Covid-19: My emphasis on research justified – Bogoro

Professor Suleiman Elias Bogoro is the executive secretary of the Tertiary Education Trust Fund (TETFund). In this exclusive interview with UJI ABDULLAHI ILIYASU, he talks about his unprecedented re-engagement, recognition of his achievements by two media houses, knowledge-driven economy through research and development and sundry issues.

You were recently given two awards by two media houses. Why do you think you deserve those awards?

Wonderful!  I wish somebody else would mention them, but as you are the one asking me and you are a media man, I know how to approach it. First, let us look at what is the definition of characterisation of the award. I am humbled for two newspapers to give me awards which happened incidentally on the same day. Earlier in the morning at the International Conference Centre, Leadership newspapers awarded me the “Public Service Person of The Year.”  I was excited at the justification for the award as expressed by them. They said very clearly that since my reinstatement by Mr. President to this office – recall that I was here between 2014 and 2016 as executive secretary of TETFund for one year, 10 months – my impacts have been glaring. It was captured when I was disengaged by the government, but nearly three years after reviewing the case, I was recalled and reinstated by Mr. President to the same office. It is something that has not happened in this country at that level. They say that I have virtually raised the level of impact of TETFund in public tertiary institutions: universities, polytechnics and colleges of education, owned by federal and state governments across Nigeria. In fact, the area they particularly found commendable is that I am now emphasising research, and using R&D, i.e. Research and Development to flack the essence of research. You don’t do research for the sake of it.   We have done a lot of research; some of them to give certificates, bachelor’s, master’s and PhDs. We do research to address problems at the level of senior professors. But the emphasis should be on problem-solving research.  It is the problem-solving research that is synonymous with R&D, which is what I am emphasising. They say I have done so commendably across Nigeria and in the minds of Nigerians. Particularly, lecturers and researchers now appreciate that the right way for Nigeria to improve rating and ranking of our universities is through research. And even the research must be problem solving. We are simultaneously dealing with the improvement of quality of faculties. What that means is the quality of academic staff; that is what constitutes a faculty that is a global reference. In universities, we talk about faculties, we have institutional faculty by way of structures. But faculty in proper context globally is referring to academic staff. And faculty quality is very important; that is why we have been training persons to acquire higher degrees particularly PhDs. TEFund scholars are returning to the country. We have sponsored over 26,000 and above 10,000 have returned with their certificates and about equal number with slightly more locally but significantly of course, overseas in areas that are relevant. So, they noticed that my emphasis on research and deepening researches, and promoting R&D now which implies partnering with industries, is a new thing. And that is the reality because we cannot continue to do research and keep the results in our shelves, in the departments, in the faculties, in our offices and in the libraries. And so what? It doesn’t solve problems. So, since my return, I have done that. And they say even the number of physical infrastructure in our universities are increasing. TETFund-funded faculty buildings, lecture halls, offices, laboratories, libraries and all that and all that; they have seen more of them and the frequency of new ones imagined, have happened more since my return last year. That is the basis for their giving me the awards.

 The second award is the Business Day Newspapers’. They made it very clear, in fact, the managing director called me aside yesterday (March 19, 2020) at the award ceremony at the Yar’Adua Centre and said to me, “Prof, I can tell you we gave you this award for two reasons.” Although they call it “Excellence in Public Service,” he said to be specific, the two areas they felt I have excelled remarkably above my peers in this country is that of impact that TETFund under my leadership has demonstrated  so manifestly. “Even if you put on laboratories, you make sure you equip them,” he told me. The percentage of those with PhDs has increased in our universities. Many years ago, about six, seven years ago, only 40 per cent of Nigerian university lecturers had PhDs. But by 2015, three, four years after the intervention of academic staff training, the percentage has grown up to 60. As I am talking to you now, I am comfortable that the percentage is anything at the least 80. So, we could be talking about 85 per cent to perhaps 90. So, if it is up to 85 per cent, if it is three quarters; that is significant improvement. These are some of the impacts. Then what about the research? When I returned last year, the highest amount that had been made available for single-term was N3 billion for research under the National Research Fund (NRF) of TETFund, which has a ceiling of up to N50 million.  Not the institution based research which has only two million ceiling. With this, someone can do applied research instead of basic research. For instance last year, we made a proposal to the Board of Trustees, they endorsed it and recommended it to Mr President and he, for the first time, approved N5 billion NRF research grant. And recently, we have approved 128 research grants. With that money we are hoping that is for 2019. We signed out the grants in January. We are hoping if we get Mr. President’s approval of our budget, we will now move to increase the research grant hopefully this year. This is what we are looking forward to. The second reason for the award besides TETFund impact is what they called clear demonstration of transparency; that my leadership at TETFund has demonstrated transparency in handling public funds.

In view of your emphasis on researches that are relevant to the society, is there any grant for lecturers to research into the Covid-19 pandemic?

In fact, let me say this. As soon as coronavirus broke out, I said now there is justification for our emphasis on research for universities, polytechnics, and colleges. I said it in my appreciation remarks at the Leadership award yesterday. In fact, we got information that Israeli scientists might have made a breakthrough in getting the cure for the coronavirus. That is an outcome of research. I tell you that we don’t need to single out coronavirus to know that research is important. Even for the economy over all, and we can go into the specific – health, education, and infrastructure, call it.  It is all research. We have to do research to get the right materials for building to avoid building collapse, for instance, and get varieties of materials that are longer-lasting and perhaps cheaper. It is only research that can do that.  For agriculture, it is only research that helps us know what we need to apply in science and technology for agriculture to raise daily milk production by our local  breed of cattle  from only one to two litres  of milk  per day, to 10,  20, 30, and up to 50 litres a day as obtains in temperate countries. It requires injecting science and technology into agriculture.

So, we can go on and on. Even in security, there is the tracking of individuals that are done through electronic technology, to track persons that are criminals out there. If we do not undertake research to get the best technology to do that, we have done nothing. So, if you look at it in proper context, in fact what we are saying is that now you can see the partnership between TETFund and the regulatory agencies, particularly National Universities Commission (NUC). We are working closely with the (National Board for Technical Education (NBTE) and National Commission for Colleges of Education (NCCE) to deepen research. We anticipated it and we saw it coming in a knowledge economy. It is knowledge that solves problems. Now, the federal government, I think, has just released N100 billion to medical laboratories for assessment and analysis and evaluation. And, of course, that implies further research also. So, for TETFund, for instance, we are proposing this year and if Mr President approves, we are going to make available to the colleges of medicine some cutting edge medical research equipment this year, for six colleges of medicine; one in each geopolitical zone.  That is what is being proposed.   That falls in line with the relevance of research in addressing virtually everything, from social problem to medical problem to agricultural problem to engineering problem to space science to environmentalism; you can go on and on. 

You are so serious about national issues as if Nigeria is your immediate family. What are the levels of progress of the ad hoc committees you have so far set up? 

I am glad you are following keenly what we are doing in TETFund. Going through the departments at the moment, we have three operational committees; we have two statutory and one ad hoc. The fourth one, a standing committee, is coming up any moment. The first that I inaugurated last year was the National Research Fund (NRF) committee, chaired by Professor Bamiro. It is the committee that manages the disbursement, evaluation of research grants and calls for proposals from lecturers in universities, polytechnics and colleges of education. I can tell you like I said to you, I signed out in January 128 research grants, out of the five billion Mr. President approved last year. So, there is more consciousness now on research suddenly in the university system. But I will tell you one thing that is bordering us. It is the success rate of the research grants that we are approving. The success rate by definition technically means the number of concept note that we have received last year. The percentage of that number that scaled through first round screening and finally the percentage that ultimately qualified to get approval and we did approve and they got the grants. About 3, 000 applications or concept notes rather were received. The first round of evaluation, 400 first round made what we called basic compliance criteria. If you check it there, it is like about 13 per cent of the total concept note that were received by researchers. And after that we did final evaluation and only 128 survived. So, we are not very happy with the success rate. We would like to see the success rate move much higher than that. For instance, at Embrapa in Brazil, the success rate of their research grants is 40 per cent. But in our own, the 128 research grants out of the 3000 that applied earlier, the success rate is just about four percent. So, it is one tenth, 4: 40 ratio.  Can you compare four with 40? So, four per cent is absolute failure. In this area we are looking at what is cause. And we have taken measures at TETFund in liaison with regulatory agencies to correct it.

Some states in the country have more than one public university while others have only one. How can TETFund intervene in such states?

You are absolutely right. Some states have more than two, even three, four or even five. The truth is that a decision had to be taken recently on that. You will not establish institutions and bring them. The number of tertiary institutions is increasing but the money available has not increased, so it is a problem. In other words, the per capital fund available per institution is going down; so, the impact will be reduced. If I were giving you 10,000 naira to feed in a month, for instance, you are a student in a higher institution, and suddenly you wake up in the next six months, and I say I have only N5,000 for you, after another six months,  I have only one thousand.   Meanwhile, inflation is rising. You will agree that there will be no impact. The board has to take a decision that the highest number of universities, polytechnics or colleges of education in a state to be supported by TETFund is two so that we don’t encourage many to reduce TETFund impact. So, each year we alternate interventions in the two institutions.  That is the only way we can solve the problem.

What do you want Nigerians to remember you for after leaving TETFund office as executive secretary?

I would like to be remembered for adding value and making a difference. I must acknowledge that I came and met fantastic initiatives by my predecessors. For instance, the academic content component, research, book development, and library intervention, call it. They identified these things very well, but time changes and there are new things, so I came and introduced R&D department. The R&D department is just to remind us that research is not done for the sake of it. It is deep research, problem-solving research. This is my idea that I would like to be remembered for. Aggressively, I visionised that Nigeria needs to institutionalise R&D, not only in our academic institutions, but in the industry. If you institutionalise R&D you are bringing the researchers to work hand in hand with industries to solve problems.  We have passed a stage when we did it for people to clap for us, even if it is theoretical research that does not solve any problem. So, I would like to be remembered for making a case for the institutionalisation of R&D in Nigeria to solve the problem of the economy, problem of technology and problems of the nation.

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