NIGERIA’S Minister of Science and Technology, Ogbonnaya Onu, announced a cash reward of N36 million for any Nigerian scientist who finds a cure for the dreaded coronavirus codenamed as COVID-19, with more than 64,000 people infected by the virus globally.
Speaking on Thursday at an event held to mark the retirement from service of A. O. Oyesefo, a former director of the Department of Chemical Technology in the ministry, Onu urged Nigerian scientists to also find a cure for Lassa fever.
“I challenge all Nigerian scientists to go out and find cures for coronavirus and Lassa fever any scientist that is able to do this will be given N36 million. There is nothing that we want to do that we can’t do and Nigeria will be making contributions to the world,” he said.
He also stated that the Nigerian Government prioritises the needs of its scientists and would fulfil its pledge to them.
“We want our scientists to know that we place value on them. We want them to know that they are important. If you don’t do things like this, the scientists will think we don’t value them,” he said.
Data obtained from the UK Collaborative on Development Research, UKCDR, report released in January, showed that Nigeria invested 0.22 per cent of its Gross Development Product, GDP on research in 2017.
The Federal Ministry of Science and Technology was allocated N35 billion by the Federal Government in 2019 for research indicating a notable decline from its 2017 allocation of N65 billion.
This development breaches the African Union Heads of states 2017 agreement of which Nigeria was a signatory in 2017, where it agreed alongside other member nations to spend a minimum 1 per cent of their GDP on research and development to advance science and technology in Africa.
Though, Nigeria boasts of a higher number of universities in Africa, according to the World Economic Forum, WEF, Global Competitive Index, the quality of Nigerian scientific research institutions still ranks low.
Based on the WEF rating scale, Nigeria’s scientific research institutions were listed 125 out of 137 countries that were examined based on three major indices namely basic requirements, efficiency enhancers, innovation and sophistication factors.
Nigeria is ranked 114 of 118 countries on the 2019 Global Innovation Index which measured each country’s contribution to global research and international patent applications, including mobile-phone application creation and high-tech exports.
South Africa recognised as a regional player in science and technology in Africa occupied the 63rd spot, followed closely by Kenya and Mauritius at 77th and 82nd places respectively.
The UKCDR report also highlighted the Scimago’s Institutional Ranking, where 17 Nigerian universities were listed within the world’s top 1,000 institutions compared to 31 universities in South Africa and 38 in Egypt. Nigeria lags behind despite having significantly more institutions compared to South Africa and Egypt.
In 2011, the Federal Executive Council approved the National Research and Innovation Fund, NRIF, to provide 1 per cent minimum funding of the GDP, diversify international research and development funds and venture capital but the project is yet to kick off.
From 2014 to 2019, United Kingdom, UK, government agencies namely the Department for International Development, DFID, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, BEIS, and Department of Health and Social Care, DHSC, have invested £665.4 million on 87 research projects in Nigerian universities.
Though Nigeria’s research innovations have been put to use outside the country in the areas of agricultural innovations and ICT development but have not been beneficial within the country, according to the UKSDR report.
“This prize is open to the universities; it is also open to private laboratories and research institutes, research takes a lot of time and energy, and we will be very happy to fulfil our pledge,” Onu affirmed.
In 2018, medicine and engineering were Nigeria’s top two most popular research publication topics but the country’s global scientific output for 2018 was pegged at 0.3 per cent, according to Scimago Institutional Ranking.
It is still to be seen if the N36 million promise by the minister to Nigerian scientists will motivate them to provide the cure to COVID-19 pandemic.
Amos Abba is a journalist with the International Center for Investigative Reporting, ICIR, who believes that courageous investigative reporting is the key to social justice and accountability in the society.