Sunday, August 7, 2011

No More World Bank; Uganda Scientists Cry

By Esther Nakkazi

The Uganda government has decided not to put a further request for the World Bank Millennium Science Initiative (MSI) loan due to expire by the end of this year.

The move is a shock to the science community who despite putting Ush 17.2 billion ($ 6.8 m) budget to the government through Uganda National Council for Science and Technology (UNSCT) this financial year was not considered. 

Without reapplying for the MSI World Bank grant and with no budget funding for science and technology, Uganda risks relying on external funding for new innovations and with no ability to set its science agenda. Donors fund what is in their interests.

We are living in the best of scientific times and having scientific innovations funded by Uganda and designed to its needs would spur economic growth, Dr. Maxwell Otim the deputy executive secretary UNCST. 
Dr. Otim says Uganda would not reapply for the MSI loan because the government thinks research and science is such an important aspect to be left to the donors.

He is still putting a positive light on a disappointing development even after the budget was read on June 8th and UNSCT was not mentioned. Partially, due to President Museveni being a strong supporter of science.

“We remain hopefully that the government will fund the budget for this financial year, which will again be used for grants as the MSI project funds were used,” said Dr. Otim.

Kenneth Mugambe, the director budget, said that UNCST still has money from MSI, which has not been absorbed they cannot give them any more money until it is over.

In 2006, Uganda was the only country in Africa to win $30 million in loans as part of the World Bank’s MSI project. It was counter funded with $3.3 million by the Uganda government and its implementation began in 2007 by UNCST.

The 5-year project aimed to increase the number and quality of science graduates, to improve Uganda’s research output, and to help companies use the products of research.

Evidently, the MSI project has opened up research. With it Uganda has managed to design and develop a malaria vaccine, it has new information on the Nile Perch and has increased training for scientists and engineers through UNSCT. 

Products of the MSI in Uganda
The malaria vaccine has been tested in mice and baboons and it is so far a great success but there is still a lot of work to do. “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 G. Egwang the director General of Med Biotech Laboratories.

“We know what we can do and what ever we put out worked but we only put in one malaria sequence in the human gene sequence to serve as a booster,” said Dr. Egwang.

“We need more funds to do this again and again before we get to test it in humans. But it is unlikely that they will renew the MSI grant,” said Egwang.

The Nile Perch studies have come up with information on its biology; breeding, size of eggs, reproductive methods and the type of food it can eat.

These studies will enable the Nile Perch, whose stocks are dwindling in Lake Victoria to be reared under aquaculture conditions. However, the scientists need more funds to put in place what has been discovered in an aquaculture setting.

The MSI loan also funded the establishment of strategic courses in higher institution of learning like ICT related courses in Makerere, Kyambogo and Mbarara Universities.

Biosystems and textile engineering in Gulu and Busitema University respectively are offered at undergraduate level. “Textile engineering because we grow a lot of cotton but do not add value,” said Dr. Otim. 

In the MSI research there is human capital development so over 3,660 scientists and engineers have been trained through UNSCT; 102 are being trained at Master of Science (MSC) and Doctorate (PhD) level.

Uganda Science Problems;

But even if over the years, Uganda has increased investment in research and training scientists, it is yet to build a critical mass that would make an impact. It boosted its spending on research and development, from US$73 million in 2005-06 to $155 million in 2008-09.

Also, funding science and research, remains below a recommended threshold but there is also; lack of the public appreciation of science, low students’ uptake of training in science and lack of commercialization of research products.

The overall funding remains relatively low, totaling just 0.5 percent of GDP, according to Dr. Peter Ndemere UNCST executive secretary of UNCST. The African Union recommended at least 1 percent.

“Government should commit more resources to science and research which are key to development and creating jobs. It should get its priorities right,” said Ndemere.

Uganda has one of the lowest densities of researchers in sub-Saharan Africa with 25 researchers per million inhabitants. Only 20 percent of its researchers have PhDs.

With emerging universities and research institutions, research work in Uganda has been steadily growing but a few institutions offer science courses and do research.

At the UNCST, the number of new research projects registered there steadily increased from 166 in 2001 to 309 in 2008. But of the 27 public and private universities in Uganda, only 6-offer science related programmes. The ratio of arts to science graduates is 5:1 at these universities.

For instance in 2006, student enrolment in science and technology at both private and public universities was 27 percent of total registered students, below the minimum requirement of 40 per cent recommended for rapid and accelerated economic growth and effective contribution to an economy.

One of the problems is that there are no mentors for science and the public’s attitude to science is very negative.  We have a culture of applying science but we cannot link education to it. We have no general appreciation of what science can do to an economy, said Dr. Paul Nampala executive secretary, Uganda National Academy of Science (UNAS).

 “There are a few institutions that train in science because it is expensive. Why would you put up laboratories when only a few students want to take on science courses” asked Dr. Paul Nampala.

According to Nampala, the overall lack of interest among students is also reflected on the population. There are no science mentors ad the public’s attitude to science is very negative.

Uganda’s ratio of science and technology to the general workforce is 0.5 researchers per 1000 and there is only 1 personnel either   researcher or technician per 1000 of the labor force. In OECD countries it ranges between 5-18 personnel per 1000 of the labor force.

Although funding remains a major problem, without a one-stop centre like a ministry of Science to channel the funds and duplication of efforts, Uganda’s science problems are further magnified.

“Malaria is the number one killer but all the funding on its research comes from abroad. Now there are 20 projects on malaria in Makerere University but they do not talk to each other. If they just talked there would be no malaria in this country,” said Dr. Ndemere frustrated.  

“People use research as a means of survival not to solve a common problem. Everybody is hiding in a corner using research money to survive. Those who complete research cannot commercialize it.”

The solution should be the Ministry of Science, ‘funding has to be forceful so you need somebody in cabinet to defend your budget,” said Dr. Ndemere.

“In Uganda budgeting follows a sector. If we had a science sector and a line ministry, we should have had budget allocation for it,” concurred Dr. Nampala.

This story was also published in the local media. Here is the edited version


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