News from the National Academy of Sciences

January 18, 2011


Ismail Serageldin to Receive Academy's Most Prestigious Award

WASHINGTON -- Hailed as a pioneer in the movement to re-establish the importance of science in the Arab and Muslim world, Ismail Serageldin, the founding director of the New Library of Alexandria, has been awarded the Public Welfare Medal, the National Academy of Sciences’ most prestigious award.  Established in 1914, the medal is presented annually to honor extraordinary use of science for the public good. 

 Serageldin, an Egyptian national, has advocated for greater equality in science and society at large, a mission shared by the National Academy of Sciences.  “We honor Dr. Serageldin for his leadership in a number of venues, most recently as the founding director of the New Library of Alexandria,” said John Brauman, home secretary of the National Academy of Sciences and chair of the selection committee for the award.  “He has been a champion for the use of science in sustainable development and for liberating minds from the tyranny of intolerance, bigotry, and fear.”

Serageldin is a knight of France’s Legion of Honor, member of the Egyptian Senate, chairman of the Executive Council of the World Digital Library (WDL), professor of the International Chair Savoirs contre pauvreté (Knowledge Against Poverty) at Collège de France, Paris, and the recipient of 30 honorary doctorates from universities around the world. He received a Ph.D. in urban and regional planning from Harvard University and began a career in academia. In 1972 he joined the World Bank as an economist; quickly rising through the ranks he worked there in a number of capacities, including vice president for environmentally and socially sustainable development from 1992 to 1998, and for Special Programs from 1998 to 2000.

Throughout his illustrious career, Serageldin has earned a reputation for applying science to nearly every type of global problem. He is perhaps most highly regarded for his attempts to combat hunger in developing countries through the promotion of sustainable agriculture. As chairman of the World Bank’s Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research from 1994 to 2000, Serageldin worked to protect the food supply of a global population that is poised to expand by an estimated 2.5 billion people during the next four decades. 

Today, he is the director of the New Library of Alexandria, a major cultural and intellectual center built in 2002 near where the famed Library of Alexandria stood from 288 B.C.E. until approximately 400 C.E. when it was destroyed.  Serageldin played a leading role in founding the new library, hoping that the institution would rekindle the great intellectual heritage that, until relatively recently, defined the Arab and Muslim world.

Despite the recent construction of large, cutting-edge research facilities in the Persian Gulf, Serageldin has said, most Muslim-majority countries remain reluctant to invest in science and publish noticeably fewer studies than other countries of similar economic status. Serageldin has blamed “an increasingly intolerant social milieu” where the scientific enterprise is continually challenged by growing contingents against science, notably creationist proponents in the United States and religious extremist groups in the Middle East. 

In a 2008 editorial in Science†, Serageldin wrote, “Science requires much more than money and projects. Science requires freedom: freedom to enquire, to challenge, to think, and to envision the unimagined. We must be able to question convention and arbitrate our disputes by the rules of evidence. It is the content of scientific work that matters, not the persons who produced it, regardless of the color of their skin, the god they choose to worship, the ethnic group they were born into, or their gender. These are the values of science, but even more, they are societal values worth defending, not just to promote the pursuit of science but to have a better and more humane society.”

In Serageldin’s work to ignite interest in science and apply technological advances to global problems, his colleagues have said that Serageldin’s greatest talent is his ability to build consensus among those with conflicting viewpoints.

“Ismail Serageldin is a visionary driving force against narrow-mindedness in politics, science, and society,” said Ralph Cicerone, president of the National Academy of Sciences. “He fights ignorance with scientific reason and his knowledge of culture and the lessons of history.”

"Serageldin is also a very public figure," said Cicerone. “He shares the National Academy of Sciences’ commitment to educating the public about science.” His hour-long television show, “The Cairo Salon,” is broadcast weekly on Egyptian television. It discusses a wide range of issues and explores challenging frontiers in the hope of fostering a commitment to cultural and religious tolerance. Another television program, “Muslim Scientists,” which airs daily during the month of Ramadan, educates Arab viewers about historical accomplishments of the Muslim world. Also part of his relentless mission to inspire interest in science is a forthcoming TV science series where he will present topics ranging from physics and biology, to climate change and food security, to energy and water.

Serageldin’s "encyclopedic mind" is well-known, one supporter wrote, and his “incomparable mastery of world public welfare affairs” makes him a well-deserved recipient of the award.  “He renders his public service with unparalleled intellectual courage and incalculable personal sacrifice.”

The Public Welfare Medal will be presented to Serageldin on May 1 during the Academy’s 148th annual meeting. Previous recipients of the medal include Eugenie C. Scott, Neal Lane, Norman Borlaug, William T. Golden, Maxine F. Singer, C. Everett Koop, and Carl Sagan.

The National Academy of Sciences is a private, nonprofit institution that was established under a congressional charter signed by President Abraham Lincoln in 1863. It recognizes achievement in science by election to membership, and—with the National Academy of Engineering, Institute of Medicine, and National Research Council—provides science, technology, and health policy advice to the federal government and other organizations.

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†Science Vol. 321; 8 August 2008; p. 745

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