Physics has a key role in development


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Romain Murenzi, Rwanda's science minister, highlights the contributions that physics can make to economic development.

The importance of physics for the economic development of all countries is clear. Physics is the most basic of sciences, and its concepts and techniques underpin the progress of all other branches of science.

It is also a cross-cutting discipline that has applications in many sectors of economic development, including health, agriculture, water, energy and information technology. And the application of science through technology is crucial for providing the infrastructure that all modern countries need.

The role of science in sustainable development was recognised at the United Nations Millennium Summit in 2000. A careful analysis of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) that came out of the summit shows the importance of science and technology in meeting those goals and as a tool for economic growth.

In October 2005, politicians, educators and physicists from all over the globe met in Durban, South Africa, to consider the role of physics in creating a sustainable future for developing countries. The perspective from my own country, Rwanda, may offer some insights into the difference that physics can make.

Rwanda has no appreciable natural resources and is therefore focusing on the development of its people to lead the development of the country, in particular in the areas of science and technology. The government of Rwanda believes strongly in the potential of science and technology for fostering sustainable development. In 2001 the Ministry of Education was expanded to form the Ministry of Education, Science, Technology and Scientific Research, with the mandate to carry out the development of science and technology in education and beyond.

More recently the country also adopted a national policy on science, technology and innovation with four major objectives: knowledge acquisition, creation and transfer, and the building of a culture of innovation.

Three of the eight MDGs relate to health, and clearly the health of the population in developing countries is crucial for their sustainable development. This means access to the right equipment for the diagnosis of diseases and the efficient communication of medical data.

With the help of medical physics and information technology, Rwanda is making some progress in this area. We recently acquired a CT (computed tomography) scanner, and King Faisal Hospital in Kigali is becoming a hub for the development of telemedicine, which brings with it a return in foreign currency. The Ministry of Health is also creating a national nutrition and epidemic surveillance information system, and it plans to deliver basic medical equipment to all rural heath centres. This should have a significant impact on the diagnosis and treatment of diseases like malaria.

Safe drinking water and hygienic sanitation are also central to health and the fight against poverty, hunger, child death and gender inequality. Improved access to safe water frees up substantial time, for women and children in particular, for more productive work. Improved sanitation also brings benefits to public health and to the environment. Physics and engineering are making a difference through the use of simple gravimetric techniques (to bring water from the valleys up to higher altitudes) and through rainwater harvesting and irrigation techniques.

Rwanda is facing an energy crisis because the capacity of its generating plant cannot meet the country's needs as it continues on its development path. It is our goal to meet these needs in an environmentally sound and sustainable manner, and a thorough understanding of the physics involved in energy generation, exploitation and distribution will be essential if this goal is to be achieved.

One consequence of Rwanda's energy crisis is that every year thousands of trees are cut down and the firewood used for cooking, and this has resulted in severe soil erosion. Following the example of the Kigali Institute of Science and Technology, we plan to equip all schools with biodigesters. This should save thousands of trees, help to solve the schools' sanitation problems and develop technical and scientific skills among the students and teachers involved, demonstrating to them the importance of science, technology and innovation in solving real-life problems.

Of course, information and communications technologies will also be crucial. As we develop our infrastructure, including fixed-line and optical-fibre networks, a knowledge and understanding of the physics that underpin these technologies will be essential.

We have been working with several countries, including the United Kingdom, Australia, the United States, the Netherlands, Belgium and Sweden, to further these goals, and we are receiving support from the UN, the African Development Bank and the World Bank. In 2005, the Institute of Physics invested in the future of Rwanda, sponsoring a team of physics teachers from the United Kingdom to come and train our teachers in the use of physics apparatus. Such partnerships will be vital if countries like Rwanda are to build a sustainable future.

Romain Murenzi is Rwanda's minister of education, science, technology and scientific research and former chair of the department of physics at Clark Atlanta University, United States. The World Conference on Physics and Sustainable Development took place in Durban, South Africa, on 31 October – 2 November 2005

This article first appeared in the November 2005 issue of Interactions, published by the Institute of Physics.

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