Commentary: Listen to Uganda’s scientists

By Arthur Makara

January 15, 2018

Arthur Makara

When President Museveni announced his decision to defer signing the National Biosafety Act 2017 into law A few days ago, I wrote a piece clarifying that he is likely to have been misinformed. I based my argument on the nature of the issues he raised, which I felt were a reflection of something other than the President s well-established views on science, technology and innovation, and specifically on biotechnology. Whereas a number of people, especially the anti-everything movement in Uganda, including some sectors of the civil society and political commentators, were quick to jump in and for the first time praise the President due to this decision, I would like to reiterate my view that they are misleading the country.

For those who didn t know, Uganda s agricultural research system is indisputably one of the best in Africa, funding constraints and brain drain notwithstanding. Uganda lies slightly behind South Africa and Egypt in agricultural research capacity. Most of our neighboring countries have had to rely on Uganda s agricultural scientists to strengthen their agricultural research systems. Those that have a good science cadre have had to learn our agricultural research management systems (ARMS). For instance, in 2014 Kenya had to reform its ARMS from an institute-based system (formerly Kenya Agricultural Research Institute–KARI) to Uganda s organization-based singe-spine ARMS and renamed it as Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organization (KARLO).

Rwanda and South Sudan had to hire Ugandan expertise to establish their agricultural research systems a few years ago. Thus, we have the best of the best in Sub-Saharan Africa, and government especially the President s letter to a large extent disappointed and demoralized Uganda s scientists, given the way it was framed. It gave the impression that Ugandan scientists are unethical, ill-intentioned in their work; they are non-patriotic and should not be trusted. Yet a few weeks ago, when the President supported increasing the salaries of public servants, he directed that the salary enhancements should start with scientists because they are the country s most strategic cadre! Your Excellency, the scientists are wondering, why such a sudden change of perception of them?

Ugandan scientists have in the recent past won international accolades for ground breaking research in various aspects, the most recent ones being Dr. Robert Mwanga formerly of NARO and now at the International Potato Center (CIP) who won the Global Food Price for 2016 for his ground-breaking research in improving Vitamin A in sweet potatoes, to help address the global challenge of malnutrition. The Global Food Prize is the equivalent of the Nobel Peace Prize, but in this case it s given for agricultural development. Similarly, Dr. Godfrey Asea, the current director of National Crops Resources Research Institute, Namulonge, won the International Alumni Award of 2016 from Michigan State University for his research on maize.

Uganda has been praised globally for its quality of scientists, and scientific outcomes, and the evidence is there for everyone to see. The Members of Parliament passed the National Biosafety Act because many of them who went to NARO institutes Namulonge, Kawanda, the National gene bank in Entebbe, livestock research institute in Tororo, and the Makerere University teaching and research laboratories were amazed at what Uganda has in terms of capacity and the quality of scientists and the science they are doing. They were further encouraged by the patriotism of the scientists and above all, the need to give scientists a legal and regulatory direction as they continue with new and emerging endeavors such as biotechnology for the benefit of all Ugandans.

I therefore encourage the President to consult more with his true cadre the scientists.

Arthur Makara is the executive director of the Science Foundation for Livelihoods and Development in Uganda.