Why it’s time to step up our research capacity

Time to revitalise and revolutionise Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) research in Kenya has finally come.

Research is vital for economic development, yet it has been long neglected and poorly funded. The one per cent allocation of gross domestic product (GDP) for research and development that was agreed upon in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia in 2007 has become a mirage. Political and resource allocation honchos are replete with alibis because of their non-scientific background. Their insular cogitation considers research as a sack into which money is poured but nothing of value comes out.

The African Union acknowledges that the lag is not primarily a result of limited funding, but of a lack of appreciation for the value of such investments. The “return on the investment in science and technology is not appreciated by policymakers and even African industry,” the AU reports.

Covid-19 should act as an epiphany on why we need to strengthen our health system and fund home-grown STEM researchers. Reports collated from World Bank in 2014 indicated that the African continent (home to 17.2 per cent of the world’s population) produces less than one per cent of the world’s research output.

Astonishingly, the World Economic Forum report 2010 also indicates that Africa has only 79 scientists for every one million inhabitants compared with countries like Brazil and United States where the ratio stands at 656 and 4,500 respectively. This vividly shows how research in the continent has been left to the elite overseas.

These are painful admissions we must accede before we commence funding enthusiastically scientific research in our country. In the Abuja declaration done in April 2001, heads of state of African Union countries met and pledged at least 15 per cent of their annual budget to improve the health sector, many African countries especially Kenya are still wallowing in the miasma of implementing this auspicious declaration.

Kenya is renowned to be at the vanguard in all ventures, including granting vaccine trial volunteer. Is it time to also lead in honouring the research declarations through funding? Can the state allocate one per cent of Sh79.3 billion IMF loan to STEM research? The National Commission for Science, Technology and Innovation (NACOSTI) should wake up and explain the significance of its work and what it hopes to achieve.

County governments must transform political pledges in the County Integrated Development Plans into feasible programs for science-led (research) development. Kenya has the potential to liberate itself through utilisation of the untapped natural wealth, human resources, and effective policy execution to become a national and continental research hub. 

The Kenya Medical Research Institute (KEMRI) has grabbed the opportunity at the pinnacle of continental recognition. The institute is celebrating 40 years of research excellence in Africa. This has been augmented and cemented by Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention through nominating her as a Centre for Excellence for Evaluation of Covid-19 diagnostic to establish a continental capacity to facilitate the systematic appraisal of SARS-COV 2 diagnostic tests.

This unequivocal excellence that the institute is exhibiting is a vivid indication of prowess and global competence that has wowed many organisations that are now developing a tenacity of being associated with her. Such collaboration means a lot not only to the institution but also to the whole nation.

Covid-19 pandemic will be with us for an indefinite time. It has drastically slowed our kinesis locally and globally. Medical referrals due to our weak health system have been hampered. The pandemic has also hindered those who normally seek medical attention abroad when they get a mosquito bite. At this point in time, we need to envision and bolster our health system, right from the community to the national level to avoid rushing for ventilators and ICU beds at the eleventh hour. It is time to limit STEM imports and exponentially increase our STEM and innovation exports.

Finally, Kenya has the aptitude for self-actualisation in Research and Development. We only need to make STEM and innovation a strategic priority in order to liberate ourselves from the oppressive dominance of globalisation. Nigeria President Goodluck Jonathan once said, “There is nowhere in this world now you can move your economy without science and technology; without that, we are just dreaming”.

- Mr Maragia is a scientist and an International Federation of Biosafety Associations (IFBA) certified professional.