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KEYNOTE ADDRESS DELIVERED BY

 

THE DIRECTOR-GENERAL/CEO OF THE

NATIONAL BIOSAFETY MANAGEMENT AGENCY (NBMA),

 

RUFUS EBEGBA

AT THE 

 

NATIONAL CONFERENCE OF FACULTY OF NATURAL AND APPLIED SCIENCES

ON

**

SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY INNOVATION IN A CHALLENGED SOCIETY

** 

MAY 28TH, 2018

SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY INNOVATIONS IN A CHALLENGED SOCIETY

Distinguished ladies and gentlemen, permit me to stand on existing protocols as I welcome you to this National Conference of the Faculty of Natural and Applied Sciences of the prestigious Nasarawa State University. On behalf of the staff of the National Biosafety Management Agency (NBMA), I wish to thank the Local Organising Committee for making me the Keynote Speaker of this event. It is my delight to be amongst distinguished scientists, academicians and scholars to give a talk on Science and Technology Innovation in a Challenged Society.

My paper will examine some of the challenges of today’s society and how science and technology innovation is helping to mitigate them. It will also examine the challenges confronting science and technology in Nigeria and in particular, the prospects and concerns of modern biotechnology, as well as the role of the National Biosafety Management Agency (NBMA), its challenges and way forward.

 

INTRODUCTION: CHALLENGES OF THE MODERN SOCIETY

Today, we are faced with a plethora of challenges, chief amongst which are the issues of food security and agricultural productivity. In its annual report of 2016, the World Economic Forum postulates that by 2050, the world must feed 9 billion people, meaning that the demand for food will be 60% greater than it is today. There is also a marked increase in unsustainable environmental practices leading to the pollution of the environment and depletion of our scarce resources.

While there have been major breakthroughs in the areas of health and medicare, the state of healthcare in Africa leaves much to be desired and, pandemics and other non-communicable diseases continue to plague a significant portion of the world’s population. Added to this is the rising rate of unemployment among youths and graduates coupled with rapid urban growth in developing countries especially in Africa. With over 760 million people living below a dollar as reported by the World Bank in 2017, many societies today are grappling with poverty.

Perhaps one of the biggest challenges facing society is the sustainable management of finite natural resources. The world over, governments and scientists alike are working to manage our scarce resources without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs. Insecurity is another challenge confronting modern society. With the onslaught of Boko Haram and the recurrent clashes between farmers and herdsmen, insecurity has become a most serious challenge for Nigeria.

THE ROLE OF SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY IN ADDRESSING SOCIETAL CHALLENGES

Science and technology is helping us tackle society’s problems through cutting edge inventions and innovations. In the area of environmental pollution and climate change, innovations have opened up new opportunities for renewable energy to be harnessed from the sun, wind and water.

Science and technology has also played a defining role in the emergence of agriculture as we know it. Today, Modern Biotechnology is at the frontline of developments for the sustainable development of agriculture, fisheries and forestry, as well as the food industry. As regards food security and agricultural productivity, the contributions of biotechnology and genetic engineering have been very significant. Crops enhanced to have improved agricultural yield and resistance to diseases have been developed, and this is reducing food shortage and alleviating starvation and hunger around the globe.

 

STATUS AND CHALLENGES OF SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY INNOVATION IN NIGERIA 

It is sad to note that the rate of technological innovation by Nigerians in Nigeria is relatively low. While Nigeria has the largest economy in Africa and the largest population to boot, Nigeria is rated low in terms of science innovation and investment in science and technology innovation.

The Global Innovation Index 2017 (www.globalinnovationindex.org), published by the Johnson Cornell University in collaboration with the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO), ranked Nigeria 119 out of 128 on innovation. South Africa, Mauritius, Kenya and Botswana all ranked higher than Nigeria. The critical indicators used for ranking include human capital development, Research output, Development funding, university performance and international dimension of Patent application. Nigeria also ranked low in the recent Global Competitive Index published by the World Economic Forum which measures national competitiveness.

From these reports, it is clear that Nigeria has invested little in science, technology and innovation. The country’s gross expenditure for research and development as a percentage of GDP is 0.2%, less than half the world average of 0.4%. Many smaller African countries have done far better than Nigeria relative to their respective GDPs. Mozambique spends 0.5%, Mauritius 0.4%, Uganda 0.4% and Botswana 0.5%. Nigeria’s poor investment has handicapped research and development in strategic industries. Consequently, we continue to rely on goods produced by technologically advanced countries. Needless to say, some of these goods can be produced locally if the necessary investment in science and technology is made.

Added to this is the fallen standard of science education across our educational institutions. There is a lack of qualified, well-trained and experienced personnel, and in most cases, a lack of basic scientific infrastructure (well-equipped science laboratories) to aid the learning process. This has resulted in our educational system churning out graduates who have poor science foundation and who lack the innovation skills needed for technological advancement. This paucity of scientific infrastructure has also affected the quality of scientific research in Nigeria as can be seen from the reports referenced above.

Another challenge facing the development of science and technology is the mass migration of many of our skilled scientists and other experts to the US or Europe where there is an enabling environment for innovation. This continuous outflow of skilled labour known as Brain Drain deprives the country of its best talents while the government continues to spend hard currency in hiring expats to perform jobs that could have been done by Nigerians.

 

MODERN BIOTECHNOLOGY IN NIGERIA: PROSPECT AND CONCERNS

The United Nations (UN) Convention on Biological Diversity defines biotechnology as any technological application that uses biological systems, living organisms or derivatives to make or modify products or processes for specific uses. Biotechnology is applied in healthcare, crop production and agriculture, as well as the industrial production of biodegradable plastics, vegetable oil and bio-fuels. Biotechnology is also used for recycling, waste treatment and Bioremediation, which involves using genetically engineered micro-organisms to degrade industrial pollutants in the environment.

Nigeria has adopted Modern Biotechnology as a means of achieving food security and the government’s goal of agriculture for national development. The prospect that modern biotechnology will accelerate commercial and small-scale agriculture in Nigeria is very good indeed. About 12 million farmers across 23 countries were recorded to have planted GM crops across 114.3 million hectares in 2007. The majority of these were small and resource-poor farmers from developing countries such as China, India, the Philippines and South Africa. This figure has accelerated globally and in Nigeria, well over 70 million farmers could reap similar benefits of agricultural biotechnology.

Unfortunately, there are recurrent campaigns against modern biotechnology and genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in Nigeria. These campaigns are often led by persons who through misinformation and disinformation create fears in the minds of Nigerians. These anti-GM activists build their arguments on sentiments while conveniently ignoring science and the facts.

It is true: No technology is without risks. This is where the NBMA comes into play. The Agency exists to regulate the practice of modern biotechnology to ensure that Nigeria reaps the benefits without harming the environment or human health. Confronted with anti-GMO activism, the NBMA consistently provides scientific and empirical evidence with a view to educating Nigerians on the benefits of modern biotechnology and proven ways of mitigating its potential risks.

 

THE ROLE OF NBMA IN REGULATING THE PRACTICE OF MODERN BIOTECHNOLOGY

The National Biosafety Management Agency (NBMA) was established by the NBMA ACT 2015 to formulate and enforce regulatory policy as it pertains to Biosafety. Biosafety includes all processes, procedures and actions taken to ensure that products of modern Biotechnology/genetic modification (GM), such as GM crops and GM foods are safe to humans and the environment. The NBMA’s Biosafety guidelines are based on two Multilateral Environmental Agreements (MEAs) which Nigeria has both signed and ratified. They are the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) and the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety (CPB).

The NBMA ACT 2015 stipulates clear guidelines for the importation, exportation, transit, contained use and commercialization of GM crops. As the National Competent Authority on Biosafety in Nigeria, the Agency is the only safety valve in the adoption of modern biotechnology and the deployment of GMOs for Nigeria’s agricultural and economic development. In this regard, I can state confidently that the NBMA is well-positioned to carry out its mandate of ensuring safety to Nigerians in the application and use of modern biotechnology.

 

SCIENCE AT THE CORE OF EFFECTIVE BIOSAFETY REGULATION

Science is at the core of the most critical of the NBMA’s regulatory activities. This includes the risk assessment procedures conducted to assess the safety of GMOs before they are introduced into the environment as well as the laboratory tests undertaken to ascertain the GMO status of proposed food, seed and grain imports.

It goes without saying that the Agency would not be able to carry out its responsibility as Nigeria’s Biosafety Regulator without the requisite scientific knowledge and technological tools. The Agency currently has in place the first GMO Detection and Analysis Laboratory in Nigeria. The Agency is also set to procure GMO detection equipment to facilitate the detection of GMO suspects at the Nation’s entry ports.

Furthermore, the Agency is prioritizing the training and upscaling of staff capacity to meet international standards and the demands of a fast evolving sector. And for the record, Nigeria’s National Biosafety Management Agency is widely recognized to be a leading Biosafety Regulator in Africa.

The significance of the Agency’s activities should not be underestimated. There has been a direct correlation between the Agency’s accreditation of national research institutes and the increasing pace of GM-related agricultural research in Nigeria. As we speak, Nigerian scientists, in collaboration with their peers from other African countries, are spearheading research trials on nutritionally and agronomically improved varieties of cassava, rice, sorghum, maize and cowpea. This goes to show that the right regulatory environment makes scientific and technological innovation possible.

 

SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY SUPPORTING THE LEGAL AND ADMINISTRATIVE FRAMEWORKS FOR BIOSAFETY REGULATION

The National Biosafety Management Agency (NBMA) also operates with the right legal and administrative frameworks established to be consistent with the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety (CPB). What is remarkable here is that once again, science and technology supports and indeed enhances the efficacy of the Agency’s legal and administrative frameworks.

Information technology perhaps provides the easiest example of this. The Agency maintains various online public awareness platforms including the NBMA’s BCH portal and the Agency’s official website. Also, in line with government’s strategy of easing the process of doing business in Nigeria, many of the Agency’s application and notification procedures are online and semi-automated. The NBMA’s collaborations with sister regulators and international partners are also greatly enhanced by IT. Whether it is communication, e-learning, information sharing or GMO monitoring and surveillance, technology is both an enabler and a facilitator of effectiveness.

 

 

CALL TO ACTION 

Ladies and Gentlemen, we must take action. Looking at the technologically advanced Nations of the world, what lessons can we learn about accelerating the progress of science and technology in Nigeria?

The first thing we must recognise is that science and technology innovation plays an indispensable role in our quest for economic development. We must be willing to invest in science and technology. The Federal Government has taken a step in the right direction with the approval of the National Science, Technology and Innovation Road map 2017-2030. Amongst other things, this Road map will help with the diversification of the economy and the development of indigenous technologies.

Secondly, we need to improve on our investment in research and development (R&D). Advanced countries such as the United States of America and the United Kingdom continue to invest greatly in R&D to sustain their industries and create new innovations. In recent years, many Asian countries, especially China and Korea, have invested aggressively in R&D, infrastructure and educational capacity. Nigeria ought to emulate this level of commitment and investment in science and technology.

Furthermore, there is need to place emphasis on science education at all levels of our educational system. Mechanisms must be put in place to improve the quality of scientific infrastructure available for learning and research at the tertiary level. This will improve the quality of scientific research in our institutions while also creating opportunities for innovation.

Finally, there should be collaborations between scientists and industry for the commercialization of patents and innovations. Forums that bring scientists together should also endeavour to accommodate technologists, engineers and experts of industry so that indigenous technologies can be advanced to solve the challenges of the people.

Distinguished ladies and Gentlemen, the challenges science and technology are expected to resolve in our society are enormous, the challenges confronting the sector are enormous, and what scientists and technologists must accomplish to advance our society are more than enormous. It has been said that “science is science, if you have the conditions, you will get the results”. Get result we must as a country. Thank you.

 

 

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