Romain Murenzi, a physicist and former math teacher who became one of the architects of Rwanda’s acclaimed science-for-development strategy, has joined the AAAS International Office as its new director in the Center for Science, Technology, and Sustainable Development.
The appointment, effective 30 July, underscores AAAS’s commitment to science and technology engagement with the developing world. In an interview, Murenzi said that the Center should become a catalyst that helps marshal S&T knowledge and resources to address challenges ranging from hunger and a lack of drinking water to science education and threats to the environment.
“Science cooperation with the developing world is a central element of AAAS’s mission, and in Romain Murenzi, we have an accomplished leader,” said Alan I. Leshner, chief executive officer of AAAS and executive publisher of Science. “He has a vision for how science and technology can help build even the poorest nations—a vision informed by his experience as a scientist, teacher, and policymaker. We believe he will have a tremendous impact in this new role.”
Science, Technology, Development. Romain Murenzi at a recent conference in Puerto Rico, organized by the AAAS Caribbean Division, that focused on how S&T could help build Haiti’s economic strength.Shirley Malcom, head of Education and Human Resources at AAAS, offered a similar sentiment.
“Professor Murenzi brings direct, real-world experiences to undergird the work of the Center,” Malcom said. “While he understands the role that science, engineering, and education play, he has also lived in the world of policy, politics, and implementation. He knows that it is one thing to study something, and yet another to get things done. That is the message that he can uniquely convey within the work of the Center.”
The Center operates under the umbrella of the AAAS International Office, which also includes the Center for Science Diplomacy.
Since its founding, the AAAS Center for Science, Technology and Sustainable Development has focused on issues related to sustainable development, and especially improving S&T capacity in developing nations. That capacity is essential to supporting and guiding sustainable development, said AAAS Chief International Officer Vaughan Turekian.
Turekian noted that Murenzi’s appointment came less than a month after U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, during an address to influential development and science experts, stressed the centrality of science and technology to U.S. efforts to aid developing nations.
“This is a particularly interesting time for the idea that science and technology can bring developed nations and developing nations together to addresses shared challenges,” Turekian said. “Dr. Murenzi really is going to be providing, from a unique perspective, the vision for how AAAS and the science community can better engage with developing countries and also the role that science and technology play in development strategies.”
For the past year, Murenzi has been a visiting scholar at AAAS, and he currently is a visiting professor at the University of Maryland’s Institute of Advanced Computer Studies. He also serves as the vice president for Africa on the TWAS Council (the Academy of Sciences for the Developing World).
Murenzi was a mathematics teacher in Burundi for three years before seeking his Ph.D. in physics at the Catholic University of Louvain in Belgium. From 1990 to 1992, he did postdoctoral research at the European Center for Advanced Training and Research in Scientific Computation (CERFACS) in Toulouse, France. In 1992, he joined the faculty at Clark Atlanta University in Georgia. He won tenure, and became chair of the Physics Department in 1999.
He has published more than 70 articles and conference papers, with a major interest in continuous wavelets application to multidimensional signal processing.
Murenzi served eight years in the government of Rwandan President Paul Kagame: As minister of education, science, technology and scientific research from August 2001 to March 2006, and then as minister in President’s Kagame’s office in charge of science, technology, and scientific research, serving until July 2009.
Those were profoundly challenging years in Rwanda’s history. The nation’s 1994 genocide had left some 800,000 people dead, mainly ethnic Tutsis as well as politically moderate Hutus. Rwanda was already one of world’s poorest countries, and the genocide shattered its fragile economy.
Kagame became president in 2000, and Murenzi returned home in 2001. Two years later, Kagame was elected president by a wide margin in the nation’s first elections since the genocide.
Kagame and his government pledged to build the nation’s strength and stability, and reduce its need for foreign aid, by developing its human resources. Science and technology, along with education, were designated the engines of development—and hope.
The government has worked to build a modern information and communication technology infrastructure; a nationwide fiber-optic network is being laid to connect centers of health, education, science, business, and government. Some 95% of elementary school-aged children—some 2.4 million in all—are now enrolled in classes. Two years ago, Rwanda teamed with the American non-profit group, One Laptop Per Child, and began distributing thousands of powerful, low-cost laptops to students.
Those and other policies have helped to drive remarkable economic growth: According to a World Bank assessment released late last year, Rwanda’s gross domestic product (GDP) grew 6.9% annually between 1998 and 2008, hitting 11.2% in 2008. The GDP was projected to grow at 5.5% annually between 2008 and 2012.
At the same time, Kagame’s government has taken a zero-tolerance attitude toward corruption. Visitors to the capital city of Kigali are often struck by the efficiency, cleanliness, and peaceful atmosphere.
Today, based in Washington, D.C., Murenzi maintains close relations with President Kagame and former colleagues in the Rwandan government. He travels extensively to talk about the Rwandan experience and how it applies in other developing nations around the world. He currently is visiting Rwanda, where he will teach a 30-hour class—“2D/3D Continuous Wavelet Transform with Application to Feature Detection in 2D and 3D Images”—and plan for a conference on East African science, technology, and innovation later this year.
“Professor Murenzi was one of the principal architects of Rwanda’s post-genocide science, technology, and educational infrastructure, which is now one of Africa’s best,” said V.S. Subrahmanian, director of the University of Maryland Institute for Advanced Computer Studies. “He brings this incredible experience together with impeccable scientific and leadership credentials to the AAAS Center for Science, Technology and Sustainable Development.”
In an interview, Murenzi stressed a key point: Scientific research has already built extensive knowledge that can be used to address challenges in the developing world—food production and storage, drinking water, medical care, and energy, among others.
“The knowledge to have clean drinking water is already there—it’s the application of the knowledge that is sometimes missing,” he said.
At the same time, United Nations and government development agencies, major foundations, and regional development banks based in Asia, Latin America and Africa, all have a growing interest in how S&T investment can drive economic development and human prosperity. In Murenzi’s view, that’s where AAAS and the Center for Science, Technology, and Sustainable Development can play a productive role—a non-partisan, non-governmental, international science association creating a hub where knowledge can be exchanged and action can be initiated.
“Being a catalyst—that’s important,” he said. “Being able to bring people together. And AAAS, being a science organization, promoting science, can be a good interlocutor. We can be a good place to start.”
Learn more about the AAAS Center for Science, Technology, and Sustainable Development.
Learn more about the AAAS Center for Science Diplomacy.