Should universities be a place for Research and Development (R&D)?
National and global challenges require innovative ideas for solutions and policy development and the role of Universities as “Central Institutions of the 21st Century knowledge economies” in Africa is key in moving from an “invention and production economy into an innovation and competitive economy”. This underscores the critical need for our educational outputs to not only significantly impact our graduates nationally and internationally but to contribute to national growth and prosperity.
The university is the power house of knowledge generation and the translation to both tangible and intangible products and service for the benefit of humanity and advancement of society. The ecosystem in which the university operates include the learning, research, innovation and collaboration of the industry so that basic knowledge is translated appropriately and this ecosystem, which is dynamic must be galvanized appropriately through a strong catalytic system so to foster national development in all spaces of knowledge.
When fully catalyzed, universities respond to the need of society across sectors using well-defined structures/platforms and policies to drive competitive human capital, national development and policy.
The research industry thus easily finds her place in the university as they work and grow together. Structures/platforms such as Research Centres/Institutes are established far beyond the traditional departments to foster multidisciplinary research through knowledge generation, research/innovation and collaboration with the industry.
Industry hubs should therefore not be strange within the university environment where projects at both the undergraduate and postgraduate levels could be directed at solving specific challenges that provides unique opportunities for the student to receive appropriate orientation for service and product development.
The 2015 global Innovation Index on human capital development shows the ranking of Nigeria in several domains and you can see our position compared to other nations. In ICT and Business Model Creation, our ranking was appreciable but it could be better. As you can see, there is no big players in University in the ICT development space where we really have much to do for ourselves in the country.
The critical need for Research Centres in institutions of higher learning came to bear during the COVID-19 pandemic, especially those in the areas of virology that responded promptly with the confirmation of the SERS-COV2 virus and further characterization that was done. These were done primarily in two research Centres at the University of Lagos and the Redeemer University, Ede long before other players came on board.
However, the platforms for other areas such as Engineering for the production of oxygen generators and the critical mass of molecular biologists to perform the tests in many of the states was not available. The overarching importance of research centres cannot be overemphasised here.
How is funding of research centres at higher institutions in Nigeria?
Funding of research centres and institutes promotes scholarship and R&D. However, there is a vicious circle of under-investment in research in developing countries. There are several models that governs funding of research centres. These include seed funding from universities and national and international organisations through several mechanisms such as deliberate policy or competitive funding opportunities.
At UNILAG, for example, research centres are established to promote multidisciplinary and transdisciplinary research and learning to address critical national challenges and some of these were driven by regional research bodies such as; the African Research Universities Alliance (ARUA), an organisation formed to aggressively solicit funds for African Universities to address issues pertinent to Africa.
UNILAG currently hosts two of these centres that have also been looped with the UK Research and Innovation Office for bigger funding. An initial seed grant was provided for this centre. The World Bank has also established several centres of excellence in universities with funding for developing competitive capacity for development. These centres of excellence are calibrated for impact using measurable indicators over time. Today, some for these centres are responding to national issues with excellence that has put the country in global reckoning.
Now, within the country, the Tertiary Education Trust Fund (TETFUND) has also started establishing centres of excellence and just last year, six centres were established across the country and one of these is in the University of Lagos, the Tetfund Centre for Biodiversity, Conservation and Ecosystem Management (CEBCEM). There are also other centres such as the Centre of Excellence for Sustainable Environment and Social Inclusion (CoESESI) that is funded under the National Erosion Watershed Management Programme (NEWMAP) – a World Bank sponsored programme. The Centres are supported with seed grant to develop their infrastructure but most develop a sustainability plan and this is very important so that values are created around the operations of these Centres. At the Centre for Malaria Diagnosis, Research, Training and Policy, our funding sources are from research grants over time but larger funding are needed to expand our operations.
How can we further boost R&D in Nigeria?
Funding with clear milestone targets are essential in platform development and players from the public and private sectors must come on board given our local circumstances so that our research capabilities and responses are developed to compete continentally and globally. Sustained funding is critical to research centres but the centres will have to develop values around how they become sustainable after initial investments. A typical research centre should be valuable, sustainable, responsive to community, nationally and internationally.
I call on organisations from the public and private sectors to expand their investment in establishing research centres in universities in the country. The space of operation of these centres must be competitive with the appropriate building, infrastructure including equipment.
Centres in other climes have received similar support in building great infrastructure and it is strategic and open for all to be involved if we want to help ourselves. You can imagine if a centre in one of our universities had developed tests, drugs or vaccines for COVID-19!!! Strategic investments is akin to preparing for war in the time of peace to elicit the right response.
We must know that we have to occupy every space of knowledge. So much is happening around the world and the value and investment in knowledge creation is still not encouraging in Nigeria! We need vaccine platforms to help us as a people and a nation!
There is a strong economic and health case for vaccinology to be leapfrogged! This will also help our agriculture a great deal! We cannot wait for others to provide help. Let us collaborate and share knowledge and what COVID-19 has taught us is that we have to move in a unique way. When the structures of our universities that drives knowledge creation are destroyed, we would not be able to address challenges when they arise. Great attention should be paid to our students whose innovative capacities remain untapped as well as the institutions of higher learning.