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Nigeria and science: misplaced national priorities

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On the second of October, Phyna was declared the winner of the Big Brother Naija reality show to the tune of N100 million and widespread acclaim. Buses were rented and supporters were mobilized to raise awareness for the supposed feat.

Meanwhile, 740 miles away in Borno, Mustapha Gajibo- an automobile engineer-is putting finishing touches to his latest batch of locally made electric buses (commonly referred to as ‘Korope’) without much fanfare or indeed any sort of national recognition whatsoever, for this truly groundbreaking achievement.

This is not a new phenomenon in Nigeria, nor is this dissonance limited to scientific achievements, but it is via the lens of science development that this article will examine our national priorities.

At a time when the country is producing record numbers of college graduates, Nigeria-as a nation-is still badly struggling with it’s science and technological sector.

This is in part, a byproduct of Nigeria’s long history of electing nescient leaders and the ensuing Kakistocracy that inevitably follows; but also a problem of chronic misplaced priorities on a societal level.

National priorities are often defined as the essential activities and services In which the government and the private sector must become engaged in the interests of national survival and recovery.

By that description, an unbiased observer would naturally conclude that BBN has a much higher place on the governmental and societal priority list than green energy or curing cancer.

A cursory glance through the list of developed countries will quickly reveal that there’s not a single country in their ranks who neglected the development of science and technology.

In fact, the standard metric of developed countries is a base of industrialization. No non industrialized country occupies the top 25 spots.

The United States of America, Japan, Germany, Britain, France, Canada and Italy, all members of the coveted G7 – the group of the most industrialised nations of the world – owe their global economic dominance to advances in Scitech.

Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa, are not too far behind the G7; China, specifically, has hit the super highway of economic success because of its use of Scitech to leverage production.

As readers can imagine, Nigeria is not doing well in this sphere – no thanks to a raft of factors.

No doubt, the lip service paid to education by our leaders over the years is critical here. But the situation is not helped by the attitude of scientists, who against a backdrop of incommensurate remuneration, appear to have lost all appetite for scientific inquiry.

Nigeria’s low investment in local scientific research has also seen foreigners continue to dominate the country’s patent activities since 2011. The trend is unlikely to change given that the country’s entire budget of N157 billion for the Ministry of Science and Technology is still below the average spend on research by most countries in Africa.

It also means Nigerians with aspirations for scientific research and innovations that are patentable will not get the support they need any time soon.

In the past, this lack of support has contributed to Nigerians moving to countries with robust support for scientific research activities leaving the home field for foreigners who can fund their own research.

The problem in part, has been that the Nigerian government has not paid particularly serious attention to scientific research.

The national expenditure on research was about N2.5 billion in 2019, an amount individual labs in the US expend in annual maintenance alone.

In the same year, South Africa spent about $20 billion on research.

What is happening with startups is not technology. It is the application of science, writing code on somebody’s platform is not tech. People need to understand this. We are not building software or the value chain, but we are doing it on the cloud so we can build an enterprise. Tech is the application of science. What have we been doing with science is basic application and not innovation.

The trajectory of global research points toward collaborative research. But there are several factors that impede this in Nigeria, including:

The Nigerian tertiary education system lacks sustained research culture. For example, Nigeria’s premier University of Ibadan started in 1948 – 73 years ago – as a college of the University of London. The initial objective for the college was development of educated manpower for post independent Nigeria.

Research and innovation were not on the front burner. Ibadan did not sever its umbilical cord of London until October 1962, and did not start awarding its own degrees until July 1965, almost two years behind Nigeria’s second university, the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, that started October 1960.

Universities also tend to operate under the “Ivory Tower” mentality. This is the belief or practice that creates an essence of superiority and exclusivity. Some universities avoid collaborating with others to avoid “tainting” or “lowering” themselves. In these environments people at the top of the academic ladder – the professors – tend to assume superior knowledge, and challenging this status is considered impolite, with negative consequences.

A conducive research environment of inclusive social and emotional support can help to reduce ‘anxiety and frustrations,’ bridge gaps, form linkages, and encourage diverse ideas and participation.

Statistics compiled for the African research landscape, shows only 1.3 % of research money spent globally is spent in Africa. This dismal percentage includes funding from outside the continent, implying that research investments made by African governments are miniscule. The same statistics shows that the proportion of researchers in the African population is approximately 27% lower than in the UK or U.S.A, and the percentage of Africans pursuing postgraduate studies is three times lower than the global average.

To be continued.

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