In Nigeria generally, scientists face numerous challenges in the pursuit of research, innovation and technology endeavours, including lack of funding and laboratory infrastructure, as well as apathy for science on the part of the larger society. Women scientists in addition must deal with gender-specific challenges, including, discrimination, harassment, bias, cultural and religious barriers, managing the family-career balance, as well as lack of opportunities for collaboration. The under-representation of women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) constitute part of a global challenge irrespective of geographical region. For instance, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Institute for Statistics (UIS) gives the percentage of women researchers in STEM globally as 28.8%, Sub-Saharan Africa 31.3% and Nigeria 21%. Besides, these challenges, there appears to be a “leaky pipeline” phenomenon in the career progression of women scientists.
The interventions by government, industries and development partners have encouraged girls to be attracted to science at school, thereby making up most of science graduates with bachelor’s degrees. Even at master’s level in some science courses there seems to be a gender parity. But the numbers start falling drastically at the PhD, post-doctoral and independent researcher levels. This trend is termed “leaky pipeline” phenomenon. One successful initiative tackling this phenomenon is the Faculty for the Future Programme, which provides funding for women to pursue advanced studies in top universities abroad. A recent statistic from the programme reveals that in Nigeria for example, out of the 87 exceptionally talented female scientists who have benefitted from the programme, only 37 have returned home including myself. The paradox is that after acquiring such high-level tutelage, beneficiaries face tough choices of either returning home to frustration due to non-availability of well-equipped laboratories in their home institutions or seek for greener pastures where their acquired skills would be effectively utilized.
This was the dilemma I found myself, which typically illustrates this predicament and the intervention by Mr. Udom U. Inoyo to change the narrative. On acquiring a PhD in chemistry at one of the United Kingdom’s top universities, Loughborough University, I won awards which included the Schlumberger Faculty for the future fellowship to pursue post-doctoral trainings at United Nation’s University, Japan and Gwangju Institute of Science and Technology, South Korea. These opportunities facilitated my spending eight years studying in some of the world’s sophisticated and innovative laboratories in Asia and Europe. On completion, I had an option of remaining there, moving to greener pastures or returning home. My sense of patriotism and moral compass compelled me to choose returning to my duty post at Department of Chemistry, University of Uyo, Akwa Ibom State, Nigeria.
The likelihood was high that the decision to come back to Nigeria may lead to a deceleration in scientific career and the beginning of frustration. Nevertheless, I was driven by altruism and patriotism to positively impact my state, an oil and gas producing one with technologies and innovations that would help the neglected rural communities deal with the environmental challenges associated with hydrocarbon exploration and production. Amidst this troubling reality, I was undaunted and resolved to find sustainable solution to the challenge. My task was to figure out how to set up a well-equipped laboratory, as the consistent inadequate funding of education made it difficult to find institutional funding for the type of laboratory infrastructure needed to replicate researches and innovations focusing on domestic challenges. This laboratory was not just going to be the regular basic laboratory, but part of a research centre with objectives viz: (i) incubation of ideas (ii) transformation of academic researches into technologies for commercialisation; (iii) solution offering for the markets as well as small/medium enterprises without research and development capacities; and (iv) human capacity development for green jobs creation.
The 82nd Senate of the University of Uyo, having deliberated on the proposal I submitted for the establishment of a research centre with laboratories gave an approval in principle, pending when sponsors for the project would be found. With the approval in hand, I aggressively contacted financially able and public spirited Akwa Ibomites and Nigerians seeking for a seed funding to facilitate the commencement of the project. I made several presentations and travelled around Nigeria pitching the idea to several people and organisations. The enthusiasm I had to contact people of Akwa Ibom origin gradually faded away overtime because of the negative response of most people contacted. It became a certainty that the apathy for science, technology and innovation on the part of the local society was so horrendous that the benefits of this initiative to the society was being missed.
Almost at the point of giving up, an opportunity to meet a son of Akwa Ibom State, at that time the Executive Director, Exxon Mobil popped up. I prayerfully seized the opportunity, doing one of my most breadth-taking three minutes pitch of the project in his presence. It was an opportunity that would always be remembered as it rekindled hope, courage and faith that the proposal would not be dumped in the dustbin of history. Mr. Udom U. Inoyo showed up as an Angel with the tidings of support to lift the project from “paper” to “physical development” courtesy of his personal financial endorsement of the proposal.
Mr. Inoyo now the Vice- Chairman, Exxon Mobil understood the project concept and the impact it would have in advancing science, technology and innovation in Akwa Ibom State and Nigeria. His official personal endorsement gave birth to the International Centre for Energy and Environmental Sustainability Research, University of Uyo (ICEESR, UNIUYO). His unprecedented action opened the gate for other reputable Akwa Ibomites to support the project including members of the University of Uyo community who now felt comfortable aligning with Mr. Inoyo. His personal support of this initiative ensured that the University of Uyo gave full approval and allocated land for the building of the Phase 1 research centre which has three specialised laboratories. The ground-breaking/ foundation laying ceremony took place during the 21st/22nd convocation ceremony of the University of Uyo on October 30, 2015.
He didn’t have to commit his personal hard-earned resources to a project for a country that has earned millions of dollars from oil revenue stupendously wasted due to institutional and systematic failures. But he did, because he understands the significant linkages between science, technology, innovation and sustainable developments. As a corporate icon who has over 30 years’ experience in the corporate world, most of which are in leadership positions in the international energy giant company, ExxonMobil, he understands the value of mainstreaming women into technological and scientific fields which is axiomatic. Technology has helped women in developing countries increase their productivity, create new entrepreneurial ventures, and access other nascent income-generating pursuits. In many parts of the world, women are still less likely to have access to technology; so, putting technology in their hands would benefit them and their communities. To Mr. Inoyo, supporting an internationally trained female scientist from his state to achieve big career goals would certainly motivate, inspire, attract and open international opportunities for other your girls and women from Akwa Ibom State while building indigenous capacity in science, technology and innovation to address domestic challenges.
I must emphasize that the building of a world class research laboratory requires significant resources from multiple sources to create the necessary impact locally, nationally and internationally. Akwa Ibom State, currently in pursuit of industrialisation must have capacity in research, innovation and technology to sustain industrialization and surmount the challenges associated with it. The world is moving towards a common understanding, acceptance and application of sustainable development principles in exploitation of natural resources, chemical production, and consumption. Prominence is on green products and services, and a well-equipped research laboratory is critical.
I thank Mr. Udom U. Inoyo for his contributions and support to the construction and development of the ICEESR, UNIUYO research laboratories. I also thank others whose contributions and moral support have helped in a most direct way towards realizing this dream.