Memories of Christian de Laet

from Jose I dos R Furtado


I met Christian when he was in Papua New Guinea and invited to join the Environmental Review of the Mekong Project for ESCAP conducted by the Ford Foundation. I was one of the substantive reviewers on aquatic ecology and inland fisheries, based on my own work on inland fisheries and the international study of the structure and function of an inundated alluvial swamp forest, the Tasek Bera, under the auspices of ICSU’s International Biological Programme (IBP) on comparative biological productivity of agricultural and natural ecosystems. Our research was financed mainly by the Japan Science Council and the Royal Society London. We had started an Ecology Degree programme at the University of Malaya in 1965 our Honours students were able to engage in parts of this programme, and I had started Wallaceana, a regional ecology newsletter, to enable ecologists in the region to get to know one another since they were otherwise linked to their former metropolitan economies.

At the Commonwealth Science Council, Christian was instrumental and successful in moving its work from a liaison function exchanging sciernce and technology information to a programmatic function demonstrating technology transfer and applications to development. However the Science Council wanted a greater emphasis on science and invited me to succeed Christian and charged me to strengthen scientific capacity for application to technology for development.

Due to Christian’s foresight, I was able to develop this programme with the help of John Kendrew, FRS, Nobel Laureate and it lasted about 20 years, and many of its decentralized networks are still functioning as I discovered in my post-retirement travels. Science Council members divided their priorities between S&T capacity strengthening, S&T planning or S&T information exchange. The sudden disbanding of the Commonwealth Science Council has left most developing countries with a dilemma of strengthening their scientific capacity for development, since such capacity cannot be bought or sold like technology transferred or economic planning techniques. 

I understand that the Commonwealth Secretariat has recently restarted some programmes in natural resources and the environment.