Mosto Onuoha, University of Nigeria’s Professor of Geology, is the current President of the 40-year-old Nigerian Academy of Science – the foremost independent scientific body dedicated to the development and advancement of science, technology and innovation (STI) in Nigeria.
In this interview with OJIAKU KALU, following the 2017 inductions of new fellows of the Academy, he speaks of ways Nigeria benefits from the activities of his scholarly body and how the nation could maximise the benefits of STI for sustainable development.
Nine scholars, including a female, were inducted last May as fellows of your Academy. How are fellows selected?
Our Academy, just as any other the world over, is quite conservative with its membership admission tradition. In fact, with regards to the Nigerian Academy of Science, no singular scientist can approach the Academy directly for membership talks. What is normal is that a prospective applicant would comply within the time frame provided annually by the Academy, which always opens on June 1 and closes on July 31. An interested applicant approaches an existing fellow with his/her CV and a description of work so far – to indicate his/her interest in becoming a fellow of the Academy. That particular fellow would then nominate the prospective individual, and must be seconded by another fellow. Then, such application would be referred to the Selection Committee that would collate the bulk of applications and eliminate as appropriate.
The selection committee would refer each of the applications to any of the Specialist Committees (there are 10 specialist committees in all) depending on the field of each applicant. The sub-committees would refer its recommendation to the Council for final approval and endorsement. The Academy does not admit more than 10 applicants in each given year. There could be as many applications as possible, but not more than 10 are approved and eventually inducted – after several eliminations.
The topic of the 2017 public lecture was Cancer: Keeping the Monster at Bay. What informs the lecturer and choice of topic for each year?
Speaker for the annual public lecture is voluntary, though the Academy sometimes tries to encourage fellows to take up the challenge – especially those among us that have not spoken before. Upon accepting the task, he/she is at liberty to choose any topic within his specialisation to speak on; but such a topic is expected to address a subsisting problem in society by attempting to provide solutions on it.
Why was the Nigerian Academy of Science formed in the first place?
To start with, the Nigerian Academy of Science is a body made up of most of Nigeria’s foremost scientists. It is the highest scientific honours society in Nigeria. The members are called fellows; and are people who are globally acknowledged in their fields of science, engineering and technology. The Academy itself is 40 years old this year – having been formed in 1977. It started when some eminent members of the Science Association of Nigeria, mostly, very well-known professors and researchers who had also become fellows of the Science Association of Nigeria got together to form an Academy of Science, similar to academies, like the Royal Society in the United Kingdom, and other science academies in other parts of the world. Today, the Nigerian Academy of Science has relationships with many other academies in Africa, in the world and it represents the country at the International Council of Scientific Union (ICSU). One unique thing about academies, whether it is Academy of Science, Academy of Engineering, or Academy of Arts as the case may be, is that you don’t just walk into any of them. There is a rigorous (almost restrictive) system of admission or entrance that ensures that only the very best and most qualified come in.
I believe that every new president of the Academy comes with his own creative agenda to advance the cause of the Academy. What values shall we be looking out for during your Presidency?
You know, the main vision of the Nigerian Academy of Science is an improved quality of life for the Nigerian society, through the promotion and application of science and technology. And our main mission is to see how we can strengthen the nation’s ability to deliver the fruits of science and technology to our people. So for me personally, if you look at our country today, the problems facing us are many and my main focus as President is to see that the Academy continues to partner with the various governments (Federal, State and Local) and the private sector in solving some of these problems through the dissemination of sound scientific knowledge. We will continue with our various advocacy programmes, organising one forum or the other on identified areas of national need and providing evidence-based advice to influence policy formulation to improve the lives of our people. To underscore what I’m saying, let me provide information on some of the things that the Academy has done in the recent past.
Through our forum on evidence-based health policy making, we have provided vital information on reducing maternal and infant mortality in Nigeria. We also organised another forum that focused on the nation’s preparedness to control the rising burden of non-communicable diseases in the country. We recently tackled the issue of how to use agriculture for improved nutrition of women and children in Nigeria. In the days ahead we will turn our attention to other pressing issues, e.g. waste management in our urban areas, water and sanitation in the cities, and other environmental issues, including desertification in the North and deforestation in the South where the woodlands are fast disappearing.
One of the very important things that the Academy is already pursuing under my Presidency is to try to obtain a charter from the National Assembly officially recognising the Nigerian Academy of Science as the official organ for the provision of evidence-based advice on science, technology and innovation to government. We are hopeful that the present (i.e. 8th National Assembly) will pass this bill – especially now that House of Representatives on its own has favoured the bill. In almost every country where there is an Academy of Science, there is usually an official bill passed to set it up or recognise it for the work it does to the nation. The National Academy of Germany is the oldest continuously existing science academy and it was established on January 1, 1652 and chartered by Emperor Leopold I of Germany in 1667. The Royal Society, in London, was founded on November 28, 1660 and received the Royal Charter on April 23, 1663, with the King of England designated as its founder. The current Patron is Her Majesty the Queen. Even the Ghanaian Academy of Arts & Science was chartered through a bill sent to parliament shortly after the country’s independence from Britain by the then President, Dr. Kwame Nkrumah.
When John F. Kennedy was President of the United States of America and all of a sudden it looked like the Soviet Union had overtaken them in the space research race by sending a man (Yuri Gagarin) into orbit round the earth, Kennedy gathered the leading American scientists and demanded they work how America would put men not just into orbit round the earth, but land them on the moon – at any cost! This is the kind of things that nations do. They identify their major problems or issues that are of national importance and task their scientists to produce the solutions.
How much of your efforts contribute to government’s policy thrust?
We have been quite successful in the past and some notable public policies have emanated from our evidence-based advice to government. The Nigerian Academy of Science has since its inception had a history of beneficial interaction with Government. Nigeria’s first National Science and Technology Policy was formulated in1986 in the realisation of the fact that overall national development could only be sustained through the effective application of scientific and technological skills for the production of goods and services. The Policy was designed to create harmony in the quest for knowledge about the environment through R & D and the use of that knowledge to ensure a better quality of life for our people. The Academy was actively involved in the formulation of that policy.
The Academy has successfully cooperated with the Federal Government in producing a report on Science and Scientific Research Infrastructure submitted to the National Agency for Science and Engineering Infrastructure (NASENI) in 1992. That report identified those areas of Science and Technology practice in Nigeria whose immediate reorganisation or development would enhance the evolution of industrialization in the country. At the instance of government, we also made vital contributions in 1997 to the deliberations on the concept of long-term strategic planning (code-named Vision 2010) for achieving national self-reliance, economic strength and political stability.
The National Assembly once prohibited energy drinks from coming into the country as well as outlawing smoking in public places. However, energy drinks and public smoking are still with us. What is your Academy doing about the defiance?
See, the Academy cannot act as the police, especially when laws have been passed on public smoking and scientific evidence provided about the harmful effects of smoking. It is the duty of the Customs to check what goods come into the country and of agencies like NAFDAC to monitor the foods, medicines and drinks that are sold to Nigerians. The Academy cannot do much in these areas. If something is not going well in our society and we can provide evidence-based advice on how to tackle it, we do so. When new policies or laws are introduced and they are not obeyed, it becomes another Nigerian problem, a situation when laws are not obeyed. If energy drinks are outlawed but are still available in our shops, the Academy cannot be blamed!
The Nigerian Academy of Science belongs in the global science community. How would you rate Nigerian Academy in comparison with other academies, particularly in Africa?
I think we have done exceptionally well, taking into consideration the fact that we do not receive direct yearly funding from government as other academies do in other lands. Indeed, we are now mentoring some other academies, especially in South-Saharan Africa. The Academy in Ghana is older than ours, but we ran past them many years ago, thanks to our sheer number, creativity and linkage with the US National Science Academies. The Academy in South Africa is also doing well with a robust support from their government. All in all, academies all over the world operate a fairly uniform mandate. They try to see how science, technology and innovation can deliver a better living standard for their citizenry.
For instance, in Nigeria today the discussion or argument on genetically modified organisms (GMO) is on-going. The Academy has issued an official statement regarding the suitability of GMO-based foods to human health. We are going to say a lot more on this topic soon. The Nigerian Academy of Science has done very well, in my opinion. A lot more could be done if more funding is available for our activities.
What would you say is the greatest challenge to science and technology education in Nigeria?
The answer is money. The will is lacking on the part of the authorities to put in the money required. I was privileged to study in a European university on full scholarship for both my undergraduate and postgraduate degrees and in my class in those day I was the only one who didn’t know how to use a typewriter in my first year in the university. All my classmates (who were Europeans) had learned how to type in their secondary school years. Personal computers were then still unknown; most of my mates knew how to use typewriters to personally process their work. I couldn’t use the typewriter because I hadn’t been taught how to do so. In fact, the first typewriter that I ever saw back home was the one in the principal’s office at my secondary school! But, my classmates in the university had gone through introductory technology, typewriting, and had other practical skills (like soldering and electrical wiring) before coming into the university.
Now in Nigeria, we have introduced these things into our 6-3-3-4 system of education, but in many secondary schools, there are no “real” Mathematics or Physics teachers and near empty Physics and Chemistry labs. Teachers with sufficient skills to teach introductory technology are also in short supply. We need trained science teachers who have to be motivated so that they can accept postings in schools in rural areas. Many university graduates are looking for jobs; but many of them available to teach science subjects are not being hired. Where there are teachers, there are no laboratories. Even in the universities, laboratory experiments that students are supposed to singly perform are now done in groups. Funds to buy reagents and many other necessities are not made available. The student population has grown and out of five to eight students performing one lab experiment, only two may be genuinely interested while the rest merely float or sleepwalk through the process. So there is the issue of motivation – which goes back to the question of lack of money to adequately compensate teachers, and lack of equipment – which is also due to funding. These are some of the glaring problems facing science education in our land today.
There is one more thing the Academy is working on that is very important and government has already recognised it. This is, perhaps, the only country where people studying for their MA/MSc or PhD degrees pay for their research largely from their own pockets. A PhD project is supposed to solve a problem – which means someone should already be waiting for the answer the researcher is going to provide. This presupposes that someone, or a research grant awarding body, should be available to provide funds for the work. Today, there are very few grant-awarding bodies in Nigeria to which people in R & D can turn for funds. TetFund and PTDF are perhaps the only exceptions.