In this exclusive interview with NKECHI ISAAC, Sen. Ajayi Boroffice – Ondo north – highlights the importance of science and technology for national development and what Nigeria must do if she has to be industrially relevant in the 21st century and maximise the benefit inherent in the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR).
You supported the just concluded training of over 40 science teachers and distributed science kits to them in Ondo. What prompted your interest?
Generally, I believe science and technology are so important in the development of any nation. If you compare the development of industrialised countries, you will see that there is a sort of comparison between the level of science and development. So, if we believe in promoting development, we must also provide a strong and solid foundation for science and technology capacity. I believe we must start right from the foundation: secondary school.
I am a scientist, so I know the importance of science in national development. We need to start and lay a good foundation. This is the teacher’s job. You can only give what you have. If the teacher is not good, he/she will not be able to produce smart students. We are hoping that, in future, all these science students will end up being either engineers, medical doctors, agric scientists or metallurgists etc. These are very critical in national development.
I learnt there was a report that Nigeria needs about 120 cancer doctors (specialists in cancer management). We do not have up to that and we must do something. That was why we thought to start from the cradle (let me put it that way) in training teachers who will now go to secondary school to teach the students.
There is this general conception that students are not interested in studying science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) because they believe it is a difficult and boring field. How can this trend be reversed?
It all depends on who is teaching them. At times, STEM looks abstract but when you have a very good teacher to drive the facts of the principles home it becomes very easy. People run away from mathematics, which is logic. But when you have a good mathematics teacher who unearths the logic it becomes very easy. The same thing applies to science. If you have very good teachers who can communicate the principles it becomes very exciting and the students will become interested. [Teachers] need to motivate them, let them know the science and technology-related careers they can develop. Let them know they are very critical to the development of the environment, the country and that is an international currency with global appeal. When you motivate and communicate to them as experts they get interested.
Nigeria is just coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic and the Federal Government is considering diversification into areas that will contribute more to the national GDP. How do you think science can be deployed to contribute more?
You see, science is horizontally connected to every sector of the economy. Whether you are talking of agriculture, infrastructure development, medicine or solid minerals’ development, science is very critical. That is why, in the ‘Asian Tigers’ like Japan, South Korea and China, over 80 per cent of their annual graduates are from science and engineering. They know that is what they need.
Today, China is the second largest economy. These countries have emphasised science and technology and these have empowered young people who have been imparted with skills in various areas. With that kind of system, you are creating a pool of engineers and technologists that will form the core of the industrial sector. So, by training scientists and technologists you are also preparing your country for industrial development.
The challenge in Nigeria is very peculiar. We have a lot of technology but we still consume a lot of foreign technology. Statistics show that over 90 per cent of our economy is driven by foreign technologies. The Federal Government recently passed Executive Order 005 to promote the consumption of indigenous technology. How can this assist the country to develop her technology base?
The problem we have is that of culture. The way I look at it, we are very used to the culture of replacement rather than doing research and development in areas of special interest. So, when you are used to the culture of replacement you won’t do any research and development and once that is not done you consume foreign technology. There should be a re-orientation, a paradigm change. The order has been issued; how do we now implement it? It will not happen overnight. It has to go down to the issue of policies in indigenous technology, that will power our industry and manufacturing. [Only] then can we talk of consuming what we produce, if we can’t produce locally, we will continue to consume foreign products.
Being a scientist yourself, one of the challenges scientists’ faces is that of an envelope budget to conduct research. The Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation and other related ministries are making a case for the National Research and Innovation Fund (NRIF) to fund research. How feasible is this plan?
This bill was started and concluded by the Senate. Then, the Senate and the House of Representatives approved it. Somehow, for some reason, the president did not give assent. It was sent back for us to do some corrections which we did but, unfortunately, the Bill has not seen the light of the day. But we are optimistic it will help research development when it is eventually approved.
Most research institutions reinvent the wheel, work in silos and end up performing almost the same function. As a former Senate Committee Chairman on Science and Technology, do you think this ga can be bridged and our institutions made more productive?
It is an unfortunate reality of our situation that we have very limited resources and there are many competing sectors in the economy. So, it is a matter of prioritizing what the economy wants or what the country needs.
As for the issue of envelopes, there is nowhere in the world where you carry out research and development in an ‘envelope’. It is not possible. You have to think of the peculiarity of research and development in science and, then, you know that the gestational period takes time.
Now, about our research institutions; it is not that they are not doing very well in the areas of science and technology – they are doing very well in the areas of research. There is nothing wrong with overlapping. It only helps to confirm the results of their research and development. This also happens in developed countries, where you have many institutions doing similar things and, by the time the result comes out, they confirm what each institution has done.
The important thing, though, is how do we carry this research to the marketplace? How do we commercialize it? This is the problem. Our research institutions are not mandated to go into commercial activities, so we need a funding vehicle that will work with the research and development agencies – and, perhaps, interface with the government – to fund the commercialisation of our research findings/outcome. This is because it will need a lot of funds and the research institutions can only produce the prototype after which we need the fund (some people call it ‘risk fund’) to commercialise it. We lack that in this country. I believe that, based on the ‘envelope’ form of research, the research institutes are doing well. If we need them to do better then they should not be funded by the ‘envelope’ model. If that is the case, then we need to revive the National Research and Innovation Fund, to attract funds from outside the government treasury to fund science and technology. If do that, we can expect something fantastic shortly.
We are just about to enter the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Nigeria missed the first, second and third revolutions. We are expecting the 4IR – which would be driven by AI, big data, robotics etc. How can Nigeria tap into this revolution to ensure it is not left behind as usual?
I think it is in capacity building and in deliberate policy making of the government to participate in this new area. I think the government is doing very well. We have NITDA there, which is connected to information technology. But we need to do more in establishing institutions that will build capacity in the area of robotics, AI, aeronautics etc.
Of course, I am very happy to tell you that I sponsored a bill on the establishment of Aerospace and Aeronautics University. These are the things we need now. So, if the government makes a deliberate policy in this area, knowing very well that this is an area we can compete in and make a splash, instead of trying to re-invent the wheel, we can participate in this revolution. Of course, we have very young, smart Nigerians and they are doing very well in ICT. I am sure that if we now push into the fields of robotics and AI, you will be amazed at what Nigerians can do.