Strengthening International Bonds

ICTP signs agreements with Imperial College London and Climate Compatible Growth
Strengthening International Bonds
ICTP Director Atish Dabholkar signing an MoU with Imperial College London President Hugh Brady.
Charlotte Phillips

ICTP’s 60th anniversary celebrations kicked off this year with the institute’s Director Atish Dabholkar signing two Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) agreements to solidify connections with key international collaborators. One of these was between ICTP and Climate Compatible Growth (CCG), a UK Aid-funded project aiming to support investment in sustainable energy and climate science in the Global South, while the other represents a strategic partnership between Imperial College London and ICTP, which will be dedicated to furthering global science.

Dabholkar talks about the relationship between ICTP, Abdus Salam, and Imperial, and what these new agreements could mean for the global scientific community.

Could you describe the connection between Imperial College London and ICTP?

It’s a very strong connection. Salam started to think about founding ICTP when he was a young professor at Imperial College, and it was not immediately clear whether such a project would be supported or succeed. 

At the time, he was not a Nobel Laureate; a very highly regarded physicist in his field, but not a celebrity. In the middle of his career, at the age of 36, it was actually really important to him to invest his time in creating a center like ICTP, and Imperial College allowed him to pursue this. He had to gather support from the Italian government and the IAEA. Then, when ICTP was being built, he was shuttling between Imperial, where he was a professor, and Italy. All this took years to develop, and Imperial College played an important role in making it happen. 

We’re celebrating the 60th anniversary of ICTP, but we really want to think about what we would like to be doing in 2064.

It’s also worth noting that some of Salam’s most important work, for which he later got the Nobel prize, was done when he was at both Imperial and ICTP. Signing these two MoUs is an acknowledgement of this historic connection and an occasion to think of ways to reinforce it. 

We’re celebrating the 60th anniversary of ICTP, but we really want to think about what we would like to be doing in 2064. It's not only about the past. I ask myself this question: what aspects of Salam’s legacy are still valid, and what aspects do I reformulate

There is a lot of momentum now to take ICTP to the next level.

Taking into account the changing realities in the world, I’m quite convinced that the basic vision of an international hub for science, where scientists from all over the world can come together, is even more valid today. The challenges we face are all very global challenges. A monsoon does not care about whether it is in India or China. This could be the role of ICTP in the coming years. It’s thus absolutely essential to have an international platform where conversations that transcend national boundaries can take place. As a neutral UN organization, ICTP has an important role to play in this regard.

Do you see a shift in ICTP’s scope?

The core vision of ICTP is open science – to make scientific resources globally available, overcoming the barriers of gender, ethnicity, geography, and economics. There is a lot of momentum now to take ICTP to the next level. For example, one initiative we have started is the International Consortium for Scientific Computing.

In my own research, I’m a pencil and paper physicist, much like Salam. However, in the coming decade, computation is going to be an essential part of scientific research, including modern high performance computing tools, modern algorithms, AI, and quantum computing. 

Unless people in the Global South have access to all this technology, they will not be able to do frontline science. Thus, open science now must include a notion of open access to computation. This is the thinking behind the new consortium for scientific computing. ICTP has strong domain expertise in many computationally intensive fields, including quantum materials and climate modeling. The idea of the consortium is to build upon this in collaboration with others. 

What is the scope of the CCG MoU signed at Imperial?

Nowadays, people are thinking of developing very high-resolution models, spending billions of dollars to do so, but to really benefit from these models, you need to have an expert community of scientists around the globe who can use these models to try to make some predictions and use these for down-stream applications. For example, Ghana depends on hydroelectricity, so they need to predict the rainfall for the next year using a climate model. To do so requires a strong community of Ghanian climate scientists who are familiar with the modern climate models. ICTP can play a major role in this task of creating such a global community, given our track record in offering advanced scientific training to scientists from the developing world.

This is where the CCG MoU actually comes in. The IAEA, one of our UN partners, has historically run many workshops on the topic of water, energy and climate together with ICTP. On leaving the IAEA, Mark Howells (Professor of Systems Analysis for Sustainable Development, Loughborough University, UK, and incoming Principal Research Fellow, Centre for Environmental Policy, Imperial College London) wanted to develop these activities further, and set up an annual summer school on Modelling Tools for Sustainable Development, that brought in energy modellers from across the global south. Mark Howells and scientists at ICTP saw the potential to develop this area further using the facilities and long experience of ICTP in supporting science across the global south, which has ultimately lead to the CCG MoU today. It will provide opportunities for us to do more of this kind of work. 

What will the ICTP-Imperial strategic partnership MoU cover?

ICTP has a really good Postgraduate Diploma Programme. We have trained students from 84 different countries, and this programme was originally fashioned after the current Master’s programme at Imperial. We’re happy to partner with Imperial College, and they are also looking to have an more global impact and diversify their student population, so we’re discussing the idea of collaborating on a high-level international Master’s programme. We’re also in discussions with the United Nations University about Master’s programmes, but this is all very preliminary.

All this will help us get ready for 2064.

The International Consortium for Scientific Computing will also come under the strategic partnership MoU between ICTP and Imperial College, as computing is not only about the climate, whereas the focus of the CCG MoU will be on the environment. All this will help us get ready for 2064.

Another idea is to create an institute for climate and sustainability at ICTP. We already have a really strong climate science group, so it makes sense to pick up some synergy with these two external collaborators, Imperial and CCG, to grow this into a bigger effect. These MoUs open the doors for potential developments of this type, helping us to look towards the future.

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