Heads of state throw their weight behind science

Emphasising the importance of partnerships in the development of science and technology in his country and describing science as a “very serious business”, Rwandan President Paul Kagame said science had a place in society “whether we support it or not”. However, “we would be the ones losing if we didn't support it for the benefit of our people”, he said at a presidential panel of the Next Einstein Forum (NEF) held last week in the Rwandan capital of Kigali.

Kagame, together with Senegalese president Macky Sall, set the tone for the high-level panel discussion – “Laying the groundwork for knowledge-led economies: Policy and practice” – which reflected on past policies and future reforms needed to nurture the creative and skilled populations that will form the bedrock of knowledge-led economies. Both heads of state stressed the need for partnerships to build scientific expertise in their countries.

In addition to Sall and Kagame, panelists included South Africa’s Minister of Science and Technology Mmamoloko Kubayi-Ngubane, African Institute for Mathematical Sciences (AIMS) president and CEO as well as the founder and chair of NEF Thierry Zomahoun, and the German Minister of Science, Research and the Arts, Baden-Württemberg State, Theresia Bauer.

Addressing over 1,500 delegates, Sall called on African states to balance a focus on quality of science and mathematics courses in higher education with policy reforms aimed at attracting foreign investment into the technology sectors.

"We need to have similar public-private partnerships across Africa and beyond,” said Sall, urging Africans to believe in the transformative power of science and technology. Technology, he explained, elevates states, citing India and Japan as successful examples.

Sall told the conference that the country was spending US$830 million on higher education, research, innovation and infrastructure reforms. “42.5% comes from direct public funding; the rest is provided by partners,” he said.

Kubayi-Ngubane said while collaboration between government and universities was particularly strong, tax incentives aimed at encouraging private investment in research and development were now also making a difference. She said the development of strong research institutions such as the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research and the National Research Foundation had improved the strength of scientific research in South Africa.

She said the country had also had success by identifying and developing areas of comparative advantage, such as fuel cell research and the Square Kilometre Array (radio telescope) project. Pointing to the need for more PhDs in the country and more women scientists, she said more partnerships would help to build capacity and reduce imbalances, especially in science courses.

Bauer reminded the audience of the need for countries to prioritise education and science “for decades” – because teachers, who created a solid basis, needed time to grow. She said it was also important to give long-term funding and freedom to scientists and their institutions to conduct “risky” research. “Perhaps they know better than us as politicians,” she said.

Kagame urged African governments to increase budgetary allocations in education, health and agriculture as they are the key pillars to Africa’s transformation.

Kagame revealed that his country had invested 15% to 17% of the national budget in education, and relied on partners for those things “we can’t do ourselves”. He said the government had created a “kind of ecosystem” to build public-private partnerships and had incentivised science and maths programmes for young people.

“It’s a question of remaining focused and making sure you offer these incentives here at home as well as making sure conditions are attractive to outsiders [seeking] to partner with us.” He said Rwanda ranks modestly high on the World Bank’s scale measuring the ease of doing business in the country, a result of the conducive conditions created by government.

Kagame said around 80% to 85% of the students they send abroad to study return to Rwanda after the completion of their studies, to work and innovate in the public and private sectors. Describing innovation levels as “still very modest” he said the country was on a “pleasant”, forward-moving trajectory.

Kagame, who is chair of the African Union this year, said the advancement of education and science as an issue should be raised to continental level, and beyond. “Education and science should be central to our daily lives if we want to make the advancements we have set out for ourselves over the next 50 years,” he said.

He said Africa should not miss out on any future developmental revolutions across the globe. “There is no doubt Africa intends to ... seize this moment. Science has a place whether we support it or not. We'd be losing if we didn't support it for the benefit of our people,” he said before thanking the various partners in Rwanda.

He also said that investments in higher education training for information, communication, technology and science courses should not be done at the expense of arts and humanities, but done in equal measure with an aim of reducing imbalances in the job market and industry requirements to help propel Africa’s economy.

Look out for more coverage of the 2018 Next Einstein Forum in the next edition of University World News – Africa.