BusinessDay

51 years after, Nigeria spends less on science research than peers

... loses three places on Global Innovation Index

Since 1970 when Nigeria began to see the potential of research and development and made efforts including deploying financial resources to bring a national strategy to scientific research, the country still trails the strides of its peers on the African continent.

In the period between 2017 and 2018, South Africa grew its gross expenditure for research and development (R&D) to R38.7 billion from R35.6 billion ($2.353bn), and in 2019 the country’s Department of Science and Innovation said it planned to boost the country’s gross expenditure on R&D to 1.1 percent of GDP by 2024 as an intermediate target on its way to 1.5 percent by 2030. Kenya also allocated $20 million to R&D in 2018 while Egypt had from 2013 to 2019 consistently raised its spending on R&D from $11 million to $32 million.

Nigeria on the other hand, as of 2019, only allocated $175 million as the entire budget of the Ministry of Science and Technology, which is less than 0.757 percent of the 2019 budget, and making it the least of all the ministries.

For the past three years, 2018, 2019, and 2020 Nigeria have ranked 118, 114, and 117, respectively, on the Global Innovation Index (GII). The country is ranked 15 in sub-Saharan Africa and 25 among 29 lower-middle-income economies.

The President Muhammadu Buhari administration has recently stepped up the budget twice in 2020 and now in 2021 with the allocation of N157 billion ($411m) to the ministry, but it is far behind what South Africa spent on R&D alone back in 2018.

The budgetary details provided by the 138 departments and units under the ministry show the capital spending will not be going to scientific research or R&D.

A case in point is the headquarters of the Ministry of Science and Technology, which in its breakdown of budget details disclosed that it will allocate N20.7 million to construction and provision of office buildings while personnel will get N42 million, but R&D receives N15.6 million.

The ministry budget document also shows that 37 of the departments and units employ zero personnel despite being allocated capital projects worth millions of naira. This raises concerns on the transparency of the allocations to the departments since there is no staff to provide effective monitoring.

It should be noted that Nigeria’s journey in scientific research began formally in 1970 when the Nigerian Council for Science and Technology (NCST) was established. Before then there were efforts to formulate a coherent national policy on science and technology research but none lived up to expectation, and they were mostly shoved aside by the next administration.

The NCST, which existed for six years, was charged with the responsibility of ordering national priorities in scientific research and coordinating and supervising both basic and applied research activities in the country.

The National Science and Technology Development Agency (NSTDA), which replaced the NCST in 1977, lasted till 1980 when the Ministry of Science and Technology was created. Although the ministry inherited only five professional departments from NSTDA, it now oversees 138 departments and units scattered across the country.

Without Nigeria raising its investment in scientific research with the objective of boosting local manufacturing of technology equipment, it means the country will continue to import nearly 99 percent of its digital infrastructure. The implications will be that Nigerians will continue to buy phones, gadgets, or vehicles made in other countries. Manufacturing and business activities will only grow on imported equipment or hardware. The country will continue to depend on other countries to make medical breakthroughs like the COVID-19 vaccines and other wonder drugs.

Many studies have found that every dollar invested in R&D generates nearly two dollars in return. While the rate will vary, R&D is an important driver of economic growth. A thriving scientific research industry can potentially unlock economic growth for the various sectors of the economy.

According to 2019 data from the Institute of Statistics (UIS), a subsidiary of UNESCO, Africa’s funding of R&D is estimated at 0.42 percent of the continent’s GDP, which is far below the global average of 1.7 percent and the lowest in the world. The UIS report also shows that only South Africa, Kenya, and Senegal are close to meeting a target of 1 percent set by the African Union, with about 0.8 percent of their GDP dedicated to R&D. Nigeria by last estimates contributes about 0.1 percent of its GDP.

Emeka Okoye, CEO of Vikantti Software, and CTO/co-founder of Next.2.us, says growing research in Nigeria begins from the schools, but notes that research is supposed to bring outputs that feedback into the educational system in order to solve the nation’s problems.

“Most universities in Africa do not have the basic equipment needed for research. This affects the training of scientists, the type of research questions asked by researchers, and consequently the quality of their research,” notes Mahmoud Maina, research fellow in Sussex Neuroscience and Outreach Director for TReND in Africa.

Nigeria is currently pushing to have its digital economy contribute about 45 percent of GDP, but the infrastructure to drive that growth is about 99 percent imported. Experts say making research a priority will ensure the country reduces revenue leakages or a situation in which it is deploying its meagre resources to develop the economy of countries like China and Taiwan, which are investing heavily in R&D.

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