TETFund grants: Are their research solving Nigeria's problems?
29 October 2020
Abdulsalam Mahmud and Thecla Ayoka
It was in 2012 that she and her team members received the National Research Fund (NRF) grant for a project titled, “Bio-monitoring and early warning signals of potentially harmful and toxic algae in Nigerian coastal waters”.
Prof. Medina Omo Kadiri, was the only female selected as Principal Investigator (PI) among the 13 research teams. She said their research involved studying harmful and toxic algae in the Gulf of Guinea, from Bight of Bonny to Bight of Benin, covering eight coastal states, ten locations and 53 sampling sites.
Kadiri, who is the first, and still the only female Professor of Phycology in Nigeria, further said: "These algae manifest a plethora of adverse effects, harming economies, ecosystems, human health. In terms of health, they cause body itching, stomach pain, rashes, diarrhea, vomiting, paralysis, amnesia, neurological problems, liver damage, coma and death.
According to her, harmful algae have direct impacts on crucial ecosystems, fishery, food, public health/healthcare and tourism/recreation industries. The sum of N18,942,000 (equivalent to $49,597) was awarded by the Tertiary Education Trust Fund (TETFund) to Prof. Kadiri and her research team members, for the project.
An agency for tertiary education
TETFund was originally established as Education Trust Fund (ETF) by the Education Tax Act No. 7 of 1993 as amended by Act No. 40 of 1998 (now repealed and replaced with Tertiary Education Trust Act 2011). It is an intervention agency set up to provide supplementary support to all levels of public tertiary institutions with the main objective of using funding, alongside project management for the rehabilitation, restoration and consolidation of tertiary education.
Enter ‘Research Fund’
The National Research Fund (NRF) is one of the special intervention areas of TETFund introduced in order to help in the realization of the objective of addressing critical need for high quality manpower to drive the nation’s economy towards attaining (the now defunct) vision 20:2020.
The funds are expected to facilitate research at cutting-edge level on activities that will impact positively on the competitiveness of the country on the global scientific milieu, and build up the research capacity of Nigerian researchers to contribute to the national development efforts as well tackle global challenges.
The TETFund research fund has three major areas of intervention, which are Science, Technology and Innovation; Humanities & Social Science; and Cross cutting. The three major areas are further subdivided into 28 thematic and several research focus areas, key to the socio-economic growth, as well as technological advancement of the nation.
To be eligible to apply for either the IBR and NRF grant, a researcher in the university must be within the position of lecturer II and a Professor. Graduate Assistants are ineligible to apply or even be part of any research team. However, the Principal Investigator (PI) that heads a research team seeking for TETFund grants must be a Professor, or at most, be either a Senior Lecturer or an Associate Professor.
Research-funding bodies many in UK, US
Unlike in Nigeria where we have only TETFund, there are several bodies in the United Kingdom (UK) which specialize in awarding grants and providing funds for research in specific fields.
They include the Arts & Humanities Research Council (AHRC); Biotechnology & Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC); Engineering & Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC); Economic & Social Research Council (ESRC); Medical Research Council (MRC); Natural Environment Research Council (NERC); Science & Technology Facilities Council (STFC); Cancer Research UK; Alzheimer's Research UK; and the UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), which appears to serve as their mother agency.
Meanwhile, the National Science Foundation (NSF); National Institute of Health (NIH); Environmental Protection Agency (EPA); and the US Department of Agriculture, among others, are prominent intervention bodies in America.
Algae in coastal areas identified
Prof. Kadiri, who is Nigeria’s Representative/member on UNESCO Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC) Intergovernmental Panel on Harmful Algal Blooms (IPHAB), further said they were able to identify and document harmful and toxic algae in coastal areas.
She said: "We now know the geographic distribution and diversity of potentially toxic and harmful algae along Nigerian coast and associated rivers and inland waters. The research has also revealed the different types of toxins in Nigerian coast. Our study also provided evidence in the coast of Nigeria, on the presence and distribution of harmful algal syndromes responsible for various medical problems."
Medicinal plants for malaria
Another beneficiary of TETFund grant is Dr. Samuel Akintunde Odediran, Senior Lecturer in the Department of Pharmacognosy, Faculty of Pharmacy, Obafemi Awolowo University (OAU), Ile-Ife. Dr. Odediran, who was awarded a 2 million naira (equivalent to $5,237) Institutional-Based Research (IBR) Intervention grant in November 2018 with other members of a research team, said they carried out a study on two Nigerian medicinal plants as anti-malarial agents.
"There is no stage in research that do not have challenges. While the initial stages are manageable from this end, getting necessary equipment handy, particularly spectrometers, for the characterisation of isolates is really challenging. COVID-19 pandemic lockdown did not help matters either as it curtailed movement and hindered the work. Most of the time you have to wait endlessly before you get where to send samples for spectroscopic analysis. Where you get, the queue is very long, that one will not be able to deliver on schedule," he said.
Odediran, A former Acting HOD of Pharmacognosy Department, explained that their research confirmed the antimalarial activities of the two plants and may at the end identify the possible constituents responsible for such activities. According to him, TETFund's grants, to some extent, have helped Nigerian lecturers and researchers, in terms of carrying out qualitative research.
He said: "This intermittent Intervention has reduced our sole dependence on our insufficient, hard earned salaries in carrying out research. However, access should be more flexible and prompt. There is need also, for TETFund to initiate Science Centres in choice Universities across the country, where some necessary equipment will be available for easy use, while not discontinuing the grants."
Tackling graduates' unemployment
Presently, Dr. Sani Ahmed Yauta, Senior Lecturer and Director, General Studies at Gombe State University, together with other members of his research team is carrying out, "An evaluation of the perception of the employers of labour on the quality and employability of university graduates in Nigeria". Dr. Yauta, who said they were awarded the IBR grant of TETFund in November 2019, pointed out that the employability of university graduates, is the problem that his research seeks to address.
'Basic, not applied research done’
Though TETFund may have been awarding grants for research in the last eight years, most of them, according to Prof. Kalu Mosto Onuoha, are basic research instead of applied research. Onuoha, President of the Nigerian Academy of Science (NAS), said since TETFund gets 'small' allocation and they must share among universities, definitely the grants will not be enough for a comprehensive research project to be undertaken.
"The amount of money the Nigerian government allocates for TETFund and research, before now, will not be able to solve the kind of problem other nations are solving with the aid of research breakthroughs. Massive funds are approved and released for research activities in industrialized climes. Again, since the grants received by Nigerian researchers are small, automatically there is limit to whatsoever they can do. But there is no way anybody can say that most of the research outputs did not helped to solve problems," he added.
No data to measure research impact
Though a lot of efforts are on going to boost qualitative research outputs in Nigerian universities, a don at the Faculty of Basic Medical Sciences, Olabisi Onabanjo University (OOU), Ogun State, Ahmed Adedeji, said he does not have enough empirical data to measure the impact yet.
Prof. Adedeji, who is the Head of Future of Medicine, Science, Technology and Innovation Group (FoMSTIG) at OOU, noted that one of the indicators of progress is scientific and technological advancements and associated innovation collections. But according to him, this is yet obvious in our day-to-day life in Nigeria.
"Teeming masses are living in abject poverty, while our healthcare services are in shambles. Cities are not well organized and hunger still pervades the land. One may them ask what kind of researches are we supporting at the moment. Do we have national research agenda that is compiled on fact and not fiction? I don't know. The address of JF Kennedy when declaring that the US will land on the moon was a kind of ambitious, but realizable research agenda. Do we have such? I am not sure. We have not localized science of development enough," says the Pharmacology professor.
Checks by one of the writers of this report, indicated that although TETFund may have a comprehensive list of scholars who have been the beneficiaries of its grants, it is paramount that it also has an accessible database of funded research works, their outputs and concluding reports about the researches, for public consumption.
Official letter needed for response--TETFUND
Though a staff of TETFund had assisted this reporter with a document containing the names of both NRF and IBR's beneficiaries (when one of this reporter visited their headquarters in Abuja), he however declined to answer the question of whether the research projects of TETFund scholars are addressing critical national issues. He 'courteously' and politely advised one of the writer of this report, to write officially to the management, requesting for an interview, with a view to getting every necessary information he wants.
Continued investment in research, according to Thecla Ayoka, could open many opportunities to confront many developmental challenges, bedeviling the country. "Continued investment in research could lead to a new Nigeria that will compete with developed nations," says Ayoka, Lecturer at the Department of Science Laboratory Technology, University of Nigeria Nsukka (UNN).
On his part, Chidi Nzeadibe, Professor of Environmental Management and Sustainability, advised TETFund to be more transparent in the award and disbursement of their grants, while also making the application process very competitive. “Some scholars do not even know when the call for the grants' application is advertised," said Prof. Nzeadibe, who is also the Associate Dean, Faculty of Social Sciences, at UNN.
This special report was supported by the African Science Literacy Network (ASLN).