How we can create a vibrant science research ecosystem in Nigeria

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This piece is about why I think profitable science can’t still be done in Nigeria, and what can be done to make it a possible feat. My idea isn’t without precedent. It borrows from personal experiences and useful aspects of approaches proven to work in other parts of the world. There’s no crime in applying such a method to address our situation, if it’s executable and has the potential to yield desired outcomes.

Students pursuing postgraduate science degrees are usually motivated, and want to do research in well-equipped laboratories under the tutelage of outstanding professors. However, from the perspective of a Nigerian student, doing research in the country is akin to a nightmare. The system is hardly supporting even when students are willing and ready to pay the price. Firstly, research funding has never been a government priority. And how can it be when basic infrastructural needs aren’t yet met?

Typically, the student funds his or her research from personal accounts. The rate of unemployment and inflation compels students to work a number of jobs to earn their subsistence. These are mostly underpaid jobs, out of which a student might expect to purchase all that’s needed for the research, probably pay tuition, and keep body and soul together. The situation is worse when such students have little or no financial support from family members. Some are even responsible in family financial matters, and still strive to do science under the stress that usually ensue.

While the government is exploring means to support research, a chunk of the insufficient but available funds finds its way into pockets of faculty members (I call them “faulty faculty”) and administrators who share and spend these monies on personal businesses. Well, such acts could easily secure them jail terms in saner climes; but they are raiders who have mastered how to game the poor, or rather inexistent, funding feedback and supervisory system. Anyone would easily predict this would result in data fabrication.

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I have reservations about “philanthropy”: distribution of “gift items” to the poor. I believe the best approach to tackling poverty is providing people with a continuous source of income sufficient to meet their basic needs. Following this line of thought, my opinion is that postgraduate researchers, particularly PhD students, should be placed on a form of employment. This can free their time and mind and enable them to focus more on doing science. Quoting Tara Westover, “the most powerful advantage of money is the ability to think of things besides money.” The first step in this direction might be as “simple” as making PhD programs tuition free. This would ease students’ burdens, albeit temporarily.

Without first expending a deliberate effort at reducing the alarming unemployment rate in the country, placing PhD students on a “salary” might spell more harm than good. A spike in the number of applicants to PhD programs might include those who aren’t really interested in doing research, but only exploring a new way to earn a living due to economic hardship. This could inevitably undermine the system if they are drafted in.
You may argue this is a “simplified view” of the issues bedeviling postgraduate education in Nigeria. I agree. But is simplicity no longer the ultimate sophistication? Besides postgraduate studies, it’s no news that education in Nigeria is generally fraught with problems. Nonetheless, my objective here is to examine what can be done to financially support PhD students in the country and perhaps make it attractive to those who might be willing to pursue it.

By my estimation, the fortune the government spends through PTDF and other scholarships for foreign education, if judiciously expended, can be used to provide facilities required for fructuous research in Nigeria. Science is the same anywhere and everywhere in the world and there are professors in our universities, who have proved themselves to be truly exceptional despite the obvious deficiencies in the system under which they’ve been made to operate. Imagine what they might achieve if provided with more funds.

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Instead of overseas spending, the government can use the expert advice of such professors to carefully design PhD research projects that will be fully-funded in different Nigerian universities. This funding will include both the students’ welfare package and monies allocated for laboratory equipment and other necessary research tools. The first set of projects will necessitate high capital investments, but isn’t performing scientific research expensive? However, this approach will engender the establishment of thematic research laboratories in selected universities across the nation. They will also serve as repositories for subsequent related projects and, as such, a preferable return on investment.

Debaters would easily acknowledge it’s ludicrous for a nation to continue to grow other economies when hers lies in shambles without a development plan; but an argument frequently presented for the continuation of foreign scholarships sponsored by the Nigerian government is that it helps to “develop the needed human capital.” However, one would wonder if it’s impossible to do so within the country. By the way, the current need isn’t really “human capital” as folks now settle for jobs they’re clearly overqualified for. I’m not calling for an outright suspension of overseas scholarship programs: my goal is to emphasize the importance of developing a structure that can foster progress in scientific research in Nigeria using what I consider perpetually misappropriated funds.

Nigeria hasn’t yet got all that’s required to maintain a stimulating research environment. Consequently, it’s unreasonable to sponsor students’ abroad, in the hopes they’ll return to help bolster or salvage the nation’s education system when there are currently no structures upon which they can establish their future research careers. This is a common concern expressed by those I’ve interacted with. Many think “coming back home” is more or less signing their careers’ “death warrant.” Therefore, if doing PhD in Nigeria doesn’t appeal to Nigerians, who else might take interest? After all, it’s even difficult to find one studying for a PhD in Nigeria because it was his or her “first choice.”

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PhD students are mostly employed as research assistants in foreign countries. This means innovations and scientific breakthroughs professors get applauded for are actually studies conducted by junior researchers under their supervisorship. As globalization allows for easy accessing and sharing of information, it also aids international collaboration among researchers without the need to convene in a physical location. Therefore, the “foreign training” Nigeria seeks for her future scientists can be achieved within her borders, if there is the requisite political will.

To name a few, some other problems that will continue to limit scientific prosperity in Nigeria include power shortage and employment of incompetent faculty members due to nepotism and corrupt practices. These factors will inhibit progress, regardless of how well researches are funded and monitored. Since it’s human to seek simple ways to solve already complicated problems, interested Nigerian students will continue to ferret out opportunities to do postgraduate research in “greener pastures”, even if they have to pay their way, therewith contributing to other nations’ GDP growth and progress in science. We can all be proud they are Nigerians when they succeed in their endeavours; but the truth is, BRAIN DRAIN is the only “contribution” the current system is forcing them to make to their motherland.

By: Olukayode Majekodunmi

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