Rwandan Leaders, AAAS President Baltimore Meet to Discuss S&T Development

Confronting deep poverty and the aftermath of genocide 13 years ago, leaders of Rwanda have made ambitious plans to pursue sustainable development built on science and education to achieve growth and prosperity. AAAS President David Baltimore returned from a three-day visit to the country—including a meeting with Rwandan President Paul Kagame—deeply impressed with the nation’s commitment to building a more hopeful future.

Baltimore meets with reporters after visiting President Kagame

Baltimore meets with reporters after visiting President Kagame

Baltimore visited the small eastern African nation from 10-13 October, joined by Tom Wang, AAAS director for International Cooperation, who spent seven days there, to better understand its S&T capacity and needs as part of AAAS’s broader mission of international engagement and cooperation. Hosted by Romain Murenzi, Rwanda’s minister for Science, Technology, and Scientific Research, they visited education and research institutions and health facilities.

Rwandan leaders “are devoted to seeing science and technology develop in their country. They see it as an engine of economic progress and understand that this involves both a widening of scientific literacy and an indigenous research capability,” Baltimore said. “Our hope is that a continuing relationship between Rwanda and AAAS will allow our organization to act as an intermediary between African countries and the skills available within our membership.”

The meeting with President Kagame, lasting nearly an hour, covered a broad range of issues. Baltimore discussed AAAS and its interest in the globalization of the science enterprise. He expressed support for Rwanda’s efforts, and suggested that in addition to the development-focused research efforts, the nation also has the opportunity to position itself at the cutting-edge of research as a center for primate studies. He also discussed the importance of using education to prevent HIV transmission.

Kagame detailed Rwanda’s S&T development and education priorities, noting that development of institutions was critical for building capacity. He also discussed critical energy issues and the importance of partnerships to Rwanda’s development, based on strong alignment with the priorities established by the Rwandan government and its people.

“The visit of Professor Baltimore was very welcome and timely in our country’s development,” Murenzi said after the AAAS delegation had departed. “Our top leadership, led by His Excellency President Paul Kagame, have committed themselves to meeting the challenges of building an economy based on science, technology, and innovation and making Rwanda a Sub-Saharan technology hub. In the words of His Excellency: ‘We will continue to invest in our people and we will strive to open up the frontiers of science, technology and research as we broaden our trade links with our neighboring countries and beyond.’

“I recognize the personal commitment that Professor Baltimore has placed on the importance of science, technology, and education to global prosperity and development and we look forward to the ongoing support and collaboration with the AAAS as we continue to develop science and technology in furtherance of Rwanda’s socio-economic growth.”

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Romain Murenzi, Minister of Science, Technology and Scientific Research; David Baltimore; His Excellency Paul Kagame, President of Rwanda; and Tom Wang

In addition to Kagame and Murenzi, Baltimore and Wang met with Rwandan Health Minister Jean Damascene Ntawukuliryayo; Kigali Institute of Science and Technology Rector Chrysologue Karangwa; Kigali Health Institute Rector Desire Ndushabandi; and Minister of State Innocent Nyaruhirira, who oversees HIV/AIDS efforts. They met also with U.S. Ambassador to Rwanda Michael Arietti. The trip received extensive coverage in the Rwandan print and broadcast news media.

“We had a wonderful reception everywhere we visited,” Wang said. “The trip was memorable for the always open, frank, and thoughtful discussions about a range of science, technology, education, and health issues. There was the sense in Rwanda of a country tirelessly working toward a better future, one that depended on a better-educated population able to exploit science and technology.”

Baltimore, a molecular biologist, shared the 1975 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his discovery of the reverse transcriptase, the enzyme used by viruses like HIV to turn RNA into a DNA copy. He has conducted extensive research in fields ranging from virology, to cancer to immunology. He is president emeritus and Robert Andrews Millikan Professor of Biology at the California Institute of Technology. He has built and led a number of scientific institutions and remains an advisor on issues of scientific development and AIDS research.

The goal of the AAAS visit was to understand Rwanda’s capacities, interests, and needs and to lay a foundation for possible collaborations in the future.

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The Republic of Rwanda [Image courtesy of the CIA Factbook]

Rwanda is small and landlocked, with the highest population density in Africa. Its people, most of them farmers, are poor: According to the World Bank, gross national per capita income in 2006 was $250. Some 60% of Rwandans lived below $1 a day as of 2000. The prevalence of HIV in the population ages 15-49 is roughly 3% (2005).

Rwanda today continues to deal with the aftermath of civil war that culminated in a 1994 genocide that left some 800,000 people dead, mainly ethnic Tutsis as well as politically-moderate Hutus. The war and genocide damaged an already fragile economy, and there remains a significant shortage of educated workers—teaching staff at universities, for example, technical staff at other enterprises, and mid-level civil servants in government.

But there has been positive momentum: Between 1995 and 2005, annual economic growth averaged 7.4%, the World Bank says. Both Baltimore and Wang were struck by the efficiency and peaceful atmosphere of the capital, Kigali, and generally by the Rwandan leaders’ approach to the challenges.

“When people hear the word ‘Rwanda,’ the first thing they think is ‘genocide,’” Baltimore said. “What they don’t realize is that the country is trying really hard to go beyond that…. It is very impressive how 13 years later, the leaders have considered it closely and are thinking and working very hard for the future of their country.”

Wang offered a similar assessment. “They deal with the genocide issue straight on—they talk about it openly,” he said. “President Kagame, the ministers and the heads of the institutes we met—they all seemed to be focused on improvements that can be made for the well-being of Rwandan society. And there is a lot of concern with science and technology and education as having roles in that.”

In recent years, AAAS has been building new relationships in the Middle East, in Latin America, and in Asia, among other places, and the association has been looking for a way to build a constructive, effective engagement with Africa. Baltimore, writing earlier this year in the TWAS Newsletter (the Newsletter of the Academy of Sciences for the Developing World), cited the need and potential benefits of increased engagement between the developed and the developing world. Auspicious signals have come from the continent: The African Union summit declared 2007 the “Year for Scientific Innovations,” and said S&T education and investment should have a higher priority.

Lacking many of the exploitable natural resources, such as oil or minerals, of its African neighbors, Rwanda is forging a future based on the development of its human resources. Rwanda’s “2020 Vision” development framework sets transformation to a knowledge-based economy as a key goal, with emphasis on science-related development. Kagame has pledged to double research spending from the current level of 1.6% of gross domestic product to 3% over the next five years.

Despite its relatively small size, Rwanda is increasingly seen as a model for development based on building S&T and education capacity. Both the World Bank and the U.K. Department for International Development are providing assistance based on such capacity building.

The Karisoke Research Center—a program of the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International—provides a telling example of the opportunity and the difficulty facing Rwanda. Based near the high jungle slopes of Volcanoes National Park, the Center is a world leader in studying and protecting Africa’s endangered population of mountain gorillas.

Despite its importance and impact, the Center was destroyed during the 1990s conflicts. It relocated and continued its operations. In discussions with Baltimore and Wang, Karisoke Center Director Katie Fawcett described a near-term challenge: the availability of locally-trained technical staff with biology degrees. With the National University of Rwanda (NUR), the Center is supporting efforts to train biologists with practical, hands-on experience in biodiversity and conservation.

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At the National Reference Laboratory (l-r): Romain Murenzi, Minister of Science, Technology and Research; Odette Mukabayire Kramer, Director of the National Reference Laboratory; Innocent Nyaruhirira, Minister of State in charge of HIV/AIDS; laboratory staff member; David Baltimore

“AAAS is the world’s largest general scientific society, and it has at its disposal a large range of science and scientists who could be activated to engage with Rwanda,” Baltimore said. “The question is: What does Rwanda need? That’s the question we went over there with. Now we’ve met them, and we’ve gotten to know each other, and we can begin to assess more closely how we can work with them.”

Baltimore and Wang also visited the Kigali Health Institute; the Kigali Institute of Science and Technology; the National Reference Laboratory; the Center for Treatment and Research on HIV/AIDS; the Central Hospital of Kigali; Rwinkwavu Hospital, a Partners in Health project with Rwanda’s Ministry of Health, the Clinton Foundation, and the Global Fund; Mwendo Health Center, supported in part by Columbia University and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Baltimore also delivered a talk to senior government officials, scholars and clinicians at King Faisal Hospital in Kigali. The talk was relayed by live video-conference to staff and students at NUR.