Critics question worth of Zambian science

Zambian children collecting water. Critics say more research into water treatment is needed. Copyright: Flickr/acidwashtofu

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[LUSAKA] Zambian parliamentarians have questioned the relevance of taxpayer-funded scientific research in the last six years to the lives of Zambians.

Opposition legislator Yamfwa Mukanga singled out the Zambian National Institute for Scientific and Industrial Research (NISIR) for criticism during a debate in the national assembly last month (29 November).

Mukanga, a member of parliament for the Kantanshi province and a member of the Patriotic Front party, submitted a question paper asking the Zambian science ministry to explain how and when NISIR has used public funds and if any meaningful research had been produced.

After the government released the times and dates of funding, Mukanga argued that the research has not benefited the nation.

Other parliamentarians voiced similar criticisms during the question and answer session that followed, arguing that, among other issues, NISIR should prioritise research on water treatment technology in order to tackle waterborne diseases like cholera and dysentery.

The National Science and Technology Council (NSTC), which regulates Zambian research institutions, confirmed that there were problems with the output of research.

Lloyd Thole, technical services manager at the NSTC, told SciDev.Net that most of NISIR’s allocation of 36 billion Zambian kwacha (around US$8 million) since 2001 went predominantly toward retrenchment packages — part of the government’s efforts to streamline public institutions — and pensions as experienced researchers retired.

He said that the brain drain of scientists to other countries, obsolete equipment and run-down infrastructure had also contributed to a lack of research output.

Thole called on government to address the brain drain with improved laboratories at institutions like the University of Zambia, and good salaries at public research institutes to lure researchers back from other countries.

Mwananyanda Lewanika, executive director of NISIR, says the government increased the NISIR budget last year, and the money was used to retain scientists who might otherwise have been lost to the developed world.

Lewanika said the institute was performing well, citing the success of their biotechnology research laboratory in Chilanga, built to screen for genetically modified crops, which are banned in Zambia.

He also pointed to NISIR research into mini-windmills to generate electricity and address Zambia’s power shortages.

See Letter to the editor.