‘Government has no confidence in research institutes, our best brains’
The General Secretary of the Non-Academic Staff Union of Educational and Associated Institutions (NASU), Peters Adeyemi, in this interview with COLLINS OLAYINKA, explains why the Federal Government is to blame for the inability of research institutions to deliver on their mandates.
Research institutions are supposed to be solution centres where innovative equipment and improved seedlings of cash crops are discovered but they have failed in this regard. What are the challenges?
I do not subscribe to arguments or sentiment. I think it is done out of a lack of knowledge of the running of the research institutions. Research institutions are government institutions. They are not private enterprises. So, research institutions can’t begin to operate like private research institutions. They have mandates. These mandates cannot be accomplished without adequate funding. For example, Research institutions are not allowed to beg for funds.
Do not forget what has happened in our education institutions since the end of adequate funding. So, if we are talking about the fact that the Federal Government has refused to buy into the UNESCO prescription of 26 per cent of the budget of the country should be given to the education centres and you buy into what one or two elements in the federal ministry of education have been canvassing, that there is nothing like UNESCO 26 per cent, that is a demonstration of a lack of faith in what the government is supposed to do. The government does not live up to its expectations as far as the research institutions are concerned.
Why have they not been able to attract funding but choose to rely on government funding for their activities?
As I said earlier, research institutes have mandates. Under normal circumstances, they are supposed to be able to attract funding without necessarily relying on the government, but for that to happen, the government must give the institution the space to be able to exploit that. For the government to attract funding, it has to solicit the cooperation of foreign investors. The government must also make their condition of service conducive and work environment friendly.
So, for research institutions in Nigeria, there must be something in those research institutions that will attract even foreign partnerships. Presently, the research institutions are ghosts of themselves. I give you an example, around 1963, the Malaysians came to Nigeria to pick palm kernel seed for them to begin oil palm plantation.
Today, Malaysia is one of the leading oil palm producers across the globe. If you go to the Nigerian Institute for Oil Palm Research (NIFOR) where the Malaysians got the seeds in 1963, the roads are not motorable. Everything is dead. Is that the kind of place any serious investor wants to come to? Will anyone be productive working in such an environment? The same goes for the Rubber Research Institute of Nigeria (RRIN) Iyanomo, Benin in Edo State; there is a total abandonment of the place too.
What are the excuses of the ministries that are responsible for the upkeep of the institutes? What are NASU and other trade unions in that sector doing to ensure adequate funding?
I do not know what the Federal Ministry of Science and Technology has been doing. They have shown a lack of capacity. They have shown a lack of vision. Even if the government cannot fund these institutions, then allow them to use the manpower, the brains, and the researchers that are there to secure partnerships with foreign agencies and then conduct research.
But the government has not been able to do that and the government is not ready to fund them. So, for those who speak from the outside and say that the research institutions are not making an impact, that is idle talk as far as we are concerned as insiders. While we have Nigerians in the government who can do consultancy, our government prefers to go and bring foreigners. We waste the brains we have here. We have a lot of brains in our research institutions in Nigeria. How many of them are our government using?
What are other challenges confronting research institutes?
Certainly, the problem is not only a lack of funding. The problem also is that the government has not developed some level of confidence in our high-level manpower that is available in our country to also develop our economy for us. But also, those who have been appointed ministers for agriculture lack the basic ideas on how to turn these places around except for Akinwunmi Adesina, who is an exceptional public officer. The largest chunk of the research institutes that we have in Nigeria is under the Federal Ministry of Agriculture.
Some of them are also under the Federal Ministry of Science and Technology. Some of them are under the Federal Ministry of Health. How much have the Ministers been able to do to get the research institutes to be active in what they do? The Ministers we have had in the ministries did not have a research interest. They were simply not interested. Now, we have taken our agitations to those ministers, including the last one that left office after the exit of this Buhari government. We took the problem of the research institutes in Nigeria to him. He made a promise but he never fulfilled one.
People have argued that the research institutes should return to the universities where they were before they were pulled out. Will that help to revive the system?
There is a government position that every privilege extended to university workers must also be given to the research institutes to stem the brain drain and promote excellence. But the same government has refused to comply with its pronouncement. So, there is also a problem of frustration. The manpower there is frustrated. There is a problem of the collapse of infrastructure. What used to make NIFOR to be a global institution has collapsed.
When all these things are happening, apart from Adesina, who is now the president of the African Development Bank, who was then minister of agriculture, that gave some level of attention. We have not seen that level of commitment since he left.
When people talk about returning the research institutes to the universities, let us ask ourselves if the research arms of the universities are better off now. Today, those researchers in the universities have also been parked to one side. Our government relies more now, unfortunately, on the private sector. That is why they do not care about funding whether the educational institutions or the research institutions. This country cannot develop until we begin to give adequate attention to education and research institutions. We must look at the working conditions of those who are placed in some of these environments.
The workers in the research institutes are demoralised?
Yes, of course. If you have a demoralised workforce, you are not likely to get the level of productivity that is expected. Your nation will be the one to lose at the end of the day. So why is it that developed economies of the world pay workers very well? Why is the government of the United States of America paying so much per hour to workers? That is why you see the level of productivity at the highest level. If you work in an environment where even your salary cannot carry you for five days, your concentration on the job and your ability to maximally produce is hindered, which is hampered by the fact that you are not able to produce.
By your level of poverty, you must be thinking of how to make ends meet. So, when you are supposed to be on duty, you will be somewhere else looking for money. It is our country that is losing, even with this stingy approach of paying, of looking at workers’ welfare, who suffers at the end of the day? It is our country that suffers. You have seen what has happened in Japan. Japan naturally doesn’t have any mineral resources. Their mineral resources are human beings. They work. Japan is one of the leading economies in the world.
So, if we do not, we are not ready to look after our institutions and encourage those who are working there, at the end of the day, we are going to be the ones who will suffer.
In the past, philanthropists and large conglomerates endowed chairs in universities and research institutes, but they have been quiet lately. What happened?
Unfortunately, in those days we used to have an endowment fund. We used to hear of people, maybe some privileged and rich Nigerians donating structures and contributing to the development of infrastructure in our institutions. All of those are giving way now. Few rich Nigerians are going to universities or research institutes to go and do an endowment. Rather, they prefer to go and buy private jets. It is our children that are suffering for it. The government has refused to put our resources in strategic areas. What our government is doing now is that they complain that there is no money. But the available one, which would have been optimally utilised, is left for thieves to steal.
Get the latest news delivered straight to your inbox every day of the week. Stay informed with the Guardian’s leading coverage of Nigerian and world news, business, technology and sports.