Science, Technology and Innovation Policy Research Organization (STIPRO) aims to be an informative resource for policymakers and others participating in policy debates in Tanzania. Ruthpearl Ng’ang’a reached out to STIPRO’s executive director, Professor Bitrina Diyamett, who highlighted the positive impact that core support has had on the growing think tank.
Ruthpearl Ng’ang’a: What are the major concerns of an African think tank director today?
Professor Bitrina Diyamett: Stipro is eight years old and rent, salaries and running costs are a real worry when they are not fully covered. When they are covered, you can really play the role of a thinking leader and maintain your mission. Without core support, it is difficult to focus on the mission of the organization. It is a real challenge to keep focused on the mission and not adjust our attention according to where the money is.
Another of Stipro’s concerns at the moment is our visibility. For the right policy people to reach out to you, they must first know of you, what you are doing and the importance of what you are doing. What we have spent most of our time doing is engaging the government, politicians and the private sector to popularize science innovation and gain visibility.
RN: On a scale of 1 to 10, how well is your think tank playing its role? What could be done differently?
BD: Perhaps a 7. Our focus on innovation in science policy is an advantage as this is a rare area in Tanzania, or even Africa. People listen to us and appreciate what we are doing. However, we still need to develop a strategy for assessing the impact of all the things we do, from roundtables to opinion editorials. We still need to determine how much of the policy change is because of something we did or some other initiatives.
RN: What are the current trends, main challenges and prospects in think tanks in your country?
BD: Funding and politics have an impact but rarely will you find an accommodating government that appreciates scientific thought leadership. As a think tank you have to take your space- you are not given the space. You have to look for the opportunities and act on them. The issue of policymakers valuing and using research is a concern throughout Africa.
RN: How difficult or easy has it been to impact policy decision-making processes?
BD: It is the role of the think tank to advocate for the importance of using statistical data to decide on a policy. Research from our context will always lead to better decisions. Everybody wants to innovate but innovation is context specific; we cannot borrow policies from elsewhere and bring them to Tanzania and make them work.
RN: What are some innovative income generating ideas for think tanks to consider in 2018 (other than donor funding)?
BD: Think tanks like us are now looking inward. The private sector funds corporate social responsibility (CSR) but not research. I’ve approached the head of the private sector funding roundtable in Tanzania and we continue to have interesting discussions on how the government, private sector and local foundations can mobilize funding for research.
RN: What initiatives have been helpful to your think tank’s growth?
BD: The innovative Think Tank Initiative (TTI) core grant has been very helpful. They tell you that we are ready to give you x amount, let us know how you plan to use that in alignment with your mission. It’s the same as other funding sources; the only difference is the donor is not the one to define the initiatives. How can we enlighten other donors to provide more core support? If we can acquire property to cover rent at the least, that alone is very helpful. Think tanks don’t make profit. If we try to profit from activities, it is likely that we will run away from our core mission. We will begin to run after projects and consultancies that have little to do with the mission. We are yet to understand why fewer and fewer donors are willing to fund core grants. TTI should become an ambassador of core grant funding and influence other donor funding priorities.
As TTI plans to phase out in the next two years, the core grant has been reduced. However, because of this grant, we have been able to raise funds through consortium project proposals with universities here and in Europe, as well as improve our visibility.
RN: Is there good reason to bring African think tanks together?
BD: Yes, think tanks are always learning from one another. We meet regularly through the African Capacity Building Foundation (ACBF) to learn, exchange ideas and develop networks where we can find solution to common challenges.
RN: What has been your experience in retaining human capital?
BD: In Africa, we don’t have the same capacity for science and innovation as the North. Here, we have to headhunt widely or hire and aim to build capacity. Everybody wants to talk about innovation but few have capacity to fund a well-trained team. We have devised different motivations to retain our best people such as providing opportunities to travel and exchange ideas.
RN: What are some of the best qualities and special gifts that you bring to this think tank?
BD: My expertise (both masters and PhD) in innovation policy research is very rare although quite important for Africa. I also brought to Stipro my global network and previous experience working with the government in science and technology.