I’ve heard that you don’t really understand something until you can explain it to your grandmother. That prompted the decision I made on the present to get my grannie on her next birthday: An iPad. I’ve read that it’s a sleek gizmo with 3G enablement, memory size averaging about 80GB, wide touch-screen, wireless fidelity amidst many other innovative, finger-tingling features. Recently, when the volcanic ash from an Icelandic mount delayed transatlantic flights the president of Norway, stranded in the US, was caught on camera using the iPad and that led to a mad rave on the internet. A CNN headline blared: Stranded leader runs country by iPad. I reckon that must also have improved Apple’s NASDAQ standings and I was also tempted to consider what impact it’d have had if the president in question had been Obasanjo. I’ll let it rest there.
The iPad, Blu-ray, plasma TV and many other technological wonders of the 21st century are derivatives of modern research. The soaring economy of most developed countries of the world, from Japan to the US, is largely driven by technology inextricably tied to a culture of research and development. From the invention of the steam engine to the elucidation of sub-atomic nuclei, the role of R & D in every sphere of today’s world is simply overwhelming. With such an obvious merit, I’d be hard put to explain why no serious emphasis is placed on projects that relate to science and technology in Nigeria. I understand the many campaigns by major academic unions for increase in budgetary allocation to the education sector. While such calls are laudable, the one-million-petrodollar question is what chunk of the education fund goes into research? How well-funded are the scientists, researchers and other back-room boys? It seems to me that once education funds are ring-fenced for salary scheme there’s really nothing left. Even if there’s left-over, it’s spent on less worthy causes like buildings, zebra-lined roads and official cars. It’s received wisdom that this is so in order for politicians to have something to launch on official visits – and create an opportunity to voice some political ambitions, no? It must be drummed into the ears of our leaders – academic and non-academic – that when reference is made of Taiwan and South Korea as examples of nations where well-funded education has resulted in a booming economy, it wasn’t just foundation-laying and spurious luncheons that did the magic. Certain things were made right.
To whom it may concern,
One, we must institutionalize the art and culture of research into our educational curriculum whatever it is now, 6-3-3-4, 9-3-4, 4-4-2 or 0-4-1-9. Students and tutors must be adequately encouraged to adopt it as a way of life – a distinct subject or course on research would be a promising start to that effect. I reckon that there’s still the Junior Engineers, Technicians and Scientist (JETS) club in our colleges. I belonged to this club in the good old days and still remember that for the most part our meetings were spent explaining theories and solving complex mathematical equations with only little time spent handling tools or tasking our creative minds with actual practice. It was something though and I do wonder what obtains nowadays. (My cousin, a high school junior, penned in his journal, “29th Febrary: We were taught that a machine is any device that has a fulcrum, pivot and axle. I’ve found it hard extrapolating this definition to an MP3 player but I suppose it’s largely my fault: too busy flirting with the girl with braces to be atentive to the other definitions.” I wasn’t sure what appalled me more, his attitude to class or his dismal spelling abilities.) Our university system is fundamental in this regard. Research projects should not be restricted to final year of study alone. Students must have unlimited – and I do not use this word flippantly – access to both laboratory services (if they exist) and supervisory tutelage (if they are available). You only need to count the number of patents that have come from MIT alone to understand the importance of this. No field of study is excluded in this regard. However, I believe that for any successful result to be achieved from R & D we must imbibe the virtues of faith and patience. I hear Nigerians are the most religious people in the world so faith mightn’t be an issue – it’s our patience I have doubts about: ever queued for a Lagos BRT?
Two, the youths must be empowered. That sounds trite even to me but it’s true. I believe we have many industrious minds in this country many of whom are not even part of the formal education system. You’ll be inclined to agree with me if you’ve seen the footage of ABC news’ report on the Yahoo scam. (Pray, why didn’t that documentary receive commiserate condemnation from the information ministry as much as District 9? Is it because the facts were irrefutable or that no big man’s toes were stepped upon?) It’s incredible what Nigerians are capable of – for greener or for grimmer. My neighbor repairs phones for a living even though no one ever gave him any formal training. There are many other creative minds waiting for the right –‘right’ emphasized – platform to develop their budding talents. Somebody must provide that platform. I’d suggest the ministry of education be the mastermind but like every other thing associated with government, it’d be too bureaucratic to be effective. Hence it must be done closer home – at the grassroots. This means that every district must run community-based programmes that facilitate scientific creativity through an appropriate informal or formal education. While this would limit red tape, I’m concerned about the ‘Nigerian factor’, a phrase I first heard after erstwhile president Olusegun Obasanjo won a second term in office.
Finally, government funding is critical. I daresay that if as much money as is ploughed into the lacklustre Super Eagles team of Nigeria is put into R & D at research institutes we’d be at the zenith of development – or, at least on our way there. For a nation that imports practically everything, from television to toothpick –yes, toothpick! – we must redefine our sense of proportion if our lofty Vision 2020 goals are to be a reality. For this to happen we need visionary leaders. I’m not an advocate for technocracy. Politics, they preach, has a way of defiling captains of industry. Nigerian politics is replete with examples of sound experts of different fields who got embroiled in the politics in politics and ended as scapegoats of political witch-hunting. However, government’s – whoever government is – fiscal policy must include deliberate funding for research. This will not only boost the present crop of researchers but also ensure youths enroll for science-oriented disciplines and practise it (my stock broker is a trained physiotherapist!). I was almost tempted to drop out from the university when I compared the earnings of an average university scientist with that of Basketmouth – who doesn’t even have to work every day! My grannie was helpful in such times of desperation and that’s why I’m getting her such a lofty present. She’ll be 74 by the way. I reckon that while she mightn’t need an iPad to update her Facebook status (you know I know what you’re thinking) she’ll probably use it to show off to her friends at the village elders’ council. I’ll tell her the iPad can relieve her amnesia. Whether she’ll believe it or not is a function of mind over matter. Now isn’t that what drives R & D?