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Nigeria needs more social science research: how to boost output

Sub-Saharan Africa faces some of the biggest challenges to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. For instance, Nigeria has at least 87 million people in extreme poverty. The country’s unemployment rate was over 33.3%, the second highest in the world, at the end of 2020.

These kinds of challenges are the business of social science — the branch of science concerned with society and human behaviours. Social science research helps in understanding and developing solutions to complex problems including climate change, pandemics, poverty and unemployment. Achieving a country’s development agenda requires domestic social science research capacity to produce contextually relevant evidence to inform actions.

But little is known about social science research capacity and knowledge gaps in developing countries. Most of them lack reliable system-wide data.

We recently undertook a research project to begin to fill in some of the missing picture. The project is connected to the Doing Research Program of the Global Development Network. In addition to providing what we believe is the first comprehensive open-access dataset on social science research production, dissemination and uptake in Nigeria, we analysed the systemic factors that influence its volume and quality.

The case of Nigeria is instructive for two reasons. First, it is the continent’s largest country, by population and gross domestic product. It is also the second largest producer of social science research publications after South Africa. Secondly, Nigeria has 170 universities which employed more than 60,000 academic staff at the end of 2019. However, the research output does not match this size.

While Nigeria had roughly five times as many universities as South Africa in 2019, its aggregate research output from all disciplines was just over a third of South Africa’s. Nigeria has 170 universities while South Africa has 26. We asked why such a large research system produced so little and what could be done about it.

The answers seem to lie in quantity and quality of personnel, time available for research, funding, support institutions and policy.

Volume and quality

We interviewed 17 key informants and surveyed 684 individuals (27% female, 47% PhD holders) including 506 researchers, 117 research administrators and 61 policymakers. They are all involved in the social science research system in Nigeria.

A country’s research production is commonly measured by counting how many research articles are published by researchers affiliated with an institution located in the country. In our research, we estimated the number of social science research articles with at least one author affiliated to a Nigerian institution from 2005-2009 using data from the first African Innovation Outlook.

Our research confirms that Nigeria’s production does not match its size. We found a high volume of production in absolute terms but a low rate (0.6) per researcher or when compared with other top countries like South Africa.

Although Nigeria was the second largest producer of social science research in Africa between 2005 and 2009, with 1,133 publications, it produced only about 25% of South Africa’s 4,111.

On the positive side, we found that around 98% of all published social science output in Nigeria is peer-reviewed. This is an encouraging sign. Rigorous peer review helps to improve research quality and reduce unethical practices.

The potential for quality is hindered by systemic weaknesses related to inputs and research support.

Our findings

The quantity and quality of personnel, the amount of time that they are able to spend on research and the availability of funding all influence the rate of production.

Personnel: We estimated that in 2017, the number of social science researchers living and working in Nigeria was anywhere between 6,389 and 31,943, around 36% of whom had a PhD. To arrive at these estimates, we used the best available data from the National Universities Commission and the 2009 Survey of Research and Experimental Development in Nigeria done by our organisation. The absence of more recent or precise data shows the problem of poor data on the Nigerian research system.

Time spent on research: About 7 out of every 10 researchers that we sampled indicated that they did not have sufficient time for research over the last three years. They spent only 39% of their time on research, on average. Having to do other things limits productivity and encourages unethical behaviour such as poor documentation that limits reproducibility in research.

Funding: It came out clearly in our study that social science research is poorly funded in Nigeria. A senior staff member of the Tertiary Education Trust Fund, the government organisation responsible for funding research and infrastructure in universities, told us that funding is “not adequate to the level that we can push the economy forward”. Foreign funding is not always aligned to local research needs.

Weak research support systems

The effectiveness of the input factors is in turn conditioned by the system: institutions, policy, organisational support and administration.

An active central institution for the management of research helps to set the research agenda in a country and align it to national development priorities. This exists in some countries as a research council, such as the Human Sciences Research Council in South Africa. In Nigeria, however, no such organisation exists. This means there’s no coordination; efforts can be duplicated and impact is reduced.

Most researchers were dissatisfied with the research support services provided in their institutions. The problems ranged from incompetence of support staff to the absence of relevant services.

The way forward

The first challenge for policymakers is to acknowledge that the problems are all related.

Perhaps the most gaping need that our research has identified is for research coordination. The good news is that the Tertiary Education Trust Fund recently joined the Science Granting Council Initiative, a consortium that seeks to promote research excellence in sub-Saharan Africa.

Research organisations and the government also need to create an environment that supports research. For example, better funding could prevent academics from using their research sabbatical time to earn extra income.

Competent research management offices are also required in every university.

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