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Written by Dr Gamel Nasser Adam - This brings us to another very critical question. If the much needed technological advancements are within the reach of skills and talent available to us in Ghana and Africa, then what is responsible for this technological retardation? Why did the Industrial Revolution of the late 18th century pass Africa by, but took root in Europe?

What are the factors responsible for the present international division of labour which has consigned Africa to just primary production? Despite the enormous technological gap between us and the advanced industrialised countries, is there a possibility of catching up? With reference to the last question, can there be a shortcut, a quantum equivalent of a wormhole bypass into the future, which will make the several centuries of missing time and opportunities irrelevant?

The answers to these questions are not in the domain of the pure sciences. They can only be provided by some selected disciplines in the humanities, and finding the right answers to these questions is very critical.

Therefore, just as the Strategic Plan is emphasising, and rightly so, the scientific and technological aspects of the university’s contribution to the restructuring of our national economy, commensurate emphasis should be placed on the need to produce thinkers. In fact, the national deficit in this area largely accounts for our crisis of underdevelopment.

Identifying driving forces

Identifying the main driving forces that will propel the scientific and technological transformation is another area that requires urgent attention. The Strategic Plan envisages establishing ‘University-Industry partnerships to promote research in areas of industrial/national interest.’

Under normal circumstances, local industries should, even without being prompted, be very supportive of what the country’s research institutions are doing. The problem is that the quantum of resources needed for research which would lead to the type of technological breakthrough envisaged in the Strategic Plan is beyond the capacity of local industries.

The other argument is that local industries lack the necessary enthusiasm to commit resources into research ventures which are usually quite expensive and where the chances of success could be very minimal. Quite apart from this, our institutions of higher learning and research have over the years been unable to inspire the requisite confidence in relation to their ability to meet their obligations in the national development effort.

In other words if research activities undertaken in the universities demonstrate their practical relevance to the national transformation drive, there would be a corresponding rise in the level of national enthusiasm which would in turn galvanise stakeholders to commit resources into the research effort.

Carlsberg Breweries funding for Bohr

For example, at the turn of last century when the young Niels Bohr developed his quantum theory which provided some new and revolutionary insights into the structure of the atom, he became a national hero instantly in his native Denmark, and mobilising resources for research became much easier. And this was to the extent that a beer producing company, Carlsberg Breweries, with a completely different frame of reference, provided funding for Niels Bohr’s new research institute which eventually grew to become a leading centre for theoretical physics.  

Whereas industry has played and continues to play critical roles in the technological advancements of the highly industrialised countries, the conditions are quite different in our present circumstance as an underdeveloped country.

Those industrial enterprises that have the capacity to plough back parts of their profits in sufficient amounts for meaningful research are mainly foreign-owned multinationals. Unfortunately these enterprises are not favourably disposed to our technological advancements and have even often frustrated it.

The Research and Development (R&D) units of these multinationals are invariably located in their mother countries completely out of the site of our local scientists and engineers. This situation denies our scientists and technicians the chance to observe, study, and possibly replicate and internalise the processes of the research and development programmes and the technologies emanating from them. And even in Ghana and elsewhere in Africa where local laws occasionally compel such foreign companies to engage local technical expertise, our scientists and engineers are most often marooned in plush offices with little to do except relaying files from one office to another just like stereotypical bureaucrats.

Government’s role

The role of the government or the state in this equation is therefore very critical especially as the Strategic Plan makes reference to research in areas of both industrial and national interests. Whereas industry’s interest in research is geared towards the possibility of maximising profits, some types of research may not directly lead to financial gain but nevertheless are of critical national interest.

Once at a meeting, I put a question to a representative of the Association of Ghana Industries (AGI) after he had made a strong argument for our educational system to tilt heavily towards the sciences. My question related to a hypothetical situation where our universities turned out graduates in only such disciplines as physics, mathematics, chemistry, botany, crop science and such related subjects. How would the employment demographics change?

Professor Aryeetey took the matter up with the AGI representative. Translating things into the language of an economist, he related the issue to the interplay between supply and demand in the job market and argued that it was important for industry to create the conditions that would open up the relevant job opportunities for graduates in the sciences.

Indeed while industry should be encouraged and supported to increase its capacity to create such job openings, in the final analysis it is the state which has to lead this effort. The gestation period for our local industries to grow up to a point sufficiently resourceful enough to fulfil this obligation expected of it is too open-ended.

The timetable implied in this laissez-faire approach is simply not feasible for a country or a continent stagnating in close proximity to the Stone Age relative to the technologically advanced countries. Our industrial retardation is of such depths that it should be considered as a national emergency, and time is a very critical factor.

What is therefore required is a state-driven, militant and no-nonsense programme of technological transformation involving the total mobilisation of national resources and especially national brainpower under a slogan: Wake up and Catch up! The University’s mission and vision would then feed into this national emergency programme.

Another Ghana, another Africa is possible. I could sense this in the pulse of the Vice Chancellor’s speech. A towering figure above six feet, Professor Aryeetey is pushing through equally colossal changes in the University in order to position it to play its expected role in the national development effort and beyond.

He recently reiterated this commitment in his New Year message to the University community when he encouraged colleagues ‘to work together for a better University that will support Ghana's progress.’ At his induction into office to begin his first term as Vice Chancellor, he pledged to transform the University of Ghana into a World-Class University, and at the launch of the University’s Strategic Plan, he explained in detail what he meant by that.

The climax of it all was when he indicated that he looked forward to the day when the University would produce a Nobel Laureate. The challenge is to reach for the highest heavens, he seems to be suggesting, and whatever the outcome of this attempt, we will still be among the stars. He has the support of the University community, but more crucially, he needs the government’s support and understanding.

 Related: University of Ghana’s new strategic plan and national development – Part 1

Written by Dr Gamel Nasser Adam, University of Ghana. Sourced from graphic.com.gh

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