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Boost scientific research to spur innovation and economic growth

A new dawn! It is now time for the new administration to fulfill their election pledges. The manifesto of the new administration focused on improving access to healthcare, modernisation of agriculture and education, among other sectors. However, the blueprint overlooked the roles of both basic and applied sciences in realising these promises. Dr President, here is why and how basic science research funding can become an economic pillar and priority in your administration.

In basic science research, we ask basic yet important questions driven by intuition and curiosity. This intuitiveness drove Gregor Mendel, an Austrian monk, to crossbreed plants with desirable traits leading to the birth of modern-day genetics. Charles Darwin also set out on a sea voyage to find answers as to why wildlife and fossils had unique geographic distributions leading to the conception of evolutionary biology. The famous CRISPR gene-editing discovery started with identifying bacterial defence mechanisms against phage viruses.

One thing common in all these significant discoveries is educated curiosity – the defining principle of basic science. However, without the support of Abbot Cyril or the Cambridge network, neither Mendel nor Darwin's discoveries would have happened. If not for the National Institute of Health's continued funding of basic science research, CRISPR would remain a basic bacterial defence system with no widespread application in genome editing and drug discovery.

Closer home, without basic research funding, Covid-19 would still be a major pandemic with dire economic implications. Two important biomedical discoveries, qPCR and mRNA vaccines, have been instrumental in managing this pandemic, saving millions of lives and allowing economies to reopen. Basic science research is the foundation of knowledge for innovation, entrepreneurship, and building sustainable wealth. Your administration must rethink science funding by focusing on the bottom of the pyramid – the scientists. 

As a nation, we are in perpetual discussion on how we can allocate additional resources to different counties. The phrase 'bake a bigger cake' is a familiar political rhetoric, which we will not realise unless we increase our investment in basic research to spur innovation and create value. We rely on knowledge transfer from advanced economies captured succinctly by our list of imports. Several research organisations (KEMRI, KALRO, ICIPE, ILRI, etc) and universities in Kenya rely on imports to conduct biomedical and molecular biology research.

We import essential consumables such as antibodies, oligonucleotides, culture medium, research infrastructure, and software from advanced economies. This considerably delays research output, which is likely to benefit the country in terms of the value chain. How much are we investing in basic research funding in the country? How many valuable life science start-up companies have come out of our universities collectively in the last decade?

Contrast this with Denmark, a Nordic nation over 10 times smaller than Kenya in size and population. According to the Danish Ministry for Industry, Business, and Financial Affairs, life science is a significant growth engine that creates value for the Danish economy. Accordingly, the Danish government has developed the best possible framework to allow the industry to continue to thrive. The Danish life science industry has about 1,500 companies that employ over 47,000 people. Data from Statistics Denmark (equivalent to Kenya National Bureau of Statistics) shows that R&D cost as a percentage of GDP from 2018 to 2020 averaged 1.8 per cent and 1.1 per cent in enterprise and public sector investment, respectively.

In 2017 Danish Life Science Industry invested DKK 15 billion (Sh234 billion) in R&D in both the public and private sectors. This yielded a turnover of DKK 225 billion (Sh3.5 trillion), with about 50 per cent of this coming from exports. In the same year, the industry contributed about DKK 24 billion (Sh385 billion) to public finances in the form of corporate and public taxes, which is more than what Kenya earns from its top exports. Given the attractiveness of this sector, the net investment income from foreign investors is slightly more than DKK 15 billion (Sh234 billion) annually.

Mr President, even though you are at the beginning of your term, you must be thinking about your legacy. While we understand that immediate investments in agriculture, healthcare, and education are a priority, you must also create room for scientific research. The best way to create long-term sustainable wealth is to ensure appropriate and timely investments in basic research.

We must be courageous enough and build different research centres of excellence around the country anchored within our academic institutions and research hospitals. These centres of excellence must have assured annual funding for research to grow their potential and productivity. This way, we can research our problems, develop local solutions, and, where possible, export this value chain regionally to our neighbours. For example, Kenya has some of the best virologists in Africa working at KEMRI and ICIPE. We hypothesise that had the government funded these scientists to develop a Covid-19 vaccine, Kenya would have a locally manufactured vaccine.

Imagine the value this would have created in the economy regarding new jobs, government revenue from vaccine exports, growth of secondary industries around vaccine science, and attraction of foreign investments in this sector. To put this into perspective, BioNTech (the company behind the Pfizer-BioNTech mRNA vaccine) earned about €18.9 billion in 2021 compared to €482.3 million in 2020. As a result of increased revenue, the company has opened new R&D facilities in different locations globally, creating new jobs and additional sources of tax revenue for host countries. Funding basic research is the best way of building wealth, increasing the size of our national cake, and creating decent, well-paying jobs that Wanjiku needs.

Dr Oria is LEAD Postdoctoral Fellow, Biotech Research & Innovation Centre, Denmark. Mr Oluoch is a PhD Candidate, UMass Chan Medical School, United States