By Mahmoud Bukar Maina
Sir, science capacity building is essential for effective long-term development of a nation. A recent research puts Nigeria’s scientific literacy below 10%. This is way below what is required in the 21st century. Yet, one must also admit that there is a high degree of cultural and religious misconceptions about Science. In most schools, teaching science has converted from exciting student’s curiosity to become thinkers, to a dictation of science stories, which many students often consider stories of magic, miracles or myth. These factors strongly hinder the curiosity of students to be open to new discoveries and enjoy the fascination and excitement in science.
I have previously written to you after your electoral victory about the need to change this trend by supporting and promoting science as one of the goals towards long-term national development (See http://leadership.ng/features/428456/a-letter-to-president-elect-general-muhammadu-buhari). Today, I write to reiterate on my previous propositions and to plead specifically with you to consider some qualities for your proposed Ministers for Health, Education and Science and Technology. To begin with, I belong to a group of continental scientists under the umbrella of TReND in Africa (www.trendinafrica.org), who since 2011, have voluntarily supported Africa, mostly Nigeria, with laboratory equipment, free summer courses for scientists and teachers, and science outreach programmes. I mainly belong to the outreach team, through which we have run dozens of school outreach activities, educated thousands of students in Nigeria and other African countries. I also did my studies up to the undergraduate level in Nigeria, and now doing my Ph.D. in Neuroscience in the UK. Hence, I am relatively familiar with the current state of our Education, Scientific Research and Health.
Sir, considering the significance of the education sector, your education Minister should be in-touch with the disparity between the education system in the West and Africa, have definite answer on how to minimize or tackle this vast gap; should be tough and ready to fight indiscipline and corruption. Evidence from our events shows that students readily respond to our outreach strategies and often asked questions that only future scientific discoveries could answer. This clearly demonstrates the curiosity within young Nigerians, which if properly utilised can ignite a generation of talented scientists. Let me also stress that scientific research to diseases has gone increasingly molecular, informing why in the West, young students are taught at the earliest stage about cutting-edge sciences. An obvious example is the case of Krtin Nithiyanandam – a 15-year old British schoolboy who recently developed a test that could diagnose Alzheimer’s disease ten years before symptoms appear. This demonstrates the high level at which the system in the West grooms students to become thinkers at a very young age. Nigeria should be ready to develop similar strategies, such as the introduction of science fair project into our school curricula. With the support of the University of Sussex and Cambridge, UK Biochemical and Physiological Societies, TReND’s outreach team is set to launch a project through which selected primary and secondary schools in North-eastern Nigeria will get free microscope and low-cost equipment for measuring electromyogram in science teaching. Such approaches would potentiate the development of future scientists that can challenge the numerous scientific problems facing Africa. These equipment are affordable; nothing, therefore, prevents the education sector from ensuring that our schools are well equipped for hands-on science teaching. Another aspect bordering on our science is the emphasis on curricula theoretical rather than practical education from primary school to the university. This has to be modified by employing state-of-the-art approaches for teaching.
I have previously written on the dilemma of Discrimination, Inadequacy, Corruption and Sabotage (DICS) in the academia. Many institutions condone discrimination, corruption and sabotage in dealing with research funding made available to schools. Despite the TETFund intervention, evidence suggests that some schools have failed to provide the most basic subscription to online journals. Others have resorted to award research support only to family and friends. These have strongly affected the zeal of motivated scientists, setting back the little progress made. Moreover, the funds presently made available for research development in institutions are inadequate compared to what is obtainable in other places. Some modern day laboratory equipment needed to run standard experiment cost millions of Naira, while some reagents required for a single experiment cost hundreds of thousands. Hence, the success of standard scientific research is largely dependent on support fund. This need to be increased many folds and the way and manner of allocation should be through on time and rigorous unbiased peer review process. All these demand proficient, competent and trutsworthy representatives in the educational sector, who would recommend and guide robust policy decisions, while adapting to changes and reforms.
Sir, history has shown us that the advancement in science is a panacea to development in other sectors of the society. While we have many indigenous talented scientists at home and abroad, they need the right science infrastructure if their talents is to be harnessed towards nation building. A clear example is a recent phenomenal discovery made by the Professor Isa Hussaini’s laboratory at the University of Maiduguri. Hussaini’s team made an in-depth research which identified Nigerians medicinal plants that demonstrated strong anti-cancer properties in vitro, way better than the currently used cancer drugs. If they replicate their findings in animal and human trial, this would be a big boost to the reputation of Nigeria, considering that cancer is a notorious disease affecting millions worldwide. Sir, there is no argument to the fact that developed nations prioritize scientific research. The United States and the United Kingdom for instance invest billions of dollars towards research per annum. Nigeria needs a Minister in the science area that would be willing and would go the extra mile in listening to, and supporting ingenious scientists. Being that science is a multifaceted field, there is also a need to have science advisers that can provide guidance on different aspects of the discipline. These advisers should be selected not just based on their integrity, but their knowledge and experience, which can be easily accessed by their international publications, influence and contributions.
It is also important to draw your attention to the numerous challenges in Nigeria’s Health sector, the topmost being the absence of proper patient care facilities and lack of state-of-the-art equipment for diagnosis of diseases. The near absence of scientific research on diseases has exacerbated this problem. Hospitals are supposed to serve not only as beds for treatment but also as centres where significant research into causes and cure for diseases are done. This is a common practice in developed countries of the world, and I think we have what it takes to pursue and have same. Your recent policy initiative to convert some hospital to oncology centres is a commendable and promising step towards reforming the system. What is crucial now is for these centres to be home for intense research between basic and medical scientists in the quest to advance aspects that border on understanding the cause, management and cure of cancer. Furthermore, understanding diseases and finding cures is a collective effort between basic and medical scientists. The inherent rift between these two groups of professionals should also be tactically addressed in a way that conflict would be replaced with cohesion and harmonious working relationship. I have previously written about this unwarranted institutional discord (See https://newsrescue.com/reaction-medical-dental-council-nigerias-proposal-teaching-medical-students-mahmoud-bukar-maina/#axzz3jpEiau8Y). The lamentable state of this is seriously affecting our health research, as it hinders collaboration between basic scientists and the medics. Respect and cooperation between both are important, as they must collaborate for any proper research to be successful. An obvious example is the cancer discovery made in the Isa Hussaini’s laboratory. Professor Isa Hussaini is a Pharmacologist, and his team is comprised of Medical doctors, Surgeons, pharmaceutical Chemists, Pharmacognosists and medicinal Herbalist. This indicates the clear benefit of collaboration, and why respect and collaboration between the basic scientists and the medics is imperative. Sir, I urge you thus to nominate a very competent, research-minded and reputable Minister in the health sector who is capable of mending this rift and support the upgrade of our hospitals and restore discipline in the system.
Sir, based on all these, integrity and patriotism should not only be the selection criteria for your Ministers in the Health, Science and Technology and Education sectors. Excellence, reputation and exposure to contemporary advancement across the globe should also be part of this criteria. I quote Christopher Bond who said “Advances in technology will continue to reach far into every sector of our economy. Future job and economic growth in industry, defence, transportation, agriculture, healthcare, and life sciences is directly related to scientific advancement.”
Mahmoud Bukar Maina is TReND’s Coordinator for Outreach, a Ph.D. Neuroscience Student at the University of Sussex, UK. Twiiter: @mahmoudbukar