US diaspora scholars pledge help for home universities

Top Nigerian scientists based in the United States have entered into a formal agreement to assist universities at home, with a view to supporting postgraduate programmes. Academics in Nigeria have welcomed the move because of its potential positive multiplying effects.

But there are also fears that if private and public sectors fail to support the end products of such a partnership, it may lead to another vicious circle of brain drain.

Last weekend in far away Atlanta city in America, Professor Julius Okojie, executive secretary of the National Universities Commission, or NUC, of Nigeria signed a memorandum of understanding with eight US-based Nigerian scientists.

The main objectives of the partnership are to enhance the culture of research and training excellence in Nigerian universities, encourage academic scholarship, strengthen applied biological, biotechnological and biomedical sciences curricula, and assure international standards and recognition of institutional academic programmes.

Those involved

For a pilot project, which will eventually metamorphose into a full-blown initiative involving more Nigerian universities and US-based Nigerian scientists, the NUC selected seven federal universities – University of Ibadan, University of Benin, Usman Dan Fodio University, Nnamdi Azikiwe University, University of Lagos, University of Ilorin and Federal University, Otuoke.

The eight US-based Nigerians are all globally respected scientists. They are:
  • • Professor Nelson Oyesiku of Atlanta’s Emory University. He is a neurosurgeon and current president of US Congress of Neurological Surgeons.
  • • Professor Funmi Olopade of the University of Chicago. He is a cancer specialist and is on President Barack Obama’s National Cancer Advisory Board.
  • • Professor Joseph Igietseme, a specialist in biomedical sciences. He has a decade-long grant of US$20 million to carry out research activities for the National Institutes of Health.
  • • Professor Charles Rotimi, director of the US government’s Center for Research on Genomics and Global Health.
  • • Professor Abba Gumel, a mathematician at Arizona State University.
  • • Professor Innocent Mbawuike of the department of molecular virology and microbiology at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston.
  • • Professor Francis Eko, professor of microbiology and immunology at Morehouse School of Medicine in Atlanta.
  • • Professor William Undie, chair of radiologic sciences at the University of Texas in Houston.

How the initiative will work

NUC boss Julius Okojie recalled that the research initiative, called the Promotion of University Biomedical Science Research Development or PUBSD, was an offshoot of a national summit on biomedical science research hosted in 2012 with representatives from several universities in Nigeria.

The summit identified an urgent need to enter into partnership with the well-known crop of biomedical scientists of Nigerian origin in the US who were ready to contribute to the development of applied sciences in their homeland.

The initiative will support research partnerships between local and diaspora academics that facilitate resource-sharing, training and access to cutting-edge technologies; stimulate the development of research programmes in Nigeria; and explore funding and support opportunities globally with a view to building a culture of research excellence in Nigerian universities.

Diaspora academics will visit the selected universities and work with colleagues in Nigeria to draw up special programmes in biotechnology and biomedical applied sciences. They will assess laboratory infrastructure, make recommendations to the NUC and also try to raise matching funds in the US. Laboratories will be expanded to accommodate more postgraduate students.

According to reliable sources in the NUC, the scientists agreed to volunteer their services to stimulate research in Nigerian universities for three reasons. First, they were encouraged by the fact that the NUC had recognised and identified their talent.

Secondly, they agreed with a resolution of the 2012 Summit that Nigerian scientists in the diaspora should collaborate with their Nigerian counterparts with a view to participating in the new ‘bio-economy’ sub-sector of the world economy: Nigeria’s 160 million population is a ready market for the bio-economic industry.

Thirdly, there was a growing nationalistic awareness among Nigerian intellectuals in the diaspora that they should draw inspiration from Chinese and Indian intellectuals who had decided to return to help develop their home countries.

“Today we talk about Chinese and Indian success stories,” commented Toyin Enikuomehin, a computer scientist at Lagos State University. One reason for this success was that scientists in the diaspora had returned with acquired knowledge to participate in their country’s scientific revolutions.

“Nigerian scientists must replicate what took place in these two countries. This is the essence of the collaborative initiative undertaken by the NUC.”

Pertinent questions

While the initiative has been welcomed by the academic community in Nigerian universities, some pertinent questions are being asked.

Peju Esimai, an associate professor in the college of medicine at Obafemi Awolowo University in Ile-Ife, said: “Good initiative and most welcomed. But some issues need to be clarified – that is, what are the modalities in terms of funding, capacity building, building of our data bank and hence the improved quality of data. Who owns the data?

“How much is Nigeria going to contribute to the agreement because most research programmes are donor-driven. These are the pertinent questions that should be answered before one can assess the overall benefit of these joint venture research programmes.”

Joseph Abayomi Olagunju, professor of medical biochemistry at Lagos State University, welcomed the pilot project, which he said would “bridge the existing gap in scientific research occasioned by inadequate and-or outdated research facilities.

“It will also assist in capacity building. We should ensure that the programme works and is sustained.”