“I hope the lesson will really be that we can’t afford as a society to create the fire brigade once the house is on fire. We need that fire brigade ready all the time hoping that it never has to be deployed”
– Virologist Peter Piot, who co-discovered Ebola and spent years leading the fight against HIV
For the first time in as long as many of us can remember, something has displaced politics from prime position in our national discourse.
Now it is COVID 19 or nothing.
The truth is that the Nigerian research and development sector is neither configured nor positioned to address or solve our problems as a nation.
This is paradoxical because on the face of it we are doing well as a nation.
We have hundreds of universities which are conceptually centres of research endeavours.
We also have many research institutions with all sorts of mandates.
All of these are funded by the various governments with public funds.
A key constraint in our maximally utilising our R&D capacity as a people is that we have not as a people defined what our objectives are for our university system and what returns we want for our investments in the sector.
While universities by definition are centres of learning and research, we have unfortunately over the years turned them into centres of teaching.
The huge student numbers result in unbearable workload for the academic staff who are therefore forced to just teach with little or no time for serious research activities that could result in the discovery of the drugs and other research outputs that our people so now desperately desire.
This is a gross under-utilization of the skills and knowledge of especially senior academics; whose areas of expertise and international repute have very little bearing on undergraduate course content.
Nigeria, today does not have a research innovation fund that can be tapped into by scientists.
Any research grant of substantial value obtained by Nigerian scientists is most probably from a foreign organization or government.
As the saying goes, he who pays the piper dictates the tune.
It will be wishful thinking to believe that a foreign organisation will fund our scientists to work for us.
It might be argued that TETFUND exists to address this gap.
One must acknowledge that TETFUND is probably the major reason that we still have a semblance of a university system in Nigeria today.
Unfortunately, the impact of this otherwise laudable initiative is blunted, in my opinion, by two major factors – the wide mandate of the fund and the exclusion of the nation’s research institutes from its activities.
TETFUND is overstretched by getting involved in issues like providing physical infrastructure such as buildings and the like in tertiary institutions.
The absence of the industry in the research equation in Nigeria affects the ability of academia to respond to contemporary issues as it affects agenda-setting and the utilisation of research output.
Most Nigerians tend to forget that the objective of the scientist is to find answers to challenging questions or to solve problems.
There is a world of difference between this and the actual utilisation of these answers/solutions in practical terms for the betterment of society.
It is the responsibility of the industrial sector to do pilot scale-up of such discoveries and eventually mass produce them.
This is why, for example, for the production of ventilators we should be looking at the industry rather than the academia, assuming of course that the academics have researched into and developed the processes required for local production.
Unfortunately, a lot of the manufacturing activities in the country is at the basic level and can largely be described as “assembling” thus requiring very little R&D input.
As it stands today, the industrial sector in Nigeria (due to a number of valid reasons) is unable to provide either the push or pull for the research sector.
This is why there are a number of patented discoveries that have not been commercialised thus becoming a disincentive for further work.
Most academics and researchers in Nigeria today are local champions, with outdated knowledge of the concepts and developments in their areas of specialisation.
No wonder a few days ago, some academics were celebrating a device as novel when there were already newspaper adverts in some countries offering the item for sale about a month prior!
At our present stage of development, going by the trajectory of countries that have successfully industrialised and attained a comfortable level of sufficiency, our government will have to be the driver and facilitator of the process of R&D for product development.
While acknowledging the efforts of the Federal Government in establishing relevant institutions, its commitment and investment in the sector is far from sufficient.
Now that the moment of truth is upon us with the clear realisation that we cannot continue to depend on the world to carry our load for us and spoon feed us.
Now that we have seen that the rest of the world can be too busy to worry about us. What should we do? What can we do?
The most fundamental thing required is a mental shift.
In practical terms, the latent energy, innovativeness and perseverance of our scientists should be released by reducing the teaching load of senior academics.
We should consider converting the majority of our universities to undergraduate institutions.
Such institutions should award first degrees and employ lecturers who will only teach and not be expected to engage in research.
Some might argue that this will create an inferior academic class.
The truth, however, is that there are people who are passionate teachers and moulders of character who are not interested in research and development.
Some of the classical textbooks a number of us read in our undergraduate programs were written by such people.
This step will free designated post graduate universities (by inference R&D universities) to focus on research, and the provision of the required manpower for future research and development.
Research funding in Nigeria must be more consistent and focused.
This can be achieved by having a research council consisting of individuals with a diverse array of skills who should report to the President.
Most importantly, all segments of society should be represented while avoiding the over-representation of any sector including academics.
Research grants from an innovation fund should be provided by the Research Council to ensure the implementation of the identified research agenda.
Such grants should be open, competitive and fit strictly into the vision of the national research agenda.
Rather than attempt to achieve spread or balance in any form (institutional, professional, geographical or political), the granting conditions should only be focused on the ability to optimally deliver the targeted objectives.
This will avoid the pitfalls of our present approach to funding research which attempts to balance all kinds of non-scientific factors which ends up spreading the limited resources too thin to achieve any significant result.
Grants should be deliberately structured to encourage collaboration between scientists across all relevant skills and expertise and especially between the universities and the research institutes.
In order to harness what will obviously become even scarcer national resources for R&D, the Federal Government, in particular, will need to take a critical look at the relevance and value-for-money of all the areas in which it presently expends research and development funds.
For example, does the country require or can it afford 20 scanning electron microscopes, all belonging to publicly-funded institutions, of which only one may be functional at any point in time because of the paucity of funds for maintenance and purchase of consumables?
It will definitely be more judicious utilisation of funds to have one or two of such research equipment that will function consistently.
Some infrastructure must be urgently provided to facilitate research.
For example, the country today does not have any facility where dangerous pathogens like the Ebola virus can be handled for purposes of research.
So, no matter how many claims of antiviral drugs or preparations Nigerians make for Ebola for example, no definitive pronouncement on them can be made totally by in-country efforts.
We must, as a people, be prepared to utilise the products that come out of the research and development efforts of our scientists even when they are not as elegant or cost-competitive as imported alternatives.
Not so long ago in the early to late 60s “made in Japan” was derogatory and indicative of inferior.
But their scientists and industrialists kept at it, encouraged by their people and government to arrive where they are today.
Our present attitude of eating apples instead of garden eggs or preferring imported paracetamol to the locally- made one will not encourage investment in research, neither will it encourage industrialists to take up research outputs.
The moment of truth has arrived.
It has revealed that we are incapable of helping ourselves in critical areas; it has shown that our army of intellectuals are not equipped to solve our urgent needs.
It has revealed that if we do not seize the moment and change a number of things another moment will come with the same set of truths with dire consequences for our burgeoning populace.
It is also clear that finger pointing won’t help as we all have a role to play in finding our way forward.
Professor Kunle Olobayo O. Kunle has 34 years’ experience as a pharmaceutical scientist. He is based in Abuja, Nigeria