‘We’ve been trying to bring NIMR to function as an academic institution that it is’
Professor Babatunde Lawal Salako is the Director General of the Nigerian Institute Of Medical Research, NIMR. Reviewing his activities in the last one year that he assumed office, he spoke about the progress the institute has made in terms of research work and the challenges it is also grappling with
Last month makes it one year since you assumed duty as the Director-General of NIMR and staff members are already acknowledging the changes you’ve effected within such a short time. Is it a question of hitting the ground running?
We are trying to put in place the values that would make us reach our goal as a research institute. The changes you observed include making the work environment attractive for workers of the institute, all the workers. I believe that we have been able to create a level playing ground.
Coming through the gate, one could see that buildings are being renovated and NIMR is wearing a completely new look these days. What other things have you been doing?
We have done many things in the one year and we are still trying to make improvements. We have, for example, created two new Biomedical centers; The Centre for Human Virology and Genomics. It has an ISO accreditation and is recognised internationally. The other one is the Centre for Alternative and Complementary Medicine. The world has awakened to the importance of alternative medicine and herbal medicine has received the approval of World Health Organization (WHO). We have signed an MOU with Pax Herbals to boost the research.
We want to train practitioners on how to make their products widely acceptable; we want to promote safety and efficacy in that sector and, if possible, make herbal drugs in tablets. When all these have been done, NIMR will do a research on them.
The Tuberculosis centre has been upgraded to a Tuberculosis Research Centre. The Public Health Division is now known as Public Health and Epidemiology Department. We have an agreement with South Africa to work together on non-communicable diseases. There are plans to also introduce a kidney research centre in the nearest future.
It is no secret that NIMR has experienced brain drain in recent times. Why is it so?
We have tried to find out the reason and one of them is that some young and brilliant scientists desire to be professors like their counterparts in the universities. At this moment, they could not attain that position in the Institute where the ceiling is the post of a Director, although the institute functions as an institution and does what a university does. We train, research, write grants and offer services. And it takes the same degree qualification they use in the universities to get employment.
But some said they were marginalized
That would depend on management style. If the management is high-handed it would run into trouble with people. If the research environment is not conducive, the staff could leave for where they could blossom and grow. But if you ask me a direct question of what I met when I resumed office, I would say that I met an environment where there were disaffections. They complained that they were not given the opportunity to grow nor did the management support them to improve on their welfare. Petitions and queries were written; some were sacked or posted outside Lagos while some got undeserved promotions. We have addressed most of these complaints.
We are also trying to change the culture of the institute to that of a university. Presently, it is run like a government ministry. For example, a university worker starts as a research fellow but at NIMR, they are graded like civil servants and end up as Directors whereas in universities, they become professors. We have lost brilliant scientists as a result of this and many of them were trained here. One of their grouse was that they were being bonded to serve the institute, but I think that they should be bonded. They got their PhDs here and would bolt away before the institute can enjoy their services.
My presence here has opened my eyes to the way the Civil Service works; the universities have a degree of autonomy while the institute is tied to the aprons of the Ministry of Health.
I have been trying to bring NIMR to function as an academic institution that it is and another area we are looking at is the method of promotion; they write examinations like they do in government establishments before they are promoted. But we think that a researcher who has been publishing his work should not be compelled to write exams to get promoted; he should be assessed by other people.
Now, we must follow what obtains elsewhere in other parts of the world. Before that person is promoted, he must have attended a certain number of international conferences, written and won certain number of grants, published some number of papers which the result has a significant effect on the life of users. Example is the finding that cleaning the environment keeps mosquitoes away and helps to prevent malaria. When all these are met, the work is assessed by other people. If he is pronounced good enough, he would be promoted.
Is NIMR operating to the optimal level as a research institute?
We do not have enough funds to do all what we should be doing. The long and short of it is that government must fund research. Apart from conducting research, the institute has the duty to fund research in the universities on behalf of the government. Similar institutes all over the world take care of the research agenda of their countries and they are funded by their ministries and departments of health.
The Nigerian Institute of Medical Research should look at health challenges that face the nation and fund them depending on priorities given to them. Sometimes, the institute is invited to look at a particular problem, for example, Lassa fever which comes and goes, leaving people dead in its wake. If we had the fund, we would have put out a call on the identification and epidemiology of the vector all round the country. We could have made a type of Lassa fever map to know those states which are often affected and why they are affected. We would also know why some are not affected. The solution can be found there; we have the treatment already but we could develop new ones. These are things that we can ask the ivory tower to do on behalf of the government.
We ought to support PhD students in the universities; which mean that we can call for their thesis, take the ones that address the health challenges of the nation and fund them.
We realise that government has a lot on its table so we have been looking for outside sponsors. Although there are many sponsors outside the country but there are also many people competing for them, which means that you have to be acclaimed internationally to win a grant. You have to be experienced and capable to be able to win grants that answer our national challenges. We are trying to improve on that through training of researchers. We hope to see more number of grants coming into the country soon.
We want to produce 1,000 PhD graduates for one million populations of Nigerians because, if we do not have enough research fellows, we could lag behind in the area of science and technology.
The negative effect of outside funding is that they dictate the areas you must research; it is many times a question of who pays the piper dictating the tune. You are doing research but it may not address our needs.
What about the private sector? Are they offering any assistance?
They have not contributed much in research funding. Maybe they are not aware, but the promos where they give cars away only serve individual need. But they could put the money down and tell us what particular area to research.
Currently we are working together with Wellcome Trust to organise a stakeholders’ workshop. The workshop is expected to bring together the government, researchers and private organizations; we would discuss the Nigerian situation so that we would be able to deliver our mandate. I believe that we will be able to get a few organisations and private individuals to fund research.
Is it true that new cases of Yellow fever have been reported?
I read that somewhere. NIMR was set up as a Yellow fever research institute. We still have the vector flying around the compound, but they are harmless. Yellow fever has a vaccine; Nigerians should take the vaccines and stop buying yellow card when they want to travel, you are protected for 10 years.
The Ministry of Health should step up awareness campaign because it was as serious as Ebola. What the institute could do would be to do surveillance, but funding is needed to collect samples in those areas where they report to have seen the case.
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