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Zimbabwe's new science minister faces a daunting task in rebuilding his country's scientific capacity. He deserves all the help he can get.

Heneri Dzinotyiweyi, Zimbabwe's new minister for science and technology development, has seen first-hand how his country's economic collapse has damaged science and technology's ability to meet people's basic needs.

A member of parliament since last March, his own constituency is the Harare suburb of Budiriro — the epicentre of Zimbabwe's cholera epidemic. This easily treatable disease has already killed more than 3,000 people. Hundreds of thousands more may be infected, including people in neighbouring countries like Botswana, Mozambique and South Africa.

Dzinotyiweyi has been pushing for long-term solutions as well as treatment. Last month he urged the government to tackle the epidemic at its source — the country's collapsed water and sanitation infrastructure. Dzinotyiweyi also called for more action to boost public awareness about the disease's dangers. And he showed personal bravery, risking cholera himself while trying to get patients treated.

Finding a way

Dzinotyiweyi is a former dean of the University of Zimbabwe, has helped establish the Zimbabwean Academy of Sciences, and has been part of various studies of Southern Africa's science and technology systems. So he is well aware of the components needed to strengthen Zimbabwe's own science and technology base.

Like the cholera epidemic, the challenge is more in finding the domestic resources and political will than in knowing what to do. Despite the political turmoil, Zimbabwe still has an active scientific community, even if now almost entirely supported by external funding. But many scientists are unlikely to speak out until they are sure that the country's political reforms are irreversible.

In an exclusive interview with SciDev.Net, Dzinotyiweyi outlines some of his early priorities (see Zimbabwe appoints new science minister). One is to find ways of tapping the Zimbabwean scientific diaspora. Poor support for research means that almost everyone interested in following a scientific career leaves the country. Many postgraduates say they get a new supervisor every year, and in some cases every month, as skilled researchers are snapped up elsewhere.

This situation is unlikely to change overnight, but Dzinotyiweyi believes that if Zimbabwe's politics begin to stabilise, emigrant scientists will have more opportunities to help those who stayed behind. He has asked SciDev.Net to publish his email address so that anyone wishing to offer help can contact him.

Another priority is paying government-employed researchers living wages. Many university lecturers haven't been paid for months. Even when they are, a month's salary doesn't even buy a loaf of bread. At some universities, undergraduates pay lecturers out of their own pockets to persuade them to turn up.

Dzinotyiweyi suggests boosting scientists' salaries by paying them in foreign currency. Indeed, former opposition leader and newly-appointed prime minister, Morgan Tsvangirai, has promised that all government workers will soon be paid this way.

Genuine change?

But the country will need a significant — and immediate — increase in foreign aid to fulfil this promise. And potential donors, particularly South Africa and the United States, are demanding stronger evidence that Zimbabwe's long-standing president, Robert Mugabe, and his supporters are genuinely loosening their grip on power.

Tsvangirai last week promised the new government would "end the culture of entitlement and impunity".

Yet Roy Bennett, newly appointed deputy minister for agriculture, was arrested as soon as he came back from exile. And, despite its promises, the government is refusing to release 30 opposition supporters and civil rights workers arrested earlier this month.

It is too soon to describe Dzinotyiweyi's appointment as a turning point for Zimbabwean science. Destroying a system is quick — rebuilding it takes much longer, and scientists still face the same problems as the rest of the nation: malnutrition, HIV/AIDS, and psychological trauma from witnessing violence.

Much of the old system remains embedded in the power structure. For example, although the new minister for education belongs to Tsvangirai's party, higher education will remain under Mugabe's Zanu-PF. And Dzinotyiweyi's predecessor, Olivia Muchena, widely criticised for her political excesses and allegiance to Mugabe, remains a powerful figure as the new minister for women's affairs, gender and community government.

Cautious optimism

But there is also cause for optimism. At least for the time being, the political violence that plagued last year's presidential elections seems to have ebbed. And a formal power-sharing structure between Tsvangirai and Mugabe has been established, under the firm eyes of South Africa's president, Kgalema Motlanthe and Botswana's president, Seretse Khama Ian Khama.

So Dzinotyiweyi's hopes for the future are not entirely misplaced. But he will need all the help he can get, both internally and externally, to make them reality.

Aid agencies increasingly recognise that help in post-conflict situations can be crucial. Science needs to be part of the equation. So, too, does transparency — to ensure that efforts are reaching their target communities and that public engagement is finding ways to put science into practice.

David Dickson
Director, SciDev.Net

Christina Scott
African news editor, SciDev.Net

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