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African Academy of Sciences elects first woman president

Image: Lise Korsten

South Africa’s Lise Korsten to lead unsettled continental science body

The African Academy of Sciences has elected a new governing council headed by a woman—the first in the organisation’s 37-year history.

The pan-African honorific science body announced its new governance lineup in a statement on 22 June. Lise Korsten, a plant pathologist based at the University of Pretoria, will lead the seven-strong council from July 2023-2026.

Korsten narrowly beat former AAS vice-president for Southern Africa, Iqbal Parker, to the presidential post with 53 votes against 49. A third candidate, Norbert Hounkonnou, received 34 votes.

The vote took place from 16-20 June and was hotly contested. The AAS has been rocked by controversy since 2020, when the governing council suspended its then executive director Nelson Torto for alleged mismanagement. Earlier this year, Torto won a court case in Kenya against the AAS, which ruled his dismissal unfair and the allegations against him unsubstantiated.

In 2021, a number of research funders including the Wellcome Trust moved their grants from the AAS’s grant management arm, claiming they were concerned about governance at the academy. A number of staff at the academy’s secretariat lost their jobs, and some are challenging the academy in court over the way they were let go.

Many fellows of the academy have expressed concern over the conflicts rocking the academy in recent years. One of them, John Mugabe, a science policy expert at the University of Pretoria, said that although he did not know the newly elected council well, he hoped it would “steer the academy in the right direction”.

Korsten told Research Professional News that she is “excited” about taking the AAS forward.

“From a historic perspective, it is such an important academy and its founding members will remain our anchors. The academy has done well and the leadership has charted this organisation forward with commitment and passion,” she wrote in an email this week.

“We plan to continue with a concerted drive to increase fellows, actively recruiting within the diaspora and particularly focusing on female scientists. An important focus will also be to closer align with other academies,” she added.