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Science and Innovation in Kenya – Interview with Professor Abdulrazak

Professor Shaukat Abdulrazak

Robert Onsare interviewed the Secretary of Kenya’s National Council of Science and Technology (NCST), Professor Shaukat Abdulrazak, for The Global Herald.

The head of the  technical and administrative council looks into; the proper management of the financial and physical resources allocated to the council, the proper management of human resources and programmes of council, guiding the council in the development and advocacy of Science and Technology policy popularization and the promotion of science and technology as a tool for national development.

The council is the focal point for Science, Technology and Innovation (ST&I) in Kenya. Before assuming this position in 2008, Professor Abdulrazak was the Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research and Extension) of Egerton University. He did his PhD in Animal Science at the University of Aberdeen, UK.

What is the role of NCST in the country?

The National Council of Science and Technology (NCST) advices the Government in all matter of science and technology.

The council looks at issues of science in regard to funding, infrastructure and personnel, advising research institutions that have been put in place by the government: Kenya Agriculture Research Institute (KARI), Kenya Institute of Research and Development (KIRDI), Kenya Medical Research Institute (KEMRI), Kenya Marine and Fisheries Research Institute (KEMFRI), Kenya Forestry Research Institute (KEFRI), Numerical Machine Complex (NMC), Inter-University Council of East Africa (IUCEA), Radiation Protection Board (RPB), Commissioner for the Commission for Higher Education(CHE), National Liaison Officer on International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) matters in Kenya, National Coordinator – African Regional Cooperative Agreement for Research, Development and Training related to Nuclear Science and Technology (AFRA), International Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology(ICGEB) and Comprehensive Nuclear-Test–Ban Treaty Organization(CTBTO).

I sits in all these institutions as a board member to advice them on science and technology, to see that issues of science and technology are readdressed.

We are charged with the responsibility of issuing permits for research to be conducted by Kenyans and non-Kenyans in the country. For example, we see that research in biology is conducted within the safety measures. To avoid for example the research production of anthrax could leak and spread throughout Nairobi within a very short time.

What other role does NCST play in the nurturing of science and technology in Kenya?

We sponsors workshops and conferences on science and technology related areas.

We work with technical, industrial, vocational and entrepreneurship training (TIVET) as well as engaging secondary schools students in science activities such as secondary schools science congress.

So far we have initiated the young innovators and inventors club to bring on board young people with ideas notwithstanding their academic attainment. Members of the club are encouraged to patent their innovations.

Could you point out some of the fruits your efforts have borne?

The electronic car tracker by Morris Bheta has been launched into the market. The council awarded him a grant of Sh 3.4 million to work on this project. We are still incubating other innovative ideas, projects which will soon be launched to the market.

So far the council has supported 318 research projects – 30 percent of which are created bywomen.

Notwithstanding that they don’t have a direct impact on they university curriculum, the council has indirect contact through post graduate sponsorship – where the council has funded 42 masters students and 62 PhD candidates so far. The council looks forward to sponsoring 200 PhD candidates every year.

What criteria do you use to consider one for sponsorship?

We offer research grants on specific thematic areas every year. This year we are offering research grants for engineering and renewable energy.

Thematic areas are arrived at from the greatest need of the nation in a particular year. We want to ensure that we are harnessing science to solve the problem the nation is going through, such as food insecurity, energy deficit, water stress and climate change, and unemployment among others.

The council is encouraging our scholars to end the culture of “publish or perish” to a new dawn of “research, publish and commercialize”.

How are you encouraging practical research that is all inclusive?

As I have said, the grants for innovative ideas which get translated into prototypes before being commercialized do not marginalize any one – even school drop-outs so long as they have a concept, an idea to be incubated.

Again we have set aside a women’s fund for their research. The council is also encouraging multidisciplinary research where our scholars from different schools and departments are working on a specific research project. It should be noted that discoveries and ground breaking research cuts across almost all disciplines of study.

The Africa Technology Policy Studies (ATPS), of which I’m the country director, has passed a manifesto calling for multidisciplinary proposals.

Do you have a hand in curriculum reviews which will inform your aspirations in Kenyan schools and institutions of higher learning?

Not directly but indirectly.

There is need to analyse Kenya curriculum at all levels. But it is my belief that our point is taken by our schools’ heads and those who are charged with the responsibility through our workshops and conference.

Through the research fund for masters and PhD’s we support post doctoral candidates. But above all we are going to pay more attention to innovators – commercialize their works.

What extra mile should our institutions of higher learning go to, to scale science and technology to another level?

Students who will perform excellently at undergraduate level should be sponsored to join the best universities across the globe for scientific and technology transfer.

Our local universities need to re-enforce their best students within their institutions by offering them post graduate studies scholarships.

What about the private sector?

We are having constant engagement with the private sector to take up Kenyan innovator ideas and nurture them to end products to avoid importation of what can be produced locally.

The council, too, is planning to partner with innovators in translating their innovations to commercial products – the profits will be shared between NCST and the innovators.

How are you planning to motivate innovators in Kenya’s secondary schools to persist even to higher levels of education?

The best six students from this year secondary school national science congress will present their ingenuity at State House for the first time.

This year the council has planned for a university science congress in the month of September to bridge the gap that has been in existence between secondary and university appreciation of innovators, where secondary school innovators melted to the thin air of time.

Which steps are you taking in scaling up technology transfer?

Regionally, we are now working on the East Africa commission on science, technology and innovations. Evaluations are going on. Kenya is strategically placed (with the UN offices being here) to host the commission centre of operation.

We have forged a partnership with South Africa and the Japanese Society for the Promotion of Science to enhance common ground in science and technology. In this partnership, Kenyans work with Japanese for technology transfer purposes.

The Kenyan Government is also working with the British Council for industrial – academic linkage for university students.

There is a mixed reaction among Kenyans on tapping into Nuclear technology. What can you say?

To begin with, the application of nuclear techniques can not be limited to nuclear energy lone.

Nuclear techniques can be used to identify ground water by using the isotopes technique, while gamma rays can be used to sterilise the male tsetse fly thus sweeping out diseases transmitted by tsetse flies.

These techniques will enable the development of wheat varieties, using imitation, that can withstand drought and water stress as well as mature faster.

In the medical field radiotherapy is used in the diagnosis of cancer and treatment thereof. Radioisotopes are used in agriculture to control pests, study fertilizer and to prevent waste of grain stores.

Thus, the production of nuclear energy is only one of the components of tapping into nuclear technology.

So can you comment on Kenyan plans to harness nuclear energy with an institution at the calling of International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) ?

We are out there to harness all sorts of energy available into the energy mix to meet the huge deficit the country is experiencing. This will worsen as we are marching into industrialization by 2020.

It is important to note that the Fukushima crisis was triggered by the catastrophic quake-tsunami disaster and was compounded by the old technology that was used then.

At the moment we have a challenge of developing a human resource capacity to be prepared to harness nuclear energy ten years down the line. Kenyan citizens should also be synthesized on nuclear energy before then.

Notwithstanding that it is only South Africa which is harnessing nuclear energy in Africa, the African Union has endorsed African countries to address safety and security measures set by IAEA and tap it into their energy mix.

Therefore we should not be afraid to harness nuclear technology, rather be challenged to be prepared to do so.

What is your take on Genetically Modified Food (GMO) ?

If GMO can produce food in water stressed areas – then we need to harness GMO.

How can our political leadership give science and technology its rightful place?

The president of the country should have a scientific adviser to brief him/her on science matters just like on intelligence and security.

The Governors in every county should have a scientific adviser to ensure that scientific and technological approaches are articulated in solving Kenya’s persistent problems.

The Government should speed up the setting up of the National Commission of Science, Technology and Innovation. The bill is in parliament awaiting passage.

Every county should have a science park and innovation centre where innovative ideas can be incubated to harness huge resources in every county.

Further, every county should have a national school, a centre of excellence, and a university to accelerate the development of human resources for a knowledge driven economy.

Parting shot Mr. secretary?

Without harnessing science and technology we will be left behind as a country. Science, technology and innovation is the way forward to harness our huge resources for development.

We should stop giving science, technology and innovation a lip service rather, fund it well by prioritizing our needs in the country.

Challenges we are facing as a country should offer us an opportunity to come up with solutions through innovations.

About Robert Okemwa Onsare

Robert Okemwa Onsare
Robert Onsare is pursuing Electronics Technology at the University of Eastern Africa, Baraton. He is a Cluster Strategy trained facilitator by Kenya's National Economic and Social Council (NESC). Mr Onsare has been an incubation student at the University of Nairobi, School of Engineering, FabLab, a venture project of the university and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). He is a member of the African Technology Policy Studies Network (ATPS) and a published poet. Mr Onsare is based in Kenya.

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