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Making science work for Nigeria

By Taiwo Obe

Oh: how the years have rolled by.

To think that it’s been a little over 15 years that the Nigeria Liquefied Natural Gas (NLNG) Limited publicly unveiled the Nigeria Prizes for Science and Literature.

Of the Nigeria Prize for Science, the then NLNG MD, Dr Andrew Jamieson, had said at that launch: “By instituting a significant prize for science, NLNGseeks to bring science to public attention and avail the nation of its immense benefits.”

In his own contribution, the then President of the Nigerian Academy of Science, Prof Gabriel Ogunmola, said it was “a great moment for Nigeria (and) the prize would be a great challenge to the scientists working in Nigeria (Nigerian and non-Nigerian alike) and the total scientific enterprise of this nation.”

Former President, Nigerian Academy of Science, Prof Gabriel Ogunmola (middle) presenting the co-winners of the maiden edition of the Nigeria Prize for Science, Dr GabriaelAbhulimen (left) and Prof Alfred AkpovetaSusu…in 2004

It is remarkable that the competition is still ongoing, because, for several years (2005, 2007, 2011, 2012), no winner could be declared from the submitted entries and for three years (2013-2015), the competition was not held.

So, the company had to make the Prize more about finding actionable solutions to the country’s challenges.

Innovations in malaria control

That was why, in 2016, the Prize was aimed at innovations in malaria control. Sadly, only 15 entries were received which were considered insufficient and lacking in quality. But, because the company believed that malaria must be faced down, it renewed the theme for 2017.  That year, the entries were 27 and three research works by  Drs Ikeoluwapo Ajayi, Ayodele Jegede and Bidemi Yusuf, all of the University Ibadan (“Improving Home and Community Management of Malaria: Providing the Evidence Base”); Prof Olugbenga Mokuolu of the University of Ilorin (“Multifaceted Efforts at Malaria Control in Research: Management of Malaria of Various Grades and Mapping Artemisinin Resistance”) and Dr Chukuma Agubata (“Novel lipid microparticles for effective delivery of Artemether antimalarial drug using a locally-sourced Irvingia fat from nuts of Irvingiagabonensisvarexcelsa (ogbono))” were found worthy of being awarded as joint winners. They shared the monetary reward of US$100,000. When the Prize was introduced, the prize was US$20,000.

Another good point is that two of the past winners of the Prize are now part of the Advisory Board. In fact, the chairman, Prof Alfred AkpovetaSusu, was a co-winnerwith his doctoral student, Kingsley Abhulimen, of the maiden edition of the Prize with their work on real-time pipeline leak detection. Michael Adikwu, a professor of pharmaceutics and the vice chancellor of University of Abuja, who, in 2006, showed in his winning work (Wound Healing Devices (Formulations) Containing Snail Mucin) that snail mucins can play a key role in the pharmaceutical industry, is the other.

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Yes, with this Prize, winners shine in the scientific community, as attested to by Prof Andrew Jonathan Nok, whose work in 2009 on the discovery of a gene responsible for the creation of Sialidase (SD), an enzyme which causes sleeping sickness, the judges said had “the potential of leading to the development of a scientifically elegant and sophisticated solution to a predominantly solution to a predominantly African problem.” In an interview, Nok who died recently said he was more excited on wining the prize than he was awarded Member of the Order of the Federal Republic. “It is an excitement that emanates from things that deal with merit,” he said.

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But, as Prof Ogunmola declared in 2004, has Nigeria availed itself of the winning works’ immense benefits?

Government has no clue on how they should go

In 2005, the 2004 co-winner Dr Kingsley Abhulimen lamented in an interview thus: “The only people that have shown any interest at all (in the work) is an international company and I think the government has no clue on how they should go about this issue and it is very depressing…. for an academic to come with such an idea and they just kill it and brain drain sets in and the guy moves to where he can develop his technology and comes back here, and we spend billions of dollars to acquire it.” The  work, real-time computer-assisted leak detection/location reporting and inventory loss monitoring system of pipeline network systems, has been patented in the United States.

In 2008, Dr EbenezerMeshida, then of the University of Lagos, won the prize with his invention called Lateralite, a stabilisation flux for fine grained lateritic soils to make Nigerian roads durable through the elimination of potholes and gullies. On his LinkedIn profile, Dr Meshida, who is now at Afe Babalola University Ado-Ekiti, Ekiti State, states that Lateralite”has effectively arrested the deleterious swelling and shrinkage of black cotton soils of North-Eastern Nigeria.” With many of Nigeria’s roads riddled with potholes and gullies, you would wonder why Dr Meshida has not been supported to make lateralite available in quantities that would keep the roads around the country stabilised.

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Winning the award in 2010, judges said of the work by Prof Akaehomen Ibhadode, a professor of production engineering, on the development of a new method in Die Design: “In an industrialising economy like Nigeria, the products of the precision die process are particularly important in the development of small and medium scale enterprises on which the economy depends for its accelerated growth.” But, who was listening?

The quest for excellent scientific solutions to Nigeria’s challenges through the Prize goes on, nonetheless.  In 2018,Dr Peter Ngene, an assistant professor in the Inorganic Chemistry and Catalysis group of the Debye Institute for Nanomaterials Science, Utrecht University in The Netherlands , beat 84 other scientists to win the US$100,000 prize. His entry, “Nanostructured metal hydrides for the storage of electric power from renewable energy sources and for explosion prevention in high voltage power transformers “ was adjudged the best for that year’s theme “Innovations in Electric Power Solutions”.

Fund and find solutions by research

On Tuesday, 14 May, the process for the determination of the winner for the 2019 edition of the Prize themed “Climate Change, Erosion, Drought and Desertification” began with the handover of the 29 entries received from researchers based in Nigeria and overseas to the judges whom the Advisory Board raised for the adjudication.

Thankfully: at the 23rd Convocation of the Lagos State University, on 19 May, Nigeria’s Vice President Prof Yemi Osinbajo, spoke eloquently about how “we must fund and find solutions by research and innovation to our various developmental challenges.”

With this, we should expect that there will be an alignment of forces between the Federal Government of Nigeria and NLNG on how to make the Nigeria Prize for Science work better to impact the society. Perhaps the Vice President should request a presentation on the winning works and everything else can follow from there. That should be a goal.

 

Before founding The Journalism Clinic, Obe was executive vice chairman of TaijoWonukabe Limited which for many years provided communication support to NLNG, and at a point he was a member of the committee which repositioned the Nigeria Prize for Science.

 


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Comments expressed here do not reflect the opinions of vanguard newspapers or any employee thereof.