Promoting Abdus Salam's Vision

An interview with Adnan Shihab-Eldin
Promoting Abdus Salam's Vision

On a recent visit to ICTP, Adnan Shihab-Eldin, former Director General of the Kuwait Foundation for the Advancement of Sciences (KFAS) , paused at the sight of ICTP founder Abdus Salam's desk, preserved along with the Nobel Laureate's private book collection in the Centre's Marie Curie Library.  "This was the desk on which we signed an agreement in 1976 between Kuwait University and ICTP," he recalled.

That agreement provided support for young scientists from Kuwait and other Arab countries  to come to ICTP and benefit from its excellent courses, lectures and networking opportunities, opening doors to collaborative research at the frontiers of science. More than 40 years later, ICTP's agreement with Kuwait, now administered by KFAS, remains a key strategic partnership for science in that country and the region.

This is just one example of Shihab-Eldin's decades of scientific leadership and support for the development of science in Kuwait and the Arab region. He was recently honoured for his efforts by the family of Abdus Salam, who awarded him the Spirit of Abdus Salam Award, given to those who have worked tirelessly to further Salam's humanitarian passion and vision for the cooperation, promotion and development of science and technology in the developing  world.

Shihab-Eldin, who went on to assume leadership positions in other prestigious international organisations, came to Trieste to receive his award at the Spirit of Salam award ceremony. While he was at the Centre, he took some time to reflect on his decades-long connection with ICTP and the impact of Abdus Salam on his career.

You first met ICTP founder Abdus Salam in the 1970s. In what ways did he inspire you?

I was inspired by several things: his greatness as a scientist, combined with a very humble posture. He was so humble, in his attire and in the way he articulated his scientific accomplishments. His words resonated in my mind: that it is our duty, if we can, to do something, and contribute to the building or rebuilding of what science should be.

He never tired of bringing that message to the leaderships and to the scientific communities in the Arab region because he felt that it is a duty of the scientific community there to urge the political leadership to do something. And he kept sowing those seeds whenever there was an opportunity.

Professor Salam recognised that science and development flourish with diversity and openness, a principle I believed in, and continue to believe and practice. He considered science the ultimate endeavour of the human mind and spirit and stressed its fundamental role in advancement of societies and civilizations throughout human history. He was also passionate and dedicated to the revival of scientific leadership in Muslim countries as well as the need to promote a scientific culture in third world countries.

During his multiple visits to Kuwait and the region, Professor Salam devoted special attention to advocate for the establishment of science centres of excellence in Kuwait, the Gulf, and other Muslim countries. In numerous meetings with the leadership of Kuwait and other Gulf states, and when speaking at meetings and conferences, he urged all to take advantage of the new wealth to build world class centres of science excellence in the region, to foster social and economic development and generate wealth. His efforts inspired the establishment of numerous scientific research institutions and foundations in the region, including the establishment of the Kuwait Foundation for Advancement of Sciences (KFAS), in 1976, which is privileged to have the Amir of the state of Kuwait as its Chairman. The Foundation is a unique private-public foundation, supported by the private sector  financially to support development of STI in Kuwait, through funding of scientific research, capacity building initiatives and the establishment of centres of excellence. Its success, in part, has been through the establishment of strategic partnerships, with leading universities throughout the world, such as ICTP, being amongst the first. 

You've played a major role in the development of science in Kuwait, as vice president of Kuwait University and director general of Kuwait Institute for Scientific Research (KISR) and KFAS. Can you talk about your vision for the future role of science, particularly in the Arab and Muslim region?

There have been cycles of progress and regression. For example, in 1978 I launched a solar energy programme, at KISR, based on discussions I had with Professor Salam and with my colleagues at Berkeley [Editor's note: Shihab-Eldin is a graduate of the University of California, Berkeley and held research and teaching positions there].  Our thought was that, instead of burning oil and gas in our country to produce electricity,  we can use the  abundant solar energy at our disposal. Why don't we do some research, make it commercial, then sell the saved oil and gas abroad? At that time, climate was not yet an issue; it was more about finding a solution for saving the  valuable resource (oil) and selling it. We set up a programme. And we became successful. We built the first one-megawatt thermal CSP (concentrated solar power) station in the world with funding and technology  from Germany in Kuwait to test the German technology. The station  was inaugurated in 1984. We did make tremendous progress. But then came the invasion  in 1990, and the  subsequent war, which slowed our efforts down and the country got tired. The emphasis changed back to oil only, rather than finding innovative ways to diversify the economy. They said, let's not do solar energy, we have petroleum. So, you see, we took a series of quantum steps forward, and maybe half a step or more backward.

When I was Director General of KISR in the 70s and 80s, we succeeded to recruit about 150 Arab scientists from America and Europe to work in Kuwait, over a 10-year period, at KISR and the University. The goal was also to train the young Kuwaiti researchers at KISR and KU. Today many of the mid-career researchers in Kuwait are a product of these efforts, which were strongly supported and encouraged by the leadership of the country. Once again,  these efforts were marginalised, rather than encouraged, after 1990. We entered into another phase where everything has to be local

My vision for the future of science and technology in the region is based on the values and beliefs that I learned from Professor Salem, early in my career, which I have practiced and  continue to believe in strongly to this day. First, to have a thriving, flourishing and excelling science ecosystem, you have to have an inclusive open science system, allowing for the exchange of knowledge between local and international researchers and scientists, a system that allows some of your best to go out and engage with the best. This is number one.

Second, diversity in solutions is very important; you cannot just have the same model, especially when you are looking at individual countries and the innovation ecosystem within those countries. Even in one country, you should have different institutions focused on doing different things or doing the same thing differently, you have to have a diversity and openness to exchange. And you know, in a sense, this is what life is all about: biodiversity. Biodiversity allows you to have resilience to prevent you from extinction. We know that life was threatened by extinctions millions of years ago, and yet because of diversity we survived.

My outlook on what's happening in the Middle East is that there has been good progress in building institutions, following the example of Kuwait in the 1970s. What we are now seeing are those types of institutions flourishing in Saudi Arabia and Emirates and Qatar – what  Kuwait was doing in the 70s, 80s and 90s. So, the outlook for science excellence in the Middle East is good, especially in the Gulf countries.

You just made an interesting point about biodiversity and openness, which of course are the foundations of ICTP. In what ways do you feel that ICTP is still relevant and important to the development of science in less advantaged countries?

Well, it’s important in several ways. It remains as a unique setup. There are many institutions, in terms of content and delivery, that do similar things. But ICTP is unique in the sense that if I were a scientist in a developing country, I can be assured that I have a place here. I may go to Stanford, I may go to Cambridge, but that is not necessarily guaranteed. I may have difficulty due to a variety of reasons. That is not the same with ICTP. It's truly an  international science hub for people from various cultures.  Political and cultural preferences or biases are not found here. The fact that it has held that culture after all these years is a credit to the management and their efforts to ensure that ICTP embodies the tradition of Salam. This is a place that's open to all scientists from developing countries, especially the young, to come in and work with international scientists from advanced countries who come in here to try to find partnership and work on problems of common interest. And so this part is still unique, and by itself is very important.

The other thing is that ICTP has a potential to do so many things, if resources become available to move into other frontiers, because science is dynamic. Theoretical physics will continue to be important in the future but maybe not as frontier has other new things have developed. So you need to have the agility, as well as the tools and resources. I think ICTP has that ability to move into new frontiers of science, and has an agility to adopt and try to  see where things are heading and maybe opening a new area of concentration of activity, which has happened in the past.

ICTP's challenge and limitation is its ability to have an endowment that allows internal decision making rather than relying  completely on funding from outside, because that always imposes a limitation. I've talked to the leadership here, and I'm trying to help in any way I can. That's the secret of greatness of many of the big research universities in the United States in particular, but even in Europe: all of them have managed to build  a research endowment, some huge, some modest.

On a more personal note, you are a keen skier and a mountain climber. And you're writing a book. So could you share your thoughts on, first of all, the thrills of scaling peaks, and also your hopes for the book?

Well, let me start with the easy one. I have a love for mountains since I was young, because my father came from the Levant to Kuwait in 1936. He always had a love for mountains, and he used to take us on holidays from Kuwait in the summer to Lebanon, Syria, and then later on to Europe. He was very active and an adventurer, which I learned from him. He used to make me run two kilometres with him in the morning when I was 10 years old. Of course, when I went to California for my studies, my professors and my colleagues all skied and hiked. In February of this year, I climbed Kilimanjaro in Africa, and I am 79 years old, and you know, I had difficulties but I said, okay, that's why I'm doing it because of the challenge, not because it's easy. I also love skiing -- I have been to Italy eight times this year for skiing, but also for work, and hiking, and I'm going to the Himalayas in November. I played soccer when I was in college and beyond. My father always told me something well known in Arabic, a saying similar to the English: "a healthy mind in a healthy body".  

And about the book: I'm writing about a series of experiences that taught me what works and what doesn't work in building science, technology and innovation institutions. Taken individually, the experiences don't make much, but when you put them all in a thread, you start to see patterns and lessons that may be of value, whether in a historical context or for the future. My hope for writing the book is not so much the little stories about my being here or my being there, but that it may affect or influence a young scientist or a young institutional manager or government. I think the way I'm going about it will be of benefit not just to our region, it could be global, that's the reason I'm starting to write it in English. I'm usually a very slow writer, so I have asked a colleague to help me write it. We hold sessions regularly; I hope within a year or two, it will come out. And I think this would be a contribution that I make, because I feel I need to tell the story. Whether it's successful or not, I don't know. I've been lucky to interact with so many great people, starting with Salam,  and with many prime ministers and presidents. Each institution I have worked in has taught me different things. But they all fit at the end in the big picture. I hope that the book will bring out the sum of all of these experiences.

---Mary Ann Williams

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