National Research Fund's unfunded mandate
The NRF, which is operating with a skeleton staff of six employees and three non-technical staff, has been unavailable online after its website collapsed two months ago after a suspected hacking attack. The agency, which was the product of a split from the National Council for Science, Technology and Innovation (NACOSTI) through an act of parliament, needs 70 staff in order to operate optimally, University World News has established.
Troubles for the research funder, which was created five years ago, come a year after it made its maiden grants of approximately KES3.4 billion (US$34 million), money it disbursed at a ceremony in Nairobi on 14 December 2017.
Universities and individual scholars had hoped the latest call would be funded by October 2018, following approval of the national budget in July last year. The 2018 call was made under three different categories including the postgraduate category which funds PhDs and masters students, the multi-disciplinary category which finances collaborative research projects, and the infrastructural support classification, which funds both universities and research institutes to equip laboratories and workshops.
The situation has caused stress for grant applicants, including Christopher Maina, a lecturer at the Kenya Medical Training College, who applied for funding to complete his doctorate at Kenyatta University.
He is currently unsure when he will submit his PhD which is tied to being able to conduct research and pay fees at the institution. He is also anxious about the fate of his application.
“I had expected to have won a grant by October 2018 and complete my PhD studies by June 2019. However, it seems this won’t happen, going by the delay in naming grantees and the issuing of grants,” he said.
“The waiting has been painful. Like other applicants I received communication last year to say that applications were being reviewed by a panel, but what I would really appreciate is the expediting of the process and determination of the fate of my application to enable me to move on,” he said.
Another applicant, Dr Joel Ochieng, a lecturer at the College of Agriculture and Veterinary Sciences at the University of Nairobi and secretary-general of the Kenya University Biotechnology Consortium, applied for two different grants with fellow researchers.
He blamed the financial woes facing the NRF on the model of fundraising, arguing that the NRF needed to diversify its sources of funding away from exclusive reliance on the national treasury.
Currently the NRF operates as a mere “distributor” of research money, as opposed to being both a “sourcer” of funding, and a “distributor”, he said.
“The NRF should strive to be more of a money-sourcing agency and less of a distributor. It should think more about how to fundraise from the private sector and other external sources including development partners,” he said.
The nascent body should seek to learn from successful and older grant-making bodies such as the South African National Research Foundation, which sources research funds from both government and from external sources, he said.
Part of the reason for the predicament facing the NRF, Ochieng said, is that in a poorly-resourced country such as Kenya, research was not seen as a priority.
Research outcomes were not always visible when compared to tangibles such as infrastructure projects, he said
Career researchers such as Lameck Mukoya of the Kenya Agriculture and Livestock Research Organisation and his colleagues are also affected by the delays.
“Mine was a multidisciplinary research project with people from other institutions, we are concerned because the results of the applications should have been out by now and another call already made. We are wondering when this will happen,” he said.
The acting head of the NRF, Jemimah Onsare, whose 2016 appointment has never been officially confirmed, was on leave and referred press enquiries to David Ngigi at the NRF office.
Speaking on behalf of Onsare, Ngigi said the agency was still processing applications received from the 2017/2018 call and winners would be notified as soon as the process was completed.
Some 800 applications had been received compared to the 300 received during the maiden 2016/2017 call, and results and awards will be made within and before the end of the current financial year which ends in June, Ngigi said.
Applications went through several levels of reviews by an independent panel, after which successful proposals would be approved by the NRF board, he said.
“This call, there were many applications and most are still under review. You must understand that proposals are peer-reviewed by a panel of experts, so it takes some time,” Ngigi said without referring to the failure by treasury to disburse a budget.
“The process may be delayed but there is no cause for alarm. An announcement on the winning proposals to be awarded will be made by June,” he said.
Ngigi said the agency had written to applicants updating them on progress and assuring them that the outcome of the review process would be made before June this year.
Without disclosing dates, he said that plans to issue the 2018/2019 call were underway and would be done in due course.
Established via the Science, Technology and Innovation Act 2013, the NRF was given the mandate to facilitate research for the advancement of science, technology and innovation.
It however did not become functional until late in 2016, operating to date with employees deployed from NACOSTI and the parent Ministry of Education.
While Kenya committed to allocating 2% of its gross domestic product to research – an amount higher than the African Union protocol of 1% – the East African country has been spending only around 0.5% of gross domestic product on the research sector.