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Romain Murenzi, the new executive director of TWAS, the developing world’s science academy, talks to SciDev.Net about his plans for the organisation
In April, Rwandan physicist Romain Murenzi took over as executive director of TWAS, the Academy of Sciences for the Developing World.
His predecessor, Mohamed Hassan, told SciDev.Net last year that he envisaged TWAS becoming a more decentralised academy that can deal with societal problems in developing countries.
Is that still the priority? SciDev.Net asked Murenzi where he will take TWAS in the coming years.
What does it mean to be at the helm of TWAS?
I feel honoured to be the head of such a distinguished organisation. It means a lot to me.
When TWAS was established 25 years ago, I was starting my graduate studies with the support of a fellowship similar to the TWAS South–South programme. Now I have an opportunity to give something back. I feel a great responsibility to move the organisation forward at a time of unprecedented change in science and technology, especially in developing countries.
I remember what I went through to get the fellowship to do my PhD when I was a maths teacher in Burundi, where I was a refugee from Rwanda. I had to apply for three [successive] years until I got it. There are many men and women in developing countries who are in a similar situation, and TWAS gives them that opportunity.
What are your priorities for TWAS?
TWAS has a vision to be the world-leading, merit-based science academy dedicated to building capacity and promoting science excellence in developing countries.
The importance of science, technology and innovation (ST&I) for long-term economic development and poverty reduction is well established now.
When I was doing my Bachelor’s degree in mathematics and physics in Burundi, I did science not because I thought it was important, but because I loved it. But now there is an understanding that science is important. Any country interested in the welfare of its people must develop ST&I capacities. This is something I try to discuss wherever I speak. Our long-term priorities are helping develop science excellence, and helping countries build sufficient ST&I capacities, in particular leadership.
We also want developing countries to work as equals, not to feel that they will always be behind.
This long-term vision will continue to be backed by short-term priorities, such as supporting the creation of sufficient human resources or laboratory support. And for that we need to connect more closely to the policy community.
In the long term, we want to build science capacity, but to achieve that we need scientists, engineers and researchers, people who can create knowledge.
‘Any country interested in the welfare of its people must develop ST&I capacities’
If there were more people like this in developing countries it would make a huge difference. Once a person finishes a PhD [abroad] and returns home [and fails to find a position] they are lost — so we want to have regular programmes, such as scientific visits and postdoctoral programmes, to get these PhDs to stay in science.
We also have to see how we can increase the number of grants. Our PhD programme awards around 300 fellowships, but we’d like to have 1,000. For postdoctorate and research grants we need to do the same — increase the number dramatically.
How do your priorities line up with those outlined by Hassan in our recent Q&A, namely more decentralisation and more relevance to societal problems in the developing world?
The priorities of TWAS were outlined in its vision and its first scientific plan. We have over 1,000 members around the world and it makes sense for them to work with our regional offices. We will work with the regions to see how we can strengthen countries’ capacities. By the end of my first year I will have visited all the regions to see how we can help.
Are you planning any big changes?
It is still early, but TWAS has just adopted its first strategic plan, and I will work towards its implementation. The promotion of science excellence, South–South and North–South cooperation, and stronger linkages between science and society are things I will outline over the next weeks and months.
I will also look into the activities of TWAS around fellowships, grants and postdoctoral work, and work with the regions and centres of excellence throughout the world to see how we can strengthen South–South and North–South cooperation. We should have not only South-to-North fellowships [in which Southerners go North] but also North-to-South ones. We don’t see people coming to Africa to build capacity, for example, we only see Africans going somewhere.
Currently we have cross-continental collaborations, such as people going from Africa to Brazil and China, for example, which is good, but we don’t see people going from one African country to another. Yet this could lead to people staying in the region and developing more continental collaborations. I would love to come up with a model to achieve this.
Rwanda didn’t have scientists after the war because they all fled or were killed. So, during the past 15 years, they have used people from the region. If you look at the universities you will see many Burundians and Kenyans.
I will advocate more programmes like this and come up with presentations and a model of how this can be done.
What are the key challenges that TWAS can help address?
There are two main issues: leadership and finances.
Countries that have success in science and technology for development — China, India, even Rwanda — have strong and consistent leadership for both science anddevelopment, not just one or the other. Yet we also know that leadership is limited by finances — you need financial resources to back up the rhetoric.
Scientists fled Rwanda or were killed, but it has rebuilt its capacity
So I am hoping to work through TWAS to make strong advocacy for funding.
In the past, TWAS has used its budget to accomplish things that didn’t seem possible given its scale and scope. We did this largely through collaboration with other institutions with similar goals to ours. I plan to continue and expand this effort. We will also work closely with the global network of science academies and appeal to international agencies.
What are your biggest fears for science and the developing world?
My fear is that countries will not adopt strong leadership in science for development. Although funding is a major issue, with a long-term plan you can invest money that corresponds to your capabilities. There is strong leadership on the importance of science now from the United States in President Barack Obama’s speeches.
So the problem is a lack of science in policies for development: health, water, agriculture, energy. All these are science-based issues. You cannot develop your energy policy if you’re not developing your science policy.
My worry is that some countries are not doing this. They should go to the funding agencies and say: "We are interested in developing our countries through building science capacity". You don’t need to discover new science, you can use existing science. Countries can go to donors and say: "We would like our population to be science literate, to be able to use science on daily basis" — and that, I think, would be a major achievement.
You have worked in both the developed and the developing world. What lessons do you draw?
No country can work in isolation — we need global collaboration. A lot of people fear a brain drain. From my experience in Rwanda and the United States, most people who come from countries with good governments always return a good contribution [to their home country]. Governance is important if you want to reduce brain drain globally.
Freedom and democracy are also important — to create new knowledge you have to be able to think freely. Over the past 15 years Rwanda has seen many people coming back — their salary is low, but they don’t leave. Because the governance empowers them, they feel they are contributing and they stay there.