Mosto Onuoha, Professor of Geology, is the current president of the 40-year -old Nigerian Academy of Science – the foremost independent scientific body, dedicated to the development and advancement of science, technology and innovation (STI) in Nigeria. In this interview with CECILIA OGEZI, he speaks of ways Nigeria benefits from the activities of his organisation and how the nation can maximise the benefits of STI for sustainable development.
What are the things the public should know about yourself?
My name is Professor Mosto Onuoha and I am based at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. In fact, I have been there for very many years –for close to 37 years. By God’s grace, I will soon clock 70 years of age, and by the regulations governing the conditions of service in the Nigerian university system, I am now preparing to retire formally from the University of Nigeria, Nsukka(UNN) sometime later this year on my 70th birthday. Already, the University Ceremonials Committee has fixed July 13, 2017, for my Valedictory Lecture.
I am currently the PTDF Professor of Petroleum Geology, i.e. the holder of the chair endowed by the Petroleum Technology Development Fund [PTDF] at the university. Previously (between 2003 and 2012), I was the occupant of the Shell/NNPC Chair of Geology at the UNN. Still talking about Professorial chairs, I was indeed the pioneer holder of one of the earliest professorial chairs endowed in a Nigerian university, the Mobil Producing Nigeria’s Chair of Geology at the University of Calabar. This was some twenty seven years ago.
I have also been involved in university administration for a good number of years. I served as Deputy Vice-Chancellor [Academic] at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka between 2005 and 2009 and though I was on appointment as Adjunct Staff, I also served as Interim Deputy Vice-Chancellor of one the newest universities in Nigeria, the Federal University, Ndufu-Alike Ikwo, [FUNAI] in Ebonyi State between 2012 and 2016. I am member of several professional bodies, local and international, e.g. I am a Fellow of the Nigerian Association of Petroleum Explorationists (NAPE), a Fellow of the Nigerian Mining and Geosciences Society (NMGS), Member of the American Association of Petroleum Geologists (AAPG), etc. Most importantly, in connection with the present interview, I am also a Fellow of the Nigeria Academy of Science and currently the President of this august body. This is the much I can tell you about myself for now.
What was the reason for the formationt of the Nigerian Academy of Science?
To start with, the Nigerian Academy of Science is a body made up of most of Nigeria’s foremost scientists. It is the highest scientific honours society in Nigeria. The members are called Fellows; they are people who have distinguished themselves and are globally acknowledged in their fields of science, engineering and technology. The Academy itself is about 40-years- old – having been formed in 1977. It started when some eminent members of the Science Association of Nigeria, mostly, very well-known professors and researchers who had also become Fellows of the Science Association of Nigeria got together to form an Academy of Science, similar to academies like the Royal Society in the United Kingdom, and other Science Academies in other parts of the world. Today, the Nigerian Academy of Science has relationships with many her academies in Africa, and in the world an represents the country at the International Council of Scientific Union [ICSU]. One unique thing about academies, whether it is Academy of Science, Academy of Engineering, or Academy of Arts as the case may be, is that you don’t just walk into any of them. There is a rigorous (almost restrictive) system of admission or entrance that ensures that only the very best and most qualified come in.
How does the president of the Nigerian Academy of Science emerge?
I was still a graduate student in 1977 when the Academy was formed and so cannot tell how the pioneer president, the distinguished professor of Animal Science, Prof. V. A. Oyenuga (now late) was selected. However, I suspect that those forty two eminent scientists must have just looked among themselves and selected the person who had the clout and exposure, disposition, and was willing to run the affairs of the Academy at the time and they chose him as the president. So as time evolved and more Fellows got inducted, the Academy grew from the original 42 to 60, 80 and so on. By the time people like us were inducted in1998, the number of Fellows had serially grown to about 100, although by then a few of them had died. For a while the presidents were chosen by consensus, each President serving a term of two years. The practice for many years was for the past presidents to consult among themselves and by consensus select a presidential candidate to be presented to the body of Fellows during its Annual General Meeting.
The important point to note is that election by popular vote has up till now not been the route for becoming the president of the Nigerian Academy of Science. So over the years, when a new President had to come into office, we simply waited for the past presidents to consult among themselves – a situation akin to when the Catholic Cardinals go into their conclave and after a while emerge to tell us who the new Pope is.
Following some modifications to our statutes and bye-laws, the choice of a president for the Academy now rests with a Search Committee chaired by a past president. The members of this committee include another past president, the serving president, and representatives of each of the eleven Sectional Committees of the Academy. The selection and presentation of the candidate to the AGM is made one year ahead of time, so the individual so selected, serves as president-elect for a year while the investiture as president then follows one year after when the term of the out-going president ends. The tenure of a president is now four years. I was thus selected and presented by the Search Committee to the AGM of the Academy as president-elect in January 2016 and only took office about two months ago in January 2017.
I believe that every new president comes with his own creative agenda to advance the course of the Academy. What values shall we be looking out for during your presidency?
You know, the main vision of the Nigerian Academy of Science is an improved quality of life for the Nigerian society, through the promotion and application of science and technology. And our main mission is to see how we can strengthen the nation’s ability to deliver the fruits of science and technology to our people. So for me personally, if you look at our country today, the problems facing us are many and my main focus as president is to see that the Academy continues to partner with the various governments (federal, state and local) and the private sector in solving some of these problems through the dissemination of sound scientific knowledge. We will continue with our various advocacy programmes, organising one forum or the other on identified areas of national need and providing evidence-based advice to influence policy formulation to improve the lives of our people.
To underscore what I’m saying, let me provide information on some of the things that the Academy has done in the recent past. Through our forum on evidence-based health policy making, we have provided vital information on reducing maternal and infant mortality in Nigeria. We also organised another forum focusing on the nation’s preparedness to control the rising burden of non-communicable diseases in the country. We recently tackled the issue of how to use agriculture for improved nutrition of women and children in Nigeria. In the days ahead we will turn our attention to other pressing issues, e.g. waste management in our urban areas, water and sanitation in the cities, and other environmental issues, including desertification in the North and deforestation in the South where the woodlands are fast disappearing.
One of the very important things that the Academy is already pursuing under my presidency is to try to obtain a charter from the National Assembly officially recognising the Nigerian Academy of Science as the official organ for the provision of evidence-based advice on science, technology and innovation to government. We hope that the present (i.e. 8th National Assembly) will pass this bill. In almost every country where there is an Academy of Science, there is usually an official bill passed to set it up or recognise it for the work it does to the nation. The National Academy of Germany is the oldest continuously existing Science Academy and it was established on January 1, 1652 and chartered by Emperor Leopold I of Germany in 1667.The Royal Society, in London, was founded on November 28, 1660 and received the Royal Charter on April 23, 1663, with the King of England designated as its founder. The current patron is Her Majesty the Queen. Even the Ghanaian Academy of Arts& Science was chartered through a bill sent to parliament shortly after the country’s independence from Britain by the then President, Dr. Kwame Nkrumah.
When John F. Kennedy was President of the United States of America and all of a sudden it looked like the Soviet Union had overtaken them in the space research race by sending a man (Yuri Gagarin) into orbit round the earth, Kennedy gathered the leading American scientists and demanded they work how America would put men not just into orbit round the earth, but land them on the moon – at any cost! This are the kind of things that nations do. They identify their major problems or issues that are of national importance and task their scientists to produce the solutions.
Why has the Academy not been chartered since 40 years of its existence?
Honestly, I cannot answer why. But you must remember that the military ruled Nigeria for many years during which they simply rolled out decrees since parliament had been sent packing. The Academy came into existence during the military era of government and the military and the academia (where the bulk of the Fellows of the Academy came from) were then not the best of friends. It was only during the return of democratic government under the regime of President Olusegun Obasanjo that the first attempt to get the Academy bill passed started. This first effort came through a bill proposed at the Senate by late Senator Wada from Gombe State. Unfortunately, he died during the life of that Senate and it appears that our bill died with him. A similar bill was also presented to the House of Representatives during the time of Alhaji Tambuwal as Speaker during the life of the last National Assembly. Significant progress was made in getting it passed as it went through second hearing, but the life of that Assembly also ended without the bill being passed. A new effort is now on the way to get this matter settled.
How much of your efforts contribute to public policy?
We have been quite successful in the past and some notable public policies have emanated from our evidence-based advice to government. The Nigerian Academy of Science has since its inception had a history of beneficial interaction with Government. Nigeria’s first National Science and Technology Policy was formulated in1986 in the realization of the fact that overall national development could only be sustained through the effective application of scientific and technological skills for the production of goods and services. The Policy was designed to create harmony in the quest for knowledge about the environment through R & D and the use of that knowledge to ensure a better quality of life for our people. The Academy was actively involved in the formulation of that policy.
The Academy successfully cooperated with the Federal Government in producing a report on Science and Scientific Research Infrastructure submitted to the National Agency for Science and Engineering Infrastructure (NASENI) in 1992. That report identified those areas of Science and Technology practice in Nigeria whose immediate reorganization or development would enhance the evolution of industrialization in the country. At the instance of Government, we also made vital contributions in 1997 to the deliberations on the concept of long-term strategic planning (code-named Vision 2010) for achieving national self-reliance, economic strength and political stability.
In the area of public health, there was a time that the National Assembly prohibited energy drinks from coming into the country; plus outlawing smoking in public places – because they were killing young Nigerians In large numbers. But energy drinks and public smoking are still being done openly. What is your Academy doing about the defiance?
See, the Academy cannot act as the police – especially when laws have been passed on public smoking and scientific evidence provided about the harmful effects of smoking. It is the duty of the Customs to check what goods come into the country and of agencies like NAFDAC to monitor the foods, medicines and drinks that are sold to Nigerians. The Academy cannot do much in these areas. If something is not going well in our society and we can provide evidence-based advice on how to tackle it, we do so. When new policies or laws are introduced and they are not obeyed, it becomes another Nigerian problem, a situation when laws are not obeyed. If energy drinks are outlawed but are still available in our shops, the Academy cannot be blamed!
The Nigerian Academy of Science belongs in the global science community. How would you rate Nigerian academy in comparison with other academies, particularly in Africa?
I think we have done exceptionally well, taking into consideration the fact that we do not receive direct yearly funding from Government as other Academies do in other lands. Indeed, we are now mentoring some other Academies especially in South-Saharan Africa. The Academy in Ghana is older than ours, but we ran past them many years ago, thanks to our sheer number, creativity and linkage with the US National Science Academies. The Academy in South Africa is also doing well with a robust support from their government. All in all, Academies all over the world operate a fairly uniform mandate. They try to see how science, technology and innovation can deliver a better living standard for their citizenry. For instance, in Nigeria today the discussion or argument on genetically modified organisms (GMO) is ongoing. The Academy has issued an official statement regarding the suitability of GMO-based foods to human health. We are going to say a lot more on this topic soon. The Nigerisn Academy of Science has done very well in my opinion. A lot more could be done if more funding is available for our activities.
As a geologist, and now president, has the academy done anything so far to stem the perennial erosion menace in Southeast Nigeria?
To the best of my knowledge the Academy hasn’t delved into the problem of erosion in Nigeria. However, that does not mean that we cannot go into it – with a view to seeing what needs to be done to check the menace. But even if the Academy were to decide to go into erosion control as a subject, it would again be in the form of providing evidence-based scientific knowledge to help agencies of government to better tackle the problem. Government has been active in checking erosion in different parts of the country, especially in Southern Nigeria and lots of money has been voted by the federal and various state governments for erosion control projects. However, the problem is not abating for many reasons. First of all, there is a lot of pressure on the land due to population explosion and changing weather conditions. Secondly, the soils in the Southeast are very loose and fragile, and easily eroded. Bush burning which is now rampant over the entire area, exposes the soil to erosion. There is also the problem of bad construction works, with road projects that are poorly executed and gutters and drainage channels that are not led to where they should properly discharge water.
I don’t want to name contractors, but a particular popular contractor was notorious for leaving near vertical cuts on road sides in soft soils and introducing serious erosion problems where none existed before they started their road work. It appears to me that though our contractors and those that supervise them as clients possess the right knowledge of what ought to be done, they often still do the wrong things because they are interested in cutting corners.All these aggravate the problem of erosion. Yes, maybe the Academy could organise a forum, bring in experts from the various ministries (Agriculture, Environment, Works & Housing, etc.) together with academics and other researchers to provide evidence-based solutions to the problem. We will do so, if we can get funding for such an exercise.