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Why we must allocate more money to research and development

Opinion
 Why do we have missing data? [iStockphoto]

What percentage of our gross domestic product (GDP) goes to research and development (R&D)? It was 0.70 per cent in 2010, according to World Bank data.

Why do we have missing data? It was 5.6 for Israel, 4.93 for South Korea and 2.43 for China in 2021. For Singapore, it was 2.16 in 2020. We can add more countries.

In allocating money to R&D we are not doing as well as the countries we benchmark with. There was once a motion in parliament to raise the percentage given to R&D to three per cent of GDP - someone was quoted saying that was too much money!

If we are to aside only three per cent of our budget, that would translate into about Sh111 billion using the 2023-2024 budget of Sh3.7 trillion. If you shared that among the universities and research institutes like Kalro, Kemri, Kefri and Kirdi, among others, each would get billions. 

You will hear the next question: what will researchers do with that money? But it is still little compared with other countries. And why don’t we say Sh80 billion for one road is too much? Why can’t we spend the same on R&D?

Think of it, an electron microscope goes for $70,000 to $1,000,000, it can price as much as $30 million. We have not even talked about CERN's Large Hadron Collider which costs $4.75 billion. When was research cheap?

By the way, how much money do counties set aside for research and development? Clearly, research is not one of our priority areas, going by the money and airtime allocated to it.

That should not really surprise us. We rarely publicise or celebrate research output the same way we celebrate musicians, and other artists, in life and death.

A good example is Robert Solow, a Nobel laureate in economics (1987), who died last year. You probably have not heard of him, but he wrote extensively on innovations and demonstrated that over 50 per cent of a country’s growth is explained by investment in science, engineering and technology.  But when Michael Jackson died, he was in the headlines of our leading dailies.

The problem is that we rarely see the output of R&D, unless you are a farmer to see better yielding seeds like Katumani. The rest of us wait for the newest technology or gadget. Our biggest concern is the price, not how something is made. How does your touchscreen work? How does M-Pesa work? Add to the list of mysteries.

Since all solutions to our problems can be 'bought', why tax your head with research? All you need is money. Think of any product or service that you need, it’s in the market. Others argue there are too many risks in investing in R&D, tangible results are never guaranteed. That is more the reason the taxpayer should derisk research!

Others ask, how many researchers are rich and affluent? Why are there no star researchers like musicians or actors with their Oscars? The researchers' Oscar equivalent would be Nobel prizes. Who really cares about R&D? The amount of beer I can buy friends is seen as a better measure of my 'professorship' than the quality of my ideas.

Still wondering why getting more money for R&D is so hard? Can you talk to your MCA, MP, Women Rep or senator? Leave out the president, he is a scientist and well-versed in R&D.

Let us see the bigger picture; R& D is not for today, it opens new possibilities, new opportunities, sometimes long after the researcher is dead. Think of the money Pfizer put into R&D before Covid-19 hit. Think of the money Apple makes through R&D, keeping on improving their phones.

Apple made about $97 billion in profit in 2023 - a whopping Sh14.55 trillion! Apple put $30 billion into R&D, about Sh4.5 trillion last year. What was our national budget last year? Take a breather, my fellow countrymen. It gets sweeter; once you get an innovation, you can protect it with a patent, allowing you to make money without competition.

We could argue that research in science and technology is expensive. Have we done groundbreaking research in less expensive social sciences? Hot areas include alcoholism, political hypnotising, pettiness, cultism, witchcraft, demotivation among the youth, and wokiness, among others.

Some have argued that talents are in slums, deprivation ostensibly brings them out. Why not get researchers from the same places? Research takes place within an ecosystem, it needs more than talented individuals. Let’s also remember we get more talent from deprived areas because the pool is bigger. How big is the Kenyan pool of researchers, people genuinely fascinated by new ideas?

Where do we go from here?

By devoting so little money to R&D, we are failing to invest in the future. We are blunting the national competitiveness. Let’s give credit, Kenya has a good network of research institutes in every sector, it’s their output that we need.  Who got us the genetically modified eucalyptus?

The more ideas we produce through R&D, the higher the chances that one of them will give us the next Apple Inc, Safaricom, Google or an Aids vaccine.

The sad thing is that if we do not invest in research, others do. And we become a market for their products and services. And pay a premium.

In social sciences, there is lot of research going on in Kenya funded by non-governmental organisations and universities outside Kenya. Through such research, we become open books. We know so little about others, yet they know so much about us.

Their research in Kenya has returns. It becomes easier to influence our thinking, cultures, trends and fads that suit their vested interests in Kenya. Think of what informs our views on women empowerment, status, identity, elitism or even marriage. That also influences what you buy, creating a market for those who invest in good research.

A good example; noted how alcoholic brands are linked to socio-economic classes? Noted how we silently believe some people are superior to others? Why do you call yourself Michelle and not Wanjiku? Why Ken and not Ndongomothi?

Without internally funded R&D, we easily become spectators in the global scheme of things. And we all know spectators make no money, the players earn billions.

You are still not convinced we need more money in R&D? That three per cent of our GDP is long overdue. More is welcome.

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