Rethinking research in Nigeria
By Nyerhovwo Tonukari
I would like to start by asking why the Federal Government should still be expected to be happy in giving university lecturers grants for research? Where are the commercialized research outputs that warrant further research investments?
But then is the Federal Government funding research to the expected level? Are we doing the kind of research that will bring development to Nigeria?
Coming home, what have we as biochemists contributed to the Nigerian economy in terms of development from our research? Again, what has the Federal Government received in return for its over 50 years of funding scientific research? What specific products or processes can we point to in Nigeria that have resulted from research that we conducted? As scientists are we pleased that there is still poverty and hunger in Nigeria in spite of the vast knowledge that we boast of? How many biochemists are really contented with their current salaries as well as societal and economic conditions?
I must confess that scientific research is much better now with TETFund funding some of our researches. Nevertheless, the low level of funding, for instance, one, two or three million naira of research grants will not be enough to conduct any meaningful research. Hence, what we see in biochemistry journals is a lot of “effect of X on Y.” Many of us have published these kinds of papers just for promotion and nothing else. Papers and award-chasing are now what characterize the engagements of the typical Nigerian lecturer.
The TETFund 2016 Budget was N213.4b, with only a small part of this devoted to research while most of it went into capital expenditures and training. Nigeria’s total Federal Government 2018 budget of N9.12 trillion is less than the amount the United States spends for medical research alone. The 2018 budget for the USA National Institutes of Health (NIH) is $37 billion (about N11.5 trillion); National Science Foundation (NSF), $7.8 billion (about N2.5 trillion); and NASA, $20.7 billion (about N6.5 trillion). The USA budget for 2018 is S4.094 trillion which is about 1,250 trillion naira (not 10 times but a whopping 140 times of the Nigerian budget). What a difference!
Considering the state of our economy, our research must be linked to industries. Our institutions must partner with industries and source for research funding from them. For example, about 20% of the research funding at the National University of Seoul, South Korea is sourced from industries. When research is tied to economic results, significant funding will come from industries. Therefore, our institutions must learn to work hand-in-hand with industries to build the economy.
Why is the US economy thriving and its budget so huge? It is simply because it has so many companies that pay good taxes to the government. Even scientists including professors are encouraged with grants, cheap loans and venture capital to commercialize their research and start companies. Several biochemistry professors move between industry and academia. Hence research parks and business incubators dot areas around universities in several western countries. Instead of complaining and criticizing the government, we should endeavor to become part of the solution by conducting real research that will lead to job creation and new products. We must learn to work with those from other fields including engineers, agriculturists, economists and software developers to make our own versions of products and services that we now import. There are so much that we import today that we can easily make in Nigeria. Are we not ashamed that we import enzymes, vitamins, hormones and organic acids into Nigeria? Can we not practice some of what we teach by producing these biochemicals in Nigeria? On the contrary, we export so many assays like paternity tests abroad that we can easily carry out in Nigeria. We lose so much foreign exchange. If you are Muhammadu Buhari, the President of Nigeria, will you be happy with Nigerian biochemists? Many of us got the Federal Government postgraduate and now TETFund scholarships to study for our masters and PhDs. But, the question is, ‘what have we given back to Nigeria in appreciation?’
We import so much into Nigeria today, that it has become so embarrassing. Many industries are closing, and several service firms are folding up. So many things are wrong, and we lecturers and professors are part of the problem. How many of us have real industrial experience that qualifies us to teach industrial biochemistry? Why can we not engage our colleagues in industries to teach part of our industrial biochemistry courses with us? Do we really know what is currently happening in Nigerian and international industries or we are just teaching what is in the stale textbooks? Why are we so happy to quote foreign companies as the source of our chemicals and equipment? We should patronize indigenous companies and laboratories. How many of you have joined your local chamber of commerce and industry like I have done? There is no doubt that we need some encouragement like what China is giving to its industries if we are to have real strong companies in Nigeria. But we must not wait for such governmental encouragements. We must do what we can; we need to refocus some of our research into those areas that will lead to products and services that we can commercialize and profit from financially.
But what should we really do? It is now time to rethink and refocus our research such that it will contribute meaningfully to the Nigerian economy. We must conduct investigations that will lead to products or processes that we can point to instead of chasing awards, papers and promotion. Commercialization of research output should be given a priority. Researchers should be encouraged to pursue patents in addition to papers so that they can benefit financially from their research. Also, there is need to introduce challenge researches. Here, scientists, policy makers, industries and stakeholders will identify real problems that we need to tackle. TETFUND and other donor agencies will call for proposals and fund the ones that will lead to solution thereby creating products and services, and ultimately jobs.
In addition, there is need for the establishment of strong research collaborations and consortia. Instead of giving each individual researcher two million naira for research which will end up in a meaningless promotion-focused paper, scientists with different expertise should collaborate to solve specific problems or create products and services that will promote the economy and society. Meaningful grants of at least N500m should be given to consortium of a minimum of 10 collaborating scientists that come from different fields and universities (including research institutes) to solve specific problems or create some novel products. Such call for proposals should be made public and a national panel of experts should screen them and recommend the outstanding ones for funding.
Biochemists can work with agricultural biotechnologists to develop herbicide resistant cassava. Nigeria can easily triple its cassava production if we have herbicide resistant cassava; and this will save us a lot in labour costs. I have published two reviews where I argued that cassava should be considered as white gold because it is the future of starch and it is going to serve as the substrate for several industries in Nigeria. As an optimist and futurist, I still stand by my prediction. Unlike before, we now have several molecular biologists in Nigeria. What does it take to develop a transgenic plant? Several universities and research institutes have most of the required equipment and several of us have the skills to conduct such experiments. All that is required is the boost: assemble the experts, provide the consumables and give them a deadline. Believe me, we can do this. We can improve most crops in Nigeria if the funding is provided. Nigerian molecular biologists are waiting for the call.
We have been producing alcohol from different raw materials in Nigeria since pre-historic times. And we have so many grains and tubers to use as substrates for alcohol production. Then why are we still importing industrial alcohol into Nigeria? I think some of us including engineers, microbiologists and economists should come up with proposals to establish mini-alcohol production plants from cassava and other tubers and grains in all parts of Nigeria. Imagine how many jobs will be created out of this!
Can we not produce better anti-malaria drugs and even work towards the eradication of malaria? Nigerians have been publishing papers on anti-malarial plants since the 1960s; yet there are no real commercial Nigerian made drugs in the market. We have investigated so many medicinal herbs from all parts of Nigeria. I am confident that with good funding and encouragement, we can produce combined anti-malarial drugs with better efficacy than the current artemisinin-based drugs that we now import. And what can we as biochemists contribute towards the total eradication of malaria? Now that is food for thought.
“Nigerian Government to import grass from Brazil” is the headline of a 2017 newspaper article. What a shame! Cows need to eat grass, but it is sickening to even imagine that we need to import grass to feed our cattle. We have conducted several investigations and published several articles on animal feeds at Delta State University. My colleagues and I have identified an alpha-amylase from Aspergillus niger; which is taken from cassava undergoing spoilage. The interesting thing is that this enzyme can be used to pre-treat and enrich cassava peels such that they can be included cheaply in poultry and pig feeds. We also sequenced and analyzed (in silico) the gene encoding the amylase. These feeds were tested in poultry and pigs with very positive results. We are very confident that we can easily produce very cheap supplementary feeds for cattle if the funding and market is available. There are other laboratories and groups in Nigerian universities that can also produce these supplementary feeds using local materials.
The content of the biochemistry curriculum as well as issues related to research dissemination should also be revisited. Have we ever reached out to involve our industries, laboratories and research institutes in the drafting of the biochemistry curriculum? The internet, open access and online education will jolt our profession like never before. Digital technology offers us rich, interactive learning environments. Most students now get more information for their project from Google Scholar and Wikipedia, than from their own physical school libraries. So, we better start including some bioinformatics and real computer programming into our curriculum. And if you are happy downloading and using PDFs of published articles in your teaching and research, you should also strongly support and publish in open access journals that upload such papers online for you to freely access.
If we do not change, the future may not favour us as lecturers and also as a country. High throughput screening and bioinformatic analyses will dominate biochemical research in the future. Are we ready for that? Most of the common assays are now being automated and carried out by robots in several laboratories and industries in western countries. Artificial intelligence and machine-based analyses will comb through billions of biochemical and genomic data to generate advanced molecules, transgenes and bio-drugs. Believe it or not, instead of expensive spectrophotometers, microscopes and PCR thermocyclers, our phones and laptops with cheaply attached accessories will be used to measure absorbance and record various parameters in the future. Are we just going to sit back and buy these future assays and accessories from abroad or begin to prime ourselves to compete with them for a slice of the market?
We are all very intelligent and hardworking. We have studied those intricate biochemical pathways, complex genomic expressions and multifaceted signal transductions. Why can we not translate our unique knowledge towards understanding the pathways of life and proffer unique solutions? We should sever ourselves from the old and look towards the future. We praise and readily accept articles published by the big companies in Europe and the United States, and we are doing nothing whatever to improve our local faculty and association journals. We call their journals international and score them higher during promotion exercises. Why are we not going to call our journals local and consider them inferior? How many of our faculty journals are indexed? How many of them have interactive and tracking websites? How many of our journals have diverse and international editors? How many of our association journals are attracting international authors? How many of our faculty journals have Google Scholar h5 ranking? How many of them have Crossref with digital object identifier (DOI)? How many of our association journals have digital preservation? We must improve our own journals to achieve global recognition. We must embrace and publish in Nigerian and African journals. We must support our local economy.
As Robert Kennedy once said, “the future does not belong to those who are content with today, apathetic toward common problems and their fellow man alike, timid and fearful in the face of bold projects and new ideas. Rather, the future will belong to those who can blend passion, reason and courage in a personal commitment to their ideals.” The future belongs to the bold. I enjoin you all to be part of the future.
Excerpts of the keynote address delivered by Professor Nyerhovwo Tonukari at the 3rd South South Annual Zonal Conference of the Nigerian Society of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, Thursday 13th September 2018 at the University of Port Harcourt. Professor Tonukari teaches biochemistry at the Delta State University, Abraka and is the founder of Academic Journals.