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40 years in the company of a remarkable scientist

Published: 2014-09-30

Atta-ur-RahmanThis autumn, Professor Dr Atta-ur-Rahman reaches the conclusion of his tenure as a Trustee (2007-14) and his active contribution to the governance of IFS. As we contemplate an International Foundation for Science without the regular, kind and generous support we have enjoyed from Atta-ur-Rahman, we also reflect on the journey we have travelled in the last 40 years from 1974 until 2014. Read more...


At the conclusion of a Trustee’s tenure we take the opportunity to celebrate the contribution made and, as a token of our appreciation, we present a stone carved in the runic alphabet which was used during ancient times in Scandinavia. The runic inscription references the founding president of the International Foundation for Science, Sven Brohult, whom together with Abdus Salam, Roger Revelle and Robert Marshak signed the IFS Charter in May 1972. This very stone will shortly be making its way to Karachi, as a tiny contribution to the many accolades that Atta-ur-Rahman has received in his on-going career.

Just two years after the IFS Charter was signed, and with a Ph.D. in organic chemistry from Cambridge University, Atta-ur-Rahman became the 139th person to receive an IFS research grant. In those days it was possible to be awarded four IFS grants and Atta-ur-Rahman was awarded grants in 1976; 1977; 1979; 1980 for work in the field of natural products around the synthesis of reserpine analogues and indoloquinolizidines from harmaline and harmine. Atta-ur-Rahman's work in this field had begun with his doctoral thesis on ’Synthetic Studies in the Indole Alkaloid Field’ under the supervision of Dr. J. Harley Mason. Since then he has gone on to isolate and elucidate the structure of bioactive substances from medicinal plants as well as marine plants and animals continued throughout a long and distinguished research career. Professor Atta-ur-Rahman is responcible for the discovery of several hundred new/novel natural products, many of which have exhibited exciting biological activities including anti-oxidant, anti-epileptic, anti-leishmania, anti-AIDS, immunomodulating, antiasthamatic, analgesic, nematicidal and anti-cancer activities.

Professor Atta-ur-Rahman’s contribution to science does not end with his research or his discoveries. He was elected Fellow of the Royal Society, London. He was awarded the UNESCO Science Prize (1999). He has honorary doctorate degrees from many universities including from his own Cambridge University and Coventry University. He is Honorary Life Fellow of Kings College, Cambridge and was most recently awarded the prestigious Friendship Award by China. Prof. Atta-ur-Rahman was Pakistan’s Federal Minister for Science and Technology, Federal Minister of Education and Federal Minister/ Chairman (Higher Education Commission) during 2000-2008 where he made revolutionary changes in higher education. It was during this period that somehow he managed to find the time to accept his election to the Board of IFS Trustees.

Of course these different roles drew on a common ethos of supporting the position of science in development and of promoting opportunities of young scientists. As Federal Minister of Science and later Chairman of the Higher Education Commission, Professor Atta-ur-Rahman made concerted efforts to raise the all important ratio of PhD level faculty to students enrolled in Pakistan. As a Minister of Science and an IFS Trustee he helped to attract the brightest young men and women to take up careers in research, stimulating impacts not only in his native Pakistan but beyond national borders and raising educational strivings of neighbours too.  In the Higher Education Commission and in his inputs to IFS his emphasis has been on excellence and high quality in every sphere of these organisations activities.

Whilst Professor Atta-ur-Rahman sometimes writes about the effects of aging, we see little evidence of its impact on his own energetic contributions. Not only as a prolific contributor to formal and popular science writing, but in his on-going campaigning efforts towards a world in which democracy, justice and merit prevails, where there is transparency in educational records and where equipment and information are widely shared. For example, his role in the Pakistan 'open access instrumentation' initiative - a scheme that allows scientists to send their samples for free analyses to any institution in Pakistan that has the facilities, or championing of the availability of Massive Open Online Courses to colleagues in and beyond Pakistan through the integrated platform (www.lej4learning.com.pk). Indeed, our own Approach 3 in the IFS 10-Year strategy owes its name ‘Contributing Innovation’ and much of its context to Professor Atta-ur-Rahman’s wise counsel and advice and his unceasing efforts to unleash the creative potential of young scientists.

Atta, all at IFS salute your huge contribution to the future of science, and look forward to working with you in the shared contexts in which we will find ourselves together again going forwards.



  1. Syed Ehtisham-ul-Haque, Oct 07, 2014 at 04:58 PM

    Many prayers and salute for Prof Dr. Atta-ur-Rahman for having 40 years of scientific relations with IFS and out of which seven years as an IFS trustee. Great tribute for a great reformer of higher education in Pakistan. Best wishes for his health and prosperity.

  2. Patrick, Sep 30, 2014 at 06:09 PM

    Always good to get inspiration from a nice example !... cheers, and all the best (life starts at retirement, I was told - don't know whether this applies to retiring board members.. )

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