The role of science and technology and the impact of the spirit and temper of science had been recognised by Kenyan national leaders in the formation of political, economic, and social structures at the time of independence. This awareness of the need for cultivation of scientific temper as a part of the cultural ethos impelled the lawmakers of Kenya to enact the Science, Technology, and Innovation Act No.48 in 2013.
The Government of Kenya (GoK) further launched the National Commission for Science, Technology, and Innovation (to drive Kenya’s Science and Technology Policy); Kenya National Research Fund; and Kenya National Innovation Agency under Ministry of Education, Science and Technology. These steps by the GoK envisaged a transformation from a so-called backward, superstition-ridden to a progressive society capable of creating its own wealth using science and technology as instruments of social change. After 50 or so odd years, one finds tremendous physical growth in science and technology. However, in the spheres of scientific research, funding is at a discount.
Research and development in Kenya
According to ANIE’s (2014) report, Kenyan research is mainly social science-based. Since 2009, there has been expansion in research complexity, size, and dimensions whereby, independent think tanks, international agencies, university departments, research institutes, and special agencies collaborate with government and NGOs to enhance research activities. However, according to the 2015 Commission of University Education (CUE) report, GoK funds mostly science and technology related research. In 2014/2015, it allocated Ksh 53.8 billion purely for research and development in science and technological innovation. Out of this amount (Ksh 53.8b), 32 public universities and university colleges received Ksh 47 billion. The remaining amount was injected into other research institutions such as the National Commission for Science, Technology, and Innovation (NACOSTI) and Research Endowment Fund pursuant to the Ministry of Education occasional paper no. 2, 2010.
According to 2015 Treasury Reports, the GoK's funding towards research was reduced due to strained financial commitments. This reduction has led to international agencies having to intervene in as far as funding research in Kenya is concerned. In its 2017 World report titled 'Towards Knowledge Societies,' UNESCO acknowledges how the lack of funding among local researchers greatly affects local research initiatives and researches. It is therefore not surprising to note that the people who are most affected are the young scientists who unable to self-fund or access funding from their universities, end up giving up on their research altogether.
Institutional Research Culture
Between May 2018 and June 2018, CPS Research International conducted a study aimed at establishing the state of research funding in Kenyan universities. It undertook a countrywide survey the results of which are captured in their report titled 'The State of Research Funding in Kenyan Universities,' August 2018. From the survey results, CPS states that there is a challenge in terms of institutional research support in most universities in Kenya. Further that out of 71 institutions, only 3.5% confirmed to have more than 100 academic staff fully active in research. More than 18% of the universities claimed to have less than 10 staff for research. As if that was not worrying enough, CPS Research International notes that only 34% of the institutions have 20-39 staff fully active in research and only 8% have 50-79 qualified academic staff for research. With such figures, you cannot help but wonder if there is any culture of research and for research.
A culture of Research/Science
The Science, Technology, and Innovation Act was enacted with the aim of providing a holistic approach to the development of a culture for science and a culture of science. The culture for science is needed for the support of science and the culture for research is needed for the culture of science and research. Science and research are inextricably linked and one cannot exist without the other. Simply put:
culture for research = culture of science
culture for science = culture of research
Creating a favourable climate for the support of research and by extension science by the government at all levels is just but one piece of the puzzle. The other is developing a scientific temper. The culture of research/science is based on scientific temper which refers to the spirit of inquiry and the acceptance of the right to question and to be questioned. It is compatible with observation, systematic work, reasoning, and creative impulse.
Inherent in scientific temper is a system of value judgment which is applied to evaluate knowledge, phenomena or beliefs that might originate from any source including science and technology. Today, if we look at our society and its culture we may notice that facts are usually the first casualty. Instead of respect for facts, we may notice people advocating ideas and expressing opinions which are contrary to facts. As a consequence of disregard for facts, we find prevalence of prejudice which has in turn given rise to social tensions being faced by society.
Young Researchers in Kenya
Kenya's goal is to be a nation that harnesses Science, technology, and research to foster global competitiveness for wealth creation, national prosperity and a high quality of life for its people by 2030 yet it spends about 0.8% of its national GDP on research programs. In the face of the national commitment to the development of science and technology, it is a paradoxical situation.
This investment which is rather low when compared to Israel which spends about 4.3% of its GDP, USA 2.8%, Sweden 3.2%, Japan 3.1%, and Uganda at 0.5% (UNESCO database) has a direct impact on human resource development which is a key instrument in economic development and self-reliance. This situation has become more prominent recently with employers criticising universities and colleges for churning out 'half-baked' graduates. Many employers have often argued that these 'half-baked' graduates are theoretical and lack practical skills that are fundamental in the business environment. One employer noted as follows:
We prefer candidates from the Technical University of Kenya and Kenya Medical Training College because they are hands-on and know what they are doing."
On one hand, many employers seem to echo these sentiments and lay the blame squarely at the feet of universities, colleges, and schools on the grounds that their graduates are inadequately prepared to meet the demands of the business environment let alone survive and thrive in it. On the other hand, universities and colleges seem to pass the buck onto the government. They argue that they receive little or no support from the government and have to rely on tuition fees, donors, and NGOs to train students. The crux of their argument is that they are doing the best that they can and it is not their fault that there are 'half-baked' graduates in the market if there is any at all.
To understand the ripple effect of the low investment in research, one only has to look at the problems faced by young scientific researchers in their quest to secure funds and opportunities that are essential for one to become a qualified scientist.
T.A, a 26-year-old-student pursuing a masters degree in molecular pharmacology at one of the Universities in Kenya has experienced the problem of accessing research funding first hand. She explains to me how prior to undertaking her two- year- masters program she was quite excited at the idea of being able to conduct research that would not only be beneficial to people but also increase the body of scientific knowledge. Having completed her course work, she embarked on her research on Characterisation of the distribution of selected single nucleotide polymorphisms in patients on Isoniazid Preventive Therapy. To you and me it seems rather wordy and technical but simply put, she says that her research will help patients with AIDs and TB infections. T.A says:
I think that I was quite naive back then. Don't get me wrong. I know that applying and actually getting research funding is quite difficult but I did not expect it to be this way. There is a lot that goes on most of which is disguised as bureacracy but I know the country that I was born in. If I had the funds, I would have been halfway done with my study but I am here still trying to get funding for it. For the better part of last year, I was writing and re-writing my proposals, attending thesis defence meetings, applying for approvals and funding, drafting a budget, and trying to satisfy the requirements of the university.
According to T.A., there are always vested interests in universities in far as who receives funding is concerned. It is alleged that if your research has the backing of a senior Professor or Chair of the department, then your chances of receiving funding increases quite significantly. She explains:
As a young researcher, your problems are not limited to NACOSTI or the Board [Pharmacy and Poisons Board] but balancing the interests of those who want to be your supervisor. I had to remove one of my supervisors because the Chair of my department wanted to be included. The good thing is that my supervisor was understanding because she recognised the difficult position that I found myself in. University regulations only permit for three supervisors and while I really wanted her on-board, she told me that if I declined the request by the Chair, she is more than certain that my proposal would never see the light of day. In the end, I reluctantly had to replace her. What perplexes me is that some of those who make such requests are not necessarily interested in your research, they just want to add your name to their CV as someone they supervised so that they can negotiate for professorship. In reality, you are just a means to an end for them.You can imagine these are just some of the things we have to go through to try and secure funding.
With respect to funding T.A. had this to say:
Well, after endless revisions to your proposal, final defence, and eventual approval, I had to go to NACOSTI and the Board to obtain approvals as well. The approvals can take between a month to two months irrespective of the time that they put on thier website. You have to apply for them separately and there is no guarantee that you will get them. I was fortunate to obtain the approvals. Other than the approvals, I had to draft a budget which had to be reviewed by an individual from Kenya Medical Research Institute. I had a budget of $4320 the bulk of which was taken up by the testing that was required. We agreed upon the budget and I presented it to the University. I was later directed to a local hospital who were to fund the budget in collaboration with the Univeristy. At this point I was optimistic that we were making significant headway but I have to say that my optimism was pre-mature. I have had endless meetings with the liaison from the hospital. Sometimes we set up a meeting in the morning but they would not show up at all or even call to reschedule. I understand that people have busy schedules but this is just disrespectful. The fact that you need someone's help should not give them the liberty to treat you as though you are useless. I cannot count the number os times that I sat at the reception waiting for them from 8 in the morning only for them to not show up or only call at 3 pm to say that they cannot come yet you had both agreed to the meeting days in advance. I don't know why I am even surprised because in Kenya when you have a little power, well you can treat people without a care in the world...we call it the Mheshimiwa [honourable] syndrome.
Anyway, I digress. When we did eventually meet, they told me that they can only fund US$2300 but I would have to deposit US$1000 to show commitment. I was rather perplexed because it was not what the University stated and the funding that they were offering would not enable me to undertake any meaningful study let alone do the necessary genotyping. To the best of my knowledge and having gone through the university rsearch funding regulations, there is nothing that requires a researcher to deposit any money as a 'show of commitment'. Even if there was such a stipulation, wouldn't it be prudent to state it at the very beginning when we are applying for funding so that we are fully aware? Sometimes I cannot help but wonder whether these are just things that they create to frustrate young researchers in the hope that we will give up so that they give the funds to their colleagues, friends or someone else who they want favours from. Is it not commitment enough that despite obstacles that they have placed in my way, I have still persisted. If I had the money wouldn't I self-fund? I have not given up yet and I am looking at other sources of funding because eventually the straw will break the camel's back.
T.A's situation illustrates the challenges faced by many young researchers in Kenya. It is not the first and I am certain that it will not be the last. The problem of funding clearly has a direct correlation to our research outputs. If Kenya does not invest in its young scientists, how on earth does it expect to achieve its vision 2030? Yes, the GoK does expend money to universities for research but is it enough?
Are the university research funding policies formulated to advance research development among young scientists? How do universities decide X should get the full research amount they have requested and Y should not? Where is the culture for research and the culture of science?
Granted that most universities have their own peculiar challenges but there is an urgent need for them to make the process of research funding more transparent before even requesting the government for more funding. If the little funding is predominantly allocated to colleagues, how are young researchers like T.A. expected to ever qualify as accomplished scientists in their own right? The blame game simply does not work.
The government, universities, and colleges, as well as the employers, have to come together in developing a culture for research and science that creates first-rate young researchers who not only spur innovation and economic development but whose skills meet the market demand.
Header image credit - University of Oxford