Thou Shalt Not Undertake Research

As I picked up my laptop to draft this article, a thought crossed my mind whether the Nigerian antipathy to research and development is in obedience to some religious instruction, or if a fatwa had been declared on any government in Nigeria that dares pay any attention to funding and facilitating research efforts. This thought inspired the title as the best excuse I can conjure for what might be intellectual laziness on a national scale.

Three incidents triggered this article. Firstly, I spoke with a colleague who had COVID-19 alongside his dad. As he recounted their recovery, he mentioned that his dad had COVID-19 twice and that for someone without any history of diabetes, his blood sugar level rose to a dangerous level that conventional testing devices could not measure. I could not fathom how his dad could have fallen to the SARS-CoV-2 virus in quick succession, so I asked if the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) reached out to his dad to ask any questions or take any biological samples.

Secondly, I met a lady who had an emergency caesarean section at 36 weeks of pregnancy (gestational age) whereas a “regular” delivery would be expected close to 40 weeks. She explained going to her registered private hospital after seeing some spotting. Preliminary tests indicated she was leaking amniotic fluid via her vagina. Then she started feeling uneasy and called for the doctor’s attention. The medical staff were shocked to realise she was already in labour (six centimetres dilated) with four weeks to spare. Seeing the manner she described her experience and the shock expressed by trained medical personnel, I realised that her labour contractions could not have been normal, so I asked if the medical team later asked any questions post-delivery or said anything to suggest they would further investigate why she went into early labour.

Thirdly, I met a senior citizen who had COVID-19 alongside his household. As they had been largely asymptomatic, they had stayed home to recover. While recounting their experience with the disease, he mentioned that they never had any communication from NCDC after their diagnosis. Even his wife who had a rather tough time with the disease was left to her own devices. He recalled just one interaction with a government official when someone from the Federal Capital Territory Administration (FCTA) called to check on him, and he praised the caller for his efforts, but asked why NCDC never bothered to check on him and his family.

At my previous job working in a healthcare management consultancy, one of the flagship projects I was involved in was a Diagnostic Review of the Nigerian Health Care System that was commissioned by the Nigerian Government. Although I would not speak on the specific findings from that review, it was worrisome to see that out of the little funds put into the health system, a minuscule portion goes into health-related research. While noting that the annual budget of the Federal Ministry of Health (FMOH) is not the only route through which the Federal Government puts money into the health sector, in 2018, out of a total FMOH budget of ₦356.5 billion, only ₦1.98 billion was allocated to the Nigerian Institute of Medical Research, which is supposed to be the top research organisation for the health sector. Even if we could get a most favourable exchange rate from the Central Bank, that allocation would struggle to scratch US$10 million. Compare this with the South African Medical Research Council which got government grants totalling R543.33 million (≈US$37.3 million) and a total income of R1.05 billion (≈US$72.3 million). Can you see where this is headed?

Aside medical research, Nigeria has a systemic problem with funding research that seems to defy logic. We just do not believe in “throwing money away” in the name of research. That is why we had to wait for “developed countries” to fund research towards developing a COVID-19 vaccine. We have had Ebola in Africa for decades but Nigeria and all other affected African countries have not considered the possibility of developing a vaccine for Ebola locally. We would rather drink naira notes than provide money, equipment and a workable system for our intellectuals to find a vaccine.

Sadly, the disdain for research is not an exclusive preserve of the government. Whereas during my master’s programme in the UK, we had several projects that were funded by private organisations, the Nigerian private sector does not seem to see itself as a potential partner for university research. While there may be other constraining factors for this, at the crux lies a national disinterest in analytical thinking and questioning. For example, why would a university student see any need for research if she knows that failure of her prototype to work as intended may yield a suboptimal grade or even a failed thesis? The student learns to play safe, repeating already completed projects, or using proven components rather than risk the uncertainties of real research. As she graduates, she takes this proclivity for “playing safe” into the next phase of life, thereby entrenching a risk aversion that cannot enable research.

Alright, we have had enough wailing and should be asking how to go from here. I think that at this scale we cannot ignore the government’s role. There is a need for infusion of some serious money into research to send a message that Nigeria is serious about finding in-house solutions. The increased funding could then be leveraged by attracting the private sector to bring their problems to local research institutions. However, money alone is not the solution. We need a system that promotes innovation, banishes nepotism and corruption, and institutes financial accountability for all persons and organisations receiving grants. Above all, we need to accept failure as a fundamental ingredient for research and development; for failure refines our thinking and would lead us closer home.

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