Ghana's innovation system on 'life support'
Science, technology and innovation (STI) are expected to play a key role in lifting Ghana to middle-income status by 2020. Yet after extensive fieldwork in Ghana, JO LORENTZEN found that the Ghanaian national innovation system – in particular the role of public research institutes and the three largest universities – is severely hampered by lack of funding, and is underperforming as a result.
Little bang for small buck
The funding inputs to Ghana’s research system leave much to be desired. Ghana’s Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, for one, is a top-heavy organisation that employs its staff without giving them the means to do research. The annual reports of the 13 individual institutions constituting the CSIR highlight inadequate funding, especially to equip laboratories and workshops, inadequate and late release of government funds and unsatisfactory resources for infrastructure and farm machinery, to name just a few constraints.
Individual institutes suffer noticeably from lack of resources. For instance, the Centre for Scientific Research into Plant Medicine has no laboratory facilities to isolate active ingredients or marker compounds. Not surprisingly, biotechnology and pharmaceuticals exports based on Ghana’s abundant biological diversity have not materialised.
In 2007, all Ghanaian universities graduated less than one percent of their students with a PhD in all science and engineering subjects. They contribute barely a handful of highly trained junior scientists or engineers to the country in a given year, including for the replenishment of their own faculty. Academics blame a huge teaching load for their low research output, reflected in the lack of published research.
In essence the whole system is on life support. For the most part things work badly, and without external and international partners they would not work at all. And despite the lip service it pays to science and technology, the government seems to regard the research system primarily as an expense, rather than a potential asset.
Is there a solution?
The government must increase its budgetary allocation to science and technology. Knowledge workers need to be well paid. They also need quality equipment and facilities. Such investments only make sense in the context of long-term commitments that necessarily transcend electoral cycles. An increase in spending for a few years, followed by another funding drought, is futile.
Secondly, the government should consider bringing the entire science and technology system under one ministerial roof. It would be easier then to identify and address co-ordination and other failures, as opposed to several departments battling to overcome silo mentalities and bureaucratic obstacles.
The CSIR must take a hard look at its entire business model in each institute and in the organisation as a whole.
Thirdly, the research system must become more efficient. The CSIR must take a hard look at its entire business model in each institute and in the organisation as a whole. In particular, it cannot shy away from assessing the costs of employing people in non-productive positions.
Fourthly, external income needs to increase, via incentives to encourage academics to win international research tenders to commercialise technological innovation.
And finally, the entire system must increase its self-reflexivity. Annual reports must be taken more seriously, and reviews undertaken at regular intervals, including through external panels, in order to monitor whether the system is on track.
The alternative is tantamount to bidding the knowledge economy farewell.
Summary of an article published in the African Journal of Science, Technology, Innovation and Development (2010).
The late Dr Jo Lorentzen was a chief research specialist, Science and Innovation unit, HSRC.