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The West African state of Mauritania is establishing for the first time a ministry dedicated to science and education.

The ministry, whose function has in the past been split between other ministries, will be part of a new a civilian government put in place by the country's new leaders, the Military Council for Justice and Democracy.

The military council overthrew president Maaouya Ould Sid'Ahmed Taya on 3 August.

Newly appointed prime minister Sidi Mohamed Ould Boubacar appointed former economist Naji Ould Mohamed Mahmoud as the country's first science minister.

Speaking to SciDev.Net, Ould Nava Ahmed, a Mauritanian researcher in the Libyan capital of Tripoli, said that his homeland's science and technology sector had virtually no infrastructure.

Nava said that science had flourished in Mauritania, along with Islamic science elsewhere, in the 8th to the 13th centuries. Now, however, Mauritania has just one university, which was established in 1981. It has only three faculties: science and technology, arts and humanities, and economics and law.

Agriculture is the main source of income for nearly two-thirds of Mauritanians, and raising livestock is the main occupation of the rural population. But this source of income has been damaged by several years of drought, followed by a plague of locusts that destroyed crops and grazing land last year.

Despite these problems, the country does not have a single faculty of agriculture.

Few Mauritanian scientists stay in the country, says Nava. Low university salaries, a lack of research activities and an absence of science journals have driven most of them to countries in the Arab Gulf, Europe and the United States.

Nava adds that while establishing a science ministry is important, it should be supported by other activities such increasing the number of universities and launching postgraduate research programmes aimed at solving the problems facing the country.

Boosting these activities might even encourage Mauritanian scientists abroad to return home to participate in building the economy through science and technology.

Science and technology could help Mauritania exploit its natural resources in a sustainable manner, says Nava. For instance, the iron ore reserves in the desert region of Zouérate are among the largest in the word, and the country's fisheries sector accounts for about ten per cent of the country's gross domestic product.

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