Edward K. Kirumira is dean of the faculty of social sciences at Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda, and a member of the executive council of the Uganda National Academy of Sciences. He received his doctorate from the University of Copenhagen, in collaboration with Harvard University. His research efforts have focused on population and reproductive health issues and the HIV/AIDS crisis in sub-Saharan Africa.
He and several other representatives from science academies participating in the African Science Academy Development Initiative (ASADI) were at the U.S. National Academies in Washington, D.C., the week before the Nairobi conference, learning more about ways to organize scientific forums.
Kirumira spoke with the U.S. National Academies' Office of News and Public Information about ASADI and related issues.
Why is ASADI important?
In general, it's to raise the profile of African academies; many are "young" and they haven't really attracted government attention. So, this project is a springboard for individual academies. And it's important for them from a networking perspective. There is synergy that is being created among them.
Why should everyday Africans care about this initiative?
A lot of times individuals tend to respond or come to issues from a crisis point of view. There's the example of HIV/AIDS. The response has been sort of crisis-oriented. These kinds of initiatives are useful in that they help [policy-makers and others] look at issues from a broader perspective, put them in a broader context, so that it's not really just "survival response" to crisis — but how things affect the broader national-development process.
Your schedule won't allow you to attend the Nairobi conference, but what key points, goals, or ideas do you hope all participants will take away from it?
One of the things is that a lot of times we do not give sufficient time to systems development, systems creation. I hope that people will take away from the Nairobi meeting how to run an academy. It may seem like not such an important thing, but it is. Also, it's going to be useful for the members who will be present to [learn more about] the roles of program officers, fellows, and others — which I think is critically important.
But how does ASADI affect African societies at large — regular workers and parents and ordinary citizens?
The operations of government are very, very critical in their everyday lives. And to the extent that governments can have [scientific] bodies that intervene in the development of policies and in the development of programs, that in itself would be useful to the kinds of programs or policies that governments come up with. …Communities may not really benefit in terms of there being an academy as such — but in terms of having a body that moderates the policies and programs of government.
If you could change one or two things about the science and technology enterprise in most of the continent's 53 nations, what would you do differently?
One of the critical things that is really needed in Africa's scientific enterprise is to have governments buying into that enterprise. You find that most of us as researchers, as scientists, get funds outside of government. Therefore, our contribution to government is really limited.
How do you — as a social scientist in an African nation that suffers from poverty issues, HIV/AIDS, malaria, and other challenges — remain hopeful? What keeps you moving forward?
I have lost five siblings myself [to HIV/AIDS]. You remain hopeful in that you are working on something that actually touches you. It's not something that you're looking at from a distance and saying, "Well, I've researched and I've written these things and nothing's changing. So, maybe I should move on to something else." You do not have an option of moving on. You kind of have to stay put. The second thing is that you see, progressively, that there is hope. Maybe there's hope at the end of the tunnel. You look at vaccine trials, and you look at the retroviral therapy, and things like that. Somehow you keep the hope that something is going to happen. And for me, one of the things is that sometimes you're interacting with families that have really been hard hit. And you find that they're smiling. And then you say, "But if they're smiling…what reason do I have not to be optimistic?" I think there's resilience within African communities, especially at the family level, that keeps a lot of us, as scientists, going.
How could the scientific establishment in the West contribute more to Africa's overall S&T enterprise?
Sometimes the philosophy that informs researchers and scientific knowledge creation differs because, when you look at the West, it's about knowledge production or knowledge creation. And probably what the African context would need is more problem solving. It's not just money or more of this and more of that. It's a shift in paradigm. It's a shift in the mindsets of Western scientists: that it's not only about finding the vaccine, for example; it's also finding solutions for community survival and mechanisms for care and support.
-- Interview conducted by Vanee Vines, senior media relations officer, The U.S. National Academies.