Dangers of Starving Industrial Research Centres of Funds

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No matter how well-planned a nation’s industrial strategy is, if it fails to fund its centres of industrial innovations, that plan will never be translated into reality. Countries like China having realised this, have far removed politics from its industrialisation quest and the result is evident to the whole world to see, as it has overtaken the United States as the world’s number one economy.

The United States on the other hand may as well be giving up on any effort to regain lost grounds to China on manufacturing technology as a new report warns that the United States is falling behind in vital areas, including robotics, battery technologies, and quantum computing, all thanks to playing politics when it comes to funding research.

A new MIT report warns that the United States is missing out on cutting-edge technological developments and is in danger of falling behind other countries because of ongoing federal funding cuts to basic research. The report — “The Future Postponed: Why Declining Investment in Basic Research Threatens a U.S. Innovation Deficit” — notes that countries like China are committing more resources to research, and U.S. cuts could cause “long-term damage” to the country.

Back home to Nigeria what is the state of funding at our industrial research centres? Zero funding and self-sustaining policies. For a nation that is canvassing economic diversification and industrial revolution, it appears not to be taking the basics seriously.

Competitors around the world are increasing their investment in basic research, but science funding in the U.S. federal budget is at “the lowest it has been since the Second World War as a fraction of the federal budget,” says MIT physicist Marc Kastner, who led the committee that wrote the report. “This really threatens America’s future.”

 

MIT researchers looked at 15 different fields and highlighted the potential benefits of increased federal support for research in each area. “Investing in basic research has always paid off over time,” Kastner said. “And even if the future payoffs are not as large, there is no doubt that we will suffer if we do not keep up with those nations that are now making bigger investments than we are.”

Research areas in computer technology that are lagging due to insufficient funding include cyber security, quantum computing, robotics, battery technology, and big data analytics to enable better policy decisions.

 

The implication is that for a country like Nigeria, China will remain a major source of industrial technology until indigenous research centres like FIIRO, PRODA and others are able to match the rapid industrialisation drive in the country with locally developed technologies.

While reverse technology has been urged by many experts as one way which our scientists can close the technology gap between Nigeria and the rest of the developing world, it is also essential for government to see the need to fund industrial research centres.

Nigeria is an emerging industrial giant and there is need for policy makers to see the need not to abandon research centres or mandate them to be self-sustaining.

If research work in a country like the United States can suffer a set-back from lack of funding, how much more Nigeria where technology is yet to be fully embraced by the cottage industries, to boost productivity.

It is vital for the government of Nigeria to raise its investments in industrial technology rather than leaving it to the private sector, if it is indeed serious about economic diversification – which is built on value addition or the processing of raw materials into finished goods.

Without adequate investments into our research centres any hope of massive industrialisation, job creation and wealth generation cannot be taken seriously.

Experts have warned that no country will willingly transfer its technology to another for free, the case of the yam pounder should not be forgotten too quickly. A technology that was developed by a Nigerian and because of lack of investors he sold the patent to a Chinese firm that in turn made a fortune manufacturing and exporting them back to Nigerians.

Although the field of quantum computing began in the United States, “there are now large efforts underway in several countries to install and scale up these technologies …. U.S. leadership is not assured, especially given recent budget constraints, while the potential outcomes seem quite important both strategically and commercially.”

Investment in technological development should be considered a high priority area where a conducive and enabling environment ought to be provided for researchers to succeed in their work.

It is unfortunate that today hundreds of technologies and patents are lying on dusty shelves of indigenous research institutes, while authorities and agencies are giving hollow talks about industrialisation.

Apart from the Bank of Industry, no other agency seem to be concerned about the need to link local industries with local research institutes, while these agencies continue to applaud BoI for the extension of a lifeline to them and their technologies, it is instructive to note that the effort of BoI alone is not enough to get them and the end-users out of the woods.

Deliberate policies must be made to adequately fund, develop and transfer indigenously produced technology to industrial end-users. These technologies may not be high end tech for now, but they can help stimulate the much needed dual growth in the R&D and industrial sectors respectively.

 

“Members of Congress on both sides of the aisle love to pick on public grants to scientific projects whose thumbnail descriptions they can’t understand or they can make sound ridiculous,” the L.A. Times noted. “Usually they pair these exercises in caricature with calls for more ‘practical’ research projects, as though these can be conjured out of thin air.”

 

“Some areas of research are so strategically important, that for the U.S. to fall behind ought to be alarming,” MIT’s report warns.

Nigeria too should also be on the alert, government and the legislature should look into the state of affairs of indigenous research centres and make the best use of them to sustain and extend our lead in Africa qualitatively, Nigeria has the capacity to develop industrial technology for Africa if well harnessed.

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