The Founders of IFS: Four Scientists Whose Lives and Work Continue to Inspire Us

Published: 2022-02-24

In last month’s blog post, we introduced the theme of IFS’s 50th anniversary year of celebration – Supporting Early Career Scientists in the Global South for 50 Years and Counting. This month we will learn more about who our founders were and what motivated them to recognize the need for an organisation such as the International Foundation for Science.


From leftSven Brohult, Roger Revelle, Abdus Salam and Robert E Marshak

Beginnings and Being Human

At the time of IFS’s founding and of the above photograph (from left to right), chemist Sven Brohult (1905-2001) was President of the Royal Swedish Academy of Engineering Sciences; oceanographer Roger Revelle (1909-1991) was the Chairman of the Harvard Center for Population Studies; physicist Abdus Salam (1926-1996) was the Director of the International Center for Theoretical Physics in Trieste, Italy; and physicist Robert E Marshak (1916-1992) was a Professor of Nuclear Physics at Rochester University.

Online searches about each of these men show there is much to be learned about their backgrounds, careers, scientific achievements and legacies. Reading biographies and media articles about them – and watching the 2019 documentary Salam: The First ****** Nobel Laureate – reveals much more about who they were as people. Humble beginnings marked their early years: among their parents were teachers, a school administrator, a seamstress and a peddler. They each took advantage of educational opportunities that enabled them to become renowned scientists and influential leaders. They also had profound professional and personal life experiences that shook and shaped their views of the world and of humanity.

Revelle and Marshak were both involved in the US effort to develop atomic bombs, as Salam was in his home country of Pakistan. All three later became outspoken critics of nuclear weapons, leading to their involvement in such bodies as the Federation of American Scientists, Union of Concerned Scientists, and the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs. The careers of both Salam and Marshak were affected by their cultural backgrounds, the former because his family belonged to the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community and the latter because his parents were Jewish immigrants from Russia to the United States. Revelle’s own views were met with apprehension by his prosperous community of La Jolla, California, because of his opposition to discrimination against Jews.

It could be said of each of IFS’s founders, as Henley and Lustig (1999) wrote of Robert Marshak, that they were “driven by a desire to help bring about world peace and prosperity and with an understanding of the unique role that science should play in achieving these goals” and that they had “an unquenchable quest for social justice”.

Boundaries and Borders

This sentiment of Sven Brohult’s (1969) is indicative of a trait shared by the IFS founders: “One can learn to free oneself from certain limitations in one’s thinking and avoid being limited by the familiar frameworks and thought paths”. His own journey into such open-mindedness was certainly propelled in part by his studies in France as a teenage scholarship recipient and later university graduate. He even joined the French Minister of Research to organise a “Tour de France scientifique”, inspiring school students in Sweden and the rest of Europe for further studies and research. 

The founders also traversed the boundaries of disciplines and any particular field of study’s limitations, in Revelle’s case initially because of the nature of oceanography. He later “brought a refreshing perspective to global food problems, embedding them in the matrix of population, resources, economic development, energy, and, of course, knowledge— discovered, integrated, communicated, and applied” (Malone, Goldberg and Munk, 1998). The physicist Marshak became “a leading statesman of world science and contributed enormously to strengthening communications and cooperation among scientists across borders and consequently to world peace and well-being” (Henley and Lustig, 1999).

Actual country borders and international relations featured prominently in how the founders approached their scientific pursuits, at times brushing up against the powers of governments. In the documentary about Salam (Beall, 2019), his son Ahmad recalls “… his father’s passion and anger to help overcome the greed and arrogance of the developed countries towards the developing countries”. Despite the conditions faced by his community in Pakistan, Salam returned there from the UK several times to live and/or work, such was his commitment to his homeland’s development. He must have seen himself as a bridge across age-old human chasms.

Revelle also recognised the importance of getting involved in addressing inequalities between so-called developing and developed nations, in particular concerning climate change issues. His was an early voice saying that “the continuing addition of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, oceans, and biosphere could lead to global warming” (Malone, Goldberg and Munk, 1998). For his outspoken views, Marshak was thought likely to have been interrogated by the US government because of his bridge-building efforts, when he was among the first American scientists to visit the Soviet Union in 1956 after the death of Stalin (Henley and Lustig, 1999).

Ahmad Salam’s words (Beall, 2019) say it all:

Inequality in every sense is higher now than ever in history. Abdus Salam strived to make developing countries invest in education, science and technology to help their economic prospects, whereby they would grow faster and more sustainably with the support of the developed countries. That message is as relevant now as it was 50 years ago.

Scientists and Mentors: The Work of a Lifetime

The IFS founders’ unwavering commitments to the advancement of global science played out on high-profile international public stages, in their hands-on work with younger scientists everywhere, and through the establishment of organisations that continue to this day. Sven Bruholt considered IFS and the Swedish-French Research Association to be among the four cornerstones of his career endeavours, along with research into the European snail Helix pomatia and the drug Ecomer. Abdus Salam and Robert Marshak were not only friends; together with others they founded the International Centre for Theoretical Physics at Trieste, Italy, where they served as Director and Science Council member, respectively. ICTP was set up “specifically to provide a place for students from developing countries to connect with academics from around the world” (Beall, 2019). Marshak also “sought out the best graduate students from overseas, notably from India, Pakistan, and Japan, and brought them to Rochester … Many of these students later became leaders in their countries’ scientific communities” (Henry and Lustig, 1999).

In outlining his life philosophy, in addition to notions about improving natural, social, human and educational environments, Roger Revelle knew that “to create a new world, we must first create within ourselves a higher concern for good, a stronger will for right action, and a deeper sense of brotherhood” (Malone, Goldberg and Munk, 1998). In other words, as we make our way through our own life’s work, we can each ask ourselves how we can be “a most generous friend and mentor, particularly to students and junior colleagues”, as Robert Marshak’s own colleagues wrote about him (Henry and Lustig, 1999).

An Idea with a Future

Take a moment to look back at the photograph of Sven Bruholt, Roger Revelle, Abdus Salam and Robert Marshak. Take stock in your mind of what has changed in the world since this moment was recorded for us to appreciate. Now pull up a chair among the founders of the International Foundation for Science and, one at a time, tell them about how IFS has continued and improved its support of early career scientists in the Global South. You might mention, as examples of their foresight, the:

  • Diversity of scientific professionals and communities now seated around a much larger table
  • Increasing numbers of women grantees, now at 40% of new grants awarded
  • Mentorship activities at the Secretariat, Scientific Advisory Committees and between established scientists and grantees
  • Research being conducted into climate change, food and water systems, and pandemic issues, among other pressing matters
  • Collaborative research projects carried out across borders in and between Africa and Asia, on topics such as biodiversity, underutilised species, and climate change adaptation and mitigation
  • Networks and associations of IFS alumni within countries, regions and globally, organising events such as a seminar in Benin in December 2021 on the decolonisation of scientific research in Africa
  • Numerous organisations from around the world who have affiliated and partnered with IFS over the years, including the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons and the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation’s Standing Committee on Scientific and Technological Cooperation, and the
  • Thirty-two donors who have generously funded IFS over the past ten years, and others before, including the continuous support of the Swedish government, whom Sven Bruholt was instrumental in bringing on board at the beginning.

The issues of their time compelled our founders to respond in a novel way by turning the scientific and development communities’ attentions and actions toward the needs – and mostly untapped potential – of early career scientists in so-called developing countries. Their sense of urgency must have been as strong as ours is today, buffeted as we are by the effects of climate change, political unrest, social and racial injustice, pandemic, misinformation and manipulation of truths, and a distrust of scientific and governing institutions, to name a few. IFS has continually evolved in response to the research needs of the day, and continues to do so. An Africa-based organisational development company is currently contracted to assess and recommend a next chapter for IFS, in terms of its programme, location and funding potential.

In 1969, on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the Royal Swedish Academy of Engineering Sciences, Sven Brohult and colleagues published a Swedish-language volume called Development Lines in Research and Technology (1919-2019). It was in two parts: “The past 50 years” and “The next 50 years”. The second part contained predictions about the future accomplishments of science. Among their “misses” was … humans on Mars by 1985, among the “near-misses” … small orbiting communities (if the International Space Station qualifies), and among the “hits” … broadband cable networks to homes.

At the start of this present 50-year span, four scientist-friends made another prediction of sorts that remains true: a research grant, capacity-enhancement activities and support do indeed contribute significantly to the work of early career scientists and to positive impacts in their countries. Calling Roger Revelle “no doomsday prophet”, Malone, Goldberg and Munk (1998) remind us of how he wrote in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 1966 that “This analysis and prescription are as good (and as dependent on knowledge) today as they were the day they were written.”



Beall, Abigail 2019 Abdus Salam: The Muslim science genius forgotten by history. 14th October 2019. []

Brohult, Sven 1969 Utvecklingslinjer inom forskning och teknik 1919-2019 (Development Lines in Research and Technology 1919-2019). Message 161. Stockholm: Royal Swedish Academy of Engineering Sciences.
[Utvecklingslinjer inom forskning och teknik 1919-2019 by Kungl. Ingenjörsvetenskapsakademien, IVA - Issuu]

Henley, Ernest M and Lustig, Harry 1999 Biographical Memoir of Robert Eugene Marshak (1916-1992). Washington, DC: National Academies Press. []

Malone, Thomas F, Goldberg, Edward D and Walter H Munk 1998 Biographical Memoir of Roger Randall Dougan Revelle (1909-1991). Washington, DC: National Academies Press. []



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