Analysis & Opinions - Business Daily

Innovation System Needs Reforms

| August 16, 2007

African countries are increasing the allocation of funds to scientific research. But such investments will be wasted if they are used for basic research rather than product innovation.

I do not argue that basic research is irrelevant. To the contrary, basic research in Africa should be part of a larger strategy that initially focuses on product development and commercialisation.

Even in industrialised countries such as the United States, nearly 60 per cent of the total research and development (R&D) budget goes to product development, with the rest being spilt nearly equally between basic and applied research.

Nigeria recently put aside US$5 billion for a national science fund and other countries are following the lead. Kenya, for example, has allocated nearly US$3 million from the national budget to a new research fund.

The Government expects the private sector to contribute to the fund.

But the availability of the funding alone will not contribute to economic change unless at least two fundamental reforms are introduced in the country’s innovation system.

 First, existing research institutions will need to be rationalised and aligned with long-term goals as envisaged in the 2030 Vision. Second, Kenya will need to combine research and higher education functions under one coherent government structure.

The country can learn some lesson from Thailand which adopted a law in 1991 that created the National Science and Technology Development Agency (NSTDA).

The agency serves as umbrella for five individual centres focusing on biotechnology; metal and materials; electronics; nanotechnology; and technology management. The agency is located in a new-created Thailand Science Park and has an annual budget of US$120 million.

The work of NSTDA has so far been coordinated through a ministry of science and technology. The country has proposed a new law that would create a high-level science and technology council to be chaired by the Prime Minister.

The council would be responsible for policy and coordination and will leave operational activities under the ministry. This separation of functions is essential for the effective development of innovation activities that require linkages with other actors in industry, government, academia and civil society.

A national technology development agency will not need to bring all the national research institutes under one roof. To the contrary, such an agency will need to focus on a few areas of product development and build on existing capabilities and international connections. Many of the key assets needed for technology development lie outside the ministry responsible for science and technology.

Take industrial development as an example. The Kenya Industrial Development Research Institute (KIRDI), which has a long history of innovation going back to the 1940s, could serve as critical locus for product development.

But the country’s industrial strengthen would be enhanced if KIRDI were combined with other government facilities and linked to key universities departments as well the private sector.

The main focus of such partnership should be to build capacity in industrial design and product development and to make effective use of the country’s idle numerically-controlled machine tool complex.

Allocating research funds without reforming governmental structures to focus on product development will result a waste of limited finances. And the fate of the pure scientist would be: “Publish and perish.”

Prof  Juma teaches at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government where he directs the Science, Technology, and Globalisation Project. He is a member of the International Advisory Council of Thailand’s National Science and Technology Development Agency

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Juma, Calestous.“Innovation System Needs Reforms.” Business Daily, August 16, 2007.

The Author

Calestous Juma