Beginning today, and for the next four days, Rwanda will host the general meeting for The World Academy of Sciences (TWAS), bringing together over 300 participants from over 50 countries.
TWAS is a global organization whose mission, it says, is to advance science in developing countries to support sustainable prosperity through research, education, policy and diplomacy.
Delegates at the meeting include science ministers and other high-level policymakers from across the world, prominent researchers and leaders from science associations, funding agencies, and non-governmental organizations.
The New Times’ reporter Collins Mwai spoke to Education minster Dr. Papias Musafiri Malimba and Prof. Bai Chunli, the President of TWAS, for insights about the summit, the role of the organization, and efforts toward scientific advancements, in general.
What are some of the sessions scheduled to take place at the summit?
This is an annual event that takes place in different parts of the developing world. This year’s annual general meeting is being held in Rwanda, with the major part of the meeting starting today.
The initial two days was a closed session for the TWAS secretariat and executive committee. There will be an official opening and an award of medals and prizes for distinguished scientists. In subsequent days there will be multiple sessions such as symposiums focusing of innovation, creativity and global epidemics, as well as a series of lectures and presentations from distinguished scientists.
We will also have a symposium focusing exclusively on the role of science and technology in Rwanda, whereby we will have presentation by young Rwandan scientists.
What has been the greatest contribution of TWAS to science, research and innovation to developing countries especially in Africa, thus far?
By and large, the major contribution we see in developing countries is in capacity building, research as well as scientific activities. TWAS has been focusing on supporting people who want to get PhDs, supporting people who want to go for post-doctoral studies and people who want to become research fellows.
In terms of socio-economic benefits, their contribution falls under thematic areas, including, physical and mathematical science, engineering and technology, life and medical sciences, agriculture, as well as arts and humanities.
What are some of Rwanda’s greatest milestones in the advancement of science and technology in terms of impacting socio-economic development?
The choice to host the meeting is not arbitrary; the reason why they chose Rwanda as the hosts is because there have been efforts to promote science and technology here. It starts with the visionary leadership that we have, with President Kagame being an icon of science and technology. Rwanda has taken to heart the role of science and technology in socio-economic development.
It is clear that, if we want to have a knowledge-based economy, developing skills is a springboard towards achieving our objectives.
Alongside that commitment, we have had multiple initiatives and significant investments. We have put in place policies and institutional frameworks, with the policy for science and technology in place since 2005 and we are in the final stages of trying to revise it. We have also put in place the national commission for science and technology.
We have also seen some tangible investments in the field; for instance, at the Kigali Special Economic Zone, we have space dedicated to Kigali Innovation Hub where centres of excellence, such as Carnegie Mellon University, have been setting up a presence.
We have also seen other regional centres of excellence developing within our national institutions.
What are some of the likely outcomes of the summit and what are the government’s expectations?
The potential benefit is creating networks, especially among our young scientists with accomplished scholars and scientists from around the world. There is also potential to connect our local institutions with the global institutions that are participating. One of the handicaps is that we do not have enough qualified people to manage these local centres of excellence. This is an opportunity of identifying people who would wish to come and become part of this effort.
What do you make of the current pool of scientists in the country?
The pool is very small but the problem is not having a large pool, even those we have are not very active. The majority of our academic institutions are preoccupied with teaching rather than focus on research, this is something we are trying to change. It is the output of applied research that spurs innovation.
What’s the role of Rwandan academics and scientists at the meeting?
We have done our best to ensure that local scientists and institutions take the lead at the summit, that they take full advantage. We have identified 61 scientists who will be showcasing what they did and will make presentations. We have also identified members of the academia and local research institutions who will showcase their expertise at the forum.
The creation of the Rwanda academy of science is a milestone which comes from this, and Rwanda academy of science is going to be a new member of TWAS.
PROF. BAI CHUNLI:
From TWAS perspective, what have been sub-Saharan Africa's most significant strides in science and innovation in recent years?
It is so encouraging to see that a number of countries, including Rwanda and Nigeria in Sub-Saharan Africa, have decided to pursue science and technology, innovation, and capacity building as the long-term development strategies in achieving sustained development. They have set examples for others in the region to follow.
In my last visit to Rwanda, I visited the national university here and saw with my own eyes the good science that was being done and good education offered. I also had a meeting with the university officials and science officials here. They all talked about the importance of science and education to this country.
I learned that the National Academy of Sciences of Rwanda had been established to coincide with the TWAS meeting. This is an indication of your country’s vision to rely on science and innovation to make your country a better place to live.
Another big indication is the decision of the Rwandan government to support this TWAS meeting. I am sure that TWAS and international scientific communities will give more support to your country to develop science and innovation. We will create a better future together.
Have scientists and researchers from sub-Saharan Africa had significant contribution to scientific development that has impacted the continent? If not, what are some of the reasons for the status quo and how can that be changed?
Africa is still struggling with poverty and uneven development. And, in many countries, there is not a history of advanced scientific enterprise. These challenges can be difficult to overcome.
However, this is a very exciting time for African science. Many governments are committed to investing in science and technology to advance economic growth and development. Though it's difficult, some are raising their investments in science and science education. Nations are building new universities, often focused on science and engineering. These are very positive developments, and, in the long-run, they should pay off with great dividends.
Already, Africa's science community has had a great accomplishment, and it's growing and showing great new energy. In Tanzania, Keto Mshigeni is one of Africa's pre-eminent natural scientists, he's done pioneering research into seaweed and mushrooms as important food sources.
In Kenya, Segenet Kelemu heads the The International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology, a big, thriving research institution that is doing great work in sustainable agriculture innovation. In South Africa, Quarraisha Abdool Karim has established a global reputation for her pioneering work to prevent HIV infection.
All of these scientists are elected TWAS Fellows. And they are part of a growing African network of scientists and policymakers who are committed to advancing African science. President Kagame is a very important and influential figure in this network.
What are some of the social, economic and development issues across developing countries that can be addressed by science and innovation?
Developing countries face diverse development challenges – food security, access to clean drinking water, infectious diseases, and natural disasters mitigation, environmental pollution, poverty mitigation, lack of talent and basic necessities and green development tech and climate change.
Science, technology and innovation are important means to address these challenges. We can provide effective solutions. We can train the people needed. Of course, the scientific community needs to work with other sectors – including government and private enterprise – to jointly address these challenges.
Going forward, how can we expand the pool of skills and scientists in the region as well as their contribution to innovation?
Progress begins with leadership. A nation needs good science policy. It needs education, training and a strong innovation ecosystem.
Africa needs further collaboration and partnerships with countries that have more developed science capacity. Meanwhile, TWAS will continue to provide help and assistance in training young scientists and upgrading their skills through the various programmes that we offer. I encourage young scientists in Rwanda and across the region to make continuous efforts to make very good use of existing opportunities.