The Ministry of Science and Technology (MoST) is entrusted to facilitate the rapid learning, adaptation and utilization of effective foreign technologies. To achieve this mission, it spearheaded the preparation and adoption of science and technology policies and strategies to support and coordinate national research and development (R&D) agenda.
EBR sat with Afework Kassu (Prof), state minister of the Ministry to learn about what the country is doing to promote R&D. Before assuming his current post, Afework, a young dynamic scientist, was director general of Higher Education Research and Academic Affairs at the Ministry of Education. He had earlier been a vice president for research and community service at the University of Gondar.
Ethiopia is heading towards industrialisation. What is your Ministry doing in this regard with particular emphasis to promote of Science, Technology and Innovation?
The establishment of the Ministry of Science and Technology dates back more than four decades. It was established as a commission and grew to a status of a Ministry in 2008. However, in 42 years of its history, it could not deliver what was expected from it. As a Commission and then Agency, it had been involved in facilitating science and innovation in the country. Currently, however, its role has been upgraded from facilitator to main actor.
In recent years, research and development activities have become core functions of many organisations; and universities having their research works led by vice presidents show the emphasis. The government is giving attention to address many of the problems that thwarted R&D programmes in the country. Sectoral and professional associations like the Ethiopian Academy of Sciences are also [emerging] further boosting the national research capacity. In addition, we have also steering mechanisms like university industry linkages to facilitate collaboration between the two for national development.
As a result, we have witnessed better R&D coordination in the last three years. For instance, in 2014/15, we collected 205 research proposals nationwide and financed 14 of them worth ETB40 million. In 2015/16, we received 286 proposals and funded 21 of them. The figure increased this year with 331 proposals submitted to the ministry and 21 proposals finally got funding.
Does Ethiopia have a national strategy that governs R&D?
Ethiopia is working to meet the 17 targets of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Meeting each of these targets require advance in science, technology and innovation. These elements are also at the core of the second phase of the Growth and Transformation Plan (GTP II). To meet the targets of GTP II and SDGs, the need for R&D is unquestionable.
Because the 1986 science and technology policy did not give fair attention for research and innovation, a new policy was adopted in 2012. The new policy envisioned to enable rapid learning, adaptation and utilization of effective foreign technologies by 2025, the same time the country planned to achieve middle income status. The 2012 policy also dictates the need to establish national science and technology research council, which [mobilizes resource] for researches.
The National Education Sector Development Programme (ESDP), which is currently in its fifth phase, also gave due attention for research. The expansion of Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) is also a big opportunity to strengthen research in Ethiopia.
What are the reasons for low R&D activities in Ethiopia?
The 2012 policy identified 11 critical policy related challenges. Although research has been conducted since the establishment of Ethiopian Institute of Agricultural Research (EIAR, the then Ethiopian Agricultural Research Organization (EARO), 51 years ago, Ethiopia has not been benefiting much from research. This was because the researches were not linked with the national development priorities. That is why research is taken as policy issue currently. Four strategies are devised to fill existing gaps in this regard.
Although we have opportunities and conducive environment now, we still have many gaps. The first is the quality of the researches and their relevance to our national needs. The research infrastructure in the country is also very poor. Although universities have laboratories and workshops, even the pioneer Addis Ababa University (AAU) does not have laboratories and workshops dedicated for research. The other gap is weak dissemination of research findings. Although we have large number of professional associations, universities and institutions hosting research conferences annually, it is not enough. We even do not have journals that publish research [that meet international standards].
There are over 30,000 academic staff in the universities to whom research is their main task. However, only few of them are PhD holders. We need more PhD holders and established researchers. The other challenge is lack of collaborations among universities and research institutions. Weak capacity in managing research projects and meagre budget, decoupled research outputs with the industry needs. As a result of the lack of coordination, we see duplication of efforts.
So, we need a national R&D mechanism, to fill all these gaps. We also need to make some of the universities, research oriented institutions. Most of them are busy with teaching. We have only two science and technology universities. We also have a plan to have a national technology roadmap to maximize R&D contribution for the national economy.
How Many research findings are produced in Ethiopia?
Based on 2013 survey it is around 900, our expectation is that the 2017/18 survey may show an increase in the number. In comparative terms this is low. The largest share of the research publication goes to the agriculture sector, which is achieved largely due to the contribution of EIAR for over half a century. Agriculture is followed by medicine and health sciences, thanks to Tikur Anbessa Referral Hospital, which is celebrating its 51st year. However, we do not see many research publications in engineering, business and economics disciplines.
There is an accumulation of research undertaking particularly agriculture over the last half a century. However, the research outputs could not contribute in transforming the productivity in the sector. Is there any plan to divert this in the right direction?
Yes, there is a disconnection between the research findings and the situation on the ground. The EIAR also knows this. The researchers are not translated into practical solutions. To address these problems, we have university and industries linkage forum, chaired by the Minister for MoST.
Considering Ethiopia’s target of transforming the economy and achieving middle income status by 2025, do you think the spending on R&D is enough? Is the growth facilitated by research outcomes?
All fast growing economies have achieved that level by prioritizing the areas and investing a good proportion of their GDP in R&D. In all our sectors, we need researchers to conduct studies that serve as inputs for our policies and strategies. But compared to other countries, Ethiopia’s spending on R&D is okay. In South Africa, it is around 1Pct. They do the survey every year.
Because our economy is growing, 1Pct investment in R&D will be appropriate. Attaching R&D elements in mega projects undergoing is also highly important. But for now, our top priority area is social and economic development. However, in the future, when our economy grows, the country will have better R&D budget.
As a principle, university teachers have the responsibility to spend at least 25Pct of their time in R&D. But we see a large number of them so much occupied with teaching.
Universities are governed based on their senate legislation. According to these legislations, a teacher is recruited to do three things. The first is to teach students; the second is to engage in research; and the third is to engage in community services. If you check universities, most senate legislations prescribe that 75Pct of their staff time to be allocated to teaching and the 25Pct goes for research and community service. Some give 50Pct for teaching, 25Pct for research and 25Pct for community service. It is this ratio that determines the amount of money they spend on research.
In Ethiopia, there are many challenges in absorbing technologies at private firm levels. What are the plans of the government in incentivizing the private sector to invest more on R&D?
The country’s investment policy provides incentives for local enterprises interested to import laboratory and other materials to establish R&D facilities.
A recent study conducted by the Ministry sampling 157 industries, found out that few industries have the plan or budget on R&D. We want our industries to have R&D [facilities and activities] to understand and solve their problems through research and collaboration with the academia.
What is the plan of the National Research Council in mobilizing more funds?
The main activity of the Council is dealing with policy issues. It is understood that the financing of researches by public sources is not adequate. This is common elsewhere. If you go to USA or Japan, researchers complain about limited research funding. But we are far from these countries. Because we know the funding from government is inadequate, we encourage the universities, research institutions and researchers to look for external financing. There are many platforms and foundations that call for research proposals up to three times in a year, so our researchers and institutions should open up their eyes.
One of the challenges regarding R&D is the brain drain issue. What are you doing to reduce this and achieve brain gain?
Every year, the government allocates fund up to ETB5 million per researcher, through the national research fund mobilizing mechanism. That amount of money goes to procure gadgets, lab equipment and materials and recruit young research staff to support the researcher. That facilitation can attract our senior researchers to stay longer in the research institutions. It could also attract Ethiopian researchers elsewhere to comeback. EBR
5th Year • July 2017 • No. 52