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Enough of rhetoric on commercialisation of research findings

Enough of rhetoric on commercialisation of research findings

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Punch Editorial Board

In an apparent acknowledgement of the centrality of science and technology to the true greatness of a nation, the Federal Government is seeking ways to encourage scientific innovations in the country. This was the clear message from the Minister of Science and Technology, Ogbonnaya Onu, last week when he pledged his commitment to the commercialisation of proven scientific inventions in the country and ensuring that researches were industrial demand-driven.

Belated as this may seem, it will no doubt gladden the hearts of many, especially the few within the endangered community of committed research scientists, who have been pining for non-existent recognition over the years. The benefits, as enumerated by the minister, which include “irreversible indigenous industrialisation process, higher productivity, enhanced value addition, quality employment generation, poverty alleviation and prosperity for the country,” should be an added incentive for rekindling interest in this field.

Yet, it should not be forgotten that this is a country where many government pronouncements and actions are better taken with a pinch of salt. What is the guarantee that this is not one of those platitudinous statements government officials are wont to make just because they are suitable to the audience that they are addressing? What is the assurance that it will become a sustainable policy by the government?

In fact, this is not the first time the minister would be making the same pronouncement. Way back in February 2016, he made a similar pledge when the Nigerian Academy of Science team, led by the respected scientist, Oyewale Tomori, paid him a visit in Abuja. Then, he had directed the research institutes to ensure that at least one of their research results would be commercialised every year. That should have been the turning point.

If, indeed, the government were to be serious about its interest in research, Nigeria should today be a country swarming with scientific innovations and research findings that would change the fortunes of the citizens, given the number of research institutes in the country. This is a country that boasts over 20 research institutes in agriculture-related field alone, let alone the handful of others in areas cutting across medicine, oceanography and marines and forestry.

Unfortunately, the same government that set up these facilities has failed to effectively fund them while research findings they used to churn out have been left to gather dust on the shelves. In Nigeria, there is no effective linkage between researchers and the end users of research findings. Ideally, if such linkages were in existence, it would be easy for researchers to be working based on industry needs. It would also help to reduce the pathological dependence on imports for practically everything the country needs.

In serious-minded countries, research drives development. Aside from national institutes and the tertiary institutions, companies have their research and development units, which come up with innovative ideas that keep them perpetually in business by enabling them to compete. This is why some countries have continued to be dominant in areas of economy, science, technology and even in warfare. It is all a function of how much a country is ready to invest in R&D.

According to the UNESCO Institute for Statistics, global spending on R&D has reached a record $1.7 trillion, with pledges to increase spending substantially as the world races to meet the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals by 2030. Not surprisingly, just 10 countries are responsible for 80 per cent of global R&D spending and they invariably correspond to the largest economies in the world. They include the United States, China, Japan, South Korea and Germany.

In a study by the Swedish Institute for Growth Policy Studies, the relevance and impact of R&D are laid bare for all to see. “The US has a history of successfully turning returns into commercially-viable products and services,” it says. In 2002, the report adds, the federal government spent $81 billion, while universities and colleges carried out $37 billion worth of R&D. Of the total amount spent on R&D in the US, the study highlighted industries (within the private sector) as the biggest spenders. The result was that over 4,200 inventions were churned out for the year, out of which over 2,100 patent applications were made and 1,400 patents issued.

The US success story has been able to attract interest in other countries, especially Sweden, which has chosen to follow in the former’s footsteps.  In the US, federal legislation supports technological transfer by allowing federal entities to enter into research agreements with private industries. This gives the companies the right to retain the title of inventions.

For Nigeria to start making the right impact in R & D, the government has to move beyond platitudes and creatively harness the critical mass for whatever development aspirations it may have. It goes without saying that the government cannot do it alone, but it has a responsibility to take the lead, by, first and foremost, coming up with a policy direction, and then adequately funding the institutes to be able to produce the desired results. Besides, there is the need to take a look at the relevance of some of them or even effect mergers where necessary to save cost, if it is realised that merging them would produce a better result.

Universities are naturally suitable for research. Unfortunately in Nigeria, the basic things needed to conduct successful research are not available in many of these institutions. For instance, experts have lamented that basic laboratory tools like Bunsen burners are not available. Yet, research findings from universities could help substantially in generating funds for these institutions to take the pressure away from the Federal Government. 

If, indeed, Nigeria wishes to play in the big league, there is certainly no option but to start giving R&D the attention that it deserves.

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