Seeking Growth, East Africa Expands Science, Education Ties

Kigali—High-ranking government leaders from six African nations have pledged to expand their collaboration in science and science education to further economic and human development in their resource-rich but long-impoverished region.

At a landmark meeting organized by the Rwandan Ministry of Education and AAAS, leaders from the East African nations of Burundi, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania, and Uganda, along with the Democratic Republic of Congo, agreed to establish a forum for their science ministers. By working together on a range of issues—from education and health to energy and the environment—they hope to support sustainable economic growth while advancing East Africa’s emerging commitment to regional integration.

Regional partners. (left to right): Alexis Kanyenye, deputy director of cabinet, Ministry of Scientific Research, Democratic Republic of the Congo; Romain Murenzi, director of the AAAS Center for Science, Technology and Sustainable Development; Julien Nimubona, minister of higher education and scientific research, Burundi; Ignace Gatare, minister in the office of the president for Information Communication Technologies, Rwanda; Nelson G. Gagawala, minister of state for trade, Uganda; Alan I. Leshner, CEO of AAAS; Charles Murigande, minister of education, Rwanda; Charles Kitwanga, deputy minister of communication, science, and technology, Tanzania; and Shaukat A. Abdulrazak, executive secretary, Kenya National Council for Science and Technology.

“The integration spirit in the region is very high,” said Charles Murigande, Rwanda’s minister of education. “The objective of this conference was to bring us together. We did not want to come together once and end it there, and so I expected ... that we should continue to meet and exchange ideas on how we can promote science and technology.”

That could be a crucial opportunity for harmonizing science and education goals and procedures in the region, said AAAS Chief Executive Officer Alan I. Leshner, who led a delegation to the conference. “This is a very important and promising development,” said Leshner, the executive publisher of Science. “If we’re going to be able to work for the betterment of humankind on a global scale, the scientific community has to be able to function as a global community in and of itself.”

Rwanda, devastated by genocide in 1994, has become an international model for building economic strength with education, science, and technology; Rwandan President Paul Kagame discussed that strategy and plans for the future in an hour-long meeting with Leshner and the AAAS delegation. Rwanda’s neighbors are embracing a similar approach to strong economic growth.

The conference, convened 8 to 9 December in Rwanda’s capital, reflected the region’s energy and optimism. It attracted about 60 influential science leaders—government science and education ministers, heads of national science organizations, and university rectors, along with top officials from the African Development Bank and UNESCO. W. Stuart Symington, the U.S. ambassador to Rwanda, also spoke at the event.

Discussions were collegial and candid, and they ranged broadly across issues—from Internet technology and data collection to food security and approaches to scientific collaboration. But participants returned repeatedly to the importance of education.

“Our continent has reached the milestone of 1 billion people,” said Boukary Savadogo, division manager for education, science, and technology at the African Development Bank. “These 1 billion brains constitute a tremendous resource that can be tapped for the purposes of development of our continent.”

Science education and training are crucial to the region’s ability to address its challenges, said Romain Murenzi, formerly a minister in the Kagame administration overseeing education, science, and communication, and now director of the AAAS Center for Science, Technology and Sustainable Development. But with less than 1% of East Africa’s 200 million people holding college degrees, he said, “regional integration is critical to efficiently use this scarce resource.”

Before the conference, Jo Ellen Roseman, director of AAAS’s Project 2061 science literacy initiative, gave a 2-hour briefing on the program’s extensive science learning resources to about 40 administrators and staff at Rwanda’s National Curriculum Development Centre.

At the conference, some 40 undergraduate and graduate students won praise for their research posters, many focused on agriculture, hydrology, and health, and most with direct practical applications.

Speakers from both Africa and the United States put particular focus on the need to recruit more women into science and engineering studies. Mabel Imbuga, vice chancellor of the Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology, described Kenya’s incentives to bring women into the sciences. Uganda and Tanzania are making similar efforts, speakers said. Advocates need to demonstrate more forcefully that bringing more women into science has a positive economic impact, said Shirley Malcom, head of Education and Human Resources at AAAS.

Vaughan Turekian, AAAS’s chief international officer, was among many speakers who urged science leaders to build on momentum created by the conference. “Cooperating across borders to improve the lives of people and drive prosperity represents one of the greatest goals of our scientific and education enterprise,” he said. “We have to seize on this opportunity through sustained action.”

The science ministers forum can help lead that effort, said Ugandan Trade Minister Nelson G. Gagawala. “We need action,” he said. “We need action in real time.”