Call to leverage science to predict future pandemics

The Rwandan government is ready to fund more research and development if universities and higher learning institutions leverage science, technology and innovation to play a role in predicting and mitigating future pandemics and epidemics, and other threatening crises.

Universities must, therefore, leverage science, technology and innovation and create linkages with industry to ensure they play this role.

This emerged during Rwanda’s first two-day Science, Technology, and Innovation conference held in the capital city of Kigali from 31 March to 1 April 2022. It brought together experts in academic and research institutions, non-governmental organisations and the private sector from across the globe.

The conference, with the theme ‘Leveraging Science and Technology to Mitigate Challenges Associated with COVID-19 Pandemic in Developing Countries’ was organised by the National Council for Science and Technology (NCST).

The aim was to assess the lessons learned from the COVID-19 pandemic, efforts put in place to mitigate its effects, and the ways to leverage science, technology and innovation to mitigate future crises.

Experts agreed that universities and higher learning institutions have a critical role to play in this regard.

According to Dr Valentine Uwamariya, the minister of education and co-chair of NCST, universities should emphasise applied research more than fundamental research if they are to contribute to mitigating pandemics and other future crises.

Extreme inequality harms humankind

“The COVID-19 pandemic has once more shown that science and technology provide sustainable solutions to mitigate its impact, not only in developing countries but also the whole world,” she said.

She said that the COVID-19 pandemic has also revealed how interdependent the world is and how extreme inequality in science, technology and innovation capacity negatively affects productive capacity across countries and regions.

“It is evident that more research, data and knowledge are required through collaboration to share best practices and evidence-based policy decisions to cope with the immediate effect of the current COVID-19 crisis and beyond,” Uwamariya added.

“The universities need to do more research because they are the core institutions to conduct research based on the existing issues and predictions of future crises,” she said.

She encouraged academics to draft more convincing research projects that can secure funding. “Universities need to work with the private sector and industry; universities cannot work in isolation.”

Government ready to support research

Uwamariya expressed the readiness of the government of Rwanda to fund more research and development projects, especially joint ones that can lead to tangible findings that can mitigate current and future pandemics.

According to Dr Eugene Mutimura, NCST executive secretary, universities should ensure that science and innovation are much more important than the common research.

“What NCST is doing to coordinate the work of universities and various institutions is to prioritise funding the best innovations or research that should lead to innovation. To do that, we have encouraged strong partnership between universities, the private sector and research institutions,” he said.

NCST also advocates that the government provide incentives to university lecturers to prioritise research.

Mutimura said that 17 research and development projects that focus on COVID-19 mitigation and resilience and 10 other projects with public impact have been awarded during the conference.

“Some of the research findings that have been presented are on predicting and monitoring COVID-19 and other pandemics as well as looking at resilience to pandemics and epidemics; that is the research that is being funded and that is the work that has to be done,” Mutimura said.

Surveillance essential to mitigate crises

“We have to build resilience through strong leadership but also investment, capacity building, and infrastructure to support national efforts – African efforts, but also tap into partnerships with local and international partners to fund these research efforts,” he added.

Professor David Kelvin from the department of microbiology and immunology at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Canada, delivered the keynote address: ‘Vaccines and the future for Developing Countries: The case of COVID-19 pandemic crisis’.

He said that a partnership between academic institutions and the private sector is essential to bring matters forward.

“Much of the future is unpredictable, especially in a pandemic. Monitoring the next pandemics relies on surveillance. The universities can be instructive and helpful in going out into what we would consider the hard zone.” This means doing research in areas with the highest probability of emerging infection.

According to Professor Agnes Binagwaho, vice-chancellor and co-founder of the University of Global Health Equity, universities should be at the forefront of research and innovation to come up with findings that predict future crises.

“If universities are not at the forefront of research and innovation, just close the university. We need to be at the forefront. If you show the private sector that you can work with them to create business, they will come to your universities. The boundaries are just in our minds; there are no boundaries,” she said.