After serving as UNESCO-TWAS Executive Director for more than a decade, Romain Murenzi will retire on 30 November 2023. The Director-General of UNESCO has appointed Atish Dabholkar, Director of the Abdus Salam International Centre for Theoretical Physics (ICTP), as the interim Executive Director.
The Director-General of UNESCO, Audrey Azoulay, has acknowledged the remarkable accomplishments of TWAS during his tenure. She said: “The Academy has gone far and achieved so much. By providing funding and equipment, it has played a vital role in ensuring appropriate working conditions for scientists in the global south. By fostering the potential of young people, particularly women, it has actively contributed to the development of a diverse community of highly qualified scientists.”
“Only recently I had the pleasure to meet Prof. Murenzi and appreciate his vision, dedication and enthusiasm in the constant effort to elevate the role of TWAS in the scientific community during his time as Director,” said Minister Plenipotentiary Giuseppe Pastorelli, director for integrated promotion and innovation at the Directorate General for Country Promotion of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation of Italy.
“This holds true not only for the significant research achievements and their potential impact in improving the living conditions of the most disadvantaged, but also for the promotion of science as a vehicle for dialogue and development, in line with the commitment and the multilateral approach of the Italian Government.”
“We are extremely thankful to Prof. Murenzi for his incredible job and for making us so honored to host TWAS in Italy and to support its mission,” he added.
Dabholkar said that “TWAS has flourished under the leadership of Prof. Murenzi, with increasing impact on science in the developing world.”
“TWAS has been a sister organization hosted on the ICTP campus with an important complementary mission. It has been a productive collaboration and a pleasure to work with Romain. I wish him the very best for his next steps,” he added.
Before joining the Academy, Murenzi served as Rwanda's Minister of Education, Science and Technology and Scientific Research and as Minister in the President's Office in Charge of Science and Technology, and Scientific Research, with responsibilities including information and communication technologies.
In 2009, he was a senior scholar at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Center for Science Diplomacy, and he served as Director of the AAAS Center for Science, Technology and Sustainable Development from 2010–2011. During these years, he was also a Visiting Professor at the University of Maryland Institute for Advanced Computer Studies (UMIACS).
Murenzi initially joined TWAS in April 2011 for a five-year tenure. Following this, he served as the Director of the Division of Science Policy and Capacity Building at UNESCO Headquarters in Paris for 14 months. In 2017, he transferred back at TWAS, where he also oversaw the administration of the Organization for Women in Science for the Developing World (OWSD) and the InterAcademy Partnership (IAP), also based in Trieste.
Leveraging long experience
"When Romain succeeded me as TWAS Executive Director, I was certain that he would fortify the Academy’s already-successful programmes and introduce new ones, with a particular emphasis on bridging the realms of science, policy, and diplomacy,” said Mohamed Hassan, who served as TWAS Executive Director for more than 25 years, and as TWAS President between 2019 and 2022.
Murenzi significantly elevated TWAS during his tenure, Hassan added, by leveraging his vast experience as a minister in Rwanda.
“Collaborating with Vaughan Turekian from the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), Romain launched a groundbreaking program called 'AAAS-TWAS Course on Science Diplomacy,' aimed at strengthening relationships between scientists, policymakers, and government officials, thereby enhancing the role of scientific contributions in addressing real-world problems,” Hassan said.
The course is a collaboration between TWAS and AAAS, and receives primary financial support from Sida, the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency. The 10th edition of the course took place in June 2023, and today 372 course alumni from 88 countries are influencing or implementing policies and spreading knowledge about the fast-growing field throughout the developing world.
“The remarkable success of this program has solidified its position as one of the world's most esteemed and widely recognized science diplomacy initiatives," Hassan added.
“Congratulations to Prof. Murenzi for his successful service as the Executive Director of TWAS,” said Sudip Parikh, AAAS CEO, pointing out that while working at AAAS he “focused on science cooperation with low- and middle-income countries, and stressed the unique role that science can play in bringing people together.”
“AAAS was pleased to continue working with Romain in his role at TWAS, where AAAS and TWAS have partnered together since 2011 to organize an extremely popular annual course that introduces science diplomacy to participants, largely from the global South, and explores international policy issues relating to science, technology, environment, and health. I congratulate him on his success at TWAS and wish him the absolute best in his new endeavors.”
Running UNESCO’s Division of Science Policy and Capacity Building
In July 2016, Murenzi moved to Paris, France. At UNESCO headquarters he directed the Division of Science Policy and Capacity Building in the Natural Sciences sector. There, he assisted member states in the formulation and upgrading of their science policies, the strengthening of the science policy interface, and the building of institutional and human capacities in science, innovation and engineering. During his time there, he led the reorganization of the International Basic Sciences Programme and actively worked to advance the cause of science diplomacy. In Paris, he also further strengthened his knowledge of the United Nations system, and of UNESCO’s science mandate.
Returning to TWAS with a focus on Africa and gender equality
In September 2017, Murenzi returned to his former post as TWAS executive director. Under his leadership, and with new insights into the global science policy system, the Academy accelerated efforts to build science capacity in the South.
Once back to TWAS headquarters in Trieste, Italy, Murenzi made sure the Academy focused on UNESCO's global priorities: Africa and Gender Equality.
Today, several TWAS programmes target LDCs, most of which are in Africa. Among them, the TWAS-SISSA-Lincei Research Cooperation Visits Programme and the TWAS-Sida PhD Fellowships on Climate Research for Students from LDCs, and the long-standing TWAS Research Professors in LDCs programme.
Furthermore, TWAS ensures that women are included when designing new programmes, such as the TWAS-Elsevier Foundation Project Grants for Gender Equity and Climate Action. But it also considers the gender dimension when evaluating applications from women scientists, and electing Fellows and Young Affiliates. Among the most notable results, in 2021-2022 the TWAS-Sida Research Grants programme achieved a 50-50 gender balance. Also, for the first time, the current 16-member TWAS Council is comprised of exactly eight men and eight women, and is led by a woman scientist, Quarraisha Abdool Karim.
“Romain has made exceptional and outstanding contributions as TWAS Executive Director to enhancing the role of TWAS on the use of science for sustainable development,” said TWAS President Abdool Karim.
“His unwavering dedication and commitment to advancing the TWAS founders’ vision is deeply appreciated and is evidenced in the large network of Fellows; training grants; number of doctoral graduates across scientific disciplines; the gender balance and TWAS’s presence in key decision-making fora,” she said. “While we will miss him in this role, we wish him well and every success in this new chapter of his life and know that we can count on his ongoing support and wisdom as a TWAS Fellow.”
Murenzi was elected to TWAS in 2005, and before his appointment as executive director he served as a vice president on the TWAS Council.
Murenzi back to physics
Murenzi's scientific interest has focused on applications of multidimensional continuous wavelet transforms to quantum mechanics, and image and video processing. After retiring, he will now concentrate on his research and teaching at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI), in the United States.
“We are excited to have Professor Romain Murenzi join the WPI family,” said Prof. Douglas T. Petkie, Department Head and Professor of Physics at WPI’s School of Arts and Sciences.
“His rich international background will be a tremendous asset to our global STEM engagement, which emphasizes a project-based learning curriculum, and his interdisciplinary scholarship in mathematical and quantum physics will be instrumental in advancing our research frontiers,” he added.
Murenzi holds a Bachelor of Science from the National University of Burundi, a Master of Science and a PhD from the Catholic University of Louvain in Belgium; a Master of Law degree in Information Technology and Telecommunication and an honorary doctoral degree conferred upon him by the University of Johannesburg.
Although Murenzi will open a new chapter in his life, he will continue to contribute to TWAS’s mission of driving scientific excellence in developing nations.
“I know first-hand how hard it is to become a scientist in the developing world, and I remember what I went through at that time to get the fellowship to earn my PhD. I had to apply for three successive years until I received it,” Murenzi said, reflecting on the beginnings of his career.
“Today, many scholars in developing countries face similar challenges, and I'm proud that TWAS provides them with invaluable opportunities. As a TWAS Fellow, I am committed to keep contributing to the Academy,” he added.