“If a tree falls in the middle of a forest and nobody is around to hear it, does it make a sound?”
The overall goal of research is to contribute towards developing solutions that will improve society. It goes without saying, therefore, that research solutions can only be put to use for the benefit of society if they are made available and accessible in the first place.
A couple of weeks ago while reading through my Twitter feed, I came across a Tweet by Elkanah Odembo (who was until recently Kenya’s ambassador to the USA) where he remarked that it had been quite a while since he had read about any research by universities in Kenya.
“Been waiting a long, long time to read about any research findings from any of Kenya’s universities. Is there serious research going on?” Odembo wondered.
His Tweet got a quite a number of responses from various Kenyans who shared his concerns. The ensuing Twitter discussion brought up important issues that relate to the problem of low visibility of research by Kenyan universities and the likely contributing factors.
Some of the issues raised were the low research capacity among university staff and students (for example, lack of experience in writing grant proposals); inadequate government funding for research and development; heavy teaching burden that doesn’t allow lecturers enough time to focus on research; and inadequate linkages with research knowledge brokers.
Admittedly, there are no easy solutions to this complex problem. However, as I commented in response to Odembo’s Tweet, while our universities may indeed be carrying out a lot of research (think of all the Master’s and PhD projects being undertaken), they have not done a very good job of making their research outputs visible and accessible for uptake and use.
Take, for example, my alma mater, the University of Nairobi which often prides itself during graduation ceremonies as “the mother and father of all public universities in the country”.
Well, for all its chest-thumping and own-back-patting, the University of Nairobi only adopted its Open Access policy in December 2012, followed soon afterwards by the launch of its institutional repository that serves as a digital collection of the university’s scholarly outputs.
This move is a step in the right direction towards increasing the accessibility of tons of Master’s and PhD research findings that were previously tucked away in black hard-bound theses and dissertations accessible only by walking over to the Africana section of the Jomo Kenyatta Memorial Library at the Main Campus or to the reference sections of college libraries.
Apart from theses and dissertations, other categories of research outputs available on the University of Nairobi’s repository are books, conference proceedings, research reports, policy papers, lectures, speeches, and open and distance learning modules.
However, the University needs to do more to let the public know that its research and scholarly outputs are indeed readily available online. Apart from the University of Nairobi, the only other Kenyan university I know of that has an institutional repository is Strathmore University. Are there others?
So, to paraphrase the well-known thought experiment quoted at the beginning of this post: If Kenyan universities carry out research but the public knows nothing about it, does that research have any impact on society?