By Anote Ajeluorou
To say that the state of scientific research and innovation in Nigeria is precarious or dire is to state the obvious. While science is at the heart of cutting edge technology, innovations and advancement in both developed and nations with emerging economies, Nigeria is dismally lagging behind, with only pockets of excellence that hardly amounts to anything tangible. The situation should worry many right-thinking people in the scientific community.
Indeed, it is, as Liquefied Natural Gas company, LNG and sponsor of the Nigeria Prize for Science and its sister The Nigeria Prize for Literature, gathered the scientific community together recently for a brain-storming session to examine the state of science in Nigeria. It held at the Congress Hall, Transcorp Hilton Hotel, Abuja.
Ironically, the Federal Ministry of Science and Technology became the body that was conspicuously missing in the deliberations that should be at the heart of improving scientific research efforts in the country for a better society. While individual science teachers, lecturers and regulatory bodies came from far-flung places like Warri, Kaduna, Ogwashi Ukwu, and Nassarawa and others represented, the science ministry stayed away. No reason was given for the atrocious absence.
Of the three ministers expected – Profs. Ita Okon Bassey Ewa (Science and Technology); Ruquyyat Ahmed Rufa’I (Education) and Mr. Nyesom Wike (Minister of State for Education), none showed up. But Rufa’i had a deputy director, Dr. Aderemi Abbas Adedibu representing her. But stakeholders forged ahead nonetheless and produced a beautiful document that should help reposition scientific research and improve the $100,000 prize science contest towards applicable scientific research purposes.
Aptly titled ‘Let’s Talk Science’, organisers intended that the forum would refocus scientific researches in the country to make them more amenable to solving identifiable problems within the Nigerian polity. This is with a further view to making such research findings commercially viable for investors and for broader social application.
Chairman of the forum, an Emeritus Professor and chairman, Advisory Board for the science prize, Prof. Umaru Shehu gave a grim situation report when he said in the last three or four years, the $100,000 prize money for science had not been given out because of the dwindling number and quality of entries for it. He lamented that the Advisory Board was unable to produce excellence for the science prize as a result of poor science system in the country and that there was a need to re-examine the state of science and revamp and encourage it for better performance.
Shehu noted that the research results produced so far from those who previously won the nine-year old prize – Prof. Akpoveta Susu, Dr. Kingsley Abulimen, Dr. Ebenezer Meshida, Prof. Michael Adikwu, Prof. Jonathan Nok and Prof. Andrew Ibhadode – were applicable, with some having in fact been applied already to solve the social problems they were intended.
In stating this position, LNG Managing Director/CEO, Mr. Babs Omotowa said the science prize, held in collaboration with The Nigerian Academy of Science, was founded on the “common conviction that the future capability of our country depends very decisively on the performance and efficiency of our science and more importantly our educational system. The prize holds in bold relief our deep and abiding faith that good education, strict morals and constant pursuit of excellence would heal whatever ailments afflict our society”.
Omotowa lamented the collective failure that had become the hallmark in the nation’s life in spite of individual high performances and said it was time to begin harnessing these individual excellences to enhance national growth, maintaining, “When we part the curtain of platitudes, what stares us in the face is general low quality in the midst of great personal competencies and excellence, cloudy national vision in the face of singular, micro pursuits for wealth and fame. In almost all areas of life, we see Nigerians making giant strides. Nigeria has enough great scientists to challenge some developed countries.
“So, why are our roads not fixed, water unavailable, electricity scarce, agricultural implements still rudimentary? In one single word, our compatriots are still not touched by science and scientists; the situation, although improving, is still far from satisfactory”. Omotowa said blame could go from government, scientists, school system, greedy politicians, and bad teachers to brain drain, with banks and oil companies not spared in the blame game, without also excluding the misplaced charge that LNG was not providing funds for research.
He, however, stressed that the nation’s scientists had not quite risen to their very best, saying, “Our scientists, who should be the problem-solvers of our society, have not taken their place at the very centre of the challenges which the country faces. I believe our scientists can rise to the challenges wisely if they from time to time remind themselves what their purposes should be: to ensure that the needs of our compatriots are met. Nigerian scientists have a moral duty to seek solutions to Nigeria’s problems. Perhaps, our compatriots will be less sceptical of our science and scientists if they provide applicable solutions to major problems. Perhaps our citizenry will be less gullible to miracle pastors and witch doctors and visit more hospitals than prayer houses.
“I’m proposing applicable science which will have the salutary effect of focusing our science and scientists not only on pursuit of patents and breakthroughs, but also on real developmental problems”. Moving forward and by way of a suggestion, Omotowa then tasked the Advisory Board for The Nigeria Prize for Science to work with relevant government agencies and industry players to “identify a major national problem on a yearly basis and reward the scientist/scientists that provided the best applicable solutions”.
ON her part, the Minister of Education, Rafa’i, commended the organisers of the forum and noted that it gave stakeholders “the opportunity to contribute in the search for national direction, especially at this critical point in our development where we seek a credible place in the gathering of nations as a technologically advanced country”. Rufa’i then tasked the forum to put in place both short and long term measures “to secure the future of rigorous scientific thinking in the country”.
She also said the success of the forum would depend on how well science education, application of technology and innovative thinking would be integrated to solve problems and how well science education was utilised to banish “ignorance, native superstition and use science to improve the quality of life of Nigerians, with the production of affordable goods and provision of systems and processes for solving day to day challenges”.
While giving the keynote address, President, The Nigerian Academy of Science and former Vice Chancellor, University of Lagos, Prof. Ibidapo Obe reviewed the State of Science and Technology in the country and gave it a low pass mark. He said although Nigeria’s economy was at the same level with such countries as India, China and Korea at independence and after and was among the best 20 growing economies in the world, the reality now was far from rosy or what it used to be. The professor of engineering stated that now the world was being ranked by the level of knowledge index a country had, with Nigeria ranking 66, a situation he described as quite lamentable and unacceptable given the enormous resources the country has.
Obe stated that Nigeria had since lagged behind its peers and was now comparable with countries like Zimbabwe, saying the country had almost tumbled from position of grace to grass. He noted that the much-mouthed vision 20:2020 was in jeopardy of not becoming a reality if serious efforts were not made to reposition the country on a path of growth. Obe argued that while there was general national failing at achieving national aspirations, there were pockets of excellence performances from individual efforts, which he said, were too haphazard to achieve needed benefits for the country’s needs. He, therefore, canvassed for coordinated efforts to merge or expand these pockets of excellences so they could be well utilised.
The former Vice Chancellor noted that focused institutes like Institute for Tropical Agriculture, Ibadan (IITA) were doing remarkably well, but that credit for works done there were usually given elsewhere because of the source of funding, which was from overseas. Also, for those who hold up the nation’s large population as excuse or reason for poor performance or failure, Obe maintained that China, and possibly India, had shown the way on how large populations could actually be stimulus for growth if well managed and harnessed through structured planning, with emphasis on the enthronement of virile institutions and systems rather than powerful individuals and needless frequent policy summersaults.
He, therefore, submitted that many of Nigeria’s ailments could be cured by science, which prides itself on openness and verifiable results that can be tested and peered reviewed. Obe said such ailments as corruption and electoral malpractices, which abhor openness, which is a scientific process, could be cured by science if so subjected. He noted that corruption thrived in the land because of its secretiveness, saying, “Science remains the main hope of creating openness for human existence.
On how science works and how it can be improved, Obe said there must be a commitment to nurturing enquiring minds, with society believing in its abilities and its scientists and the need for a reinvention of selves. But more importantly, he made a case for more laboratories in school, universities, polytechnics, colleges and research institutions, consistent funding, better trained and well paid teachers to drive the growth of science in society.
The renowned academic also sued for national emancipation, which he said would require a total transformation from the state of poverty the nation now finds itself, and further hampered by inability to judiciously utilise available resources.
He also examined leadership options that work and said Nigeria should adopt bottom-up leadership approach that is inclusive rather than everyone always looking up to those at the top, a situation that had left many gaps and hiccups in the system, with the attendant paralysis or stagnation the country is mired in.
Obe, therefore, submitted that what was needed now was applicable science that could device local solutions to solve local problems. He urged scientists and research institutions, polytechnics, colleges and universities to encourage joint investigation of problems by pooling resources together with a view to offering common solutions. More importantly, he argued for the support and harnessing of new ideas, creative thinking and young, innovative minds in the drive to finding solutions to common problems facing the country, saying that science innovation was at the heart of both developed and developing nations and that Nigeria could not afford to lag behind in view of global realities, as no country would be willing to transfer its technology to another willingly.
Further, Obe sued for the alignment of government policies as regards scientific research and innovations, adding that frequent changes in policies would harm rather help scientific processes.
WHEN it was time for responses from members of the science community, it was observed that many scientists, especially those in the polytechnics, colleges of education and other research institutions did not know of the existence of $100,000 worth The Nigeria Prize for Science let alone how to apply for it in spite of the amazing researches going on in those places of learning. What it meant was that in spite of placed advertisements in national dailies, many scientists were probably too engrossed in their work to get informed on developments in their environments. It posed a challenge for organisers and sponsors alike to spread the gospel of the prize wider than the traditional modes of advertising it and possibly taking it to the doorsteps of those who need to contest for it to obviate poor entries plaguing it in recent years.