Kigali, Rwanda – Rwandan President Paul Kagame offered a stirring call to embrace science, citing its power to transform economies and human relations, during an address at the opening of the 27th TWAS General Meeting.
The opening ceremony yesterday convened some 500 science and policy leaders from Rwanda and 50 other countries around the world, and it celebrated a mission shared by both Rwanda and TWAS: to advance science and technology in support of sustainable human prosperity.
"In the developing world in particular," Kagame said, "science plays a critical role in our socio-economic transformation by helping to narrow the gap between us and the more developed regions... The focus has always been about opening up to the wider world and finding a pathway to understand our situation, identify the best tools available to us and then use that knowledge to reach our full potential." [Read Kagame's full address]
TWAS President Bai Chunli, in his opening address, cited the shattering impact of the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi people and the long and difficult recovery led by Kagame. Bai, like others at the opening ceremony, expressed admiration for the resilience of the Rwandan people.
"Rarely in history has science been summoned to address such challenges as Rwanda has faced," said Bai. "And yet, here we see a nation that embodies the TWAS ideal: It invests in science and science education. It is building South-South and South-North partnerships. It knows the importance of basic science, but it uses applied science to meet human needs and drive economic growth." [Read Bai's full speach.]
A celebration of scientific excellence
The TWAS General Meeting runs through Thursday 17 November in Kigali, Rwanda's capital city. It features symposia and lectures on a range of topics related to science and development.
The opening ceremony, following a TWAS tradition, celebrated scientific excellence by awarding prizes and awards to researchers from across the developing world. It also offered an opportunity to celebrate Rwanda's progress, and to affirm the Academy's partnership with Rwanda and all of sub-Saharan Africa.
Zhao Dongyuan of China won the TWAS-Lenovo Science Prize for a career of successes in developing materials that help to clean water, deliver medicine and improve batteries. Jean Bosco Gahutu, a professor in physiology at the University of Rwanda, was named to give a TWAS Medal Lecture. His research has focused on micronutrient physiology, medical education and tropical medicine.
Education Minister Papias Musafiri Malimba, in his welcome to the audience, cited a large team of Rwandan scientists who had been invited to the meeting. "I know that there are many opportunities to be gained from a strong collaboration with TWAS," Musafiri said. "I trust that you will truly benefit from the interactions with the many esteemed scientists gathered here from around the developing world."
The mood of the event was both serious and hopeful, a recognition of the remarkable commitment Rwanda has made to employ education, science and technology – and international partnerships – to recover from devastation. The genocide left up to a million people dead, including many teachers. It destroyed schools and equipment.
Claire Lyngå recalled a two-year stay in Rwanda earlier in her career, teaching physics at the National University of Rwanda. Though few resources were available, the university "had its aims set high, and with a vision of how to transform itself".
Today, Lyngå is a research adviser in the Unit for Research Cooperation at the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida). "Coming back, more than ten years later, to what is now the University of Rwanda, I see a university that is transformed," Lyngå told the audience. "The government of Rwanda should be commended for their commitment to science."
Flavia Schlegel, assistant director-general for natural sciences at UNESCO, struck a similar note in a video address to the conference. Under President Kagame's leadership, she observed, Rwanda has increased its efforts to build prosperity and economic growth through science, and today the nation is emerging as an African leader in science.
"Rwanda is a shining example in harnessing education and scientific research to meet national development needs and in creating a strong basis for scientific cooperation in the region," Schlegel said.
She also praised TWAS for creating conditions to support the emergence of a young generation of talented scientists through scholarships and research grants. "I believe that The World Academy of Sciences, thanks to all your engagement and commitment, is making a great difference," Schlegel said.
Her point was underscored by Stefano Salmaso, Secretary of Legation, Scientific and Technological Unit, at the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation. The Italian government and TWAS have worked in close partnership across more than three decades, and he praised TWAS's strong efforts to enhance scientific cooperation among different countries in the world.
"Italy strongly believes that TWAS can act globally and locally, with an integrated approach toward the local scientific communities and an expanding global vision," Salmaso observed. "We are confident that TWAS will be able to play an important role in the perspective of further improving its synergies in the context of the Trieste Scientific Hub."
Advancing women in science
Speakers noted TWAS's valuable efforts to create opportunities for women in science – but increasing those opportunities remains a crucial need. The participation of women in scientific fields must increase, Lyngå said. It's not only a human rights issue, but also an economic imperative," she said. "It makes sense to use the full potential of the population."
In his speech, Kagame offered a holistic vision of the role of science in the life of a developing country.
That involvement of women in science is critical for Africa, he said. "In most countries, less than one in three scientific researchers are women," the president added. "And our continent urgently needs to produce many more scientists and engineers generally."
Kagame cited investment as a requirement in building a strong science sector. Partnerships, too, are essential – both among scientists and between policymakers and researchers.
TWAS "is an excellent example of collaboration at both levels," he said, "as well as a clear demonstration of the power and relevance of increased South-to-South cooperation."
Research itself is urgent because "it can have a transformational impact on the pace and quality of development", he said.
The Rwanda Academy of Science was formally launched this week to support the role of science and to provide evidence-based analysis to leaders at all levels. And Rwanda has built a productive network of partnerships.
As illustration, Kagame offered several examples of high-quality scientific centres based in Rwanda that have been developed with overseas partners. Among them is the East African Institute for Fundamental Research, based in Rwanda, a partner to the Abdus Salam International Centre for Theoretical Physics in Trieste, Italy, and a Category 2 UNESCO institute.
"The transformative power of science is known," Kagame said, "and we must harness it to serve our ambitious goals for sustainable development and prosperity.
"But science has another, less visible, but no less valuable, dividend: The scientific mindset makes us better people. In both conception and utilisation, scientific work is blind to divisions or prejudices that only hinder further progress for everybody.
"Our common dignity as human beings matters," the president concluded. "And no one can be left out of the scientific enterprise."
Cristina Serra and Edward W. Lempinen