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Mauritius’s incoming president, scientist Ameenah Gurib-Fakim, has pledged to target science diplomacy and to export the island’s “good practices” in research.

The government proposed Gurib-Fakim as the new president on 1 June, just days after then-president Rajkeswur Purryag resigned. The parliament confirmed her appointment today.

Gurib-Fakim is a chemistry researcher with a focus on medicinal plants. In an interview with SciDev.Net, she admits she has little political experience.

“This may be one of the reasons why [the government] chose me,” she tells SciDev.Net, explaining that the role is “apolitical”. In Mauritius, the president acts as a representative and does not belong to any political party.

As head of state, Gurib-Fakim plans to use her science background to boost science diplomacy in international negotiations and support research-based businesses in Mauritius.

“I’ve been an entrepreneur since I left academia,” she says.

“We are confident that, in her new role, she will make important contributions to science and sustainable development in Africa.”

Romain Murenzi, The World Academy of Sciences 

Between 2004 and 2010, Gurib-Fakim was dean of the University of Mauritius’s science faculty, then pro vice-chancellor for teaching and learning. Since 2011, she has been managing director of Centre for Phytotherapy Research (CEPHYR), a private laboratory that studies active ingredients from plants. She is planning to continue being involved with the centre during her presidential term.

Gurib-Fakim wants to push for the development of bioparks and technology centres “to create wealth and jobs for young people”.

“Mauritius is a small country, but with lots of good practices to export,” including in science, she says, adding that the country needs stronger representation in international forums at both the African and global level.

Gurib-Fakim earned a PhD in chemistry from the University of Exeter in the United Kingdom in 1987, and has worked in Mauritius ever since. Among other prizes, she received the L’Oréal-UNESCO Women in Science Award for Africa in 2007.

Romain Murenzi, executive director of The World Academy of Sciences, says Gurib-Fakim’s appointment is a testament to her knowledge and the respect for her advice “at the highest level”.

“We are confident that, in her new role, she will make important contributions to science and sustainable development in Africa,” says Murenzi, a former science minister of Rwanda, who worked with Gurib-Fakim as part of the team that drafted a science and technology strategy for the African Development Bank.
Mauritius, home to around 1.3 million people, has good research links to the East African component of the African Union and increasingly with West Africa, as well as collaborations with the European Union, India, China and the United States, says Gurib-Fakim. Part of the presidential role will be to seek more institutions and governments willing to cooperate with Mauritius.

As a scientist, Gurib-Fakim says she wants to push for scientific data to be used as the basis for policy decisions in areas such as climate, agriculture and environmental policy. “All these sectors need reliable, credible data to strengthen decision-making,” the president says.

Another of Gurib-Fakim’s priorities is to preserve traditional knowledge and biological resources. In the 1990s, she published an inventory of 675 medicinal plants used in Mauritius and neighbouring islands, and later focused her research on plant compounds that might have potential as drugs. Her aim is to “reconcile scientific data with traditional practices”, she says.

As a Muslim and a woman, Gurib-Fakim says she hopes her appointment will increase the visibility of both groups. She previously worked as a mentor for early-career female scientists, and is a member of the Organization for Women in Science for the Developing World.

This article has been produced by SciDev.Net's Global desk.