…Laboratories Upgraded to National Research Centres
…Local and International Collaborations Intensify
…Unprecedented Emphasis on Staff Welfare and Physical Development
…Global Recognitions Beckoning
By Tunde Akanni
The three years spanning 2017-2019 in the life of the Nigeria Institute of Medical Research, NIMR, have recorded seemingly impossible impact from a fresh leadership provided by Prof Lawal Babatunde Salako who became the Director-General in 2016.
The journey has been tedious but fulfilling with manifestations of progress stretching through the entire gamut of the institute’s physical outlook peaking with research and allied accomplishments with a global proclamation. From the installation of a world-class electronic gate to the overhauling and upscaling of laboratories, the Institute smacks renewal in all essence.
The Director-General, in this interview, recounts his strategy against the daunting early days with which he hopes to not only sustain his modest achievements but to perpetually heighten medical research in Nigeria. Read on:
So, who is Professor Salako?
Thank you very much for this interview. Well, I am a professor of medicine; nephrology (the study of kidney and hypertension) to be specific at the University of Ibadan, Department of Medicine. I was born in Ota some sixty years ago, and I had my primary education in Ota, and my secondary education in Offa- Kwara State, where my progenitors had migrated to.
For my Basic Studies, I went to the Kwara State College of Technology then, now Kwara State Polytechnic and did medicine at the University of Ibadan. I also did my speciality training at the University College Hospital, Ibadan. A few learning experience in the United Kingdom about 2007 for kidney transplantation at the Manchester University Teaching Hospital.
I became a professor in 2006; and Head of Department of Medicine in either 2011 or 2012. I was lucky to become Provost of College of Medicine in 2014, and two years into my provostship, I was appointed by the President Muhammadu Buhari as the Director-General of the Nigerian Institute of Medical Research (NIMR).
Since then, I have been here trying to work with the vision and mandate of the institute, trying to carry along the workforce and making necessary and required changes. I made up my mind to put in my best from the beginning.
How would you recount your transition from the College of Medicine to NIMR? Yes, you know as the Head of Department, you have started learning some administration. I was Head of Department for about 3 and a half years I think and later became the provost. But those two are within the university setting. It is very easy to combine your administrative duties with teaching and research.
Before I was appointed DG, I had two different research funded by United States’National Institute of Health, NIH, through the Kidney Disease Research Network Consortium. The first one is a case-control study. The second one was a cause study which followed up those people who have been adjudged to have the gene that is causing kidney disease. They are not at end-stage yet. They are not having the worst case yet.
So we wanted to follow them up and then look at what are the things that work in concert with the gene to move the patient from early kidney disease to end-stage kidney disease. We were looking at HIV and the kidney, hepatitis B and C. We were generally looking at the environmental agents that may work with the gene to put the patient at end-stage kidney disease because chronic kidney disease is divided into about five stages. So, what we did was to look at those in the early stage, and we followed them up to see when they develop the worst of the kidney diseases which is end-stage. Of course, just before I was appointed DG here, we had put in for another grant that will now enable us to assess the prevalence of those environmental agents among those who have the kidney disease and then assess them to compare if you have the gene, you have hepatitis B; what difference does it make if you have the gene and you have hepatitis C or you have the gene and have another virus.
Let me ask, these major grants came from the same source?
Yes, they came from the same source, NIH, which is the National Institute of Health in America through our consortium. We have a consortium of many countries – the US, Ghana, Nigeria, Cameroon, Kenya, Ethiopia, Uganda and I believe South Africa. The consortium of nephrologists working on those things that I have described.
So, when you assumed your position eventually, what was it like, shifting base?
I was first worried about who is going to ensure that my research project moved on. Luckily for me, I usually don’t work alone. I had two or three mentees who are already working with me. What I did was to put them in charge of the research.
So how’s it with you here now?
It is not too different because at the university we also do research. In fact, the universities are the one doing most of the research. The research institutions concentrate more on research than in the universities because in the universities, they teach and also provide services.
The research institutions really don’t do direct teaching even though they teach in the way. The people come to the labs here to train, to pick up skills and some time to do their projects – their PhD, masters projects. It is really another university environment which is not named as a university. In fact, it is an ideal centre for research which means people in the university should be coming to learn some skills of research; use some uncommon instruments that they don’t have and actually coming to learn the rubrics of research with us. So it is more like the same academic environment
Now, it seems you work with a much larger team, with bigger responsibilities on you, and now you are a national player. I want to know how and what you have had to do to cope with this new experience?
Where I was coming from, I think I had a staff of over a thousand as provost of the college. Here I have a staff a little less than half a thousand, that is between 300 and 500. So one can say that the coverage in term of staff I have to control is much lower than what I was controlling where I came from. But then, where I was coming from the major buck doesn’t stop on my table; it still goes to the Vice-Chancellor’s office as provost of the college. The difference is that here, the bulk stops on my table as the Director-General. My principals are in the Ministry of Health. So, I am expected to take necessary decisions here to move the place forward. So, there were rarely bigger challenges to run the place except that I enjoy more power to take decisions unlike where I was coming from. I really can express every bit of my ingenuity here and be the one in the vanguard for charting a new course for the institution.
What is your experience like working directly now with complicated bureaucracy such as characteristic of our ministries?
My experience is that ministries can do better. The Ministry of Health is very large. Sometimes, I have thought of whether it shouldn’t be broken into two so that you can have a substantive minister for both because it is easy for you to send a memo to the ministry and it gets lost within the movement in the ministry or the desk officer gets overwhelmed by the share number of memos that are coming around. One minister once told me that sometimes when you send these papers to them, they don’t come back to me. You send a memo to the minister, the minister sends the memo to an officer-in-charge and he never comes back to the minister for a decision and of course, the minister’s table is experiencing a torrent of mail and memos, letters every day. So, if those desk officers are not as effective as they should be, then many things would be left unattended which is what makes the ministry looks like they are not as effective as what they should be.
Although, there is a Minister of State I am not sure the Minister of State has the power that the substantive minister has, to be able to make certain decisions. I don’t think the buck stops on the Minister of State’s table, and that was what made me think that maybe it should be broken into two in one so that each of the ministers will have power on what he is controlling.
What is and what should be the reckoning with NIMR by the ministry of health?
The Nigerian Institute of Medical Research, NIMR, ordinarily should be very or most precisely, the head of all medical research institutes in the country. In fact, the mandate says so; that it should coordinate research; provide enabling environment for health research; and then, of course, conduct research into diseases of public health is important. I think that the institute over the years has been managing to act in that capacity but government disposition in term of direct funding for research in relation to the importance of health research for the country has not been reflected in the budget that goes to the institute until recently. Health research, we all need to reckon, is capable of improving the health system, providing new drugs, a new approach to disease treatment, disease diagnosis, disease prevention, access to health leading to an effective workforce which on the long run translates to economic prosperity for the nation. But what government looks at is the prosperity without doing due diligence and the process especially the research institute that will nurture this.
Investments in research are not like investments in petrol that you can sell tomorrow and make money. Investment in research requires years to mature. When it does mature, it lasts forever. Nations that have spent so much on research, for example, the US and you can see what it has translated to in their economy. What the US spends on health research alone isn’t less than an average of $30 billion in one year. Would they keep spending if they are not gaining from such money?
When we rely on foreign funding to test our research questions and hypotheses, you have to compete with others. More so, the focus of the funder is his own area of interest not our own area of interest in many of the times. So, I think that no matter how people think that researchers should go and look for money from funders outside, the country must be committed to research by putting its own money down to drive research.
Now, if you may suggest sir, what percentage of the health budget should go into health-related research?
Government has agreed that 2% should be put into health research as we speak…
…. Of the entire budget as health budget?
Of the health budget. That is the health budget should have 15% of the federal government budget.
Well, that is a government position. What if your personal view?
Because that is international best practice and I endorse it. So, that is what can make the difference. But let us move from zero points zero per cent to something more reasonable. I also have some comments along that line. The institute has been disaggregated in a way whether knowingly or unknowingly because you have Nigerian Institute of Pharmaceutical Research and Development, Agro Virus Research Institute, Trypanosomiasis Research Institute, and you have the Veterinary one too.
All these institutes are medical research institutes and they are supposed to be with the Nigerian Institute of Medical Research but we have them in different ways. So, there is no serious synergy between them and individually, they are less powerful and are not able to work together to sort out research issues for the health sector in the country I believe.
Like it is done in the US, I am actually trying to do a proposal to the Senate Committee on Health to merge all the institutes under Nigerian Institute of Health with one headquarters in Abuja, one director-general; and that will also help the government to spend less.
The other institutes will remain who they are and their name but they will have to be governed by one administrative headquarters which will serve as the point to harness their thoughts and work together and increase the synergy that is not there, and together like that, they become more powerful and they can approach government and government can actually see reason.
I know it is not as if those who are in government especially those at the ministry don’t know that research is important. They are all leaders, professors, doctors so they know. They just need more commitment to research beyond what we have now. I always say that for any nation to develop, research must be taken very seriously. That is why it is called R & D (Research and Development); they go together. Our leadership at NIMR is bent on actualizing this for Nigeria.
What was your assessment of the working tools, the library, the laboratories, the physical outlook? So let’s take them one by one. The workforce first?
Well, when I joined the institute, we had a workforce of maybe 300 and something; had two satellite centres and one upcoming satellite centre in Asaba in conjunction with Delta State Government. Delta State Government had approached the institute to set up the satellite in order to assist the State in providing some services and research in relation to some diseases of poverty, TB, HIV, neglected tropical diseases etc. so that we can bring the research culture to the area and government will support some of these to improve the State health survey.
That is how Asaba came on board. It wasn’t the headquarters here that is interested in going there because the other two we had, we had no money to rejuvenate them. Kanji is our clinical site for malaria research, especially entomology research and Maiduguri is for cross border issues in terms of health and research both of them are dilapidated. There is an effort on-going to rejuvenate Maiduguri especially because of the insurgence and situations around there.
The staff generally, I think I can say had very low morale…poor interpersonal relationship and a lot of mistrust some bordering on ethic connotations within the institute. The unions were volatile… with the previous administration. So, we had to start from dousing tension among workers, bringing back their confidence and showing that the new administration meant well and that people can work together so that the institute can also move forward.
One of the things we did was to have some two town hall meetings and we had to do few restructuring within the institute; create one or two departments by merging some units together; and providing the HODs with more powers to run their departments because, at the time, so much power was concentrated at the director-general’s office such that it was possible for the institute to the ground once the DG was not around. So we had to create an in-house position of deputy director-general. I said in-house because it is not recognised by the ministry as official but for our own internal workings, we created it so that when the director-general is not around you know who automatically takes over and the position also relieves the office of the director-general of some duty the Deputy DG can do on behalf of DG and can represent the DG at functions. We chose to be creative for the benefit of all in the NIMR system and the good of the nation large.
So, that way, we were able to bring confidence back to them and to the system. Taking a cue from the South African Medical Research Council, we created the Centre for Human Virology and Genomes. It used to be a human virology lab and we thought that it should be changed to reflect the mandate of the institute – learning and research.
The same thing with TB lab. No serious research was going on, so we changed it to Centre for Tuberculosis Research. Again, to reflect and tell the people who work there that it is not just services. Those two labs are reference laboratories for the country for HIV and for TB. So the centres now house the labs.
Another feat is the newly created Centre for Traditional, Complementary and Alternative Medicine because we believe that Nigerians use a lot of herbal medicines that is the first point of call for many Nigerians, and we owe it a duty to ensuring that we research into some of these herbal medicines especially for safety purposes so that they don’t cause more damage to the people, and we partner with the physicians of the Council of Physician of Natural Medicines and a few other herbal physicians.
We are looking at their claims, whether the drugs are doing what they say they do, and we are looking at the safety of the drugs themselves, we are looking at the trade-chemical content all to ensure we refine their processes and procedure so that whatever they give to Nigerians will be something that is safe and possibly effective in treating the diseases they want it to treat.
The other thing we noticed is that over the years, several of the researchers had left the institute because they were not fulfilled. The institute was being run like a ministry outfit whereas, the institute is an academic environment, so, promotion became very tight for researchers. You can’t do that in an institute. In the universities, there are professors and there are guidelines for becoming a professor and if you can fulfil the guidelines you become a professor.
So when we came, there were people who had been on one promotion line between six and seven years. So, we visited the Head of Service and explained to them the peculiarities of our institute and to let them know that if you want to keep the good hands and the good heads in the institute to work, they have to get to the pinnacle of their career which is director of research. So, after we had this discussion, the position of director was increased such that people who had been stagnated as Chief for several years were now becoming deputy directors. So, the environment changed and everybody became happy and more committed to their work.
The other thing we did is that some people were still being poached by the universities because they also want to become professors. So, we sought some universities and developed MoU with them to appoint our researchers as adjunct lecturers in their universities and if they do well, they are also promoted also to professorship by the universities and not by the institute. We have this MoU with Lead University in Ibadan. We have this staff exchange. Their student comes here to have some experience in our lab. Most of the things we do we invite them and they also invite us, and our researchers are teaching in their university. We are also collaborating with another university which is Eko Medical University with which we are just completing the MoU.
I must say that we started by approaching the federal universities but they don’t seem to understand what we are trying to do which is to increase collaboration between our research institute and the universities, to improve networking, to make them work together, for our own staff to relief than the burden of teaching and supervision, and help them to produce their PhDs many of who come to our lab to do their project. This is in line with international best practices. That is what happens in most research institutes in the world. They are affiliated to one university or the other. So, you find a professor in research institutes who are professors of universities around them. I don’t want to mention the universities that we approached and they turned it down. They thought that the researchers in the research institute are looking for the back door to become professors. So we then thought if federal universities that we share the same principals with would not work with us and take advantage of us, then we can work with private universities.
In fact, one of the steps we have taken is meeting with the Executive Secretary of the National Universities Commission, NUC. I know this is probably new to some academics in Nigeria. Academicians who have travelled out of the country and have been to other places know that this is no big deal at all. We are not asking them to promote people just for us at our standard. We are asking them to promote the people with their own standard. So, what is the problem they have? We are hoping that maybe the NUC Executive Secretary will implore universities to take advantage of PhD holders based in research institutes and use them to teach and supervise their students, mentor them and things like that so that the universities will have the opportunities of more hands. We are not even asking the universities to pay them; we said they will work for you for free.
I think this initiative will start to work out now because the University of Ibadan is now thinking of converting some non-teaching staff to teaching staff I read about it in the paper.
Some of them are doing a PhD. We are doing the same thing here. Since we got here, it looks like the larger majority of non-researchers are becoming interested in acquiring PhD and recently we actually converted some of them to research staff. If we have more opportunity in the future, we will do the same because once people have acquired PhD the best thing to do is to make functional use of that PhD.
Now with this plan, is there any pending proposal for the Nigerian Institute of Health?
The US call their own National Institute of Health since we want to pattern this along with that, we will call this Nigerian Institute of Health.
Coming from the director-general of NIMR, don’t you think there might be suspicion from other research institutes?
Obviously, but I think we are altruistic in our proposal. We are not saying they should scrap them or make them lose their identities; they remain who they are and will continue with what they do but we are saying let us create an avenue where all of those that happen in these research institutes are decided in one place so that they can work together, they can reason together for the country and plan together for the country. So, here, for instance, we will be headed by deputy director-general. However, the proposed Nigerian Institute of Health will be headed by the director-general of the Nigerian Institute of Health. All these institutes will be under the Institute of health.
Now, this appears interesting and with so much prospect. I think it is always the best to have to plan B. Do you have plan B such that you may probably be seeking reworking of the Act with which NIMR was established?
Of course, for us to have a Nigerian Institute of Health, there has to be a new Act. The new Act that will be brought on board the Nigerian Institute of Health will abolish the Act that established all these other institutes because under the Nigerian Institute of Health will now be created Nigerian Institute of Medical Research. Even our own name necessarily must change because we are behind the name that covers everybody. So we will probably look for a new name for NIMR, and we will have NIH, Nigerian Institute of Pharmaceutical Research will still retain their name because it is pharmaceutical research; we that have seem to bear everybody’s name will now look for another name maybe just saying Nigerian Institute of Medicine so that we can still bear our NIMR and nothing will change but the NIH will remain as the central coordinating agency.
Can you now share with us some of the research breakthroughs of the institute since you assumed this office?
Well, since I came, what we have done is to show more commitment to research even within the little among that we have. I said before that funding was poor until recently when the former Honourable Minister of Health increased our budget and we have been able to improve our infrastructure.
We created the Centre for Human Virology and Genomes. That centre houses a central national reference laboratory for HIV, and laboratory in that centre became the first public laboratory ISO accredited, meaning that, the result of the laboratory in the area of chemistry and some molecular assessment are recognised internationally. We are the first set of the public laboratory to have that and that happened about two years ago when I took over.
In fact, we are expecting the re-assessment for another year of accreditation next week. The same lab was also recognized by the World Health Organisation(WHO) for prequalification in kit testing. You know when people do this point of care kits that they want to bring to Nigeria, it needs to be tested and confirmed to do what they claim they are doing by WHO before WHO allows it. WHO accredited that same lab for kit test. I am proud to say that, it is the only lab in West African sub-region that can do that for WHO, and at that time, it is only eight countries in the world that can do that for WHO maybe the number has gone a little bit now after some other centres have been accredited in other countries but not in Nigeria. We are the only one here and we have been receiving patronage from the UK and I can’t remember those countries, and we are going to access some in few months if we are able to agree on some terms. So, these are two major capacities that we have acquired over the years that have put the institute and the country into the world map.
So if you look back sir when you came in the funding was like what and now it is like what?
The funding was like one-tenth of what it used to be now. So you could virtually not be able to do anything with it. But since 2017 that the funding went up, we have improved in the area of physical infrastructure. We started with the staff because they are usually the bedrock. We started with their houses, offices giving them facelift because many of them had been existing for donkey years. The central laboratory was, to me when I came, like a prison and now we have changed the face. It is looking like what it should look like. We got quite a number of instruments
They are there. There is an album here. That is the story of the housing units what they are now and what they were looking like then. I think they should have the pictures of the labs – what they were then, and what they are now. We have bought quite a number of equipment; we reinvented the central laboratory, and now we have equipment that can make us work at a world-class level, we can confidently say that. We don’t have enough yet; we are acquiring more by the year.
Now, this upscale so to say, this practice of sending specimen I think to Dakar is it now over?
It should be over let me say in the next six months. Why did I say so? We are acquiring the equipment that will put us in that service. Secondly, we have acquired skills because two of our staff now have been to China CDC through collaboration with China CDC to learn about pathogen identification.
What does that mean?
The box that causes outbreak generally – Lassa, Ebola, monkeypox, some haemorrhage viruses, yellow fever all of those viruses we have sent staff to China who has spent 3 months on how these diagnoses can be done and now they are back. They are confident; they are in high spirit and they want to work. We also got two people to also go to that same institute in Dakar – some spent four weeks, some six weeks to learn about the same thing – pathogen identification and sequencing and they are also back. So we are working around clock to now create that lab because for us to be able to work on some of these virulent diseases, we need a very special laboratory to do that and Lagos State has just acquired one of such and we are hoping to work with them. We have one of such that is optimal and we are trying to get it optimal; and I think in this year budget, we are going to purchase one or two more equipment and make an environment where our staff can tackle such viruses. So, what will be left will be money for reagents for us to be able to help them to make those diagnoses.
Beyond getting cognate establishments involved with the launch of some of your work and stuff like that do you also consider collaborating with independent organizations?
There is no problem if we have the linkage.
One area I have not mentioned in the output. We created what we called early career researcher grant which we give to people, very ridiculous so to speak, but it is better than having nothing. It’s N1.5million for individuals to create a concept of research questions within the context of Nigeria research priority, and then we have the Senior Research Category which is N5 million for two years and also to make progress on something that has been done before which has not been completed. That will be collaborative research within the institute or outside the institute. We created pre and post-doctoral grants if they are employees of the institute. But we have a larger plan of doing the same since we are supposed to provide enabling research environment for people. A larger plan of creating what we call Extra Mural Research Grant to universities and other related institutes to work in an area of research needs that we have identified as a National Research Institute and ask them to move that forward but there is no money to do that yet.
When we discovered that we don’t have enough fund to do that, we are now working on the idea of creating a NIMR Research Foundation which we hope will be a Public-Private Partnership that will fund research specifically in the area of training PhD and MDs; and conduct yearly or twice a year training for early researchers in the area of grant writing, manuscript writing, and mentorship. Last year, we created a curriculum for this. Two years ago, we did the need assessment we brought the stakeholder from all across the country and the stakeholders identified the need for the twice-yearly training programme and submitted it should be a midwife by NIMR. So we brought them back again and created the curriculum and we wrote the curriculum last year. We call it the National Grant Writing and Mentorship Workshop. We bring the people from their various universities and research institutes to NIMR for twenty-one days. It is a residential workshop and by the time they leave, we expect that they would have created a skeleton of the fundable proposal and that when they get back to their universities they can step it down and that is what we want that research foundation to fund, and we hope to get public-spirited individuals who will put some money into it.
Currently, we are registering the foundation and we already got the current Minister of Works Mr Babatunde Raji Fashola to chair the Board of Trustee of the Foundation when we eventually register it. Once we get that done, we get the foundation registered and then we hit the ground running.
You are not contemplating working with TETFUND on this?
Tetfund has been created to shut out research institutes. The universities monopolise TETFUND and it is difficult for us to get tetfund but the way we can work with them is to work in collaboration with the university teachers. This was one reason we said to create an adjunct research window for us. If you create it and we are a staff of the university then we can write to TETFUND.
I don’t think many of them understand what is going on. I am surprised that at the level of the university people, we have not seen that that type of relationship exists. There are people working in the American CDC and they are professors at Emory University. The people working in South African Medical Research Council are professors in Cape Town and many other universities. We are going to get there. I think recently, the University of Jos just appointed one of our researchers as a professor. That might be one-person arrangement with the university appointing him as an adjunct and now a professor. But we are saying, understand this from the institute
I think our universities should be more open to collaboration. People should stop thinking like in the medieval period. They are asking us, go and bring your Act. What does our Act have to do with promoting somebody your university has considered deserving.
Before you go because we are talking about research, there are main core points we should mention. As I have said, all those funds we have given to people have created research projects within the institute, and I am happy that some of them have resulted into innovations which we presented at our last conferences. We have developed what we called NIMR Biotech DNA Preparation kit done by one of our researchers, Dr Muinat Fowora. This is something that will bring down the cost of research and DNA extraction which is a very common procedure in genomes research and it is 100% Nigerian made. So we are to move on to patent, invite companies who may wish to invest in it. This is transformational research that we talking about. We also created our own NIMR model genotype machine for sickle cell disease also 100% Nigerian made and we have studied it in-house and given it to one or two hospitals after NIMR and they found it very sensitive and working very well. We are going to work with the Standard Organisation of Nigeria to look at what standard they would want us to do. We are going to talk to them very soon and see how this can be very useful at least at Nigerian Primary Health Care Centres. Sickle Cell is one of the diseases that we are hoping to reduce its prevalence common among blacks.
We have also created panels that can be a point of care testing again at primary care level or secondary hospital in children centres that can make diagnoses within sixty minutes of the causes of fever; and we jointly with an information technology facility centre, Co-Creation Hub produced an application to monitor TB drug therapy by the patient. These are some of the innovations that we have come up with. We have more coming but these are all about our research.
Now, we have foreign-funded research. Quite a number of them. One is looking at the management of HIV in women; one is looking at Self Testing among Youths what method will youths themselves prefer for self-testing. Because there is a lot of stigmas associated with this so rather than somebody doing it and knowing your status, we are saying youth should design how this thing should be done. We are amazed at so many innovations that the youth have created. We are currently following up three of those creations and they are on the field being tested. We are also looking at a community in Jigawa State. We are now working with the Jigawa State Ministry of Health and Hadeja General Hospital trying to unravel what they think is causing chronic kidney failure in the place.
Our researchers have been publishing too. Recently, we try to create an abstract of the published works from 1970 to 2016. The compendium is very small. Our publications are supposed to be more than you find there but for lack of poor funding, even when I said that we have some improvement in funding most of the time when they give us the envelope, they redistribute the funding such that funds that come to research portfolio is still small. We want the research portfolio to be the one that will carry like 70% of our budget.
Now, can we look at international collaborations you have had with organisations outside Nigeria?
We have had a collaboration with South African Medical Research Council as I mentioned, and we have one grant between us. It is a training grant which is about to start, and currently, we are also working on another meeting with them to look at non-communicable diseases and how to move that forward for both countries. I also mentioned earlier that we are working with China CDC and all we have been able to achieve with them. We are also collaborating with Emory University in the USA; we have a grant again in between us. We also have a relationship with Harvard University working with them on HIV, research, training; we also visited Institute Pasto in Dakar we have an MoU and collaborating with them; we have an MoU with Redeemers University, Ede and quite a number of MoU we have signed here and there.
In terms of conferences that we have held and workshops, we have worked with the University of Ghana on WHO TDR Programme on implementation research which was done here in NIMR a few months ago and another one will be done early next year. We also have our yearly conference graced by researchers in Nigeria and outside Nigeria that were when we unveiled our innovations to the public. Also, we have some development partners, Institute of Human Virology in Abuja- they funded our TB programme here; and we have Family Health International (FHI) they funded our research service programme and they also assist with our labs.
Can we go on to discuss your investment in the physical development of the Institute?
The first area we looked at was the entrance of the Institute. We have changed the look of the entrance. The appearance of the entrance matters a lot to create an impression in the mind of the visitors and passers-by. Besides changing the look of the entrance, we created an electronic gate showing the visitor a modern research environment, and when a visitor enters, he forms an opinion of a serious-minded research institute so to speak. Then, of course, the labs have changed. We are changing most of the dilapidated structures. We still have one wooden structure which we have been trying to change since I got here. We had it in the budget but we never got enough fund to do it.
One that is a serious concern to us is the project I met here which houses the e-library and the offices of the director-general which has been under construction since 2013 or so and almost becoming an abandoned project. We tried to get the lift working an old lift which never worked for almost 30 years which we have now put to work. Generally, we are creating a conducive environment for both research and learning.
We just need to give our facilities some more facelift. Our environment looks quite international so to speak and a lot of people come to our environment to do things and we want to ensure that we continue with that standard.
Now, it’s been some three and a half years since you assumed this position. What are your projections in the nearest future for the institute?
I have mentioned one or two of them which I believe will assist the institute in future and one of them was the creation of the Research Foundation. So, I am looking at completing the registration of the foundation, get the foundation building ready and jump-start the activities in the foundation. I think it will be one of my legacies if that is successful. I will be happy that we have a body through Private Public Participation that can fund research and development in the institute.
I hope you are going to make it multidisciplinary?
O yes because it is going to fund PhDs in all ramifications. All PhDs are research but we are going to look specifically at PhD that addresses Nigerian research priorities. The same thing with MDs that address Nigerian research priorities.
Secondly, the National Institute of Health in the US is a big institute. A lot of people go to learn from there – research skills. So, I am looking forward to the emergence of the Nigerian Institute of Health here that will also be bigger when we merge them together and become a force to be reckoned with by the government which will also be able to contribute its own quota to the development of research and health care system in Nigeria.
What I forgot to mention earlier is that government also occasionally sent to us queries about claims being made by some people about discovering a cure for this and for that, and they send them to us to investigate the claims without putting money into it. They are not part of our budget and currently, we are doing one and we are trying to improve the content first and if we think we have something useful in it, then we can inform the government that we need money to do a large study and reconfirm what we are studying. Just to inform you that we work with the government and they also work with us. We got the letter as from as high as the Office of the Secretary to the Government through the Federal Ministry of Health to us, and some come directly from the Federal Ministry of health.
We work in conjunction with the federal ministry of health to do surveillance for anti-malaria drugs, to help them test the recommended drugs whether they are still very effective in the treatment of malaria. It is called drug efficacy test for malaria which we are doing for the nation. We also help to do entomology studies and surveillance of mosquitoes around the country that cause diseases so that we can look at the ability to cause disease, the ability to respond to the treatment that is available. We are as well looking at net and the ability of the insecticide-impregnated net to prevent mosquito bite and malaria. So we are doing enough in term of research with our principal.