UNESCO And The Roaring ‘Lions’ Of Biotechnology
PROFESSOR Maciej Nalecz, director, Division of Basic and Engineering Sciences, United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), winner of the President of Poland’s Silver Medal of Merit, and also, the Golden Award for Scientific Merit of the President of Polish Academy of Sciences, is used to making history, considering his scientific discoveries and milestones.
A biochemist with a lot of scientific breakthroughs, he recently led a UNESCO team comprising experts from the United Kingdom, South Africa, Japan, Italy, France, Ghana and some other parts of the world to Nsukka to establish Africa’s first Centre for Biotechnology as well as hold a one-day workshop with the theme, Biotechnology: Prospects and challenges for Africa.
At the workshop, everybody discussed how the centre would make useful products or crops to mankind through biological or living systems and organisms.
Surprisingly, some of the experts were Nigerian scientists, who had not only distinguished themselves abroad, but won laurels too.
Many of them were trained at UNN, but soared scientifically, abroad. They were the ‘lions’, the symbol on the university crest, that scientifically brought pride to their ‘old school’ at the international conference.
Prof. Bartholomew Ndubuisi Okolo, vice-chancellor of UN and chief host, sat with pride as his university made another historical landmark during his tenure.
‘Great Lions!’ The Nsukka-bred scientists exclaimed as they mounted the podium to speak at such a great event that had Prof. Jerry Ugwuanyi, Coordinator of the UNESCO/UNN Biotechnological Centre in attendance.
One of the distinguished guests jokingly retorted: “I never knew we were in the midst of lions.”
Professor Nalecz spoke on Biotechnology and food security in Africa. The professor, who had contributed to the building of a similar centre in India and the creation of International Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology in Warsaw, Poland, shared his experience on how the UNN Centre can actualise its dream and vision.
He said biotechnology has been useful in plants, animals and human health and development.
According to him, biotechnology can be used in artificial organs, which keep patients alive during operation, as well as in the treatment of diabetes, and also, in material sciences.
While urging journalists, schools and the general public to talk about biotechnology because of its immense benefits, the professor said the Centre is expected to engage in human capacity building, infrastructural development in terms of research institutions and industrial applications.
“It’s absolutely crucial that you achieve this goal. We have to produce appropriate with other experts such as chemists, biologists, medical doctors and other scientists,” Prof. Nalecz submitted.
The erudite scholar also told the gathering that UNN has the infrastructure needed to supply ingredients to boost biotechnology, adding that the world needs efficient science education.
He called on experts at UNN to encourage and select young scientists for future development in Africa and the world.
While agreeing that “talents are born everywhere and everyday, the problem is that they are lost in the system, and we have to identify and stimulate them.” To this end, he urged the experts to discover new scientists in Africa.
“Science must be demystified,” said Prof. Nalecz, whose wife and son are also distinguished biochemists. According to him, “the essence of scientific research arises from human intellectual curiosity.”
He recalled the story of Albert Einstein, who though was a Swiss Clerk, had internal motivation and intelligence that propelled him to contribute immensely to science.
He urged the gathering at Nsukka to discover and help young scientists to greatness, noting that intelligence and curiosity are the driving force in research matters.
The professor called on experts at University of Nigeria to seize the opportunity that the institution has through the recent production of the ‘UNESCO 2012 Women in Science Laureates’, Prof. (Mrs.) Okeke of the Department of Physics, for her discovery of certain particles in the atmosphere, which will further help in understanding the problem of climate change.
The Vice-Chancellor of UNN said that the university is determined to harness its human and material resources to become the hub of biotechnology in Africa.
He said that making the university a category 2 centre for biotechnology studies is a great leap adding that the institution would collaborate with others around the world to achieve the lofty scientific ideas.
The various experts who spoke on biotechnology’s relationship with tropical disease research for the benefit of Africa, bio-policy issues in biotechnology research in Africa, bio-safety and ethical framework for biotechnology research and opportunities for training in biotechnology, held the audience bound in the one-day workshop.
The experts ended up showcasing and selling biotechnology as a science that involves various fields of human endeavour and embraces inter disciplinary approach.
One of the speakers, Dr. Chris Nwoguh of the Health Protection Agency, Salisbury, United Kingdom, whose field is environment, human health and vaccine production, acknowledged the presence of his mentors among the distinguished scientists in the Princess Alexandra Hall, venue of the workshop.
Nwoguh, who has worked in UK for over 17 years, quoted from the World Health Organisation figures that a quarter of the yearly deaths in the world “are direct result of infectious diseases such as; respiratory infection, HIV/AIDS, diarrhea diseases, malaria, dengue, meningitis, STDs.”
He regretted that 33 per cent of the world’s children under five years die of infectious diseases.
Concerned that polio is still a problem in Afghanistan and Nigeria, noted that despite the “declaration of victory over infectious diseases” by Aidan Cocbur in 1963, infectious diseases still kill millions of people all over the world.
He took the audience back in time to 1958, when Dr. Joshua Lederberg, the Nobel Prize winner in Medicine for that year, said, “today, one man can make war. A lucky bio buffoon could kill 400,000 people.”
He warned on the danger of biological and chemical weapon and noted that biotechnology is capable of solving many problems confronting the world today.
Prof. Umezuruike Linus Opara, also an ex-student of UNN, who is a Research Professor/ South African Chair Post Harvest Technology, University Stellenbosch, South Africa, spoke on modern day agricultural techniques and how biotechnology could be used to boost food production.
Prof. Opara, an expert in process and bio systems engineering, said that there is need for Nigeria to invest more on research and development and attract the best brains from all over the world to assist in the development of agriculture.
Dr. Ademola Adenle of the Department of Science and Technology for Sustainable Societies Team, United Nation University — Institute of Advanced Studies (UNN-IAS), Japan, in his paper, lamented Africa’s low contribution to Research and Development (R & D), which totals less than 1 per cent of global investment in R & D and a mere 1.5 per cent of total scientific publications.
Adenle said that biotechnology is needed to tackle the problem of hunger, poverty, and food in security because Africa’s rural population is confronted byinadequate water resources deteriorating environment, low crop yields, food shortages and chronic malnutrition.
“Most Africa countries do not have a thoroughly researched, clearly structured and planned national biotechnology manpower development agenda or master plan,” said Adenle.
For Prof. (Mrs.) Dafna Feinholz, another officer from UNESCO, who spoke on Ethics and Bio-ethics, Africa’s first task is to design legislation on ethics and bio-ethics.
Feinholz said there is need for access to scientific and technological knowledge and establishment of capacity-building facilities for research purposes.
She also called for education in the field of bioethics for healthcare personnel, researchers, lawyers, judges, parliamentarians and journalists.
Prof. Walter S. Alhassan, project consultant, FARA, SABIMA, Ghana said Burkina Faso, Senegal, Ghana and Togo are the only countries in the sub-region that have bio-safety legislation in place that could allow the handling of genetically motivated (GM) crops up to commercial release.
According to Prof. Alhassan, Nigeria has a cabinet approval for the handing of GM Crops up to the confined field trial level, adding that law to allow commercial release passed in 2011 by the Senate is awaiting Presidential Goodluck Jonathan’s assent in Nigeria.
Dr. Diran Makinde, NEPAD Planning and Coordinating Agency AB NE, Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso presented a paper on Bio-safety and Ethical Framework while Dr. Chike Mba from Food and Agricultural Organisation, (FAO) in Rome delivered a paper on agriculture and food production and the role of biotechnology.
At the end of the workshop, which was crowned by an evening get together, Prof. Phillippe Desmeth, president of World Federation for Culture Collection (WFCC), a member of the Advisory Board, remarked jokingly with excitement that when he returns to Europe, he would tell his people that he was in the midst of ‘lions’ that showed him love and he survived.
Okolo: Our Goal Is To Make UNN Hub Of Biotechnology
PROFESSOR Bartholomew Okolo, vice chancellor, University of Nigeria, Nsukka is strongly involved in the creation of Biotechnology Centre at the university. Recently appointed chairman of the scientific committee of UNESCO for the next four years, Okolo spoke to Tunde Akingbade in Nsukka after the workshop on Biotechnology.
How excited are you by the outcome of the workshop on Biotechnology?
You can see from the papers presented that it would be of great benefit to the society, young academics, youths of Nigeria and Africa. By citing the centre in Nsukka, we are able to bring the cream of biotechnology in the world here. It has never happened before.
Is it not something of a pride that graduates of UNN who have distinguished themselves globally were brought home to inspire others at the centre’s set up?
I am excited about this. But more importantly, it is a lesson to our people that we have the talent, we have the potentials. We only need to create the environment for us to thrive. Our products are excelling everywhere in the world. Professor Linus Opara is in South Africa; he is revered in the university. I have been there myself. You had his lecture. Dr. Chike Mba also trained here. He works with Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO). They had to give authority to him for him to leave FAO to come here for this workshop. They value him. He is very important in FAO, you cannot just bring him. See Professor Francisca Okeke of Department of Physics she has won the UNESCO women in Science Laurel. Her research was on the irons in the atmosphere, and through that, she discovered some things relating to the problem of climate change – here in Nsukka. In UNN, we have the most robust ICT infrastructure in Africa. Our students are connected with their systems. That’s what infrastructure does to learning.
Professor Nalecz: Secrets Of My Inventions, Biotechnology
PROFESSOR Maciej Nalecz speaks with Tunde Akingbade after the workshop.
How will you introduce yourself to a Nigerian reader?
I’m the Director for International Basic Engineering Services Programme of UNESCO. I’m responsible for programmes that are connected to two fields of interest. One is capacity building in terms of creating centres of excellence such as what we have in University of Nigeria, Nsukka (UNN).
The centres are in different parts of the world, but for biotechnology, there are just two — Nsukka and New Delhi, India. The Director of the New Delhi Centre of Biotechnology in India was here with us. He is also a member of the Advisory Board of the new centre in Nsukka.
We try to link the centres together. Aside from advance training, which arise from the partnerships with many global scientific organisations belonging to Chemistry, Physics, Mathematics and Molecular Cell Biology, we organise courses, training schools, conferences, of course, now we will be very active in biotechnology at UNN and Africa especially, as we will like this centre that was created to play the role of a regional hub.
I think we can create a kind of quality that will be of international and global standard. Apart from this, we have programmes that are dedicated to popularisation of science and science education. In my lecture at the workshop, I noted that we must start attracting talented youngsters to science very early. Therefore, our programmes in science education are targeted at school pupils, and going further to advance training in pre and post-doctoral levels.
However, this popularisation is another area of business. We produce materials that are actually for the general public about what science is and why it’s important. And very often, it also plays a role in our contacts with the government. UNESCO’s strength is actually being an intergovernmental organisation.
So, in contrast to many scientific organisations or universities, we have direct access to governments in all countries. We can make policies that stimulate development of fields in science and technology, like promoting investment in biotechnology, promotion of certain kinds of regional and international action.
I mentioned in my lecture, two ministerial roundtables that we held; where we brought ministers of Science and Technology to discuss issues of science at the global level and UNESCO forming a platform of interaction between governments. These are the kinds of activities we carry out as part of our work in UNESCO. It’s not research only because we are not a research organisation, but we are coordinating science at international level.
Some scientists here don’t want to give research information that will assist the specialised journalist. What can we do to bring the scientist out of their world?
I agree with you. This is happening very often. Scientists are not very good, popularising. Again, one has to identify talents. Not everybody is a good lecturer. Not everybody is good at popularising. There are people who are better in the area of popularisation. So, one has to respect biodiversity and try to find a niche for everybody. Usually it’s done by appointing, either at the level of the university or the regional government for different places, a person suitable and talented to be a kind of promoter of science; a spokesperson on behalf of science. This is not yet done in many countries, but I think we are moving towards this kind of operation. It’s also important that the person is able to interact with journalists and to sell the stories to them. Journalists are rarely running after science stories. They are running after affairs, excitement …
Entertainment, absolutely! So, Science has to be sold to them in a kind of “sexy way.”
Your inventions are being used as breakthrough in medicine? What is the secret?
Very often, I used to share with people and youngsters that you do not commence your scientific career with the notion that you are going to make a discovery. Basis for good research is curiosity. You need to be interested in the works of nature and what actually happens. If you are discovering something new, the chance that you will be, sooner or later, be able to apply it and that it will become part of a useful process, are very likely. But you should not plan for this because when you do, it won’t work. Science is not a bakery. You cannot plan that you will bake bread. You have to try many times and majority of experiments in science don’t work. So, it’s in very rare moments that something is positive and you find something new. Again, you also need elements of luck.