By Esther Nakkazi
For over five years, in science terms, under the $33.3 million funded World Bank and the government Millennium Science Initiative (MSI) project, Uganda’s science, innovation and technology capacity has been accelerated.
Its expenditure on science, technology and innovation (STI) as a percentage of GDP is up from 3 to 5 percent from 2005 to 2012, according to the Uganda National Council for Science and Technology (UNCST).
Likewise over the same period, its Gross Domestic Expenditure on Research and Development (GERD) has risen from 0.29 to 0.65 percent of GDP, which is a significant rise compared to its neighbors, though it is still below the African Union recommended 1 percent of GDP.
One of the projects responsible for this is the MSI. In 2006, Uganda, won $30 million in low interest loans from the World Bank MSI, a project, started in 1998, to build capacity in science and technology in the developing world. The Uganda government counter funded it with $3.35 million and it got implemented by UNCST.
Now, the project has closed shop in Uganda, this year, and the government has advised against getting additional funds from the World Bank, which is willing to support it further.
But UNCST officials who have thrice presented budgets to the ministry of Finance with no positive response are skeptical about getting any funding. And want the government to allow for more funds from the World Bank which has indicated availability of US$ 15 million, from July 2013 till June 2016.
Ministry of Finance officials say science and technology is such a priority to the country, the government does not need to get money from donors to fund it. They plan to consider the UNCST budget in the upcoming 2013/14 budget.
“We asked for a bridging fund, which the World Bank was willing to give us but government rejected it. We have had a series of meetings but it seems this is not a priority. It is very disappointing but we hope that this time they get their priorities right,” said Dr. Peter Ndemere executive secretary of UNCST.
According to Ndemere and other scientists, even when the funds do not come from the World Bank, Uganda will adopt the MSI project model, which has been a success and has laid many products on the table that have accelerated Uganda’s STI growth and built its science capacity.
“Based on the success of the MSI, continuation of the project approach is a logical policy option. It will mean its extension no matter what,” said Ismael Barugahara the Assistant Executive Secretary, UNCST at the MSI project results dissemination conference recently.
Prior to the MSI programme, a few science degree programs existed, enrolment in basic sciences was low, laboratories were scarce, under-equipped and obsolete, and there was a general lack of interest and focus on science and technology.
For instance fewer than 500 professors in the entire country had Ph.D.’s, and fewer than 10 new Ph.D.’s were awarded annually in sciences and engineering. Most of the research funding came from donors making it unsustainable and difficult to ensure national research for a development-driven agenda.
Now, after five years, the MSI project has supported over 250 scientists working on 39 research projects and involving over 950 undergraduates, 57 Masters and 31 PhD students trained in science and engineering.
“Ugandan universities and research institutes have produced more and better qualified science and engineering graduates, and have done higher quality and more relevant research for firms to utilize it,” said Dr. Ndemere.
With MSI funding, the Uganda Industrial Research Institute (UIRI) opened up a technology development centre with equipment used to reverse engineer key technologies like the bamboo toothpick processing technology, fabrication of multi-nutrient animal feed production and development of a dry coffee processing line among others.
“We have failed to secure US$2 million supplementary funding, in spite of the World Banks willingness to avail us support. The government has expressed commitment but no funding has been forthcoming to date,” complained Dr. Dick M. Kamugasha the Director, Technology Development Center, UIRI.
Since one of the issues before MSI was lack of public understanding and appreciation of science and technology as well as its role in national development, UNCST started the ‘National Science Week’ an outreach science awareness programme for students and teachers.
A malaria vaccine was also successfully tested in mice and baboons with MSI funding. “The fact that we have tested it in baboons has made us get closer to humans and it will inform future malaria vaccine studies,” said Dr. Thomas Egwang the director General of Med Biotech Laboratories.
“We know what we can do but we need more funds to do this again and again before we get to test it in humans,” said Egwang.
“The project gave us excellent experience with merit based competitive funding for science and research. And many projects have led to results which have great potential for the Ugandan society and economy,’ said Dr. Theresa Sengooba, the chair MSI.
“But sustainability is a big challenge because many of these projects need more research and technology transfer pathways before end users and the country at large can benefit from this investment,” said Sengooba.