Science and technology (S&T) has a very unique side to it – it is intrinsically linked to most, if not all, sectors of an economy. So naturally, economic development should be the result of advancing S&T. Perhaps nothing sums up the importance of science and technology better than this quote by British Physicist, Stephen Hawking: “The world has changed far more in the past 100 years than in any century in history. The reason is not political or economic but technological – technologies that flowed directly from advances in basic science…”
Recent analysis shows that economic growth over the period 1950 to 2010 is indebted to the innovations, incentives, and productivity gains arising from technological advancements. It is estimated that about 35 percent of the world’s GDP growth from 2000 to 2008 can be explained by productivity derived from technological capability and its enhancement through information technology, human capital development, and so on.
Advances in S&T can help to diversify the economy, by improving productivity in sectors like agriculture, while defining new ones. Productivity in Nigeria’s agriculture sector – which contributes about 40 percent of our GDP, and employs more than half our workforce – remains low. Yield per hectare is 20 to 50 percent of what is obtained in similar developing countries. In fact, Nigeria is food insecure, given that we spend more than $10 billion annually on food imports. The Nomura Food Vulnerability Index ranks Nigeria as the 4th most vulnerable country to global food price shocks, out of 80 countries. We lack the right plant varieties and storage systems to be efficient. Yet global experience shows that with the right investment in S&T for agricultural processes, output can rise quickly. Malaysia, for example, laid emphasis on R&D to develop higher yielding oil palm varieties. Today, they control 40 percent of world oil palm products trade valued at $18 billion. Thailand leveraged agriculture to backward-integrate into value-adding manufacturing processes, and achieved one of the world’s lowest unemployment rates at 1.2 percent in 2010. With aggressive investment in agriculture, Vietnam and China took 40 percent of their population out of poverty in 10 years. These achievements can be replicated here in Nigeria.
Look also at the relatively recent development of the hybrid engines that harness solar power and batteries (for cars, and more recently, for ocean liners and ships) – one of S&T’s responses to the challenges of carbon emission and exclusive reliance on fossil fuels like diesel and petrol. Imagine the impact of adopting such technology on our country Nigeria? Our fuel subsidy bill, which cost N2.19 trillion (or about 5 percent of GDP) last year, would be substantially lower given lower PMS consumption, creating the fiscal space to invest in other sectors and diversify our economy. We could also see a drop in air pollution levels in this country (which is becoming an issue) since the transport sector, together with the power sector, account for about 10 percent of total carbon emissions in Nigeria. The World Bank estimates that with the right technology, Nigeria can generate up to 10,000 MW over the medium to long term, through Concentrated Solar Power. We currently generate about 4,000 MW from all sources.
Take the impact of technological advances in the ICT sector. A recent World Bank study shows that the invention and usage of mobile phones and broadband internet is strongly associated with economic growth: a 10 percent increase in mobile phone coverage and high-speed internet connections will increase GDP by 0.8 percent and 1.3 percent on average, respectively. In Nigeria, for instance, our telecommunications sector has been growing at over 30 percent annually (32.83 percent in Q1 2012) – outperforming growth in any other sector by far, on the back of rising mobile phone and internet subscriptions. Today’s electronics sector, which is driven by an incessant wave of branching innovations that are generating a constantly proliferating range of products, can also aid economic growth and diversification. Look at the development of various Apple products like the iPad, the iPhone, and the iPod – products which have promoted new sectors like digital entertainment, e-libraries, and so on.
S&T also plays a key role in improving the quality of life. For instance, research in healthcare has proven vital to the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of various killer diseases. The American Heart Association recently announced that deaths due to coronary heart disease fell by nearly 40 percent in the USA over the last decade due largely to new treatment inventions. The same applies to HIV/AIDS – one of the top three killers of African youth. In 1996, a 20-year old person in the US with AIDS expected to live for about 3 to 5 years, but now expects to live to be 69 years. Only about a few weeks ago was it announced that Truvada, an HIV fighting pill, can also be used to prevent the disease, after a three-year study. In Nigeria, preventable or treatable infectious diseases such as malaria, pneumonia, diarrhea, measles and HIV/AIDS still account for more than 70 percent of the estimated one million under-five deaths in Nigeria. Several of these deaths occur as a result of misdiagnosis, due to the poor state of technology in many hospitals. This is why many Nigerians are going abroad, to countries like Egypt and India, for medical services (including diagnosis), spending between $600 million and $1 billion annually, according to our health ministry’s estimates.
In the education sector, particularly higher education, there is an emerging paradigm shift in the world today. The recent onset of powerful technologies, including cloud computing and precise online assessment regimes, enabled the launch of a number of top-tier university entrants into what is being called the Massively Open Online Course (MOOC) marketplace. World class universities ranging from Harvard, Stanford, MIT, are now providing free, high-quality, rigorously assessed and highly accessible online university level education to the masses. While this may not result in the award of a university degree, it can provide a level of certification that can develop industry-standard skills, for example in the ICT industry, and actually provide a way out for 80 percent of the 1 million Nigerian youths who do not get into universities each year due to limited supply of college/university places.
In a nutshell, developing countries cannot hope to prosper in an increasingly competitive global economy and open trading system if they do not build the appropriate science and technology capacity to produce more value-added goods and services. In fact, I can confidently say that S&T is the dividing line between developed nations and those less developed.
The state of science and technology in Nigeria
Nigeria is making some contributions to the development of S&T, but we are underperforming, relative to our abundant human capital. According to NEPAD’s African Innovation Outlook (2010), South Africa produced over 86,000 scientific papers – about 37 percent of the total research output of 19 African countries surveyed between 1990 and 2009; Egypt produced nearly 60,000 – about 27 percent of output. Nigeria produced 27,743 papers (or 12 percent of the total output) – about one-third of South Africa’s output. But a worrying finding is that the productivity growth of Nigeria’s scientific research is the second-lowest of the 19 countries. Even though our scientists doubled their productivity in the period 2005 to 2009 relative to output between 1990 and 1994, other African countries like Algeria and Uganda saw their productivity increase by a factor of 6.3 and 5.4, respectively. To put things in perspective, countries like Brazil and Malaysia saw productivity rise by a factor of above 100.
Similarly, South Africa was able to secure more than 1,000 patents in 2010 alone, according to data obtained from the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO); whereas Nigeria secured only 18 patents in the last 8 years. This is unbelievably low. Egypt and Kenya got 604 and 49 patents, respectively, over the same period. I know that Nigerian scientists are making progress, sending our own satellite into orbit. I am also aware of developments in medical science, such as drugs used in combating sickle cell and other diseases; but a majority of these remain at the formative stages and do not become mainstream.
There are a number of reasons for the poor state of our S&T sector. Firstly, we need a better and more coherent national strategy, as the sector remains highly fragmented, lacking effective coordination. Even the existence of our Science and Technology Ministry was intermittent, until the end of the 1990s. The Steven Oronsaye Committee for the Restructuring and Rationalization of Federal Government Parastatals and Agencies reports that there are about 106 core research and quasi-research institutes spread across the ministries, with each one conducting its research without synergy and harmonization. Some of these institutions have been in existence for more than 30 years, yet there is little to show for their work as Nigeria still relies on research done internationally. If public sector research institutes in other countries can develop major technological advances like the internet and the human genome project, what is wrong with our own?
Secondly, our scientists complain about lack of funding. I agree that fast growing economies must invest in S&T. China has been growing its R&D expenditure by 20 percent annually, since 1999. China now accounts for 12 percent of global R&D expenditure, spending nearly 5 percent of its budget (or 1.76 percent of GDP) in 2010 on the sector. Let’s compare this to Nigeria. Over the past decade, government’s S&T expenditure has been less than 2 percent of the yearly budget (less than 0.3 percent of GDP per year) – a grossly inadequate figure. But the question I have is: For what we have put in so far, what do we have to show? Let me ask our scientists this: Why should the government increase your funding, in view of the limited contributions to S&T in Nigeria? South Africa spends 8.5 times more on R&D than Nigeria but produces over 70 percent of the drugs manufactured in Africa. What do we produce? Clearly, there is inefficient resource allocation in our S&T sector. For example, about N97.1 billion was allocated to all our research institutes in the 2011 fiscal year. Of this, only N10.4 billion or a mere 11 percent was meant for core research activities, according to the Steve Oronsaye Committee Report. Personnel and overhead costs accounted for about N52.7 billion or 53 percent of the total. Surely, there is need for greater efficiency and reallocation here.