By Olobayo Kunle
“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. Cyberspace is filled with enough news (and mis-news) to fill days that seem to last 30 hours rather than the 24 hours that nature prescribes. In the course of this unprecedented phenomenon, we have all become Public Health experts, engineers, scientists, drug developers, inventors, sociologists, just name it without having to step out of our homes, pay fees, listen to any boring lecturer or seat any “foolish” exams.
As Nigerians, it has also given us the long hoped- for opportunity to descend on our leaders. Some of the depictions and descriptions of our leaders in the social media can be truly hilarious and entertaining, helping to relief the boredom and sometimes the foreboding that come with losing your rhythm; forget the e-meetings and e-parties, if it is not the real thing it cannot be the real thing.
However, as a pharmaceutical scientist, one strand of discussion which interests me is the contribution (or the lack) of Nigerian scientists to the fight against the virus and the accompanying debilitating disease that it causes. This discussion is always there, although it has ebbs and highs, depending on what the news is on scientific progress in managing the pandemic.
To encapsulate it in the form of questions, it is always asked – what are Nigerian Scientists doing? Can’t they see what their colleagues and contemporaries in this or that country are doing? Then will follow discussions that reflect various levels of understanding or misunderstanding of the issues at stake. What you get as answers range from justification to vilification and everything in-between depending on the composition of the group. It will, however, as in most public discourse in Nigeria, almost always devolve into a blame game, finger pointing and premature abandonment of the subject matter.
Truth be told, it is practically impossible to make a clear case in the limited format and anonymous nature of the social media. I will attempt in this article to provide context for the level of contribution of research and development (R&D) to the nation’s fight against COVID and suggest practical ways to improve our response to such events. However, I can say this upfront, the Nigerian research and development sector has been practically absent in the COVID response.
When considering our present situation and the clamour for R&D inputs into the management of the ongoing pandemic in Nigeria, the one refrain that keeps coming to mind is from the song of the “Rainmaker” – Majek Fashek, in the 80s: “You cannot plant cassava and reap cocoyam” or something to that effect. 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.
These institutions are staffed by “highly-degreed” academics with Professors and lecturers in all the required fields. Some of these institutions have very impressive physical structures that easily compare to what one will find in similar institutions of repute in the developed world. In spite of these, our scientists have not been part of the race to develop vaccines or drugs to address the rampaging COVID19 nor have our engineers developed cheaper, more efficient ventilators.
It should be made clear that non-core activities such as the production of hand sanitizers or coupling together pieces of cast away electronic components to produce ventilators, important as they may seem do not count for scientific intervention given the immense potential intellectual capacity available in our R&D system.
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 strange philosophy, which we presently operate as a nation, that requires and actively encourages everyone to have a university education is counter-productive. This unrealistic approach which requires that Universities admit and teach students courses that they neither have the passion nor the desire to undertake, has over-stretched the physical and human infrastructure of the universities. In the meantime, 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 organization will fund our scientists to work for us. In most cases our scientists are used by the international granting agencies or foreign colleagues to carry out preliminary work or collect data which will then be used for product development in the sponsor’s home countries. This explains some of the seemingly irrelevant work done by our otherwise intelligent world-renowned scientists.
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. I have read of TETFUND interventions in fencing a university campus or the building of very large lecture theatres that are under-utilised or the purchase of buses; all of these in Universities where research equipment is either non-existent, insufficient, obsolete or dysfunctional. Where it awards research grants (which I must say it does fairly regularly), they tend to be small and are for projects that have not been aligned to address specific national goals and aspirations nor the requirements of the industry.
It is an irony that research institutes set up by the federal government, with specific mandates which in some cases include product development that can feed the nation’s manufacturing sector, are excluded from the most viable and dependable research funding provided by the Government through the TETFUND.
A careful and deliberate alignment of the research and development of the universities and the research institutes would better ensure that research outputs gets to practical utilisation by the nation’s manufacturing more consistently and rapidly.
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 been left uncommercialised thus becoming a disincentive for further work.
While on the whole a fair proportion of the country’s scientists are of good quality and even of international repute, there are those of questionable quality who have found themselves in the academic arena not out of passion or even interest but for lack of something better to do. This trend which began at the primary education level decades ago has now reached the level of tertiary education.
R&D, which is the ultimate definition and manifestation of intellectual engagement in the sciences, is the product of passion, knowledge and drive. This is more so in the developing world where those generous research grants available to our contemporaries in other parts of the world are unavailable.
Obviously then the uncommitted and accidental researchers, some of whom have reached positions of leadership, will be unproductive in terms of R&D output thus reducing the overall impact of the sector as we are now witnessing.
R&D is universal and the language international. So, while there can be indigenous knowledge and technology, concepts and protocols are universal. The quality of research output is therefore necessarily dependent on the level of knowledge and awareness of current trends in a particular area by the researcher. 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. So even though we want to develop home-grown solutions, we must use universally acceptable principles that will protect our people who are the ultimate consumers and targets of our innovations.
Our scientists need to be encouraged and enabled to take advantage of opportunities to interact regularly and meaningfully with their contemporaries across the world in order to update and sharpen their skills. We are all aware of how many students and academics the currently roaring giant, China, sends out on all kinds of scholarships, missions and collaborations to the Western world with the target of skill and knowledge acquisition for the ultimate use of their country.
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.
Recognising that government is an aggregation of our individual will and wishes as a people, we must also ask ourselves if we are prepared to patiently wait for research results while government invests, since research has a long gestation period which in the case of drug development could be as long as 10 years.
Would we not rather ask what the President/Governor has achieved if he diverts money from refurbishing public buildings to the intangible area of research and development, especially where the success rate of such investment can be as low as 0.1% in terms of product development?
There is undoubtedly a need for attitudinal/cultural shift in our society to be more tolerant of the methodical rigour and long-term continuous investment that is required to have useful and sustainable research and development output.
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. From not caring to being very concerned. From being today’s people responding to only physical stimuli which are at the bottom of the Maslow’s hierarchy of needs such as hunger, shelter and ostentatious accumulation of the things that money can buy.
We must shift to becoming a more thinking people, a more caring people who will not just be concerned about our immediate and personal needs but those of the larger society. We must become a people who worry about tomorrow and try to fix it. It is this sort of shift backed with resources that will stimulate our researchers to perform at their best and be there for us as a people in our hour of need such as now.
We must become a people who reward intellectual endeavour not necessarily with material rewards but in the several other intangible ways that will encourage our young people to want to be innovators and problem solvers. Something needs to be adjusted in our educational system to create in our young people a hunger to solve society’s problems rather than the present view of education as just a meal ticket.
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 should report to the President.
Most importantly, all segments of society should be represented while avoiding the over -representation of any sector including academics. Such a council should set out the research goals of the country in the short, medium and long term. Such research goals which must address identified national issues should be costed and realistic, with strict time frames.
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 move away from the continuous and failed attempt to balance science on strange legs of geo- political spread and patronage. If the funding to research is increased, even if slightly, and focused on a few pressing problems at a time, executed in a serious business-like manner, we will be in a position to begin to use our enormous human and natural resources to address our problems.
Once we address the issue of funding for what we determine as national goals, we will have the laboratory facilities that will attract our colleagues from other parts of the world, especially Africa, to our labs, to share their skills and knowledge with us. There will also be reciprocal invitations to other facilities which will enrich the skills of our scientists. All of these will accelerate our product development 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 sixties “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.
To optimise the available funding and enrich projects, researchers must improve collaboration within and across professions, specialities and institutions. The present silo-like approach should be jettisoned for productive cooperation.
Since humans hardly spontaneously cooperate, the funding (research granting) mechanism should be a powerful tool to “welding” the scientists together. Our scientists must also be prepared to be held to the highest standards of accountability for research funds, delivering projects as promised, and ensuring maximum returns for the research naira.
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.
Prof. Kunle has 34 years’ experience as a pharmaceutical scientist