando Quevedo represents the type of scientist Abdus Salam had in mind when the Nobel Laureate founded the Centre in 1964. Coming from a disadvantaged country in Latin America (Guatemala), Quevedo overcame tremendous odds to reach career milestones that would eventually lead to his appointment as a professor at Cambridge University, UK, and as director of a major, international science institute. Indeed, Quevedo often points to Salam as an inspiration not only for his scientific pursuits in theoretical physics, but also for his vision of how ICTP’s unique mission can transform the lives of scientists in the developing world.

During his 10 years as ICTP director, Quevedo has overseen ICTP’s transformation as a destination for students pursuing masters and PhD degrees, thanks to its joint programmes with local universities. The Centre has expanded its geographical reach with the establishment of four partner institutes on three continents. Responding to the needs of developing countries, ICTP has launched new research initiatives in areas such as renewable energies and scientific computing. In addition, the Centre started a new research section in Quantitative Life Sciences, reflecting ICTP’s acknowledgement of the importance of multidisciplinary research.

In his final interview as ICTP director, Fernando Quevedo reflects on the joys and challenges of leading ICTP, and shares his post-ICTP plans.

What were your expectations coming into the role as director of ICTP?

ICTP has been very close to my heart since I learned about it as a student. Over the years I participated in activities here as a visitor, as a participant in conferences, as an organizer, and as lecturer. I have been involved with activities as part of the ICTP family for many, many years. When I was asked to consider being director, I was overwhelmed to think that I could have the opportunity to make a difference within ICTP, so I didn’t hesitate to apply.

I come from a developing country, Guatemala. I managed to build a career thanks to people helping me to get opportunities. I have always felt a duty to do the same for other scientists. I sympathize with every scientist who has had to struggle to be able to develop a career in science. I was one of them; people gave me the opportunities, opened the doors to me and I managed to succeed, so I felt it as a duty to respond to society and the physics community and to do the same for others. Most of the job has met my expectations. I was able to do my own research, which was crucial, as I was convinced that to be the director of a science institute you have to be an active scientist, not a person who leaves science in the past. I kept up that commitment. I was able to support the community that needed the most help in science, from young students to visitors living in difficult conditions to people who are very good scientists in countries that are not supporting science so much. So that part of the job is a pleasure and was what I expected from the job, knowing what Salam had done.

Furthermore, it allowed me the opportunity to come up with new ideas and programmes that I managed to achieve, together with the support of the ICTP community. That is fulfilling the dream of what I expected here.

What I was not prepared for was to see how difficult the administrative aspect of the job is in the sense that you need to keep a balance between funding, reporting to the different members of the steering committee and coordinating with the administrative system within UNESCO.

Looking back, I think I have achieved more than I was dreaming to, thanks to the scientists and administrative staff at ICTP. Without all this support over the years I could not have done it. It is good to have an idea, but the important work is the follow- up, for which you have to rely on other people.

For nearly 55 years, ICTP has supported scientific capacity building in the developing world.
In what ways is its mission still relevant?

I would say it is more relevant now than when it started. The map of developing countries has changed substantially; we always mention the case of China, Brazil, and India becoming scientific powers, but there are still scientists in those countries and in most of the other developing countries for which ICTP’s mission has been very good. Although we have happened to create a culture of science in many places and regions, the rich countries are becoming more and more advanced in science, so the gap is still growing. That means the need is bigger, it is like the expanding universe, things are always farther and farther away. Without an institution like ICTP this gap would have been even worse, so that justifies ICTP’s existence and expansion. The only frustration you can have is that there are all these people who will be definitely benefiting from any action that ICTP can do for them, but we have limited resources and cannot reach all of them. In that sense there is plenty of room for something to make ICTP bigger, the demand is there.

What challenges does ICTP face now that may not have existed 50 years ago?

There are many. I would say the first challenge that we usually overlook is survival. For every institution that is a challenge, to re-invent itself in order to survive. Funding is always complicated too. The appreciation of basic sciences is under question because of all the other challenges related to applied subjects. One of the reinventions of ICTP is to enter applied subjects, so that we don’t just rely on the basic science part, but it is important to remain faithful to its original mission and to start with the basic sciences as the core of the centre. Both in developed and developing countries there’s an emphasis on just applied subjects. It is a challenge for ICTP to keep up with its mission. There are also good challenges: there are more institutions with their eye on developing countries—we have some healthy competition—so in that sense it is a challenge for ICTP to keep up as THE institution that is representing excellence and support for developing countries.

What influence has ICTP had on your own scientific career?

Salam was a role model. I had a job interview once and was asked which scientist I most admired, and I thought about all obvious cases like Darwin or Einstein and Newton and Weinberg, who was my supervisor. But then suddenly the figure of Salam came up and he is a special scientific role model, because he represents the combination of doing good science but at the same time having a strong commitment to developing countries. ICTP is the model institution that I and others in developing countries always dreamed to create to provide opportunities for other scientists. ICTP was an example of what can be done.

What are your post-ICTP plans?

I will go back to Cambridge, and continue my research and teaching. I have already accepted a PhD student. Hopefully, here and there, I can still contribute to activities related to the ICTP mission.

One of the activities I would like to continue is the Latin American Science Forum for Research Infrastructure (LASF4RI). I have been involved for more than two years in this, and as it is in my region of the world, I know the community and I know that this is the next stage for things to be done there. I am not an experimentalist so I can play a role but not a leading role; I think it is important to support the community, together we can do much more.

On a more personal note, which physics theory would you most like to see experimentally validated?

Of course, something related to string theory! In practice, I would be extremely excited if they see tensor modes (gravitational waves) from the cosmic microwave background. That would be evidence of the earliest moments of the universe. And of course I experienced that feeling before: they had announced that they had discovered these a few years ago, but it was wrong, so the excitement I felt at that time, I will feel it again!

--Mary Ann Williams