Our research findings, papers and journals are now only useful for us to get promotion. All our theses and findings are dumped in the shelves, some thrown into the dustbin afterwards” – Prof. ‘Feyisipe Adegoke, Nigerian Tribune, Friday, 20th March 2020.
One of our academics, a female Professor of Physiology at the University of Lagos, quoted in the opening paragraph, complained recently, that many of our scholarly research findings are either wasting away on dusty shelves or emptied into bins. Adegoke has raised a fundamental issue which touches upon our national research culture, research uptake and down take, research integrity, as well as the role of think tanks, advocacy, and the synergy, or lack of it, between government, industry, and the academy. One of the questions to ask is whether our universities have a thriving research culture, and the cognate presence of research communities that discuss, refine, evaluate and replicate the research.
I ask this question because, since a tree does not make a forest, it would be extremely difficult for one individual academic to expect that his or her lone research findings would be earth-shaking enough to both influence governmental policy and become a topic for discussion in the media and civil society. At any rate, most academic researches and papers are insulated from the wider public by the heavy-handed academic register and dense language that make them inaccessible to a wider audience. This, of course, is not a problem peculiar to Nigeria but is found also, in the interfaces of the academy and the wider society in advanced societies.
So, it is easier for academic papers to attract promotion, which, in any case, is the primary reason they are produced, than for them to enter the policy arena, or provide grist for animated discussion in the media. Perhaps, it is out of a sense of frustration with the long process it takes for even the best research to become public property that our researchers have created a Nigerian bypass for announcing the outcome of their researches in the media without having gone through the expected verification and ascertaining procedures that may take years.
Of course, there is the question, too, of research integrity which speaks to the quality, accreditation standards, and verification of research results centered around their publication in the best journals, where the scientific community as a whole can take them up. Undoubtedly, there has been an erosion of standards, for close to three decades, in the Nigerian academy, for a host of reasons which connect poor funding, declining competence, the shortage or lack of ancillary facilities such as libraries, laboratories, Information Technology, among others.
Obviously, once the decay has set in, it tends to reproduce itself until it becomes a structured disability which further conditions the academic enterprise. A simple example will illustrate the problem. A Nigerian scholar who publishes in a globally acclaimed outlet may discover to his chagrin, that no one else in his department has read his article because the journal or outlet is not subscribed to by the University library, and also because no one else has taken interest to learn about the research output, except at promotion seasons, when the head of department is required to assess the work. So, we have here, the torpor of the academic community itself, the retrogression of the excellent standards that once obtained in our universities, as well as the fatigue that has set in because of persistent underfunding and undervaluation of research.
There is another side of the coin, however, even if the output of research, which according to Adegoke, are now jettisoned in bins, were impeccable, the issue of getting them to policy corridors, which Dr Obadiah Mailafia recently described as philistine, is a problematic one. A colleague said to me, on one occasion, that if I wanted to interest Nigerian politicians and policymakers in a policy recommendation, I should make sure that it does not exceed half a page, or at most, one page. Including buttressing statistics and data in such a submission will be a waste of time as it is unlikely to be read. This brings us then to the 30-second overgeneralization in which complex arguments and nuanced discourse are reduced to their most banal common denominator so that they can escape the yawns or bored sighs of policy makers.
Nobody, as far as I know, has done any serious research on the intellectual culture of government in Nigeria, inferences can be made, nonetheless, from the absence of think tanks in governmental circles, the yoking of discourse in these circles to what is politically acceptable or correct, and the predictably poor quality of debate in some of the highest policy-making arena. This is not to say that there are no informed intellectuals and occasionally first-rate scholars in government, but rather to suggest that what comes through, too often, is little different from the unresearched clamour in the market place.
A former colleague, who once had occasion to stumble upon a discussion of an important national issue, at the highest levels of government, in what was supposed to be a brainstorming session, later exclaimed to me that “If this is how policy is formulated or arrived at, then there is hardly any hope for this country!”, Have you noticed that even the best of our politicians would rather keep the company of businessmen, contractors, and wheeler-dealers than of our intellectuals? Gone are the days, it would seem, when an Obafemi Awolowo, Nnamdi Azikiwe or Ahmadu Bello, assembled the best and brightest to advise, debate or canvass informed opinions on some of the policies they were contemplating.
Several years ago, on this very page, I brought forward the question, “What does President Jonathan Read?” (The Punch, Friday, 21st December 2012). Clearly, and in the light of the arguments raised at the time, another article is waiting to be written entitled, ‘What does our current President, Major Gen. Muhammadu Buhari (retd), read?’ It is well known, for example, that United States Presidents have official reading list of books, and some of their most successful presidents, Roosevelt, Kennedy, and Obama were voracious readers, in and out office. Considering the low brow intellectual culture of governance, the theses and researches coming from our universities, are not likely to be sought after in a hurry by our politicians and policymakers.
One way of closing, or at least lessening the gown and town gap, is for our researchers to focus some of the time on the kind of applied research that speaks directly to national or global emergencies, such as the Ebola and COVID-19 pandemics. In this way, they can ensure visibility, at least in times of crises, when the nation turns to them for answers to problems that intimidate them. Our academics can also get the same results if a tripartite synergy is created between government, industry and the universities cum research institutions. If such fora are created, a by no means easy task, it may make it easier for research findings to be disseminated upwards, into the governmental sphere, and downwards, into business, civil society and the media.
Finally, such an aspiration will also require the building of a National Research Infrastructure for the purpose of research into perennial issues that downgrade the human condition.
Prof. Ayo Olukotun, PhD is the Oba (Dr) Sikiru Adetona Professorial Chair of Governance, Department of Political Science, Olabisi Onabanjo University, Ago-Iwoye