Establishment of Science Village will Ensure Innovation in Nigeria, Says Adepelumi

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In this interview with Funmi Ogundare, a Professor of Geophysics and Earthquake Seismology, Department of Geology, Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, Adekunle Adepelumi explained how Nigeria can move foward technologically with the establishment of a science village in the country, that will witness the convergence of geniuses from the secondary school up to university levels, for innovation, among other issues. Excerpts:

As a pioneer of earthquake engineering, what effort have you made in ensuring that the course is accepted by the National Universities Commision (NUC), considering the fact that students sometimes do not go into such field for fear of not getting employment?

Let’s assume I am the pioneer, we have had people in the early 70s, but they were not able to achieve much, and no Nigerian university is offering it as a course. It is a course that is very relevant to Civil Engineering, Structural Engineering, Geology, Geophysics and Building Technology. As at today, one of the professors at Abubakar Tafawa Balewa University (ATBU), Bauchi, and former Director General of Nigerian Building and Road Research Institute (NBRRI), Professor Danladi Matawal is a structural engineer. He did his sabbatical at NUC in 2009, and he did all he could to have this course integrated into the curriculum of Nigerian universities, but as at now it is still in the foundation stage and effort is being made to push it to the NUC. The course is new to our environment and it is very vital. Approval has not been given, but effort is being made, one or two people that I know.

Why do you think things are too slow?

That I cannot answer, but effort is being made for approval to be given by the NUC so that this course is integrated. In advanced countries like Japan, South Korea, America, you cannot build any house without carrying out proper earthquake engineering investigation of the environment where that is being done. But in this part of the world, even for building of refineries and other projects, they usually bring in expatriates from Europe, America and Asia to do the studies. We have shortage of personnel in Nigeria in that field, but effort is being made now to train young Nigerian graduates overseas and in Nigeria. ATBU Bauchi is making efforts to integrate it into their civil engineering course, OAU is also making efforts to integrate it into its Geology and Geophysics courses, but it is not established yet. At the background, we are still teaching it. There is shortage of the facilities and also shortage of the personnel in the country that are skilled in the area of earthquake engineering.

A national conference on earthquake was supposed to have been held in Abuja, but was halted, what effort is being made by the government to converge a fresh one?

The Federal Government of Nigeria has set up a presidential committee on this and a presidential inter-ministerial committee with six ministers, myself and others. At the end of the day, we were able to come up with a proposal for Nigeria. I am not permitted to disclose some things, but a report was submitted by us to the federal government in the second week of May 2019, an approval was given by Federal Executive Council (FEC) and a white paper was issued from that. So I can say things are in progress. Like I said within the shortest period, maybe before the end of the year, we will see physical manifestation. So I believe things are a bit slow, but everything is in process.

Do you believe that everything is truly in progress and has not been politicised?

I strongly believe that it has not, because I have seen the green light. I have seen some agencies in Nigeria, where funds have been released to them, which is part of the recommendation of our presidential inter-ministerial committee, with the approval given by FEC. Some agencies have received funds to buy more equipment to train their personnel and do more geological work in some areas. Funds later will be released to the education sector. It is part of the recommendation that the education sector in each geo-political zone will receive funding along the line of earthquake engineering or earthquake science. We are in the stage of implementation and it will be implemented as soon as possible.

Training PhD students in the field of science, funding research and carrying out state-of-the-art experiments is seen as a big challenge in Nigeria, what can universities do to overcome this challenge?

Training in the area of STEM, in the field of engineering and hitech science involves money, and you know the exchange rate from naira to dollar as at today. Training like I said involves money. And for you to train engineering and science students in this area, there is something in place that is called TETFund. It is a good idea, but TETFund is being given to lecturers that are in the universities. They work in collaboration with their PhD students. But there are some undergraduate students that are pretty smart, there are masters students that are also pretty smart. I prefer a situation where a student is attached, for instance, the Ministry of Science and Technology, under Dr. Ogbonaya Onu has done a lot along that area. What I am trying to say is that identifying very bright students, even at secondary school level, it doesn’t have to be university, PhD or masters. There are ways of identifying students that are very good in Physics, Mathematics and Chemistry that can do innovative things. I lived in a city called Daejeon in South Korea, which simply means Science Town. I lived there for 16 months. Once you are identified as a genius; academically you might not be a genius, but scientifically or engineering wise, you may be a genius. Once you are identified, that is what I am proposing, that Nigeria should do what they have in South Korea. I was in Los Alamos in USA, that is a different world entirely. In Los Alamos, you will not see anybody on the street. Everybody virtually stays underground and research is going on. You are talking about training, it is for Nigeria to establish what is called a Science Village or Science Town. I mentioned South Korea as an example. In the science village, it doesn’t have to be PhD holder, we have had cases where people get money from TETFund, from government and nothing is coming out of it. We identify this science village, it could be anywhere, we don’t have to multiply or duplicate. Just one, located in a good area, and good students from secondary school level to university; undergraduate, masters and PhD students that can do innovation technology are brought into that village. Their own education will be in that place. So that they can think, birds of a feather can flock together. They are talking about the vaccine for COVID-19, such a thing could be done there. Somebody in the eastern part could have an idea, somebody in the western part could also have an idea, as well as somebody in the northern part or north-central. If they are able to identify these set of human beings, the way it is done in Los Alamos in USA, the way it is done in Science Town in South Korea, we can move forward. They are brought there, so they can think alike, work alike, what I am thinking, you are thinking and they can merge it together. As I said it is not for every student, it is for the genius; the bright ones. Those ones that can see in fourth dimension, not two or three dimensions. It is shameful that as at today, virtually everything that we are using in our nation is being imported. What are we investing and what are we producing? I am sorry, I am a professor in the university but what are we producing? We are just graduating students. About a month ago I was talking to a student, he is a graduate. And he told me he just wasted his five years in the university. He came to meet me where I was, he said he got a second-class upper. I took him to the field, and the boy was almost practically useless. He made a 2.1. So what I am trying to say in essence is that if Nigeria wants to move up technologically, bright students from the secondary school level up to university level should be identified, a science town or a science village should be established in the nation. Not politically influenced, so that bright ones from the north, from the east, north-central, west, whether they are Igbos, or Yorubas, are brought there and we can move forward as a nation, as it is, we don’t have such in Nigeria.

How do you think the country can encourage the youths in ground breaking research that will impact lives and livelihood?

Part of what the government could do is to give them incentives. I got my PhD in Brazil. They say Brazil is a third world country, but I disagree. I got my PhD there in 2003. Brazil is one of largest producers of helicopter and aeroplane in the world. Now what am I trying to say? How can we encourage the youths? I entered the university and from day one they told me I was going to spend five years. And for the five years, my breakfast, lunch, and dinner, all my books, school fees was on the bill of the government. When I was to do my thesis, everything about my thesis was under the Ministry of Science and Technology. So it is not anybody that they give admission in their own science and engineering. Very bright students are identified and admitted. So you are not thinking that I want to buy anything, the government will give you the incentive. I go online, I see this book, I can’t remember the number of books that the government of Brazil bought for me as a Nigerian. I just go to my supervisor and tell him, I have seen these two books, I think they are relevant to my work, before you know what is happening, the man has ordered for the books. That is incentive or you call it scholarship, but all their citizens that are ready to learn are placed under the scholarship scheme. So even secondary school students that are ready to learn are paid money every month. That is an incentive, you are given money every month, they call it stipends. Every month, they are given that stipend and I have free lunch. Why can’t I think? I want to buy a book or any other thing. As a student from Brazil, I went to America seven times. Why won’t I have the incentive to think? My supervisor sent the entire class to University of New Mexico in Albuquerque for 33 days. And that was in 2001 and each student in my class; PhD and masters, we were 71 and we were given $250 per day in 2001 for period of 33 days. And I was paid cash. I had never seen that type of money in my life. It was there they took us to one George Jiracek at the New Mexico in Albuquerque. And they trained us, explained things to us and I was going back to Brazil with more than excess money in my pocket. What I am trying to say is that one of the ways that government can encourage bright students is to give incentive. When I say incentive; free education, it helps a lot. The money is not there, you are investing in education, you are investing in knowledge, you are investing in the future of the nation. And they are given stipends, not stipends quarterly; it used to happen when I was doing my masters at Obafemi Awolowo University. As a masters student, my school fees was written off. They identified some good students, I am not saying I am good, but some good students were identified and at the end of the day we were not paying school fees. At the end of each session, maybe it was N1,200 that was given to us, it was a lot of money. Because school fee was about N120 and we were given as masters students N1,200 each at the end of the session. It was an incentive, it was through that process that I became a lecturer in the university. If they are given financial incentives, books incentive, it will encourage the good ones. It is a way of encouragement.