Researchers adopt a ‘wait-and-see’ approach to new fund
The NGN5 billion (US$13.9 million) research fund is pursuant to the call to reconstitute the NRF screening and monitoring committee which has the responsibility, among others, to screen research proposals and recommend the award of grants to deserving researchers.
All applications are expected to fall under 25 prioritised thematic areas within three core research areas: humanities and social sciences; science, technology and innovation; and cross-cutting.
However, the call has not elicited the kind of enthusiasm expected of researchers with many – off the record – calling it a mere formality, hinting that they believe the committee has already selected its beneficiaries and are making the call only to appear to be following due diligence procedures. Many others are wary, given their poor experience of the fund and the way it has been administered in the past, and are adopting a wait-and-see attitude.
Looking abroad for funding
Dr Makinde Ayo, a research scientist and the chairman of Research to Action, said TETFund has neglected issues of research in the universities for a long period. “Now researchers from Nigeria look to organisations like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and other international organisations for funding to undertake meaningful research.”
Ayo said researchers, due to treatment meted out to them in the past by the fund, no longer have confidence in the fairness of the grant process.
Professor Sylvia Uzochukwu, dean of the faculty of sciences at the Federal University of Oye-Ekiti, agreed. She reacted to the call by saying it was another academic show and asked what happened to the results of similar applications submitted in 2015.
“They are all jokers. A show like that is an insult to Nigerian researchers. In my opinion, all Nigerian researchers should boycott the call. They should write their own proposals and spend the money. It’s their money,” she added.
However, not all agree. Dr Onyia Christie Oby, an environmental biotechnologist at the Godfrey Okoye University, Enugu, said the grants would facilitate research in Nigeria – “if it is truly made more competitive”.
“There was an assertion by those who failed to monitor the website for a decision on their applications that it is biased or not transparent, but results of previous calls were published. Therefore, it is genuine,” she said.
“The NGN5 billion earmarked for this round of grants is a lot of money and can make a significant impact, if properly managed. TETFund should borrow a leaf from agencies like UNESCO and the UNDP in terms of phasing their research priority development plans, as well as encouraging multi-disciplinary, multiple-institutional research approaches targeted at solving specific needs."
Exercise in futility?
Professor Emmanuel Kwon-Ndung of the Federal University Lafia was not upbeat about the call and wondered if it was an exercise in futility.
Kwon-Ndung, and other sceptical researchers, say they will watch to see how the 2019 call is managed before putting together their applications for 2020.
As researchers are contemplating whether or not to apply, fund officials seems set to prove wrong those who doubt its ability to coordinate and manage the grants transparently, pledging that the fund has been refocused to deliver on its mandate.
According to Professor P C Onyenekwe, a researcher with the Sheda Science and Technology Complex, a parastatal under the Nigerian Ministry of Science and Technology in Abuja, a total of 39 research proposals were funded in 2015. “The grants range from NGN7 million to NGN38 million, giving a total of about NGN1 billion, which was the amount approved for the exercise that year. Out of the 39 projects, 27 are in science and technology,” he said.
In a local news report in July, TETFund Executive Secretary Professor Suleiman Bogoro said seed funding of NGN3 billion was approved by the board of trustees in 2011 for the initial takeoff of NRF activities, to which an additional NGN1 billion was added in 2015. “It is worthy of note that so far, TETFund through NRF intervention line has allocated NGN2.6 billion to 113 research projects from 2011-2019 in five batches, out of which NGN1.5 billion has been disbursed to researchers,” he is quoted as saying.
Professor Jerry Ugwuanyi of the department of microbiology, faculty of biological sciences at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, said he believed the TETFund grants could help to advance research and development activities as they were the only local fund currently available to researchers since universities hardly have money to simply maintain their power supplies.
“University grants have long disappeared … By bringing substantial money into the research ecosystem, it is possible to revive and sustain research in universities and research institutes. However, the current administrative structure of TETFund is suspect compared to the classic research foundations that are in the United Kingdom and South Africa,” Ugwuanyi said.
However he said he believed the call was “genuine”.
“We heard about the researchers that were awarded [the grants]. What I do not know is whether it is transparent or merit-based,” he said.
He also questioned the limited amount dedicated to the fund.
“The total sum of NGN5 billion is a small amount for Nigeria, considering that there is no other source of local funding … Given the very unfavourable exchange rate, a grant worth NGN50 million (which means only 100 grantees across the country) is only US$138,000 per grantee.
“This amount can only go into small laboratory, tools, equipment and consumables. If there is no central lab with high-end analytical tools (which is the unfortunate case in most universities now), then the grantee will hardly be able to generate quality and competitive data to become fundable by other international agencies. So, the impact of the money will be limited in the short term.”
“The immediate challenge is that underfunding a project is as bad as not funding at all because the researcher will end up not achieving their target and the money is gone all the same,” he said.
However, he said if it is sustained and expanded, over time the impact of the fund could be felt. Ugwuanyi also said he believed preferential funding for research areas of national importance was problematic.
“Which issue is more important? Who is going to define it? If we had research councils across different disciplines and sustainable funding, then annually they would set themes depending on available funds and competing demand. That way, many researchers can be accommodated. It is difficult with the current configuration,” he said.
NaanKwat Kwapnol of the department of archeology and heritage studies at the University of Jos, said TETFund should be commended for coming forward to assist researchers.
“We cannot grow the educational system to make impact, especially in solving societal challenges, if researchers do not have access to sustainable funding platforms.”
She said fund managers should be above board and as transparent as possible to ensure that researchers have faith in the system.