The recent announcement by the Minister of Science and Technology, Dr. Ogbonnaya Onu, that plans are afoot to float a science and technology bank may appear innovative, but the idea deserves serious interrogation. The minister revealed the plan when he hosted a delegation of Motor Mechanics and Technicians Association of Nigeria (MOMTAN) led by its National President, Mr. Sulaiman Oseni, in Abuja recently.
The idea of a bank dedicated to science and technology development is clearly a novelty and may go some way in closing the gap in the funding of scientific research. Our understanding is that such a bank will wholly concentrate on the funding of research, innovations and breakthroughs in science and technology, with a view to maximizing the possibilities therefrom. It will be a much-needed bridge between research and funding in science and technology, given that presently existing banks and financial outlets may not be so mandated or disposed.
The closest to what Dr. Onu is thinking in the United States is the National Science Foundation, funded by the government and mandated to give basic research funds to scientists and researchers. In other countries, such as Japan, there are the venture capital banks which have served as fillip for science and technology funding with copious results in accelerated technological developments.
We are, however, mindful of having too many interventionist financial institutions to address different needs in the country. The tendency to establish a new specialised institution to address every issue in the country may leave government with too much bureaucracy and an unwieldy civil service, such as we presently have, with adverse consequences. So, the government must properly think through this initiative so that it does not turn out another white elephant.
It is necessary to remind the government of some of the specialised banks in the country which could address many of the issues that a science and technology bank would be expected to attend to. We have banks such as the Bank of Industry (BOI) and the Bank of Agriculture (BOA), which are offshoots of the Nigerian Industrial Development Bank (NIDB), and the Federal Mortgage Bank (FMB). We need to ask how well these institutions have helped in their specialised areas of intervention.
The Ministry of Science and Technology, if properly positioned as we have it in many of the developed countries, is an important ministry which drives the development efforts of their nations by harnessing the best of their science and technology. We have seen encouraging signs of this understanding by the Muhammadu Buhari administration in its appointment of Dr. Onu as minister.
That is why we think that the government’s obvious passion to greatly harness science and technology for national development is behind the idea that a specialised bank is needed for this purpose. But, having a new bank may not necessarily be the answer. We must be wary of unnecessary duplication of financial institutions. We have dedicated funds like the Petroleum Technology Development Fund (PTDF). This institution could be made to fund science and technology. There is also the Bank of Industry which could fund some science and technology projects. Perhaps, what is needed is for such institutions to be restructured while finance institutions that are already associated with the funding of science and technology innovations are encouraged to dedicate a substantial percentage of their funds to this initiative.
If a specialised bank must, however, be created, government must be careful of the approach to its establishment. Government can stop at initiating the plan, but the entire process of delivering it should be private-sector driven.
Modern science and technology can benefit from the time-tested methods and results-oriented approach of the private sector without the encumbrances of government bureaucracy.