Global Science: Neuroscience in Nigeria

Mahmoud Bukar Maina discusses the challenges of doing research in a country with limited resources.
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In a preprint posted on AfricArXiv, Mahmoud Bukar Maina – a postdoctoral fellow currently based at the University of Sussex and affiliated with Gombe State University – and colleagues have investigated where neuroscience research performed in Nigeria is published. They found 572 PubMed-indexed articles published between 1996 and 2017, but only one of these was in a ‘top-tier’ international journal. Here, Maina discusses what these results – which are part of a wider project looking at neuroscience in Africa – tell us about the challenges and opportunities facing researchers in Nigeria.

Mahmoud Bukar Maina pipetting in the lab
Mahmoud Bukar Maina at work.

What inspired the project?

A lot of different things, to be honest. I was educated in Nigeria, graduating from the University of Maiduguri with a degree in Human Anatomy in 2007, and during that time I realised that we do have a lot of challenges in doing scientific research. Most of the time we read things about research but we don’t get to practice them in the laboratory. During my undergraduate degree, I didn’t get to see how common techniques like Western blots were set up for example, and I was shown an electron microscope that stopped working long before I got admitted to the school.

We wanted to point out the problems and the strengths of African research and find a better way of informing those who are interested in science about what needs to be done. In a way, it’s also to make scientists acknowledge that there is a problem. I communicate with a lot of people in African countries and they say “You know what? We have these challenges as well”. But often we don’t really want to acknowledge them to the world.

Who are the Nigerian neuroscience community?

In many different African countries you don’t really see people doing classical neuroscience. The Neuroscience Society of Nigeria has over 200 members who have backgrounds in anatomy, physiology, biochemistry, medicine and psychology. A lot of these are young, passionate scientists, so you would expect that the next couple of years is going to be a very productive and exciting time for Nigerian neuroscience. However, there is very little collaboration between scientists from different disciplines. In most instances you see the collaboration happening between anatomists and anatomists, physiologists and physiologists etc.

Why?

In Nigeria and many other African countries, if you studied, say, physiology for your BSc, it can be difficult to shift to anatomy or biochemistry for your MSc or your PhD. I did my BSc in anatomy and my MSc and PhD in neuroscience and I can remember a professor telling me: “You should be careful when you eventually come back to Nigeria, you may end up not finding where to fit in”. I think this is counterproductive because it limits the amount of diversity that you get in your science and also limits the amount of collaboration between researchers.

What about cross-institutional collaboration?

Most institutions are just doing research within the institution. We found that even the one with the highest level of publication, the University of Ibadan, produced less than 20% of its papers in collaboration with other institutions in Nigeria, and only about 10% of its papers feature collaboration with researchers in other countries.

What would be the biggest advantage of increased collaboration?

We think that it’s a really good way of doing scientific research simply because in Africa, where you might not have the equipment that you need in one institution, you could easily utilise the equipment in other institutions. A lack of access to good equipment is one of the biggest problems we have in neuroscience across Africa.

What kind of equipment is generally available?

In the paper we classified techniques as ‘basic’ or ‘advanced’. Basic techniques are things like H&E staining, behavioural analysis, HPLC analysis and Elisa, and the advanced techniques include things like PCR, qPCR and electron microscopy. Of papers that we analysed only about 8% used advanced techniques.

What limits the use of ‘advanced’ techniques?

I think we have three problems. One: we don’t have advanced equipment. Some institutions might have some of the advanced techniques, but they are extremely few. As it is now, I don’t think we have any functional transmission electron microscopes in Nigeria today.

Two: Even in some institutions where we have specialised equipment, people do not really have the expertise to use it. Unfortunately, often in Nigeria, one person is responsible for a piece of equipment, and not many other people get trained on how to use it. Often, you have to get that person to run your analysis for you, or the person shadows you while you use it. Sadly, this also means that when that person is unavailable, the equipment isn’t put to use.

Three: even in institutions where specialised equipment may be available, there are issues like the lack of electricity. But the good news is that with all these challenges we have a few research groups that have this equipment and are doing some good work. For example, some groups, like Isa Hussaini Marte’s laboratory at the University of Maiduguri, use solar energy to power their laboratory.

Did you find that these equipment problems prevent research being published in top international journals?

I think the lack of equipment contributes, as do the animal models being used – mainly rats and mice. In this age of scientific research, if you are using rats and mice it may be expected that they are transgenic ones, or that you will at least perform some genetic manipulation to them. But no. All of the models in the papers we studied are wild type and did not involve the use of advanced equipment. Most top international journals nowadays require one to answer research questions with precision, often using a combination of techniques. Therefore, this is a big factor as to why not many Nigerian neuroscience papers may make it to the top journals in the field.

How is research funded in Nigeria?

Most of the research that you see coming from Nigeria and many other African countries is self-funded. Which means that people have limitations to what they can spend. If someone wants to do research which involves two or three antibodies, well an antibody probably costs about £400 – that’s close to 200,000 Nigerian naira. A basic salary for a scientist who is an assistant lecturer or maybe a lecturer, depending on which institution they’re in, is about £300–400 per month. So, if you are self-supporting your research, would you put all of your salary into antibodies? No, of course not.

What local funding bodies do exist?

There is a body established right now called TETFund that basically is the sole funder of scientists working in tertiary institutions in Nigeria. It funds people going abroad to do PhDs and MScs, people going to visit laboratories and conferences, and it also provides funds for building infrastructure. But the money it gives in most of its grants is not sufficient. You end up getting a grant of about 2 million naira (about £4,000), which is often expected to fund up to two years of research. Although a National Research Fund (NRF) exists which funds a few applications found to be exceptionally good for two or more years for up to a maximum of 50,000 million Naira (about £100, 000). The last call for applications was a few years ago, although TETFund says that most of the money for the NRF has not been accessed because most applications it had received thus far were not competent enough.

Mahmoud Bukar Maina in front of a large picture of a neuron

Can scientists do more to encourage investment in research?

Scientists don’t really talk about the work they do and the importance of that work. I’ve been doing a lot of public engagement with TReND in Africa (including setting up https://www.scicomnigeria.org), and I think it is really important to get people into science communication so that they could help in changing the perception of the government and policymakers, as well as philanthropists about the importance of science and why it needs to be funded. We do have rich people. We have a lot of politicians who are actually very rich, and who, for their political interests, would want to see their names in the newspapers to say that they are funding scientific research.

Why aren’t more scientists involved in science communication?

They often don’t feel like they need to do it, simply because, to be honest, they’ve got lots of other challenges. This is partly one of the reasons why we did this work, because we wanted to raise an awareness about our strengths and weaknesses, so that scientists would also acknowledge them and start doing advocacy.

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