New partnership with Canada to broaden support for early-career women scientists in the developing world

15 November 2017

The Organization for Women in Science for the Developing World (OWSD) and Canada have begun a new partnership aiming to empower women researchers based throughout the developing world  to become leaders and role models in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). Canada’s International Development Research Centre (IDRC) has pledged approximately USD6 million OWSD over the next five years, matching the contribution renewed by long-term donor Sweden. The agreement was signed by UNESCO and IDRC in August 2017.

The two donors, IDRC and the Swedish International Development Agency (Sida) agreed to pool resources in order to provide a comprehensive career development programme for women scientists from 66 of the world's least developed and scientifically lagging countries (STLCs). OWSD now has two major fellowship strands: an existing PhD training programme funded since 1998 by Sida, and the new Early Career Women Scientist (ECWS) programme, funded by IDRC. The aim of the Sida-funded programme is to enable women from STLCs to leave their home countries and travel to better equipped laboratories and departments in other developing countries in order to complete their PhD training to internationally competitive standards. The aim of the IDRC-funded programme is to enable women with PhDs to stay in their home countries and continue their research to international standards, while training new PhDs and building a research team and centre of excellence in their field.

"PhD graduates often return to their home institutions only to find themselves in a scientific vacuum," explains OWSD President Jennifer Thomson, emeritus professor of Biotechnology based at the University of Cape Town, South Africa. "This new funding from IDRC aims to fill that vacuum and assist young women scientists to gain a foothold on the ladder to scientific development and future excellence. It aims to help these women not only to become leaders in their field of research, but also to become influential voices in their country for women in science."

Naser Faruqui, Director of Technology and Innovation at IDRC, commented that "IDRC is most pleased to join Sida in enabling the Organization for Women in Science for the Developing World to extend its longstanding graduate fellowships program now to early-career women scientists. OWSD's expanded program should encourage more young women to pursue and advance in their research career, through leading research teams at home, participating in international networks and collaborating with industry for their results to help build more inclusive societies." 

OWSD can now offer a full suite of mechanisms to support women scientists throughout their careers, increase their influence as scientific leaders in their field or institution, and engage them in innovations through partnership with industry. With IDRC funding, OWSD will target early career women employed at their home institutes in the South and provide the individual and institutional support they need to make sustainable links with industry and the private sector. A total of 60 women are expected to start and complete their fellowships by 2021, receiving support and training to set up laboratories and head research teams as well as transform their research ideas into marketable products. The first call for applications will go online in March 2018 and the first cohort of 20 fellows announced by October 2018.

Tonya Blowers, OWSD Coordinator, will be working with members of the OWSD Secretariat from their offices in Trieste, Italy to put the plan into action. She echoed the enthusiasm about the collaboration: “This new funding from IDRC takes the support OWSD can give to women scientists from developing countries to another level. We can now offer opportunities to women to enable them to stay in or return to academic institutes in their home countries and build up research laboratories or departments with international reputations for scientific excellence. These centres will become places that scientists from all over the world will want to visit and in this way more women from developing countries will become leaders and influential voices in science: choosing not just the kind of research that is done, but how, why and where it is done.”

For the past 20 years, with Sida funding, OWSD has awarded over 400 PhD fellowships in least developed countries and sub-Saharan Africa, and over 210 of these awarded fellows have graduated; there are currently over 160 women completing their fellowships. With renewed Sida funding, OWSD will support an additional 140 women from STLCs to obtain PhDs over the next five years. OWSD alumnae have often overcome great challenges to achieve research excellence and many are now lecturers and principle investigators in their home institutions. However, they still face many challenges.

With the new ECWS award at postdoctoral level, awardees (who may have received an OWSD PhD fellowships in the past although this is not a prerequisite) will be able to invest their energy and scholarship in building a research environment both at regional and international level. The award will have an important impact on local research cultures as well as on the awardees themselves, enhancing the visibility of their past work and creating new opportunities for the future.

Other donors may wish to expand existing strands or create new ones (mentoring, national chapter support, regional networking, professorial chairs, industry-to-academia fellowships, discipline-based groups). The Elsevier Foundation already funds a highly successful awards scheme run by OWSD to annually reward 5 Early Career Women Scientists from 5 world regions.

The Organization for Women in Science for the Developing World (OWSD)

OWSD was founded in 1987 and is the first international forum to unite eminent women scientists from the developing and developed worlds with the objective of strengthening their role in the development process and promoting their representation in scientific and technological leadership. OWSD provides research training, career development and networking opportunities for women scientists throughout the developing world at different stages in their careers. OWSD is hosted by The World Academy of Sciences for the advancement of science in developing countries (TWAS), a UNESCO Programme based in Trieste, Italy.