Published online 18 February 2011 | Nature | doi:10.1038/news.2011.108

News: Q&A

Transforming science strategy in the developing world

Increasing diversity among its members presents challenges for developing-world science academy.

MurenziRomain Murenzi, executive director of TWAS.M. Silvano/ ICTP

Romain Murenzi left a research career in the United States to become science minister for his war-torn home country of Rwanda in 2001. Now, after another stint in the United States as a visiting professor at the University of Maryland in College Park and director of the AAAS Center for Science, Technology and Sustainability in Washington DC, Murenzi has a new gig. On 1 April he takes up the reins as executive director of TWAS, the Italy-based Academy of Sciences for the Developing World. He speaks to Nature about brain drain and how developing countries can bridge the gap between science and policy.

What has happened in developing-country science in the past decade?

When the United Nations Millennium Development Goals were adopted in 2000, it was clear that most could not be achieved without science. Eradicating extreme poverty, improving access to water, securing the food supply; you need science and technology for all those. As a result, the realization that science matters for economic growth has taken hold in developing countries. They look at what India and China have achieved in a short time. Many countries are appointing science ministers and drawing up science policies.

But are they implementing them?

It's true that this is a challenge. You need strong support from the very top of the government to succeed, and this is what we have to push this decade. But it's important to realize what's possible. When I arrived in Rwanda in 2001, secondary-school students were fed by the World Food Programme. The government implemented policies to stop erosion, boost irrigation, increase the use of fertilizer and educate farmers about which crops to plant, and today Rwanda is the most food-secure country in East Africa.

A lot has happened in global science since TWAS was launched in 1983. Does it still make sense to talk about 'developing-country science'?

Yes, it does. Scientists in these countries still face more challenges than those that live in a developed country. There are excellent labs in India, Brazil and China, but you don't get these in every university.

How is TWAS coping with the growing diversity of its members?

TWAS has set up regional offices and is working on decentralizing most of its activities. The regional offices in Kenya, Egypt, India, China and Brazil are able to help surrounding countries that don't have high-tech laboratories or the capacity to train PhDs. It's much cheaper for poor countries to send students and post-docs to India or Brazil than to send them to the United Kingdom or the United States. The regional offices will also promote joint policy-making and link up scientists who work on similar problems.

Some say that sending students to Europe and the United States causes brain drain, as the best stay on in their new countries. Will scientists from developing countries now start flocking to China, India and Brazil?

In my experience, scientists don't leave their countries because they might get paid more elsewhere. They leave because they do not feel safe in their countries. It's about governance. Once it is safe to return, and once the government starts speaking about promoting science-based development, many choose to come back. We see this in Rwanda.

What was the biggest challenge you faced as Rwanda's science minister?

The lack of capacity, in terms of labs and scientists, and funding were the main ones. But you know, those are the same challenges today! We have set up many science institutions, we have trained new people, there is a science and technology commission being set up and we are working on creating learned societies. But these things take time.

What if other ministers lose patience and want to spend the money on other things?

It's important to manage expectations. You do it step by step; set up goals that can be attained in the short term, the medium term and the long term. But it is important to do what you can straight away, not sit around and wait for a goldmine to appear to pay for everything. If you can fund 100 PhD students one year it may not sound like much for a whole country, but after a decade you have 1,000 students with degrees, or on their ways to getting them.

Is it tricky to get researchers in developing countries to focus on national challenges?

ADVERTISEMENT

In agriculture and health it's easy, where there is a clear application. It's not so simple in subjects such as physics or mathematics. But I believe that there are many ways you can link your knowledge to practical problems. It's a question of mindset, and the old 'ivory tower' mentality is changing.

Could new social media such as Facebook and Twitter help developing-country science?

There is a huge potential for using social media for networking. These platforms can help scientists get together and work on shared areas of interest. It could also dramatically reduce the need for developing-country scientists to travel to meetings and conferences. I use Skype all the time to speak to my colleagues in Rwanda, for instance. 

Commenting is now closed.