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Addressing Nigeria's brain drain

By BBC| 2008

Dr Peace Babalola is one frustrated scientist. At her lab in Nigeria, she just wants to get on with her research into drugs to combat endemic local diseases like malaria. But things are not easy. "It is a real sacrifice. It is patriotism," she says of her work. She can't afford to buy enzymes. Her lab is missing a critical machine. Most frustratingly, the power supply is unreliable. The electricity can stop unexpectedly for several hours at a time - which can ruin experiments, damage sensitive equipment and destroy refrigerated samples. There's this vacuum in your life that you want to feel fulfilment in. And there's no fulfilment Dr Yetunde Kolade So far she has resisted the temptation to leave Nigeria and move abroad. "It's not as if we don't have offers," she says. "Universities in the US want us to come." Many of the brightest and best African scientists have already been lured to the West by the promise of better pay and - more importantly - the chance to carry out more effective research. Difficult decisions According to the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), Africa suffers more than any other region from the brain drain in science and technology. The higher the level of education, the more likely the scientist is to leave the continent. Dr Babalola's former research assistant at the University of Ibadan Medical School has just joined the exodus. "She's very intelligent, the best student I have ever supervised," says Dr Babalola. Laboratory scientist Equipment is in short supply "It's like they've cut off my right hand. Then I realised the problem of the brain drain." I tracked down her right-hand woman, Dr Yetunde Kolade, in a London suburb. She's just taken a job with a big pharmaceutical company in Britain. She smiled when I repeated Dr Babalola's lavish praise for her. But when we discussed her decision to join the brain drain, we were evidently entering painful territory. Leaving Nigeria was a difficult decision - but she argues that the lack of funding for science there left her with little choice. "Most lecturers have a good brain, but the environment to express this knowledge is not there," she told me. "So there's this vacuum in your life that you want to feel fulfilment in. And there's no fulfilment." Despite increases in funding for science in recent years, she questioned whether her homeland really valued research. "Do they really have a plan for me as a scientist?" she asked. "Do they really need me? Do they really appreciate what I have acquired?" Transfer fees Her situation is hardly unusual. One Nigerian economist, Dr Osita Agbu, gave me an insight into the brain drain drawn from his own family. "My wife went to medical school, finished here at the University of Ibadan in 1988, 20 years ago. And guess where the 20th reunion is going to take place? In the US." He says that so many of his wife's classmates are now in the US that the debate is whether to hold the reunion in Chicago, Washington DC or New Orleans. Department of Physics Some of the best academics have left Dr Agbu has his own thought-provoking solution to the problem of the brain drain - following the model of football's governing body, FIFA. He points out that under FIFA rules, if an African player is trained by a local club and then joins a rich European club, his original club gets a fee. And it receives a fee every time he is transferred. "How come when we train a full doctor in Nigeria, he goes to the UK to work, goes to the US to work, we can't FIFA-ise? We can't say 'we recognise that this is really your product'?" Under his plan, local African institutions would receive recompense for the effort they put into training scientists. FIFA-isation would also mean that African scientists would be released for short periods to work in their home countries, in the same way football players are released to national teams. In fact, that is already starting to happen. There's a new phenomenon known as "brain circulation". You can see it in practice on some scrub land just outside the Nigerian capital Abuja. The site is being transformed into the campus of the African University of Science and Technology. Returning expertise Dr Egbe Osifo-Dawodu herself gave up a job at the World Bank in Washington DC to come back to Nigeria to set up the University, which will train researchers and engineers to international standards. "The idea behind the university was really bridged by the African diaspora in response to Nelson Mandela's question: 'what can Africa do to get to win the Nobel Prize in sciences, not just in the arts and humanities?'" she says. Leading African scholars are expected to come and teach at the university and to supervise students by e-mail. From her home in Britain, Dr Yetunde Kolade is already doing that. She advises former colleagues and students over the internet. And she says when the time is right, she will bring her expertise back to Africa. "If the country is ready, I can still go back to utilise my skills," she says.

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