‘Nigeria needs skills-based education,
Prof. David Babatunde Adebimpe, founder and Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Polymath Interscience, a science, mathematics, engineering and technology (SMET) research, development and manufacturing company, is an academic and research scientist, philosopher, inventor and entrepreneur, who uses cross-disciplinary skills and expertise to solve unique problems that require the convergence of different scientific and technical disciplines. With over 26 years of combined experience as a social psychologist, an organic chemistry professor, an enzymologist, guest scientist at the Institute of Standards and Technology, (NIST) and National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) (NASA), a pioneer in the field of applied nanotechnology and centre administrator of National Science Foundation Centre of Research Excellence in Science and Technology (NSF-CREST), he is a subject matter expert in the development of gas sensors and a world leader in the development of scent-detection training aids, and practical tools that enhance the operational olfactory capabilities of search-and-detect K9s (dogs). As a science contractor to the United States (US) government, and using a combination of his unique theories pertaining to mammalian olfaction and the mechanisms of scent generation from materials, Adebimpe developed the first and only official inert replacements to the United States Marines’ Canine Kits for explosives detection. He also invented the world’s first non-hazardous scent training aids for the detection of TriAcetone TriPeroxide (TATP) the explosive used in the recent Paris bombings), HexaMethylene Triperoxide Diamine (HMTD), Dynamite, PentaErythritol TetraNitrate/Erythritol TetraNitrate (PETN/ETN), and then developed the “ScentLogix™-K9” scent kit collection, which currently stands as the broadest collection of operationally-tested non-hazardous scent training aids ever produced for the imprinting and scent-training of working dogs in the detection of explosives, narcotics, guns, mines, ammunition, and currency. Based on his knowledge of odour and olfaction Adebimpe serves as a consultant to numerous agencies worldwide, including the US Department of State, the US Department of Defense, the Federal Police (Brazil), the Department of Justice (Australia), Department of Customs (Indonesia), and the Mexican government, in matters pertaining to detector-K9 scent kit utility and training protocols. Adebimpe’s qualifications include a Doctor of Science degree (London), an interdisciplinary Ph.D. in Synthetic Organic Chemistry, Materials Science and Chemical Engineering (London), a B.Sc. with honors in Biochemistry from the University of Nigeria (UNN), Nsukka), and post-doctoral studies in Nanotechnology and Organic Device Science at the University of Pennsylvania in the US. As principal investigator or co-principal investigator, he has acquired over $10 million for research grants and activities from “failure isn’t an option” agencies such as NASA, NSF, The Sloan Foundation, and the US Navy and US Air Force. He is a member of the International Association of Bomb Technicians and Investigators (IABTI), serves on numerous national and international advisory boards, including the world’s largest chemical manufacturing company, Sigma Aldrich, and has been recently appointed as an education consultant at Afe Babalola University, Ado Ekiti (ABUAD). Adebimpe, who was in the country for the National Higher Education Forum, which has been shifted to the first quarter of 2016, spoke to ENO-ABASI SUNDAY and UJUNWA ATUEYI.
Of what importance are forums like the National Higher Education Forum to the country’s educational advancement?
It’s nice that forums like this are now in Nigeria. It normally comes out from an observed need that there is a dearth, a lack of something in Nigeria. It also brings up awareness and from that awareness the think tanks would start to evolve solutions to problems identified by such forums. Such forums have thrown up realistic and very obvious challenges that are plaguing education in the country especially given the state of education in Nigeria.
But it appears that problems besetting the Nigerian education sector have no solutions in just summits/forums
I do not share that view. Academics are very special group of people. We live in ivory towers totally oblivious of the reality of our situation. Look at the students we graduate and we call ourselves academics. Academics are judged by the quality of their students. We have gone very wrong in quality and even in imbuing our students with the right mindset that graduates should have, especially in the science and technology fields.
I believe we as academics (putting myself under the caveat of a Nigerian professor/senior lecturer), we have missed the target, so much so that people from outside are coming to voice their opinions about our education system, and probably try to help because we are tenured, guaranteed since we already have our own jobs. This is so because when you have comfort, it is always is very difficult to see the discomfort of those outside. And we are waiting for other people from outside to make us aware of the problems that we have and then help us solve it.
All stakeholders, entrepreneurs and also parents that have reasons to send their kids to schools in the first place are now seeing the result of the shortchanges of our educational system. I think it is very important for there to be think-tanks external to academic environments, not only to monitor, but also to advise and guide.
Nigerian universities are not coming up with groundbreaking innovations. What could be the reason?
It is because we have not done much after the mid 1980s. A lot of lecturers apart from still seeing life, as it was back then still use the same college notes of many years ago to teach their students. So, we were stuck in the past in an ever-evolving world. And now, the world evolves so much that we just found ourselves in a precarious situation. And that is one of the problems that we have in the academia as even academics are not challenged enough to evolve as the society has evolved over the decades.
They say 21 years makes a generation. I graduated from college over 21 years ago, and from what I see in the state of Nigerian education, it has not gone better, rather it has gone worse. Lecturers make money out of selling notes and that is the least of students’ problems. The laboratories have deteriorated; a lot of science and technology programmes have no laboratories; students graduate only having gotten recent experience through industrial training (IT) programmes and those that have no IT programmes graduate without knowing the nitty-gritty of their profession.
Having said that, let me add that it is now time for us to get not only into the present, but to fast track into the future like other colleges all over the world have done.
As a country, we seem to be incapable of matching research findings with societal needs. Is this a challenge to national development?
That is what every environment and systems does. Like in the United States, they have a need for energy, so they give grants and set up foundations to sponsor colleges. They also simulate small businesses to liaise with academic institutions. We have vast resources and we cannot even manage them. This is not because we have no managerial capacity, but just simply haven’t tried doing so. Now, we have other economies because of their own needs coming to exploit us.
Are we not basking in the glory of being exploited?
Having said that, I want to add that research findings should be tailored to address societal needs, and our professors should not be complaining because professors don’t complain, they find solutions to problems operating from the academic world.
What major factors, in your opinion, are impeding Nigeria’s technological advancement?
The government needs to recognise areas, which we need such advancement and thereafter stimulate the academic environment to facilitate such advancement. In the US, we have foundations like United Science Foundation, National Institute of Health. These institutes identify societal needs and give grants to universities that write proposals on the solutions they have talked about. Steps like these could cover these needs. So, the Federal Government has to identify and then try to stimulate academic work in those areas, with the provision of grants. This development throws the identified challenge or challenges back to academia, a development, which inadvertently spurs academic competition among them to simulate academic awareness, involvement in research, education and training.
Budgetary allocation to education sector has consistently remained below internationally accepted benchmark and mostly around 10 per cent. How has this worsened the education sector?
We may not have budgeted enough for the sector, but how is the one budgeted used. It is how effective the money is used that matters. If the money is used effectively and it generates results, those results would then force the government to add more to it. It is the excitement that would make the government to increase such amount. I’m happy there is an amount that has been allocated to it in the first place, that means there is government awareness in that area.
However, what does the government get back for the money it invests in education? Has it been used justly? Has it provided anything at all? As an academic, I tell my students sometimes, ‘if I tell you to do a research and you tried it a thousand ways and it has not worked. You still succeeded because you can write a paper on a thousand ways you could do it and it will not work. So, it is just the way we look at it. Ten per cent of national budget for me is generous, if it is well used.
Let me also add that government really needs to sit down and look at the money being allocated, and conclude whether the money is capable of causing any breakthrough in what we want to do. If it is below a threshold that is capable of facilitating innovation and yielding results, then it is not worth it.
How far can the country’s policy on science and technology education take us as a nation?
I don’t know the focus of the new government. If it is going to follow the old ways of doing things, we have seen where that has taken us to- total decadence, not only on buildings, but also the minds of the students. A lot of students don’t even really know why they go to college anymore. And from what I learnt about Nigeria lately, we have a society of students that revel in buying their results. By so doing, they don’t even know the quality of education, or the consequential failure as they are buying everything including notes from lecturers, who in turn give them guarantee of success in their courses.
It is very important that students are made to know and understand the implication of burning the midnight oil. Personally, I see more problems with the academia than the government, because even if the government pumps money into the system, it is not going to work.
When I graduated with my first degree, I went abroad and realised I knew better than many people because our standards were higher. A first-degree education in Nigeria was like a masters’ programme in the United States. When I did my masters, I practically did not need to study because I had done everything in my first degree in Nigeria. So what happened to our educational system?
So, how should government go about placing Nigeria in a comfortable position technologically?
We need skills not certificates. We are a certificate-laden country, but our kids don’t have skills. We need technicians and not engineers. Our children go to schools and the few that don’t buy grades know the theoretical aspect of what they are taught. But then, if you do not have skills set, how can you be of use to anybody, including yourself?
Nigerian youths need hands-on skills just like we started off when we were kids. But in a book-centric university, the kids graduate with certificates and what next.
Most of the expatriates we hire to come to Nigeria and occupy big offices have higher national diplomas and not degrees. The only difference between them and us is that they have skills. So, we need skills not certificates. Probably a revival of polytechnics, colleges of technology, where real skills are taught is one of the surest ways out. Nigeria needs skills-based education, not book-based education.
At the moment, we are not talking about high-tech or new things that we need some special lenses to see through. Just merely getting us back to where we were in the 1980s would be a good start because most of these good professors are still there.
What direction do you want the present administration to go as it concerns education?
To set up think tanks made up of people in the industry, academia and government. Government knows the needs, industry know the challenges they are bringing from the needs and the academia will know how to do the basic foundational research to solve those needs, and also train the students because societal needs are omnipresent.
Most developing countries have the same challenge, and as we evolve to be a developed country, our challenge will start to overlap with the challenges of developed countries. So, we are not trying to reinvent the world. For developing countries, it is power and clean water that plagues them most. Those have always been our challenges especially since the over-population thing started.
Also, training standard in Nigerian universities should be made very high. I would rather have 36 high-quality universities and have students queue up to study there and come out as very good graduates, than have over 140, which turn out graduates that would end up being useless to the society.
Let me restate that not everybody needs to go a university. And so there should be many polytechnics and institutes of science and technology.
Are there chances of you relocating to Nigeria anytime soon?
I am coming back home. I want to be part of the solution. I’ve been thinking about it until someone identified and asked me to come home. I must give credit to Are Afe Babalola. I met him in the United Kingdom, when he realised I’m a Nigerian, he insisted I must come home no matter the cost.
And so, upon coming around, I went to ABUAD to help them develop a programme in nanotechnology, which is one of my areas, and a new science that is evolving. Science is now becoming integrated and it is through integration that we can solve some of our new needs like solar energy, for example.
So, we have to develop new subject areas that take a bit out of chemistry, physics, engineering and then add 80 per cent medicine to it for our doctors or scientists. And that is where new courses like bio-engineering (that combines biology and engineering); biotechnology, nanotechnology among others come in. These are new subject areas that are coming up based on current modern needs.
However, since Are Babalola wants his students to be the best, that is why he said to me, ‘I want this kind of programme at Afe Babalola University, Ado-Ekiti (ABUAD). He is a man I respect so much for all he has single-handedly done. After visiting ABUAD, I knew there is hope for Nigeria and I will be involved with him. Also, I would like to go back to my alma mater because they made me what I am today. I need to give something back to UNN.
Babalola came when I was being awarded honourary D.Sc, and was amazed with all that was said about me. He told me, ‘you are coming back to Nigeria with me,’ and I love that because I have the zeal to start looking towards home. A lot of us in the Diaspora would want to come back and give back to our society, but without anybody wanting to do something with you, it will be a waste of time, and you would get totally disillusioned.
Most of the expatriates we hire to come to Nigeria and occupy big offices have higher national diplomas and not degrees. The only difference between them and us is that they have skills. So, we need skills not certificates. Probably a revival of polytechnics, colleges of technology, where real skills are taught is one of the surest ways out. Nigeria needs skills-based education, not book-based education
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