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  • Tough times for Zimbabwe's science minister

Munyaradzi Makoni explains how an economic crisis and a brain drain have created problems for Zimbabwe's science minister, Heneri Dzinotyiweyi.

[CAPE TOWN] Next month, Zimbabwe plans to make public the results of its science and technology policy review, which began in February.

The review could be seen as a verdict on the work of Heneri Dzinotyiweyi, who took over as science and technology minister two years ago with a pledge to rebuild the research capacity of institutions and plug the country's brain drain.

He has established a department for the commercialisation of research and development, as well as a framework for a national nanotechnology programme. There have also been talks of a science tax to resuscitate the sector. But apart from that, little has been achieved.

In an interview with SciDev.Net, Dzinotyiweyi admits that, without economic recovery, the country's science sector will continue to deterioriate.

Lack of funding

The major obstacle has been finding the money for scientists, universities and research institutes.

Dzinotyiweyi, a member of the Movement for Democratic Change party, which rules in a coalition with President Robert Mugabe's ZANU-PF party, told Zimbabwean newspaper NewsDay earlier this year that he is "disappointed by the lack of seriousness from government leadership".

"Zimbabwe's biggest challenge is to accept the thesis that we need to invest in [science and technology] to improve the economy. I am afraid and disappointed that government has not grasped that yet. They do not realise that we can contribute at least one per cent of GDP [gross domestic product] within a short time through this ministry," he told the paper.

After Mugabe's radical land reform programme in the 1990s, the country has experienced more than a decade of major economic and social upheaval, coupled with hyperinflation and social unrest, leading to dwindling financial revenues. Uncertainty about Mugabe's continued rule has left potential foreign investors at bay, and unrest has increased since Mugabe's statement in January that he will hold elections this year.

Dzinotyiweyi told SciDev.Net that the budgetary allocation for the science ministry this year is "peanuts". The ministry received less than US$7 million in the 2011 budget from an annual budget for the country of US$2.7 billion.

When asked if he was frustrated at the situation, Dzinotyiweyi said: "I do not think frustration is the word. We are already familiar with the situation ... since 2000 things have been deteriorating. It has been a battle — but that is the challenge we face.

"The solution would come from the broader settlement of the political situation in the country. If it improves, the economy will improve — hence the science sector will benefit."

Commercialising research

Despite the funding shortages, Dzinotyiweyi has been proactive in introducing new projects.

"One of the first things I did following my appointment as minister was to set up a new department to focus on generating material and monetary value out of research outputs. That is the Department for Commercialisation of Research and Development," he said.

"We can produce a lot more convincing work if our research is commercialised. There are few examples of other countries that are successfully commercialising research — we need more examples of this," he declared.

Zimbabwean crop researcher

A number of Zimbabweans are back in research institutes and universities, but many are still in the diaspora

Flickr/Swathi_Sridharan

"This department liaises with research institutes, urging them to turn any of their findings into commercial products or processes. It also discusses the issues of intellectual property rights for such results," he said.

"To support the researchers' efforts we have also set up a fund called the Innovation and Commercialisation Fund to which researchers can apply for funding."

But Dzinotyiweyi acknowledges that attracting Zimbabweans in the diaspora to come back home — which is essential for building scientific manpower — has proved a formidable task.

"There is certainly a number of Zimbabweans back in research institutes and universities but, to be honest, many are still in the diaspora. This is a matter Zimbabwe will need to continuously monitor.

"There is no way we can make a great leap forward in development without creating a scenario attractive for the many skilled nationals to come back. We all know they left home because of the political and economic difficulties the country continues to face," he explained.

"The government will have failed in general if meaningful recovery does not happen soon. But complete recovery cannot happen overnight and we need survival means to bridge the gap. That is why I have also emphasised the need to engage scientists in the diaspora in programmes taking place at home."

Waiting for recovery

In 2009, Zimbabwe's scientists proposed a two per cent science, technology and innovation tax to raise funds for the sector. But the tax never materialised.

"The idea of a science tax was one of the recommendations that came out of [the draft review]," said Dzinotyiweyi. "Essentially, the study was meant to provide the foundation for the review of our science and technology policy. It is therefore still possible that the original goal of raising funding for research may still appear in one form or another in the new policy."

Meanwhile, Dzinotyiweyi's proposed framework for a national programme on nanotechnology will soon be considered by the Cabinet Committee on Scientific Research.

"We are fully aware of the potential that nanotechnology can bring to our development — and we do not want to be left behind," he said.

But, like the rest of the country's scientific aspirations, nanotechnology may need to wait for more profound changes before it can flourish in Zimbabwe.

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