Thursday, 24 March 2016

The Role Of Research In Forensics For National Development


"Science walks forward on two feet: theory and experiment....but continous progress is only achieved by the use of both". (Robert .A. Millikan)

 Assuming the Nigerian government has a problem it wants solved, it should fund the right agency with the capability to handle such a task. This agency pools scientists and experts from within and without to undertake a research work and develops a technology that is first of its kind in the world.  Nigeria uses this technology to solve its problem - a world problem. Now its our technology-our solution. A solution that the UK, US, Europe and the rest need. I don’t think we would give it out for free. Would we?

 That is what happens when we buy petrol from foreign refineries. Its hard cash that petroleum marketers pump into that country’s economy. -In dollars, of course. Do we remember some time back when it was difficult for us to purchase much needed arms for our military? We had the money readily available, but the seller wasn’t disposed to sell. Why? Forget the politics. We had to meet the conditions set before we could buy what we needed -even with money in our hands! When a country prioritizes the development of its scientific and technological capacity, economic power becomes a handy tool.
We can afford to dictate who we sell our technologies to and who we do not. Its our patent. Our national ‘thing’. We are not the first to want that and won’t be the last. Do you know that the US military has its Defense Advance Research Program Agency(DARPA)? You find scientists, experts... researching on technological products, exclusive only for the US Defense’s use. On their site you find this quote “creating breakthrough technologies for National Security“. Remove “nuclear capability” from North Korea or Iran and see what you have.
The FBI has a special Counterterrorism and Forensic Science Research Unit(CFSRU). This unit is tasked with three main goals: the development of new (forensic) capabilities, improvements to existing capabilities and the defesnsibility of current and future capabilities. And who are the members of this unit? Research scientists, program managers, technical and administrative staff. They even have a “Visiting Scientist Program” that involves inviting of highly qualified scientists from outside institutions to complement staff scientists and assist in performing duties consistent with the mission  and goals of the FBI.

It is important for us to know that it is a cycle. Government funds research. Research helps the government. More broadly, government fund MDA’s with specific targets or mission to accomplish based on its deficiencies or problems. These agencies empower scientists and experts (with much needed funds)  and task them with the responsibility to somehow, come up with solutions that are in the line with their missions and goals. These brain-tanks develop the needed solutions and hand handover to MDAs and to government. The government uses these solutions to help the country. Viola! (Government-Agencies-Researchers-Solutions-Government). Cast your bread upon the waters and it shall return with dividends after many days. Who benefits? Everybody -the researchers deepen their knowledge of the subject matter, the government gets the solutions it wants! Everything -the academic research system, the populace..

The keyword is research. Research all through. Research on what? Biometrics, fingerprints, chemical, biological operational response, digital, electronics.. Name it.  Recently, U.S. Assistant Secretary, Bureau of African Affairs, Ms Linda Thomas-Greenfield when speaking to US House of Rep members on the U.S. strategy to counter Boko Haram said that “we need academics to help us understand the underlying conditions that led to Boko Haram. We need think-tanks to identify creative solutions”

 Nigeria needs to invest its resources in curiosity-driven, competitively awarded basic research. Both government and the private sector have to be fully involved because industry benefits from the research and they make their mass production. Do you know that the US federal government supports 60 percent of the research performed at universities?. According to the American Association of Universities (AAU), “U.S. Colleges and universities perform just 13 percent of total national research and development (R&D) funded by government and the private sector”, but they also “perform 56 percent of the nation's basic research, an element critical to the success of the overall enterprise.

 Basic research creates the building blocks of future products and processes” which our institutions to the best of my knowledge are not doing badly. Focus should also be on applied research that is aimed at gaining the knowledge or understanding to meet a specific, recognized need.  It is “this fusion of education and cutting-edge research  that has been the unique feature of the U.S. university research system” which has benefited the country immensely.

 Applied research also leads to development which “ is the transformation of research findings or knowledge into plans for new or improved products or processes. This includes product design, testing, creation of prototypes, and pilot projects. The development includes not only civilian products and processes, but also national defense weapons and systems” according to the AAU.

The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) is funded by the Department of Commerce. It is through NIST that the whole world gets its standard time from. They are responsible for developing standards for virtually everything called “matter” in the US --from building, engineering, electronics, computer chips, even the air we breathe. They define things and industry follows. Their site provides chemical and physical property data on over 40000 compounds. No wonder five scientists who worked with the institute were awarded the Nobel Prize - one in Chemistry and four in Physics! Just recently, President Obama proposed to increase their budget ($964 million 2016).

 The FBI operates under the Department of Justice. The Defense Advanced Research Project Agency is funded (DARPA) is funded by the Defense Department. These agencies’ are basically tasked to use science and technology to provide much needed answers to that will impact positively to both National and Economic Security in the US.

 Even South Africa here seems to embrace forensics in their Justice system than we are. The use of ballistics evidence was crucial in the sentence given to Oscar Pistorius during his trial for his involvement in the murder of his model girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp. Despite the controversies surrounding the defense’s ballistics expert witness, the ballistics evidence given by the police ballistician for the prosecution played a major role in Pistorius’ conviction. He even got promoted for it.  South Africa even has more schools that are offering online courses in forensic disciplines. Many Nigerians desire to be educated there. Why? Is it that we don’t have what it takes to be No1 academically in Africa? 

The  World rankings of the top institutions in Africa reveal 12 South African universities in first 30 according to Times Higher Education(THE). Only Uniport represented Nigeria at the 6th position. Every dollar paid by Nigerians to those schools is a plus for their economy. Ghana is just nearby. How many Nigerian schools are in Africa’s top 20? Yet we are Africa’s biggest economy? Imagine when were we would be if Nigeria, where to enhance its technological and scientific capabilities -and exporting hard-sought finished products. Even the direction of dollar-flow will reverse.  Can we get there?

So what do we do? Where should we go from here? How do we get there? The fundamental deciding factor in the success of Forensics in countries such as the UK and US is, Government’s will to making committed funding for research. It's the will that is needed here. Once the government’s will is apparent, the private sector keys in.  Did you know that some of these international institutes and research centers sometimes receive heavy funding from large corporations, private wealth individuals and large foundations?

For Nigeria to develop its research system that is result-oriented, developmental based and establish efficient laboratory systems that can compete among the world’s best, will require more than sheer intellectual talk or expert opinion. It will take a holistic approach by relevant stakeholders, including the government, academia and industry -and commitment to create policies that will prioritize solution-based and developmental research which will chart a new course for economic, social and national security. 

We have SON, NAFDAC, NDLEA, NAPRI, NISLT and many more. We need to empower these laboratories and turn them to research-based, result-oriented and industry-inclined centers! Our universities and polytechnics require such funding too. Forensic science cannot thrive in an environment that is  scientifically-research redundant.

 It is the principles of scientific analysis that forensic science is based on. When you combine the cycle of Observation-Trends-Hypothesis-Plan to that of Government (will, funds, policies) -Research-Solutions to work in synergy as two sides of a coin, your purchasing power is assured. No coin has only one side -even paper currencies have two sides.