Nobody calls their mechanic unless their car breaks down and it is only when the WC starts leaking that you look for a plumber’s number. In the same vein it took a virus which threatened our way of life for people to start asking what the scientists in Ghana are doing.
This story starts from a few days ago when I went to my barbers for a cut (man had to look fresh just in time for lock-down), and as you will expect, Covid-19 was the topic of discussion.
As this conversation went on, scientists in Ghana started receiving a bashing. Apparently, we do not exist, but how could that continue once I revealed that I was a neuroscientist. The conversation quickly moved on to – “…even if Ghana has scientists, you people are not doing anything”. The conversation just went downhill from there, but I managed to put together a more coherent version of events to share my thoughts for your benefit.
We are raising a new generation
Have you ever seen a human brain, had the opportunity to work on a world class research project or even try your hands on some of these techniques you see on CSI?
There are many students in Ghana who will answer yes to these questions because scientists in Ghana have made this opportunity available to them at no cost. I specify the no cost part because these activities all happen as part of public engagement activities open to everyone. The STEM experience days by GH.Scientific gives senior high school students the opportunity to engage with scientists and get their questions answered while also trying out their hands on some real experiments. Then there is the Kirkhouse Mobile Lab run by the Cocoa Research Institute which moves from place to place upon request. If you want to learn how to extract and analyse DNA, these are the guys to call. Lastly there is also the Summer Research Program run by the African Research Academies for Women. This involves working for 3 months under a senior research scientist.
So we are raising a new generation….
Despite being strung along by our government
Strung along is another way of saying we are at the receiving end of an endless string of promises that never materialise. Salaries could be better, research students self finance and research sponsors are external.
Here’s a headline from 2018 which promises 1% GDP to be allocated to funding research in Ghana. As it stands now, there isn’t a national research funding body that is open to accepting applications from research scientists and institutions. To put this into perspective, one of the biggest funders of research in the UK runs on a £1 Billion yearly budget, whereas in the US, this amount is $30 Billion.
Research is expensive, both in terms of money and skill. If you want to know how many people in Ghana have the corona virus, it will not cost much of either to find out. What will cost you an arm and a leg are answers to the real interesting questions;
Who did they catch it from?, Is the virus in Ghana the same as the one in China?, Do we have less cases because of our skin complexion?, What if the virus came in the rainy season?, Is there a herbal remedy that really works?, Between Obinim and Kennedy Agyapong, who will catch the virus first?.
These questions require the sort of money which a scientist cannot just finance from their salary.
We are solving local problems
It takes technology transfer for the average person to see the impact of science in their life. This is where the scientists identify a solution to a problem, then pass it on to people who can make a product out of it for us all to benefit.
More often than not, what tends to happen is the innovation gets lost along the way or the scientists take charge of the technology transfer because they cannot find the right people to take their solution and make something out of it. For example, Dext Technology has the Science Set, Incas Diagnostics has the VagKit, and Sesi Technologies has the Grainmate.
On a larger scale, there is the West Africa Center for Crop Improvement which develops and releases new higher yielding and more climate-resilient varieties of maize, rice, and soybean. All over the world, this process is a bit tricky and the University of Ghana has recently set up a unit dedicated to making this technology transfer happen.
And building trust internationally
All these may not be motivating government to set up a research fund but scientists in Ghana are being recognised all over the world. Our biggest research centres such as Noguchi, WACCBIP and WACCI are financed by international grants they won by showing ability and merit.
There’s no better way to recognise someone for their efforts than to entrust them. Whether it is entrusting them with positions to contribute to the international direction of the field or research grants to continue the good work. Darlington Ahile Akogo was recently appointed to lead a WHO focus group on Artificial Intelligence for radiology, Dr. Priscilla Mante was recognised by UNESCO, whereas Dr Adolf Acquaye, Dr Joseph Ekow Essandoh-Yeddu and Dr Lawrence Agbemabiese were among 229 scientists selected globally to work on climate change.
These sort of achievements aren’t new, there are many Ghanaians who have inspired medical breakthroughs. A recent episode of The Horizon was dedicated to celebrating Ghanaian scientists and this podcast episode talks about some great innovators within the same space.
I will admit that scientists in Ghana do not have a very good PR machine going on. We may be excelling in the academic field but very few within the population are aware of the benefits we bring. This may present a very unique opportunity, after all, it’s not everyday that a virus threatens our way of life.